Unitarian Universalism

The Union Club

Today was our last official day in Boston, and Alex, Lisa, and I decided to have breakfast in the dining room of the hotel in which we're staying.  Except "hotel" isn't quite the right word for it.  The Union Club was founded as a "club" for the Boston elite (ie - old, white, moneyed men) in order to support the Union side of the Civil War.  It's august walls are decorated with paintings and portraits of old, white, moneyed men.  Tho, strangely, there are also two portraits of Chinese merchants, their features seemingly anglicized.

While "membership" is no longer restricted to men, and presumably not restricted by race either, I still felt uncomfortable in the Union Club for the entire time we were there, and never more so than at breakfast this morning.  First of all, we didn't know how to order - did not know that we were supposed to write what we wanted on the chit.  And the three of us seemed decidedly out of place in our causal clothing amongst the multiple silver utensils and china dishes.

But it would unfair to put all of my discomfort on the Union Club.  It is but part of the landscape that is old Boston.  And every time I come up to the "mothership", where the UUA is headquartered, I am reminded of the disconnect between what we say we are and what we really are.  

Living in DC and attending All Souls, it is almost possible to believe that Unitarian Universalism is a faith with room for people of all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds.  Even at All Souls, those of us who can't afford to shop at Whole Foods on a regular basis sometimes feel marginalized, but at least there is some diversity.  Moving into broader UU circles, that diversity decreases rapidly. And coming up to Boston... one is confronted with the fact that Unitarianism is a religion founded by the white elite.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Julia Ward Howe walked these streets.  

25 Beacon Street, on Beacon Hill, looks out onto the same Boston Commons as the Union Club, and indeed has an even more prestigious location as it is right next to the state capitol.  It too is a venerable building with a long history and lots of pictures of old white moneyed men hanging on its walls.  There are some portraits of women and people of color, to be sure, but they are far outnumbered, and one has the impression that they were put there because...

We don't normally stay at the Union Club when in Boston.  Because of the Board Meeting, all the rooms in Pickett and Eliot, the UUA owned bed and breakfast, were taken.  Staying at P&E, with the lax dress code and making your own breakfast in the communal kitchen, is far more comfortable than staying at the Union Club.  You could almost ignore the obvious wealth of the neighborhood, instead of being confronted by it.  But that is us, isn't it?  Most of us of higher socio-economic class, well-educated, who know the difference between a shrimp fork and a salad fork, claiming that it doesn't matter by our t-shirts and jeans. 

 

 

The Power of Connection

Our office is up in Boston for a staff retreat, to have "face-time" with people with whom we closely work, to build relationships, to learn from UU clergy and social justice leaders on how we can better serve them, and to meet with the UUSC.  In all, the last two days have been informative and exhausting and, as always for me when we talk of social justice, there is the tension between the urgent need for action and feeling completely overwhelmed and powerless.

I've been told that historically there's been tension between the UUA and the UUSC - perhaps a sense of competition, I'm not sure.  Whatever it was it was before my time, those problems addressed by the hard work of my predecessors and supervisors.  The experiences I've had with the UUSC have all been amicable, and when we were told we were going to have a joint meeting, that made sense.

But what I didn't expect was to experience a very palpable lesson in the power of connections - in collaboration.  Today, as we walked into the new UUSC conference room (they recently moved), I was struck by how crowded the room was.  Our UUA staff groups, which seem so small were joining UUSC staff groups, which probably aren't much bigger, and instantly our power was doubled.  Instantly we had twice the number of people working on Darfur, twice the number of people working on the Gulf Coast, twice the number of people working on environmental justice.

Alone we are weak and easily overwhelmed.  Together we are strong.  Isn't that what religious community is all about?  I will never forget it.

My Universalism is Fierce

My Universalism is fierce. It has no patience for the theology of scarcity. We are beloved - like it or not. If we could only believe and accept that, we would not need to oppress, or control, or hoard the resources, because as God's beloved, we belong. Neither life nor death can separate us from that love. When we know that, there is very little else we need.

- Rev. Danielle Di Bona from Soul Work: Anti-Racist Theologies in Dialogue

Unitarians of the Khasi Hills

Unitarianism was not a characteristically proselytizing faith.  (I doubt the Boston Brahmins thought that their religion was for the masses.)  But we did try to send missionaries out here and there, with little success.  Ironically in India, those Unitarian congregations started by missionaries were not particularly successful, but the ones that germinated on their own are still going strong. 

Hajom Kissor Singh (1865-1923) was born and lived in the Khasi Hills, in northeastern India.  He had been converted from his native beliefs to Calvinist Christianity by Methodist missionaries.  But through his own reasoning and experience, he rejected the idea of hell and the hostility the missionaries displayed for differing religious beliefs, arguing that Jesus' message was one of love.  Singh believed in universal salvation and religious pluralism.  He was at heart a UU.

Making contact with Unitarians in Britain and the U.S., Singh established a Unitarian presence in the Khasi Hills that continues today, comprising 37 churches with some 10,000 members.

--

I had known that there were some Unitarians and Universalists outside of North America - every now and then there is talk of visiting sister congregations in Transylvania - but I did not really put much stock in them.  Part of this may be due to American egocentricism, but a large part of it is due to negative interactions I had had with one or two European Unitarians.  They were Unitarians in the classical sense - anti-trinitarian Christians, whereas I don't define my Unitarianism that way.  They argued that it was ridiculous to not have a creed (that rejected the trinity), whereas freedom of conscience is one of the cornerstones of my faith.  I had concluded that while we shared the name of Unitarians and Universalists with people in other parts of the world, we did not have enough in common with each other to engage in real "denominational" dialogue.

But then Dr. Khlur Mukhim, Board Member for the Unitarian Union of Northeast India (UUNEI), came to visit All Souls today.  That's when I learned about the Unitarians of the Khasi Hills - that they were universalists and that they were pluralists.  And I learned about their commitment to social justice, running schools that are sometimes the only source of education in the area.  Education is provided for anyone, regardless of religious affiliation.

I was very impressed, and am ready to explore partnership.  (It'll have to be discussed with the rest of my congregation, of course.)  For anyone looking for a partner church, I suggest considering the Unitarians in northeastern India.  We have much in common.

 

 

 

The Most Segregated Hour

Welcome to a new year!

My first day back in the office was a slow one, not everyone was back, so there was plenty of time to talk with Lesley, our relatively new office manager.  Lesley is not a UU and so she sees our work from the perspective of a sympathetic outsider - always a good perspective to hear.  She had been working on the "Building the World We Dream About" test curriculum, organizing and sending out packets, and in the process reading some of it.  

For those of you who don't know, "Building the World We Dream About," written by fellow All Soulsian, Mark Hicks, is a proposed UUA curriculum on creating a more multicultural society, starting within our own congregations.  This is something that UUs including myself talk about so much that I take it for granted that it is a desirable goal.  In fact, one of the refrains I often hear amongst UUs, with a bit of embarrassed lamentation is that our congregations are too white.  

But Lesley comes from a background of all black churches, and she observed with a little bit of puzzlement (but no judgment) that it was a very unusual thing that we were trying so hard to do.

And I thought... it is a unusual thing.  11 am on Sunday remains, as Dr. King described it, the most segregated hour of the week.  Not only are there white churches and black churches but also Asian churches and Latino churches and Native American churches...  And I don't know for sure about the Latinos, but I know that amongst Asians, the Chinese and the Koreans have their own churches.  It is <b>normal</b> to worship amongst one's own ethnicity.  And while we lament that UU congregations are "too white," it's never crossed my mind to think there was something wrong with an all-black church or an all-Chinese church.  I have never though, "Oh, they have to change."

So the question is: what is the motivation behind our desire for our congregations to be multi-cultural, multi-racial?  Do we want it for just the sake of it?

Certainly, that is part of it for me.  I personally am thrilled when I experience diversity, the exchange of new perspectives.  It's the same reason why I want people of all genders, orientations, ages, abilities, and views in my congregation too.  

But that isn't the only reason.  There is some part of me that <b>needs</b> it. I've said before that I'm not fully comfortable in a room full of white people, where I'm the only person of color.  It's not that I'm terribly uncomfortable, but my "Asianess" is always in the back of my mind.  Conversely, I'm also uncomfortable in a room full of Asian people. Again, but for different reasons, my "Asianess" is always in the back of my mind.  Only when there's a mix of people does that feeling go away, and I can be just "me," whatever that means.

There is a third reason to want multi-racial, multi-cultural congregations, and that's because we are still such a segregated society, by choice.  Few of us intentionally reach out to learn how to live with (and celebrate) difference.  If someone is to undertake this great experiment, who would be more appropriate than a religious community?

Between Two Worlds

As an Asian American, I am always torn between two worlds.  As a UU of color, I feel the same way.  And at no time do I feel it more than when I am with my family.

Amongst my UU friends, most are highly educated, listen to NPR, disdain popular culture, shop at places like Whole Foods and local farmers markets, and eat at fine restaurants.  My folks and my brother are reasonably well-educated, but that's about where the similarity ends.  They watch popular television, love professional football, shop at Safeway, buy what is on sale, and happily eat at fast-food and the other cheap restaurants that saturate the San Francisco bay area. They would not know on which side of a place setting the bread plate goes, nor would they care.

This week, my family has been visiting me and my new home.  There were any number of rich historical and cultural sights we could have seen or nice restaurants we could have eaten at.  Yet, what were the highlights of my family's visit to DC and the East Coast?  CiCi's Pizza Buffet and Walmart.  

Knowing my brother's penchant for pizza and for cheap food, I had planned the trip to CiCi's, where you can get all the pizza, pasta, and salad that you can eat for five bucks a person.  Even my parents were impressed by this deal.  But I was surprised by the request to go to Walmart.  You see, in San Francisco, where land is expensive and the population very liberal, there are no Walmarts.  So I looked up the nearest Walmart on the internet and loaded the family into the car.  It turned out to be a "Super" Walmart.  Gigantic.  And for the next couple of hours my parents poured over ridiculously cheap dvds.  

The irony is that my family in SF lives amongst people who could be UUs.  Educated, wealthy, liberal, and disdainful of things like Walmart.  Yes, I know that there are valid social justice reasons to despise Walmart.  (I don't shop at them myself, which is why I had to look up the location.)  But social justice isn't the only reason why UUs dislike Walmart.  From Disney to Las Vegas to L.A. to McDonald's to the NFL, there are good reasons to object to all of these things.  But are there good reasons to look down on them?

When does social conscience become classism and elitism?

Yes, I know that McDonald's is harmful to my health and destroys the environment, but every time I walk into one, it reminds me of my family.  When UUs put down mainstream American culture, they remind me that my family would not feel comfortable amongst them, my Chinese family and me who have yearned to be mainstream. And it reminds me that I am not always comfortable with many UUs either. 

Mainstream and Counter-Culture

Every now an then I run up against the sense that a lot of white, well-educated, liberal people (which describes most UUs) really relish the idea of being non-conformists.  Counter-culture.  Free-thinkers.  "Out there."  Eccentric.  Weird.  

I've heard many a one say with a sigh that they've always been "different," but I have the impression that this is something that they actually take considerable pride in.  And this always bugs me a little.

It's not that I don't also take pride in my ability to think independently - I do.  But as an Asian American, who has grown up feeling weird and different, there is also part of me that really just wants to belong.  As a kid, the things I desperately wanted were McDonalds, tv dinners, Barbie dolls, and Disneyland, where "Main Street" white-culture America was held up as the idealized norm.  

As a person of color, I do not have the luxury of being able to reject what is main-stream.  "Counter-culture" is not a choice for me; it's an inescapable reality.  And multiculturalism is not just a cool sounding ideal, it's a necessity.

I come to UU to be part of something greater, to have the power to make the world better, not just to be "different."  I can be different all on my own.

 

Direction of UU

With the short chill days, the frigid darkness, and the holidays approaching, a colleague and I had long been talking about going to the Tabard Inn after work to sit by their fire and enjoy a warm drink. Tonight we finally made it.  I had never been before.  It was a strange place - the kind of place that can claim "Washington slept here," serving as a backdrop to the conversations of the mid-level power brokers of DC.  Yet also homey.

Out of the many things that we talked about that were interesting and worthy of further thought, the one that most struck me is a comment about the future of UU. I was talking about our religious diversity - encompassing everything from atheists to liberal Christians to New Agers - and how difficult it was as a result to have a strong UU identity.  I was preoccupied with how to draft a definitive statement of our identity and yet keep everyone on board.  My colleague, otoh, gently brushed all that aside.  As I understood it, she essentially said that we would have to outgrow the hyphens.  There are other places for liberal Christians.  There are other places for religious atheists.  There needs to be a place for UUs to be UUs.

I am wrestling with this.  One the one hand, the UU that I was just a short couple of years ago would have been appalled at the idea.  If a core part of our identity is freedom of conscience, how can we have anything other than the diversity that we have now?  When we talk of bringing racial/ethnic diversity to our congregations, we talk of the spiritual benefits of celebrating difference, how it augments us all.  Isn't this true for religious identity as well?  Don't we serve as a place where people of different religious backgrounds can learn from each other - a sort of perpetual interfaith dialogue?

Otoh, having our own identity would not prevent us from learning about other faiths.  (And one might argue that we'd be in a better position to do so.)  Having studied our historical and theological roots, the UU that I am now believes that we are a religion, not just a "United Nations" of other religions.  I know that our religion incorporates elements from many faith traditions. It has from the start, not just as a PC way of "collecting" representations from them.  We have a theology that is compatible with many other faith traditions, but it is our own, born of our unique history.

My colleague is not one to just steam-roll through dissent, so I take her comments seriously. And if I am to be fully honest, these days when I speak about UU, I speak from that unified perspective, rooted in our history and theology.  I no longer think of us as a religious United Nations.  The question is, how many other UUs feel the same way.  How many UUs are we excluding?

Inspired Faith, Effective Action

Just a quick note to let yall know that the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy has relaunched it's blog, "Inspired Faith, Effective Action." It's been expanded to include contributions from the other offices within the Advocacy and Witness staff group. In addition to the Washington Office, look for posts from the Office of International Resources, Congregational Advocacy and Witness, and Holdeen India Program, as well as our director, Rev. Meg Riley.

Our first content post is already up, about the UUA's observance of World AIDS Day. Written by Adam with video taken by Alex, it's a multi-media team effort and I couldn't be more proud.

Check it out!

UU and Social Justice

The UUSJ is the social justice group of the Greater Washington, DC area, encompassing Baltimore and Northern Virginia. They put on a workshop today, co-sponsored by the Washington Office, on how to more effectively mobilize congregations towards social justice ministry. It was an extended version of the Washington Office's "Inspired Faith, Effective Action" workshop. The task was given to me to talk about religious grounding - lifting up that when we do social justice work we do it as religious people, and how that is different from doing it as secular advocates.

That shouldn't be a difficult task for me, since much my time is spent ruminating on how social justice is an expression of our faith. However, I was in the unfortunate position of following Rev. Sinkford, president of the UUA, who gave the opening address. And really, he said everything that I would have said, only better. He reminds me how blessed we are to have him and of the anxiety that I am feeling about his pending departure.

There are some in our congregations who say that they are tired of all this social justice stuff - that they come to church in order to worship and to be spiritually nourished, not to be bombarded with petitions to sign and actions to take. And there are some who say that faith without works is dead. That spirituality without social action is just navel gazing. I think I tend to fall into the latter category but it's because my innate tendency is to navel gaze - to ponder - and I'm (over)compensating for that.

What Rev. Sinkford reminded us today was that the two really go hand-in-hand. Our social justice work IS an expression of our faith, and if it is done right, it should be spiritually uplifting, not draining.

I hate our new chalice logo compared with the old, but I love our new slogan. Whoever is responsible, kudos. We finally got it right. A message that is not a reaction against Christianity, as was "The Uncommon Denomination" and "UUs have a different trinity." Instead, our new slogan captures what we are about. Come nurture your spirit; help heal our world. Receiving and giving, together at the same time. Relational. Mutual.

Today, even as I lament that we will soon lose Rev. Sinkford's steady guidance, I feel confident in our future. Come nurture your spirit; help heal our world. This is what it means to be a UU.

Pages

Subscribe to Unitarian Universalism

Forum Activity

Fri, 10/31/2014 - 08:11
Mon, 06/16/2014 - 07:09
Tue, 10/01/2013 - 22:01

Acknowledgments

wizdUUm.net is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative