Risk Being Wrong: It's Worth It

The latest worship series, “Relational Activism,” hits home for me, and invites me into reflection on how I can be a more committed, reflective, attentive, and loving bender of “the moral arc of the universe” turning toward justice. 


In my teens, I was a pillar of the music program of my nearly all-white Roman Catholic parish in my nearly all-white town. In my twenties, I was the big, white, dyke on campus, leading for queer liberation in a way that ignored the differences, for example, among queer people of various races

Then I became part of nearly all-white UU congregations and Pagan organizations. For twelve years, I created ceremony for hundreds of children and adults—nearly all white—beneath the stars in an oak grove of dozens of trees, surrounded by a ring of Standing Stones. 
Eventually, inspired in part by moving to Washington, DC and attending All Souls Unitarian, a church committed to a multiracial/multicultural identity, some scales began to fall from my eyes. 


Slowly I began to realize that the “good, white liberal” identity wasn’t enough for liberation. But it was enough for a good long while for my own ego. While I read Audre Lorde and Zora Neale Hurston and Frederick Douglass and proudly spoke of my father’s Civil Rights activism and his marching with Julian Bond, a true, abiding, central yearning for Beloved Community that included everyone…that was not in me. The idea of the Kin(g)dom of Heaven, the Heavenly Banquet, was beyond me. 


How could I truly build a world I thought I dreamt about, if I didn’t even know the people I thought I was dreaming of including?


I remember one moment, a moment I am loath to confess. It involves words I said, and words I’ve heard other white UU’s say. Maybe even you have said them or thought them. I was sitting in my UU History and Polity class at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. We were talking about multicultural awareness and anti-racist work and the UU Black/White Empowerment Tragedy of the late sixties and early seventies. I said, “Sometimes this work just gets exhausting. People need a break.”


And my Black UU classmate, Zora Emerson Hamsa, leaned across the table, didn’t miss a beat, and said, “You think white people need a break?! You think people of color aren’t exhausted every day?! You think I’m not exhausted every day in this white religious context I am clinging to, despite everything?!” In the words she gave me, in the anger she shared, I realized I had made a mistake and disappointed and angered my classmate. I had spoken up with good intent that had unexpected and painful impact. I realized there was a whole world I was missing in my good, white liberal self-image. 


That world I was missing was relationship.-true, deep, risk-taking relationship.


I was ashamed of myself in that moment with Zora. But I knew enough to know that guilt and shame by themselves will not move us forward toward Beloved Community. So I made a commitment that day. I committed to listening, watching, trying to pay more attention in relationships, and especially in relationships with people of color. I made a commitment to things that look-on the surface-like much smaller things than the rallies and interviews and street theater of my twenties.How much smaller does it seem to seek out ways to listen? And yet, how much deeper the changes it makes.


I’ve made a commitment to coffee dates and phone calls. I’ve made a commitment to the people I invite to my house, the people I encounter in my church, the people—the people of color—who could be in my life if only I’d take some risks. I must take the risk of being wrong and having to apologize, to say, “I’m sorry, and I’ll try to do better next time.” I must take the risk of saying when I think I understand and when I don’t. I must take the risk of trying things out, asking questions, and knowing I may not understand the answer at first. 


So sometimes I slip, fall, and in so doing, get invited to learn. Sometimes I don’t understand the intent of my words are different from their impact. Sometimes, I have had to hear anger that scared me and threatened my sense of myself, my “good, liberal self.”
In this cultural moment, I find it is my whiteness and the ways I benefit from a white supremacist society that “convicts my soul.” I am more aware of the ways I am perceived as “normal,” not criminal; “normal,” not hypersexual; “normal,” not violent; “normal,” not unusual; “normal,” not ethnic. 


How many ways does whiteness keep me safe? And for whom?


Nowadays, I try to remember that reaching out to neighbors of color is part of bringing home the Beloved Community, or what the fantastic religious educator, Mark Hicks, calls “a community of beloveds.” I try to remember to support trans* people, when our trans* family of color are killed and erased is essential. I try to remember to reach out to those providing pastoral care when people of color are brutalized by police, and when the news shows us every day that is unsafe to be a person of color in the United States. 


What commitment might you consider? What do you do now to reach across difference, to make more room, to be more inviting, to take the risk of relationship? Who sits at your table? Who are your doctors, lawyers, ministers, and even heroes, and how do they—the people you trust with important parts of your life—how do they lead? How might you?

Rev. Catharine Clarenbach is UUCA’s virtually connected, affiliated community minister, She is the creator of The Way of the River, the portal for her online ministry. She is a resident of Portland, OR and preaches throughout the Pacific Northwest. She is committed to the power of loving relationships to make change, intersectional justice, interfaith connection and understanding, and lots and lots of singing and dancing in the revolution! Find out more about Catharine here.


Nicole PressleyComment