Deepening Diversity in Worship

By JeKaren Olaoya, Erika Hewitt

How can worship teams keep centering our Unitarian Universalist commitment to anti-racism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism? JeKaren Olaoya shared her wisdom and perspective in the following conversation with Rev. Erika Hewitt, UUA Minister of Worship Arts:

Erika: JeKaren, a lot of UU congregations want to be anti-racist. They want to weave in processes and practices of disrupting white supremacy culture, and they want to invite equity and diversity and inclusion. How do you think that can be done in worship?

JeKaren: What’s really important is making little changes, small changes. There’s nothing wrong with having a “process,” but let's think about other ways that we can make changes.

For example, in worship we often sing the same songs, and the same readings, over and over again. If you’re planning to use a responsive reading, why not pull something from bell hooks? Why not pull something from Alice Walker? Why not pull something from absolutely anyone other than the same readings that we do every month? That one small change—of shifting the focus or the center of the theme—can make all the difference.

You don't have to sing negro spirituals, or African American spirituals, during the month of February for Black History Month; that's overkill. But what you could do is incorporate a diverse body of experiences within worship; something that shifts white supremacy culture.

Erika: Why is singing negro spirituals every Sunday during February overkill?

JeKaren: Many of these songs have deep-rooted history in liberation; in hope at a time where there really should have been none. You're talking about people who created these songs in a time when they were enslaved. They needed a reason to keep working in the fields; they needed a reason to keep serving dinner to their masters and not poison them; they needed a reason to keep going.

Our Black ancestors who were enslaved would create these songs to help them keep pace with work, to keep them motivated, to remind them that their worth and dignity extended far beyond their labor.

These songs are sacred. If you understand that, find some other way to incorporate the spirit of Black History Month within your service. If you're part of a congregation that doesn't have any Black or brown people in the congregation at all, singing these spirituals is not appropriate—period. I always strongly discourage churches from doing that.

Now, if you’re lucky to have BIPOC people in your congregation, and they want to lead a negro spiritual—if they want to lead any of these songs that have power, that come from this movement of freedom and liberation—absolutely, it should be applauded and enjoyed and be lifted up.

Erika: Can you offer a few ways to honor Black and brown history that don’t involve that kind of appropriation?

JeKaren: There are lots of ways that you can incorporate that spirit without causing harm, and without taking away from what makes Black tradition special. That might look like spending time on some of the unsung heroes of Black and brown history: people who have done work to propel this country forward.

We live in a complex world, and we have an opportunity in worship to introduce spirit in a variety of different ways. It's important for us to think about how spirit looks for other people in this world.

And if you’re not doing this year-round, you shouldn't be doing it in February. It’s easy to do this year-round. Let’s say you want to talk about “love.” Well, bell hooks has written books and books about love. Or if your service is about “motherhood,” Alice Walker has many writings about motherhood, and what that means, and what it looks like. What if you’re talking about childhood and growing up? Turn to Sandra Cisneros.

Erika: But a worship leader has to be familiar with the canon to know that bell hooks has written books and books about love; that Alice Walker has written about motherhood; that Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street is a seminal text. So if white people aren’t familiar with these texts, perhaps we're not curious enough about moving out of our white bubble.

JeKaren: Yes. If I’m familiar with these resources, whether they're fiction or not, then I don't need to go to WorshipWeb and have a list of “here's how to know who the Black people are.” So much of the work being asked for can be found by expanding cultural experiences and making that expansion part of every aspect of our lives.

Erika: What's the problem with me saying, “I want a list of worship materials by UUs of color”?

JeKaren: Here’s the thing: you can have a list right? But let me tell you, that list is always going to be incomplete. You will never be able to list every experience of every person for every theme that you might create for your worship services. A list is going to limit your ability to engage with the work in a meaningful way.

It doesn't matter if you can go to WorshipWeb and look at a list of names and then pull a quote. It’s shallow–and it might not mesh; the rest of the service isn't necessarily going to match that one quote. It has to be a holistic process.

I could say, “Here’s a list of Black authors that you should be reading.” It would include people I’ve mentioned, plus Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois—but here's the thing: every single one of them writes in a very different way on very different topics. You’re going to have to read their work.

I'm not saying that you need to go out and read every book written by every Black or brown person. First of all that's not possible and second of all that's not helpful. However, if you’re trying to build a worship service that is anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and decenters whiteness, you start in one spot and you do your research on that one spot.

Say you want lots of different ideas about “community.” A quote from WorshipWeb isn't going help you with that. However, if you go to Google and you start searching for Black or brown authors who write about community, you're going get a lot of resources. Then it’s your job to dig into those resources to find what you need and what your community needs to hear about that topic—and then you move to the next one—but you’re not going find everything that you need in one tight little list, right?

Erika: Some worship teams have another approach to diversity in worship, which is by inviting BIPOC ministers or seminarians to guest preach.

JeKaren: Here’s the thing: there’s no way for you to know what their preaching style is unless you're in relationship with them.

If you come to me and say, “Hey, JeKaren, we'd love for you to preach,” great! There are certain things that I'm really good at preaching about–for example, I like to preach about death. But if your theme is about, say, eco-justice in Poland, I’m not the right preacher for you.

Erika: What’s your response to a worship committee who says, “We’re looking for a Black preacher, because that will attract more diversity”?

JeKaren: This happens all the time. My first question is always, “What are you going to do after I'm gone?”

The last time this happened to me, I remember the committee saying, “Well, we intend to have a rotation of Black and brown guest speakers to come in so that we can have a variety.”

So you want to have a variety of Black and brown ministers to come in to preach on your minister’s Sundays off. What happens when new people come in, and they only come in on those Sundays?

What is it that you think that Black and brown ministers have that your current minister doesn’t? If you feel like there's something you're missing, how do you incorporate that into your regular services to keep them?

It's not just a matter of, “Oh, we're going to have a Black face here, and that Black face is going to bring people in, and they'll keep showing up on the premise that there might be another Black face someday,” or “Having a Black face here today means that we’re progressive, and we are good white people, and since we're doing the right thing, Black people will show up.”

Let me tell you: as a Black woman, I’m not going to show up to a church just because there's a brown face once a month or once every few months. That’s not enough to get my membership or my devotion or interest in a faith community. What happens if I show up on a Wednesday for a small group ministry meeting and the people in the group make me feel unwelcome? That brown face isn't going save me.

People have to understand that what you're wanting from your Black and brown ministers to bring into your church, you can do yourself. You have to be intentional about the anti-racism work that you're doing, and your work has to be authentic; that will bring people in.

No one is interested in casual faith engagement, and the work of creating deeply spiritual experiences for people matters so much. It all starts with an individual’s willingness to step outside of their comfort zones and make that learning process a lifelong sacred practice.

About the Authors

JeKaren Olaoya

JeKaren Olaoya (she/her) is a life-long UU, poet, writer, mixed-media artist, and Death and Grief Doula who serves Beloved Conversations, a program of The Fahs Collaborative at Meadville Lombard School of Theology, and the UUA Board of Trustees while attending Starr King School for the Ministry i...

Erika Hewitt

Rev. Erika Hewitt (she/her) serves as the Minister of Worship Arts for the Unitarian Universalist Association. She also spends time on the road as a guest preacher, worship consultant, and wedding officiant....

For more information contact .

Q: What’s your response to a worship committee who says, “We’re looking for a Black preacher, because that will attract more diversity”?

A: This happens all the time. My first question is always, “What are you going to do after I'm gone?"

Keep reading more about decentering whiteness in worship!

Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in Worship