Unitarian Universalism

Mainstream and Counter-Culture

Every now an then I run up against the sense that a lot of white, well-educated, liberal people (which describes most UUs) really relish the idea of being non-conformists.  Counter-culture.  Free-thinkers.  "Out there."  Eccentric.  Weird.  

I've heard many a one say with a sigh that they've always been "different," but I have the impression that this is something that they actually take considerable pride in.  And this always bugs me a little.

It's not that I don't also take pride in my ability to think independently - I do.  But as an Asian American, who has grown up feeling weird and different, there is also part of me that really just wants to belong.  As a kid, the things I desperately wanted were McDonalds, tv dinners, Barbie dolls, and Disneyland, where "Main Street" white-culture America was held up as the idealized norm.  

As a person of color, I do not have the luxury of being able to reject what is main-stream.  "Counter-culture" is not a choice for me; it's an inescapable reality.  And multiculturalism is not just a cool sounding ideal, it's a necessity.

I come to UU to be part of something greater, to have the power to make the world better, not just to be "different."  I can be different all on my own.


Direction of UU

With the short chill days, the frigid darkness, and the holidays approaching, a colleague and I had long been talking about going to the Tabard Inn after work to sit by their fire and enjoy a warm drink. Tonight we finally made it.  I had never been before.  It was a strange place - the kind of place that can claim "Washington slept here," serving as a backdrop to the conversations of the mid-level power brokers of DC.  Yet also homey.

Out of the many things that we talked about that were interesting and worthy of further thought, the one that most struck me is a comment about the future of UU. I was talking about our religious diversity - encompassing everything from atheists to liberal Christians to New Agers - and how difficult it was as a result to have a strong UU identity.  I was preoccupied with how to draft a definitive statement of our identity and yet keep everyone on board.  My colleague, otoh, gently brushed all that aside.  As I understood it, she essentially said that we would have to outgrow the hyphens.  There are other places for liberal Christians.  There are other places for religious atheists.  There needs to be a place for UUs to be UUs.

I am wrestling with this.  One the one hand, the UU that I was just a short couple of years ago would have been appalled at the idea.  If a core part of our identity is freedom of conscience, how can we have anything other than the diversity that we have now?  When we talk of bringing racial/ethnic diversity to our congregations, we talk of the spiritual benefits of celebrating difference, how it augments us all.  Isn't this true for religious identity as well?  Don't we serve as a place where people of different religious backgrounds can learn from each other - a sort of perpetual interfaith dialogue?

Otoh, having our own identity would not prevent us from learning about other faiths.  (And one might argue that we'd be in a better position to do so.)  Having studied our historical and theological roots, the UU that I am now believes that we are a religion, not just a "United Nations" of other religions.  I know that our religion incorporates elements from many faith traditions. It has from the start, not just as a PC way of "collecting" representations from them.  We have a theology that is compatible with many other faith traditions, but it is our own, born of our unique history.

My colleague is not one to just steam-roll through dissent, so I take her comments seriously. And if I am to be fully honest, these days when I speak about UU, I speak from that unified perspective, rooted in our history and theology.  I no longer think of us as a religious United Nations.  The question is, how many other UUs feel the same way.  How many UUs are we excluding?

Inspired Faith, Effective Action

Just a quick note to let yall know that the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy has relaunched it's blog, "Inspired Faith, Effective Action." It's been expanded to include contributions from the other offices within the Advocacy and Witness staff group. In addition to the Washington Office, look for posts from the Office of International Resources, Congregational Advocacy and Witness, and Holdeen India Program, as well as our director, Rev. Meg Riley.

Our first content post is already up, about the UUA's observance of World AIDS Day. Written by Adam with video taken by Alex, it's a multi-media team effort and I couldn't be more proud.

Check it out!

UU and Social Justice

The UUSJ is the social justice group of the Greater Washington, DC area, encompassing Baltimore and Northern Virginia. They put on a workshop today, co-sponsored by the Washington Office, on how to more effectively mobilize congregations towards social justice ministry. It was an extended version of the Washington Office's "Inspired Faith, Effective Action" workshop. The task was given to me to talk about religious grounding - lifting up that when we do social justice work we do it as religious people, and how that is different from doing it as secular advocates.

That shouldn't be a difficult task for me, since much my time is spent ruminating on how social justice is an expression of our faith. However, I was in the unfortunate position of following Rev. Sinkford, president of the UUA, who gave the opening address. And really, he said everything that I would have said, only better. He reminds me how blessed we are to have him and of the anxiety that I am feeling about his pending departure.

There are some in our congregations who say that they are tired of all this social justice stuff - that they come to church in order to worship and to be spiritually nourished, not to be bombarded with petitions to sign and actions to take. And there are some who say that faith without works is dead. That spirituality without social action is just navel gazing. I think I tend to fall into the latter category but it's because my innate tendency is to navel gaze - to ponder - and I'm (over)compensating for that.

What Rev. Sinkford reminded us today was that the two really go hand-in-hand. Our social justice work IS an expression of our faith, and if it is done right, it should be spiritually uplifting, not draining.

I hate our new chalice logo compared with the old, but I love our new slogan. Whoever is responsible, kudos. We finally got it right. A message that is not a reaction against Christianity, as was "The Uncommon Denomination" and "UUs have a different trinity." Instead, our new slogan captures what we are about. Come nurture your spirit; help heal our world. Receiving and giving, together at the same time. Relational. Mutual.

Today, even as I lament that we will soon lose Rev. Sinkford's steady guidance, I feel confident in our future. Come nurture your spirit; help heal our world. This is what it means to be a UU.

The Theology of the Privileged

UU World published an article called, Not My Father's Religion in its Fall edition that I didn't think much about. I didn't think much about it because I agreed with what it said and thought it fairly obvious. Ours is a religion of the privileged. It is less likely to appeal to those who are working class. This is something that we need to work on.

But the latest issue of UU World is out and a firestorm of angry letters by supposedly open-minded and enlightened UUs made me take another look. Not everyone was critical, but for those who were the gist of the argument is that UU is welcoming of all folks, and that it's the author (Doug Muder) who is biased for thinking that our message would not appeal to the working class.

This is very similar to how some people accuse us of being racist for wanting to address racial privilege. At the heart of the disagreement is the inability to see how one perspective is just a perspective, not universal. It is invisible to them, so they angrily think we are inventing problems where none exist. They think that it's the messengers who are the problem.

We who have grown up middle to upper-middle class, we who are mostly college educated if not more, we who had family who were able to assist us when we needed it, our experience tells us that the world is full of possibilities and all we have to do is be smart enough to make the right choices and work hard and we'll succeed. And if we do make mistakes there will be other chances. Our experiences influence our world view influence our theology. And our theology is based on the celebration of choice. Mine certainly is.

My theology says that when Adam and Eve chose to eat of the apple, they did not "fall" but rather opened up a world of exciting possibilities. I celebrate the story as our collective claiming of our freedom (and responsibility) to choose and to be responsible for the consequences of our choices. And in our history, early Unitarians emphasized a spiritual practice of "self-culture," believing in our potential to grow to become more and more like God by the choices that we make. Early Unitarians were also the cultural elite of New England, the "Boston Brahmins."

What does this theology mean for whom the next paycheck is the difference between a roof over head and being out on the streets? For whom contemplating a career change at mid-life because the current one "isn't fulfilling enough" is not an option - not if you want to be able to feed your kids. What does the theology of choice mean for someone whose choices are extremely limited?

I am deeply invested in the theology of choice, and yet I also know this theology has little meaning for someone like my parents, who did what they had to do so that my brother and I could be angsty about "personal fulfillment." I don't know how to reconcile these things. But I know these issues are important for us to hold.

Model Diversity

The Asian/Pacific Islander "group" of All Souls (in other words, a group of us who are of A/PI descent) had a potluck this evening and our senior minister was kind enough to accept an invitation to join us. It was billed as a purely social event, a space where A/PIs can get to know each other, but this is Washington, DC with the movers and shakers, and some stereotypes of Asians have basis, so eventually people could not resist the opportunity to get down to business. Talk turned to diversity and how to build more of it at our church. What the group was specifically interested in was how to build true multi-culturalism in our congregation as opposed to the bi-culturalism that people often mean by "diversity."

At times, being Asian in a black and white culture is like being... nothing. Persona non grata. I don't mean to play the violin of self-pity tho. I know that lots of other people are in the same boat - Latino/a/Hispanics obviously, Native Americans, a growing population of Arab-Americans, and also, something that I had not thought about until discussions within UU made me aware, people of African descent who are not "African-American." In a country that is so used to framing the discussion around the legacy of slavery and its dynamics, where do the rest of us fit in to this?

UU has many of the same problems that society has, magnified. Not because we are worse about them but because we actually talk about them. And within UU it seems to me that All Souls magnifies these problems even more. Not because we are worse about them but because we actually talk about them. So of course the A/PI community here, myself included, has not always been happy with how "diversity" has been framed. Even at All Souls, the view can become "black and white."

Yet we also recognize that this is a place that is sincerely trying, and is much better about it than most other places. So when the question came to how to increase our diversity, I was a little surprised when Rob refrained from tooting a horn he had every right to toot. He didn't talk about how great All Souls is, which it is. Nor did he point to other UU congregations, of which there are a few that are struggling with similar issues. He stated that if we really want to build diversity, we had to look outside of Unitarian Universalism. It was a statement of humility that both surprised and impressed me.

He pointed to Middle Collegiate Church, in the heart of New York City. I've heard great things about this congregation from others as well, including Taquiena. So for anyone interested in what true multi-culturalism done with intent looks like, I lift up Middle Church. It may be too Christian for many UUs, but man does it look beautiful and alive. I'm definitely going the next time I'm in NYC on a Sunday.

Conforming Individualism

Happy Halloween everyone!

My first Halloween in my house, and in a residential neighborhood.  And yet I didn't get more than a handful of kids.  So sad.  Now I have all this chocolate left-over.  Oh well, more for me!

My housemate and I had an interesting discussion tonight as we waited for the kiddies.  It's not the first time that we've talked about the extreme individualism in this country, at the expense of community, and how we lament its effects.

But tonight the question came up as to "why?"  Especially amongst so many intelligent and educated people, why would they not see the limitations of this extreme individualism?  Why would they not see that such stringent adherence to the doctrine of individualism is in its own way a kind of conformity?

I had been thinking of this question earlier in the day, and I realized that it's because it's part of our collective mythology - our American identity - and it's very hard to break out of one's own mythology.  We are taught from a very early age that the sign of intelligence - the sign of being able to think for one's self - is individualism.  Independent thinking.  We don't want to be "a sheep."  That's the worst thing that one can be.  We are taught to take pride, to invest our worth, in intentionally and continually mistrusting the group in favor of oneself.  Even when such behavior is clearly at our expense.

If you buy into the idea that individualism is a mark of intelligence, then of course you're going to have a hard time seeing how individualism for the sake of individualism is conformity.

Unitarian Universalism tends to draw from people who take pride in their intellectual acumen.  And this is both a blessing and a curse.  It is obviously a blessing to have so many people in our congregations who value reason and inquiry.  But that's if we can get them to join us in the first place.  (The sad truth is that no one buys into this myth of individualism more than intellectuals!)  I know so many people who would love UU if they could get over the fact that it's a group and, God forbid, a religion.  They don't join groups.  Those are for conformists.  And they certainly don't join religions.  Those are for people who don't think.  They will be content to live with their isolated selves, thank you very much, because they refuse to be "confined" by a community.  

Unlike the chocolate that I failed to give away tonight, their not coming through our doors diminishes us all.

Fred Thompson is the Anti-Christ

Who knew?

Not long ago, someone posted a link to a quiz that supposedly helps you identify the presidential candidate who most closely matches your socio-political views. (I'm not quite sure how they weigh things.)

I dutifully punched in my positions on a range of issues such as abortion rights, the Kyoto protocol, gun control, immigration, marriage-equality, minimum wage, the Patriot Act, and torturing detainees.

According to the quiz, I should vote for Mike Gravel

1. Mike Gravel - 95%
2. Dennis Kucinich - 90%
3. Barack Obama - 85%

Thanks, but I still plan to vote for Barack.

The more interesting and more scary thing is when, just for fun, I decided to flip it around and answer the opposite of my real views. I wanted to know who, from my perspective, is the anti-christ of presidential candidates. This is what I got:

1. Fred Thompson - 100%
2. Duncan Hunter - 95%
3. Mitt Romney - 95%

AAAAAAACCKK!! 100%???!! Hey, I knew he is a conservative, but he seemed like such a pleasant old man on Law and Order.

Now is the Time

Part of the reason for Association Sunday was to raise money for the "Now is the Time" campaign, aimed at growing Unitarian Universalism in general and supporting UUs of color in particular. Because, as President Sinkford said in June, "Now is the time to grow our faith."

At Davies Memorial, Rev. Crestwell pointed out (which is great because I completely forgot to do it) that part of the outreach involves an ad campaign in Time magazine. John even had a copy right there that he waved in front of the congregation, clearly stoked about it.

The campaign will couple full-page ads with "editorial"-like comments. (Advertorials?) And the thinking is that there is nothing more "mainstream" than Time magazine. And example can be seen from the UUA homepage.

UU reaction has been predictably mixed. True to UU form, some people complained. Too colorful. Too "out there." Wrong font. (Seriously, someone complained about the font.) But seeing as I identify myself as an evangelical UU, like John, I am happy that we were "out there." As another evangelical UU said, "Finally!"

For those of you who are thinking that ads in Time magazine are a little "too mainstream" (ie - boring), the wise people up in Boston have also put out a vid on YouTube. And we here in DC are particularly excited because All Souls features heavily in it, especially our Associate Minister, Shana Lynngood.

Association Sunday

Today was Association Sunday. The UUA has encouraged congregations across the continent to set aside this one Sunday to devote to strengthening the association as a whole. This includes giving sermons about being a UU and making donations to help our denomination grow. Being the ragtag crew of radical individualists that UUs are, the concept is a bold and novel one. Today was in large part due to the leadership of our President, Bill Sinkford. I don't think that even five years ago we could have contemplated the idea of doing anything as such a collective identity.

Having said that, my congregation, All Souls Church, Unitarian, chose not to participate. Instead, I got in my truck (yes, I drive a gas guzzler; if someone wants to buy me a new fuel-efficient car I would be very grateful.) and drove down a little ways to Davies Memorial UU Church in Camp Springs, MD. Davies Memorial was named after A. Powell Davies, one of All Souls' most influential ministers. Like All Souls, it is racially diverse and had recently won a "breakthrough congregation" award signifying notable growth. I had been meaning to pay them a visit.

A a representative of the UUA, I explained what Association Sunday was for, made a pitch for money (I hate that!), and then sat down to hear the Rev. John Crestwell preach. And John was on fire!! He preached a sermon that warmed the cockles of this evangelical UUs heart - talking about how he is sick of listening to the radio and only hearing the conservative Christian message as being the voice of religion, he is sick of driving by conservative Christian mega-churches and seeing the packed parking lots. Why aren't our parking lots packed? Why aren't we growing at the same rate? Why don't we, as Unitarian Universalists, let others know about us? The fact is that we have a saving message, a message that the world needs to hear. Go out, he exhorted his congregation, and spread the word. Identify yourself as a UU and invite people to church. Let them see for themselves what we are like.

Can I get an Amen?


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