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Letters, Fall 2010
Readers respond to the Summer 2010 issue.
John Buehrens’s article, “The Welcome Table,” (Summer 2010) acknowledges the vitality of the emergent movement in progressive Christianity. Attending an emergent church in the Boston area myself has made me aware that a worship service can speak to weekly spiritual needs. I have rediscovered ancient liturgy, faced private pains, worked on forgiveness, and find renewal every week with fellow seekers.
If UUs are sincere about welcoming a wider socio-economic spectrum, services need to meet people where they are—searching for strength, forgiveness, and honesty in life’s daily struggle while trying to lead lives of moral worth.
The typical UU ten-month church calendar is a socioeconomic turnoff. Working people do not live by an academic calendar. When a church shuts its doors in the summer it speaks volumes about the assumptions it makes about its membership. The attraction of the megachurch is not all about guilt or a simplistic message. Some of the appeal is an acknowledgement that people lead complicated lives of struggle year-round and need help and support along the way.
First Congregational Parish UU, Kingston
Unitarian Universalism has limited appeal because too many of us believe that our culture and our identity are one and the same—a common fallacy among liberal religions, who compensate for the lack of a unifying creed by uniting around culture (“What Is UU Culture?” Summer 2010). As Betty Bobo Seiden has observed, those of us who do not belong to that dominant culture are constantly fighting the message, “You are not one of us,” no matter how wholeheartedly we subscribe to the principles our religion professes to embody (“Change Vision, Not Culture”).
Our identity is defined not by our intellectual elitism, but by our commitment to love and justice. Love and justice, however, must begin in our own congregations. How can we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person when we cling to the belief that our culture is superior? How can we promote world community when we do not seek it even within our own walls? How can we engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning when we restrict our communities to those who think and live as we do? We simply cannot, in Jason Shelton’s words, live “our ideals and values with integrity” without greater diversity (“The Junior High Factor”).
First Parish in Cambridge
Citing Robert Putnam, my colleague the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell argues that “higher diversity results in less interaction and cooperation among people” (“Let’s Take Off the Hair Shirt,” Summer 2010). But Putnam studied residential neighborhoods, where diversity is typically compelled by socioeconomic forces beyond our control.
Congregations, by contrast, are intentional communities free to choose our mission and vision. Where better than church to celebrate, illuminate, and reconcile our differences?
Have most Unitarian Universalists made “sincere efforts” toward diversity, as Sewell posits, or do we just wish it would materialize without disturbing our familiar ways? How many of our congregations have publicly declared the intention or risked discomfort to realize the dream of Beloved Community?
The “how” of building diverse congregations is no longer mysterious, thanks to a growing library of research and narrative by guides like Michael Emerson, Eric Law, Jacqui Lewis, Gordon Dragt, and our own Taquiena Boston and Paula Cole Jones. Sewell calls it “a stretch” for Unitarian Universalists, but stretching keeps us flexible, healthy, and strong.
My congregation is embracing a multiracial, multicultural, justice-making future—enlivening our worship, warming our welcome, partnering with community groups, lifting up the diversity we already enjoy—without a hair shirt in sight!
The Rev. Fred Small
First Parish in Cambridge
After reading the latest copy of UU World, I had to double-check the cover date. And, while it was indeed Spring 2010, it might as well have been dated 1995. For the past twenty years the UUA has been singing the same song with regards to inclusivity and diversity. I recall that in the mid-1990s, while I was still on staff, I attended a diversity training event in St. Louis for denominational leaders. It was well attended by a number of enthusiastic people who were committed to change. The upshot of that event was that white people were systemically racist and that we, as UUs, had to not only understand the advantages given to some at the expense of others, but somehow we needed to feel guilty about it.
In 1998, after I left the UUA, I was invited to, and subsequently attended, a “train the trainers” event in Columbus, Ohio. This time the forty to fifty attendees were asked to make themselves available to provide training to interested congregations in their districts. After three days of intensive training, and voicing my commitment to diversity and willingness to train as many congregations as possible, I never heard another word.
So, after twelve years, an African American denominational president, and now a Hispanic president, we are once again being called to action. The question is will the UUA fare any better now? Even fifteen years ago, UUA leaders knew that while the trappings of Unitarian Universalism did not appeal to most people of color, the real issue was not one of race. Rather, it was one of class.
The UUA has done a good job, through its Welcoming Congregation Program and its recent Standing on the Side of Love campaign, in attracting and holding GLBT people. It needs to use the same kind of thinking if it wants to attract a broader spectrum of the North American population. If the UUA truly wants to change the composition of the people in the pews and change the worldview, it needs to think about what we have to say to lower-middle-class people of every race.
Brooklyn, New York
First Unitarian Congregational Society
David Provost was UUA Treasurer and Financial Vice President from 1988 to 1996.
It was with considerable amusement that I noted the editors’ choice of an NPR coffee mug to illustrate “UU culture.” Once, after visiting a UU congregation, I reported to friends that I could not be a member there—not because of theology or politics—but because everyone at their pulpit spoke in what I call an “NPR voice”: monotonous, restrained, sleep-inducing. I love NPR’s liberal values and intelligent discourse. But liberal values and intelligent discourse do not need to be tied solely to white, upper-middle-class Protestant culture. And neither does Unitarian Universalism. It is no more logical to assume they are necessarily linked than it is to assume that certain genres of music are necessarily violent, misogynistic, or homophobic.
All Souls Church, Unitarian
Kat Liu served as assistant director of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy from 2006 to 2010.
I noticed that all of the contributors to UU World’s series of articles on UU culture were people with higher educations. There were ministers, an historian, and a journalist, among others. I am a dog groomer with a high school education. My husband drives a garbage truck. I’ve been a member of First Unitarian Church of Toledo, Ohio, for nine years, and I have never felt marginalized because of my education.
One of the attractions to this congregation is the fact that I can socialize with people I would not encounter in my workaday life. I’ve met professors and geologists, folklorists and chemists. These are my friends, and it never occurred to me that they might think of me as a different class from them.
I think the defining characteristic of Unitarian Universalists is our curious minds and also the realization that spirituality is an ongoing process. It doesn’t matter if what you know comes from years at university or just because you never met a book you didn’t like. If there is anything we need to guard against as individuals and as a church, it is making assumptions about people we meet every day. That guy picking up your trash might have NPR on in the cab of the truck, and your dog’s groomer might write poetry. If we can cultivate this attitude, our sincerity will attract others to us.
First Unitarian Church of Toledo
Letters in the Summer 2010 issue responded to the articles about increasing our diversity by pointing out that diversity is not just race and ethnicity, but also includes class. Yes, but it’s too often forgotten that diversity also includes ability. Most of our congregations have a long way to go in making their buildings and programs accessible for people with mobility problems, hearing loss, limited vision, mental illnesses, and any number of less common challenges.
First Parish in Cambridge
I was minister in an urban church in Pittsburgh for twelve years and agonized over the question of our lack of ethnic diversity, given that our surrounding neighborhood was nearly 50 percent African American. Then, one day, a great activist friend from the neighborhood, an African American woman who occasionally worshipped with us but was more often in the building with various neighborhood groups, said, “Don't try to change who you are. You’ve opened the building to the neighborhood, welcomed us in, and made your congregation an ally for low-income housing and economic and racial justice. We love you for that.” We also participated in a citywide faith-based community organizing group that was multicultural and multifaith. Our presence in that group made us relevant to the city of Pittsburgh, and I believe this gave us a real voice at the multicultural table.
My own view is that the best way to proceed on the multicultural front is to look outward and develop solidarity across ethnic and class lines. If we do that openly and honestly, I think our culture will change and we’ll make a real impact in the wider society, even if our internal faith community doesn’t immediately reflect that diversity.
The Rev. Art McDonald
UU Church of Essex
I am really grateful for Colin Bossen’s article on black humanism’s response to suffering (“Black Humanism,” Summer 2010). I serve a congregation in Monterey, Calif., that, in many ways, is the polar opposite of Bossen’s downtown Cleveland church. As we all wade deeper and deeper into antiracism, bridge building, and multicultural work, I find myself becoming less and less satisfied with the limited range of voices espoused in our places of ministry. It is the voices on the margins that often ask the critical questions: What makes the difference between the relationships we say we want and the ones we settle for? Those questions we ask—or fail to ask—make all the difference. After reading his article I feel challenged and inspired to become a voice that asks the important theological questions. I think it is what we need—whether we’re in the suburbs or the inner city—to become a religion for our times.
The Rev. Greg Ward
UU Church of the Monterey Peninsula
I was so happy to read the news from Uganda in the Summer issue (“Ugandan UUs Stand up for Gay Rights”). I don’t think I have words sufficient to express how impressed I am by the courage of the UU Church of Kampala and the supporters of GLBT rights in Uganda. Their true courage is an example to everyone. It heartens me and I hope they will receive all the support we can give.
UU Community Church of Washington County
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