Although I am sure it has many sources, I trace this perspective especially back to graduate school where I fell into relationship with old-school-style radical feminists who taught me the “personal is the political.” These were not the stereotypical white feminists, however; from the beginning I was blessed to be in dialogue across issues of race, class, gender, (dis)ability and other areas of historical marginalization and oppression. In a given semester, I might find myself at a Take Back the Night Rally, at an academic conference on gay identity in the African American community, rehearsing for a play on transgressing class and gender norms, or in a talk-circle exchanging personal stories with Hispanic women trying to break the cycle of poverty.
These multi-faceted and multi-layered experiences instilled in me a sense that the healing of the human heart opens up into the healing of the world – and vice versa. Our work certainly hoped to attend to social change, and yet just as much, it changed me personally, awakened me to my own privilege, and all the things I had taken for granted up until that point, all the security I assumed everyone had. And, it allowed me to imagine why and how I could relinquish some of this privilege so that all people could lead lives of wholeness and worth.
Over a decade later, I was sitting in a class led by Dr. Vincent Harding on what it will take to build a truly multi-cultural society when I flashed on these early experiences. Instead of the usual seminary lecture or even analytical discussion, he suggested we sit down in small groups and share personal stories about first coming to understand race. Over the course of the next few days, I sat with five other people from across the seminary community – from diverse racial and socio-economic backgrounds, ranging in age and personal experience. We offered one another our vulnerability and our shame, our fear and our greatest dreams. Sharing our stories there, we all entered into the dialogue of race, class and privilege, and the true work of building a multi-cultural world, fully invested, all knowing we had a part to play. We are all broken by racism; we are all less whole because of economic injustice; we are all made less human by sexism and heterosexism.
This experience, as with my graduate school work, taught me that to begin social change work in our congregations, we need to start with personal relationships, and story sharing. As a result, my anti-racism and anti-oppression ministry is grounded in the work of small group ministry, personal reflection circles, and the striving for real relationships with people who are different or who have experienced a different path than our own.
Still, internal transformation was not the only goal in my early activism, any more than it is in my current ministry. The Beloved Community cannot wait while individuals awaken to the world’s brokenness, and we know racism and oppression with all its structural and institutional support, cannot be understood purely at an individual or personal level. In graduate school, this meant we marched, we wrote our legislators, and we studied the laws. We worked with the Board of Regents on campus to change campus policies, and we worked beyond the campus with attorneys and community organizers. Standing at the intersection of race, class, and gender lands you easily on the front lines of a myriad of social issues – and so I remember being involved in issues ranging from welfare reform to medical care, domestic violence to Native American rights. Which might make it seem like we had access to limitless resources and volunteer hours – we didn’t. More, we showed up in this work out of relationship with others who were already taking the lead and mostly, this meant we supported them wherever they identified a need – whether that was in distributing flyers, or in carrying a protest sign.
In my ministry, this has meant the early work of establishing relationships with the many groups who are involved locally in social change. Through relationship with my Unitarian Universalist ministerial colleagues, as well as colleagues from other faith traditions, I have gotten involved in the work of immigration reform, offering myself as an ally and support in this important work built on the foundations of anti-racism and anti-oppression analysis. I have stood in solidarity at a number of deportation hearings, and I have attended consciousness-raising rallies. Recently, I was asked and accepted the offer to provide a message of faith for an immigration rally in collaboration with Colorado Representative Jared Polis. Like my earlier work, rather than duplicating the robust efforts already in progress, this work relies upon the building of strong alliances, responding to the invitation for partnership and support, in whatever way that might make sense. Unlike my earlier work, however, I understand this ministry as grounded in my religious calling, which keeps in view always something more than any particular political agenda, and instead seeks the healing and transformation of the world, the building of Beloved Community.
And still, I confess most of the time, my sense of all this good work comes right back to the personal. It comes down to those bedtime conversations my daughter and I have about her brown skin, especially in contrast to my own pink shades, and what if anything that might mean. It comes down to backyard playdates, where I overhear my kids’ neighborhood friends try to explain to them why they wear a shower cap when they play on the slip and slide. It comes down to the curious looks our neighbors give us when they first try to figure out if these two white women next door are sisters, or friends, and the hesitancy we see on their faces when they try to decide if it’s safe to send their kids to play at our house.
Raising kids in a multi-racial and multi-cultural world, I learn every day just how much work there still is to do, to untangle all these issues of race, class, sexual orientation, gender. And I learn every day how much my race and class privilege has kept me clumsy and unpracticed in talking about some of these things, despite all my past public and professional work. We all keep trying though, knowing that in order to heal our future, we have to be clear about the pain of our past, the pain of our present. We keep trying – in my family life, as in my ministry, linking inner healing with world healing, changing ourselves so that we might change the world.