uuworld.org: liberal religion and life

'The future we hope to see'

Congregations respond to the General Assembly's challenge to examine race and class, embracing a multicultural future.
By Donald E. Skinner And Tom Stites
Summer 2007 5.15.07

Printer friendly version


The diversity committee isn’t dormant anymore at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County, Pennsylvania. After twelve members attended the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations last summer, said Chuck Berry, the fellowship’s treasurer, “We were lit up to do something.”

The first thing the fellowship did was to revive the committee, which launched a series of Wednesday night discussions of videos on topics of race that attracted twenty to thirty people. Then they undertook a project to help several Japanese-American couples become better connected in the congregation—including inviting them to translate the UUA’s Principles and Sources into Japanese to post in their building, Berry said, “as a way of showing visitors that we are thinking about diversity.” And they’ve made plans to revisit the Welcoming Congregation program, the UUA’s curriculum on welcoming gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people, which the fellowship completed a decade ago.

What lit up the 263-member congregation in the hometown of Pennsylvania State University—and lit up congregations large and small from coast to coast—was a delegate’s dramatic resolution from the floor just as the General Assembly was about to end. The resolution charged the delegates “to work with their congregations to hold at least one program over the next year to address racism or classism and to report on that program at next year’s General Assembly.”

Now that the next General Assembly is almost upon us, UUA Moderator Gini Courter, who was wielding the gavel when the resolution was offered and resoundingly approved, said she projects that half of our congregations will have responded to the charge by the time delegates gather again.

“Wherever I go this year,” she said by email, “leaders are telling me stories of what their congregations are doing to address issues of race and class. From film series to book groups to newly formed congregational task forces to deal with issues of oppression, the actions of UU congregations tell me that the 2006 responsive resolution was speaking to a real hunger in congregational life. This is a good time to build understanding and acquire competencies that UU congregations require to become truly inclusive communities.”

Debra Gray Boyd, a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio, stepped to the microphone in the huge St. Louis convention hall as the 2006 General Assembly was ending. She had just listened to a group of youth and young adults tell the delegates about injustices they had seen and experienced at the GA and elsewhere involving racism, classism, and ageism.

Boyd said she struggled with whether to say anything. “I wasn’t sure it would be appropriate,” she said, “because I really hadn’t talked with anyone else about it. But I couldn’t just sit there and not do it. When that group of teens made their presentation about the discrimination they’d witnessed, that made it impossible for me to not say anything.

“Those youth stood up and said the Association is not doing them justice. I was very moved by them. They spoke very clearly about the need for all of us to address this issue in a very active way.”

Her own daughter was another reason she offered her resolution. “She’s six,” Boyd said, “and I don’t want her up on that stage in a few years with the same complaint these teens had.”

Her resolution asked congregations to take a step—even if only a small step. Boyd’s 675-member congregation, for example, showed Paper Clips, a documentary about middle school students who collected 11 million paper clips to illustrate the millions of people who died at the hands of the Nazis. The Columbus congregation also invited an African-American Baptist minister to speak. “It was a really good cultural exchange piece,” said Boyd. “I think the congregation has become more open about issues of racism and classism. That was starting to happen before the resolution, but addressing it has furthered that openness.”

Boyd said she is impressed with the congregational response, but added, “I heard people asking after GA, ‘Well, what is this really going to accomplish?’ I know that what each congregation does is just a drop in the bucket of what needs to be done. But all of our drops will add up.”

The many drops of congregational experience are being collected and will be shared at this year’s General Assembly, June 20 to 24 in Portland, Oregon. Here are some, chosen at random:

  • Ann Arbor, Michigan, First Unitarian Universalist Church: screening and discussion of The Color of Fear, a film about race relations; a class based on the book Learning to be White: Race, Money, and God in America by the Rev. Thandeka, senior research professor at Meadville Lombard Theological School; establishment of a task force to review the congregation’s status as a Welcoming Congregation.

    “It would be easy to say that we’re already welcoming since we did the initial Welcoming Congregation program two decades ago,” said Gail Steiner, a member of the governing board charged with keeping diversity and antioppression issues in front of the 742-member congregation, “but we’ve gotten complacent. We might think we’re welcoming, but when we ask new people they don’t always share the same opinion.”

  • Englewood, New Jersey, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Palisades: a post-GA commitment to focus every sixth sermon on an antioppression theme; a postcard marketing campaign to diverse neighborhoods; a social justice workshop to help members identify their sense of personal mission.

    “Next we’ll figure out where the congregation may want to head,” said the Rev. Maj-Britt Johnson. “We don’t know how much of this will focus on antiracism, but that identity is there in all that we do.” The 69-member congregation, which was formed fourteen years ago as an intentionally diverse, multicultural, antiracist congregation, is mostly white, Johnson said, “but I’d say it feels a little more diverse than the average UU congregation.”

  • Long Beach, California, Unitarian Universalist Church: invited other congregations to participate in a UUA-led antiracism workshop. “We hoped it would inspire others to take action in their own congregations,” said Michael Sallwasser of the antiracism transformation team at the church, which has been engaged in racial justice efforts since the 1966 Watts riots.

  • Minneapolis, Minnesota, First Universalist Church: series of forums called “Beyond Guilt or Anger: Why Care About Racial Justice” in collaboration with the Organizing Apprenticeship Project, a group working on racial, economic, and social justice issues in the state.

  • Nashville, Tennessee, First Unitarian Universalist Church: a post-GA forum reviewing the 375-member congregation’s long engagement in racial justice led to the congregation supporting a campaign by housekeepers, grounds­keepers, and food service workers at Vanderbilt University to win a living wage; an antiracism consciousness-raising class; a sermon series on topics including immigration, colonialism, and economic discrimination; at least ten members joined the NAACP.

    The Rev. Gail Seavey credited youth in the congregation with helping generate interest. “We had three youth at GA and they came back frustrated,” she said. “They go to public schools, which are very racially diverse, and they were upset about some of the things that have occurred at GA and elsewhere.”

  • Venice, Florida, Unitarian Universalist Congregation: study group on the book Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell, the story of the friendship of a black banker and her white colleague, written in the wake of the 1992 Los Angeles riots; movie series including The Color of Fear; storytelling group focused on personal experiences with racism; sermon series on racism and multiculturalism; discussion group on ways members could respond to racism.

    “We already had quite a few things going, and the resolution spurred us on to do even more,” said the Rev. Susanne Nazian. The 149-member congregation offers Spanish classes and envisions offering services in Spanish.

The reports of congregational responses to Boyd’s resolution will reinforce the June Assembly’s observation of an important milestone in Unitarian Universalist history.

It was ten years ago that General Assembly delegates approved a sweeping resolution entitled “Toward an Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Association.” The resolution, passed with only one dissenting vote, called for the UUA to transform itself through “comprehensive institutionalization of antiracism and multiculturalism” including anti­racism trainings for all Unitarian Universalist leaders. “Whether or not a group becomes multiracial,” the resolution notes, taking into account how few people of color belong to UU congregations, “there is always the opportunity to become antiracist.”

The resolution also urged individual UUs to examine “their own conscious and unconscious racism as participants in a racist society, and the effect that racism has on all our lives, regardless of color.” Finally, it urged the UUA to work with international and interfaith organizations “in order to transform the racist institutions of our world.”

This June, the General Assembly will look back over the decade since the resolution was adopted. Much has been accomplished, and there has been much struggle about how best to accomplish it. The UUA Board of Trustees responded to the resolution by appointing the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee to monitor progress and then worked out processes to make sure that the board and its committees do their work in ways that respect antiracist, antioppressive, and multicultural concerns. This year the transformation committee completed an assessment of the UUA’s districts.

The UUA staff also put priority on living out the 1997 resolution, from offering antiracism workshops to making sure that employees’ annual evaluations address their engagement with the resolution’s issues. In 2002 the administration made all staff groups formally responsible for pursuing antiracism and antioppression in their work and, at the same time, created the Identity-Based Ministries Staff Group. Its mission is to help Unitarian Universalism become more welcoming, inclusive, and affirming of people who identify as bisexual, gay, lesbian, or transgender; economically oppressed; Latina/o and Hispanic; multiracial families; people of color; and people with disabilities. Among the staff group’s responsibilities is the “Beyond Categorical Thinking” workshop for congregations seeking ministers. Taquiena Boston, staff group director, said that a record forty-one workshops were conducted this year.

Perhaps Unitarian Universalists’ most widespread experience of the 1997 resolution’s effect is the more than 100 “Jubilee I” and “Jubilee II” antiracism workshops the UUA has conducted for congregations and other groups. Boston described the workshops, which focus on structural and institutional racism, as having evolved significantly over the decade, moving increasingly from a black/white perspective to incorporate the historical experiences and cultural identity of people of Asian, Latino/a and Hispanic, Native American/Indian, and Middle Eastern descent. The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, the UUA’s director for congregational services, reports that the new juust Change program has offered almost sixty consultations in its first eighteen months to congregations and other UU institutions.

In February the UUA further encouraged congregations along the antioppression path by hosting a conference in Arlington, Virginia, that brought together UUA staff and congregational leaders engaged in or wanting to learn more about antiracism, antioppression, and multiculturalism.

The conference, entitled “Now is the Time,” drew 146 people from fifty-eight congregations. Robinson-Harris said that the conference was planned before last year’s GA but that it supported Boyd’s resolution in many ways. “We reached some leaders we would not have otherwise,” Robinson-Harris said, “and connected congregations with each other as they shared their stories,” she said.

Gail Steiner attended “Now Is the Time” with two other board members and a religious educator from the Ann Arbor congregation, and said she went home “very passionate about moving forward.” Steiner said her congregation’s diversity work has been going forward intermittently. “We’re at the point where we want to be welcoming,” she said, “but we’re not quite embracing and understanding all of the kinds of changes that would entail. We know that we can’t just stand inside our building and say, ‘Come to us.’”

On the final day of the conference participants attended worship at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., one of the UUA’s most diverse congregations—15 to 20 percent of its 688 members are people of color or of Latino/Latina or Hispanic heritage. That experience was as valuable as the conference itself, Robinson-Harris said.

Steiner found the service inspiring. It was “multicultural from the instant we walked in the door,” she said. “We were welcomed by people of various races and orientations. In the congregation and the choir there was a lot of diversity. The sermon was on Hinduism. Soaring over everything was this wonderful exuberant music that appealed to more than just one group of people.”

“I was in tears, I was so moved,” Steiner said. “The woman on my left put her hand on my arm and said, ‘It’s okay. I cried, too, the first time I came here.’ Several of us stood outside after the service and we said, ‘This is the future we hope to see at Ann Arbor.’”

See sidebar for links to related resources.

more spirit
more ideas
more life