Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Finally Joining the Debate - Who We Are

For those who haven't been following this, Paul Rasor wrote an article in the UU World in which he said:
And it is not just about numbers in another sense, too. Unitarian Universalism has its own cultural tradition, one that is rooted in European-American cultural norms and ways of being in the world. This normative lens is often invisible to those of us who look through it, but it is all too visible to those who view the world through different cultural lenses. This is why our ongoing antiracism work is so important. We cannot become a multicultural faith if we—subconsciously or otherwise—continue to treat a particular monocultural lens as normative.
 This article was paired with one by Rosemary Bray McNatt in which she said:
How, then, do we encounter those whose experience of church is different, whose experience of the holy is different, who find the truth of their lives in music from T.I. and Naz, in the Black Eyed Peas and A Tribe Called Quest? Where do they enter into the culture of Unitarian Universalist religious community? How do people like me, proficient in navigating the worlds of African American identity, learn to make room for the experiences of immigrant people whose names I have not yet learned to say? How do we—all of us—convert our ignorance into wisdom, manage both our shame and our earnestness, both our resistance and our desire to know?
 The following issue of the UU World featured several responses, all of which are worthy of discussion.  I particularly related to Jason Shelton's words:
I say this with a complete and total sense of shared identity: I see dorks everywhere I look. Dorks of every race, ethnicity, gender, affectional orientation, age, economic background, educational background—you name it, we’ve got it covered.
 Yes, I am a dork.  My glee in connecting my facebook to my twitter and then having this blog feed in to both shows this.

But what I want to examine is what James Kubal-Komoto lays out as six demographic factors in UU churches:
  1. Education: We have the highest average level of education of any religious tradition, with many of us having graduate degrees.
  2. Class: Because of our education, we are predominantly members of the professional middle class.
  3. Occupation: We predominantly have jobs that are not related to for-profit activity, which is highly correlated with political liberalism.
  4. Ethnicity: We are not only predominantly white, but have predominantly northern European roots.
  5. Age: We are predominantly middle-aged and older.
  6. Gender: We are predominantly female.
I read this like another checklist for who I am.  Education: graduate degrees?  Check.  I have not one but two graduate degrees.  Class: professional middle?  Questionable, due to income levels, but yes, I'm a professional.  Can I argue that I'm part of the "professional lower class"?  Occupation: non-profit activity?  Ministry would fall there, yeah.  Ethnicity: northern European?  Well, I'm not all Northern European, am I?  I mean, yes, I'm German, Scottish, English, Swedish, Welsh, Irish and French, and that does cover quite a bit of Northern Europe, but I think there might be a little Native American in there too, we just haven't proved it yet...  Okay, check.  Age: middle-aged?  HEY!  That's rude!  I was a "young adult" when I started this ministry!  My theory is that Unitarian Universalism has made me middle-aged, not that we only attract middle-aged people!  Gender: female?  Yep, female.

The problem with all of this is that to some degree James is absolutely right.  At the same time, it makes people who fit this bill feel like their very existence is problematized.  We need to make sure we examine and broaden our UU culture without making people who fit this dominant culture ashamed of who they are or felt like they're being told they're either irrelevant, unwelcome, or, at best, highly problematic in their being.

But while I may personally relate to James Kubal-Komoto's list, and I've seen UU churches that highly resemble those remarks, then I look out at my congregation.  We're an older congregation, and more women than men.  I think those two factors are reflected in most churches in most denominations, not just UUs.  And we are primarily northern-European, I think, but not like it was when I was in New England and they were so strongly Finnish that I was highly encouraged to put the two hymns that use the tune "Finlandia" in high rotation.  Here in the Midwest, they're mostly as mixed Northern European as I am.  A number of the families in the church have been there five generations or so, so what part of Europe they came from is less of note.  But education and class?  Picturing my congregation in my mind, I do see the two retired science professors and the retired English professor, the three social workers.  And then there's a lot of teachers.  Some of them may have their master's, and they're definitely "professional middle class" and in the non-profit sector.  There's the fellow who works at a local non-profit agency, and he has a college degree.  There's one lawyer.  But then I look further, and there's a fellow working doing piecework at one of the local factories, and a woman whose husband works at another factory.  There's a young woman who works at a department store unloading the boxes, and another woman who worked at a grocery story, clerking I believe.  There's a whole row of people who are retired now, and I know some of them worked factories and some were teachers, and some were farmers, and their parents were all farmers. We're a congregation with some people who, as Rosemary Bray McNatt identified, "brag about not owning a television," mixed with some people who don't own a computer because of money and class issues. 

And because we have this class and occupational diversity, I can say that we do struggle against the dominant UU culture as a congregation.  What do we struggle with in the larger UU culture?  We struggle with ethical eating and anti-Wal-Mart stances.  Some in the congregational, that percentage that fits the larger UU culture more, identifies with this, but the working-class folk are looking for a good deal, and Wal-Mart has them.  And we all know that eating organic is still more expensive than not, and that while it's not health, McDonald's is cheap food. 

What else do we struggle with?  We struggle with the theological diversity, particularly inclusion of Paganism, but really with all the theological diversity.  Our class groups are also, to some degree, theological groups, and they don't always see eye-to-eye. 

What else do we struggle with?  We struggle with the social justice stances.  Our professional-class liberals are ready to advocate for same-sex marriage, but our working-class moderate and conservatives are less comfortable with LBGT issues and identities.  They're a lot less comfortable with our proclaiming radical theologies and politics in the public sphere, both because they don't necessarily agree with them, and because there is a concern that it will make them uncomfortable in discussions with the conservative neighbors and friends they're surrounded by outside of church.

I don't think it's impossible to be a welcoming congregation for LGBT people, anti-racist, theologically diverse, environmentally-conscious, and, at the same time, diverse in race and class.  But what I see when we talk about breaking down race and class barriers is a fear that we'll have to give some of not just culture, but our important religious values in order to do so.  And my lived experience here is that what diversity we have does decrease our strength of connection to the larger UU culture's religious values as expressed through social justice stances and theological diversity. Ultimately, this points to the idea that these articles are right, that there is something in our UU culture which is keeping us from diversity.  The problem is that it just might be some of our deepest values. 

And I hope I'm wrong about this.

3 comments:

Bill Baar said...

I thumbed through this issue and thought some UUs awfully preoccupied defing themselves by differences they see in others.

A porter at the Saturan dealership gave me a ride home one afternoon and gently asked about my religion after talk of family, food, and cars.

He didn't proclaim his Hispanice heritage, he didn't proclaim his income or job status. He spoke only of our shared concerns of family and then wondered what faith we might share.

I'm not 100% certain he recognized any difference from me: a fellow citizen, chicagoan, and Saturan owner. We spoke only of shared concerns.

He witnessed by what united us. If he saw any differences between us, I really don't think he thought much of them.

That UUWorld says a whole lot about what some UUs think of themselves (without statistics or evidence; so much for a pragmatic faith).

Whether others see us that way, and whether others would be offended by the sociological buckets we plop them into as being "different" from us, ought to be cause for concern to us.

They may not be true, and worse, quite offensive to some who may not realize we find them different, when they see us as just like them.

Paul Oakley said...

Quality post, Rev Cyn! Thanks!

Donald R. S. Wilton said...

We have a second Sunday Service by a fellowship at First Unitarian Universalist of San Francisco. Sunday Afternoon Fellowship is led by Rev. Fitch who is Black. Unlike Black ministers leading White congregations as is the norm in the UUA, Rev. Fitch is Black leading a largely Black congregation. he chooses to keep his congregation separate. This leads me to wonder if there is a kin selection force at work here that we fail to pay attention to.

Other sects have black churches but few multiracial churches. if we can grows the capacity for other race churches in a normative fashion I wonder if trying too hard to make multiracial churches is the way to grow the congregation as a whole. Why are we so different that we can afford to ignore the de facto rules that define every other church in the world, every other religion? If the norm is segregation along race lines then we can best grow the UUA by asking Douglas Fitch what he would do to produce more Black minister, Black churches in the UUA instead of the very white very liberal hand wringing that we aren't so god damned special that we can manage to bypass the laws of Nature. We talk about Nature a lot but we can sure choose to ignore the laws when being more Liberal than thou is useful to defining self image.