A Religion for Our Time

Opening the Doors to Diversity: First Parish Cambridge, MA

The thirteenth episode in the "A Religion for Our Time" series illustrates how First Parish in Cambridge, MA, has begun the process of transforming into a multiracial and multicultural congregation. For years, the congregation talked about becoming more diverse, especially as their surrounding neighborhood became home to more and more immigrants.

After learning about the Diversity of Ministry Team (DOMT) Initiative of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), First Parish turned talk into action, and made a commitment to participating in the DOMT Initiative. With support from the UUA, the congregation has engaged in an intentional process of education and conversation about multiculturalism, established a Transformation Team, and called Rev. Lilia Cuervo as the congregation's first settled Latina minister.

"The most difficult part is the preconceptions, the prejudices that people have..." explains Cuervo. "We try to open to other cultures, to appreciate other cultures. Not to 'tolerate,' but to really understand, get to love, and get to embrace other cultures."

Download Episode Thirteen (MP4) (right-click to save the file).
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REV. PETER MORALES: We often talk about using the power of our UU faith to transform the world. But sometimes before we can reach out we need to look within. That's exactly what First Parish in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decided to do in its transformation to multicultural ministry.

REV. FRED SMALL: When I arrived at First Parish in Cambridge in 2008, the congregation had almost four centuries of unbroken white, European-American ministry.

EILEEN SULLIVAN: Well, the surrounding communities of Cambridge and Somerville are very diverse, and there's been a large influx of immigrants over the last couple of decades, particularly Latina, Portuguese, Haitian. We talked about the importance of diversity; that we wanted to become diverse.

REV. FRED SMALL: It wasn't just about bringing a new minister in with a different perspective or a different color skin. It's about transformation. It's about changing the culture of the congregation. Because if we don't change the culture of the congregation, a new minister from outside that culture is going to struggle. So we had a lot of preparation to do.

KARIN LIN: Ultimately, it's all about changing how people think about the church, changing how people feel. And so that's a process.

SPEAKER 1: And a crucial part of that process was discovering the Diversity of Ministry Team at the UUA.

REV. FRED SMALL: When I found out about the diversity of Ministry initiative, I was immediately sold. And they've been a tremendous help. They advised us throughout the process, held our hands.

EILEEN SULLIVAN: Really gave us the chance to sit down and have conversations of real depth.

One of our biggest fears, I think, was getting over the financial aspects of it; that we could afford to do this. But hidden behind that I think was fears of was this something we really wanted to do? Were we just saying we wanted to do it because it was the right thing to do, or was it really what was in our hearts? And as we went through the discussions it became clear this was who we really wanted to be.

SPEAKER 1: The search committee at First Parish presented and the congregation voted to call Reverend Lilia Cuervo as Associate Minister. Her installation brought ministers and friends from far and wide, and a chance to affirm the new commitment.

EILEEN SULLIVAN: We call you to demonstrate by words and example, both a way to multiculturalism and multiethnicity, and the courage which calls us to account people are loved, accepting and justice.


SPEAKER 1: Of course, even after years of discussion and preparation and the successful search, this journey is really just beginning.

EILEEN SULLIVAN: It wasn't just the question that we've called a new Associate Minister and now suddenly we're going to be a diverse congregation, and that she's going to take care of it and people will come because of her. But it's a congregational-wide responsibility. That we all have to look at how are we being welcoming? How are we interacting with the community when we do our social justice work?

SPEAKER 1: Certainly it needs to be central to the vision of worship.

REV. FRED SMALL: You have to have worship that is spirit-filled, that is enlivened.

SPEAKERS: Do your work, then step back. The only path to serenity.

REV. FRED SMALL: A lot of Unitarian Universalist worship is boring. And we can't afford that any longer. Our music has become more diverse and more lively. Every Sunday I lead at least one song or hymn without the hymnal.


REV. FRED SMALL: And a lot of the songs that we lead outside of the hymnal, from the folk tradition, from the African-American spiritual tradition, from Civil Rights song&mdasha whole range of music. And get people really present to it.

SPEAKER 1: But whether it's Sunday worship or the other work of the church during the week, there are challenges in transformation.

REV. LILIA CUERVO: The most difficult part is the preconceptions—the prejudices that people have. People are, including me, ignorant about other cultures. So to try to open to other cultures to appreciate other cultures—not to tolerate, but to really understand, get to love, and get to embrace other cultures is beautiful work. But it takes time and it takes effort.

ELIZABETH NGUYEN: My greatest hope is to really see lay leaders and individuals in the congregation come into their own sense of diversity, their own sense of being rooted in a multicultural community.

REV. FRED SMALL: Because if you invite somebody in and say look, you're welcome to be here but only on our terms—only if you change to fit our norms. That's not going to work. That's not authentic hospitality. You have to be open to transformation; to be changed by the conversation.

KARIN LIN: I truly believe that Unitarian Universalism is the religion for our time. But in order to do that we'll need to make ourselves relevant to what America, what the world looks like. And I see that happening at First Parish with a tremendous amount of energy and commitment and joy.

REV. LILIA CUERVO: And one thing that I love in this First Congregation is that the word love is expressed often and freely, and it permeates almost everything that we do and say. And that is something that is rare to find. And so what else can be desired from a congregation?

Visit the First Parish Cambridge website for more information.