Leveraging Privilege by Rev. Jonathan Rogers

For the last couple years, I have been leading youth ministry trainings for the Southern Region of our Unitarian Universalist Association. There’s an activity I do sometimes with the youth advisors I am training where I ask them to write their various identities on index cards, and then arrange the cards into piles based on whether it’s a privileged or oppressed identity. The last time I did this, someone who shares a lot of my identities (he was a young, white, temporarily able-bodied, middle class, hetero cis-male) finished the exercise and said to me, deadpan, “All my cards are in the privileged pile.” And then he hesitated for a minute and he said “I think I know what privileged means, but I’m not sure.” And someone with several marginalized identities in the group piped up to say “privilege is not having to think about your identity.”

I was so proud of these young Unitarian Universalist leaders, because they were willing to risk embarrassment and a difficult conversation for the sake of educating our training group.

I appreciated that definition: a privileged identity is one you don’t have to think about. So I want to acknowledge from the top here that talking about privilege is hard, because by definition our own privilege is something that most of us have never had to think about. We are all privileged in some way, and we’ve all had a hard time seeing how we are privileged. As Unitarian Universalists who are yearning to grow in our capacities both for compassion and justice-making, one of the most important obligations we have is to become more aware of our identities, and our privilege, and how that informs our efforts to make the world a more just and equitable place. I want to model this process of awareness this morning by telling you about how I became more cognizant of my privilege. And I also want to encourage each of us to reflect on how we might use our privilege in building the beloved community. These are inherently awkward and challenging conversations, but we are not afraid of making mistakes, and learning from them. Here at UUCA we don’t shy away from difficult conversations.

No single event has done more to help me be aware of my privilege than spending a day being incarcerated. So, maybe you never expected to hear this from your minister, but getting arrested is great! It’s definitely got a lot of downsides, including discomfort, time lost, and experiencing the dehumanizing effects of our criminal justice system, and I’ll talk more specifically about those. But all in all I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Our worship series for this summer is entitled “Treasures of Our Lives”, and I want to show you one of the treasures I got last month. [Cue Proof of Incarceration slide] Professional headshots: $250. Off-center mugshot: priceless! The Georgia Board of Regents has exclusionary policies that prevent undocumented students from attending the three best public universities in Georgia, forces them to pay out-of-state tuition at other state schools, and the Georgia legislature is contemplating a bill that would prevent private universities from being sanctuary campuses for undocumented students. On May 16th I got arrested with seven other allies for interrupting a Board of Regents meeting to protest these segregationist policies. The Board of Regents protest was a career highlight for me, and I want to profoundly thank this congregation for supporting me in the work of prophetic witness. This proof of incarceration is the Treasure of my life that I want to talk about today.

The greatest gifts of this action came in the form of the new or newly deepened relationships that came out of it. The students and teachers at Freedom University, the freedom school for undocumented college students in Georgia that organized the protest, are some of the most likable folks I’ve ever met. If and when there are opportunities to collaborate with them in the future at UUCA, I encourage each and every one of you to make a point of participating.

My other favorite thing about getting arrested as a minister is all the great stories you get from folks who have stood up for social justice in the past. Of the many folks in our congregations who have stood up for what is right, I want to give shoutouts to Pat Harris and Charles Forrest for participating in previous Regents protests, Sarah Patterson for speaking on the floor of the Indiana state legislature in favor of LGBTQ rights, and Oona Powell for standing on the side of love with marginalized folks in her community and workplace. Folks, this is a congregation for people who walk the walk! Who confront our fears about speaking truth to power head-on, and face to face. And we want UUCA to be a place where you get support and affirmation in speaking one’s truth. I was proud to hear so many stories of folks here who have leveraged your privilege in the past, and I am optimistic, particularly with us having a new Social Justice Coordinator, about our future ability to be a transformative institution in Atlanta and in Georgia.

I am so glad to know, in particular, that I am not the first UUCA voice to protest the Georgia Board of Regents, because providing equal access to higher education in Georgia for undocumented students is going to be a long and uphill battle. One of the first things I noticed in going to their meeting, was that I had the privilege of looking like I belonged. As the current campaign has gone on, the police at Regents meetings have begun to racially profile the crowd for demonstrators, and pay closer to attention to young people who appear to be of Hispanic descent. As a white guy in a suit, no one gave me a second look for being there.

I was kind of curious about the differences between being arrested in Rhode Island and Massachusetts versus Georgia. It may just be the specific circumstances, but I’ve never been arrested without warning before. I started talking and the state trooper was pulling me out by the arm before I knew it. That having been said, there was no harmful police violence when the eight of us got arrested, a form of privilege no doubt aided by our status as professionally-dressed meeting attendees, and the fortuitous appearance of a legal observer.

We then spent about nine hours in police custody. The first hour my colleague, the Rev. Jeff Jones and I were zip-tied in the back of a police car with no air conditioning while we waited for Fulton County Jail to do a fire drill. Although the jail itself did end up being cold, in retrospect I regret wearing my thermal underwear that day. We waited in the car for about an hour, and when we got to the jail we waited a lot more at every step of the way. The police force you to wait at every stage of the process, force you to remember they are doing things on their timeline, not yours. Waiting is just one of the many ways our criminal justice system is designed to psychologically wear down its prisoners.

When we finally got inside the jail, the first thing the police did was to strip search us. They told me to squat and cough. We waited some more, and then they processed us medically. The police gave some in our group TB and pregnancy tests. We waited and then there would be a burst of instructions, some conflicting, so that our status as violators and criminals was deepened by the impossibility of following their directions. I was very grateful that at least I had my hearing aids in, and could understand their instructions some of the time. I asked to use the restroom, and was directed to one of the holding cells where only plexiglass separated me from the main waiting area. The policeman who strip searched me took my migraine medication and told me it would be returned as they processed us. I never got my medication back. The Atlanta Police Department made me feel like less of a person with basic rights. They dehumanized me, the way that all parts of our criminal justice system dehumanize everyone that we imprison.

While incarcerated, I also became more acutely aware of the many way ways I have privilege. When I was going to the bathroom in view of other inmates and prison personnel, I was aware of my privilege as a cisgender male. When they took my medication and did not return it, I was aware that even though I have a chronic illness, there are some days when migraines don’t affect me, and I can afford medication for the days when they do. My privilege as someone who is white, professional, and ordained was clear in the difference between how I was treated and how the average inmate that day was treated. Nine hours is relatively a very short time to be in police custody. My comrades and I that day had the privilege of the American Friends Service Committee calling Fulton County on our behalf, and we noticed the effects of the pressure they applied.

To preach about privilege as part of a series called “Treasures of Our Lives”, I was worried that it would sound like my privilege was a treasure of my life. In fact, it was giving up at least some of my privilege that was the treasure. As a person with privileged identities, I can think of nothing better to do with them than to sacrifice them for the sake of a more just world. The times when I have risked or sacrificed some of my privilege are the times I am most proud of in my life, and my sincerest hope for all of you is that you will have opportunities to risk whatever privilege you have, and that you will take those opportunities if the cost is one you can afford.

To be embarrassingly honest, I struggle with how to describe this experience. But being able to avoid hard conversations is a form of privilege, one that I want to give up, song that I want to ask those at UUCA who share it to give up. The hard conversation is that, on the one hand, incarceration has been the most profoundly eye-opening experience I have ever had in terms of cultivating a sense of empathy for folks with marginalized identities in our society. On the other hand, I experienced the most mild possible version of incarceration no matter how you measure it, and am therefore hesitant to proclaim any degree of understanding of what oppressed people endure every day. But leveraging privilege is an important message, and I wanted to risk conveying it imperfectly. . .  because if we let fear of making mistakes stop us from having difficult conversations, we will never grow as a community and as a movement. I said before that we are a congregation that walks the walk, and sometimes that means talking the talk because there are a lot of difficult conversations that need to happen before we can truly walk in solidarity as a movement. Leveraging privilege is an important message, and an important part of growing that solidarity, and I’m not going to let my fear of embarrassment get in the way. I’m not going to let criticism and in-fighting get in the way. If there’s a difficult conversation to be had about how to bring our justice-making out into the world, I say “bring it on!” If you’re not afraid to have difficult conversations about anti-oppression work, let me hear you say “bring it on!” If you’re not afraid to have difficult conversations about racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, classism, homophobia, and transphobia, let me hear you say “bring it on!” If you’re not afraid to have difficult conversations that ask you to sacrifice your personal comfort for the sake of building a more just and equitable world, let me hear you say “bring it on!”

Peace, salaam, shalom, and may it be so.