Healing and Reconciliation in Unitarian Universalism: An Ethnographic Approach

This is another offshoot of the “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?” series, but I’ve decided to put the main series on hiatus for a while, if nothing else because the title is a mouthful.

So, how do we learn to address white fragility, white supremacy, and otherwise offensive and disruptive behavior within congregations? The congregational structure of Unitarian Universalism tends to wall off larger discussions- something upsetting happens in a congregation, it doesn’t travel far. It may end up elsewhere in the form of rumors, but those are not constructive. If a church has to deal with problematic behavior within its own community, an honest, instructive account of what happened is unlikely to appear. This limits the ability of communities to learn from one another, to develop best practices, and to effectively counter instances of white fragility and racially insensitive behavior.

There are many problems with simply publicizing events and providing a timeline of a disciplinary process, or the interactions between disruptive people and marginalized groups. It singles people out. It can re-traumatize and open up not-yet-healed wounds. It stands against principles of privacy and that things said in the confidence of a congregation is kept confidential.

So, is there a way through? I have something to propose.

The Ethnographic Approach

Ethnography is a research method used in multiple academic areas, primarily anthropology and sociology, alongside disciplines that emerged during the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s, like ethnic studies.

Here’s a definition of ethnography that’s pretty good:

Ethnography, emerging from anthropology, and adopted by sociologists, is a qualitative methodology that lends itself to the study of the beliefs, social interactions, and behaviours of small societies, involving participation and observation over a period of time, and the interpretation of the data collected. (source)

Besides a general definition, ethnography as it is performed in developed nations has some best practices:

  • Information about places, persons, and unique features are anonymized to avoid negative impact and conduct research in an ethical way.
  • Notes, observations, and interviews are kept stored in standardized ways that limit access and make sure that anonymity is preserved.

An example of a highly-regarded modern ethnographic study is Evicted by Matthew Desmond, a MacArthur grant fellow, about how poor Milwaukee individuals and their families struggled to make rent, dealt with eviction and its consequences, and remained trapped in a cycle of poverty.

While there was great insight, and vivid observations within Evicted, names and places were changed to avoid retaliation from the people followed, in order to have them speak freely.

So, could ethnography be a way for congregations to learn from one another on how to deal with disruptive behavior, and become authentically anti-racist? Good ethnography is a skill to be learned, but it does hold the promise of helping describe how congregations addressed problems- whether formal or informal conflict-resolution measures were used, whether the problem was addressed at lower stages or had to be escalated, and the lasting impact upon the congregation.

Here’s an example of how a Unitarian Universalist ethnography could start:

During a recent winter, Green Hills UU Fellowship, a congregation in the suburbs of mid-sized Midwestern city, had a middle-aged couple (Jane and Joseph) who would use language found to be offensive during the “joys and sorrows” portion of Sunday service. They described conflicts they had with their neighbors, who were families of color, and invoked harmful stereotypes, while raising their voices in a way some felt alarming.

After an informal group of congregants attempted to resolve the issue with Jane and Joseph directly, it was decided that a meeting be held to discuss the Fellowship’s Covenant, and how Jane and Joseph’s actions did not constitute right relations . . .

Would this be helpful to other congregations? I’m not sure, I’ve only recently started going to my current congregation, and have lived in four different areas in five years. But by taking an ethnographic approach, stories of disruptive behavior could be shared with:

  • Congregations who do not have a covenant of right relations and/or a Disruptive Behavior Policy (DBP), but would like some guidance on the characteristics of effective policies.
  • Congregations who have found their current policies lacking in some manner, and hope to draft new ones that are more effective.
  • Congregations currently experiencing a disruptive behavior situation, and wonder how other congregations have addressed it.

Ethnographic accounts could be drafted by lay leaders, perhaps trained at General Assembly or through virtual chat by those with experience. They could be housed at the UUA in a central location where they could be accessed by congregational request.

Would that help? I’m not sure. But I don’t want each congregation to start from scratch in their attempts to be authentically anti-racist and to counter white fragility, congregants using alt-right language, or other actions that target marginalized peoples.

Author: Andrew Mackay

Poet, writer, anti-authoritarian, Unitarian Universalist.

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