What is it in Unitarian Universalism’s core message that demands that its people work toward building multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community? What in Unitarian Universalism’s central theology requires us to do this work if we want to call ourselves Unitarian Universalists? How can we articulate this call of our faith in compelling ways?
In 2014, we set out to tell the stories of five congregations intentionally striving to build these radically inclusive, multiculturally competent communities—the stories we have now shared in Mistakes and Miracles: Congregations on the Road to Multiculturalism.As we research and visit, interview and write, these questions about the call of our faith trouble and consume us. Unitarian Universalism is famously noncreedal, which means there is no “belief test” for claiming a Unitarian Universalist identity. The religion’s Fourth Principle expresses Unitarian Universalist communities’ commitment to affirming and promoting a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” In fact, most Unitarian Universalists agree on the value of the search more than we do on any particular outcome. The degree of freedom of conscience and belief promised to individual Unitarian Universalists remains a distinguishing characteristic of the faith; for some, it is the main draw.
Is it even possible, then, to claim that Unitarian Universalist theology requires us to build multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community? And if so, where and how is this core requirement expressed?
Neither of us claims to be a theologian. And yet we sense that our faith’s very celebration of the “free and responsible search for truth and meaning” calls all Unitarian Universalists to be just that: practical theologians who express, in words and deeds, the ultimate meaning of our faith. In this essay—adapted from Mistakes and Miracles’ first chapter—we create a conversation on the page among voices from a variety of locations, all of whom are striving to capture this call in words.
As we wrestle with the question of why we must do the work of multiculturalism and antiracism, we invite our readers to wrestle with us. The words and ideas that we offer here inspire and fuel our own commitment to the work. May they encourage the search in our readers as well.
The background for our search
On our bookshelves sits a row of books from the late 1990s and early 2000s that focus primarily on Christian congregations striving to build multiracial, multiethnic communities. Some of these books come out of the National Congregations Study—research conducted in the late ’90s that produces such titles as United by Faith: The Multiracial Congregation as an Answer to the Problem of Race; People of the Dream: Multiracial Congregations in the United States; and One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches. Although some of Christianity’s claims differ from those of our faith, the authors’ insights help us prepare for our own research with Unitarian Universalist congregations.
We are particularly struck by the authors’ claims that multiracial congregations have an overarching goal that surpasses racial and ethnic diversity. Something bigger than the richness of diversity itself demands that these congregations persevere in the countercultural project of bringing diverse folks into community together. That “something more,” the authors suggest, springs from the call of their faith.
In the introduction to United by Faith, for example, the authors—Curtiss Paul DeYoung, Michael O. Emerson, George Yancey, and Karen Chai Kim—wonder whether the core message of Christianity demands that, “as much as possible,” its believers ought to create multiracial congregations. But these authors—like most Unitarian Universalists—wonder whether members of their faith can come to consensus about anything they “ought” to do. Their uncertainty reminds us that every single religion encompasses many different expressions. Claiming one unifying identity statement is tough for all of us, whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Unitarian Universalist, or something else.
The authors of United by Faith zero in on how Jesus’s vision of a “house of prayer for all nations” (Isaiah 56:7; Mark 11:17) urges the move to multiculturalism. Guided by this vision, Jesus’s earliest followers set themselves free from their monoracial worldview and begin creating multiracial, multicultural communities. Under the leadership of the apostle Paul, this “theology of oneness”—the understanding that, through Jesus, there is just one human family, one human race—eventually becomes an established part of the Christian message. To follow Jesus’s Way, the authors conclude, Christians are called to do this work.
Yet the lived experience of Christianity in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries remains as diverse as that of any religion. DeYoung, Emerson, Yancey, and Kim suggest that the theology of oneness must first deepen into a “core belief” in order for it to have its full impact on the lives of its followers. A core belief, they say, is a “nonnegotiable commitment and mindset . . . [residing] in the depth of our souls.” In other words, Jesus’s life and teachings represent a change in mindset, a revolution in worldview that demands a life built on the recognition of oneness. But that demand can only be accepted and embraced when taken into the depths of Christians’ souls. Then and only then do multiracial, multicultural congregations become necessary expressions of this theology.
Most religions’ ideals remain aspirational; they are hoped for rather than attained. The National Congregations Study defines a multiracial congregation as one where 20 percent of the members come from racial groups different from the majority. According to that measure, only about 7.5 percent of all Christian congregations are multiracial in the late 1990s. In a 2010 Faith Communities Today study, the figure rises to 13.7 percent. That’s still small. In contrast, we co-authors note, the proportion of multiracial congregations in non-Christian faiths surpasses one-third.
Still, the authors of United by Faith find in the foundational stories and scripture of Christianity a distinct and compelling call to the work of building multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community, whether or not this aspiration is achieved.
In the foreground
As we write our own book about congregations striving to build this kind of community, we wonder where Unitarian Universalists can find a similar compelling call. In a noncreedal faith, where do we turn for such clarity?
We could rely on the faith’s theological underpinnings, including those verses from the prophet Isaiah and Jesus that United by Faith draws on. After all, our religion grows out of Jewish and Christian roots.
We could look to the core beliefs that led some Unitarians and Universalists to participate in the nineteenth century abolitionist and twentieth century civil rights movements. For many individual followers, their faith demanded their participation in those contemporary struggles for justice, equity, and compassion. On the other hand, most local and national Unitarian and Universalist institutions didn’t follow suit.
Or we could depend on the UUA’s Seven Principles, adopted by congregational delegates in 1985. The Principles, many Unitarian Universalists feel, create a roadmap for what it means to live a faithful life in our religious communities. The First and Seventh Principles—affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all and the interconnected web of all existence—lay the groundwork for a religion of radical inclusion and empowerment, while the Second through Sixth offer pointers for how to live these aspirations into being.
Any of these sources might suffice, although our religion’s history shows that they haven’t yet created a unifying call that convinces enough Unitarian Universalists to create lasting institutional change. What’s more, the urgency of the times in which we live invites us to listen instead for more contemporary voices, and especially for those that have been silenced in the past. Unitarian Universalism’s conviction that “revelation is not sealed”—that new truths are constantly emerging—teaches us to look and listen now for fresh expressions of this religion, in the words of those who have been marginalized for too long.
In the foreground of our hearts and minds, then, rise the voices of Unitarian Universalists of color preaching and teaching in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Also in the foreground shine our own lived experiences of recent prophetic calls to multiracial, antiracist Beloved Community within our congregations and in our national movement. General Assembly 2017, reshaped at the last moment in response to the disruptions in Unitarian Universalism that spring, blazes as one such lived experience for both of us.
A word of reassurance: Although we are inspired by events that happen close to the time of our writing, the words and images we offer here transcend the specific moments when they occur. The reader doesn’t have to have been present at any of these experiences to feel the resonance of what is said and modeled there. Beyond the timeliness of our own context, we are looking for those theological expressions and wrestlings that might represent fresh “revelations” and that might inspire Unitarian Universalists, too, to be “united by faith.”
A tale of two General Assemblies
For a moment on June 22, 2017, when Lena K. Gardner, executive director of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), introduces elder and mentor Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly (GA) in New Orleans, we sense time folding back on itself.
Almost fifty years earlier, at the 1969 GA, a third of the attendees are people of color. White Unitarian Universalists’ active engagement in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s has thrown open the doors of the predominantly white religion, and people of color have resonated with its commitment to progressive action. Together, these congregants have helped to reshape Unitarian Universalism into a much more diverse association. The GA vote the year before to allocate $1 million of the UUA’s budget to the Black Affairs Council (BAC) has energized many, but it has also generated opposition.
The agenda for the 1969 GA includes a motion to allocate money to BAC’s rival, Black and White Action (BAWA), an integrated organization, as well as to BAC. The proposal reads to BAC and its supporters as Unitarian Universalist leadership splitting its focus among conflicting approaches to Black empowerment and thus failing once again to fully support its African American leaders. Anger, grief, and fear break the delegates into factions with different ideas about how to proceed. Dr. Sanyika, then named Hayward Henry and chair of the Black Affairs Council, leads a walkout. Hundreds of African American delegates, other people of color, and many white allies leave the building. For some, that departure lasts only a little while. For many, like Dr. Sanyika, now a Presbyterian elder, it lasts a lifetime. The possibility of multiracial, multicultural Beloved Community on a large scale within Unitarian Universalism recedes.
The wounds and rifts of the late 1960s, a turning point now called the Empowerment Controversy in the Unitarian Universalist Association, form part of Unitarian Universalism’s present DNA. They still impact even those Unitarian Universalists who have never heard the story. They echo in the responses roused by the Board of Trustees’ decision in October 2016 to provide $5.3 million to fund Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and by the UUA staffing disruptions in the spring of 2017. They strengthen the longing for reconciliation and redemption that this new moment offers.
So on this June day in 2017 when Dr. Sanyika, a vital presence in his seventies, stands on the General Assembly stage beside Lena K. Gardner, a young leader in her thirties, the 4,000 Unitarian Universalists in the convention center can feel two powerful movements coming together across time and generations—the Black Empowerment Movement, as manifested within Unitarian Universalism in the 1960s, alongside Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, a movement of the 2010s.
Dr. Sanyika describes how Unitarian Universalism “used to be my spiritual home, but white supremacy swept me away.” Yet he remains committed to the struggle—“not to the structure,” he clarifies, “but to the struggle and the justice that need to be done” within this religion. Something has called him back to help lead in this new moment of crisis and opportunity.
Dr. Sanyika then offers these reflections on the faith’s compelling call:
Unitarian Universalism at its finest and at its best is an instrument to transform humanity so that it can evolve to its highest level of consciousness and potential. At its best! And it must constantly be vigilant to denounce all forms of human oppression, exploitation, degradation, domination, and control in any form that it comes.
Unitarian Universalism at its best is a transformative agent for justice and liberation and peace in the world. At its best! But it can’t do that if it marginalizes humanity. If it leaves anybody out at the table, you cannot fulfill that mission. You cannot fulfill that mission by being partial to some and not fair with all. Justice and equity must define who you are and what you do with who you claim to be. Because it’s not just saying what you believe that matters, it’s what you do with it.
Unitarian Universalism as a “transformative agent for justice and liberation and peace in the world”—this is our identity, as Dr. Sanyika names it. But he warns us listeners that we can’t begin to fulfill the promise of this identity until we believe in our souls that the “virus of racism and white supremacy is still around us.” This virus metastasizes and sneaks up on us whenever we stop paying attention, whenever we fall asleep. We need to remain mindful that “Unitarian Universalism is still under construction.” Finally, he sums up: “You still have a long ways to go. So don’t be infatuated with yourself, please.”
The audience erupts in laughter and applause. The call for Unitarian Universalists to dismantle the culture of white supremacy rings clear, set in the overarching context of the faith’s potential—“at its best!”—to be an agent of transformation for individuals and society. At the same time, Dr. Sanyika’s image of Unitarian Universalism as a faith “still under construction” invites an attitude of humility, curiosity, and responsiveness, without losing any of the urgency of the renewed movement for change.
“It’s not just saying what you believe that matters, it’s what you do with it,” Dr. Sanyika emphasizes. He draws a direct line from the core messages of the religion to how it calls for us to live. With Unitarian Universalism’s plurality of theologies and multiple sources of wisdom and spiritual practice, Unitarian Universalists tend to be more interested in how beliefs make us act than in what the beliefs are. Ours is a practical theology. If we take this faith seriously, it must have a real and discernible impact on how we live. Any compelling expression of the theology that calls us to multiculturalism and antiracism must have this practical thrust.
A prophetic and unfulfilled resolution
The day after Dr. Sanyika stirs the convention delegates with his presence and his words, the cochairs of the Journey Toward Wholeness (JTW) Transformation Committee, the Rev. Theresa Inés Soto and the Rev. Wendy von Courter, move to the same podium to give their report. General Assembly 2017 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Business Resolution titled “Toward an Antiracist Unitarian Universalist Association,” passed in Phoenix, Arizona, at GA 1997, which sparked the creation of the JTW Transformation Committee.
Rev. Theresa and Rev. Wendy point out the bright promises of the resolution and lift up the pain made so evident in the spring of 2017 from the failure of Unitarian Universalism to fulfill it. (In this article and in our book we use ministers’ titles with their first or last names, according to their preference.) We have failed “to move far enough, fast enough, and true enough to that resolution—or truly, to the call of our faith,” they lament.
They distinguish between anti-oppressive programs and an anti-oppressive ethos. The programs that some congregations have used in the past twenty years have offered education about systems of oppression, institutional racism, and personal prejudice. Such classes, conversations, and inventories can help unmask the systems of racism and white supremacy embedded in Unitarian Universalist communities. They have led to some progress—but not nearly enough. Unitarian Universalists, Rev. Wendy and Rev. Theresa urge, need to move deeper into the implementation of a “worthy, yet amorphous ethos.”
They then invite thousands of Unitarian Universalists to affirm the 1997 resolution by reading it aloud. As the words scroll across the huge screens and the dull roar of raised voices and united breath fills the hall, the resolution takes on some of its original power. It hints at this “worthy, yet amorphous ethos.” Although we co-authors hear in its words a subtext aimed primarily at white members of the religion, still the resolution serves as another expression of why Unitarian Universalism calls all its participants to this work. Here is our summary of its text:
- The resolution’s “Whereas” clauses cite the Second and Sixth Unitarian Universalist Principles, which affirm and promote “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations” and “the goal of world community.” These two Principles, the resolution suggests, require us to do the work of multiculturalism and antiracism.
- The resolution then lifts up the faith’s successes and failures in the “struggle for racial justice.” It refers to the lessons of history and calls for an understanding of intersectionality and interconnectedness before the religion can cast a larger vision. This web of connections—to the past and to other oppressions—gives the work a strong and nuanced context.
- It acknowledges that “racism and all its effects” cannot be dismantled “without deliberate engagement in analysis and action” and intentional institutional commitment. Explicit intention, analysis, and action are key elements for change.
- It points to the dangers for everyone, and for the planet itself, of the “deepening divisions in our world caused by inequitable and unjust distribution of power and resources.” Already in 1997, the resolution makes clear the relationship of antiracism to environmental justice.
- It then underscores Unitarian Universalism’s commitment to “faith in action . . . in the spirit of justice, compassion, and community.” Again, ours is a practical theology.
- The resolution recognizes that this work involves not only individual self-examination and change but also institutional education and transformation. One without the other will not create lasting transformation.
- Finally, the resolution calls for particular actions. It recommends offering specific trainings and workshops, forming committees to monitor progress, deepening “relationships with all people of color” to establish accountability and to honor cultural authenticity, and organizing with other international and interfaith groups that are doing this work.
In short, the resolution asserts that, to be true to the call of Unitarian Universalism, we Unitarian Universalists must dismantle systems of hatred, discrimination, and supremacy rather than perpetuate them. We must work collaboratively rather than in isolation. We must intentionally educate and act for justice and equity rather than imagine that change will happen without an explicit commitment (through generational change, for example). And we must establish accountable relationships rather than sidestep mutual responsibility and impact.
As the congregational stories that make up the heart of our book show, the resolution’s specific recommendations still provide direction for communities on the road to multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community. The names and content of the specific programs continue to change, but these recommendations remain valuable. For all its wordy formality, the resolution offers another way to express the call of Unitarian Universalism to the work of dismantling oppression and building Beloved Community.
And yet . . . twenty years after its passage, as Rev. Wendy and Rev. Theresa point out at GA 2017, the resolution, on its own, has not led to an anti-oppressive ethos—a way of being that embodies Unitarian Universalism “at its best.” For such an ethos to capture and transform hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits, faithful people need a compelling lure—a statement of theology, of core beliefs and shared ethics, of lived experience, that makes it clear that we simply cannot call ourselves Unitarian Universalists if we are not engaged, individually and corporately, in the work of antiracism and multiculturalism.
In the next sections, we offer examples of pithier statements. We tease out how these statements might offer such a lure. The search for the heart of this call continues.
Whole and reconciled
During the final year of the Rev. William G. Sinkford’s presidency, the lead staff of the Unitarian Universalist Association, a group known as the UUA Leadership Council, compose a concise and powerful “vision for Unitarian Universalism in a multicultural world.” This is the statement Helene Atwan, Taquiena Boston, Tim Brennan, Judith Frediani, John Hurley, the Rev. Harlan Limpert, the Rev. Beth Miller, Kay Montgomery, the Rev. Meg Riley, the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, and Mark Steinwinter adopt in October 2008:
With humility and courage born of our history, we are called as Unitarian Universalists to build the Beloved Community where all souls are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled.
“The Beloved Community where all souls are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled”—this vision gleams with promise. For us co-authors, the statement encompasses the key elements of a compelling call to multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community:
- It asks for an attitude of humility and courage and for an awareness of both the gifts and the crises in our religious history, whether from long ago or just last week.
- It points to the goal of building Beloved Community, since Unitarian Universalism, as a covenantal faith, simply cannot be lived in isolation.
- It affirms the faith’s welcome across many diversities.
- It lifts up the possibility for reconciliation, with a clearsighted recognition of the harm done and an invitation to repair the brokenness of life and spirit that white supremacy culture inflicts.
- It expresses the intention to grow together into a fullness of life that allows a new and more expansive wholeness to be created out of the brokenness of our hearts.
Like the 1997 resolution and the rousing 2017 speech by Dr. Sanyika, the Leadership Council’s words are powerful and inspiring.
The problem is that we Unitarian Universalists—like the members of every religion—often don’t live up to these ideals. Pointing out where and when we go astray is another way of zeroing in, by contrast, on the core message of our faith. This truth telling adds to our self-understanding, and self-understanding is essential for doing the work of building multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community. Even when we fall short we may still find hope.
Both brokenness and beauty
In Unitarian Universalism, the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior minister of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church in Bethesda, Maryland, explains, “[t]here is a level of brokenness that I really don’t see us getting out of any time soon. . . . But I have found from experience that when we get to that really low place, where we think we couldn’t go any farther, we suddenly find that there is yet another basement level that we find ourselves crashing into.” Disappointment on disappointment—this is the story that many Unitarian Universalists of color tell about the institutions and communities where they have fallen in love with the faith and then felt left out by it.
Still, Rev. Abhi goes on, “hope is what happens next: how we do find it within us to get up and begin that long arduous trek”—the trek back into right relationship, into a deeper awareness of the impact of ongoing oppressions on all of us, and toward the fulfillment of the promises of this inclusive faith. Although Unitarian Universalist communities may make mistakes over and over, they also can face their failures and try again, with broken-open hearts, to build the kind of multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community that is truly countercultural.
Rev. Abhi’s own experiences in Unitarian Universalism fuel his understanding of the faith’s possibilities as well as of its shortcomings. As an immigrant, arriving in the United States with his family from India, he has received a warm welcome and extraordinary generosity from the Unitarian Universalist congregations that have called him as their minister. Yet at times he and his family have also been made to feel like “the other” in deeply hurtful ways. For people of color, “the struggle to belong,” Rev. Abhi reflects,
is part of the journey to belonging. And that struggle is going to be a constant companion in the journey. This is not something where I will one day feel I have arrived. And that’s partly because those of us who are people of color in this movement pin our hopes more on the aspiration that this faith represents than on the reality of this faith. And that’s a very different mode than many of our members and colleagues who are fed by the reality of our movement! There’s nothing wrong with that—I choose not to make that somehow a deficiency. It is the reality, and in order to feel a sense of belonging, I feel I need to embrace that reality while working to embody a different reality. But there’s a cost attached.
For many Unitarian Universalists of color, “there’s a cost attached” to staying and struggling in partnership to bring to life this imagined but as-yet-unfulfilled reality. That cost drives some people away, as it did Dr. Sanyika in the late 1960s. Rev. Abhi makes the choice, again and again, to stay.
A large part of his choice lies in a central theme for his theology. Rev. Abhi identifies as a Unitarian Universalist Hindu—“in that order,” he gently insists, because “Unitarian Universalism helps me to be a better Hindu.” One doesn’t cancel the other, Rev. Abhi says. Rather, “it’s both/and.”
Throughout Rev. Abhi’s expression of Unitarian Universalism runs this strong “both/and” thread, which draws on many sources. Hinduism, for example, encourages being comfortable with multiplicities of all sorts, rather than forcing a sense of uniformity. Such a uniformity, Rev. Abhi explains, can create a false dichotomy, an “either/or way of looking at things: you’re a sinner or you’re blessed, you’re good or bad.” White supremacy culture encourages an either/or way of thinking; this leads to “us/them” polarizations, the potential for a damaging level of self-righteousness, and a sense of scarcity that pits one group against another.
In both/and theology, all humans have this streaky nature, a mix of beauty and brokenness. Hinduism’s sacred stories, which include multiple expressions and embodiments of the holy, capture these complexities in ways that allow everyone to find themselves reflected. If taken into Unitarian Universalists’ souls as core beliefs, these ideas—that the holy appears in many forms, and that all of us humans are embodiments of beauty and brokenness—would indeed compel our Unitarian Universalist communities toward radical inclusion.
Rev. Abhi acknowledges how far this religion has to go to reach its aspirations, and he works to “embody a different reality”—a both/and reality—for this faith. In the midst of this work, how does he retain his hope that Unitarian Universalism as an institution and Unitarian Universalists as a group can change? What is so strong about the call of this faith that he feels we Unitarian Universalists can move from the aspirations that draw many people into this faith to a lived reality?
Rev. Abhi calls himself a “hopeful pessimist.” He turns to Vaclav Havel’s understanding of hope to explain. In The Power of the Powerless (1978), Havel writes, “Hope is not a prognostication—it’s an orientation of the spirit. . . . Hope in this deep and powerful sense is not the same as joy when things are going well or the willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather an ability to work for something to succeed.” Havel’s words echo Rev. Abhi’s commitment to staying with the uncomfortable present reality even as he works toward its transformation.
Rev. Abhi also finds strength in the Unitarian Universalist belief that “revelation is continuous, it’s never sealed.” Our calling, then, is to “remain awake.” He goes on:
That’s a deeply powerful and disturbing call. Because in order to be truly awake, we need to be truly aware of what we are confronted with, to look through the masks and the fog that cloud our ability to see the world as it is, in order to be more present and to serve the world. And to me when I look at our broken and muddled attempts at times to do this work [of multiculturalism and antiracism], it is that larger call that seems to kind of keep us going, even when we stumble and fall.
But we need to make a sustained commitment. I feel we have tended to make a seasonal commitment. . . . What would it be like if we make a commitment to remain awake going forward? . . . That would call for a fundamental change in how we are as a religious community, [and for] some very deep paradigm shifts in how we function as a religious community, both at the congregational level and at the institutional level—and that’s one heck of a scary proposition.
The co-existing truths of belonging and exclusion, the inherent brokenness and beauty of human beings, the call to remain awake when the urge to return to sleep is strong—for Rev. Abhi, the reality of these elements living side by side in our faith forms the core both/and message that compels us to do the work of building multicultural Beloved Community. To take any of these elements seriously requires huge paradigm shifts, as anyone who has tried to maintain a both/and, brokenness-and-beauty perspective in the midst of a heated controversy can attest. Staying awake and staying in the struggle become practical expressions of this challenging theology.
The ‘call of something more’
In her poem “Call of Something More,” the Rev. Marta I. Valentín names the core of our faith and, like Rev. Abhi, unearths a fierce hope out of the failures of its lived reality. Rev. Marta is a puertorriqueña; in 2019 she is named the UUA’s Professional Development Director in the Ministries and Faith Development staff group. She offers this poem at the 2017 Berry Street Conference. The half-day conference is a longstanding annual gathering of ministers, open to clergy and laypeople alike, that precedes GA.
In June 2017, the Berry Street Conference takes a nontraditional form. Instead of a single speaker, it features multiple voices, all speaking to the disruptions of the past spring and to the institutional flaws that have made those disruptions inevitable. By reshaping its format, the conference models the collaborative, multivocal common thread that runs through multicultural, antiracist work.
Rev. Marta’s poem lays bare the spiritual journey of many Unitarian Universalists of color—a journey that mirrors co-author Karin’s experience and that of many of her friends of color. Karin describes how the journey of “come-inners” discovering the faith often begins with an almost instant infatuation with Unitarian Universalism’s core message of welcome; in her poem, Rev. Marta paints a picture of jumping for joy, grinning hugely, and dancing in the aisles when she first experiences that welcome “tal como soy” (just as I am). She hears with delight the words that claim she is a valued human being who is wanted and needed and “might eventually be loved.”
But all too soon, Rev. Marta comes to see that even “this sacred theology” can be twisted into “painful, spirit-crushing lies” in the ways that Unitarian Universalists live out the faith. Speaking in the voice of people of color new to the faith, Rev. Marta laments, “We learned that not all of us were accepted, / some were ‘too much,’ and others ‘not enough,’ / even as we were offered marginal platforms, / to teach the pale center.”
At this moment of disillusionment, many Unitarian Universalists of color must make a choice: to leave, despairing that Unitarian Universalism will ever live up to the promise of its theology, or to stay, reclaiming the faith and fighting to build it anew from within. Those who choose to stay bring great gifts because, as Rev. Marta’s poem proclaims,
We humans of color have always reached for something more,
exercising and building up quite a resilient muscle
that is necessary against the many gatekeepers
still trying to deter us.
Being resilient in the face of dissenting voices is a gift we bring.
But staying is not easy, Rev. Marta goes on, “especially when our Latinx history is ignored” and microaggressions compound the pain of tokenization.
Despite what it costs to stay, Rev. Marta offers a vision of fierce hope for the faith:
If the pale center responds to the call for something more
they will turn and face the edges where we are,
a rainbow of faces and cultures
engaging in a Unitarian Universalism
that breathes love into its very core
from our well-worn hearts;
they will find us no longer waiting
but creating a Unitarian Universalism of our own
Like others in the conversation whom we have assembled here, Rev. Marta’s expression of Unitarian Universalism emphasizes its practical, lived theology. It matters less which words capture the core of this theology and more what actions express it out loud. At the margins, Rev. Marta urges, a “rainbow of faces and cultures” already embodies a Unitarian Universalism with love at its core—“a Unitarian Universalism of our own / for everyone.” The “call for something more” demands that those who have traditionally held the center—the dominant white culture—turn and rediscover the faith at its edges. There, through the recognition of pain and disillusionment, of voices too long silenced, and of the fierce hope these people embody, all Unitarian Universalists just might find, once again, reason to dance, in body or in spirit.
A new principle
At General Assembly 2017, Paula Cole Jones says to the gathered crowd, “For some of us, Beloved Community is a core theological principle—it’s a core spiritual principle. And some of us are working toward that becoming perhaps another one of our Principles, so it’s explicit, so we don’t miss it.” A practical spirituality speaks through the actions of its followers. Still, the words that sum up that theology have power too. Words and actions—a crucial both/and.
Paula Cole Jones, who is African American, is the founder of ADORE (A Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity), a former president of DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries), and an independent consultant specializing in multicultural competencies and institutional change. She reflects on how “our Principles were passed twelve years before we stepped into the antiracist commitment of our Association, and we haven’t gone back and really integrated that into our Principles. What does it mean for us to live as an antiracist faith community? We need something explicit around the Beloved Community and our work around dismantling racism and oppression.”
She and Bruce Pollack-Johnson, who is white and part of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Restoration in Philadelphia, have proposed an Eighth Principle to join Unitarian Universalism’s existing seven. The Eighth Principle currently reads,
We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.
Just like the concepts of love and justice, equity and compassion, the concept of the Beloved Community has history and meanings beyond any specific religious affiliation. Taking the phrase from the early-twentieth-century philosopher and theologian Josiah Royce, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s and ’60s fills out the vision of people all over the world sharing the earth’s riches; eliminating poverty, hunger, and homelessness; eradicating racism, discrimination, and all forms of oppression; and solving disputes through peaceful reconciliation and nonviolent conflict resolution. In the Beloved Community, an all-inclusive spirit of kinship will prevail, the King Center website summarizes. In the Beloved Community, “love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.”
For more and more Unitarian Universalists, the creation of Beloved Community represents an overarching, unifying goal. The call to create such communities demands Unitarian Universalists’ participation in the work of undoing oppressive systems and building accountable, loving relationships.
In April 2017 the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective heartily endorses the incorporation of the Eighth Principle. “While Unitarian Universalists have no creeds to which one must attest, our living tradition is a faith guided by principled action,” bluu’s web page on the Eighth Principle states. “As such, we wonder why the dismantling of white supremacy, as implicated in the 8th principle, has not been formally included in our covenant as Unitarian Universalists. . . . We will not be satisfied by practices that call for community without full and explicit recognition of the need for equity and justice.”
The long process of seeking to integrate the Eighth Principle into the bylaws of the Unitarian Universalist Association begins in 2018. But even before this Principle is adopted—if and when it is—some Unitarian Universalist congregations have already incorporated it into their covenants and strategic planning. The Eighth Principle combines aspects of many of the faith statements we have included here. It explicitly states that spiritual wholeness requires creating diverse and multicultural communities. And it points to the actions—dismantling white supremacy culture and other oppressions, with accountability—that will embody this theological call.
When we invite these various expressions of faith into conversation with each other, several themes emerge. The Unitarian Universalist promise of an all-embracing love and an all-inclusive honoring of each person’s worth and dignity draws people of all colors to this faith, but the religion’s institutions—its congregations, its regional and national structures—have yet to fully embody this promise. The conversation partners suggest that the way forward lies in Unitarian Universalists
- awakening to the world as it is;
- centering the voices that have been marginalized or outright silenced for centuries;
- understanding and resisting the systems that keep oppressive practices in place;
- acknowledging the pain and harm that result from remaining embedded in white supremacy culture;
- and steadily—with a renewed, resilient commitment, a dedication that does not wane or falter over the long haul—replacing the ways of white supremacy culture with the ways of love, in its most effective, tangible forms.
In the Unitarian Universalist faith, “revelation is never sealed,” as Rev. Abhi reminds us. Ours is a religion designed to evolve. At General Assembly 2017, the Rev. Sofía Betancourt, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, and Dr. Leon Spencer offer their report on their service that spring as the interim co-presidents of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Most of the listeners gathered in that convention center can sense the power of the religion’s possible evolution, a movement toward the aspirations of its faith.
As the co-presidents’ report concludes, Rev. Bill lifts up the direction in which this faith calls us:
The final message we would pass on is a message of hope. There is a reason that people of color have become Unitarian Universalists . . . from the very beginnings of this faith and still today. There is a fundamental hope in our values and our aspirations that speaks to persons across the boundaries of race and culture and language and economic circumstance and ability. It is the empowerment in our Unitarian legacy and the love of our Universalist promise that draw people to us and that keep us here.
It is our culture and not our theology that has been our biggest obstacle. And because that is true, our final message is a message of hope. We can change our culture if we have the will to do it.
Connecting with that core theology, understanding how our faith requires us to do the work of multiculturalism and antiracism, brings hope when congregations set out to build multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community. It strengthens their will to change longstanding habits of culture when the inevitable conflicts arise. In the congregations we study for Mistakes and Miracles, mistakes and misgivings, conflict and disappointment certainly abound. But miracles of joy and transformation are abundant, too. The journey itself; the companions who join in; the sometimes fleeting, often sacred sense of completeness that emerges in the midst of the journey; the satisfaction that we are living our faith—these elements make the hard work meaningful and worthwhile.
This conversation about the call of our faith remains open and unfinished. We Unitarian Universalists must all carry it forward. We leave our readers, then, with these prompts. May they lead to conversations and discoveries that inspire and fuel our readers’ commitment to the work, as they have ours.
- Which expressions of faith described here are most compelling for you?
- How would you express the call of Unitarian Universalism to the work of building multicultural, antiracist Beloved Community?
When you take up these questions in community, what consensus can your group create about expressing the “call of our faith”? How can this expression be shared with your community or congregation and used to offer an overarching standard for your work on multiculturalism and antiracism?
Adapted with permission from Chapter 1, “The Call of Our Faith,” in Mistakes and Miracles: Congregations on the Road to Multiculturalism, © 2019 Nancy Palmer Jones and Karin Lin (Skinner House). Available from inSpirit: The UU Book and Gift Shop.