Our Unitarian Universalist congregations vary widely in character and personality. Some feel warm and welcoming the minute you walk through the door. Others feel a little stiff and formal. A few unfortunate communities almost quiver with the tension of unresolved issues and unconsciously “leak” their anxiety, then wonder why visitors never return.
When someone with an identity that is marginalized in our society (a person of color, someone who is transgender etc.) walks through our doors, how they perceive us has much more to do with our own emotional reactions to that person than do the words that come out of our mouths.
I’m just finishing the book The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson. (I read this after reading Taylor Branch’s compelling trilogy on America in the King Years: Parting the Waters, Pillar of Fire and At Canaan’s Edge. These books describe in detail the Civil Rights movement in the South from 1954 to 1968.)
The contrast of the experience of the Jim Crow South to the experience of the African Americans who migrated to the North and California highlights the insidious nature of institutional racism (and other isms) in our country and the toll that it takes on so many of us.
We have a core group of congregations whose ministers and lay leaders have been working to recognize, understand and dismantle the ways in which the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) DNA manifests in our congregations so that our values of inclusiveness and diversity can become a reality. It usually starts with ministers who are committed and make themselves accountable to this work. But it for there to be real change in a congregation, a critical mass of lay leaders also needs to commit to the work. This means more than just taking a workshop or two. Instead it is a spiritual engagement with the underlying causes and effects of racism in ourselves as well as in our institutions and society.
There are many stories and examples of congregations who have chosen to do the soul work of building anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multi-cultural (ARAOMC) communities. This doesn’t necessarily translate into a visibly diverse membership. But it does create a community with a warmth toward difference that is worthy of our chalice flame. (For more on what a multi-cultural UU community looks like, see this article. )
As our demographics in our country shift further and further away from the WASP identity of our Unitarian Universalist forebears, our congregations will also need to shift to remain relevant. I consider multicultural sensibility to be core competency of every leader and a key aspect of any leadership development program. I hope that you encourage your leaders to take the time to attend the conferences that we offer and to check out the free resources on the UUA website to help your congregation be ready for the next 50 years!
In faith and service,
Rev. Renee Ruchotzke
Regional Leadership Development Consultant
Central East Region of the UUA