We must admit that Unitarian Universalism has a specific, sometimes alienating culture, and we must change it.
My sons are third-generation Unitarian Universalists. After his beautiful and moving Coming of Age ceremony at our congregation, my older son, Allen, asked me whether I would be offended if he joined another religion when he grew up. Now, as his mother, I couldn’t possibly be offended. My husband Bob and I have raised our children to know that they must find their own way, even as we have been clear about what path we follow as Unitarian Universalists. We want him to feel free to be the spiritual seeker he has been raised to be. On the other hand, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, I was internally screaming, “YES, I’m offended! Just what do you think I’ve been doing around here?”
When I asked him why he thought it would be better to be a different religion, he said, “It’s not that I don’t like being a UU. I am just tired of being the only black kid in the youth group, and the only black kid at camp, and the only black kid everywhere.” He loves our faith, but he is lonely. Even attending a loving church where your mother is one of the twenty-four senior or solo ministers of color in the entire Unitarian Universalist movement cannot save you from the truth of your situation.
It would be great if those of us who are ministers of color, and Latino/Latina ministers, and Asian/Pacific Island ministers, and multiracial ministers, were automatic magnets for diversity in our congregations. It surely would make raising my sons easier. It would be fabulous if the handful of us who do this work in the parish had grasped the magic formula after the hard years spent in the laboratories of our own congregations. But the truth is that most of us haven’t. I know I haven’t, even after nearly nine years in New York City, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world. But even to imagine that we alone could figure it out in our UU congregations would be attributing far more power to us as ministers than we have, and far less power than we should to the culture of our congregations itself. As we continue to parse this complex issue, we forget at our peril that even topics as innocuous as what color to paint the bathroom walls continue to fall victim to the realities of our congregational systems, to our habits of being, and to the inordinate length of what we in the parish measure as church time.
We also underestimate the reality of resistance in our congregations, a resistance rooted not so much in racism as in matters of class and culture. We forget when we talk about cultural competence in ministry, or cultural change in ministry, that it is not just those other people who have a culture. Unitarian Universalist congregations have a culture. Consider who many of us are, and who we are pretty proud about being, no matter what our race or ethnicity. Many of us are the people who brag about not owning televisions because there is nothing worth watching, unless it is PBS. Many of us are the people who refuse to listen to popular music because it is misogynistic and violent, and more than a few of us regard rap music as nothing more than noise and confusion. Many of us change the channel, and listen to NPR and love Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and laugh when Keillor makes fun of us. Many of us are unapologetic nature lovers, and the only thing we might love more than hiking in the woods is building our congregations in the woods, complete with tiny elegant signs that blend in well with the natural environment but cannot possibly be seen by a seeker on the highway. Many of us eat locally, we shop at farmer’s markets, and we would never be caught in Wal-Mart, unless it was a dire emergency. Many of us do look ahead in our hymnal to see whether we agree with the words, and forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we are refusing to sing. Most of all, many of us love our UU congregations because they represent for us places of respite and peace and sanctuary.
How, then, do we encounter those whose experience of church is different, whose experience of the holy is different, who find the truth of their lives in music from T.I. and Naz, in the Black Eyed Peas and A Tribe Called Quest? Where do they enter into the culture of Unitarian Universalist religious community? How do people like me, proficient in navigating the worlds of African American identity, learn to make room for the experiences of immigrant people whose names I have not yet learned to say? How do we—all of us—convert our ignorance into wisdom, manage both our shame and our earnestness, both our resistance and our desire to know?
I don’t need to tell you that Paul Rasor’s engaging essay is nonetheless a more fact-based version of the exact same conversation we have been having in this faith since I became a Unitarian Universalist in 1985, twenty-five years ago. The very first General Assembly I went to included a workshop on diversity, in the days when our movement was close to dragging people of color off the street, if necessary, and into a UU church. But what I remember most about that workshop was the white man who stood up during the discussion period, looked straight at me and said, in perfect seriousness, “But I don’t like gospel music.”
Now I happen to like gospel music, but I realized that his discomfort was not with me—at least, not with me simply for my race. He was telling the truth and pointing to what did make him uncomfortable. For race and ethnicity have stood in during our conversations for something more ineffable, more complex, more edgy than we are willing to discuss. We are speaking as well about matters of culture—Unitarian Universalist culture—that many of us have been unwilling to acknowledge, and we have been unable to address these issues because we have been confused about the conversation we have been having, and we cannot escape the boxes to which we are likely to be assigned. If you talk about loving gospel music and you’re black, you’re stereotypical, and if you are white you are racist, and if you are Latino/Latina you are angry that the movement remains in a black-white paradigm at all, and if you are Asian, you feel invisible a lot of the time, and if you are multiracial you are annoyed that you are being asked to choose, and, no matter what your social location, you find yourself in trouble rather than in community.
But the truth is that community is precisely what we need here, most particularly religious community. More than one person in our movement has remarked over the years that, for people who are blessed with the gift of free religious community, we are also cursed with a nasty little Calvinist streak that we would do well to examine. We would rather be angry and judgmental with one another and ourselves than be tender and merciful, in simple acknowledgement of how hard it continues to be to do what we must do in our congregations. We must admit that we have a specific, sometimes alienating culture, and we must change it. And we must grieve the loss of the familiar and gain some measure of courage to embrace the new.
These things are not the work of Paul Rasor’s very real and telling numbers; these things are the work of the spirit. These things call us to be faithful to James Luther Adams’s observation that church is where we practice what it means to be human. We have a lot more humanity to learn about, a lot more practicing to do, with a lot more people than we are used to. If we really mean what we say, we will have to get a lot better at some very Universalist values: We will have to learn to love each other more, and in better ways than we do right now. We will have to learn to forgive each other more, and in better ways, than we are used to doing. We will need the Universalist gifts of “hope and courage,” too. We—ministers and laypeople—want our congregations to be safe. But safety is a relative term when it comes to religious community. For if we are really practicing what it means to be human, in an ever widening circle of humanity, our congregations may become some of the most dangerous places we know, because they will become faithful communities of change, as we call each other into that territory of the soul that distinguishes the church from a social club, or a sorority, or a coffee house for the vaguely spiritual.
In the end, this is not, and never will be, a numbers game. For me, the stakes are far higher than the numbers indicate. I am a Unitarian Universalist because I cannot be anything else. But my sons have yet to make a decision. Will they stand, or will they move? I do not know. But what I wish with all my heart I could be sure of is that they would find in our liberal tradition the wings with which they might fly.
Adapted from an address to the Berry Street Conference of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association in Salt Lake City, June 24, 2009.
Please note: newsletter on hiatus
The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt is president of Starr King School for the Ministry and a contributing editor of UU World. She is the author of Unafraid of the Dark: A Memoir (Random House, 1998).
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