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|When I met Chuy Negrete—the man who, within months, would become my
husband—he asked to see my church. “We have to go to mass to give thanks
for finding each other,” he explained.
I didn’t bother to tell him that our Sunday-morning service wasn’t a mass and that his prayer of thanksgiving would seem hopelessly naive, even superstitious, to many Unitarian Universalists. I just took him to church.
He was noticed. In a suburban UU church, it would have been hard not to notice a rumpled, portly folksinger and Chicano activist with a quick sense of humor, a bad habit of cursing in Spanish, and a penchant for turning every encounter into a moment of theater.
He was noticed, but he was accepted. And just as important, he began to accept the church for what it was.
Granted, there were a few rough moments—notably, the Easter morning when the children’s story was presented by someone in a bunny suit. Chuy, who had been an altar boy, was shocked by the casual way we treated Christianity’s central mystery.
But he got over it. He had long ago withdrawn intellectually from the Catholicism of his working-class, Mexican-American youth. In my church—which soon became our church—he was drawn to the sermons, which required mental exercise, to the spirit of universalism, and most of all to the social justice work. He kept running into people he’d met years before, in this movement or that political organization. Even if he was the only Chicano in sight, the church gradually started feeling like a spiritual home.
Over the years, Chuy has contributed much to the church. He occasionally sings at services. He visits Sunday school classes to talk about the Mexican Day of the Dead. He did a multimedia presentation on the Chicano experience for our diversity discussion group, igniting a passionate conversation about the lost languages of our ancestors.
So is the story of our family and our church one of perfect multicultural
harmony? Not entirely. Our eight-year-old son recently startled me by asking:
“Mom, is there a rule that you have to be white to go to our church?”
Marriages and families like ours are getting more and more common in Unitarian Universalism, as in the society at large. While UU ministers share anecdotes about the growing numbers of bicultural unions they are blessing, demographers are charting a sea change in social attitudes about race and ethnicity. Half of American-born Asians marry outside their race. Hispanics—already a multiracial stew—have a 35 percent chance of marrying non-Hispanics. Although the black-white color line is the most persistent, the changes there have been especially dramatic. The black-white marriage rate has quadrupled since 1970. Close to 10 percent of African American men now marry white women, four percent of African American women marry white men, and 10 percent of African American children live with a parent who is not black. The young lead the way: Among married African Americans under the age of 25, almost half have a spouse of another race.
The American melting pot has always meant mixed marriages, notes Timothy Sullivan, an economist at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville and an expert on intermarriage. “In the first part of the century, a mixed marriage was an Irish Catholic marrying an Italian Catholic,” he points out. “In the ’60s and ’70s, the religious line was obliterated.” (Unitarian Universalism, of course, provided a religious home for many of the resulting Catholic-Protestant and Christian-Jewish couples.) In the past generation, we’ve started to erase the last distinction: race.
Sullivan says the growth in intermarriage results from other changes in society. “All of society’s institutions, all of the places you would meet spouses—neighborhoods, colleges, workplaces—have become less segregated,” he claims.
All of society’s institutions, that is, except the church. It is not for nothing that Sunday morning is called the “hour of segregation,” and UU churches are depressingly mainstream in this regard. But that will inevitably change, Sullivan predicts, as more and more people come to church with their other-race spouses and mixed-race children. “When mixed families go to church, by definition the churches will start mixing,” he says.
Yet mixed marriages do not automatically end racial insularity, warns Unitarian Universalist scholar the Rev. Thandeka of Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago, who adds that marrying someone whose face looks different from yours doesn’t always mean you gain a broader perspective on race. “Some might,” she says. “Most probably do not, at least initially.” Only over time, she says, do spouses in interracial relationships confront their changed racial identities and the ways they negotiate perceptions of race in different social settings—including the church community. And like virtually all families, they subtly, even unconsciously, indoctrinate their young children about who they are and what kinds of people are appropriate friends. “Racial identities are constructed,” Thandeka insists.
The Rev. Mel Hoover—another African American leader in the Unitarian Universalist movement—has another perspective on the issue. “People get along fine,” he says. “It’s the institutions that are set up to provide an imbalance of power and allocation of resources.”
Is the church one of those institutions? “Absolutely,” he says.
And the cure for institutional racism? “We try to teach a more accurate analysis,” says Hoover, director of the UUA’s Faith in Action Department and a member of an interracial couple. Hoover met his wife, the Rev. Rose Edington, in divinity school in Rochester, New York. Though she was a Baptist and he was an Episcopalian, they chose a UU society as the family church for themselves and their young daughter.
“Most UU churches are philosophically committed to affirming diversity,” explains Edington. “It’s good to walk into a place where mentally, people are where they should be. But they’re not as diverse as they think they are.”
“At that time, African Americans came into UU churches very intentionally,” adds Hoover. “We saw Unitarian Universalism as a liberal thing, a justice-seeking thing, a place to really try to change the culture for all people. We recognized that people of color could not do it alone.”
The church was a nurturing place for everyone in the family, including daughter Melanie and the two older, mixed-race brothers the couple adopted soon after joining. There were several other multicultural families in the church. For Edington and Hoover, the most problematic diversity issue in their church and community was not race but class. “The family of a hairdresser came to the church,” remembers Edington. “They were not as economically and educationally advantaged. The minister said, ‘I don’t understand why this family is here.’ Yet they hung in for a couple of years.”
“That piece was hard,” adds Hoover, “the economic stuff, not wanting the kids to pick up the elitism of the UU white culture.”
As he watches UU congregations struggle against racism and for greater diversity, some make inevitable missteps, says Hoover. Some congregations unconsciously invite people of color to bring only their color into church and to check their other differences at the door (“We’re open to diversity if you’re just like us”). Others see racial issues as “problems” of minority cultures that must be “fixed” by whites. “People of color don’t need white folks trying to fix them,” he says acerbically.
Yet Edington has faith that acceptance of people, just as they are—“the
worth and dignity of every person”—will be the key to the antiracist, multicultural
future of Unitarian Universalism. “People who want to be part of an intercultural
marriage, a gay marriage, whatever, know they can come to a UU church and
their means of expression will be affirmed,” she says.
Lloyd Ann Grey, for one, would agree wholeheartedly. “To be a black lesbian and into a biracial relationship is kind of odd in Kentucky,” she says. “It’s not your norm.” Grey is not a UU, but people often mistake her for one because she attends so many church events with her partner, Kathy Cleary, a member of the UU Church of Lexington who, in turn, attends events at Grey’s Quaker meeting.
“I think we are very lucky to have the UU church and the Quaker community here, where we can be accepted as an interracial couple as well as a lesbian couple,” says Cleary. “This is not a gay-friendly state. Our neighborhood happens to be pretty cool, but the church and the meeting are definitely refuges.”
Cleary says her church has an active Interweave (a discussion and social group for gays and straights), an antiracism task force, and a few people of color in the congregation, who, despite their small numbers, “definitely add to the richness and diversity of the church.”
Whether she’s attending events with the UUs or at the Lexington Friends Meeting, Grey says she accepts the fact that hers is likely to be the only dark face in the room. “I’ve usually been the minority in everything I’ve done,” she shrugs. “Usually, I just look at people as people—rather than what color or what gender or what sexual orientation or whatever they are.”
Cleary and Grey don’t mind educating others; they were pleased to be invited to a Sunday school class at the UU church to talk about their experiences as an interracial lesbian couple.
“It helps when you have gays and lesbians as religious education teachers,” says Cleary, herself a Sunday school teacher. Religious education and the role of the church in her sons’ lives are, for her, the best parts of Unitarian Universalism. (Cleary’s younger sons, 9 and 12, live with the couple; Grey’s children and Cleary’s oldest are adults.) “If they’d been raised in, let’s say, the Baptist church that’s predominant around here, and then found out that both their parents were gay and then their mother was involved in an interracial relationship, it would have been much harder,” she says.
But liberal religion presents its own trials for the two women. Grey remembers attending a Friends conference where, every day for a week, someone would spot her, sit her down, and grill her on why African Americans weren’t interested in becoming Quakers. By the fifth day, listening to yet another lecture on the Quaker role in the Underground Railroad, she exploded, “Did you free the slaves because you thought they should become Quakers or because it was the right thing to do?”
Now, in a more tranquil moment, she adds: “Believe what you believe and try to live it. If it doesn’t attract a lot of black people, that doesn’t mean it was wrong to live that way.”
“That would be good advice for UUs, too,” adds Cleary. “A lot of our white members have struggled with the issue of how to bring more minorities into church. We’ve come to that conclusion—to be the best people we can be, to be out there, to let people know we’re out there. If our efforts don’t attract minority members, we’re not going to think any less of ourselves.”
“Or any less of black people,” says Grey.
Alfred Hughes has always moved comfortably in the white world, so when he courted and wed his wife, Sandi, he thought more about their common interests than their different races. One difference did seem important, though: she was a turned-off Catholic, while he had warm memories of his African Methodist Episcopal (AME) upbringing. When the couple became parents—soon after moving from the San Francisco area to Milwaukee, where they didn’t know a soul—he decided it was time to go back to church. Sandi didn’t object.
But as a professional and college graduate Alfred just didn’t feel he belonged in the AME church the couple visited in Milwaukee. Then the personnel manager at his company told Alfred about his UU church. “We talked about it, and I decided to go check it out,” says Alfred. “It was very attractive, so I stuck around. Even though the congregation was predominantly Caucasian, it was of a liberal bent politically. And they had some understanding of African American history.”
Members of Milwaukee’s First Unitarian Society made Alfred feel comfortable, but he wasn’t exactly a hard sell. His co-worker saw to the one-on-one introductions, and Alfred’s skills as a businessman made him a natural for the finance committee. When the family grew to include a son as well as a daughter, he congratulated himself on having found religious education he could trust. Even Sandi, the family iconoclast, seemed to relax in the UU environment.
But when the Hughes family moved again six years later, to Beaverton, Oregon, Alfred learned that fitting into a UU church wasn’t automatic. He bypassed a small congregation in his suburb in favor of the 1,000-member First Unitarian Church of Portland. Without the help of someone like his colleague from Milwaukee to take him by the hand and introduce him around, he found he simply had to come back often enough for people to begin to recognize him. Of course, for Alfred, a person of color, this happened soon.
“You could see the uncertainty of how to deal with me,” he says. “It was a little uncomfortable at first, but I was used to dealing with that. Over time, it goes away. It always does.”
Alfred has plenty of experience putting white people at ease; he does it daily as part of his information technology consulting business. “It’s work,” he says. “It isn’t that appealing. And for somebody who hadn’t had the socioeconomic background I have, it would be pretty intimidating. It would drive them away—I’m sure of it.”
Other circumstances—the demands of Sandi’s high-powered corporate career, Alfred’s home-based business, and his work as an athletic coach for his kids’ teams—have kept the family from getting as deeply involved with the church as they would like. Still, Alfred appreciates the inclusiveness of the sermons and the RE curriculum. Would he ever go back to the AME church? “Honestly, I do have those thoughts,” he says. “But I don’t have the obligation to do that because of my heritage. I have to be true to who I am.”
As a businessman and coach, Alfred has one practical suggestion for
making those first visits to church more comfortable. “Set up a mentorship
program, where people within the church make it a point to get to the new
people, take some responsibility for introducing them around,” he says.
And, he pleads, think of what you can do for a newcomer, not just what
he or she can do for you. “Whoever comes into the church—regardless of
background—has some degree of contribution to make and needs to address,”
Alfred points out. “That has to be part of the church’s responsibility,
to address needs as well as to incorporate people who can contribute to
the progress of the church.”
Every UU minister at least occasionally addresses black-white racial issues. But members of what might be called “minority minorities” sometimes find that their culture is simply invisible in the church setting.
Freddy Flores is a Bolivian immigrant who attends my church, the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, with his wife, Beth Robinson, and their two daughters. “I do like a lot of what the religious organization stands for,” he says. “I would not be comfortable in a church that had a creed.” But there’s no way the church reflects his own culture, and he’s never been asked to share his culture with either adults or children in the church, he says.
Like many couples, Robinson and Flores sought out a church after their first child, Johanna, was born. Their bicultural marriage wasn’t the only thing that made them stand out from the crowd. Because their older daughter has a physical disability, Robinson explains, it has always been important for the family to join communities for the long term. That way, after a period of getting acquainted, Johanna is accepted without any further fuss.
But multiculturalism, Robinson says, is “just something we never expected
from the church.” The Evanston church does reflect a part of her culture—she
grew up white, suburban, and Lutheran—and thus a part of her children’s
culture, she notes. To meet other needs, the family looks elsewhere: a
Bolivian cultural organization; the diverse environment of the girls’ Chicago
magnet school; the multicultural stew of their lakefront high-rise, where
the condo association’s holiday newsletter featured an article on the Muslim
holy month of Ramadan.
Indru Punwami, another member of my church, has long had to negotiate the wilder shoals of multiculturalism, having begun life as a Hindu refugee from Pakistan, bouncing from place to place until his family settled in Bombay. He met his wife, Jane, in Pittsburgh, where he was furthering his dental studies. When they wed in a nondenominational church, she wore a gown made from a white sari; he chose an Orthodox Christian and Orthodox Jew as his attendants and requested that Jesus not be mentioned during the ceremony. Later, the couple moved to Norway (where Indru’s brother still lives), but eventually they settled in Evanston, where they reared their daughters.
It was the usual story: the couple needed a church for the sake of the children. “We were using it as a social outlet,” Indru admits, “not concentrating on the serious aspects of the religion.” For that, it fit the bill. “It was a wonderful church,” Indru says, “because you were allowed to be yourself and do your thing.” Still, he always felt lonely. Only one other member, an Iraqi, came from a non-Judeo-Christian background, and every service and ritual came out of either the Christian or Jewish tradition.
Although Jane became involved in religious education and pushed for more emphasis on world religions, Indru held back from deep engagement with the church. That all changed in 1986 when the Rev. Frank Robertson, the new RE minister, arrived.
“When we met Frank—someone so interested in India—it made a difference,” Jane says. Later, when Robertson invited the couple to meet a ministerial student named Abhi Janamanchi and talk over the idea of an Indian cultural organization affiliated with the church, both Indru and Jane pledged their full commitment. The founding of Bharat Samaj (see “Community Project,” September/October 1998) deepened their involvement both with the church and with Chicago’s Indian community. Now, although Robertson and Janamanchi have moved on to other things, the Punwamis are still leaders of Bharat Samaj.
But Indru says the church’s new commitment to his culture of origin
is not the only exciting thing happening there. For him, one of the recent
high points was a service that featured traditional Japanese drummers.
It was a dream come true, he says, to see a non-Western culture—any non-Western
culture—affirmed at church. Now, he’s hoping for more in the same spirit
Unlike Flores and Indru Punwami, who became racial minorities only as adult immigrants, Evanston congregation member Michael Takada grew up in the town and was aware of his difference from his earliest moments of consciousness. He remembers his first visit to Japan as “breathtaking—a sea of me. But at the end of the summer,” he admits, “I was ready to come back. I value my individuality.”
He had always expected to end up in an interracial marriage. Even so, when he met and wed Susan Oliver, who is white, he knew about the special challenges their family would face. Oliver has helped to rear their daughters with a Japanese American consciousness, Takada says, but it was still important to find a church that affirmed the family for who they were. His church of origin was Catholic, hers Methodist; neither fit the bill. Unitarian Universalism came closer.
“It’s nice to be part of a faith that at least speaks to diversity, whether or not the execution is there,” says Takada. “There is no distance between what my kids see and hear at home and what they see and hear at church.”
The content of the church’s RE program, in which Takada and Oliver are both deeply involved, is still less than completely multicultural, he admits. “Maybe I’m too gentle,” he shrugs, “but we’re all volunteers, and the program is only as good as our individual energies. Having grown up in America, I don’t expect a lot.”
He’s beginning to expect more, though. Among other commitments (including a recent stint on the church board), Takada chairs the church’s racial and cultural diversity leadership group. “It’s not so much for me as for my kids,” he says. “It’s an ongoing struggle, and every generation needs to gather its strength to move forward.”
Meanwhile, Oliver could be Exhibit A for Thandeka’s theory that one’s
racial identity can change over time. Although she began her life thinking
of herself as white, rural, and Methodist, she now identifies herself as
“a member of a Japanese American family,” adding that her enthusiasm for
Japanese culture has grown over time, and it seemed only natural to pass
on what she’s learned to her daughters’ classmates at school and church
school, where she has presented programs on Children’s Day, a festive Japanese
holiday understandably popular with kids.
To the Rev. Ann Tyndall, Evanston church’s cominister, falls the daunting task of shepherding a flock of strong-minded members like Flores and Robinson, the Punwamis, Takada and Oliver, Chuy and me--not to mention more than 500 others. Although an overwhelming (but slowly shrinking) majority of congregation members are white and upper middle class, Tyndall says, she strives for a multicultural tone. “What we talk about on Sunday mornings shouldn’t be all Ozzie and Harriet,” she says. “The readings shouldn’t be all WASP; the children’s stories shouldn’t be all WASP stories.” While Tyndall chooses literature from many cultures, music director Bart Bradfield uses music from many cultures in the congregation’s worship services. Naturally, members have plenty of suggestions, too. Punwami would like to see more non-Judeo-Christian programs. Chuy thinks social-action programs involving Latin American and Latino issues would attract more Latinos to our religion.
For Tyndall, Unitarian Universalist history is both a blessing and a curse. “We were always willing to educate the less fortunate,” she says. “But we didn’t necessarily expect them to join us in our churches.” Although UUs were deeply engaged in the civil rights movement during the 1960s, the decade also ended with feelings of rancor and mistrust between black and white UUs, and the UU movement turned its attention to gender issues. Tyndall says race was barely if ever mentioned when she attended seminary in the 1970s. Meanwhile, in the 1990s, socioeconomic class sometimes raises higher barriers than race. On a couple of occasions, Tyndall says, congregation members have told her they felt shunned because they were poor.
“The congregation and ministers should be working together to explore the idea of privilege, to think about being inclusive,” Tyndall suggests. “And we have to understand that inclusiveness is a journey”--one there’s no way to avoid in the United States, where people of color account for 70 percent of current population growth. As the Rev. Barbara Pescan, my church’s other cominister, puts it: “Do this or die!” If we can’t broaden our spiritual vocabulary and our membership base, she feels, UUism will simply be irrelevant in the coming century.
The best guides—and those closest at hand—on the journey toward a multicultural future may be members of our congregations who are living in bicultural marriages or relationships. “What we’re trying to get to as a congregation can be helped along by looking at people from different races and cultures who have figured out ways to live and work together,” argues Susan Oliver. “They can be found among business partners and in other settings, but a lot of them can be found in families--people who are unconventional enough to enter into bicultural marriages. Marriage is one way that people can work things out and truly grow to understand each other despite their cultural differences. If you subscribe to that idea, then Unitarian Universalism has a very big asset sitting right here in our midst.”
Chicago-based freelancer Rita Rousseau belongs
to the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois.
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