‘Black Lives Matter’ banner cut down twice at SLO church

SLO church leaders on the theft of 'Black Lives Matter' banner

A "Black Lives Matter" banner was stolen recently from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Luis Obispo. The Rev. Rod Richards and Fellowship board president Jim Woolf talk about what that means.
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A "Black Lives Matter" banner was stolen recently from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Luis Obispo. The Rev. Rod Richards and Fellowship board president Jim Woolf talk about what that means.

The first time the “Black Lives Matter” banner was cut from its moorings and left folded up in the churchyard at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in San Luis Obispo last summer, members were saddened and puzzled.

The congregation hung a new banner, a little higher this time, on the church near Broad and South streets. But on Feb. 19, it was apparently ripped down and stolen, leaving church members more perplexed about the reasons behind the theft but committed to raising a third banner and continuing to encourage conversations about race and diversity.

“Maybe it means that we need to put it back up, if someone cares enough to tear it down,” said Jim Woolf, president of the Fellowship’s Board of Trustees. “In this case we don’t know if this person was violent or angry ... I don’t know why, but I can easily imagine someone saying that all lives matter, and it’s not right to single (African-Americans) out.

“We’ll put it back up, and if they want to come talk to us, we’ll welcome them,” he added.

The church filed a police report, something members did not do after the first banner was cut down.

In addition, People of Faith for Justice, an interfaith alliance with which the Fellowship is affiliated, is holding a Black Lives Matter conversation about race on March 10.

Other churches with Black Lives Matter banners, including Unitarian Universalist congregations across the county, have also had them stolen or vandalized. The banner in front of a UU Fellowship in Reno, Nevada, has been vandalized or stolen eight times since it was installed last August, according to a news report in February.

The San Luis Obispo congregation had several conversations about Black Lives Matter, a social protest movement around police violence, before deciding to create a banner in support last summer.

Like many people of faith, Unitarian Universalists are called to act for justice, and the congregation wondered about its place in the Black Lives Matter movement, the Rev. Rod Richards and then-board president Andrea Pease wrote in August in a letter to the editor to The Tribune.

Maybe it means that we need to put it back up, if someone cares enough to tear it down.

Jim Woolf, president of the

“The banner is a manifestation of debate that’s gone on here,” Woolf said. “I think the most valuable thing for us is really talking about it — talking about do we have some inherent racism in us that we haven’t wanted to deal with, is there racism in our community and what might we do with it and how do we respond to it.”

That discussion could raise awareness about other people’s experiences that might be “invisible to me as a straight white male,” Richards said. “We feel like that’s strengthening to the congregation and allows us to engage those issues for other groups — whether it’s Muslims or (people who identify as) LGBT, we already sort of have that practice of what does empathy look like and how do we listen to each other.”

The church also posted a statement on its website explaining the decision to raise the first banner: “Black Lives Matter is a movement and a stance in response to this reality: the United States was built on a legacy of slavery, racism, and oppression that continues to take new, ever-changing forms. To say that ‘Black Lives Matter’ doesn’t mean that black lives are more important than other lives, or that all lives don’t matter. The systemic devaluing of black lives calls us to bear witness, even as we acknowledge that oppression takes many intersecting forms.”

The conversation had started in the church’s social justice committee, which more recently has been holding discussions about gun control, Richards said. The congregation has a wide diversity of theological and political views, “but we think, what better place to engage in those issues?” he said.

It is up to us — all of us, regardless of skin color or background — to do the work of understanding our biases and ourselves; to listen deeply to experiences different from our own; to know that we are not perfect; and to realize we must do better as a culture and as a nation.

Then-board President Andrea Pease and the Rev. Rod Richards, in a letter to the editor to The Tribune published Aug. 23, 2015

But that doesn’t mean the congregation hasn’t wondered whether it should be wading into such a controversial topic. After the letter to the editor was published, the church received calls from people in support as well as from those opposed to the banner’s message.

“When you read certain comments or get certain phone calls, it’s like, is that what we’re here to do and how risky is this,” Richards said. “And then I come back to our mission: deepening connections by nurturing spiritual growth and inspiring joy, and that means a certain kind of risk. That means to deepen connections with those who adamantly disagree with us and find ways to make connections across those differences.”

Church members have already put up another sign while they discuss the size and location of a new Black Lives Matter banner. The current banner reads “Standing on the side of Love,” which Richards described as a Unitarian Universalist movement standing for immigrant and LGBT rights.

In smaller letters above that, it reads: “Black Lives Matter.”

Cynthia Lambert: 805-781-7929, @ClambertSLO

If you go

People of Faith for Justice will host a Black Lives Matter conversation about race from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the United Church of Christ of San Luis Obispo, 11245 Los Osos Valley Road. The evening includes short videos and an interactive conversation about race.

The event will be facilitated by Gina Whitaker, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, who serves on the board of People of Faith for Justice; and Julie Lynem, a fellowship member.