An Open Letter to Faith Leaders Regarding Justice Work
I attended a talk by an amazing speaker today, and I need to get something off my chest after it.
Dear Rabbis, Clergy, and Faith Leaders of all kinds:
Majority white communities of faith have begun engaging with justice work in a way that they have not done before. As leaders of these communities, we know that this can be a tense and uncomfortable moment where politics and ethics and justice can get tangled up with one another. Different generations, different cultural norms, different political opinions, different educational levels can all contribute to our congregants' comfort level with engaging with ideas like:
Black lives matter.
White people enjoy special privilege in America.
LGBTQ+ people have a right to dignity and support in their gender and sexual identity within faith communities.
Disabled people have a right to access our faith spaces and get needed accommodations and support to do so.
... among other ideas, of course, some specific to each of our communities. I need to tell you that these are not radical ideas. They are not political ideas. They are not even liberal ideas. They are basic human rights. They are living out the reality that our religions are not gods in themselves. We have scripture, we have dogma, we have tradition - but none of these things is infallible or univocal. And none of our religions get to dictate policy in this country where we enjoy the protections of the Establishment Clause.
As we approach this justice work, there will be congregants of ours who disagree, perhaps publicly, vocally, or angrily. They will confront us. They may feel hurt, alienated, or angered. They may demand an apology, a retraction, a cessation of the work, sometimes in the form of an "or else." So I want to say something to you about this as a fellow leader and clergywoman.
YOU DO NOT OWE THEM AN APOLOGY.
Let me be even more clear:
If you give them the apology, tone down your message, or cease the work, you have failed your community AND that person.
Your community needs you to lead and do this work. Your community, which contains (whether you know it or not) Black and brown people, LGBTQ people, disabled people, etc. needs you to lead the charge to clean up the sanctuary. Because if you don't clean it up, your sanctuary isn't safe for them to come inside.
A lot of people say to me "But we don't have these people in our community. Is it really a problem?" Yes. It is. You don't have these people in your community because they have been taught that your community/communities like yours aren't safe places for them. They've learned that they will always be outsiders in these spaces. So until you do the work, you're right. You won't have a diverse space because you haven't done the work to deserve it and become worthy of their trust.
Let me briefly go back to the angry person above, because sometimes they're a major concern. She's a major donor. He's the president of the congregation. They're the Board and you might lose your job. I'm telling you that you owe it to them to do this work too. Why? Because they are hurting themselves and others by resisting the work, and we cannot let faith communities continue cycles of abuse and keep calling ourselves holy communities.
How do you have that conversation? You do what clergy and leaders should know what to do best. You listen to that angry person. Hear them out. And then - you can't skip this step - you have to do the hard part. You have to do the right thing and say, "I hear what you're saying, and the anger and hurt behind it. I need you to know that I'll walk with you through this. I'll help you understand. But this is an inevitability because this is what's best for our community." That's all you say. You cannot be apologetic, because this is the right thing to do.
Because you owe it to your community to not let a few angry, influential people derail justice. It's as simple as that. It's not easy, but it is simple. And this is what it means to really lead a community in justice work.
Of course, while you do this uncomfortable and challenging work, don't forget - we'll all walk with you through this too. You're not alone either.
Yours in peace and justice,
Rabbi Sara Zober