Unitarian Universalism

Majority Minority

While visiting Pasadena, I'm staying with my friend Phoebe in her house in Temple City.  The towns south of Pasadena - Alhambra, Monterey Park, and San Gabriel - are notable for their high concentration of Asians.  (Monterey Park is over 55% Chinese.)  If you want good Chinese food in L.A., you don't go to Chinatown; you go to Alhambra and Monterey Park.  To the east in San Gabriel and Temple City, I noticed that there is more of a mixture of Asians and Latino/Hispanics.  Neighbors with straight dark hair and varying shades of tan skin living side by side.  

Driving northward towards Pasadena, I saw a blonde woman in sportswear walking her terrier and was surprised.  "What's she doing here?" I wondered.  The wonder lasted less than a second before I remembered that this is after all the U.S. and it was she who was the norm here, not me.  Still, however silly, the experience of surprise was something that I wanted to record and share.

Before heading over to the start of the A/PIC conference at Throop Memorial Church, I spent the day hanging out with old friends and visiting the Norton Simon Museum of Art.  What I remember about the Norton Simon is its fabulous collection of 19th and 20th century Western art - sculptures by Rodin and Moore, paintings by Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee and Degas.  What I did not remember about the museum was the even more impressive collection of Asian art - room after room of stunning bodhisattvas showcased beautifully.  How could I not remember this?  Guess I was not in the right frame of mind to appreciate it before.

As the A/PIC conference started, I met new friends, and as old friends started to trickle in I was struck by how moved I was to see them.  I call them "old friends" but really, some I've only known since last year and only for the few days of the conference.  But I was just so happy to be there.  So grateful.

And grateful for the generosity of Throop Memorial Church for opening it's doors to us.  As Rev. Clyde Grubbs explained the history of Throop Memorial and how Amos Throop was also responsible for founding Caltech, I let out an audible gasp.  For over six years I had studied at Caltech, much of that time searching for a more spiritual life, never knowing its connection to Unitarian Universalism.  It was as if the Spirit were telling me: see, this is where you were meant to be all along.

Kick-Ass Gravel Vid

How many of you guys know that there is a UU running for president? I didn't at first. I had even filled out a little quiz that would tell me which candidates most closely matched my own positions on the issues and the results came back:

1. Mike Gravel
2. Dennis Kucinich
3. Barack Obama

And I thought, "Who the heck is Mike Gravel?" It turns out that Gravel is a former senator of Alaska, and a UU. That isn't enough to cause me to vote for him. But it's certainly enough to cause me to pay attention to what he does. And what he's done recently is release a kick-ass commercial on YouTube.

Seven Principles Calendar

Seven liturgical "seasons" (with some down-time in December and summer) in observance of our Seven Principles. Each season is associated with one of the colors of the rainbow. During each season, stories are told about our Unitarian Universalist tradition... people who said "Yes" when the Spirit called them to action.  (Other established UUobservances are included even if they do not necessarily fit the theme.)

This calendar is a work in progress, meant to be revised by the experiences and insights of the UU community.  Adopt/adapt as much or as little as you find useful and please provide suggestions in the wizdUUm discussion forums.

3rd Principle
Free and Responsible Search for Truth and Meaning

(from late Sept to late Oct)

John Murray preaches universalism for the first time in the U.S. (Sept 30th)

Indigenous People's Day (Oct 8th)

The Start of OWL

4th Principle
Acceptance of One Another and Encouragement to Spiritual Growth

(from late Oct to late Nov)

Transgender Day of Remembrance (Nov 20)

UUSC's Guest at Your Table (Sunday before Thanksgiving)

How Kwanzaa came to be (12/26/04 to 1/1/05)

1st Principle
Inherent Worth & Dignity of Every Person

(from mid Jan to mid Feb)

Standing on the Side of Love's 30 Days of Love

from Martin Luther King Jr's Birthday (January 15)

to Valentine's Day (February 14)

2nd Principle
Justice, Equity & Compassion in Human Relations

(from mid Feb to late March)

Waitstill & Martha Sharp sail for Nazi-occupied Europe (observed 3rd Sunday in Feb)

Anniversary of March from Selma (March 7th - observed 1st Sunday in March)

Martyrdom of Rev. James Reeb and Ms. Viola Liuzzo (observed 2nd Sunday in March)

UUSC's Justice Sunday (observed 3rd Sunday in March)

7th Principle
The Interdependent Web of Existence

(from late March to late April)

Climate Justice Month

from World Water Day (March 22)

to Earth Day (April 22)

6th Principle
World Community with Peace, Liberty, and Justice for All

(from late April to late May)

Birthday of Laura Towne (May 3rd)

Julia Ward Howe founds Mother's Day (2nd Sunday in May)

Stories of Clara Barton and Dorthea Dix

5th Principle
The Right of Conscience and the Use of the Democratic Process

(from late May to late June)

Women's Rights Convention of Seneca Falls & Rochester - Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Lucy Stone ()

General Assembly

MLK was a UU

Well, at least in spirit. Tongue Out

We UUs have a reputation for coopting famous figures whom we like. Arius, Bruno, Servetus, Hume have all "become" UUs at one time or another, so why not King?

After all, we adore the man. If there were a UU pantheon of sainthood he would be at the top. If we had a liturgical calendar the only required observances that I can think of would be Earth Day and MLK's birthday. I don't know about you guys but on the Sunday closest to MLK Day my church is packed and boy do we celebrate. And the march to Selma, where UUs answered King's call, is a defining moment in our identity as religious social activists.

King did have some connections with UU. Rosemary Bray McNatt writes in Soul Work that All Souls Church (of DC) had asked Dr. King to be the senior minister and both he and Coretta were sorely tempted. But ultimately they realized that they would not be able to build a credible black empowerment movement from within Unitarian Universalism. (Sad, huh? but true.)

But that's not why I'm claiming Dr. King as a UU today on the anniversary of his birthday. I hope he would understand that I'm making the claim both in jest and in earnest. And that I mean it as a compliment, while at the same time recognizing that he was a Baptist minister with his own thriving parish and neither he nor his congregation needed us little ol' UUs. The reason why I'm claiming him is because of what he said:

All life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

If that's not the Seventh Principle, I don't know what is. It's pretty much the same thing as what Channing said about a hundred years before we codified it in a list (and the Buddha said centuries earlier). This, of course, does not prove that King was a UU so much as prove that the Seventh Principle is a universal truth recognized by more than one great person.

King's recognition of our interdependency/relatedness is the reason why his fight for justice ultimately transcended the black empowerment movement, and he spoke against all forms of oppression where he saw them including war. It's why his widow Coretta Scott King could state unequivocally that he would have supported the struggle for BGLT equality had he lived to see it.

Reverend King, may we who love and admire you and want to claim you continue to work to be worthy of your legacy.

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. 


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