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April 24, 2017, 12:00 AM

Letter of Support and Respect for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism

[Note: This is a copy of a letter written by Karen Van Fossan, Bismanuu Minister, to the UUA Board of Trustees in response to a request by Lena Gardner of Black Lives of UU]

April 20, 2017

Dear UUA Board,

As the UU minister in closest proximity to Standing Rock during the worldwide DAPL resistance, I was called, along with my passionate congregation, into solidarity and ally-ship beyond my imagining. In the beginning of the water protector movement, I found myself saying, again and again, “Standing Rock is the center of the world right now, and in Bismarck, North Dakota, we have the honor of being perched at the center of the world.”

Thanks to the spiritual and embodied support from UUs around world – including the UUA board – we showed up. That matters, and I remain deeply grateful to you for all the ways you have affirmed that it matters, not the least of which is granting our congregation the true honor of the Courageous Love Award.

I won’t get into the story of our solidarity with Standing Rock and Oceti Sakowin camp here, since many of you know it well. What you may not know is how significantly our solidarity was influenced by Black Lives of UU and, in particular, Lena Gardner. Lena and I graduated from seminary together in 2015. By the time we set up camp together (along with Nora Rasman) at Oceti Sakowin in the fall of 2016, Lena had become the first executive director of BLUU, and I had accepted my first ministry position with the UU congregation in Bismarck, North Dakota, my home church.

According to my families’ oral histories, I am of Dutch, Swiss, German, Scottish, Irish, and “Sioux” origins. I come mostly from people who are of colonizing cultures, while a few of my ancestors also experienced colonization. I am a white, Midwestern woman who understands that white supremacy and colonization are the single greatest causes of injustice on this continent (at least) – and also believes that people and cultures who colonize and brutalize others are themselves in a state of spiritual brokenness.

I am keenly aware of the spiritual brokenness of my culture(s) and my people(s). This brokenness presents challenges in any effort to relate across cultures, especially with anyone who comes from cultures that have experienced white brutality over time – which is just about everyone.

This challenge has everything to do with why I have drawn from BLUU workshops, BLUU writings, and personal conversations with Lena Gardner for insights into how to be a real ally, rather than a colonist wishing to be an ally. From BLUU and its executive director, I have learned three key things:

1) Follow. Trust people of color whom you trust to know the ways out of white supremacy and colonialism better than you do. Indigenous people have been resisting colonialism for over 500 years and have an accumulated wisdom about doing so. The simple (and not so simple) act of taking the lead from people of color is already an act of decolonization. Thanks to this insight from BLUU, I learned to encourage my congregants who are not Native – and myself – to presume no leadership at camp, volunteer in the kitchen or children’s library, for instance, pray quietly at the sacred fire, participate without ego at camp meetings, and draw minimal attention to ourselves. For these reasons, we had a felt sense of camp life, as well as a basis for genuine relationships, when camp coordinators began to speak of the need for interfaith prayer experiences – and partnerships in bringing these about.

2) Be there. Put ourselves and our bodies in the places where resistance is needed, as guided by people of color. If indigenous people are being arrested for putting up tipis on 1851 treaty land, which the authorities claim is the private property of Energy Transfer Partners – go there. If indigenous people have planned a rally in front of the Army Corps of Engineers building, and you are asked to add a prayer as the only non-Native faith leader in attendance – pray there. If indigenous friends ask you to sponsor a local event of solidarity with the Native Nations March in Washington, DC, so local Native people don’t have to absorb all the front-line racism – be there. Then understand that you will begin to experience a version of the racism and colonialism that white people typically escape. This does not make you a hero, please understand. But it does make you a human being.

3) Expect mistakes. When we, as white people, come from a culture that confuses might with strength, individualism with freedom, and brokenness with wholeness, we are likely to get befuddled when faced with people who know brokenness for what it is. I don’t mean that people of color are cursed with perfection, never make mistakes, and never face brokenness – or that white people are devoid of wholeness. I do mean that people of color generally have more to teach us about decolonizing our own minds and actions than the other way around. This means we are learning, and we can’t yet know what we haven’t yet learned. Just as we were once convinced the sun revolved around the earth, we sometimes catch ourselves – or more painfully get caught by others – acting out of colonizing paradigms we didn’t even know had laid claim to our minds. I recently had a difficult exchange with an indigenous friend who made it clear that I don’t share as much about my UU tradition with him as he shares about his Lakota tradition with me. I could call this humility, but I’ve come to see it as a colonized/colonizing humility, in which I presume what I have to offer isn’t as interesting – because it’s just so normal to Western thought. In fact, I have no doubt made any number of mistakes in crafting this letter, and I only hope that I will have learned more by the time I write again.

I recognize that not all cultures are alike, that BLUU doesn’t presume to represent the particular cultural practices of Native people, for instance, and that there are lessons to learn from Oceti Sakowin camp which make it unique from the Black Lives Matter movement. At the same time, I will say unequivocally that the quality of leadership of BLUU has everything to do with the quality of showing up that UUs have done at Standing Rock.

I would like to thank you again for your support of BLUU and of UUs, including Native UUs, who are in solidarity with Native people here. I was in the audience at the 2016 General Assembly when we raised more funds than we ever could have imagined for BLUU. It’s no wonder to me that the UUA board did not need to deliberate long on the decision to raise additional millions for BLUU. The momentum from UUs across the continent was palpable. The moment had arrived.

We responded to that moment. We responded to the Standing Rock moment.

May we continue to respond – wherever the center of the world may be.


Rev. Karen Van Fossan
Minister, Bismarck-Mandan UU Fellowship & Church



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