Reflections on the Jewel Net

Unitarian Universalism as a Multiplayer Role-Playing Game

UU World recently published a piece asking Is Religion Broken?, in which the author, Doug Mulder, describes a global movement that instills participants with four enviable traits:

  • Urgent optimism - willingness to address problems immediately and maintain hope of success;
  • Tight social fabric - trust that fellow members share overall goals and willingness help each other;
  • Blissful productivity - feeling more happy and fulfilled while working hard than while not working;
  • Epic meaning - belief that we are protagonists in a grand story, in service to an awe-inspiring quest.

Mulder says this movement encourages folks to care more about the satisfaction of doing well and/or good for its own sake rather than for fame and fortune, to remain resilient in the face of setbacks, and to cooperate selflessly with others towards much larger goals.  It's everything that we would want in Unitarian Univeralism. Only, this movement isn't any religion (unless perhaps you're Paul Tillich) - it's massive multi-player role-playing online games (MMORPGs).  He challenges us to reconsider what religion is for, with the lessons of MMORPGs in mind - that is, religion isn't about describing reality, but rather about helping folks find meaning in their lives.

As someone who plays online games I agree with Mulder in his characterization of how players generally behave online, but there are significant limitations in applying this to the real world. The immense attraction of these games is precisely because we know that these virtual realities are created by developers, and thus unlike the real world.  (Unless you believe in an omnipotent God who is playing the part of game developer, which most of us do not.)  I know that the game is designed such that, no matter how challenging it might be, no matter how many times I fail, success is ultimately possible so long as I keep trying.  But there are no such guarantees in the real world.  I know that I can trust fellow players because games usually involve players uniting against a shared enemy and it’s in our mutual best interest to cooperate; it's not at all unusual to behave selflessly towards members within our perceived group. But in the real world perceived enemies are usually far more numerous and complicated making perceived groups more numerous and complicated too.  I know that in the game world there are only a limited number of goals at any given time, and that if I apply time and effort, I can take satisfaction in visible progress.  In fact, I have stopped playing games that grew so big and complicated that “progress” was no longer readily apparent, making them more of a chore than a "game."  And in the much larger real world, the number of problems and obligations impinging can be overwhelming, it’s often unclear where to focus our energies, nor can we be certain whether our efforts make a difference. I know that in the game world the "good guys" are good and the "bad guys" are bad, and that the "bad guys" are usually NPCs (computer generated non-player characters) for whom I do not need to feel empathy. I do not stop to ponder whether the monsters are really just "misunderstood" nor how it is that the bad guys got to be how they are, whereas that is something that I think about a lot in this real world, making “epic meaning” much more ambiguous.

A small, limited world where choices are constrained by design and people are united around a common enemy who is often viewed as a "monster," and morality is black and white is something that liberal religion could never re-create, nor would we want to.  (In fact, in some ways it sounds more like conservative religion, and maybe that accounts for some of the unity and enthusiasm on the conservative side that is often lacking in liberal religion.)

These concerns stated, I am actually not against trying to reframe religion to more of a gamer's mentality. In fact, I think it might be a good thing to do.  For one thing, it would certainly be great if we could get folks to stop arguing over whether Jesus “really” lived and if so what he “really” said.  As Mulder points out, no one argues over whether the world in World of Warcraft is "real." Everyone knows that it's created, and yet folks are still devoted to it, and derive meaning and satisfaction from it.

What else can we learn from online role-playing games? 

In games (unless you’re playing PvP, player-versus-player), cooperation is rewarded and competition gains no benefit.  This is built into the system.  In our social justice work I often hear activists complain about how selfish people are, how they don’t do the things that they’re supposed to do.  But if we rely solely on guilt and judgement to get people to behave in more beneficial ways, we’re never going to accomplish our goals.  Instead, it makes more sense to find the ways in which our society rewards competition and penalizes cooperation, and work to make systemic changes towards the opposite.  Create financial and social incentives that favor cooperation.

In games small successes along the way are rewarded with obvious cues - visual banners, bells and whistles - providing gratification for achievement.  Players “level up” once they’ve achieved a certain amount of experience.  They earn different titles and ensuing privileges.  Imagine maybe the real-world equivalent in our homes, congregations, and organizations in terms of small rituals of recognition.  In fact, we already have some of these rituals - for example, the 'Coming of Age' ceremony.  But maybe we don't have enought of them.  Maybe we don't take enough time to note them as a community.  And what kinds of recognition and privileges come with them? 

In games the developers maintain a careful balance between making players work for achievement so that it feels earned (and thus we can feel satisfaction in earning it), and parsing out large challenges into a progression of smaller goals such that they feel manageable and worthwhile.  I remember attending a Leading Edge Conference at Middle Collegiate Church where we addressed how to get folks in congregations motivated for change (instead of fearing it). The suggested solution was to frame the stories that congregations tell about themselves such that the change in question is the next logical step in what they've already accomplished.  NOT, “We’ve been all wrong and now we’re turning 180 degrees,” but rather “This is who we are as a people, this is what we’ve already done, and this is the change that will lead us towards being even more fully what we are.”

Speaking of stories, and framing… Lastly, in multi-player online games we know that we’re heroes of the story, and yet there are other players who are just as much heroes too.  Two GAs ago, I had the honor of presenting as part of a panel at a workshop on how to motivate people to action on social justice. The challenge that I struggled with was how to get each of us to see ourselves as the hero in our own story while at the same time acknowledging that everyone else is a hero in their story as well. Honestly, I was afraid that someone in the audience would take exception to the word ‘hero’ and remind the room of the many times that we have frankly failed to be heroic.  I know that the castigators mean well, wanting to ensure that we don’t get too full of ourselves and take up too much space. I lean towards critique myself.  But there is nothing more demoralizing than doing the best that one is capable of at the time, given the imperfect knowledge and skills that one has at the time, only to be told that “You suck.” If the goal is to motivate towards action, towards “urgent optimism,” then we as Unitarian Universalists need to tell our stories of ourselves in which we are the protagonists in an epic story, where our actions do matter, where our participation is essential, where we are heroes, and yet at the same time recognize that we are part of a massive multiplayer world where other folks are every bit as much heroes too.

The Newest Addition to the Romney Family

Romney's tweet of grandson Kieran

My facebook feed was suffering from split-personality disorder yesterday as folks reacted to the newest addition to the Romney family.  Kieran James Romney was adopted by Mitt Romney's son Ben and daughter-in-law Andelynne. Kieran is Black.  The name Kieran means "little black one" or "little dark one."  Kieran is also a relatively common name for this generation of kids, and it certainly isn't meant to be a racial epithet. 

I'm stating the facts of which we can be sure.  No one but the Romneys know whether Ben and Andelynne Romney knew what "Kieran" means when they chose the name.  Tho it does strike me as an odd coincidence.  If they had no idea what the name meant, then God indeed has a wicked sense of humour. 

Other people were more certain, however.  Some took it as further evidence of Romney's racism.  Others were just as certain that race was not an issue here and that liberals were just using silly reasons to attack the Romneys.  As one friend put it, "Unless there's a rational basis for believing the parents are unfit, the appropriate response to news of an adoption is 'Congratulations.'"

The problem is that we're focused on the name and whether the Romneys chose it intentionally - intentionally named their African American son "little dark one" - and if so, why.  But I don't need to know whether or not they chose the name intentionally to know that I am troubled by the adoption, and my heart cannot offer congratulations. I hope to God that my fears are unfounded but I am worried for the well-being of this child.

The same friend asked me whether my concern was due to the fact that the parents are Mormons or Romneys.  And I said neither. I said my concern was due to the fact that they are U.S.Americans.  He was probably a little stunned by this answer.  If the statement is taken without qualification it sounds like I'm against all trans-racial adoptions.  And I'm not.  I have friends who have adopted children of a race different from theirs and I've seen them dedicate themselves to raising beautiful, healthy, happy children.  How can anyone possibly be against that?  Not I.  But given a forced choice, I did not think it was accurate to focus concern only on Mormons or the Romneys, so I pointed to the component that I thought was missing.

In truth, my concern for Kieran Romney is additive - it includes all of the above.  I'm a little concerned whenever a U.S.American family adopts cross-racially, because there are going to be differences in identity between parent and child, and if the parents aren't aware of that it will cause problems for the child.  And I am more concerned whenever a white U.S.American family adopts cross-racially, because, frankly, in my experience white Americans are less likely to recognize racial identity as being important (in a positive way), more likely to claim they are "colorblind."  And I'm even more concerned when a conservative white family adopts cross-racially, especially if they are religious conservatives, because, well there is that whole "save the souls of the heathens" thing and for some reason they seem to focus on "heathens" of color.  And finally, yes, I am even more concerned than all that when a Romney family adopts cross-racially.  Because we've already seen how Mitt Romney responds to issues of race. And unless his son and daughter-in-law are substantally different from Grandpa Romney, and I've never read any indication that they are (different), everything adds up to me being worried for the well-being of this child. 

Let me start by stating clearly that I personally do not believe that Ben and Andelynne Romney adopted for sinister reasons. I believe that the Romney's adopted in good faith for the same reason as most adoptive parents, because they wanted a(nother) child whom they can love and cherish.  So the second-worst case scenario is that the Romneys love the child but still hold implicit negative assumptions about Black folks that then get transmitted to the child, damaging his self-esteem.  Why do I assume that they hold implicit negative assumptions when I just said that I believe they adopted in good faith?  Because nearly everyone holds them, especially against Blacks, even those who rail against racism (because they think "racism" means conscious bigotry).  Even so-called liberals who look upon children of color as kids to be "rescued" from their circumstances perpetuate a racial hierarchy.  But lets's asume that  Mitt Romney's son and daughter-in-law are different from their dad and hold no racial biases. The best case scenario that I can imagine then is that they attempt to be "colorblind" and treat him as if there were no difference, which is problematic for reasons I'll give below.

Of course there is a scenario better than that - one where parents are aware of the different experiences that their children of color will face, and make an effort to learn how to talk with their kids about it, and to establish relationships with folks of color who can help mentor the child. As I said, I have friends who've raised happy, healthy children of a race different than their own.  But I do not believe that Ben and Andelynne will be able to do that for their son, Kieran. Why, you may ask, am I being so obstinately negative about the future prospects for this child? 

Well first of all, I didn't just start off assuming negative things about trans-racial adoptions.  In fact, just the opposite, I assumed that everything was fine until I actually listened to the stories of people who were trans-racially adopted.  And secondly, because even under the best case scenario that I can imagine for Kieran, where the Romneys nurture him and love him unconditionally... Who is going to warn him about the police and "driving while Black" and how he should keep his hands visible at all times and even then he might get shot?  Who is going to explain to him what other white folks mean when they compliment him on being "articulate?  Or what other African Americans will mean when they call him an "oreo" and say that he "doesn't act black enough"?  (Because after being raised by the Romneys, you can be sure that he'll be culturally white regardless of skin color.)  Who is going to explain to him double-consciousness and code-switching?  Can you imagine the Romneys doing that?  Because I sure can't. 

Learned Helplessness and Thinking Outside the Box

When scientists try to study human illnesses, they look for an animal model.  That is, they try to find a similar illness in a non-human species so that they can do experimentation on said species.  (Sorry all my animal loving friends; that’s how it’s done.)  One of the animal models for human depression is called “learned helplessness” in dogs.  Essentially, psychologists would place a dog in a cage with an electrified grid at the bottom.  Then they would apply a shock.  A healthy dog will naturally attempt to escape the shock by moving to a location where it doesn’t occur.  If, however, the dog is unable to find a way to escape the painful shock - if she learns that she has no power to affect the outcome of her experiences - she will go into a state called “learned helplessness.”  In which case, the dog will not try to escape the shock even when the cage door is wide open and any healthy being would be able to see that there is a way out.  A dog suffering from learned helplessness will just sit there and take the shocks.

Not only does this behavior look like some forms of human depression, it also responds pharmacologically like it.  Thus, even tho the state was brought on by experience, it can be alleviated by drugs.  Experience affects brain chemistry which in turn affects behavior (which affects experience). Giving a dog with learned helplessness certain anti-depressants will often alleviate the symptoms and the dog will once again act as if she has the power to change her situation.  She will leave the cage - the box that she’s in - when she sees that the door is open. 

What we call depression is actually a complex set of illnesses - most likely not just one illness, even if there are similarities in outward behavior.  We know that some depressed folks respond well to some kinds of anti-depressants but not others, and some don’t respond to any of the known drugs.  This means that different people with so-called “depression” are affected by the altering of different neurotransmitters, indicating that the biological bases of their depressions are different.  (I do not mean to imply that the only way to treat depression is thru drugs - I only focus on the drugs because that’s an easier way to show that what we call “depression” is actually several different illnesses manifesting similar symptoms.) 

For some folks suffering from the depression, the learned helplessness model may not feel at all like your experience.  I get that.  But for me, learned helplessness is exactly what it feels like.  There are voices in my head - I call them my demons - telling me me that everything I do is worthless.  That no matter what I try I will ultimately fail.  That there is no point in even trying.  I don’t necessarily feel sad, tho there are certainly days when I do. The predominant and pervasive feeling that I experience is powerlessness.  Even the smallest things like getting out of bed, showering, brushing one’s teeth, seem to suck up large amounts of energy.  And God help me if I am asked to do something out of the routine, something that requires that I think outside the box, even a small thing. My mind goes blank. I can’t fathom how to accomplish the task, how to even approach it. Problems seem insurmountable.  I fail to see options that are right in front of me, options that any healthy human being would see.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

I totally understand how perplexing it must look to folks on the outside watching this behavior.  It’s like your friend is sitting in a cage - a box - and from your perspective there are doors open left and right thru which she can easily exit.  You try helpfully to point these options out to her.  Yet inexplicably your friend “chooses” to stay in the box. 

I understand why you are frustrated by friends who can’t “snap out of it” or at least seek help.  I understand why you can’t understand why your words of encouragement aren’t enough, how rather than be uplifting your words are actually painful.  After all, why doesn’t your friend *trust* you when you say that she’s wonderful?  It’s almost insulting that she refuses to listen to you.  I understand that you can’t hear the demon voices in my head, which are closer to me than your voice will ever be no matter how much I might care for you. I understand how you start to feel that your friend is like a weight dragging you down... for no good reason!  And that’s why I generally try to hide the box that I’m in from you - camouflage its walls so that it looks like wherever I am is where I choose to be.  Only showing my face in public when I have summoned enough energy to appear “normal.”  “Chipper,” even.  It’s not a fake me; but it is a heavily edited me. 

I have lived with depression all my life.  Or at least since the age of nine, which is when I first remember the pervasive feelings of helplessness.  And there have also been times when I’ve overcome my depression.  I’ve applied to and been accepted by top notch schools and prestigious fellowships.  I’ve gone on interviews where I sold myself as the ideal candidate, successfully stilling the demons in my mind telling me otherwise.  I know that I’ve done these things.  And yet at this moment, I cannot for the life of me imagine how I could have.  It feels like a different person, in a different lifetime. 

So why am I sharing this with you today after admitting that I generally carefully construct an image that hides these things?  It’s because I had an insight that showed me how ridiculous my situation is, and I wanted to share it with you, so that I don’t forget, and perhaps maybe you’ll better understand what it’s like to suffer with at least one form of depression.   First of all, I was asked to make a short video.  That task seemed overwhelming.  I’d never made a video before.  I didn’t know what machine to use, what format to record in, and for some reason I was unable to just sit down and try various approaches until one worked.  That would be the obvious solution, right?  But the idea of trying and *failing* filled me with anxiety.  Finally, over two weeks after the requested deadline, I mustered enough energy to just sit down and mess with things until I’d gotten a useable video. Unfortunately, when I sent in the video file, the sound did not work and I was asked to send another where the sound worked.  A perfectly reasonable request, but it filled me with anxiety. I had tried and I had FAILED.  What do I do now?  I sat on it for a day.  Then I tried emailing the original file, which played fine on my computer, but the file was too big to send as an attachment.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I tried to download Quicktime, as had been suggested.  But there is no version for Windows 8, which my computer runs.  So I sat on it for another day.  Then I figured out a way to get Quicktime for Windows 7 to operate on Windows 8.  And the video played fine, but I couldn’t save it because I had to have the “pro” version of Quicktime to actually create videos.  So I sat on it for another day.  You might think that I just blew off the deadline and the fact that there were people depending on me to do what I had promised, but the truth is that the thought of the video loomed over my waking hours, and the fact that I was disappointing folks was just further evidence that I am a failure.  Finally, today, I all-of-the-sudden remembered that I have a Youtube account and that ordinary people like me can upload videos which can then be played, with sound.  It took less than ten minutes.  Between the time that I was asked to fix the sound and the time I realized that I could put it on Youtube was four days.  It took me four days to *see* a solution that others would have seen immediately.  Yes folks, depression makes you stupid. 

But my point isn’t that I’m stupid.  There are times when I can be quite intelligent.  My point is that being stuck in my own little box, the only thing that I could see was the immediate task in front of me - how I could successfully send a video file that had sound?  I could not for some reason reframe the problem to see that there were other ways to share the video that didn’t involve directly sharing a file.  At the moment when I suddenly remembered Youtube, it was as if I looked up and there was a door open that had been there all along but I did not see before.  So I stepped outside of that particular box.  Doesn’t mean that everything is ok now - I know that I’m still in a larger cage - but I’ve temporarily given my demons the slip and have some breathing room, and I do now remember that there are actually ways out.  I do now see that problems that seem enormous are actually sometimes small.  And I hope that by sharing this ridiculously embarrassing story it can encourage some depressed folks in a *non-direct*, not in-your-face, “you can do it” kind of way because trust me I know how much that sucks.  And I hope it can help non-depressed folks better understand the seemingly inexplicable behavior of their depressed friends.

Buddhist Identity and the DC Navy Yard Shooter

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 32 at Virginia Tech was Asian, I thought what many Asian Americans thought across the U.S.  “Please don’t let him be my kind of Asian.” Well, actually I prayed that he not be Chinese, but you get the picture.  This reaction was shared by many Asian Americans regardless of our political views or how we generally felt about race in the U.S. Even when it turned out that the shooter was of not of Chinese descent, that only mitigated my sense of collective shame or guilt-by-association; it didn’t erase it.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is due to the Asian tendency to think collectively. You are never just your own person.  What you do, how you behave, reflects on your parents, your family, your village or town, your nation. It is a difficult thing to explain to folks who grew up in completely Westernized sensibilities, because obviously I know the difference between me and other family members, for example. We are different entities. But I cannot conceptualize myself, except as in relation to them, and I cannot do anything without thinking about how it impacts them.  Turning that around, whatever others in my family or nation or ethnicity do impacts me as well, to varying extents. There are no hard lines of demarcation, only gradations.

Another part of the “collective guilt” phenomenon is due to being an ethnic minority within the U.S.  Like all marginalized ethnic groups, we know that the actions of someone else in our group will be used to judge the rest of us, whether we had anything to do with that person.  When white men commit a violent crime, people seek to explain his actions as an individual (mental illness, troubled childhood, monster...) as opposed to judging his entire race. When Black men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” that Black men have tendencies towards violence and criminality. When Latino men commit a violent crime it’s “evidence” of the perils of immigration and “gangs.” The reaction against Asians in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings were more mixed and muted. We were shielded from a stronger backlash by prevailing stereotypes. Asian American individuals (particularly East Asian American individuals) are considered too “meek” and “feminine” to be taken seriously as a threat. As a group, however, we become the Yellow Peril or Yellow Hoarde. Thus most of the attacks levied against us in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings came in the form of anti-immigrant rhetoric.

When the news broke that the shooter who had killed 12 at the DC Naval Yard was Buddhist, I felt a similar pang of shame mixed with a very different pang of guilt. The shame was similar because I felt a connection with him through Buddhism. Let me be clear. I do not for even a nanosecond believe that Buddhism influenced him towards the direction of violence. If anything, it makes more sense that he had turned to Buddhism to help him cope with violent urges likely due to post-traumatic stress from war, and in the end it just wasn’t enough. And obviously I know that Aaron Alexis and I are two separate people. Regardless, there is a sense of collective identity through something we shared.

But the sense of guilt was very different in that I knew with 99% certainty that the media and most of my fellow U.S.Americans would not focus on Aaron Alexis being Buddhist as a cause for his actions. They would not speculate about how he got “radicalized” in a Buddhist temple. Not question his association with other Buddhists to see whether they had any involvement. Not call on other Buddhists to condemn these actions and blame them for not renouncing him loudly enough. No, if anything the reaction would be / has been, “How could a Buddhist do something like this?”  “He must not really have been Buddhist.”

Similar to ethnicity, people who hold marginalized religious identities in the U.S. do not get to be judged as individuals. Here in the U.S. (and in other “Western” countries), when someone who is Protestant Christian commits a violent crime, their religion is rarely considered relevant. People again look to other clues to attempt to explain the person’s behavior.  But if a person who is Muslim commits a violent crime, their religion seems to be the only thing that is considered relevant.  Nevermind evidence of mental illness or that the person may have been motivated by political reasons that are not religious. Where religious identity differs from ethnicity, it's in that people can more easily convert into and out of religious traditions. And in the U.S., the folks who convert into Islam tend more to be African American/Black, whereas the folks who convert into Buddhism tend more to be Euro American/white. That difference makes it even easier to demonize Muslims, more difficult to demonize Buddhists.

The media are not blaming Alexis’ actions on Buddhism because that does not fit the prevailing narrative of an inherently peaceful religion full of exoticized stoic Eastern monks and more familiar looking white adherents. Perceptions of Buddhists are filtered through positive stereotypes and contradicting data are ignored or explained away.  Whereas perceptions of Muslims are filtered through negative stereotypes and contradicting data are patently ignored.  Neither stereotype sees adherents of the respective religions for who they are with all their complexities.

This is, to put it simply, UNFAIR. And that is where the pang of guilt comes from.

And so I feel like it’s my obligation, to my Muslim sisters and brothers, and to fairness and justice, to say to everyone that yes, Aaron Alexis was Buddhist.  He didn’t just kinda sorta attend a Buddhist temple, nor did he lose his “Buddhist membership card” by committing an act of violence.  He was Buddhist.  And if you don’t blame Buddhism for his actions (which of course you shouldn’t), then you shouldn’t blame Islam for any violent actions of its adherents either.

Why I am no longer an Evangelical UU

I used to have a blog called ‘Confessions of an Evangelical UU.’  This was back in the early days of my “conversion” to UUism, when I was still enthralled with what I’d found and would talk to anyone about it. At a party on a Saturday night, there I’d be talking about my church.  Obviously, it wasn’t because I thought that people who aren’t UUs “need to be saved.” I was just so excited and happy to have found this faith. 

Two things happened to change my attitude about evangelizing UUsm.  The first is that someone actually decided to visit their local UU congregation because of me.  When faced with the reality that I could actually influence other people to join us, I then felt responsible for their UU experience.  I started to wonder what they’d find in the congregation(s) nearest them, and how much of what I loved about Unitarian Universalism might actually be more specific to my particular congregation than our religion as a whole.  (You can read about that experience here.)  At about the same time, I'd become increasingly aware of WASPy middle-to-upper class cultural biases within Unitarian Universalism, and that too made me wonder whether the folks I sent through our doors would find us to be welcoming to them.

The second reason why I stopped evangelizing UUism is because I realized that growing the roster of avowed Unitarian Universalists per se was not really my ultimate goal. What I ultimately want is to help build a world that is more kind, more just.  If you are a Christian or a Buddhist or a Pagan or a secular humanist and you share those values, then it doesn’t matter to me whether you wear the label of Unitarian Universalist or not. 

When I realized that I could no longer call myself evangelical, I stopped that blog.  And for reasons too long to go into here, I never really started another one, until now.  But I am still a UU – having flirted (not very seriously) with the idea of leaving for various other traditions from the UCC, to (progressive) Catholicism, to Pure Land or Ch’an Buddhism, I still remain a UU.  What initially convinced me to join, was the invitation that UUism offers to help co-create our shared faith.  Unlike some (not all) other traditions where if you don’t agree with something you just have to suck it up and change yourself to fit the religion, here in Unitarian Universalism we have both the freedom and the responsibility to share our lived experiences to help shape a more just and inclusive faith.  So my more modest goal now, instead of evangelizing UUism to the world, is to help create a faith community where all souls will indeed feel welcome (while still promoting our shared values of justice and compassion in the world). This new blog, and this new website, are part of my attempt to do that.

Singing African American Spirituals in a Multicultural Context

Went to Fellowship Church this morning, which I’ve decided is my home church in San Francisco.  Even though it’s not Unitarian Universalist, it embodies the values of UUism, sometimes better than many UU congregations do.  Case in point, this morning I was late and walked up the stairs to the sanctuary while the first hymn was being sung.  It was “No More Auction Block for Me” (#154).  I had to laugh, remembering the first time I ever saw that song in our UU hymnal. I was visiting the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore along with Omi.  Omi is not a UU, is UU-friendly, but has had some less than favorable experiences with how our UU Euro-centric liberal culture approaches issues around racial diversity in general and African Americans specifically.  But since a mutual friend was preaching that weekend, she was there to see/support him. Sitting in the pew with me, randomly flipping thru our hymnal, she stopped - incredulous - at one song.  I looked over to see what the matter was and saw for the first time “No More Auction Block for Me.”  My eyes went wide and I held up my hands as if to disavow myself and repeatedly said, “I had no idea that was in there; this is the first time I’ve seen it in there; we never sing it.”  The idea of a predominantly Euro congregation singing “No More Auction Block for Me” was beyond mortifying.  In contrast, this Sunday morning at Fellowship Church, where the congregation is diverse but more African American than not, the song still felt uncomfortable *to me* but not mortifying.  Especially when Rev. Dr. Blake exhorted us to think of what it meant for formerly enslaved African Americans to be free of being sold as a commodity, free of the lash of the slave driver. 

And that was not the only time during today’s service where the contrast between Fellowship Church and UU encounters with Black spirituals would be evident.  The closing hymn of the service was “Wade in the Water”(#210).  This song was used extensively at All Souls DC when I first joined.  Only we didn’t sing the version in the hymnal. We sang it out of a printed insert and the words were printed as “Wade in duh wadduh.”  Being new to UUism and church and intentional multiculturalism, I didn’t think anything of it…until I invited a friend who happens to be Black to come to church with me and we happened to sing that song.  She was like “Why are they faking an accent?!”  And I was like, “Uh, I don’t know.”  I brought this up with the church’s right relationship committee and a mini controversy ensued between those who felt that it was more authentic to sing the song the way the words would have been pronounced at the time it was created and those who felt that such contrived accents, again in a predominantly Euro congregation, was…problematic. What I noticed was that no resolution happened but we sang the song far less than we used to.  Which is sad because it’s a beautiful song.  So singing it today at Fellowship, I couldn’t help but note that we sang the words “Wade in the Water” out of the hymnal as it is printed, with no contrived accent.  But before singing, Rev. Dr. Blake again put the words in context, explaining that when escaped slaves journeyed towards freedom they often had to cross rivers that were frightening, but the song promises that God would look over their safety by sending an angel to “trouble the water,” blessing it.  And I thought to myself that if the aim was to sing the song authentically, this way was so much more so.

Generation 1.5

Growing up the daughter of Chinese immigrants to the U.S., a core part of my identity was as a “second generation” Chinese American. I was therefore more than surprised one day, while conversing with a fellow daughter of Chinese immigrants, to learn that she saw herself as “first generation” Chinese American. Wha? “No,” I said, our parents are “first generation,” therefore we are “second.” “No,” she countered,” we are the first generation born here, therefore we are “first.” “Then what are our parents,” I asked, “P0?” (We were in high school genetics class at the time, hence the genetics terminology.) Since then I’ve learned that there is a lot of confusion/disagreement around the labels, so nowadays when people ask, I just say “I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants.”

The reason why I’m now thinking about such labels again is because of “generation 1.5.” I had described to a friend the challenges in my quest to find my spiritual roots. The Buddhist and Taoist temples that cater to Chinese immigrants are baffling in that I don’t speak Chinese fluently in the first place and often times they don’t speak my family’s dialect anyway. In contrast, the Western Buddhist groups are unsatisfying, often stripped of any of the cultural practices that I’m seeking to rediscover.  I’m hoping that there are other Asian Americans who are similarly seeking, but afraid that maybe they don’t exist. Immigrants like my parents do not need their cultural practices explained like I do, whereas often times American-born Chinese aren’t interested in what Grandma used to do, looking more to assimilate into Euro-dominated U.S. culture. (That used to be me.) My friend, known for her ability to cut to the heart of the matter, said, “You’re looking for a very specific group of people; you’re looking for generation 1.5.”

Generation 1.5. I’d never heard the term before but immediately it sounded right - the generation that is “too American” to be fully Asian and “too Asian” to be fully American. So I googled “generation 1.5” and found that 1) I was right about being “second generation;” but 2) wrong about what “generation 1.5” meant. It actually refers specifically to immigrants who come over at a young age. But in spirit, generation 1.5 is exactly what I’m looking for:

“Many 1.5 generation individuals are bi-cultural, combining both cultures - culture from the country of origin with the culture of the new country.”

To varying extents, this applies to generations 1.0 and 2.0 as well. My dad, having lived now many more years in the U.S. than in China, is more “American” than even he realizes. And I, despite having tried to reject the culture of my ancestors as a kid, nonetheless picked up Chinese ways whether I wanted to or not. We are all, to varying extents, combining both cultures to make something that encompasses all of our experiences, without having to choose/reject one of the two. Generation 1.5.

It's Spring Festival! Happy New Year!

Every late Jan/early Feb when the New Year of my ancestors comes along I face a mini-dilemma - what to call it?  I agree with folks who argue that calling it “Chinese New Year” is Sinocentric and ignores the millions of Vietnamese and Koreans who also celebrate this day. But calling it “Lunar New Year” presents its own problems as there are other lunar calendars - the Jewish one comes quickly to mind. Plus the Chinese calendar is luni-solar, not purely lunar. (Yes, I am a geek.) Then I think, well it IS Chinese New Year. The reason why it’s celebrated in Vietnam and Korea is because of Chinese imperialism. And then I think, well… maybe we don’t want to remind folks of that.

The other problem is that every time I call it “Chinese New Year,” or even “Lunar New Year,” it reminds me that I’m putting a qualifier on it, reinforcing that the day that comes about a dozen days after the winter solstice is thenormative New Year and any other is an add on that some people celebrate to be “ethnic.” Still, I just kept alternating between “Chinese New Year” and “Lunar New Year” because what else could I call it?

Was sharing some of these thoughts on facebook when someone made a very obvious (in retrospect, and yet I never thought of it despite all my ruminizing) suggestion - call it what it’s called in Chinese - Spring Festival. And, she added, “that would make it more ethnically neutral as well.” YES!! Makes sense to me! After all, Jews do not call their new year “Jewish New Year;” they call it Rosh Hashanah. No Chinese person living in China would say “Chinese New Year;” that would be absurd. So from now on, I am still going to wish folks 新年快乐! (Happy New Year!) when the time comes around, but I’m no longer going to refer to it as “Chinese” or “Lunar” New Year. It is 春节, Spring Festival.

"I go to church for pie."

That was the title of and the highlighted quote from a recent HuffPost piece talking about new approaches to church that included Unitarian Universalism.

To be fair, I did not watch the video so maybe there was more to it than that. But the reason why I didn’t bother past the teaser is because I had the same reaction that I did many years ago when UUism was first described to me as “you can believe anything you want.” I thought, “That’s nice, but why would I join a group for that? I can believe anything I want by myself.” And I can get pie pretty much anywhere; why would I go to church for it? If that’s the only thing at church that’s drawing people, that’s not enough of a draw. And if pie is not the thing that’s really drawing people, then why aren’t we talking about that instead of pie.

Bibliography: Kat Liu

UU Buddhism Is Foreign to Me (2013) - in Buddhist Voices in Unitarian Universalism, edited by Sam Trumbore and Wayne B. Arnason (Boston: Skinner House)

What Will We Be and For Whom? (2010) - in A People So Bold: Theology and Ministry for Unitarian Universalists, edited by John Gibb Millspaugh (Boston: Skinner House)

Immigration as a Moral Issue Resource Guide (2010) -


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Acknowledgments is made possible in part by generous support from the Fahs Collaborative