We Shall Be Known by the Company We Keep

The authors of Mistakes and Miracles, Congregations on the Road to Multiculturalism, Karin Lin and the Rev Nancy Palmer Jones, participated in this service. Karin shared a recorded reflection and Rev Nancy led the service and preached the homily. The text of both is below.


Reflection – Karin Lin

Hello and good morning! I’m Karin Lin, a member of First Parish in Cambridge, MA, and co-author with the Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones of Mistakes and Miracles: Congregations on the Road to Multiculturalism. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be with you today and share a few of my experiences on this journey.

One of the most important themes in Mistakes and Miracles – if not THE most important theme – is the centrality of relationships. While this might seem obvious in a covenantal faith such as Unitarian Universalism, it’s easy to become so goal-oriented, so focused on outcome, that we forget we need to move together. Building accountable, trusting relationships is the work of building multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community.

Nancy and I were already friends when we began working on this book over six years ago. Yet we’re different in a number of ways, not the least of which is that Nancy’s a white minister and I’m a layperson of color. These identities would influence every moment we experienced together: our reactions and our relationships to each other as well as to Unitarian Universalism.

During our visit to the Phoenix congregation, we had an early encounter in which a white man came up to me and started talking about China – I don’t identify as Chinese. Internally I sighed and rolled my eyes, thinking, “Here we go again” – but this is the type of microaggression to which I’m accustomed; in fact, it barely even registered. Nancy, however, was horrified, checking in with me and letting me know how unacceptable she found it. I was touched by her level of indignation; it reminded me that there are, in fact, white people in this faith who don’t believe such interactions ought to be so commonplace. It was a moment that strengthened our trust and our relationship.

Another incident in which we had different reactions occurred when we visited the Annapolis congregation for the second time, after a major conflict had occurred. We’d just finished interviewing one of our conversation partners, hearing the pain he’d experienced as a person of color, witnessing the many ways in which white supremacy still permeates our faith. Later I sat in our rental car and I just started to cry, thinking about how hard it still is for people of color in Unitarian Universalism, and wondering again whether I could stay.

Although I was too distraught to realize it at the time, this was a scary moment for Nancy, who’s devoted her entire life to this faith, to have to face so starkly all of the ways in which our reality still falls short of its aspirations. And yet she didn’t put any of that on me, didn’t get defensive or try to talk me out of my distress. She just sat there with me, letting me have my experience, staying with me in my pain. And that, too, increased the trust between us.

But it wasn’t just because of these moments of reckoning that our relationship deepened and grew so much. It was also because we chose to share so much with each other, both the mundane and the profound, the joys and the sorrows. There were times during our weekly phone calls when we didn’t even talk about the book at all; we just took the time and space to talk about what was on our minds, knowing that the relationship always had priority.

Nancy and I are still very different people. She’s still a white minister and I’m still a layperson of color. She’s older than I am, she’s an extrovert, an artist and a writer, whereas I’m an introverted scientist and engineer. And yet through everything we’ve shared together, we’ve developed the trust and respect that only comes with deep dedication to relationship. It’s an example of what’s possible when two people with different identities commit to each understanding and traveling with each other. In fact, it’s nothing short of a miracle. Thank you.


Homily  “How Will I Be Known?” – Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones

When I first click on Karin’s video yesterday afternoon, I feel my face stretch wide with the biggest smile—I miss my friend—and then, as I hear her words, the tears come, and I think—since I haven’t actually started writing yet—I think, well, isn’t that—her video, her words—the sermon? Am I off the hook?!

But we’re here to talk about relationship, and how relationship, relationship, relationship weaves its way through and through the work of building multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community—“where you go I will go, Beloved, where you go, I will go…”

So I settle down to share with you my side of the story too…

Here’s what was going on for me in those stories that Karin shares:

First, there’s the white man on our very first night at the Phoenix congregation who tries to connect with Karin by assuming that she is Chinese (Karin’s parents are Taiwanese; she usually identifies as Asian American, but never as Chinese). I’m almost panicky as I hear him do this; I know that such assumptions, such microaggressions, can be death by a thousand cuts (or worse) for those on the receiving end—and here it is, happening again, practically our first encounter in this community. I notice that he’s an older man, I kind of want to respect his intention, but I’m much more worried about my friend. Do I actually interrupt him in that moment, try to redirect him? “Sir, let’s not assume where people are from …” I can’t remember now, but the situation strengthens my desire to be brave, to speak up and call in my kindred when, even with the kindest of hearts, they are doing something hurtful. Karin’s reaction later—“oh yeah, I’m used to it”— shows me what it’s like to be on the receiving end of even the small assumptions: a little bit of her full personhood gets erased; she has to be so rooted in who she is that it doesn’t hurt as much anymore. There’s extra energy that goes into that—energy that I don’t have to spend in that way.

A few days later, while we are still in Phoenix, there’s another experience that makes a big impression on me. We’ve had beautiful, intense interviews over the past few days—with Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray (before she became UUA President she served as minister at the Phoenix congregation) but most of all with a rich company of members of color. By the time we get to worship on that Sunday morning, I am ready to sink into just receiving whatever Rev. Susan and the Worship Associates and the choir will give. I spot those gray hymnals on the seats, and I know I am home. As we sit down I turn to greet my neighbor, feeling easy and joyful. And when I turn back, Karin leans over and says quietly, “I meant to wear my nametag from First Parish that has my name in both English and Mandarin. But now I’m so glad I don’t have it with me. I just don’t want anything else identifying me as ‘other.’”

Her words knock me back in my seat. I feel a flash of frustration and disappointment. I don’t want to lose any of my joy, any of my comfort and ease; I don’t want to think that Karin might not feel welcome here. In those first moments, I may even have wanted to say, “But Karin, look! There’s Jeff, there’s Jimmy, there are Sam and Michele—there are all these people of color we’ve been interviewing! Here are all these welcoming white people, like the person I was just talking to. You’re not alone!”

Darlin’s, Karin and I have interviewed, oh, a little over 10 people of color in Phoenix—and they aren’t all in worship that Sunday. The simple truth is that what I notice as I enter that sanctuary—especially if I’m not looking through my multicultural, antioppressive lenses—what I notice is going to be really different from what Karin notices, in this congregation that is, like most of our congregations, predominantly white.

My feelings of frustration quickly give way to grief. I hate feeling separate from her in that moment. I hate that she feels “other” in this place I want us both to call home.

Just this week, when Karin and I talk about what we want to share with you today, and I tell this Sunday-morning-in-Phoenix story again, she says, “Yeah, that thing about my nametag has always had more of an impact on you than it had on me.” Really? I don’t remember her ever telling me that before. It was such a big deal to me that she wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing her nametag in two languages—which is a totally cool thing; it was a big deal to me that she immediately felt “other.”

But as with the microaggression from a few nights before, this feeling of not quite belonging is familiar to Karin. The more I ponder this experience, the more I work with it to wring every juicy bit of learning from it, the more I realize that it’s a big deal to me because it’s another moment of painful awakening: a moment of sitting there shoulder to shoulder with her and really getting it—that the culture we live in creates such different experiences, even between two really good friends.

Then there’s the moment in the rental car in Annapolis, when I’m driving along, exhausted and discouraged from the interview we’ve just had but all the more eager to get dinner and a glass of wine and to “move on” … until I look over and see that Karin is quietly crying right there beside me. Dear ones, in that moment, I have some of the same feelings I had in that Phoenix sanctuary—frustration, disappointment, not wanting to have to deal with all this pain.

But in the year and a half between the Phoenix visit and this second trip to Annapolis, I have, thank God, grown. So in spite of my fear—that Karin might leave Unitarian Universalism! that I’ve invited her into this project that might result in her losing her faith! and, oh by the way, that we might not ever actually finish the darned book!—in spite of my fear, I know now that there’s got to space for all this sorrow, for all this uncertainty among our amazing Unitarian Universalists of color about whether they can even stay in this faith, and that I need to make space for that sorrow and uncertainty in my heart and my mind, in my life. My calling—as a minister and as a friend—is to be with her, or at least alongside her, in that pain. To hear it, to name it for what it is, to let it live among us, without rushing forward.

And here’s the interesting thing I’ve learned: when I am able to really sit with that pain—when I am able to see how this faith has been built over the centuries for someone like me rather than someone like Karin; when I begin to understand how our ways of being as Unitarian Universalists from the dominant culture have kept and are keeping others out—then I actually feel more energized and alive. I want to work even harder to help our faith to change. I want to work even harder on my changing. I want our faith to live up to its aspirations: to really be a place where all are beloved (that’s our Universalism) and a place where we all know that we are capable of being agents of change for the good, and we work alongside each other to do it (that’s our Unitarianism).

You see, I believe in us—I believe in all of us. I love us Unitarian Universalists, and like any true love, I want us all—people of color and white people, temporarily able-bodied and disabled, trans and cis gender, LGBTQIA+ and straight, and so many more—I want us all to be and to be seen as the broken-openhearted and beautiful people we are born to be.

Which brings me to another reason I am so grateful to be here with you today. You—all of you—are doing a wonderful thing. You are on this journey of discovery and relationship building and faith deepening and multicultural expansion and life-giving dismantling of systemic oppressions with the most amazing minister, the Rev. Dr. María Cristina Vlassidis Burgoa. She has no idea I’m going to say this, and in truth I really want to talk with you, you congregants, right now. I really want to say how lucky you are to have found each other! Now, we know that in Unitarian Universalism, our amazing ministers of color, like Rev. María Cristina, average about three years in any settled ministry, while white ministers average about seven. And that’s not because our ministers of color are half as awesome as our white ministers. It’s because we Unitarian Universalists—almost all of us, no matter what our identities—we have all this old old stuff baked into our bones from living in this racialized society, a society that makes one group more than and another group less than, and that encourages the “more than” group to never have to think about it.

So here’s the thing I hope you know: Just like in my relationship with Karin, there are going to be mistakes and conflicts in your relationship with your minister. It’s going to be messy sometimes; there are going to be actions that spring from really good intentions but that have really painful impacts. There are going to be unconscious assumptions and projections—these happen with any minister, so imagine how much more with our ministers of color!—and we’re all going to have to bring those unconscious assumptions right up to consciousness, so we can let go of them and really see each other whole. There are going to be moments when we grow tired of the work and effort it takes to remain awake—and we’re going to have to, lovingly, with compassion for ourselves as well as others, we’re going to have to remember that this work never ends.

You, Starr King Unitarian Universalist Church, you and Rev. Maria Cristina, have this unique chance to change and be changed, to create the new way of being that our world, our country, our state, our faith so desperately need. You have this unique chance to change and be changed through the power of your relationship, through your willingness to be honest and vulnerable, to be uncomfortable and imperfect, to ask for forgiveness and to ask if something hurts.

To quote Karin, real “trust and respect only come with deep dedication to relationship, [with deep commitment] to understanding and traveling with each other” for the long haul.

And beloveds, I know you have already passed that three-year mark with Rev. María Cristina—but let me tell you, from my place now in my 15th year in San José, let me tell you how deep and how good it gets and how much you can do together when those roots set really deep and the trust grows invincibly strong!

We shall be known by the company we keep
By the ones who circle round to tend these fires …
It is time now, and what a time to be alive
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love
In this Great Turning we shall learn to lead in love

How shall we be known, beloveds?
May this company we keep truly teach us how to lead in love.
That will be nothing short of a miracle—a miracle that we, living and loving together, can make happen.

I love you. Amen. Blessed be.