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

The Perversity of Diversity

General Assembly 2009 Event 2017

Presenter: Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.

Ballroom J in the Salt Palace Convention Center was already buzzing with excitement and anticipation fifteen minutes before the start of this workshop as people left the Plenary session having heard testimonials from Unitarian Universalists who have come from diverse backgrounds. Anticipation grew as the Reverend Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed walked in with Executive Vice-president Kay Montgomery and made his way to the podium shaking hands with and greeting people.

Montgomery introduced Rev. Morrison-Reed as the prophetic voice that started the UUA’s journey towards wholeness as we slowly dismantle the culture of silence surrounding race and racism. There was a moment of tearful reflection when she recalled our denomination’s painful history in the late 60s and early 70s over the black empowerment controversy. Morrison-Reed is the author of several books including Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, Been in the Storm So Long and the latest In Between: Memoir of an Integration Baby. He has served for 26 years as co-minister with his wife Donna in Rochester, NY, and in Toronto, Ontario.

Morrison-Reed described a multi-ethnic neighborhood in Toronto where there are a large number of houses of worship which are predominantly of one culture or ethnicity—a Korean Church, a Buddhist Temple, a Mosque, a Greek Orthodox Church, for example, all within walking distances. Where, he asked, do Unitarian Universalist (UU) Churches fit into this mix? Are we so very different from these mono-cultural houses of worship?

Other UU churches outside of North America do not put as much emphasis on intentionally creating diversity as we do. He suggested that we lighten up a little over these efforts. Figures suggest that we are growing in ethnic and racial diversity, but not because of anything we have done, but because we are reaping the reward of a changing society around us. Class, more than race, defines our UU culture. We are predominantly white, upper middle class with an average of 17.2 years of schooling, which puts us at a Master’s degree in our educational level.

When surveyed in 1967, 27% of UUs thought that race would hamper a person’s ministry whereas 47% thought the same about gender. Today, more than 50% of our ministers are women. The number of African American UU Ministers has grown much slowly, from 5 in 1948 to 8 in 1967, to 17 in 1987 and now there are about 30. These numbers parallel the increase in the proportion of African Americans with bachelor’s degrees in the general population. In the past 70 years, the number of ministers of color has increased, from 5 to 8 to 21 and now standing at approximately 56, which means the number has doubled every 15-20 years.

We UUs set lofty goals for creating diversity within our congregations and continue to flagellate ourselves when we can’t reach these goals. We feel that if our congregations don’t reflect the demographic of our neighborhood, we’ve failed in our outreach. We want to be different from other denominations because it makes us feel better. We want to be at the forefront but we can’t, so what to do? Lecturing and guilt trips are not the answers.

Morrison-Reed suggested four ways:

  1. Lighten up. Many UUs are fearful of making mistakes, of saying the wrong thing and offending someone. Our fear prevents us from forming authentic relationships. We cannot let trepidation prevent us from reaching out. We will inevitably make mistakes, but we can forgive one another’s blunders.
  2. Know who we are. We can only attract those who are like us. By knowing who we are, and being authentic to who we are, we will be able to attract more people who are like us across ethnic and racial lines.
  3. Appreciate the diversity that’s already within us. The more we can do this, the more we would attract others to join us. Let’s affirm and celebrate with joy the diversity we already have.
  4. Understand how we are caught in a conundrum—we have a perversity to our call for diversity. We want to change, but not too much, and we want to stay in our comfort zone. We settle for looking different rather than being different. Change will come whether we want it or not, simply because the society around us is changing.

The question-and-answer period brought out more issues surrounding classism and racisms that are of concerns for the workshop participants. How can we be more welcoming to working class people? Why has the Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA’s) anti-racism work been centered around the black vs. white, and recently inclusive of Latino/a/Hispanic, issues? What about other ethnic groups like Asian Pacific Islanders and Native Americans? Why are some areas of diversity so much harder to achieve than others?

As the workshop drew to a close and there were still more people at the microphone waiting for their turns, Morrison-Reed extended an invitation for all to come talk to him individually after the workshop. The line of people extended from the podium to the exit as others left for their next workshop.

Reported by KokHeong McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.