Reopening Old Wounds Among Unitarian Universalists

Over two years ago, a massive controversy over racially biased hiring practices in the Unitarian Universalist Association caused its leadership to experience a turnover to try to solve the problem of white supremacy among them.

With the election of a new President of the UUA at the 2017 General Assembly (GA), it seemed like we could start to move forward to heal the racial divisions. But then came the GA of June 2019, which was held at Spokane, Washington. Imagine the shock among the attendees when the minister of the UU church at that city, Rev. Dr. Todd F. Eklof,  backstabbed the rest of them with a book he had written and was trying to distribute at the GA without prior notice. This book, titled The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister, attacked all the efforts to solve the racial problems, angering many non-white UUs. When the UUA leadership tried to talk to Eklof about what he was doing, he refused to meet with them, putting them in the awkward position of expelling him from the GA itself! After that happened, UUs in both Facebook and Reddit had an uproar about it.

Meanwhile, a large group of white UU ministers made their own statement to address the controversy.

Reprint: An Open Letter from White UU Ministers

The following open letter was published and signed by nearly 500 white Unitarian Universalist ministers after the Rev. Todd Eklof, minister of the Spokane UU Church, distributed a self-published treatise that included vitriolic rhetoric about several marginalized groups within Unitarian Universalism. Several hundred copies of the treatise were distributed by Rev. Eklof and members of the Spokane congregation during General Assembly in Spokane.

As attendees began to understand what was happening, many groups convened to talk about how to respond. Many people sought in-person conversations with Rev. Eklof and/or members of the congregation; others to offer healing to their constituencies experiencing grief, anger, and trauma. Several groups also chose to craft public responses affirming that the contents of the publication do not reflect the beliefs or the aspirations of the vast majority of Unitarian Universalists. We encourage you to read the powerful responses from DRUUMM (Diverse & Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries, our national group for UUs of color and Indigenous UUs), the newly formed People of Color & Indigenous chapter of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers’ Association, and ARE (Allies for Racial Equity). Rev. Ashley Horan, MUUSJA Executive Director, has agreed to host the letter from white UU ministers on this blog. 

June 22, 2019

With sadness and anger, we, the undersigned, join our voices with the chorus of Unitarian Universalists speaking up to name the harm caused by yesterday’s release of The Gadfly Papers: Three Inconvenient Essays by One Pesky Minister, written and self-published by our colleague the Rev. Todd F. Eklof and distributed at the 2019 General Assembly in Spokane, Washington.  As white ministers, we write today to make clear that this treatise does not represent us or our values, nor does it represent our vision for the ministry or for Unitarian Universalism.  We deeply regret the harm this publication has already caused, and we know that this is another (intentionally provocative) incident that comes on the heels of months, years, generations of harm toward our colleagues of color. (We also acknowledge the harm in the treatise directed toward LGBTQ+ people, religious educators, people with disabilities, and others–many of whom are also people of color at the intersections of multiple identities.)

Rev. Eklof names the “sadness, fear, and anger I sometimes feel about what’s going on in my religion” (p. 126) as one of his primary motivations for writing.  We, too, have sadness, fear, and anger: sadness at the pervasiveness of harm being done to our members, religious professionals, and colleagues of color; our fear that the explosive resistance to facing white supremacy culture within our faith will cause even more harm; and our anger that the brilliance, compassion, power, and moral imagination of our people have yet again been channeled into responding to harm, rather than nurturing a truly liberatory Unitarian Universalism.  

What, we wonder, would be possible if the creative energy of our leaders were freed up from reacting to instances of resistance and harm, and instead were channeled into imagining, building, and experimenting with practices that embodied the kind of liberation and wholeness that is the core yearning of our faith?

We recognize that a zealous commitment to “logic” and “reason” over all other forms of knowing is one of the foundational stones of White Supremacy Culture.  Instead of accepting the frame of Rev. Eklof’s arguments and debunking them, we instead affirm the following:

  • White Supremacy Culture (WSC)  is alive and well within Unitarian Universalism.  The impacts of WSC are pervasive and harmful, and while all of us are spiritually harmed within such a dehumanizing system, the primary impacts fall upon people of color and Indigenous people (POCI).  This treatise, itself, is a manifestation of WSC, and is causing harm to our siblings of color, as well as to the integrity of our ministry.
  • We believe our siblings of color as the experts in their own life experiences.  They have done the emotional labor of testifying, again and again, to the consistent marginalization, aggression, and traumatization that they experience in UUism, and are pleading with us to face and dismantle the systems and structures that enable such harm to continue.  We are grateful for this painful truth-telling, which comes at great personal and professional risk, and affirm that we witness and believe their experiences, and commit to addressing harm. All politics are identity politics, and when the default is white supremacist patriarchy, we must trust the experience of those who are targeted.
  • When unjust power structures–and those who benefit from them–are exposed and critiqued, backlash is predictable.  We often conflate critiques of our behavior with condemnations of our personhood.  Here, however, we affirm that Unitarian Universalist ministers must act in solidarity with those harmed by the power structures, while also unequivocally declaring that although all people have inherent worth and dignity, all behaviors and ideas do not.  Ideas and language can indeed be forms of violence, and can cause real harm.  It is disingenuous at best, and malicious at worst, to argue that those who have been targeted by systemic violence have an obligation to bear witness to “ideas and words” that demean and diminish their personhood and discount their lived experience.  The predictable “freedom of speech” arguments are commonly weaponized to perpetuate oppression and inflict further harm.
  • Neither the perspectives espoused in this publication, nor the harmful process by which it was distributed, represent our understanding of competent, compassionate, courageous UU ministry. As we continue the painful but necessary process of confronting WSC in Unitarian Universalism, white ministers are being asked to take a hard look at ourselves — individually, congregationally, denominationally — and to practice new and more liberatory ways of embodying our faith.  A deep commitment to racial justice and dismantling white supremacy is a core competency of our calling as ministers, and those who cannot or will not commit to developing the musculature of resiliency, humility, and lifelong learning required may indeed find that UUism is no longer the appropriate home for their ministries.  We plead with our white colleagues who are struggling to acknowledge the realities of WSC in our faith to remain at the table and lean into this work with us, with an open heart to transformation and repair.

We yearn for the day when Unitarian Universalism fully embodies the liberated and liberating promises of our theology, and we are committed to listening to the deep wisdom of those who have been pushed to the margins as they call us toward such a faithful future.  And as we work toward that day, we, the undersigned white ministers, recognize that it is our responsibility to not only speak out against this particular harm and support processes of reparation and healing in its wake, but to actively recommit to the holy work of racial justice and dismantling all forms of oppression as a central spiritual discipline and praxis of our ministries.  

In faith and solidarity,

There followed a long list of signers of that statement, including three names in particular that I know personally:

Rev. Alex Holt, Accredited Interim Minister, Westside UU Congregation,  West Seattle, WA (He was earlier the Interim Minister of Westside UU Church of Fort Worth.)

Rev. Jennifer Innis, Interim Co-Minister, UU Society of Geneva, IL  (She used to be minister at First Jefferson UU Church in Fort Worth.)

Rev. Shari Woodbury, Minister, Westside UU Church, Fort Worth, TX   (Rev. Alex Holt’s successor.)

And my recommendations for the situation would be as follows:

  1. NEVER hold another GA at Spokane again.
  2. NEVER allow Rev. Todd Eklof to attend another GA.

This may seem extreme and unfair, but….

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane was established in 1887 and has been a beacon of progressive thought and social justice ever since. Our mission is to join together to create a nourishing liberal religious home and to champion justice, diversity, and environmental stewardship in the wider world.

If that statement has any meaning, then those who resist the efforts to eliminate white supremacy among UUs, including the very minister of that church, should be dealt with as violating the very essence of “progressive thought and social justice”.

Looking into Todd Eklof’s background, I found a clue to why he opposes the efforts at combating white supremacy.

A native of San Francisco, CA, Rev. Eklof grew up in an “unchurched” family, but became a Born-Again Christian in his early teens and eventually began attending a Southern Baptist church. He went on to study ministry at a Southern Baptist university in Texas, was ordained a Southern Baptist Minister, and attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.

The Southern Baptist Convention began in 1845 to oppose the efforts of northern Baptists to promote the abolition of slavery and exclude slaveowners from Baptist churches. Like Eklof, I am a former Southern Baptist.   Unlike him, I made a concentrated effort after leaving that racist denomination to purge my racial biases from my system. Obviously, he didn’t. And that is why I want him to go. Of course, the UU church in Spokane is independent and thus is free to conduct business as it sees fit. I just know if they do not fire their minister, I would leave that church. Even if there is not another UU church in Spokane, I can still worship online via the Church of the Larger Fellowship. Its senior minister is Rev. Meg Riley, and she signed the statement condemning Eklof.

6 thoughts on “Reopening Old Wounds Among Unitarian Universalists

  1. A related issue:

    Mel Pine has come down firmly on the side of Rev. Dr. Todd Eklof.

    Which led me to confront him directly on Facebook. There I said:

    {{{It is unfortunate that people like Mel Pine and Rev. Todd Eklof are too attached to the past to evolve with the rest of the UUs that are trying to make a real difference for the future.

    Just because you say you are not racist doesn’t mean you are pure hearted. There is NO excuse for tolerating, let alone defending, the past status quo if it leaves certain people at a disadvantage compared to whites, to men, to Christians, to English speakers, to natural born Americans, to straight and cisgender people or to the massively wealthy. I expect such ignorance among Republicans and whites in general; I was actually shocked to find it among my fellow UUs in the spring of 2017. And I really have had enough of it.}}}

    Later, I said:
    {{{The reality is….you were not silenced. You LEFT the UUA, by your own admission. You can still post things here and on your blogs. You can do whatever the hell you like. You have NO CLUE how it really feels to be arrested, jailed, fined, tortured, exiled by a government for your opinions. You are NOT anyone’s victim. No one here is. You failed to adapt to changing cultural and moral patterns in the UUA and when others objected to you, your response was to double down on the arrogance instead of listening. As a white person….and even a former Southern Baptist, I have learned to listen to the truth…..and to change. Will you someday?}}}

  2. Rev. Cynthia Cain weighs in here:

    There, she says:

    {{{* UUs everywhere, but particularly clergy and particularly on social media, are afraid to speak their truth. Their fear is due to their perception that not only will they be shamed, shouted down, and piled upon metaphorically, but that they may actually lose their standing with our association and consequently their livelihoods. This I know for certain.}}}

    Dale Husband: No one should be afraid of expressing an honest opinion. Unless and until you are subjected to or even threatened with physical violence for speaking out, fear should not be an issue.

    {{{* When our UUA President Peter Morales was forced/encouraged to resign two years ago, along with at least four other ministers in leadership positions, a narrative was begun that because a woman who identifies as a POC (Person of Color) was not selected for a position, and for many other reasons, including that People of Color felt unwelcome and marginalized in our churches and fellowships and that it was time for White UUs (but especially white, cis-gendered and male UUs) to be quiet and listen. I know this happened, although some may quibble over my phrase forced to resign, I heard and saw enough to believe this. I also believe that UUs who are persons of color do feel both marginalized and tokenized in our culture. I’ve seen it first hand in my 25 years of ministry.}}}

    Dale Husband: If Rev. Peter Morales says he resigned on his own, why question that? He certainly wasn’t removed by force, and no one else was. Rather, powerful arguments were made that he and others had violated UU principles and they were convinced by those arguments. They could have just ignored their critics.

    {{{These new ways of understanding ourselves as part of white supremacy culture and of re-aligning our assets and resources to help ameliorate that, have led to push back and resistance on the part of (some) clergy, and many people in congregations. That is as it should be! We are, after all, UUs, and we question everything. We are also human, and with that comes resistance to change, fear of the unknown, and typical human foibles, like needing time to learn, and being dense, and trying to “look” adequate. Of course we are. I have said to congregations I’ve served that they should expect struggle and dissent, and that the Church is less a place to get your ego assuaged and your pre-existing beliefs affirmed than a laboratory for learning to be more human. I’ve had to re-adjust my thinking and my attitude numerous times. There is no shame in being wrong.}}}

    Dale Husband: All that is true. But there is great shame in refusing to admit you were wrong when the principles of truth and justice show you are wrong.

    {{{I saw a reference to someone I had known years ago, in my early ministry. He (Mel Pine, a UU from VA who has now left the denomination) wrote a column after the resignation of Peter Morales, UUA President, and questioned the means by which it occurred. I then saw a 17-minute video made by a leader of BLUU, calling this (now seventy-something) man a “fuck-shit” and his whole column “shit”, and then equating him with acts of racism that had occurred in his county, as if he were guilty of them just be being there. Video links here (since yesterday, when I saw the full 17-minute video, and had to listen on earphones because it was full of the F-word and other language, and my 14 year old was nearby..I’ve been blocked, and can not see it.) She also physically threatened him in a Facebook post. I know how he felt, because the same person wrote very nasty comments on my homepage (I’ve since de-friended her). More on this here.}}}

    Dale Husband: I am not defending the specific attacks of Mel Pine’s critic, and agree that the harsh language could have been avoided by that critic. But tone policing is itself a common silencing technique used against marginalized people expressing their frustrations at their privileged peers.

    {{{Maybe Todd made a gross miscalculation by using GA, a GA in which the new direction for our faith was being held up, a GA held on the 50th anniversary of the Black Empowerment Controversy , to publicize his treatise. Maybe he was wrong to employ terms like PC Culture, Call-out Culture, Virtue signaling and safetyism, terms that are often used to disavow and defuse legitimate movements and arguments. If he is wrong, can he be forgiven?}}}

    Dale Husband: Of course, he can be forgiven……if he first apologizes.

    {{{The current narrative is that Todd was asked to meet with Right Relations team members to discuss his book, and would not. He says he refused to do so, upon advice, without a Good Officer, and was asked to leave GA. Since the Assembly was held in Spokane, where he is the UU minister, this was swift and harsh punishment. But I’ve also heard that other ministers, some of whom signed a clergy letter (link above) responding to the proposed guidelines changes for our Ministerial Association, were asked not to lead workshops at GA or Ministry Days because of their association with the letter. Whence comes this ethic of punishment and scolding?}}}

    Dale Husband: Note the specific words “was asked to meet with Right Relations team members”, “was asked to leave GA”, and “were asked not to lead workshops at GA or Ministry Days”. It doesn’t sound like anyone was threatened with violence. Why talk of “punishment”?

    I will not buy Rev. Todd Eklof’s book, though I will certainly read it if a free edition appears online You’d think he would have posted one by now if he was willing to distribute free copies at the 2019 GA. Hmmm….

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