Umoja - to strive for and maintain unity in the family, community, nation, and race.
Overview of Umoja
Umoja calls us to operate in principled and harmonious togetherness. Harmonious togetherness means that we do more than just exist together. It calls us pay attention to the quality of our relationships. We are each invited to nurture practices and habits within ourselves and in our communities that nurture our relationships and connections. Principled togetherness means that we do not leave togetherness to chance, or only welcome it when it happens naturally. We choose togetherness, and then we take actions that honor and support that choice.
Umoja and Christian Practice
As Christians we are called to practice righteousness. Too many churches have narrowly defined righteousness and maintaining right relationship with God. This has led to people trying to separate our spiritual selves from our physical selves and suggest that those two cannot co-exist in a productive manner. This is a complete misunderstanding of righteousness that can lead to unhealthy spirituality.
Umoja helps us to correct this misunderstanding, by unearthing the true meaning of righteousness, which is honoring God by living in right relationship with others. Just as we cannot claim to striving for unity when our action injure or ignore our neighbor, we also cannot
claim to be striving for righteousness when our actions injure or ignore our neighbor.
Biblical Examples of Umoja
(all Biblical passages are quoted from the NRSV)
It is common to think of the Old Testament as primarily about a long list of laws that had to be upheld in order to maintain right relationship with God. It may be that this misunderstanding of the Old Testament both fuels and is fueled by the misunderstanding of righteousness addressed above.
Woven throughout the Old Testament is a constant call for us to practice Umoja, to practice being in right relationship with one another as we seek to honor God. Most of the ten commandments that God gave Moses are ways to outwardly practice right relationships (do not steal, do not lie against your neighbor) and to inwardly practice right relationships (do not covet (nurture desire for) what your neighbor has.
The prophetic writings constantly call us to be accountable for how we treat one other as individuals and as a society. Isaiah 1:1-17 is one clear example:
When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.
make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes;
cease to do evil, learn to do good;
seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan.
plead for the widow.
Isaiah is calling towards Umoja, calling towards actively living in right relationship: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” This is not just about refusing to do evil, this is a call to actively pursue good.
Jesus provides a practical example of the same lesson in Matthew 5:23-24:
So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.
Again, Jesus teaches us the principles of connecting Umoja to our worship by letting us know that maintaining right relationships with one another is our first and foundational responsibility.
Practicing Umoja at Home
Umoja begins in the family. As Christians we are dedicated not just to the ending of oppression, but also to the nurturing of liberated spaces: to building and being Beloved Community. We must learn and practice that in family. Ways that we can practice Umoja in our home include:
- Practicing non-oppressive relationships - Many Black families in America still carry the scars of trying to navigate the deadly and brutal maze of white supremacy. In trying to prepare our children to survive in a society that profits of their pain and misery, many families have used harsh and brutal means to try to force our families and the individuals in them to fit into what we believed would be acceptable to whiteness. We must acknowledge that however well-intentioned, this was always a losing strategy. We can only achieve liberation for Black people when we reject patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia, and work creating relationships that are not based on control, fear, threats or intimidation.
- Replacing harshness with gentleness - Umoja is not just making a commitment not to leave one another, it is also a commitment about how we treat one another. The goal is to treat one another in a way that makes it possible for others to enjoy staying together, not to endure staying together. One way we do this is through practicing being gentle with those closest to us. Harshness is often a learned practice that we use to avoid vulnerability or to defend ourselves against perceived or possible threats. We cannot nurture unity if we treat one another as threats. We also must be aware that there are people who are living with individuals who are real threats to physical and/or psychological safety. For those people the practice of Umoja is not relevant.
- Practicing informed reciprocity - One of the ways that we nurture Umoja is the family life is to be attentive to the balance of work and how we treat one another in relationships. Making sure that those who give are also able to receive, those who nurture are also able to be nurtured, those who defend are also defended, those who provide also receive provision, these are ways that we practice and model reciprocity.
Practicing Umoja in the Community
Umoja begins at home but it cannot stay there, it calls us and leads us to a broader community. The great prophet Malcolm X called us to Umoja when he said that each of us ought to belong to an organization and that those organizations should come together around common interests. Ways that we can practice Umoja in the community include:
- Belonging to an organization that has a libation-based mission - Umoja honors the claim that God did not design us to navigate life alone. It also acknowledges that liberation and beloved community cannot be earned through individual merit or success. To practice Umoja we must be willing to belong somewhere. One of the reasons we constantly make invitations to join Beloved Community Church is that we believe that building beloved community does not happen when we only show up when it is convenient. Beloved Community calls us to be be committed to one other and to the community.
- Replacing tribalism with support and collaboration around common interests - One of the lasting impacts of white supremacy and capitalism on Christianity is the false notion that to be Christian means to denigrate or to look down on other religious beliefs or non-religious organizations. Umoja helps us to reject that lie by calling us to celebrate our beliefs through our commitment to our community, and with that community to align with and encourage organizations that are working for liberation and beloved community.
Reflection Prompts, Discussion Questions, and Activities for Umoja
Celebrate ways you have practiced Umoja this year:
- Ask your family members to name at least one way that you have contributed to the harmony and unity of the family
- Do an activity in which each family member reflects and writes on a piece of paper a way that another family member has contributed to the harmony and unity of the family. If needed, encourage the avoiding of capitulating or backhanded compliments, let this be a real celebration. Allow the family member to choose one of the slips to read aloud. Celebrate that someone recognized this in them.
Reflect on and make a commitment to increase your Umoja practice in your family:
- Think of a moment you wished you had shown up better in your family this year. If you haven’t already, forgive yourself. Then from a space of grace, write down how you wish you had shown up. Use this reflection to make a commitment of how you might show up better next year.
- Ask a partner, sibling, or other mature family member to share one way that you might better contribute to harmony in the family in the new year. Write down what they say and, if needed walk away from it for a moment to allow space for clear reflections. When you are ready, come back and journal your response to what they shared. Write down the commitment you are willing to make.
If you are not already a member of an organization working towards beloved community, make a commitment to join one in January.