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Handout 1: What Will We Be and For Whom
Originally published in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, edited by John Gibb Millspaugh (Boston: Skinner House, 2010).
I first learned about Unitarian Universalism in college from friends planning to get married. They were unenthused about being married by a judge, but equally unenthused about having God invoked in their nuptials. They found in Unitarian Universalism the perfect compromise. My friends described Unitarian Universalism as a religion "where you can believe anything you want." While I was happy that such a faith existed to serve their wedding needs, I did not understand why anyone would want to actually join such a "faith." This kind of fluffy, feel-good religion held no appeal for me as a young Chinese-American woman struggling to navigate between the U.S. American ideal of individual liberty and the Asian ideal of communal responsibility.
Nevertheless, years later, when I moved from my native California to New York, I realized that without friends or community, the social engagement I had thought a natural part of my identity was slipping away in my isolation. I decided to investigate the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. Everyone in the little all-white fellowship was pleasant enough, and I became a sporadic, uncommitted, ambivalent attendee. When new acquaintances asked what my religion was, I uncomfortably responded that I attended a UU fellowship, but I never identified as a UU.
A change of careers took me to Washington, DC, and one Sunday I dropped by the local UU congregation. At the introductory session following the service, a newcomer remarked that her favorite aspect of Unitarian Universalism was that you could believe whatever you wanted. I started making plans to be elsewhere the following Sunday. But then the minister gently questioned the statement. "Is that really true?" she asked. "Or is it that you are free to believe what your conscience calls you to believe?" My ears perked up. Over the next two weeks I learned from ministers and congregants about a faith that valued liberty for the sake of justice—individual autonomy balanced with communal accountability. I had known about Unitarian Universalism for two decades without much interest, yet in less than two weeks I enthusiastically signed the membership book.
I had found a home. As an Asian American—particularly one who grew up in a white neighborhood—there were few places where I felt comfortable at the time. In all-white settings I remained acutely aware of my differences, even if others seemed to accept me as one of them. In all-Chinese settings I was often disapprovingly reminded of ways in which I was not fully Chinese. I have come to learn that I am not alone in this regard. For me and many people of color, and even for some Euro-Americans, the settings where we feel most at home are multiracial or multicultural. Amidst a diversity of people, both our similarities and our differences are acknowledged and accepted. Few churches ever attain meaningful ethnic and cultural diversity; fewer still remain that way by deliberately embodying that identity.
Having found a spiritual home after so many years, I became an evangelical UU, eagerly sharing with anyone who would listen my discovery of a justice-seeking religion that not only tolerates diversity but celebrates it. I had no reservations about sharing this good news with people in the local area. However, when talking with people who lived elsewhere, especially people of color, I felt a pang of ambivalence if they voiced interest in investigating Unitarian Universalism. I had told them that my religion celebrates diversity—but what would my friends find when they stepped through the doors of their local house of worship? It was likely that they would see a group less diverse than their own neighborhoods, less diverse than the neighborhood of the church itself. In proclaiming my enthusiasm for Unitarian Universalism as I experienced it in my own congregation, I couldn't help but wonder if I was selling a false bill of goods.
I have also wondered whether Unitarian Universalism is a prophetic religion for our times when it comes to racism and multiculturalism. A prophetic church must lead a community in upholding social justice, which means recognizing the concerns of those at the margins of society and helping to bring those concerns into equal consideration with concerns of those in power. A prophetic religion speaks to its time and community and leads people to a better vision of the future.
By these criteria, one can argue that Unitarianism and Universalism have always been prophetic. Other essays in this volume note our illustrious (and sometimes not so illustrious) past on abolitionism, women's suffrage, and the civil rights movement. Unitarian Universalism recognizes and promotes equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, sometimes finding itself one of very few religious voices speaking for transgender people. When I think of our work in this area, I am proud to be a UU.
However, much as we cite the work of our religious ancestors on abolition and civil rights, I am less sure of our current commitment to antiracism and multiculturalism. The United States has become increasingly diverse, yet our faith communities remain predominantly white. If we are the prophetic church we claim to be, how can we remain content with congregations less diverse than our neighborhoods? During the last presidential campaign, while UUs praised Obama for the diversity of his supporters and denigrated McCain because he attracted supporters who are mostly whiter of skin and hair, it did not go unnoticed that our UU congregations look far more like McCain's crowd than Obama's.
In the Jewish and Christian roots of our faith, the role of the prophet is to speak truth to power, often through holding governments accountable to a higher standard. Yet today, given the savvy ways the Obama administration has reached out to a wide array of cultural constituencies, it seems that our government is far ahead of our churches. We are not leading; we are not even keeping up. With regard to racial and cultural diversity, we are lagging behind, in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Unitarian Universalism appears to have a generally tepid appeal among people of color. Perhaps one reason for this is our being stuck in an Enlightenment or modernist mind-set. Unitarianism was born of the same Enlightenment ideals of reason and tolerance encoded in our nation's foundational documents—noble ideals born from the cultured musings of wealthy white men who saw the strengths of these philosophies without noticing the classist, racist, and sexist views latent within them. The early Unitarian vision of self-cultivation through study and reflection presupposes a person with ample leisure and resources. The watchword liberty asserts individualism more prominently than community, and it assumes opportunities that are not always present. While Unitarians promoted tolerance of diverse views, they also believed that judicious application of reason would eventually reveal one objective truth—a viewpoint prophetic and liberating for that modern era, but often dangerous and repressive in postmodern times.
Postmodernism need not only refer to convoluted interpretations of abstract theories by obscure authors. In this context, it means the view that socially, spiritually, ethically, and ethnically there is no one objectively true reality, but rather multiple subjectively true realities for different people from different perspectives. Thus, in the postmodernist view, diversity is inherently valued, not just added on to a presumed norm. Postmodernism also recognizes that the ideals that are liberating for you may be oppressive to me. For example, "You can believe whatever you want" may be liberating to those who are fleeing the rigid dogmas of some religions, but the same statement is irrelevant and off-putting for others. People who live at the margins of society and are subject to the whims of those in power know that beliefs have serious consequences. Advertising campaigns along the lines of "When in prayer, doubt" may be very appealing to a class of people whose circumstances afford them the time to ponder, but the same phrase is irrelevant and nonsensical to those for whom prayer is the only hope remaining.
Most of our outreach advertises values that appeal predominantly to white, middle-class sensibilities, yet we wonder why it is predominantly white, middle-class visitors who come through our doors, and why the few people of color who make their way to us often leave.
Some people have argued that Unitarian Universalism is not for everyone, that we cannot be all things to all people. While this is true, the question remains—What, then, will we be, and for whom? If we want to be a religion of the race and class privileged, then we need not change, and we can watch society pass us by. If it is our desire to be prophetic leaders in building a multiethnic, multicultural beloved community, we must step outside our culture-bound viewpoints, recognize that other equally valid viewpoints exist, and intentionally work to see through the eyes of others. Those among us who live on various margins have already had to learn to do this.
May we lead, not lag. May we reclaim the voice of our prophetic faith.