Sunday morning. My family and I are on our way to worship services. We walk the streets of Harlem, my brother and father in dark suits with bow ties; my sisters, my mother, and I dressed in white. The sea of people parts to let us pass; we are strong and confident, invulnerable. It is the early sixties and we are on our way to Muhammad’s Mosque No. 7. We will meet others like us and greet each other with the familiar hand grasp, kiss, and blessings of “as-salaam-alaikum” (peace be unto you). We are powerful.
Our power comes from our collectiveness. Because we act as one we are able to build schools, publish newspapers, and start businesses. We have an unshakeable sense of who we are, proud black women and men, which shields us from the racism that is pervasive in all other parts of our lives. We are not inculcated with a sense of inferiority; just the opposite, we have an unwavering sense of innate superiority. Our difference feels like a badge of honor, not one of shame.
Yet a shadow side exists. We are strong only if we are willing to conform. The rules are strict and there is no tolerance for breaking them. The price to pay for the power of this type of community is the loss of individuality. For some, me included, the price became too high, and so in my teenage years I made the choice to separate from the community; not from the faith but from the community, for I still loved many things about the faith of my childhood.
I kept my faith but lost my religion. You cannot be religious all by your lonesome. You can be spiritual but not religious. At times I very much missed the strength and security of being in a faith community where everyone prayed alike at the same time, in the same way, to the same God. And if being part of the Muslim community were only about prayer and food, I never would have left. But it was about so much more, so many more rules, so much conformity.
So I wandered the religious wilderness for many years, like many who had given up on finding a place their soul could call home, until I was given a blessing by a dear friend.
The blessing she gave me was Unitarian Universalism. Invited to attend her church one Sunday, I went and found a seed of something. A second visit to another UU congregation and I saw the seed blossom. There in the pulpit was a black woman, the late Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley. I had never dreamed that there could or would be someone who looked like me in any pulpit. And her message spoke to me, all of me, my head, my heart, my spirit. But more than that, there were those banners.
If you have ever been in the sanctuary of the Community Church of New York, the first thing that gains your attention is the banners hanging from the rafters. They are six-foot banners representing some of the world’s major religions. One of them was the familiar star and crescent of Islam. Without words, it spoke volumes about the religious freedom of this faith. In the front was a banner with a symbol unknown to me, a flaming chalice. This banner was not in the center, it was to the side, and that spoke volumes to me as well—even Unitarian Universalists don’t have exclusive ownership of the truth. My spirit wept; I was home. These might just be my people.
I fell in love with being an individual in a faith community. I was like a kid in a candy store. Me, me, me. My faith, my journey, my religion. It’s all about me. This religion was created with me in mind, just waiting for the day that I would show up and make it complete. Of course I didn’t say this, but I sure felt it. I could breathe again, I could sing, even if I didn’t know any of the tunes—and I did read ahead to make sure I wasn’t going to sing anything I didn’t agree with.
I thought Unitarian Universalism offered me the ability to be in community without losing myself as an individual. This faith community would provide me with the safety and security to explore what I believed, not just what I didn’t believe, with the hope of putting my beliefs into action to create tangible changes in my personal life and in the world. It offered me freedom. And I dove right in, headfirst into the refreshing waters of Unitarian Universalism.
Yet I also discovered a shadow side. There was no discipline of faith. It required little of me. All I had to do was sign a book and give some money and, voila!—I was a Unitarian Universalist. (I found out later that I didn’t even have to give any money.) This group of people had no cohesion beyond a single congregation, and even within congregations there was little or no cohesion. Everyone had come thinking this religion was made just for them, even those people who had grown up in this faith. Therefore everyone thought everything should be for them. This wasn’t individuality, it was individualism, worship of the individual.
While I loved this faith, and still do, I wondered about its people. It took a long time for me to decide to sign the membership book. I love the promise of this faith, but when I, as a person of color, look at us I wonder, How can we say we affirm our Principles and yet fail to accomplish the most simple yet difficult task: creating a community where everyone can come and be who they are? We love our individuality so much we cannot make room for someone else’s. We are unwilling to give up even a piece of our individuality to create a community where all truly feel welcome.
In some ways, I find in Unitarian Universalism the same conformity I found intolerable in my childhood faith in the Nation of Islam. The only difference is that this conformity is more dangerous for me, because this conformity asks that I make the dominant white culture my culture. From the music we sing to the styles in which we worship to the way we look at time, the dominant culture prevails. At best, we make some attempts to accommodate other cultures at certain times of the year, say Black History Month, but we do not seek to create a new culture where everyone can see their native cultures reflected with honor and dignity. People of color struggle to hold on to their identity within UU congregations. And we find that our cultures are not valued in the same way as the dominant culture.
As a black woman, I am expected to give up my individuality in order to fit in, while others hold on tightly to theirs. This conformity would try to undo all that I learned in my youth, of my inherent beauty and goodness. And that makes it a dangerous proposition for me and other people of color. I am willing to give up some parts of my individuality and culture, but not all of it. And I am increasingly unwilling to give up some, if everyone else is unwilling to do the same.
True community doesn’t happen unless everyone is willing to give up some of their identity as an individual to take on the identity of the group. If this doesn’t happen, then we are merely a group of individuals sharing common space but not becoming a community. It doesn’t mean that we go to the extremes of everyone wearing the same clothing, praying the same way, if at all, or believing the same things. However, it does mean that we move individualism from the center of our focus and replace it with a new concept of shared community, in which everyone gives up a little so that we can gain a lot.
In true community we gain a lot. We gain affirmation of who we are both as individuals and as part of a group. We gain the wisdom of others who may have ideas different from our own. In true community, we are supported in our life’s journeys because we feel safe to be known at our deepest levels, and because we are all committed to the health of the community. And finally, we gain the commitment and the power to change the world.
Individualism is so attractive in the beginning. For many people who felt the heavy yoke of being in communities of faith where they could not fully be who they were, individualism tastes like the food they have been hungering for. But it is good only when we are starving. When we have had our fill, we look for food to sustain us for the long journey of life. That life-sustaining food can be found only in true communities of shared purpose and values, where the individual is affirmed but is not worshipped.
I sometimes think I miss the faith of my youth with its rules and its rituals. Then I realize what I miss is the power of community. One day we shall build a Unitarian Universalism in which we have the power and goodness of community, and no one gets lost in the process.
This essay is abridged from an essay in Turning Point: Essays on a New Unitarian Universalism, edited by the Rev. Dr. Fredric Muir, forthcoming from Skinner House Books.