Below is my letter of resignation for my position at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church. I offer this to the wider Unitarian Universalist community as a window into the ongoing costs of speaking truth to power.
As I am far from the only person this has happened to, if you would like to support religious professional of color please donate at www.paypal.me/uuchrisrivera
Hola TJMCUU Community,
This is an extraordinarily difficult letter to write. There are some of you who know a lot of the history that led us to this point and some who know nothing at all. So I’ll try to recap a bit of the history, my decision to leave, and looking forward.
I was hired as the Director of Administration of Finance in April 2015. Previously I served the Waynesboro UU congregation as Director of Religious Education and at the time of hiring I served on the UUA Board of Trustees. I brought with me decades of experience in marketing, IT, bookkeeping, operations, and management in addition to my religious education and ministry experience.
In general, I’ve experienced this congregation as welcoming and supportive…as long as I was doing exactly what that individual was asking for and in their timeline. Whenever I tried to set boundaries or set priorities, as supported by the Board, I was met with displeasure and in many cases astonishment, and the beginnings of distrust. Gradually the questions that were being asked about me were along the lines of what I was doing with my time, not about the priorities of the congregation as expressed by the Board and then enacted by staff. Questions such as:
- Why was I going to Boston for UUA Board meetings when I hadn’t calendared someone’s meeting?
- What work was I doing “on behalf of Wik” in our shared ministry model that wasn’t allowing me to meet individual requests?
- Why was I talking about my work on behalf of Unitarian Universalism as ministry when I wasn’t a “minister”?
- Why was I talking so much about racial justice?
All of these questions were coded to mean why wasn’t I behaving in ways that looked and felt comfortable to a mostly white, cisgendered, heteronormative congregation. Well, probably because I’m a queer Latina whose ministry is based on liberation. The same as I was during the hiring process but now acting out those same values and skills I was hired to bring to TJMCUU.
In Spring 2017 I informed the congregation that I was releasing a blog statement that I had been passed over for a UUA regional staff position due to white supremacy culture at the UUA. Immediately following this post I began to experience serious backlash from the TJMCUU congregation. While the Board and some individuals were extremely supportive of me, there were many who were angry that I named white supremacy culture. When I co-founded the UU White Supremacy TeachIn, I experienced many congregants’ open hostility.
This open hostility came to head in Feb 2018 when I experienced a racial attack in my office in the form of a hate letter placed in my inbox. The letter included a reference to my children. It was a direct attack on me in the place I do my ministry, calculated to make me experience anxiety and fear anytime I enter my office. Unsigned, it meant every time I encountered a congregant my internal dialogue now included a “was it them?” analysis. It meant every time my children wanted to be part of the TJMCUU community I had to do mental calculations about their safety. As I type this my entire body is tensed, even a year later.
In the wake of that attack I wrote an article about the Culture of Complicity. How an attack like that doesn’t just happen in a vacuum, it happens when there is a culture that allows, encourages, and affirms a person to those actions. Even amid individual and Board support, among a small group of congregants the backlash to the article was swift and vicious. And let me be clear, racist and abusive behaviour that gets normalized in a congregation as “oh that’s just the way they are” or “they don’t mean to be disrespectful” or “but they do so much for the church” or “they are just old” are all just coded messages for “we’re going to tolerate their abuse because it is easier to not rock the boat than to live out our UU values.” It completely ignores the racism and sexism that lives in the system and is protected at all costs in the name of harmony.
In October 2018 my teenage son was attacked via a hate letter mailed to UUA headquarters where he was volunteering for denomination leadership. That was the final straw for me and my family. I began deep discernment about leaving TJMCUU. I have never left a position without having another job lined up. Frankly as the sole income earner in my family, it terrifies me. But I finally realized that I would need to be the one to put the health and safety of my family first.
Let me be clear, I love working on behalf of Unitarian Universalism at TJMCUU. I love working with Leia, Wik, Wendy, Caroline, Alex and Scott. I’ve loved working with the TJMCUU Board and so many congregants. I’m enormously proud of the work we’ve done on behalf of Black Lives Matter, the buses to the Women’s March, bringing Rev. Jesse Jackson to preach, standing on the front lines on August 11/12, overseeing the renovations of Summit and Lower Hall, bringing long term facility renters who share our UU values. But none of that can undo the harm done by the culture of racism I’ve experienced during my tenure at TJMCUU.
As TJMCUU looks to its future, I hope and pray that it will not move towards healing without first examining the harm done. It is not enough to feel bad that harm was done, it is not enough to say gosh we wish those people had been nicer. Real systemic change can only happen when it begins with deep examination of the truth. Examine the ways in which a culture of complicity has harmed not just me and my family but TJMCUU. Be curious about the violence done to a staff member of color to have on her business card the name of Jefferson, a rapist and murderer. Ask questions about how a minister who is lauded for ground breaking work in shared ministry in our denomination is treated as though that is somehow shirking his responsibilities. If you are sad/mad/angry that we are leaving inquire as to what you have done to help us stay. And then think about ways to do more for the staff who remain. They will need your support now more than ever.
Finally, I hope and pray that you will finally recognize the ministry of Leia Durland-Jones. Leia has been with you and ministered to you for longer than any ordained clergy person and deserves to be recognized for the minister that she has been and will always be. She is more qualified to ministry than the vast majority of UU ministers I have ever met. Just because she chooses to fulfill her calling in religious education doesn’t make her any less a UU minister. In our faith, UU congregations hold the final authority on ordination and it is long past time when Leia should be formally ordained into ministry. Do it, ordain her before the next church year is over. Show her that her ministry has not gone unnoticed. She will be with you, be with her.
YoUUrs in service,