2021-11-28 Decolonizing Thanksgiving: An Imperative for UUs

We at First U are justifiably proud of the anti-racism work we have done. Moreover, we are aware that there is much more to do. Part of the most difficult work ahead of us, both as individuals and as an institution, is acknowledging failures both past and present. 

We began introducing a land acknowledgement in 2014 and decades ago invited indigenous peoples in to lead a Sunday worship. However, we need to openly examine the role of our denomination in creating the modern myth of Thanksgiving, which white-washes the real events that mark the beginnings of colonization of what is now the United States by Europeans. 

Most of us are aware that the myth of Thanksgiving paints a rosy picture of relationships between the Plymouth colony and the Wampanoag nation, when the real story was one of brutal conquest, massacres, and intentional germ warfare. However, as UU’s we should also be aware that 19th Century Unitarians played a large role in creating this mythos. It was a Unitarian campaign that helped convince President Lincoln to declare Thanksgiving a US Holiday. We at First U were obviously not around when this happened and cannot share in the blame, but there is a difference between blame and responsibility. We have a duty to understand and acknowledge our past in order to build a firm foundation for moving forward.

As we reimagine our Society, we must consider our relationship with Native American communities, especially those of the Lenni-Lenape peoples on whose land we live.

2021-11-21 Changing the Culture at First U to a Community of Communties

Transforming the culture of First U to a “community of communities” is the key to dismantling institutional racism. This was one of the clear messages we received at the “Building a Culture of Inclusion” workshop, led by Paula Cole Jones.

We at First U have always seen ourselves as a family and it has been the source of many positive aspects of our work, including our long-standing efforts to address individual racism. However, families are exclusive structures with a defined  “in” and “out” – and an intentional effort must be made to bring those on the outside in.

In order to begin to dismantle institutional racism in our congregation, we need to create an  inclusive, relational environment, and make plans and decisions for the greater good. We need to expand our “Belief in the inherent worth and dignity of every INDIVIDUAL” to include “the inherent worth and dignity of each COMMUNITY”. 

Communities already exist within our congregation. Communities are the places where people find connections and are the bridges to the wider community. A healthy congregation is one where communities have the opportunity to grow themselves. 

On Dec 5th, after coffee hour, there will be an opportunity for an open dialogue on what it means to build a community of communities which is key to achieve our goal of Beloved Community.  If you missed the workshop in October, there will be opportunities over the next few weeks to view highlights from the workshop on zoom.

2021-11-14 – Of Caste, Hierarchy, and Society

Many members of our congregation have read Caste, Isabel Wilkderson’s insightful examination of the American caste system. It defines the hierarchy of American social, political, and economic structures. Hierarchies, with unequal access to power, are deeply ingrained in our culture, and our congregation does mirror the broader society. 

As part of our work to build a Beloved Community, we’ve been challenged to examine the hierarchical nature of our congregational structure. In some areas we are weakly hierarchical at most, in others, there is a strong, ingrained power structure. When we look at other aspects of our 8th Principle work, such as becoming a community of communities and moving from majority rule to consensus building, we can see clear goals with a well-defined path to realizing them. But when we look at our governance and administration, the hierarchy serves very practical purposes and we’re going to need to find inventive and innovative means of serving those purposes in an equitable and inclusive manner. Some  congregations have already begun and we can follow the path they’ve blazed as we decide upon a more collaborative, participatory form of governance.

Looking back to last week’s sermon, we’re all going to need to minister each other. It won’t take a miracle, so the Mets analogy might not work out, and it won’t take a super powerhouse with deep pockets, so the Yankees aren’t needed; we all simply need to step up to the plate. In fact, baseball season is over, so we’ll switch to football: We know we can’t punt and we don’t want to fumble, but there’s no need for a hail mary (especially here). We do need a new playbook and then we can carry the ball across the goal line.

2021-11-07 – Equitable Decision Making

Just like last year’s presidential election, there was a distinct pattern in the returns in the NJ gubernatorial election. Densely populated, often poor, urban areas where people of color are most likely to reside, were the last votes to be counted. Urban voting, especially in person, is a nightmare. In suburban areas, where voters often have jobs that give them flexibility in voting, there are rarely waits that can be measured in more than a few minutes. But in urban areas, where taking the time to vote often costs hourly workers lost wages, the waits can be measured in hours. In wealthy suburban counties, the voting machines always work. In poorer urban counties, the voting machines sometimes fail, requiring provisional ballots and lengthening the waits. Finally, the logistics of these densely populated areas with high vote counts results in long processing times. Voter suppression takes many forms. Whether it is more difficult to cast a ballot, or if that vote is counted last and its validity is  called into question, the result is that some voters have more inherent power and others justifiably feel disenfranchised.

We need to take this lesson to heart when we examine how our congregation makes decisions. This is not to say that we deliberately exclude anyone or minimize their voices, but it is impact rather than intent that we must focus on. We will need to look at both the individual communities and the overall community of communities. Do we have mechanisms in place to ensure that all voices are equally heard? Are there obstacles, whether intentional or or otherwise, to participation in decision making? How do we move from majority rule to consensus building. As we examine these questions, perhaps it’s best to start with the assumption that there is inequity in decision making and that there are obstacles that may be invisible to everyone involved. If it proves otherwise, great, but until then, we must proceed as if there is work to be done.

2021-10-31 – A Community of Communities

Last weekend we had our “Building a Culture of Inclusion” workshop, led by Paula Cole Jones. This enriching, day-long activity was the kick-off point for our efforts to dismantle institutional racism at First U. Certainly, we’ve been taking steps along that path for the past year, but this workshop provided us with a frame of reference and tools for the evaluation of what needs to be done.

We were presented with the concept of a congregation as a Community of Communities. This is an inclusive model in which each of the smaller communities is a fully engaged and entitled member of the larger community – the big tent we say we want to be. The Beloved Community that is our goal state is a community of communities that is living out the 8th Principle. Examples of some of our communities are the Women’s Alliance, the Worship Team, small group ministry, food pantry volunteers, children, our members with the longest history, the other groups with which we share our rented space, people living in Fanwood, etc. People can be members of multiple communities. Each of these communities has equal standing; none is inherently more powerful than another.

We at First U have always seen ourselves as a family, even when we were a much bigger congregation. We have viewed that as one of our main strengths, and indeed it is the source of many positive aspects of our work, including the long-standing efforts to address individual racism. Families, no matter how large, are, by their nature, exclusive structures. There is a clearly defined “in” and “out”. No matter how big we see the family, no matter how broad the definition of “in”, there is still an “out” and an intentional effort must be made to bring those on the outside in.

We now begin the work to transition to a community of communities. Starting with identifying what all of these communities are and engaging them in self-evaluation and goal setting.

Paula Cole Jones has asked to remain engaged with us and will return later in the year to speak with us about our progress.

2021-09-19 – Intersectionality: Environmental Justice and Racial Justice

Environmental justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. Environmental degradation primarily impacts poor communities which are disproportionately BIPOC. The lack of political power in these communities has made them especially vulnerable to both corporate and governmental actions that harm the environment.

Whether the impact of climate change on indigenous communities that we discussed last week, the complete failure to protect the primarily black citizens of Detroit from lead poisoning, the imbalanced loss of life in hurricane Katrina, or fact that as a result of red-lining, “Black people are 40% more likely to live in areas with the largest projected increase in heat-related deaths…” due to climate change, we can see that the stories of environmental harm affecting humans involve more BIPOC than White victims. This is too widespread to be assumed to be coincidental or unintentional. 

When we speak of racial justice and environmental justice, we must see them as inextricably linked. Those most affected by climate change and pollution must have a louder voice at the table. Their vote is their voice. Voter suppression is racially based. It prevents BIPOC communities from being fully engaged in the fight for environmental justice. Moreover, the historic focus of the environmental movement on abstract threats that appeal to wealthy donors both failed to address immediate needs of BIPOC communities and alienated a demographic that should have been obvious allies. Our service next week will feature Paula Cole Jones and will focus on this important topic.

2021-09-12 – Climate, Water, and Racism

Climate change is an existential threat to us all, but the most immediate impact is disproportionately being felt by BIPOC communities. Traditional ways of living are threatened by rising sea levels, falling water tables, and shrinking sea ice. 

On opposite sides of this continent coastal communities are threatened. The Mi’kmaq people are losing their land on Lennox Island off the coast of Canada. As the sea level rises, their island is disappearing and what is left is more exposed to storms. Similarly, the Inupiaq people in Alaska are watching their houses fall into the sea as the level rises and the lack of ice increases the impact of storms.

Whether we look at reservations that were originally situated on marginal lands, or nations in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska that rely on traditional subsistence practices, livelihoods and lives are already being affected by climate change. Water is becoming scarce in many areas, affecting the viability of farm lands. Sea ice is retreating, making seal hunting more difficult for both humans and polar bears.

Indigenous peoples, especially in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have been saddled with treaties that they must adhere to, but the colonialist governments frequently ignore. These treaties, even if honored, restrict nations to agriculturally marginal lands, control their ability to leverage natural resources for subsistence, and limit their ability to access and control water rights. While they are the most directly and immediately affected by climate change, they have little political power to address either the causes or the impacts.

When we speak of racial justice and environmental justice, we must see them as inextricably linked. Addressing climate change equitably requires addressing the systemic racism that treats members of indigenous communities as second class citizens with no voice and few rights.

2021-09-05 – Kramer Manor Project

One part of our 8th principle is learning the history of our community. Kramer Manor in Scotch Plains was established as a Black neighborhood. It grew and thrived despite obstacles, including the refusal of federal funding for mortgages, the deprivations of the Great Depression, a World War, and systemic racism to become the multicultural community we know today. The history of the Kramer Manor neighborhood community is not widely known. Founded in 1924, this community is approaching its 100th anniversary. The Kramer Manor Project is conducting oral interviews of long-time Scotch Plain and Fanwood residents to collect these historical stories.

As we are part of the Fanwood/Scotch Plains community we should be aware of its history. Our country was colonized through conquest of  Native Americans and enslavement of African Americans.   As white supremacy developed in our country, people were included or excluded from history based on the color of their skin. Communities like Kramer Manor are everywhere yet have gone unnoticed by many. Their histories need to be revealed and celebrated by the entire community.

2021-08-29 – White Centering


We all know that person who makes every discussion about themself. It could be as blatant as a man inserting his sprained ankle into a discussion by a group of women about difficult labor, or it could be as subtle as bringing up a financial loss from a real estate crash when the subject is the multi-generational impact of red-lining.

When the topic is about the impacts of racism and the response is to make the story about white people it is called “white centering”. Perhaps the most blatant example is when someone responds to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter”. The effect is to silence the victims; to minimize their pain; to cause new, fresh injury. 

Saying “all lives matter” is often an intentional effort to draw attention away from the impacts of racism, but white centering can also happen as a result of good intentions. White allies must be careful about attempting to show empathy through sharing what they perceive to be similar experiences. 

Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges we face in living up to our 8th Principle is how to not white-center our discussions, including the discussion about white centering. First U is a diverse community, not as diverse as we’d like, but diverse nonetheless. Every 8th principle minute, every racial justice discussion, every sermon, every activity must be undertaken with that knowledge. We must go to great pains to avoid linguistic assumptions about our composition.

2021-08-22 – Racism, Scapegoating and COVID-19

Scapegoating and pandemics go together. Jews were blamed for the Black Death. It should come as no surprise that the Lieutenant Governor of Texas blamed Blacks for COVID-19’s spread. Let me repeat that; on Thursday, August 19th, 2021, Dan Patrick, Lieutenant Governor of Texas, intentionally lied when he said that unvaccinated African Americans were the largest contributors to the growing spread of COVID-19. 

This is institutional racism. It is the official demonization of a segment of the population to deflect criticism of Whites who don’t get vaccinated. There are more unvaccinated White people in Texas than both vaccinated and unvaccinated Black people, so the statement is a bald-faced lie. But set aside the fact that it’s a lie; it’s almost irrelevant. This is an invitation to lynch people. Do we, as a country, really need this? Apparently, the current power structure sees the need to put lives in danger to retain their power. This action puts black lives at risk of violence and puts all lives at risk from the pandemic because it deflects attention from the real cause of the rise in cases; unvaccinated, unmasked people.

Dan Patrick must resign, but we can expect that he will receive support from his party and his political base and that his statements will actually strengthen his political position.