Reclaiming the Heart of Humanity

A UU, two Hindus, and a Baha’i walk into a Christian Ethiopian restaurant.

The opening line to a culturally insensitive joke?

No, my last dinner at the Parliament of the World’s Religions.

In October, I attended the fifth Parliament in Salt Lake City. This one followed two Parliaments in Chicago (1893 and 1993), one in Cape Town (1999), one in Barcelona (2004), and the most immediately previous one in Melbourne (2009). This Parliament’s theme was “Reclaiming the Heart of Humanity: Compassion, Peace, justice and Sustainability.”

I decided to attend before learning the the UUA was a sponsor of the Parliament. Interfaith work just makes sense to me. Perhaps it is because I have had so much opportunity to be part of multi-faith communities. Jessica York at parliament

I was raised by an unchurched Christian mother, who taught me God is Love; Jesus was sent to earth to show us how to love; What we need to do is to try to emulate that love as best as we can; Don’t worry about the other rules. Her lack of denominationalism and non-judgmental attitude opened the way for me to be accepting of a broad range of beliefs. I spent time as a Catholic and an agnostic. I learned about Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. I loved reading about the gods and goddesses of other religions. Unitarian Universalism enabled me to belong to a faith with people of diverse theologies. I have siblings who are Catholic and Baptist – including a Baptist bishop – and I live with a Jewish partner and a UU atheist daughter. For more than a decade, I served on the board of an interfaith non-profit working to prevent homelessness in my city. Mostly recently, I learned of the work of Reverend Dr. William Barber and the Forward Together Movement, a grassroots movement based on moral imperatives, not strict religious lines.

And why not embrace religious pluralism? Our faith, which seeks wisdom from holy books all over the world, has a unique role to play in bridging religious differences. Many attendees of the Parliament – UUs and non-UUs – understood this, too, through their knowledge of the work of Jenkin Lloyd Jones and other Unitarians and Universalists who were instrumental in working with others to create the first Parliament. I feel our faith calls me to be a bridge builder.

How delightful it was to find myself at the Parliament, where everyone sees themselves that way. All brought our curiosity about others’ religions and how each religion calls us to witness and work for justice. We brought a desire to find ways to use both our commonalities and our differences to create a more peaceful and just world. We mourned collectively for the injuries of our world and made heartfelt commitments, as people of faith, to try to heal them. We shared lunch together at Langar, a meal free to all that is part of the Sikh tradition, sang together, and learned together at hundreds of workshops. The photo is of me and my new Hindu friend from Australia, Mangalam Vasan. She was one of the dinner partners.

Our June 2016 General Assembly’s theme is “Heartland: Where Faiths Connect.” So I’m wondering: where and when have you connected with a multi-faith community?

Next Steps!

Watch video recordings of portions of the Parliament.

The UUA’s booth at the Parliament was used to create short videos inviting participants to talk about their faith traditions. View the gallery here.

Rev. Dr. Barber was a keynote speaker at a UU conference in March in Alabama. You can find links to the video of his presentation, as well as a study guide and small group ministry session based on his keynote in the Marching in the Arc of Justice Toolkit.

Southern Witness: Inspiration from Our History

Southern Witness CoverHow would your congregation respond if a bomb threat forced you to shorten the post-service reception welcoming new members and re-locate child care for the stewardship dinner that evening? In March of 1965 Unitarian Universalists in Birmingham, Alabama, responded to such a threat with a 45% pledge increase.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, the Rev. Ken MacLean was entrusted with coordinating local logistics when the Poor People’s Campaign brought 500 to 800 people through town on their way to Washington in May of 1968. Ken phoned church member Janet Porter and asked, “Can you feed a thousand people tomorrow?” The people were fed.

All of us who venture into social justice work worry about whether our commitment will stir fierce opposition, either within the congregation or in the wider community. We feel frustration when even the strongest, best planned action yields no immediate visible results. In the worst cases, our justice-making actions stir massive pushback but achieve little or no clear change.

As we meet the justice-making challenges and commitments of our own time, it may be comforting to become better acquainted with the lives and work of our co-religionists 45 to 65 years ago in the southern United States. They operated in a context in which it could be a bold and revolutionary social justice action just to have a non-segregated church service. The pushback could take the form of job terminations for church members, or even, on rare occasions, violence. While Unitarian Universalists sometimes face opposition when taking a stance for justice today, the strength and viciousness of the opposition is unlikely to come close to that of the Civil Rights Era.

In 1965, I was serving a northern congregation, but went south and spent two weeks in Selma. Although my presence and civil rights work had only a minute impact on the events there, it was life-changing for me. In 1969, I moved to Jackson, Mississippi, and began serving as minister among people who lived with and were immersed in issues of racial justice every day. What I learned changed my life even further. I’ve been collecting stories of southern Unitarians and Universalists of that era ever since. Many of those stories have wound up in Southern Witness: Unitarians and Universalists in the Civil Rights Era.

Reading the stories can’t be the same as living them. But it can help us know that others before us have experienced and survived severe controversy and opposition. It can also help us to remember that work for racial justice, today echoed in the “Black Lives Matter” movement, is serious business, and will ask many of us to move outside our comfort zones and grow into deeper understandings and longer commitments. A seemingly short-term success (feeding a thousand people tomorrow!) sprang from practiced collaboration. Significant long-term change may depend on years of work before getting visible results. These stories can provide inspiration and wisdom for today’s Unitarian Universalists in the ongoing work of racial justice.

Next steps!

A reflection, discussion, and action guide for Southern Witness is available on The guide, written by Deborah Kahn, with plans for a single session or for a three-session series, invites today’s Unitarian Universalists to make connections between the stories told in the book and the justice work of our own era. Organize a group in your congregation to read Southern Witness and then to gather and use the guide to help you draw wisdom from the book and act for racial justice in our own time.

Offer Workshop 11, Civil Rights, from Resistance and Transformation: Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History in your congregation.

Watch the film Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay, and gather with others to discuss it using the youth-friendly discussion guide available on

About the Blogger

Gordon Gibson

During his more than forty years in Unitarian Universalist ministry, Gordon Gibson has taken part in voting rights demonstrations in Selma, served as the only Unitarian Universalist minister in Mississippi from 1969 to 1984, and co-founded the Living Legacy Project, which leads pilgrimages to civil rights sites in the South. He is a past president of the Unitarian Universalist History and Heritage Society.

Military Ministry: Welcoming All Souls in Our Congregations

Welcoming people into our congregations takes a conscious effort. Being open to their stories, accepting them in their differences, and allowing their presence and experiences to transform us can be difficult, even when a person’s stories seem similar to our own. But, when a person brings a set of experiences that are new or different, challenging our own assumptions, it takes more than conscious effort to be welcoming. It takes training and preparation.

photo by Paul Barfoot
photo by Paul Barfoot

Many people who have a military background seek, and often struggle, to find a place in our congregations. A military member, not feeling connected to services at the chapels on base, finds their way to the local Unitarian Universalist church on Sunday. A veteran whose service was decades in the past wonders if the stories of their time in uniform would be welcome in their UU congregation. A military spouse whose loved one is overseas is looking for an accepting and affirming community to be a support during this difficult time of separation. A parent whose child is serving in the military questions whether their UU church can really understand what it feels like to be both proud and frightened at the same time.

I was one of those veterans who wondered if my Unitarian Universalist congregation would be able to hold the stories of my military service. I wondered what my fellow UUs would think of me if they knew I thought about returning to military service. I found some who did understand, but I also encountered many good-hearted people who just did not have the experience to understand the struggle I was going through. I wondered if my religious community was big enough to hold all the stories that were mine.

This Veteran’s Day, make time to consider the role that your congregation might play in the lives of military people, veterans, and their families. What contributions might their experiences make to your own Unitarian Universalist community? How can your congregation seek to grow in your ability to welcome those who are connected to the military? There are resources for training and preparing a congregation for this work available online in the UUA Military Ministry Toolkit. Your congregation can explore and uncover the stories of military service and connection from those already in your congregation. You can also prepare to welcome those beyond our congregations who are looking for a faith like ours. The workshops and materials in the program help congregations and individuals name and explore the assumptions about those connected to military service that may be keeping us from being truly welcoming.

For it is only when our stories, all of our stories, are included in our religious communities that we best express being the faith of All Souls.

Next Steps!

Review the Military Ministry Toolkit for Congregations. Invite other leaders in your congregation to consider growing in capacity to welcome those with military connections.

Become familiar with the Military Ministry of the Church of the Larger Fellowship, our Unitarian Universalist congregation without walls.

Explore the UU Military Facebook page.

About the Blogger

Rev. David PyleRev. David Pyle is the District Executive of the Joseph Priestley District of the UUA, and a member of the Central East Regional Staff of the UUA Congregational Life Staff Group. He is also a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain serving at Ft. Dix in New Jersey. As an enlisted soldier, he served in Latin America, Germany, and as a Peacekeeper in Bosnia-y-Herzegovina.

Both Relationships and Ramps

How intentionally does your faith community include people who have disabilities? I would guess that leadership meetings about buildings and budgets are where the intentions show up: Can we build a ramp to the front door? How much will it cost?

Photo courtesy of the UU Fellowship of Corvallis, OR
Photo courtesy of the UU Fellowship of Corvallis, OR; special thanks to Michele Darr

Of course, physical accommodations are important. We want to make sure people with all sorts of abilities and disabilities can participate fully in congregational life. But, while we attend to the construction and technology projects that inclusion demands, are we also making social and spiritual gestures of welcome? How can we express the radical hospitality to which we aspire?

Theresa Soto, ministerial intern at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem (OR), asserts that relationships are the key to truly welcome people with disabilities in our communities. Relationships can start with conversations. However, for many able-bodied people, a first conversation with someone who has a disability can be an eggshell-walk, even a mine field. Some avoid the conversation entirely. Others, in their discomfort, may reach out awkwardly and accidentally cause offense.

In a webinar hosted by the UUA Faith Development Office, Soto, who uses a wheelchair, gives guidance for relationship-starting conversations that are grounded in our first Unitarian Universalist Principle, the inherent worth and dignity of each of us. Her advice includes:

  • Do not ask someone who appears to have a disability what their body can/cannot do, or why. Do not offer medical guesses or ask questions like, “What is wrong with you?”
  • Make an open-ended invitation. For example, rather than ask “Can you do this activity?” say something like “What do you need in order to comfortably participate?”
  • Avoid statements that suggest someone has, or is, a problem.

Soto encourages each and all of us to begin or build a relationship with someone in our community who has a disability. To extrapolate, more powerful welcoming can happen when more community members make the effort. Find allies in your congregation to work on this together.

A wheelchair ramp expands your community’s physical invitation. What metaphorical “ramps” can expand your social and spiritual invitation to people who have disabilities? Consider how you might encourage the use of respectful, welcoming conversations to make the inclusion of people who have disabilities more real and more full.

Next Steps!

Find inspiration and ideas for moving your faith community toward deeper inclusion by watching Theresa Soto’s one-hour, July 2015 Faith Development Office webinar, Cultural Competence With Disability: Conversations for Access and Possibility. Transcript also available online.

Soto also serves as vice president of Equual Access, an organization that promotes equality and access for Unitarian Universalists with disabilities. Equual Access has worked with the UUA to create the Accessibility and Inclusion MInistry (AIM) program. Modeled on the Welcoming Congregation and Green Sanctuary programs, the AIM program invites congregations to earn a certificate through study and activities to “welcome, embrace, integrate, and support” people with disabilities and their families.

On YouTube, experience an April, 2015 worship service at First Parish of Bedford (MA) with inclusion as its theme.

Online, see the July 25, 2015 Huffpost Religion article, “Houses of Worship Explore Creative Designs to Serve People with Disabilities.”

The UUA recently launched web pages rich with resources for full, meaningful inclusion of people with special needs in religious education and other aspects of UU congregational life. Find links to blogs, books, and organizations for inspiration and guidance.

One important inclusion book, Welcoming Children with Special Needs by Sally Patton, is now out of print. The UUA has posted the book online as a PDF file you may download, at no charge. UUA Bookstore offerings include A Disability History of the United States, by Kim Nielsen and Enabling Acts: The Hidden Story of How the Americans with Disabilities Act Gave the Largest U.S. Minority Its Rights, by Lennard J. Davis.

Multigenerational Faith Community: Everyone Included!

Members of the First Unitarian Society of Albany, NY enjoy a "water trek" and skype into the worship service.
Members of the First Unitarian Society of Albany, NY enjoy a “water trek” and skype into the worship service.

Overwhelmingly, Unitarian Universalist faith communities want to be more inclusive of all ages, but aren’t sure how to do it. Creating intentional multigenerational communities means doing things differently. It means thinking creatively and constantly asking, are we considering the needs of all of our people? Are we able to include a wider span of ages in meaningful ways in our worship, our programs, and our community?

In 2013, over 250 UU’s from congregations and groups around the country responded to a survey on how multigenerational ministry is happening in their setting, sharing their successes and their hopes deeper multigenerational experiences. But this longing for multigenerational faith community is not new. It was identified by Judith A. Frediani and others in the visioning process which led to today’s Tapestry of Faith curricula. In Essex Conversations, Frediani wrote:

What would a truly multigenerational congregation look like? It would be the ultimate committee of the whole: a community in which everyone is seen as teacher and learner; in which every age and stage of life is equally valued and equally supported by whatever tangible and intangible resources the community has to offer; in which every age and stage of life is allowed to contribute whatever tangible and intangible resources it has to offer; a community in which no decision is made about the life of the community—whether in the area of worship, physical plant, fundraising, budgeting, social action, the arts, education, or any other—without consideration of its impact on and opportunities for every member of the community.

Now, there are practical resources and experiences to help you and your congregation add a multigenerational “lens” to your planning. now hosts Multigenerational Ministry web pages, a collection of how-to stories, practical ideas, and other resources to expand your congregation’s vision about what is possible in worship, learning, social action, and community building. Last year’s General Assembly program introduced workshops that allowed participants across the lifespan to experience multigenerational learning, rather than just learning about it. Topics included environmental stewardship, money and values, cultural identity, storytelling, and poetry. Evaluations showed a longing for more multigenerational experiences, both at GA and in congregations.

What is happening in your congregation? What programs, ideas, and practices have made your congregation a more effective and nurturing multigenerational faith community? How has it made a difference in your setting? How have congregants, families, or staff groups been changed through multigenerational ministry? Share your story by emailing Even better, share your experiments, successes, commitment, and passion by proposing a multigenerational workshop for GA 2016 in Columbus, OH. Who better to develop meaningful multigenerational experiences than religious educators and leaders in congregations who are already creating multigenerational magic! Check out guidelines for developing program proposals, and submit your proposal by November 2.

Next Steps!

Check out the Intergenerational Research and Analysis on the website of the ecumenical organization, Lifelong Faith Associates.

Explore the Multigenerational Ministry pages on, including “How is Multigenerational Ministry Happening?” as well as videos and other resources with creative practitioners.

Explore Tapestry of Faith multigenerational programs.

Watch “Coming Home,” a joyful, multigenerational video from The First Unitarian Church of Rochester.

Propose a multigenerational workshop for General Assembly 2016.

We Read Together: Just Mercy

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson is the 2015-16 UUA Common Read. This beautifully written book looks closely at the life stories and circumstances of people who have been sentenced to die at the hands of the state or to live out their lives in prison. The author explores ethical, moral, and spiritual questions as he uncovers truths many would prefer not to know. In story after story, he details the horrors faced by people on the margins of United States mainstream society—poor people, mentally ill people, children, and people of color—when they come in contact with the systems we have built to respond to criminal or antisocial acts.just mercy book cover

Stevenson’s central story is of a black man who found himself framed for murder and sentenced to death. Only painstaking effort and skilled legal work by the team led by Stevenson forced acknowledgment of the justice system’s shoddy practices and the humanity and innocence of the person who was sentenced. Stevenson asks not, “Does this person deserve to die?” but rather, “Do we as a society deserve to kill?”

Stevenson writes not only about the wrongfully convicted, but also about some who committed the criminal acts of which they are accused. In each case, he helps the reader to understand the life circumstances that created the conditions leading to the crime. Particularly heart-wrenching are the stories of juvenile offenders. He questions our legal system’s propensity to try children as adults and sentence them to die in prison (since a Supreme Court ruling disallowed the death penalty for children). He tells compelling stories of people with disability, mental illness, or a history of trauma whose lives go terribly wrong in one ill-considered moment, saying, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”

Stevenson’s is a call for mercy and compassion. Grounded by his grandmother’s wisdom, “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance… You have to get close,” the author takes us close. The stories touch us and call out to our own humanity in a way that statistics never can.

The Unitarian Universalist Association discussion guide for Just Mercy provides two options: a single 90-minute session or three 90-minute sessions. It explores values and ideas that are vital to us as a people of faith: justice, mercy, compassion, redemption, restoration, and hope. It invites people to identify experiences in their own lives that connect them to the lives of those incarcerated. It asks readers to stop turning away from the harm that is happening in our name and on our watch and, instead, to act with mercy and compassion toward people less able to advocate for themselves. It urges us to advocate for changes that make our criminal system truly a justice system.

Next Steps!

Purchase Just Mercy or find it at a public library. Invite others in your congregation, group, or family to read it, too.

Organize a Common Read discussion group for Just Mercy. State your intent to move together from reading to discussion into action; suggestions in the UUA discussion guide will help you.

Explore the video and print resources on the website of Equal Justice Initiative, the nonprofit organization founded by Bryan Stevenson.

Take part in prison ministry with your local congregation or through the Church of the Larger Fellowship.


Tashlich and the River

Fifteen years ago, when I was the religious educator in North Andover, Massachusetts, we held a tashlich ritual as part of marking the Jewish Days of Awe. People of all ages put bread crumbs in bowls of water to recognize the actions they were sorry for and to symbolize a new start.

Tashlich ceremonies require that the crumbs be put in running water. That afternoon, I put the bowls in my car and headed to a spot I knew on the bank of the Merrimack River, very near my childhood home. river photo pedro j perez morguefile_14410912277vscI brought the bowls of water and crumbs to the river, said a few words, and then emptied the bowls into the current. Dozens of little minnows appeared to eat the crumbs! Where once the river was so polluted that there was no life but E. coli, here were fishes. I looked up, tears in my eyes, and saw the river again as if for the first time. It is tidal at that place, several miles in from the ocean. The smell: brackish water, slightly salty, but clean. Boats on the water. Reflections of trees on its surface. Some debris, but no sewage. A river being restored.

In that moment, I realized the wisdom of the Days of Awe, and the turning, the change of heart, that had allowed people up and down the Merrimack River to repair this part of the world. It required a collective commitment, and a collective new beginning.

When we think of being sorry, making amends, and beginning again, our focus is often on our individual lives and experiences. But sometimes what needs to be acknowledged is collective damage. We may even need to take responsibility for and repair wrongs we inherit from those who came before. So it is with the damage done by pollution and ill-use of the natural environment and the beings that share it with us. The work of repair and restoration must be collective as well as individual, spanning ages and generations. For me, the story of the river near my home offers a beacon of hope and an example of what we can do, together.

Next Steps!

Discover resources from the UUA to help you and your group or congregation start or strengthen your involvement in climate and environmental justice efforts.

Engage your congregation in local water clean-up and preservation efforts. Find program and project ideas in the multigenerational Tapestry of Faith curriculum, Gather the Spirit.

Learn about the history and meaning of the Jewish tashlich ritual from a short article by Rabbi Miriam T. Spitzer.



Hand in Glove: UU Faith Development and Teaching Tolerance

I recently had a fantastic opportunity to attend a Teaching Tolerance workshop on their new Perspectives for a Diverse America (free) curriculum. Teaching Tolerance was founded in 1991 by the Southern Poverty Law Center to help reduce prejudice, improve intergroup relations, and support equitable school experiences for children. I was already a big Teaching Tolerance fan before attending the workshop, but came away even more excited about the phenomenal work Teaching Tolerance has done (and continues to do).

teaching tolerance graphicSome of the “lightbulb moments” for me:

  • At the heart of Perspectives is an anti-bias framework, a “set of anchor standards and age-appropriate learning outcomes divided into four domains—identity, diversity, justice and action.” These domains are based on Louise Derman-Sparks’ four goals for anti-bias education in early childhood; Derman-Sparks was the Fahs lecturer at the UUA 2012 General Assembly.
  • Schools in the US have focused on the first two domains – identity and diversity – with the goal of prejudice reduction, which seeks to minimize conflict and generally focuses on changing the attitudes and behaviors of a dominant group. It is far less common for schools to focus on the justice and action domains with the goal of collective action. Collective action challenges inequality directly by raising consciousness and focusing on improving conditions for under-represented groups.
  • In today’s diverse classrooms, students (and teachers and parents) need knowledge and skills related to both prejudice reduction and collective action.
  • Anti-bias texts are different from multicultural texts. Rather than only represent marginalized groups, they discuss action.
  • Critical literacy is the difference between understanding how to operate the lever in the voting booth and comprehending the issues needed to decide for whom to vote and why.

Religious educators can use the amazing Perspectives for a Diverse America activities and resources in myriad ways: teaching RE classes; providing stories and videos for worship; offering resources for parents and training materials for RE volunteers (to name just a few).  But I have a bigger dream. As religious educators, we often wonder how to have an impact beyond Sunday morning and beyond the congregation. What if every UU parent with school-age children or youth talked to the teachers and administrators in their children’s schools about using this amazing (reminder: FREE!) resource? Imagine if all teachers and students learned the skills of both prejudice reduction and collective action and put those skills into practice every day? It might help realize the vision statement of Tapestry of Faith (another wonderful free, online family of programs):

We envision children, youth and adults who realize that they are moral agents, capable of making a difference in the lives of other people, challenging structures of social and political oppression, and promoting the health and well-being of the planet. 

Next Steps!

Join the UUA Faith Development Office for a September, 2015 one-hour webinar with UU Sarah Neely, member of the Teaching Tolerance Advisory Board, on ways to complement UU faith development with free resources produced by Teaching Tolerance. Details and registration information here.

Perspectives for a Diverse America is a literacy-based curriculum that marries anti-bias content with the rigor of the Common Core. Learn more from this one-and-a-half-minute YouTube video.

Explore the Teaching Tolerance website. Learn more about the Anti-Bias Framework; read about “Teaching with Perspectives”.


“Hybrid” Renaissance Modules: Survey Says… YES!

Last spring, 20 religious educators experienced continuing education that blended online and in-person learning in the first ever “hybrid” Renaissance module, co-led by Pat Infante and Gabrielle Farrell.

The module topic was UU Adult Faith Development. The experiment was a rousing success, offering the best of both worlds. Webinars allowed for unhurried preparation time as well as time for reflection and processing between sessions. The in-person day provided face-to-face support and collaboration with colleagues, including the presentation of final projects, hallmarks of the traditional, in-person Renaissance module.

Infante, the Regional Consultant for Faith Development for the UUA Central East Regional Group (CERG), collaborated with the UUA Renaissance Office on the structure of the hybrid—which portions would be held via webinar and which would be covered in the one-day, in-person session. She and Farrell, Lifespan Religious Educator at River Road Unitarian Universalist (UU) Congregation in Bethesda, MD led five 90-minute webinars from January through March, culminating in a full day workshop at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda. Because a large number of participants signed up, each webinar was offered twice for two online groups of ten people. Then, all participants joined together for the in-person session.

Comments from participants were enthusiastic, for example:

  • I experienced a model of combining online and face-to-face education which may be useful in my congregation; I’m inspired to explore hybrid models for adult faith development classes.
  • This format of the webinar and one in-person session is definitely a good idea. I appreciate that it was offered because the lower cost allowed me to be able to take the class which I very much wanted to take.
  • I thought there was a good balance between webinar sessions and in-person meeting time. The webinar sessions offered time to absorb the reading and other materials, while the in-person time offered a wonderful opportunity to connect and focus on ways to use ideas we discussed during the module.
  • I would like to take more classes like this.

Next Steps!

If you would like to sponsor a hybrid Renaissance module in your area, contact Pat Kahn in the Renaissance Office at to discuss the possibilities.

Find out more about the Renaissance continuing education program here.The Renaissance Module calendar lists upcoming workshops.


Bedtime Stories

As parents and caregivers, we sometimes have to hold difficult conversations with children. I have had a few of those while raising my daughter. One that I will never forget happened in January, 1998. My daughter was seven and a serious book lover. Though she could read for herself now, she still looked forward to a nightly bedtime story, as did I. As a busy working mom, I cherished that nightly ritual of mother-daughter time.

racism is still with usFor African American History Month, her school library had displayed a number of books for checkout. She brought one home on the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As she nestled into her bed, I turned pages describing civil rights rallies that ended with police turning hoses and dogs on peaceful demonstrators. She turned to me, her sweet, brown eyes round with fear. “I thought the police officer was our friend?”

I froze. I did not remember ever talking to my child about the police, yet, I knew that in school and from television shows, she had absorbed the standard civics message that the police officer is there to keep you safe. How could she reconcile that message with this new knowledge?

I took a breath. I took my time. I knew that this was a “teachable moment.” What would I teach her?

I worried about stealing my daughter’s innocence. But, as Mark Morrison-Reed made clear in his presentation at the 2014 Liberal Religious Educators Association’s Professional Day, black parents have to choose between protecting innocence and protecting lives.

I explained that just as there were people who do good things and people who do bad things everywhere, there were some police who do good things and some who do bad. Most police officers, I assured her, do good things and protect us. But during that time in history, many people felt threatened by the demonstrators, and people sometimes do the wrong thing when they feel threatened. It was wrong of those police officers to attack the protestors.

I had the luxury of couching the police attacks in the past. Today, we do not have that luxury.

We know that the violent interactions between black people and the police in the headlines today are not new. Social media; 24-hour news channels; widespread use of camera phones, body cams, and dashboard cams; and a public more aware of these events are bringing them to our attention in a way that has never happened before. Our children may hear about and even see these attacks and deaths. It is still true that some cops do good things and some bad. I believe it is still true that the vast majority of police officers put their lives on the line to keep all Americans safe. What is coming to light is that police violence against blacks is not always fueled by fear. Sometimes, the fuel is simply hate, and hate-plus-power is a dangerous combination.

When my daughter was just a litle older, I talked to her about hate: “Some people hate black people,” I said. “They think black people are different from white people, not as good as white people. Maybe they were raised to believe that. People who think this way are racist. But I know it is wrong to think this way. I know it is not true that black people are not as good as white people, or not as smart, or in any way not deserving of the same respect and rights as all people. Racism and racial hatred is always wrong. When we see racism, whether against us or someone else, we need to say it is wrong, even if the police or the government are the ones being racist. If we suspect that a black person has been mistreated because of racism, we need to say it is wrong.”

As my daughter grew, we had many conversations about standing up against oppression of all people. We need to have these talks. Our country’s relationship with black people is unique. If lumped together into a conversation about how “all lives matter,” that unique aspect of American life and culture is obscured, harder to recognize, easier to ignore. My black ancestors did not come willingly to this country in search of a better life: They were forced here, in chains, to work night and day in subhuman conditions for a better life for other people. Our nation has never adequately acknowledged or recovered from this foundational act. Older children need to know about our country’s history with slavery and be shown how to recognize oppressions black people still face today. They need to know we do not live in a post-racial society, and that the playing field is not level and never has been. As a black woman, I can testify that my race affects almost every aspect of my life in America. If our children are going to be effective towards further dismantling racism in our world, they need to know what they are up against.

What are you saying to your children in your home, your congregation, or community about racism against black people? Would you be willing to share it, in the comments below?

One of the jobs of a faith community is to support each other in hard times. What support do you need to help young people understand the need for the Black Lives Matter campaign? Do not let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep you silent. As Martin Luther King said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good [people] do nothing.”

Next Steps!

The Institute for Humane Education has a short list of children’s book about race and racism.

One organization, Do Justice, a Christian social justice group, has a series of blog posts about talking to children about Dylan Rule’s shooting attack at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. This post is from a black mother. While she writes from a Christian perspective, we as Unitarian Universalists have a theology of love and justice that is just as strong, so please do not let the theology stop you from hearing the stories told here.

The Anti-Defamation League has a blog post about Charleston.

Here is a PowerPoint from the presentation by Rev. Morrison Reed for LREDA’ in 2014.

This mother’s approach might feel too bold for you, but I’m including it because there are a couple of good resources mentioned and this approach might work for older children.

A blog post from the Dayton Children’s Hospital may be a bit light on advice, but it includes links to other useful resources.