The Affirmation of Differences

Please visit our YouTube channel to watch Rev. Ann Marie’s video recording of this reflection.

What measure do you use? What measure do you use to decide if a friend or an acquaintance might be a potential Unitarian Universalist?

A dozen years ago or so, I was serving a small UU church in eastern North Carolina, in a college town. The members were a mix of college professors, public school teachers, scientists and social workers, retired folk… all that for so long had been (and in many congregations still is) the usual UU blend. Some were from conservative Christian backgrounds, some had grown up Jewish. Many were humanist or atheist, a few Pagan, Buddhist, a very few liberal Christian. All were white when I arrived. The majority held at least a master’s degree.

When I left that church there were two black members. Two. Both of them had been looking for a liberal humanist community and came to church because a friend brought them. I don’t know how they put up with the rest of us, but they did.

During the time I was the minister in this small congregation, an elderly member came to church one day very excited about an article he had read in UU World. (That is the magazine that UU members get in the mail. If you are not getting yours, let me know!) 

The article, which I had read as well, was challenging. The theme, as I remember it, was that our faith was too “intellectual” for most people and that we needed to learn to speak in a more common language. We needed to present a simpler message if we ever hoped to bring in more people. Ray was convinced that taking the advice of this article was the key to our growth. He believed that our snobbish ways were limiting our appeal to a broader audience, making our community too elitist for most folk. 

I was not convinced that making our message a simpler one was the answer to growth. I did not share his enthusiasm. Instead, I thought of us as having a particular niche, and that we were doing fine in that space. I did think we could reach more by making our message one that would appeal to a few people, but not everybody. 

I liked the idea that one could “spot” a potential UU in a crowd because of how they stood out!

Not many years after that, a group of university students came to some event at that congregation’s building. It may have been that they came during the local vegetarian society’s dinner that we hosted every month, which I usually attended. Or maybe it was our once-a-month gay-themed movie night. I don’t remember. I do remember what they asked of me. 

These four or five students, who were all Hindu and from India, basically wanted to know if there was a place for them in UUism. They wanted to honor their culture and some of their religious practices and find a place that would welcome their evolving identities. They had already talked with a few members, all of whom sent them to me.

I am ashamed to say I was not very welcoming. I had no knowledge of any Hindu UU group, even though I knew about the Khasi Hills Unitarians in northern India. I was friends with a UU ministerial colleague who had grown up in India. What I was not aware of was any district- or continental-level Hindu UU group. I could not imagine how our small congregation would meet their needs, and I said as much to them.

I look back on that now and am uncomfortable that I did the kind of “gatekeeping” that meant they did not come back. I am sorry for my role in that. 

All of us struggle with the measuring sticks we hold, the ways we judge who might fit here and who might not.

I would ask you, and myself, to consider that who belongs and who does not isn’t our decision to make. 

We don’t need to be gatekeepers. We should all put away the measuring sticks. 

They say that folks who consider becoming UU, who consider visiting a UU congregation, have already checked us out by viewing the website or the congregation’s website. Or both. They are highly likely attracted to our message of welcome and to our description of a liberal faith that does justice work, that includes diversity, a variety of people all together. Yet when they get up and Zoom in on a Sunday—or when they have entered our physical building doors in the past—if they do not see or hear who or what they were led to expect to see or hear, they are unlikely to return.

If they are looking for an authentic welcome, an affirmation of difference, and they see only sameness, they are going to leave disappointed. 

We say all are welcome here… but look around. Does that look true?

I am hoping not to be inviting any defensiveness. I am hoping you will stay with me and reflect with me.

It makes sense that we are drawn to “sameness,” because we may believe it is “safe,” or predictable, or easier, or just familiar. The pandemic has reinforced the “stay with your own kind” view of “safe.” Some of us are quite satisfied with the sameness. 

But it is not enough.

I know that what brought me into this faith initially was that I could be with others who recognized my difference, yet welcomed me into a close community anyway. And I already knew and still know how important it was and is to be with people like me. 

It was so important for me to see women in leadership roles in church, in order for me to imagine myself as a minister at all. I would not have imagined what I could be if I had not seen with my own eyes what was possible.

At the very same time, I knew no faith community would be right for me unless it included different people with different perspectives, lifestyles, skin color, income, education, and experience all in the same room together. 

If you go to a larger UU experience, a larger congregation, General Assembly, etc.,  you see the wide spectrum of who is UU now. It is so refreshing. As a whole, we UUs are different.

They say that Sunday morning in America holds the most segregated hour one can experience every week. That is beginning to break down.

Why is it not yet true here?

I think it is simply because most congregations are small and most attract sameness.

We know there are so many other hours in the week that hold opportunities for those that are different to be together. Pre- and post-pandemic, there were and are public schools, places of employment, outdoor gatherings, the military.

Some of you may be thinking of your own extended families. Differences of all kinds are out there, many of which don’t exist here.

I remember the time a young man came into that small congregation in eastern North Carolina. We weren’t too far from a military base that was a center for basic training. That young man represented a significant part of the population in that part of the state. He stood up during Joys and Sorrows and told us he had signed up for military duty and it was about his time to enter. He was scared and wanted us to pray for him. You might imagine our reaction to him and his request. Thankfully, some of the men in the congregation who had been in service talked with him. I’d be very surprised if anyone offered to pray with him.

He did come back a few times, and every time, I heard people say, “He doesn’t belong here.”

In so many ways, I know UUs to be in a very in a different place today than we used to be. There are UU military chaplains now, more than a few. There are UUs in the military whose service is honored and respected. Some UUs even pray. Some openly use a language of reverence.

Our faith is evolving. Some UUs, particularly those who are Black, Latino, and Native American, are leading the evolution, working with those who have been the gatekeepers to widen the welcome. To not just let more difference in the door, but better hear those who are already in.

What can we do? First of all, instead waiting for those who are looking for us to find us, we can go where they are. We do that in some ways. We go to BLM protests, social justice gatherings. How many times do we invite someone there to come with us to church?

How many times have you said to someone you didn’t know, or didn’t know well, “I am here at this (whatever) gathering because of what I learned at church?”

How might we challenge ourselves to re-fashion our congregation into one that looks like, that acts like we offer a wide welcome?

As the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the current UUA President, says, “Living the values that UUism calls us to is not easy.” It isn’t easy to be a UU. 

We are asked to embrace our evolution, to change our minds, to let go of our measuring sticks, to have the courage to offer a wider welcome.

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