When Worship Becomes Cultural Misappropriation

By Donald E. Skinner

When we sing an African-American spiritual during worship does that act honor another culture or is it cultural misappropriation? Can we hold a Seder if we’re not Jewish? Can our children make Native American dream catchers in religious education classes?

As Unitarian Universalists we take pride in being open to many religious traditions and cultures and we often draw from them in our own worship. But when we do, it’s important that we be aware of how we’re using those words and symbols of other cultures, says Rev. Sofia Betancourt, Program Coordinator in the Unitarian Universalist Association's (UUA's) Office of Racial and Ethnic Concerns.

Cultural misappropriation is a complicated issue, says Betancourt, but one which we need to think about. “We talk about needing to become more multicultural if we want to attract people who are different from us. At the same time we have to have some understanding of what has value in different communities.”

Something as simple as changing a word in a song can have a deeper meaning than we might first think. Betancourt notes that Ysaye Barnwell, of the musical group Sweet Honey in the Rock, has pointed out that changing the word “Master” to “Father” in an African-American spiritual might make some people feel more comfortable, but it disrespects the original meaning. “Having a group of enslaved people choose a god as their master rather than the slave owner is a hugely powerful theological statement,” says Betancourt, paraphrasing Barnwell. “To change Master to Father for our own comfort is doing a huge disservice to that community.”

Before using a piece of music, a reading, or an artifact from another culture, research it, she says. “Ask yourself how you are in relationship to that culture and why you are using it.” Include information about it in the service so people understand its original significance.

Rev. Danielle DiBona, first vice president of Diverse & Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries and a member of the General Assembly Cultural Appropriation Consultation Team, appointed in 2006 to monitor cultural appropriateness at General Assemblies adds, “If you’re getting ready to do something in your congregation and you wonder if it might be cultural misappropriation, then step back and think about it further.”

But make a distinction between education and misappropriation, says DiBona, who is descended from the Wampanoag Native American Nation. “There’s a difference between teaching children about a culture by making dream catchers or masks and using parts of a culture’s religious practices in our own worship services.”

It can take courage, says DiBona, for someone, especially a person of color, to confront misappropriation in a worship service or elsewhere. “If I do that, what I don’t want to be told is that I misunderstood what I experienced or that it was done as a way of honoring my tradition,” she says. “That defeats the conversation. What is helpful is to have a conversation about the meaning of ritual and how my people lost their language and way of life to genocide and now their religion is being taken too.”

“If you want to honor Native Americans or other groups then start by making a relationship with those groups in your community. It will enrich them, and we will benefit as well.”


About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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