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Soul Work: Creating Welcoming Multicultural Unitarian Universalist Communities (II)

General Assembly 2009 Event 3006
UU University Multicultural Track, Part II

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On day two of this Soul Work track, participants were asked to choose to attend one of three different panel discussions.

This reporter attended the session “ Sacred Conversations about Valuing Difference and Linked Oppressions.” The session was moderated by the Rev. Leslie Takahashi-Morris and India McKnight, and modeled the technique of Serial Testimony in which each speaker gets a turn to speak without interruption nor reactions from others, and the technique of Mutual Invitation in which the group leader begins the conversation then invites another (who has not yet participated) to do so. In this way, the leader makes sure that everyone gets a chance to speak.

Leslie Takahashi-Morris introduced the subject and reminded everyone about the rules of dialogue that were presented on the first day of the track. She was joined by her partner in life and in ministry, the Rev. David Takahashi-Morris, in a meditation of song and poetry adapted to the hymn “I Know This Rose Will Open.” After David sang each verse, Leslie recited a stanza of a poem she has written which carries that image further and dwells more deeply into the imagery. The duet concluded with them leading the congregation first in unison, then in a two-part round of the same hymn.

After a reading about faith, privileges, healing and decolonization by McKnight and a sharing of the goals for this portion of the track, Leslie Takahashi-Morris began a short history of the denomination’s anti-racist/anti-oppressive/multicultural (AR/AO/MC) initiatives, thanking those who have walked the path before. Her book, The Arc of the Universe: the UUA’s Anti-Racism Work is a four-year undertaking with co-authors Dr. Leon Spencer and Rev. Chip Roush. It is over 600 pages long and documents the collective voices, stories and questions of our “journey” through the anti-racism work of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

The panelists were asked questions to which they had 3-5 minutes to respond. The questions were provided by track participants the day before, written on index cards during the breaks. Questions included:

  • Where have you personally witnessed Unitarian Universalists (UUs) engaging in conversations about oppressions and multiculturalism?
  • Where can you find resources?
  • How do we sustain one another through our journeys?
  • How do you hold such conversations across generations?
  • What would be one approach to create safe space for such conversations?

Participants broke into small groups of three people to share their answers to these two questions:

  • What are some of the sacred conversations you have been reluctant to have with your congregation?
  • What would make it possible?

Upon returning to the large group, the panelists also addressed the following questions:

  • What are some ways to begin conversations on forgiveness and reconciliation?
  • What resources are there both within and outside our denomination that would help white people understand that we must move towards multiculturalism?
  • How can we white people get access to the stories and experiences of people of color without having them tell and retell them over and over again?
  • When the minister is reluctant to do this work, where does a lay leader begin?
  • I am a person of color. Where do I find safe space?

Responses from panelists and participants would be posted on the track’s blog after the end of the General Assembly.

After a short break, panelists and participants for this track reconvened for Closing Worship. Soft jazz background music from the piano accompanied by the lightest touch of percussion instruments set the atmosphere of a sacred space as people gathered. Takahashi-Morris opened with a reminder that “what we do here is holy work.” The track organizers wove a collage of images and memories from the two days by sharing words and phrases heard and used while journeying together.

Which languages do we speak? Are they barriers or bridges? What accent do we use? Where do we enter into one another’s house of experience? Not standing at the threshold, committing to journey—juntos—together. Can we hear one another’s stories?... Can we move with the steadiness of a barge, the tenacity of a tugboat?... Can we enter one another’s houses as friends?...

Before singing “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” Matt Meyer continued with the story he began the day before about how UU songwriter Pete Seeger sought justice by sending royalties back to groups of indigenous people whose music he has used. This African American hymn was followed by “When All the People on this Earth,” an African song often used in celebration of Kwanzaa and humility.

As Meyer wound up a decorated bullroarer and spun it around over his head to create a low humming sound that changed in pitch with the speed, Takahashi-Morris explained that this simple piece of an elongated elliptically-carved wood tied to a string can be a sacred object in some cultures, or an instrument for games or play in another. The instrument comes in all sizes and serves different functions in different cultures. The big ones can generate sounds imitating ferocious growl of a beast. Some indigenous tribes in New Guinea use these for initiation of boys into men. It can be an object of transformation. “Transformation is all round us. We need only look for it. It comes in the fewest of words, the simplest of actions, the most basic of instruments.”

The sermon, entitled “Transforming Liberalism” was delivered by the Rev. John Crestwell of Davis Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church. He noted that UUs are a non-creedal religious community, but are bound to one another both intimately and ultimately through covenantal relationships. Crestwell interpreted the Seven Principles as a circle with a center rather than a straight line. Instead of looking at them as one through seven linearly, he suggested looking at them as pairs with number four (a free and responsible search for truth and meaning) being in the center. Each of the other three pairs has an intimate component and an ultimate component. Number one (the inherent worth and dignity of every person—the intimate), for example, leads to number seven (interdependent web of all existence—the ultimate.) The same can be read of pairing two with six, and three with five.

Historically, he continued, we’ve been on the leading edge of liberal religion, and our forebears had been influential in shaping the very minds of America. But for a long time, we’ve stayed small and have given up the will to compete with other faiths for the minds of America. He quoted Paula Cole Jones saying “We are becoming more and more relevant to fewer and fewer people.” Our liberal theology accepts everyone as they are. I’m okay just the way I am, a work in progress. We have given up on striving for excellence.

We have, he said, a religion that saves souls. We have inspiring messages for those who are hungry for our theology of love and inclusiveness. We need to articulate and communicate these messages by becoming more competitive, more mobile, more multicultural and more accessible. This is our time now. “The cheese has been moved. We’ve got to find it again.”

The sermon ended with a resounding “Amen!” and a rousing, hand-clapping, body-swaying rendition of “Building a New Way” from the newer Singing the Journey hymnal (#1017). The Closing Words were read in unison.

Reported by KokHeong McNaughton; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.