In early December 2014, prompted by recent acts of police violence toward black Americans, the staff members at First Unitarian Church of Oakland (FUCO), seeking some way to respond, agreed to propose posting a sign or two next to the front steps of the church. They came up with some alternate message options and asked the congregation present at the next Sunday’s service to vote to choose one or two. The two selected by that means said “Black Lives Matter / Brown Lives Matter / All Lives Matter,” and “We Can’t Breathe.” Those signs hung near the front steps for 8 months.
Calls for change
However, a few church members and friends began raising some objections to the wording on the signs – in particular, the adaptation of the original slogan to say “All Lives Matter,” and use of the expression “We Can’t Breathe,” both by a church with a predominately white membership — and as time went by the number and strength of those voices increased. Others remained in support of the signs’ messages. The first big group discussion of the signs occurred on the UU Oakland Young Adults Facebook page, and some entries were strongly worded in disagreement with the signs.
After one of the six members of the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Team (JTW) participated in that online discussion, the person who had initiated it asked to meet with JTW about the signs issue. That meeting became the first of a number involving JTW and groups and individuals, including the minister, Rev. Jacqueline Duhart and Church Administrator Linda Hodges, as objections to the signs mounted.
Leadership and the Decision Process – Act-Reflect-Adjust
It being early summer by this time, Rev. Jacqueline soon departed on her summer break, and after some discussion with others in church leadership, JTW took the lead on deciding what to do next and when to do it. No precedent existed for JTW taking that role but other church leaders urged them to do so, and the group maintained contact with the Board of Trustees, the Executive Team, and the minister as it proceeded. By midsummer the call for the signs to be changed or removed had grown strong and urgent.
The basis of the objections regarding the wording of the signs was that they compromised the intent to support for the Black Lives Matter movement for which the church wished to demonstrate its solidarity. Still, hanging those signs was a righteous act, and as it was for many people participating in demonstrations, who were learning what to say and how to act in solidarity, so it was for the church. JTW, and in turn, the church, came to fully understand that it was engaging in the typical act-reflect-adjust process that many activist groups go through.
The JTW team sympathized with the calls for change, but had to consider how to proceed, make plans, and communicate with the church membership. Eventually the group came to a decision to replace the two signs with one Black Lives Matter sign, to hold a town-hall style meeting one Sunday after services and then, the next Sunday, to conduct a sign-changing ceremony on the front patio after services. JTW sent a letter to all church members to clarify the issue and announce the two events.
Adjustments made in unison
Both events were well attended. At the town hall meeting everyone got a chance to write and speak their feelings and opinions, and then JTW announced its decision. The sign-changing ceremony included readings of the 2015 UUA statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and a list of names of recent victims of police killings, brief talks, and singing. Meanwhile the “We Can’t Breathe” sign was removed and the other was changed to “Black Lives Matter.” Few objections were raised and a sense of relief was palpable.
*Some weeks later the new sign was damaged and cut down by a man from the neighborhood. It was neither a racial nor hate-based act; the black man who did it reportedly has some mental health issues and was apparently just acting on a sudden impulse. Temporary poster-style signs were made to replace the banner while new banner signs were being made, and the single sign was replaced with two that now hang on both sides of the front steps.