4073 Building Inter-Racial, Multi-Cultural Religious Community

From General Assembly 2006

  • Host: The Rev. William Sinkford
  • Speaker: Dr. Korie L. Edwards, Assistant Professor, Ohio State University

The Reverend William Sinkford introduced guest speaker Dr. Korie Edwards as Assistant Professor of Sociology from Ohio State University to a full house of General Assembly attendees—predominantly white, but multi-racial, multi-ethnic.

The overflowing crowd is a testimony to the importance of the subject of multi-culturalism in our religious community. Sinkford summarized the checkered history of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) with respect to the issue of race. During the Civil Rights era of the 50s and 60s, UU congregations were significantly bi-racial. In the late 60s and early 70s, supports for racial justice were withdrawn, and large number of African American UUs, including Sinkford himself, left the denomination. The question facing us once again today is: "How can our congregations become racially diverse?" He warned that it is not a spiritually-grounded approach for white UUs to go out to recruit a few people of color just so that their congregations would look more racially diverse and they would feel better about themselves. We have a vision for what we can become - the Beloved Community that reflects the world we live in today. But we lack good models, inspiration, and information. The hurt and the pain of our past are still raw and still deep for many.

As co-author of the book Against All Odds: the Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations, Edwards can teach us how. As an educator, she has worked tirelessly to bridge the racial and ethnic divide in the United States.

Several sociological factors contribute to the fact that fewer than 10% of all U.S. congregations are racially integrated, where "integrated" means no racial group is more than 90% of the congregation. Therefore, any effort to diversify a religious community is working "against all odds" and a "struggle," but the result is well worth the efforts. Congregants who have experienced truly multi-racial, multi-cultural worship environments find it spiritually enriching and can never go back to mono-cultural worship services, according to her book. Her book quoted a Latino member of a multi-racial congregation saying,

"It's a taste of heaven on earth to have people from all these different backgrounds worshiping together. I feel like my worship of God is so much more pure and authentic when I look up there and see all of the nations represented."

Her book is the result of a lengthy and detailed study of six evangelical, multi-racial, and multi-cultural Christian groups in the U.S. They comprise four churches of varying sizes in different parts of the country, one campus student group, and one Bible College . Each group has its own special challenges and problems as they all struggle to maintain their diversity. Although they can claim to be "diverse" in racial composition, they are still segregated in the sense that people of the same race hang out together, meet in their small groups, and sometimes even have their own separate worship services.

Because religion is voluntary in the United States , it functions as a marketplace with houses of worship competing against one another to draw people in. Each religious organization has a niche group - some draw in predominantly upper middle class white folks while another could be predominantly Asian immigrants. Successful congregations tend to focus their energy into meeting the needs of one homogenous group. A place of worship is one of the few places where people could come together to connect with people like themselves, to practice their culture and to affirm their ethnic and cultural identity. These are forces at work that we have to work against to create multi-racial, multi-cultural congregations.

Four things are essential for creating diversity:

  1. Belonging. Everyone wants to belong. People will stay when they can feel a sense of belonging and ownership for the church they attend. The presence of symbols and structures that remind them of their ethnicity would encourage a sense of belonging.
  2. Diverse leadership without tokenism. Racial minorities who walk into a church and see leaders who look like them are affirmed of their welcome.
  3. Diverse worship styles and practices without cultural appropriation.
  4. Mission statement emphasizing the importance of diversity.

The study also looked at some of the reasons for "white flight," the phenomenon whereby Whites tend to leave congregations when people of color starts showing up. When interviewed, none of them would admit to being prejudiced and would give other reasons for their decisions to leave. Edwards summarized the reasons for this tendency:

  • Whites enjoy greater geographical mobility. They have greater opportunities to find other jobs in other places.
  • When the worship style changes, it causes the dominant culture to feel uncomfortable. It is time to leave when they no longer feel comfortable bringing their friends to church.
  • People of color tend to be a little more flexible about time than Whites in general, so that when a worship service starts five to ten minutes later or runs over longer, they are not too worried. Whites tend to structure their time more rigidly.
  • People of color tend to bond together with strong ties, forming "cliques" that make Whites uncomfortable.
  • There are many more children and youth of color in our Sunday School classrooms and youth groups than there are reflected by adults in the pews. Many Whites are not comfortable with their children having non-white friends particularly when they become of dating age.

The work of creating, fostering and maintaining racial and ethnic diversity in religious organizations is not an easy one. It is "Soul Work." Those who engage in it are sure to encounter many challenges along the way, the greatest of which is combating ignorance.

Prepared for UUA.org by KokHeong McNaughton, Reporter; Jone Johnson Lewis, Editor.