Explicitly Black UU Healing Spaces: Spiritual Compassion Practice at GA 2016

[A note of gratitude and a heart full of appreciation to the Rev. Carlton Elliot Smith for his generosity, insight, and  reflections in the creation of this post. -DV]

Last night I began reading Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist’s Story of Reporting and Reinvention by Amy Alexander (Beacon Press, 20011).  Describing landing her first “real job” as a reporter, Alexander writes,

“I appeared on the metro desk like a speck of pepper atop a heap of mashed potatoes. Actually, along with Gregory Lewis, who was an assistant city editor and reporter, and one other black male reporter, I was one of three pepper specks in a newsroom that contained roughly a hundred and fifty reporters, photographers, and editors.”

I was so struck by the image – and my memory flashed to the many Sundays in the many Unitarian Universalist congregations where I have preached. So often, the scene was comparable to what Alexander describes in the newsroom.

I can bear witness, but cannot speak to the Black UU experience – only Black UUs can. The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective is amplifying their voices, with a mission of expanding the role and visibility of Black UUs within Unitarian Universalism.

And this summer, at the 2016 Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio, Black UUs are invited to gather in explicitly Black UU healing spaces. To gather in a place where you are not a speck, but “a whole shaker full of powerful people.”

Explicitly Black UU healing spaces that White UUs will respect and honor with our absence from them.

White UUs can respectfully affirm and promote the compassionate spiritual practice of explicitly Black UU healing spaces at GA 2016 and beyond. The religious institutions of Unitarianism and Universalism have historically prioritized access and care to White people – and this pattern must be changed if we are to have a future living faithfully into the promise of our principles and values.

If you are a Black UU and have never been to the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly because you thought it wasn’t for you or because costs were prohibitive, I pray this year will be different for you. May you find a faithful place of healing and belonging.

[Important Side Bar: Black Lives of UU can cover registration costs for any Black UU interested in attending UUA GA 2016 and “offer a limited amount of financial support for transportation & housing costs for Black UUs.”]

If you are a non-Black UU of Color, I pray that you will know that there is a place for you at this General Assembly as well, with spaces and conversations explicitly for your healing and loving within our Unitarian Universalist faith.

If you are a White UU, I pray that you will be willing to show up with compassion and grace and an open heart to General Assembly 2016 and to the work of institutional change that is essential to the integrity of this faith.

Safe travels, friends.

Black Lives of UU GA 2016



A spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow

In case the not so subtle nuances and coded language around race and class that are pouring out of state legislatures and the presidential candidate nomination races have puzzled you, let us a take a moment to look back to the post-Civil war Reconstruction era.  The need for White supremacy and 1%-er capitalism is explicitly explained and defended as essential in 1889 by Andrew Carnegie –1889.

“The price which society pays for the law of competition, like the price it pays for cheap comforts and luxuries, is also great; but the advantages of this law are also greater still than its cost—for it is to this law that we owe our wonderful material development, which brings improved conditions in its train. But, whether the law be benign or not, we must say of it, as we say of the change in the conditions of men to which we have referred: It is here; we cannot evade it; no substitutes for it have been found; and while the law may be sometimes hard for the individual, it is best for the race, because it insures the survival of the fittest in every department. We accept and welcome, therefore, as conditions to which we must accommodate ourselves, great inequality of environment; the concentration of business, industrial and commercial, in the hands of a few; and the law of competition between these, as being not only beneficial, but essential to the future progress of the race.”

– Andrew Carnegie, The Gospel of Wealth  (1889)

Sound familiar?

We cannot afford to be ahistorical in this moment.  If you can take 7 minutes and 36 seconds to walk through how Reconstruction has operated in this country, I commend to you Rev. Dr. William Barber: The 3rd Reconstruction .

Let’s not be confused and rest in comfortable despair.

Let’s get clarity together about oppression and the reason we are called into a time of fusion coalitions.  Collective liberation is our hope for liberation – for all of us divided by the social constructs of race, gender, and class.  We are stronger together.  The 1% who hold the wealth of this nation have known it for generations and will not hesitate to divide us.  We who believe in freedom cannot rest until we are all free.

Beloveds, let’s:

Insist that Black Lives Matter

Respect the gender spectrum and offer hospitality to everyone unlimited by their pronoun

Welcome the immigrant stranger as friend and work for #not1moredeportation

Fight for $15 and living wages for everyone

Support reproductive justice (RJ) – reality based sex ed, access to health care, climate justice, prison abolition, voting rights access, and more…

The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.” (Isaiah 10:1-2)

We say joy unto those who make just laws, who lift oppressive decrees, who organize for justice and equity with the oppressed people of this world. 

There is no better time to organize on the side of love and justice and mercy and compassion, my friends.

“Unitarian Universalism is a faith in people, hope for tomorrow’s child, confidence in a continuity that spans all times. It looks not to a perfect heaven but towards a good earth.  It is respectful of the past, but not limited to it.  It is trust in growing and conspiracy with change.  It is a spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow”(Schempp, Belonging, 45).

We have a spiritual responsibility for a moral tomorrow.  May we live into this faithful call with courage and grace.


Letter to the Editor

Louisiana is the most incarcerated place in the world. Let’s truly sit with that for a moment.

And then, dear friends, let’s do something about it. We know that we do not deserve to spend our precious lives in prison – either as prisoners or as jailers.

Let’s choose to stop trying children as adults. Today is the day to #RaiseTheAge.

Let’s stop retrying adults who were incarcerated as children due to police coercion. Today is the day to end prosecution of Jerome Morgan and many others who have already been locked away for decades for crimes they did not commit.

Beloveds, we have the power to make the first sentence of this letter a lie. We do not have to be the most incarcerated people in the world. Today is the day to choose freedom for ourselves, our neighbors, and for the next generation.

Rev. Deanna Vandiver
Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists



The Grace of Learning

In life, there are many things we can learn from other people. And there are many times when we have to be “the other people” in order to learn.

In Unitarian Universalism, there is a tradition of blessing babies and young children when they become a part of the congregation by giving them a rose with all of the thorns removed. While some babies manage to stuff the bloom in their mouths before parents or ministers can react, for the most part, it is a pretty consequence-free ritual. We take off the thorns, you are loved and safe and held here as a part of this beloved community.
As children grow, they are invited into religious education and youth group and suddenly they are graduating from high school or turning 18 and it is time for them to bridge out of youth into young adulthood. We have a UU ritual for that time too, called bridging.
This ritual usually involves a rose as well – this one in all its natural thorny glory. For the world is beautiful – and it will prick your soul with pain and grief, just like the thorns on the rose. And we hope and pray, as a compassionate congregation, that the love and teaching and listening and community that we have shared with each young adult is enough for them to live through the pain and the grief and create and appreciate beauty.

Somewhere in between these two rituals – the time of no thorns and the time of all the thorns – lays a lot of love and logic. Empathy for the very real struggles that children face in this very adult-ist culture, compassion for their fears, champions for their dreams, boundary-setting for their health – all of this is faithful work of beloved community.

I remember it almost as a rite of passage in my Granny’s kitchen – truly learning the concept of hot. Up until this time, my mom always told me that the oven was hot and then moved me out of harm’s way. While we were visiting my grandparents, I wandered into the kitchen. My Granny told me the oven was hot and then she watched as I touched it anyway. Cradling me in her arms, she gently ran cold water over my little red hand. “And now you know what hot means,” she said –really kindly, not snarky or mean – just naming the learning with compassionate grace.

Obviously the moment has been seared into my memory.

A small thorn. An affordable mistake – one that taught me to listen and to ask “what does that mean?” before plowing ahead into a situation. One that taught me to be kind to others in the midst of learning. One that taught me that sometimes learning can be painful, but ultimately liberating. Until I knew what hot meant, I couldn’t understand the warning.

I try to keep this learning keenly centered when I am in the midst of co-leading an anti-racist training, listening to white people go through the classic cycle of denial, anger, bargaining, depression.  I wish, somehow, that they could just get to internalizing the learning without the painful, sometimes shame-full process.

Remembering how I had to learn the concept of hot keeps me humble and present, remembering that there was a time when I did not know about the concepts of systemic racism or internalized racial oppression. There was a time when I went through denial, anger, bargaining, depression on my way to acceptance. There are times when I still do, since I have oceans more to learn about how white supremacy and internalized racial oppression manifest within me and the world in which I live.  And I am only beginning to understand how to dismantle this dis-ease.

May we all experience and offer each other the grace of learning – kindness and compassion and empathy …and encouragement to keep on learning when the lessons get tough.


In loving memory of Lois Vandiver, my beloved Granny,
who transitioned out of this life in spring of 2007


The heartwork of coming alive

“Under all the harsh noise of the world coming in on us, this is how the things that last move: a small wave from the deep moves us on and the more we’re moved, the more we bend and bow and reach for each other. Our very life is the ground of practice by which we struggle to unlock the gate and let life in. It’s the murmur of life that fills us with another chance. Little by little, it’s the courage to assume our full stature one more time that enables us to do the heartwork that always makes us come alive. It’s the turn from hiding to giving that releases Heaven on Earth.” – Mark Nepo, The Endless Practice: Becoming Who You Were Born to Be

Last night I climbed up on the kitchen stool and stood towering over the kitchen. My partner, concerned that I was so close to the rotating blades of the ceiling fan, asked me what I was doing. “Getting a different perspective,” I said. My partner thoughtfully turned off the ceiling fan so that I could take in a new view without fear of injury.

It had be a few long days in a row, filled with dialogues about bringing an anti-racist world view to the work of justice and social change, being present to beloveds as they mourned death in their family, grieving the death of extended family members of my own, making groceries for dozens of people, and trying to shift social and emotional gears from Carnival season into the time of Lent practiced culturally in my community. I had just finished a difficult conversation with a friend who is disappointed in me. I needed to take a moment to assume my full stature and remember that “our very life is the ground of practice by which we struggle to unlock the gate and let life in.” This being a human being requires courage to do “the heartwork that always makes us come alive.”

Years ago, a member of a Regional Subcommittee on Candidacy (RSCC – once an important step in ministerial formation for Unitarian Universalists) said to me “you seem ambivalent about being seen.” It’s true. I both want to be seen for who I am …AND I have been well trained by culture and family systems to hold my own counsel away from the world. I have deeply internalized the message that it is more acceptable to show up as I “should be” rather than as I “actually am.” A clear focus for my own personal development and ministerial formation has been in the spiritual practice of showing up as who I am. Much of the guidance provided to me by spiritual directors and teachers over the past few years has boiled down to “have courage and go forth to practice being a human being in public view.”

Perhaps this is a part of my call to the covenantal faith of Unitarian Universalism – a faith that asks me to practice assuming my full stature. This faith I practice does not call me in to unattainable perfection, but into humanity, into beloved community. It calls me out of hiding my faults and calls me in to bending towards kindness – first towards myself, which inevitably leads me towards a wider kindness. The more I am willing to be open to and about my own humanity, the more I am able to be open to the humanity of others – the good, the bad, the painful, the creative, the frustrating, and the healing.

So here I am, learning to turn from hiding to giving – this very writing, a practice of giving my true self into the world.

And, surprisingly, here I am, learning again and again to be grateful for this chance to be a part of heaven on earth, however imperfectly I bend and bow and reach.


Carnival Redux, epiphanies too!

While revelation is ever unfolding, sometimes it is worth looking back through the transience for some permanent epiphanies, such as those embedded here: http://admin.patheos.com/blogs/uucollective/2014/01/epiphany-continues during an earlier Epiphany Season.
And wherever you live, whatever your faith tradition, know that in New Orleans, it is a time of collective creative celebration, culminating in Mardi Gras on Feb. 9th! Happy Carnival, my friends!
[And for views of other unfolding revelations, you can visit http://art.blacklivesmatter.com/blackfuturesmonth/ for visions of what is possible in this amazing world!]



photo by L.Vandiver, meme by D. Vandiver

I am thrilled to announce to the world that the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR) begins 2016 with Co-Directors! Ruth Idakula has courageously stepped up to co-lead this missional center, which serves as a catalyst in New Orleans and beyond for promoting social, economic, environmental, and racial justice through activism, community engagement, organizing, and transformational learning.  It is an honor and a grace to have a companion leader on this journey towards justice.

As we work to shift the power arrangement in this world, we begin by shifting the power arrangement in our organization.  Every bit of change is made possible by our courage to change the way things have always been done.  A new world is possible.  A new CELSJR is necessary.  Join us on the journey, friends: www.celsjr.org


Instructions for the New Year


Beloveds, as we prepare for the new year, I invite you to take a deep breath in and hold it for a moment and let it out.  Think back to this past year, to your lived experience and the stories you absorbed.  Remember the grief and the joy, the rage and the resistance.

Remember that some people were more outraged at having their shopping experience interrupted than they were at the death of a black child at the hands of police.  Remember that a Black woman climbed to the top of a flagpole and removed a symbol of white supremacy that had flown over the governmental seat of power in South Carolina.  Remember that a white man wealthy with money he did not earn stirred hate and violence among poor whites to fight his economic elite battle for him against immigrants and people of color.  Remember that we are all in this together and what we say and do MATTERS.

In 2016, you are invited, in the wise words of Lena Gardner of Black Lives Matter MPLS and the Church of the Larger Fellowship, “Get with love, get in the mess, or get out of our way.”  A new way of being together is necessary.  History shows us that there are no bystanders in struggle between good and evil.  And, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Let us search our hearts and get in (or stay in) the movement for love and respect for all beings.

Blessings of courage and faith and compassion to all of us in 2016.


Holy Patience: Beyond hope and fear

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”  In this season of holy patience, may we find the courage to release our fears – and even our fixated hopes – to allow ourselves to truly love one another.

May we live as if it were possible.  May we realize “that we truly are in this together, and that’s all that matters.”

Blessed be.


[For the full sermon, visit: http://revdeanna.tumblr.com/post/135254884253/holy-patience-beyond-hope-and-fear ]

And as a holiday bonus – a holy patience resource for discussions on race and justice with loved ones, courtesy of SURJ – Showing Up for Racial Justice:


Giving TUUesday

Giving Tuesday art

While many people in this country go to work and get paid, social change workers often do the work and then have to hustle to get paid for the work.

On this #GivingTuesday, the non-profit world’s answer to Black Friday and Cyber Monday, you may receive many asks for donations. Take some time to discern how you want your resources to work for change in the world – and then give what you can to the organizations or individuals doing that work – especially if you have a job or investments that pay you regularly and sustainably.

You can help make the difference of an actual, dependable paycheck for people who have devoted their lives to the struggle – people who, ironically, often end up on relatives’ sofas or in shelters as they work endless hours to bring systemic change to the world. If you have the resources to change this story, please use your power for good on this #GivingTuesday. I invite you to consider investing in organizations and individuals who are working to change the status quo, working to bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice.

If you are looking for social change organizations that are grounded in Unitarian Universalist values to invest in, here a few! Please feel free to add others in the comments section.

Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal www.celsjr.org

Third Place Foundation & Welcome Table http://turleyok.blogspot.com/

Mutual Aid Carrboro & Sacred Fire UU https://sacredfireuu.org/

Church of the Larger Fellowship http://www.questformeaning.org/black-lives-matter/

UBarU Camp & Retreat Center http://ubaru.org/home

Minnesota Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Alliancehttp://www.muusja.org/

Texas Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry http://txuujm.org/

With gratitude and hope for a more lovingly sustained beloved community, happy #GivingTuesday!