We're excited to bring you the second in our conversations about covenant - how we create them and what it means to return to them - between Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, our new Spiritual Sustenance Advisor and Nora Rasman, our Campaign Manager.
Elizabeth: The other day we were talking with some of the ministers who have been part of the very DIY minister in residence program in Bismarck and at Standing Rock. We gathered folks together to ask how their ministries all over the United States had been impacted by their time supporting the resistance camps and Native-led justice work. We asked how they were supporting Native sovereignty and self-determination in their local contexts and what we could learn about ways we can show up in the future. One of the ministers shared that for her, going to support Rev. Karen Van Fossen at the Bismarck-Mandan UU congregation, and the movement of Water Protectors was about fulfilling a covenant. That on every level, from a UU congregation humbly, faithfully fortifying a groundswell of resistance, to the funding from other UU ministers and institutions and individuals that allowed ministers to go and support, to the willingness of clergy themselves to show up for one another - it was about keeping and honoring covenant.
Nora: Yes indeed. That moment had me thinking a lot about the ways that covenant is embodied and consistent - and how that feels like the covenant I’m thirsty to support and grow. As non-coercive embodied actions, what does it mean to live into covenant? For those of us who are UU, do we have something along the lines of original covenant, whereby being born and/or raised UU are we committed to covenant? And what does it mean spiritually when we have shared articulated values but embody them so differently or not at all?
As a young person within Unitarian Universalism, I was supported to be pretty rigid and insistent about the necessity of covenants or shared agreements. As we look at the hurt and isolation people continue to experience because of white supremacy and other systems of oppression within our faith, I’m reminded that those agreements really create no guarantee. I have both participated in and facilitated many conversations about covenant when the covenanting process itself directly violates our covenant, if that makes any sense. A colleague recently shared this article by Özlem Sensoy and Robin DiAngelo entitled “Respect Differences? Challenging the Common Guidelines in Social Justice Education” and it so directly lifts up many of these questions - how do our principles and/or agreements reinforce power imbalance and in so doing, further maintain white supremacy in an interpersonal and systemic fashion? And how do we create covenants when we don’t have trust or relationships with folks? I think shared experiences, as well as shared vision for the world we are trying to build, can hasten that. But I still have questions.
Elizabeth: What you’re saying makes me think a lot about words - and in reality, we typically think about covenant as word based. What you’re talking about is a more embodied covenant that is not necessarily word-oriented. I think about families - in my family we never put a piece of paper on the wall that said, “as your parents, we will try to feed and clothe you the best we can until you’re about 18.” And that was absolutely an embodied covenant in my family. It was a covenant I felt born into and something I was able to experience - but also something the world makes impossible for so many I love. And in that way, we almost tell a story that parents unable to meet these needs are breaking covenant. When really, our systems have created a world that makes keeping covenants sometimes impossible. I just read a graphic novel The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui that explores this. The author Viet Than Nguyen says it’s “A book to break your heart and heal it.” Sometimes I feel like fulfilling covenant in our world is like canoeing up Niagara Falls - it’s a miracle we are where we are. Though some of us are pretty good at canoeing, white supremacy means that we’re still at the bottom, floundering.
Nora: Right! So how are we choosing covenant, reckoning with whether we are born into it, and grappling with the gifts and limits of words? How are we supporting peoples’ visions to create and live into embodied collective covenant that supports liberation?
Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, Ministry Associate for Youth and Young Adults of Color and Spiritual Sustenance Advisor, Standing on the Side of Love
Nora Rasman, Campaign Coordinator, Standing on the Side of Love