Handout 1: Four Lessons for Unitarian Universalists in Interfaith Work
This article originally appeared the Fall 2008 issue of UU World magazine.
I've always felt that Unitarian Universalism could have a unique role in the interfaith world, but the significance of this calling was made clear to me on September 11, 2001. I was in Washington, D.C., and my first visit the next day was to the American Muslim Council. I was certain Muslims would be profiled in our nation's emotional response. The Rev. Meg Riley, director of the UUA's public witness staff, and I offered and they accepted with profuse thanks the support of Unitarian Universalism.
But our conversation did not stop there. Meg and I shared that Unitarian Universalism holds some views that differ from those of the majority of Muslims: the role of women and of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, to name the most obvious. We wanted them to understand who we were, but we wanted to establish some trust before discussing our differing viewpoints.
Perhaps our support was so readily accepted because Unitarian Universalism explicitly affirms the wisdom of all the world's great faith traditions. We are not tied to one particular religious metaphor, which gives us credibility as conveners and participants in interfaith dialogue. No one believes that we have a particular theological axe to grind.
There are a few lessons I've learned working in the interfaith world over the last seven years.
First, interfaith religious services are really, really long. Every voice must be heard. I remember one of my first interfaith services, at Ground Zero, just after 9/11. There were more than a dozen leaders of various faith communities on the program. Each of us was to speak or pray for two to three minutes. But we were all preachers. The service lasted for more than two and a half hours.
Second, keep showing up. If UUs have not been represented in interfaith gatherings in your community for a long time, don't expect to be offered a leadership position on your first night.
Third, don't trust your Rolodex, or its electronic equivalent. If you only think of the "usual suspects" for partnership you'll be limiting yourself to the past rather than creating the future.
Two years ago, the Evangelical community published a statement on environmentalism that is, from their theological perspective, every bit as good as anything Unitarian Universalism has contributed. And if you want to work on poverty, or immigration, the Roman Catholic Church has been leading far more effectively, for far more years, than have we. Effectiveness, not ideological purity, should determine who you work with.
Among the many changes in interfaith work is the emergence of discernable progressive "wings" of even the most conservative religious communities. This spring, Southern Baptist and Catholic voices joined mine in calling for an end to abstinence-only-until-marriage requirements in U.S. HIV/AIDS relief. A few years ago, I attended the NAACP's religious leaders gathering in Atlanta, where I was amazed to hear the younger generation of black preachers clearly and explicitly preach small-"u" universalism. I was stunned. All people are saved—even Buddhists and Muslims, even BGLT folks, even atheists.
Finally, we need to get over our Christian-phobia. Unitarian Universalists will joyfully chant the Buddhist sutras, delight in midrash of traditional Jewish texts, recite Native American prayers, and sing Gospel hymns. But ask many Unitarian Universalists to join in reciting the Lord's Prayer and you are in big trouble.
This country's dominant faith is Christianity. If you are going to work in the interfaith world, you have to be able to be in the presence of people for whom the Christian message is life-saving Good News. If a Southern Baptist and a Catholic can stand with us to argue for comprehensive sexuality education and birth control, we must be able to respect the Lord's Prayer. Perhaps we simply need to remember that the heart of the Christian Gospel is to love God and "love thy neighbor as thyself."
There you have it. A few lessons I've learned, all in the service of Unitarian Universalism taking its rightful place at the interfaith table.