General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Pirates, Boats, Adventures in Cross Cultural Engagement

General Assembly 2009 Event 4009

Presented by the Council for Cross-Cultural Engagement: Rev. Danielle DiBona, President of Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM); Rev. David Takahashi Morris; Janice Marie Johnson; Linda Friedman, General Assembly Planning Committee; Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Unitarian Universalist Association, Identity-Based Ministries; Ellen Zemlin, Youth Representative, former Steering Committee member; Keith Arnold, President, Unitarian Universalist (UU) Musicians Network.

The Council for Cross-Cultural Engagement (CCE) first convened about cultural misappropriation which occurred at General Assembly 2007 in Seattle. Since then, they have been talking about misunderstandings that happen when cultures intersect, when an individual may feel marginalized when music, poem, reading, prayer or spiritual practice is used without context credit or any sense of relationship to the communities involved.

Rev. Danielle DiBona began the session by describing her initial experience in Seattle. She had attended the Service of the Living Tradition, and the program included the hymn “We'll Build a Land.” When DiBona, a Wampanoag Indian, saw hundreds of mostly white faces in the hall singing this, she thought about how white European culture indeed had built—on Native American land. Knowing all this was done at the expense of Native culture caused her great pain.

DiBona shared these feelings with Keith Arnold, who had helped plan the service. Arnold, president of the UU Musicians Network (UUMN) initially replied that he would never sing the song again. But DiBona assured him that he could, now that she had been heard. Arnold told the attendees he will always remember her story when he sings it. This experience has changed how he thinks of this song, he said, using “other ears.” He advised answering with “Tell me more,” rather than trying to explain what you hoped a song would mean.

Members of CCE then shared examples of multiple interpretation. For example, most responded to “Blue Boat Home” as a comforting song with calming imagery. However, for Rev. Sofia Betancourt, it reminded her of the many slaves who chose to jump overboard slave ships and drown, rather than remain in bondage.

Another example is the hymnal song “Light of Ages and Nations,” longtime national anthem of Germany. The Haydn melody was used by the Nazis during WWII with different lyrics that took on a pro-Nazi connotation. Linda Friedman said she found it hard to listen to, as it invoked painful feelings about the Holocaust. Ellen Zemlin experienced it differently, however. Zemlin then shared knowledge of Holocaust history, that only a portion of the lyrics are still a part of the anthem. Rev. David Takahashi Morris shared that he was asked to never play the song again, because it offended a congregation member. “That tune,” he said, “is a casualty of WWII; it's lost and can't come back.”

Dialogue Service

To address the initial incident that sparked the group's inception, CCE presented a worship service at General Assembly on Thursday morning. They presented the hymn, “We'll Build a Land,” and offered dialogue expression which illustrated how people with different backgrounds experience hymns is different ways.


Keith Arnold recommended attendees consult WorshipWeb, a resource for stories about music, assembled by Erik Wikstrom. Also, Between the Lines, a companion book to Singing the Living Tradition hymnal, offers information as well. Singing the Journey and the new hymnal, Voces del Camino, both have printed supplements and are available online.

Rev. Takahashi Morris cautioned that while these are good resources, information is not a substitute for relationships. Rev. Betancourt said relationship puts us in solidarity with others, as it important to know that persons next to you understands the fullness of what the music represents.

Takahashi Morris mentioned that he is working on a collection of best practices to help congregations. Betancourt reminded the attendees that using best practice takes a lot of time and energy. She urged congregations to support their music directors by connecting them to UUMN or General Assembly, since they hold the largest responsibility in this realm.

Reported by Toby Haber; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.