Thursday, April 10, 2008
Blessing Diversity in Unitarian Univeralism
(Unitarian Universalist Ministers, seminarians and Directors of Religious Education of color at a recent Retreat in Burlingame, CA)
The following reflections were written by Rev. Bill Sinkford, the President and first African American elected to the Unitarian Universalist Association. I have devoted a fair amount of space to the life and activities of Unitarian Universalists (UUs) or more particularly to UUs of Color and so I thought that it might be helpful to hear from our elected leader.
warmest regards, Rev. Dr. Qiyamah A. Rahman
Posted March 21, 2008 9:56 AM
As the first African American head of a predominantly white denomination, I still get asked whether I have any insights to offer other leaders in my position...We have long known that the most segregated hour in America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning.
Rev. William Sinkford is president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
When I was elected President of the Unitarian Universalist Association in 2001, reporters called me a "black shepherd with a white flock." The novelty of my ancestry eventually became less newsworthy than my liberal theology and my progressive stance on various social issues. But as the first African American head of a predominantly white denomination, I still get asked whether I have any insights to offer other leaders in my position. I also get asked by my constituents, "How can we make Unitarian Universalism more racially diverse?" I think the answers to these two questions are closely related.
First, the reality for African Americans is that in order to exercise more influence in "mainstream" organizations, we must accept that we will always be a numerical minority. The challenge for us is to work successfully within that reality. This is also true in religious life, where we have long known that the most segregated hour in America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning. Although Unitarian Universalism is certainly open to welcoming new congregants of color, I sometimes joke with my colleagues in historically black churches that they shouldn't lose any sleep worrying that we'll steal their members.
I tell Unitarian Universalists - most of them well-intentioned white folks - that it's not spiritually grounded for us to seek to acquire a few more black and brown faces in the pews. This approach might have the advantage of making current members feel better about themselves, but diversity for its own sake fails. It fails because it doesn't address the complexity of history and community, and it does nothing to challenge the structural racism that dominates American society in all areas. As a spiritual leader, I'm called to make those two tasks central to my mission.
I'm proud of my faith's history of leadership in the abolition and civil rights movements, but I don't fool myself that my presidency will magically transform Unitarian Universalism into a genuinely multicultural denomination. That will take decades, if it happens at all. Meanwhile, we are working hard to become racial justice advocates within our churches, our local communities, and American society as a whole. If we truly succeed in this, the numbers will take care of themselves.
Unitarian Universalists discovered this principle through our work on behalf of bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender people. This important justice work was neither quick nor easy. Our discernment process was long and hard, and we had to confront ignorance with truth and fear with hope. In the early days, some nay-sayers warned that if we took up this work, we'd become known as "the gay church" (as if there was something wrong with that). Well, after several decades of supporting equality for BGLT folks - ministers, congregants, and citizens in the wider population - what actually happened was that our membership started to reflect the demographics of America as a whole. The percentage of openly BGLT folks in our congregations, including clergy, grew to the point where it is now about the same as in general society, and part of this shift was due to long-time members feeling safer about being out. We believe that closets have no place in our churches. For other religious organizations, this level of inclusion and visibility might seem threatening, but for us, it feels like justice.
We also found that our welcoming policies also attracted progressive straight folk, people who wanted to belong to a church that stands on the side of love. Attracting allies is a key benefit to becoming more welcoming. White, straight allies might not contribute to numerical diversity, but they are vital to the success of any program of deep, meaningful social change.
This vital work for BGLT equality is just beginning to take hold in other religious groups, including the so-called "Black Church" (which is far more socially and theologically diverse than we are often led to believe). It is my fervent hope that these groups come to understand that this is deeply religious work. My prayer is that more and more faith communities will recognize and affirm that all of us, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity, are children of God.
For the past decade or so, the Christian right has tried to divide religious communities by focusing on hot-button topics like marriage equality and a woman's right to choose. For a while it looked like they were succeeding, but lately I'm finding signs of hope in some of the most unexpected places. Religious communities, including evangelicals and even Southern Baptists, are beginning to shift their focus to pressing justice issues such as global warming, environmental racism, and poverty -- issues that touch us all, whatever our race, creed, gender, or sexual orientation.
If we can come together to address these challenges, religious communities can become a force that moves the entire society toward the Beloved Community. Along the way, we may also find that our differences can be blessings rather than curses, and that our divisions pale in comparison to the common humanity we share. The heart of the gospel abides: Love thy neighbor as thyself.
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By Mildred on March 21, 2008 3:05 PM
Excellent commentary, and, I wonder if all those who are so "outraged' at one man's version if his life in America would be attending a church where blacks would felt comfortable? I think not many, hence the reason the 11 o'clock hour on Sunday is still one of the most segregated in the country, and, one of the reasons all this "faith and religion" needs to be removed from the political arena, since, I can say I don't agree with any of the faiths that the 3 last candidates believe in, and, it shouldn't be a barometer of anything, since at last check, not everyone in the country was a Christian, and, they need to keep it private.