Why Don’t They Just Come?

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

What about this image do you find strange, not like a UU church?

[The people are all dressed up … there’s no green or purple hair … they have that traditional “church people” look.]

Is there something that you do not see here in this room today, that also seems strange? Can you name it?

[There are no obvious no people of color here … no one in clothing that might indicate they are of a different culture than the dominant one here today.]

Predominantly white UU congregations have been struggling for years to become more diverse, more multi-racial, more multicultural. Why is that? Why have we been struggling? And why has it been for years?

Every year the UUA suggests a book for us to read, for all UUs to read.

This year the book that the UUA recommends is Mistakes and Miracles: Congregations on the Road to Multiculturalism. It features four different UU congregations and what happened to them as they attempted to be more multi-racial, more multi-cultural. It is about what some have called our “inside” struggle; our struggle to truly be reflective of the Beloved Community, a place and space where the welcome is so deep and so meaningful that the presence of real diversity is transformative.

So, I will say our welcome needs to be way more than claiming we tolerate Republicans (yes, I said that!).

We UUs are good at telling others how to dismantle systemic racism. We are good at urging our society to treat every person with dignity and equity. We do a good job of reminding the outside world who they should be. Yet inside our congregations there continue to be too many pictures that reveal how white we remain. It is painful. It is embarrassing. It is, I dare say, indicative of the pervasiveness of white supremacy culture (yes, I said that, too!).

Not enough of us see “the problem.”

When I was on the board of the Southeast Region of the UUA, we invited congregational leaders to a workshop we sponsored at the UU Church in Richmond. I was there with the other board members and a crowd of UUs, maybe 100. I knew a lot of those people, including the other regional board members, of course, whom I thought I knew quite well.

We were proud of ourselves for hosting this workshop.

I don’t remember a lot about the content. 

What I do remember all too well was during a break in the middle of a particularly challenging talk featuring a well-known Black UU national leader, that one of those board members I thought I knew well and I happened to be in the snack line next to each other. In that line, she turned to me and said, “I can’t understand why we don’t just send buses to ‘their’ neighborhoods.”

I wouldn’t have known to call that a micro-aggression at the time. 

What I did know was I was so embarrassed by her out loud pondering, I quickly looked around to see if anyone heard her and then excused myself. 

OMG. Yes, we both grew up in the segregated South, but wow, just wow.

At least since the early ‘60s there have been UU voices and others who have been calling our congregations to be examples of the Beloved Community. Yes, the way Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. describes the “beloved community,” which didn’t begin with him, but rather in the early 1900s with a the scholar by the name of Josiah Royce, who used the term “beloved community” to talk about what free churches should be. Royce’s idea was based on first-century Christianity. But Dr. King made it a much broader concept of who we should be together. It has been a long, long struggle to even try to get there. We have been blind to the barriers we erect.

How can that still be true, that so many of our congregations are still 90+% white?

Why don’t they just come?

It has been 60 years since the African American writer James Baldwin, in his 1963 essay, “A Talk to Teachers:” said this:

The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it—at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

Don’t we think of ourselves as UUs as responsible, as change agents?

He was, as so many voices have been for so long, calling us to be responsible, to be the radicals who step up to change what needs changing.

I heard this message in high school, not very loud from my Southern Baptist church, but very loud from my civics teachers, who showed us videos from the Holocaust and the American institution of racism, to teach us what it would mean, what we would need to know about evil, to be the change agents the world needs, the revolutionaries they were so desperately and hopefully teaching us to be.

As a young person, I admired the radical Jesus, who centered love. I admired Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who applied the power of Gandhi and Jesus to bring about racial justice in America. 

When I found UU congregations, I found “my” people. I changed the whole course of my life to be with you, to be with UUs. We are smart. We are mostly reasonable, and reliably passionate. We do “free” church well, meaning that inside these doors, we do our best to discern the movement of the “spirit of love” and to do what is right and just, to show up for each other and for those who need us.

We were there during the Black Lives Matter protests. Always there.

As I have said from this pulpit many times, it is and has been time, for us to “center the margins,” to listen to those who have gotten on the UU bus, to listen, to hear what they say, what they feel, to hear what we are still doing to drag our feet, to harm with our micro-aggressions, to not undo the white supremacy culture that poisons our congregations.

I am guilty. Very guilty. My wife, who is younger than me, reminds me all the time, “Don’t say that, Ann Marie. Don’t say use that expression your grandmother taught you.” 

Look at this picture:

A new UU young adult took 123 pictures of people of color at the Kansas City General Assembly, some years ago. He felt so alone, so isolated at his UU church, he wanted to do something that showed he wasn’t the only person of color in all of UUism. He called his project “Color/Full.”

He took 123 pictures like these. The first time I saw this picture last week, I thought I recognized “Ann” in the middle on the right. I actually know that angry face. I know her pretty well. She was, maybe still is, a member of the Winston-Salem UU congregation, Greensboro UU’s neighbor to the west, where I was as a developmental minister. I see that others are smiling, but hers is her usual expression of anger and weariness, and I don’t blame her.

Another young UU, who grew up UU attended a the UUA’s Multicultural Leadership School, Yashi Janamanchi, wrote this reflection that he shared at the youth-led worship at his home congregation of Cedar Lane Unitarian Universalist Church after he was at that leadership school:

While I was at MLS, I learned a lot of things, one fact in particular shocked me. Our faith is 87% white. Maybe this doesn’t surprise a lot of you, but it did surprise me. I knew we had a white majority, but I didn’t think it would be that big. The even sadder part is that a lot of people at MLS were surprised that we had that many people of color. This was surprising, and it didn’t start to make sense until I talked with my father about it. Now, I want everyone here to close their eyes and imagine something. You’re a person of color, you could be black, Hispanic, Indian, Chinese, I don’t care, just some sort of person of color. Now I want you to think of any Unitarian Universalist church, it can be Cedar Lane, it can be Rockville, it doesn’t matter. If you are a person of color, I still want you to picture a UU church. Now, I want you to look at this church, and ask yourself what at this church would make you feel like you’d be an included contributing member of the community?

The people? I’ll say it again, we are 87% white. Yes, these people are nice people, but you’re still not around people like you, people you can really feel comfortable with, people without privilege.

Anyways, what else? The service? I’d like you to look at the average UU service and tell me what you see that would appeal to people of color.

The music: Look, I love our hymns. “Blue Boat Home” is something I can always sing and feel happy, but you know what? A lot of our music is very, and pardon my language, “white.” Yes we have “We Shall Overcome,” we have “Honey in the Rock.” Our hymns aren’t soul music, they’re choir music. And that’s the last thing you want in a religious organization.

The message: We have a great message. And yet, how do we say that? How do we tell people that? I’ll tell you how. We tell them with long-winded services and superfluous readings. Look, I love coming to church and hearing the sermon, and there are times where it has made me feel close to God, close to this Earth. But a lot of the time, all I do is understand. Think about it, in Hinduism, there’s singing and active participation from those praying. Our prayers are even sung. In Islam, everyone prays together and moves together. Even in some forms of Christianity, which is where we got our ideas of services from, you can shout out an “Amen” if you feel so spiritually moved. Here, you’re looked down upon for interrupting the minister.

A few days ago I was talking with my father about this reflection, because honestly, I had no idea what I was doing. He asked me a couple questions to help me get an idea of what I wanted to say and what I felt like I should talk about. There was one question he asked me that stood out to me. If I were to take him, my family, and my friends out of the equation and use only my knowledge and experiences up to this point, would I continue to be a UU, or find something different? And you know what? Despite everything I just said, every problem I have with this faith, my answer is that I’d still be a UU. Because I’m proud to be a Unitarian Universalist. Yes, I have my reservations and my problems with this faith, but that’s because I care about our religion. That’s because we are so close to being this haven of tranquility and equality, so close to being this picture of what society should be. And it’s especially frustrating because we are an amazing group of people. Our belief is something that so many people can resonate with, we shouldn’t be bogged down by these issues. Now look, I’m not smart enough to know how to fix these problems. But I am smart enough to know that we have a problem and that no one person can fix them. If I learned anything in Boston, it’s that community is the most important thing within our faith. We need to be together on this, we need to be on the same page. We need to be able to say, “No matter who you are, you can find your spiritual home here.” I think we’re close. All it takes is a little work, and a little change. My name is Yashi Janamanchi. I am Indo-American, I am a Universalist-Hindu, and I identify as a heterosexual male. I too, am Unitarian Universalism, and I too, am Cedar Lane.

There is a lot to hear, in that long quote. Yes, I am guilty!

The book Mistakes and Miracles is about the stories of four different UU congregations that have become intentionally multi-racial and multi-cultural. The authors listened for the stories of each congregation. How their stories were told. Each story is different. Each story involved their response to some kind of crisis in their local community, to which they knew they needed to respond and they did. It was not easy. It wasn’t just about little tweaks; it was a big change, and it became their story.

What is our story as a congregation? 

We care about the environment, habitat. We care about the planet. We care about hunger. We care about people who have lost their housing and have found new housing and need furnishings. We care about what we use, what we throw away. How we purchase electricity, paper, cleaning supplies. Those are just some highlights.

What is the story of how we welcome visitors, and about who stays? Look around the room; you can see the answer to that.

I don’t know all the answers. I know that people who learned how to run a worship service the way I learned are dinosaurs. I am a dinosaur. Those who follow me will lead worship differently than those of my generation do. Will you like it?  …

Here is a prayer written by Joe Cherry, a gay/male UU minister of my generation.

Prayer for Living in Tension
If we have any hope of transforming the world and changing ourselves,
we must be
bold enough to step into our discomfort,
brave enough to be clumsy there,
loving enough to forgive ourselves and others.
May we, as a people of faith, be granted the strength to be
so bold,
so brave,
and so loving.

And because he mentions tension, I am going to also quote the Rev. Marta Valentin, younger than Joe and me, a lesbian person of color, who for a time was floating around UUism not able to find a settlement. For a while she was the district exec in one of the UU regions and now works for the UUA.

In Mistakes and Miracles, she is quoted as saying:

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. … 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
for everyone.

May we be a faith for EVERYONE.

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