Holding vigil at First Unitarian Church
This past Sunday, I stood in front of my Unitarian church in Hobart, Indiana, and held a “Black Lives Matter” sign.
I did this during regular church services in lieu of participating in the services. My congregation has been discussing placing a Black Lives Matter sign in front of the church for about two years now. We have displayed the sign as we participated in the community’s Fourth of July parade, but we haven’t displayed the sign on the church property yet. Recently, it occurred to me that, even if the congregation does not want to put up a sign, I can be a sign: I can hold a Black Lives Matter sign on the public sidewalk in front of the church.
This was the third Sunday I've done this. The first Sunday, there was quite a fair amount of verbal abuse from passers-by, mostly White men in pickup trucks. One man even stopped his truck in front of the church, got out of his vehicle to get in my face and yell at me, and then spit on my sign.
But there was another person, a young Latina woman, who turned her car around to come back to talk to me. She said that she and her family usually avoid even driving through Hobart because of the racism. She thanked me for holding the sign. Her expression of gratitude made getting spit on worth it.
The next Sunday was quite a bit colder, which seemed to dissuade most people from rolling down their windows to yell at me. (I guess racism has its limits.)
Both Sundays, a good friend from the church joined me. In addition to being concerned for my safety, he is a vocal anti-racist, and I appreciated his presence and support.
This past Sunday, it was warmer again, and so the abuse resumed. (There were also some friendly, supportive honks.) My 18 year-old son kept me company this time. Most people who responded yelled "All lives matter!" A few yelled insults or just "F@#k you!" One woman started yelling well after she had passed the block we were standing on, but she was loud enough to still be heard yelling "All lives matter!" some distance away.
Another woman at the gas station across the street called us names and yelled, "All lives matter!" As we did with everyone else who said this, we responded politely but emphatically, "Yes they do!" This seemed to confuse most people. I hope it made them think.
Why “Black Lives Matter”?
If anyone had bothered to actually talk to us, I would have explained that it is precisely because I believe that all lives matter that I was standing on that sidewalk holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign. It is because I believe that all lives matter that I am compelled to declare that Black lives matter.
While we may say that all lives matter, we as a society are not acting like all lives matter. In many ways, our society acts like Black lives do not matter―from police violence to mass incarceration, to the coded racist language used by politicians to justify these policies, from the de facto segregation of people of color into communities that are economically and environmentally devastated, to the unconsciously racist justifications that White people offer to explain these inequities.
I would have explained that the statement “Black Lives Matter” doesn’t mean that White lives (and all other lives) don’t matter, any more than “Blue Lives Matter” is meant to say that non-police lives don’t matter. “Black Lives Matter” is an acknowledgement that, even though we speak the language of colorblindness, we still live in a very racist society. One need look no further than the vile reactions of people like the man who spit on my sign to see this.
When White people say, “All Lives Matter”
Another woman this past Sunday stopped across the street in front of the church, pointed her finger at us, and told us she was "very offended." She told us repeated that what we were doing was "very wrong." It was this last comment that really struck my son. He knew that people might intellectually disagree with what I was doing, but he was shocked that someone would so emphatically state that it was morally wrong.
My son and I talked for a while about what compels some White people to react so strongly to a seemingly innocuous phrase like "Black Lives Matter". There is resistance, even among liberals to the phrase, which I believe is born of a misguided commitment to colorblindness--which is really an expression of White privilege. But I believe something else is going on with the people who hurled insults as they passed me Sunday morning. It has to do with how more and more White people are being left behind economically.
My Unitarian church is located in Hobart, Indiana. It sits in the “Rust Belt”, on the southern shore of Lake Michigan. In many ways, the area resembles Flint, Michigan, in that it suffered some of the greatest losses of manufacturing jobs over the past several decades, with corresponding declines in per capita income and changes in demographics. The people in Hobart feel like they have been left behind, and they have. The median household income is $35,000, compared to $52,000 nationally. Many of them do not feel “privileged.” And so, when they see a sign that says "Black Lives Matter", they think "What about me? Doesn't my life matter?!"
Hobart has 30,000 residents, 85% of whom are White and 7% Black. It's true that the mostly White population of Hobart is suffering from economic devastation wrought by corporate greed and political corruption. But right next door is Gary, racially the mirror image of Hobart (85% Black and 11% White), but in even worse shape that Hobart. Gary has a median household income of $27,000, with a quarter (26%) of the population below the poverty line, compared to 5% in Hobart. And on top of the economic injustice, the Black population of Gary has to struggle with pervasive institutional racism which is unknown to the White population of Hobart.
Most of the White residents of Hobart probably don’t see that their plight and the plight of the Black residents of Gary are intertwined. They don’t see that it is the same corrupt corporate capitalist class, “the one-percent”, oppressing both communities and keeping them divided. They don't see that they have more in common with the Black residents of Gary than they do with the mostly White 1%. Instead, the White residents of Hobart blame Gary’s problems on racist stereotypes, while looking elsewhere for the cause of their own economic woes.
“Black Lives Matter” as an expression of Unitarian Universalist principles
I have chosen to stand on the sidewalk and hold my sign declaring that "Black Lives Matter", because I believe that we will not defeat the corporate class so long as we are divided. I believe we will never obtain true economic justice until we can all say together, “Black lives matter.”
I have become convinced of the power of this simple phrase. It has revealed the culture of White supremacy to me quite dramatically. The responses of White people to that phrase have shown me how racism lives on even in our nominally colorblind post-Obama world. My belief in the power of the phrase, "Black Lives Matter", is reinforced every time a White person yells back at me, "All lives matter!"
Holding that sign is not easy for me. I don't like being on the receiving end of people's racist venom. I really don't like having to bite my tongue and respond politely. But I remind myself that this is only the tiniest fraction of what people of color continue to experience just because they exist.
Inside the church, the rest of my congregation sings hymns and listens to sermons about our Seven Principles, the first and second of which affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the promotion justice, equity and compassion in human relations. I believe that if we are to be true to those Principles, Unitarian Universalist congregations like mine must proclaim publicly and unequivocally that Black lives matter. I think this is especially true of a congregation like ours which is located in a predominately White community situated in a racially diverse region.
I do not yet know for how long I will maintain this vigil. I miss worshiping with my congregation, but this is a sacrifice I feel I must make for now. Though my vigil is an expression of my understanding of Unitarian Universalist values, I don't represent my congregation. I am an individual member of First Unitarian Church of Hobart striving to live our shared values in the best way I can, while also striving to remain in covenant with my congregation.
There is a democratic process to go through before my congregation decides whether to display a "Black Lives Matter" sign. It is my hope that my congregation will collectively come to see the public proclamation that Black lives matter as a necessary condition of our belief in inherent worth and dignity of every person and our commitment to justice, equity and compassion in human relations. In the meantime, I feel spiritually called to be a "living sign" and to declare with my physical presence that Black lives matter.