Building the Beloved Community

When I was in third grade at Evergreen School in Plainfield, NJ, my best friend was John Carvana.

At 8 years old, I was awkward physically and socially, and I was drawn to John’s intelligence and easy grace. The friendships of young boys are less about whispered secrets than about hanging out and kicking around. I don’t know how deeply John and I saw into each other’s souls. I just liked being around him.

In 1962, after fourth grade, my parents sent me to private school. One morning that July, John rang our doorbell, but we were packing for our family vacation, and I told John I couldn’t play that day.

I never saw him again.

Over the years, I wondered what became of John. He was young and black and male in a dangerous time to be young and black and male. On his last visit, he’d come to our back door. Looking back, as I learned about racism, I wondered if he’d felt he had to come to the back door of a white family in a white neighborhood in 1962.

Passing through Plainfield in the 1980s, I tried to locate John but found no record of him.

Two days ago, I found John Carvana online. He’s a career coach in California. I dialed the phone number on his website.

A voice answered, “This is John”—and the years fell away.

He remembered me after only a moment’s hesitation, remembered my house on the corner of Kensington and Thornton. A conservative Republican, John acknowledges racism but refuses to be limited by it. We talked about his spiritual journey and mine.

I asked him if he could remember why he came to the back door nearly half a century ago. “Oh,” he said, “that was just the direction I was walking from. I didn’t think of you as my white friend. You were just my friend.”

Our relationships across race are laden with doubt and uncertainty, with symbolism and misunderstanding, with inferences accurate and inaccurate. Often, despite our best intentions and efforts, our friendships fail under the weight of so much painful history.

I look forward to renewing my friendship with John Carvana.

I look forward to a society in which these friendships are natural and commonplace. There’s a name for that society: the Beloved Community.

If you heard Thomas Mikelson preach here, you know about Beloved Community.

Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned a Beloved Community of love and justice, where the races would be reconciled, and the deep and terrible wounds of racism finally healed. “Our ultimate goal,” King said, “is genuine intergroup and interpersonal living—integration.” Physical desegregation is not enough, King insisted, for it leaves us “spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts apart.”

In 1966, after the March to Montgomery, King was among several thousand people delayed at the airport. “As I stood with them,” he marveled, “and saw white and Negro, nuns and priests, ministers and rabbis, labor organizers, lawyers, doctors, housemaids, and shopworkers brimming with vitality and enjoying a rare comradeship, I knew I was seeing a microcosm of the mankind of the future in this moment of luminous and genuine brotherhood.”

And today he’d say sisterhood, too.

Many of us here this morning remember Martin Luther King Jr. Still more of us have heard his voice and been uplifted by his dream—a dream deferred.

But you and I need wait no longer. We can build the Beloved Community right here in this church.

I invite you to join me in a vision of First Parish in Cambridge as a multiracial, multicultural, justice-making congregation.

All we have to do is look around us at the faces in the pews and the pulpit to know we’ve got work to do.

But it can be done. ¡Sí Se puede!

A multiracial congregation is usually defined as one in which no more than 80% of worshippers are of the majority race. By that measure, between 5 and 7% of Christian congregations in the United States are multiracial. But of more than a thousand Unitarian Universalist [UU] congregations, you know how many are multiracial?


Not five percent. Five churches.

For all our vaunted liberalism, all our proclamations of justice and equity, less than point five percent of our congregations are racially diverse.

Five multiracial UU congregations in the entire country.

We can be the sixth.

You know, I almost didn’t apply for the position of Senior Minister here.

I thought, this is Cambridge. This is 2008. They’ve had an unbroken line of white, straight men as senior or sole minister stretching back 372 years. They’re not gonna call another white, straight guy! They’re gonna call a minister of color, or a lesbian or gay, or at least a woman. Why waste my time—or yours?

But an astute colleague told me, “Fred, they’re gonna call a white guy. It might as well be you.”

I was heartened to discover the chair of the search committee was of color—the extraordinary Alan Price. At least it wasn’t an all-white jury!

I told the search committee the single most effective thing you could do to diversify your congregation was to call a senior minister of color, and if I were you, that’s what I’d do.

But if you called me, diversity would be a high priority in my ministry.

And right away someone said, “Well, we’ve got this associate minister position coming open. We can call an associate of color.”

And so we can.

But will we?

Everything is connected to everything else. “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,” said Dr. King, “tied in a single garment of destiny.”

Before you voted to call me last April I said the single highest priority for this congregation should be a crackerjack religious education program for our children and youth. I also said that excellence in religious education depends on the faithful and consistent support of clergy and congregation alike. It does not depend on the program’s being run by an ordained minister. Credentialed religious educators are often better skilled, trained, and motivated than clergy to manage the RE program.

You know how many ministers of religious education of color there are in the Unitarian Universalist universe?

One—Latina, currently serving another church.

So we face a clear practical choice. We can call a minister of religious education, or we can call a minister of color. We can’t do both.

An associate of color can be passionately devoted to and responsible for religious education. But if we want a minister of color, we’re going have to hire a director of religious education, as well.

That’ll cost money, though not as much as you might imagine.

And if we call a minister of color, we have work to do: our own work of preparation, conversation, and transformation.

Ministers of color have struggled in our overwhelmingly white congregations—not just in the bad old days, when they were actively discouraged, but even today.

Unitarian Universalists like to think we’ve done the work, we welcome everybody, we affirm everyone’s inherent worth and dignity. But the stereotypes reverberate in whispered questions actually heard in our churches. Will a minister of color really be smart enough to preach to our highly educated congregation? Won’t she be too Christian for us?

And when a young minister of color hits bumps in the road—as every young minister does—the whispers grow louder. Skepticism and criticism take hold where faith and patience might otherwise prevail.

The average length of service of Unitarian Universalist clergy to a congregation is seven years. But for UU clergy of color, it’s only three years.

As President Sinkford points out, in just a few decades we’ve moved from a handful of women clergy in our pulpits to a majority. For ministers of color, “we’ve moved from a handful to a handful.”

It would be unfair and irresponsible for us to call a minister of color without intentional preparation on our part. It would be a set-up for struggle and maybe failure.

We can’t just call a minister of color and ask him or her to carry the burden of diversifying and transforming our congregation. It’s our work to do.

At the reception after my installation last Sunday, one of our congregants approached Winnifred Peart-Harding and demanded to know what she’s doing about the potholes in the streets of Cambridge. Somehow Winni resisted the temptation to quip, “We all look alike.” But when a longtime member of our congregation is mistaken for the mayor because they’re both African-American women, we have work to do.

Of course, the vision of a multiracial, multicultural, justice-making congregation isn’t my vision. It’s yours.

The mission statement of this congregation proclaims your commitment “to be a force for social justice” as you “work... to create Beloved Community.”

Time after time when you’ve been asked your values, your goals, your aspirations, you have answered: we want to be more diverse.

When you gathered in “Finding Our Future” house meetings in 2007, two of the four themes that emerged were more diversity and social justice/outreach.

The report from your “Renewing Our Calling” cottage parties in 2005 called for diversity and “a fearless attitude of pluralism.”

And at your Annual Meeting May 21, 2000, the congregation voted to "add a third full-time minister with a strong commitment to issues of racial inclusiveness"—at some future time.

A dream deferred.

It’s no mystery how to grow a multiracial, multicultural congregation. We now have solid empirical data on racially diverse churches, from which seven principles emerge.

First comes intentionality. Diversity happens not by accident but by decision—conscious and explicit.

There are many people of color hungry for what we offer—spiritual freedom without shame or dogma, affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender sisters and brothers, commitment to social justice—but we must let them know they are welcome here.

Second is diversity of leadership, both lay and ordained. People need to see themselves reflected in faces of authority.

Third is inclusive worship embodying a variety of styles and traditions. The more upbeat and demonstrative the music and worship style, the more diverse the congregation.

Fourth, location matters. One third of the population of Cambridge is of color. One third of Somerville is of color. And you know what? Most multiracial congregations are more diverse than their surrounding communities, not less.

Fifth is consistent outreach to these communities with meaningful ministries.

Sixth is adaptability. We have to be willing to examine our old ways of doing things and see if they still serve us and the diverse congregation we seek.

We have to be willing to change—not our values, not our principles, not our spirituality—but our habits and prejudices. To be open to new people, we have to be willing to learn from them.

Seventh, racial diversity cannot be itself the ultimate goal. It must be part of a larger mission. Our mission is love and justice. Love and justice are incompatible with de facto segregation.

We are entering a new era. By 2042, white Americans will no longer be a majority. Today, three out of four Americans age 70 and older are Caucasian. Of Americans age 10 and younger, only one out of four is Caucasian. Young people are far more comfortable than their elders with relationships across race. A biracial man is poised to be elected president of the United States.

If First Parish in Cambridge remains overwhelmingly white, we will lose our relevance and forfeit our standing in this changing world.

When we build the Beloved Community, our every passion and program will be deepened and strengthened. Religious Education, Green Sanctuary, Covenant Groups, the choir, Women’s Sacred Circle, the Cambridge Forum, activism for immigrant rights and gay rights and prison reform—everything we do will be more powerful, more stimulating, more vital, more rewarding, and more effective when it is multiracial and multicultural.

In the weeks and months ahead, I invite your ideas about strategies and steps toward the Beloved Community. Some we’ll hear about this afternoon at our Semi-Annual Meeting.

When she was in her twenties, Ginger Ryan lived with friends on an old farm in the Hudson River valley. None of them knew anything about vegetable gardening. They spent a lot of time turning over the soil, forming rows, and planning what and where to plant, but they really didn't know what to do next.

One day when they were standing around the garden, the previous owner, an old Sicilian named Mr. Solari, dropped by. Ginger’s friend Erika was playing the violin to encourage the soil.

Mr. Solari laughed.

“When are you gonna plant? What are you waiting for?”

He grabbed a package of corn seeds, dug his hands in the dirt, and planted the whole row, three seeds to each hole.

When are we going to plant? What are we waiting for?

A dream deferred awaits our hands and hearts.

Let’s dig our fingers into this fertile soil and grow the Beloved Community.