Regret, Repentance, Redemption, Reconciliation and Reparations
One of the first classes I took at Meadville Lombard was Religious Education.
In some ways, I thought I shouldn’t even have to take any kind of education class.
I was a professor of education and a Department Chair
of Curriculum, Foundations, and Research at Georgia Southern.
I had helped to facilitate a great new program in Curriculum Studies
and worked with some top-notch Curriculum scholars.
But I knew that I still had did not know the specific field of Religious Education well,
so I was open to seeing what I could learn.
And I did learn a whole lot in that class –
but not really so much about curriculum and religious education.
I learned about how my own education and scholarly endeavors were steeped
in so much systemic racism and white supremacy
that I did not even recognize my own handicaps.
Here’s the story of what was perhaps the biggest lesson I learned in seminary.
Our class met in a classroom with one large table –
or perhaps two tables pushed together, and we all sat around it.
Our teacher sat with us but would sometimes stand and write on the chalk board.
Yes, we still used chalkboards at Meadville Lombard in that beautiful old building
in Hyde Park on the southside of Chicago.
Other than some manuscripts and religious education curricula written by
the legendary Unitarian religious educator, Sophia Fahs,
we did not have a lot of texts from our own tradition,
so we studied other religious educators and their texts,
like the writings of the fabulous Parker Palmer,
who I follow on Facebook now – and who says he will never write another text,
but shares some wisdom via Facebook almost daily.
For most of our classes in seminary, we had to purchase six or seven required books
and read them all.
In this religious education class, we discussed them one by one, and, of course,
wrote essays on each of them. And so it went.
Unitarian Universalist seminarians are a rather scholarly bunch,
and I was in my element as an academic person, enjoying it thoroughly.
I liked some of the books better than others,
and had to translate a lot because they often were written within a particular –
more narrow – religious tradition, unlike Palmer’s books,
which were awesome for any tradition.
On this particular cold January morning,
we were digging into a different book co-authored by two authors
who “happened to be” African American.
And that was the way I thought of it – they just “happened to be” African American.
At that point in my development, I thought that looking past someone’s race
and ethnicity was a better way to be more welcoming.
After all, we are all human.
So we began to discuss some of the points in the book,
and I went on my merry way to share with the class a very negative critique
of some of the methods and ideas they proposed.
The other students seem to follow my lead one by one and so did the teacher.
Then Archene spoke up.
Archene Turner and I had been attracted to one another immediately –
both in our writing back and forth before we came to Chicago on our listserv –
or whatever we were using back then, and when we met in person.
You know – there are some folks where a friendship has to develop gradually –
and some folks where you just “hit it off.” Archene and I connected.
Archene put her hands on the table and said,
“Stop – Do you not realize that I’m sitting at this table.”
The classroom grew silent.
I looked at my friend and could see that she was hurt and upset.
What had we done?
Archene shared how she had all these texts to read in all these classes –
and none from folks that looked like her,
till this ONE text in this religious education class.
And now this is what she was sitting through as if we weren’t even aware
of how this may affect her.
And my heart sank – especially since I was the one
who started us down that very negative, critical path.
Our teacher said it was time for a break.
Oh, how I regretted what I had done.
I didn’t fully understand it all – but I had hurt my friend.
I immediately went to her and expressed my sorrow with tears in my eyes,
- Yeah – those white lady tears - and hugged her.
- Then I said something that probably may or may not have helped.
- I said, “I didn’t mean to hurt you. That was not my intention.
- I wasn’t thinking, and I’m so, so sorry.”
- But I knew I messed up – and I was trying to repent.
- I’m glad that I made that immediate effort.
- I have regrets in life that were not always followed by repentance.
Regret has been defined as a feeling of remorse that is a negative emotion as it leads one to think continuously about a past action or behavior and causes more shame, guilt, anger, disappointment etc.
It’s not a good place to stay in.
Repentance is a positive emotion as it makes one learn about the mistake, and the person vows not to repeat it in the future.
And though I began my repentance at that moment – it takes more than a moment.
How could I ever Redeem my actions?
We came back to class to try to look at what had happened.
Archene explained how Meadville Lombard was so totally lacking at that time in drawing from any African American traditions or scholarship
and how she was glad to see that at least there was a book in one class.
She did not try to defend the book all that much, she was discussing our whole system.
The teacher, in her efforts to perhaps defend her book choice,
made everything worse by saying,
“Well I think some of the ideas are good the authors just did not communicate them well.
I think they needed a good editor.”
She also explained that she made a special effort to include something
by African American authors.
Well, I have to admit –
that’s how many folks were approaching “multicultural education,” in those days.
Let’s just add something to the readings without thoroughly examining it ourselves
so we can appear to be diverse.
But the rest of that day – and the rest of that intensive class week
had a heavy cloud over it.
What had happened in that class, of course, quickly was revealed to the entire seminary
as we began to examine all of our class curricula closely
as well as how we conducted our class discussions
and we realized that the faculty, students, administrators, and board
had lots of work to do.
The next year the seminary invited just about every person of color of note
in the UU world to join us for our preconference before classes
as well as other consultants to help us attempt efforts of both reconciliation and healing. Former students of color were invited in and shared many painful experiences
that were not addressed at the time they were there.
It was a very, difficult few days.
But we continued to work from that point on making many changes.
One of them was that we have a class covenant and
that we all agree to it before we began each class,
with ways that we can signal in a discussion if there are things come up that cause pain.
Most of us didn’t even know the word “micro-aggressions” at that time.
We also began to really look at our own curriculum, faculty, and more.
We were waking up to the fact that Meadville Lombard
was steeped in systemic racism and white supremacy –
even though WE thought we were not.
And Meadville Lombard has continued this necessary journey.
It’s not something you repair easily.
I share this story with you because I think we as UUs think we are SO good.
And we are SO much better than some other narrow traditions
which are obviously unwelcoming and patriarchal and downright racist,
that we sometimes feel satisfied. Yet, we mess up.
We mess up as an association, as a congregation, and as people.
We just do.
And we mess up in our personal lives with folks we love the most!
But we don’t have to dwell in regret.
We can move through those other R words and make a difference
in our own lives and those of others.
One of the most difficult of these R words to address is reconciliation
because we are working on relationships with others in that process –
and that’s not always easy.
Paula Cole Jones shared in UU World about adopting reconciliation
as a personal spiritual discipline. She writes:
“As a management consultant, I know a lot about helping people work through their differences, but until I embraced reconciliation as a spiritual practice, I didn't realize just how transformative reconciliation can be.
Practicing reconciliation means I commit to being in right relationship with people in my life and, when I'm not, caring enough to face unresolved issues and improve the relationship.
(She continues) I keep two lists:
One has the names of people with whom I need to reconcile.
The other has names of people with whom I have begun reconciliation efforts.
The lists keep my commitment in front of me.
Each time I am able to move forward with another person,
I draw a line through their name on the list of people
with whom reconciliation is needed—
and the list of people with whom I have begun reconciliation grows longer.”
The ability to “make amends” or reconcile is one of the major practices
of folks who are successful with 12 step recovery programs. It’s not easy.
And sometimes connecting with some folks is more harmful than helpful –
so it’s not always something you need to do directly.
But we have to do it in our hearts, for sure – and with others if at all possible.
Sometimes the folks that are hardest to reconcile with are our own family members
and loved ones.
We have so much of our emotional stuff wrapped up in these relationships.
Thank goodness for therapists!
Sometimes, we can’t just forgive and move on.
I find this especially true with what I’ve been going through
with the trial of these three men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
As a member of the Glynn County Clergy Equity Group,
I’ve been working with others to be supportive
of the Ahmaud Arbery family
and seek justice.
But in one of our zoom meetings before the trial, one of the clergy indicated
that they had been told that none of the local clergy
had been to the jail to pray with the defendants.
Those of us in the meeting were asked if we thought we could do this –
and there was discussion of how we are “all God’s children.”
I shared with the clergy that while I admired those who may be able to do that,
I could not.
I had heard no remorse from these men or any admission of guilt.
I also acknowledged that my problem may be related to my own personal situation
in that these men represented my background –
the kinds of folks I grew up with – family members and others –
and that I still carried a lot of shame related to that to work through.
I could not be authentic if I went in to pray with them,
but I would honor those who could.
One of the African American clergy women spoke up
and said she thought she could do it – and I said, “Bless you.”
I recently heard a young man share how he was assaulted as a teenager for being gay –
and how folks now asked him if he was able to forgive those who assaulted him.
He said that he had not been able to forgive them.
But he was able to recognize their inherent worth and dignity
and understand that they had probably had things done to them
that would lead them to become a person like that.
And maybe for some – that’s as far as we can go.
But when we are the ones who have hurt someone,
we should try our best to move to reconciliation.
Sometimes that may be through an apology.
But often the “I’m sorry’s” are empty words.
We need to make reparations.
In the educational component of the minister’s gathering that I was in at the Mountain,
the facilitator said that she agreed with the idea that everything we need to know
we learn in preschool or kindergarten. She had a toddler in preschool –
and when they were at an orientation, one parent asked how they disciplined the children;
did they use a “time out” or what?
And the teacher said, “We teach them to ask the question –
“What can I do to make it better.”
As adults who are participants in systems of systemic racism and other oppressions,
we need to do the same. We need to ask how we can repair the systems.
Often, it’s a very hard thing to do.
The judge in the trial in Brunswick said that the jury that was selected
was not a fair distribution regarding race.
There was only one black member selected.
He said, however, that because of the way the law was written,
if the defense could show other valid reasons than race for striking a juror,
that was acceptable. The whole system’s messed up.
And here we are – trying to do what little we can – to turn this ship around.
I emailed my friend Archene last week to ask if I could use her real name
in sharing the story I shared at the beginning of the sermon.
She gave me permission – but went on to share with me
that she had stepped away from the UU congregation she was attending
as a community minister.
She said it was just too hard to get privileged white folks who were willing
to turn the ship around.
I shared with her my understanding and hopes for the future.
What can we do?
As a congregation, we can do things like vote for the resolution
we have proposed related to the 8th Principle at our Annual Meeting.
You will find out more about this in an upcoming email.
And as individuals, perhaps we can follow the suggestion
Paula Cole Jones provided about making a list of folks we need to reconcile with –
and start working on it.
I have some regrets that I’ll never be able to remedy –
for those folks are dead, and I’ll just have to let those things go.
But there are others who are still breathing. I need to make my list.
Who will be on yours?
Perhaps this season of Thanksgiving can be one
where we can all begin to reach out more,
connect with those we’ve wronged
or those who have somehow separated from us, and we are not sure what happened.
It’s not too late for some. We can do this.
And, of course, we can try to make amends, fix what we can,
reconnect and reconcile if possible.
We are all going to mess up – just like I did in the class at Meadville Lombard
when my actions and words hurt my friend, Archene.
But you know – Archene knew my heart.
When I apologized to her, she knew my heart was in a holy place.
And just like the song says, she blessed me with her love and amazing grace.
And when it’s impossible to reconcile,
well, we just have to forgive ourselves and try to do better ---
as we forgive others as well.
Jesus prayed, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
I’ll give us a head start by leading you all in the Litany of Atonement
by Rev. Rob Eller Isaacs that we sometimes recite from the back of the hymnal.
Your part is simply these words which you will repeat after each entry.
“We forgive ourselves and each other. We begin again in Love.”
For remaining silent when a single voice would have made a difference.
For each time that our fears have made us rigid and inaccessible.
For each time that we have struck out in anger without just cause
For each time that our greed has blinded us to the needs of others
For the selfishness which sets us apart and alone
For falling short of the admonitions of the spirit
For losing sight of our unity
For those and for so many acts both evident and subtle which have fueled the illusion of separateness
May it be so!