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Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Breaking the Silence about Ministerial Misconduct

A 1992 UU Women’s Federation survey revealed that policies on clergy sexual misconduct among the majority of religious organizations do not exist. Ministerial misconduct is so egregious in that it takes advantage of the trusted relationships between clergy as authority figures and congregants who are predisposed to being open and vulnerable. It is a violation of all that is sacred and holy in the faith community. If one cannot be safe within the folds of one’s faith community, then where can safety be found? Great harm is done to the offended party that can result in self-blame, shame, loss of community and friends, spiritual crisis, loss of faith, family crisis, and divorce. Psychological distress such as depression and even suicide are real risks that these victims face.

Our perceptions about a phenomenon are often reflected in our language. Erroneously referring to abuses of power as “affairs” rather than ministerial misconduct is an example of misnaming a behavior. This is particularly important in educating congregants, as even the offended party may mistakenly refer to the abuse as an affair. Equally important are professionals such as therapists who work with individuals that were offended/abused by a clergy person. A congregant once informed me that she did not feel like a victim because she was a fully consenting adult. Yet, she did not understand the power imbalance between herself and the pastor, and how this negatively impacted her ability to function as a fully consenting adult. Diana Garland, Dean of Baylor University School of Social Work asserts, “It is not an affair. It is an abuse of power. Regardless of who intended what, the religious leader is the one in the position of responsibility.”

We also cannot allow offenders to rush to reconcile with the appearance of contrite behavior and remorseful behaviors. We cannot confuse restorative justice with honoring victim survivors and women fighting for autonomy over their bodies. We cannot allow the apologies to drown out the voices of victim survivors. In some cases, the abused congregant was viewed as having brought “a good man down.” The offended individual plaintively stated, “We should be getting this right,” referring to the disparity in how offenders and the offended are viewed and treated; the rush to forgive the offender and the push back against the offended. It was as if they were telling her, “He said he was sorry. What more do you want?” To which the resounding reply is “Justice!” And what does that look like? That is a subject needing a future post on its own!

As UUs, we extoll individualism and rail against authority. We do not like to be told what to do, so the idea of boundaries is sometimes met with mixed feelings. Yet, boundaries exist in almost every aspect of our lives, whether they are ground rules, covenants, or simple guidelines. The belief that we are “all adults” without need for boundaries makes us particularly vulnerable to boundary violations. The power that ministers hold is real, and we do ourselves a disservice when we disown it or minimize it. Congregants and boards hold power, but we cannot deny the power of our organizational and institutional backing—along with our training and credentials that confer authority—especially when navigating the relationships that we develop with our congregants.

Warmest regards, Rev. Qiyamah

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Reflections on Transparency and Vulnerability 

The following is taken from a 2000 issue of the Thomas Jefferson District Connections, a publication of the TJD of the UUA. Qiyamah Rahman was serving as district executive at the time of publication:

I am aware that a number of UUs of European descent in the TJ District are very upset about the use of the term “racist.” I cannot know what it feels like to be called a “racist,” but I do know what it feels like to struggle to name parts of myself that were almost too hideous for me and others to identify, name and embrace.

I grew up in an abusive family. My mother was a battered woman and my siblings and I were battered by my parents. When I first became a parent, I beat my children when they misbehaved. I deliberately do not use the word “spank” here, although that is how it was referred to by everyone, including those from whom I sought help to change. The language allowed me and others to justify this behavior and normalized the behavior. We have learned to sterilize our acts of violence through such neutral language. The act of naming the behavior for what it was, was part of my self-education and my decision to step outside the conspiracy of silence. In seeking to change I had to remove myself beyond the reach of those who would seek to aid and abet my behavior.

My name is Qiyamah A. Rahman and I am a child abuser. Those words allowed me to move toward healing and to non-violent parenting. To call myself a child abuser seemed extreme to some, but in the face of a society that sought to accommodate my behavior I needed to rename my use of corporeal punishment as violence. It was painful to name myself a child abuser. But one cannot begin to heal until one speaks the truth, as painful as it may seem.”

You can find the above text on pages 336-337 in the book, The Arc of the Universe is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism and the Journey from Calgary. This massive six-hundred-and-fifty-one-page book represents one of the most extensive resources on Unitarian Universalists’ journey and reflections on anti-racism efforts beginning with the 1992 General Assembly in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. This carefully researched book “recounts events and reactions through the middle years of the first decade of this century.”

How did it happen that in a book of this size with so many quotes and references from numerous individuals that mine portrays me in such a negative impression? And more importantly, why did I choose to say yes to including my experience? In retrospect I am not sure that I fully internalized my decision in the moment. In the end I had to live with my decision to be transparent, to be vulnerable and speak a truth that was so hideous and ugly. I have had some moments of regret having said yes to Leslie Takahashi when she called me one evening and requested permission to include the quote in the book. I did not instantly say yes but as I thought through my reason for my transparency and my efforts to work on vulnerability issues, I said yes moments later. What I did not fully realize is that there would be some challenges once I granted permission. I did not realize that in a book that numbered six-hundred-and fifty-one pages long that the index containing my name takes the reader to pages 336-337 where my confession is visible to any and every reader. My ego, my pride would have wanted folks to also be able to see the person and parent I evolved into and that we sometimes stumble as we plod along life’s journey.

Another moment that I experienced some regrets about saying yes was at a UUA General Assembly after the book was published. A white female minister shouted across the room in an excited voice, “Qiyamah, didn’t you say you were a child abuser?” I could see her husband nudging her and trying to quiet her. Knowing this particular person, I knew she was not being mean-spirited but she tended not to have much of a filter and she apparently wanted to confirm to her husband what she had evidently read. I could see the embarrassment on his face from across the room. In that moment my mind was racing. I knew others had heard her. She clearly did not have a discreet bone in her body. I did not and could not lie. But I felt like I wanted to disappear. I was not prepared to stand in the midst of all these white ministers and declare what I had so easily written and shared in a book. But neither silence nor a lie were options. So in that moment I decided to speak the truth and to hell with the consequences. “Yes, I said that.” And I mumbled something else trying to explain the context as they moved closer. But I had won! In the face of shame, embarrassment, and possible ostracism I had not acquiesced. Life hands us small victories sometimes. When I said yes to Leslie those many years ago, when I look at my tattered and worn copy of the book and when I reflect on my journey towards transparency and vulnerability, I know I have miles and miles more to go. But I am so proud of who I am becoming as I approach 74 years of age. It has taken a lifetime and I am still not there.

When I recently opened the book for a reference it fell open to page 588. The page includes a quote from Rev. Patricia Jimenez, then chaplain in Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She states, “There was an acknowledgment of the indigenous ancestors who were there. There was something about white people who came later. There was absolutely no mention, anywhere, that Texas was part of Mexico, that there are probably more people in that city who were Mexican or other Latinos, before then or even now. So—I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Where are we?’ This is Fort Worth, 2005. What have we really done?”

Rev. Patricia recently died and transitioned to the ancestars. May she rest in power. She reminds us that we have so much more work to do on ourselves, in our congregations, in our homes and in our beloved faith of Unitarian Universalism.

Below her quote were the words of another ancestar, Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson. Her words bring me comfort and are a reminder to keep on keeping on in my state of imperfection and flaws. She states, “You have to get over not making mistakes—we don’t accept the fact that we can make mistakes. Perhaps it is our individual roots. We are still learning to be in right relation one with one another, so that we can honestly say ‘I love you. I made a mistake, let’s fix it.’ Sometimes we just need to understand that we screwed up and yes, it is hard. For me it is wonderful for all of us to be able to stay at the table of Unitarian Universalism.”

Thank you, Rev. Patricia, thank you Rev. Hope, for your courage and legacy that inspire me to continue to strip away the layers of oppression. It will continue to feel uncomfortable, embarrassing and even painful. But in retrospect, I do not regret saying yes to Leslie. I hope I continue to say yes to the Universe every time it provides me an opportunity to grow and stretch and to stay at the table of humanity.

Warmest regards, Rev. Qiyamah

P.S. We are working on rolling out (in time for 2022 UUA General Assembly) the newest feature on our website, where we will introduce many more ancestars we want you to know about.

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Reflections on Ageism

Looking back at 2018, it was filled with several major transitions including my 70th birthday. To mark the occasion my three children put together a weekend that included: a Friday night sweat lodge where we sweated and burned away our toxins and negative energy causing blockages and burdens in our lives, a Saturday evening reception featuring great food, family and friends and Sunday morning worship service. The worship service was held at Abundant LUU in historic SW Atlanta. I reflected on elderhood and shared some of my spoken word pieces. I was surprised with a foot washing performed by my daughters, daughter-in-love and my granddaughter. Omelika Bynum, a long time friend and founder and director of Giwayen Mata, Atlanta’s premier female percussion and dance group, called us to worship with the ancient sounds of African drumming. Another friend, Imani Williams, serenaded everyone with a beautiful gospel hymn. 

Four months earlier I had relocated stateside to Marietta, GA after residing in St. Croix, VI for six years. I had served as the minister with the small UU congregation and became heavily involved with non-profits such as the Women’s Coalition and the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council’s Faith Based Committee, both addressing domestic violence and sexual assault. Another interest, interfaith dialogue, was channeled through St. Croix Interfaith Coalition. As I age I have grown more interested in issues of aging and elderhood as evidenced in my membership in the St. Croix Council of Elders. I would have been hard pressed to say which transition, turning 70 or relocating from STX was the most challenging in 2018.

Having sold or given away all my belongings except my car, clothes and a few personal and sentimental items, I was starting all over again. I had done this at least twice in my life time so this was not a big deal. However, it is always a challenge to make choices about our belongings and to make decisions about our attachments. At times it was almost overwhelming to sort through six years of possessions that I had acquired assuming at that time that I was going to be living in STX indefinitely. 

I successfully relocated from one environment to another attending to all the details to make that happen. I accomplished turning seventy with great joy and celebration. 

What has not happened and what is a source of consternation is being unprepared for the ageism I experienced in Atlanta. Since the time I relocated from St. Croix on June 1, 2018 to the time I returned on September 15, 2019 I had been unemployed. I had completed close to 100 applications for various positions that netted me only one interview. I lowered my expectations and applied for positions requiring a Bachelor’s in Social Work. I applied for several administrative assistant positions. I did not get any call backs from my efforts. Out of desperation I applied to teach ESL in Japan. When the recruiter called they informed me that the legal retirement age in Japan was 65 and that I was too old for the position.

 I was a 70-year-old active woman still experiencing good health that wants to and needs to work.  I had pursued social work positions with no success. So I thought, let me turn my attention to ministry, which I was sure there were opportunities for me in the Atlanta area where some six congregations exist. While not all of them were in search I pulled out my ministerial packet and updated it and completed paperwork online with the UUA. I was called and interviewed for two congregations. I decided that I was not going to leave it to chance. I made it known on my ministerial packet that I was looking for a congregation that was already doing work around anti-racism, anti-oppression and multiculturalism. And if they were not, they would be willing to make a serious commitment. I thought the two interviews went as well as could be expected. The final decisions were not in my favor and someone else was called. I then turned to the Interim Ministers Search process. I was the first District Executive to participate in the intensive and rigorous training years ago. Other Field Staff followed my suit. My rationale was that I wanted a deeper understanding of Interim Ministry to be able to assist and support the Interims in the then District, now Region. To that end I was successful. 

During my job hunting stint in 2018-2019 I signed up for Interim Ministry and applied to a couple of congregations whose ministers had left. I was unsuccessful once again. At this point I had begun to rethink my whole reason for returning stateside. A few months later dialogue with my family made it clear that settling on our Ancestral Land as I anticipated was not an option. 

Interspersed in between my job hunting I was fortunate to be able to spend time visiting family in Atlanta, Virginia and Detroit. These memories would become even more precious when I later decided to return to St. Croix in the face of opposition from some family members.

Reflections on Aging (and Ministry)

I had never thought about aging until my job hunting experience in Atlanta when I returned stateside. Previously, I have had the luxury of aging gracefully (and still do) and I was employed in positions and situations that did not penalize me for aging. That changed when I relocated to Atlanta. Technology has changed the entire job hunting process. The ministry search is very time-sensitive and since I thought I had plenty of time I focused on social work or human service positions. While it is illegal to ask an applicant’s age, the new question is, “When did you graduate from high school?” In the course of over one hundred applications I had one interview. Ironically, it was the one position I really wanted, a counseling position at the Pulaski State Women’s Correctional Institute. I really worked hard and contorted myself to convince them to hire me and to recognize what a gift I would be. It did not happen. I had all my friends and prayer warriors praying for me and I visualized myself working with the women and living in Hawkinsville, the same town that our family’s Ancestral Land was located. But it was not to be. 

For a period of time I stopped job hunting. I recognized that the constant rejection would sooner or later take its toll on my self-esteem and confidence and I did not want to fall prey to these subtly destructive messages that I was no longer of value because of my age and that I had nothing to offer. I never believed that but it was clear that I was fighting a losing battle. At least one person said I was running when I made the decision to return to St. Croix. Others said I didn’t give it enough time. Still others insisted that I simply did not engage in the kind of networking that would have gotten my resume in front of the right folks. 

In hindsight, none of this matters now. I am back in St. Croix, VI. While I am not doing parish ministry I was employed as a Disaster Case Manager helping individuals, mostly senior homeowners, who did not access resources two years ago to repair damages to their homes. In this second cycle we are stepping into the gap along with other non-profits to help individuals and families in their recovery. There is a lot of work to be done here. I did that work for a couple of years. I am now working part time as the Sexual Assault Response Team Coordinator for the Territory. As a survivor of early childhood violence and a survivor as a battered woman and sexual assault, this work has called me over the years and now I am resuming this work again. 

Once again I feel needed and am engaged in my call, to serve the needy and marginalized of society. My employers did not care about my age. My reputation preceded me and I was hired and immediately put to work. 

No matter what our age we want to feel our lives make a difference and that what we do adds value. In a capitalist society the profit margin is the bottom line. As a senior, I am not a lucrative investment. I want to live out the remainder of my years in a community where being an elder is not a deficit. I want to be valued for my competence and ability to contribute. For me, I would rather be in St. Croix among friends that see past my age, past my wrinkles, past my grey hair and take the time to review my resume and decide based on the merits of my experience and not my age. 

Black Women in Chicago

On May 23, 2019 I met via telephone from Detroit, MI with thirteen Black women from First Unitarian Church in Chicago, IL. They had been meeting for a number of years. At one point we counted thirty (30) active Black UU women in that one congregation. In this particular gathering there were thirteen (13). In their check-ins and over food, they talked about what was going on in their lives and sometimes some of the things they were doing to cope.

Since that time, several have died, several have moved away. At one point in their history they were informed that they could not meet at the church as an exclusively Black women’s group and that it had to be open to all women. There was a men’s group and a “women over fifty group” but Black women for some reason could not meet exclusively. Instead of creating a scene they merely moved their meetings outside of the Church.

Noam Chomsky stated, “The future of humanity is at stake…We have to get rid of this malignancy and therefore, everything else pales in the face of it.” The “it” that he was referring to was racism – white supremacy – systemic racism, the kind we witnessed on January 6, 2021 and the kind that kidnapped Africans, crossed the Atlantic with them; stopped off in the West Indies, leaving some to work in the sugar plantations and the remaining enslaved peoples were carried to the Colonies where many toiled for generations before freedom was declared.

This work of centering Black UU Women and Girls is about decentering whiteness. It is about breaking down old paradigms and building up a new world. Not only are we targeting Black UU women and girls but those 26% in 2017 who the Pew Research Center identified in their survey as spiritual and not religious. In 2012 19% identified as spiritual. Some of those individuals are UUs that have not yet discovered they are UUs. Among that number that identify as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) it is important that we clean up our act so that UUism is more embracing to BIPOC. I wonder what it will take to get us there!