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Let's take off the hair shirt

Unitarian Universalists underestimate the very real obstacles we are up against in trying to create multicultural congregations.
By Marilyn Sewell
Spring 2010 2.15.10

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(Bob Delboy)

Unitarian Universalists have been, as Paul Rasor puts it, “engaged in wrenching self-examination” since we declared our earnest wish to become truly multicultural and multiracial almost eighteen years ago in the 1992 General Assembly. Over the years, we have continued to witness to our “failure” in countless articles, speeches, and sermons, castigating ourselves as insensitive and intransigent. It’s time to take off the hair shirt.

We UUs are precisely human, nothing more and nothing less. What distinguishes us, if anything, is our fervent wish to become better than we are and to heal a broken and suffering world. But when we try to bring together people of different cultures and classes, we are subject to the same challenges as other human beings. Some of the challenges are especially daunting. A growing body of research shows, for example, that higher diversity results in less interaction and cooperation among people.

Robert D. Putnam, the Harvard political scientist and author of Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, completed another significant study in 2001, this one regarding the impact of diversity on trust and community-building. Interviewing 30,000 subjects, he found that “in ethnically diverse neighborhoods, residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down.’ Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.”

Putnam did not like the results of his study—and neither did his colleagues. It was an inconvenient truth. So colleagues suggested to Putnam that he look again, retest, reconsider. And Putnam did, for five years, and found that his original conclusions were confirmed. Finally in 2007 he published his paper, E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-first Century” (PDF; 38 pages). A sense of community can grow amid diversity, he argued, but it takes a long time and requires extended interaction between groups.

Racial and cultural integration comes when people actually get to know one another, and the built-in fear of “the other” is dissipated through experience. It will come, as it has already, when people are brought together by institutional necessity, as in our armed services, in sports, in integrated schools where young people learn and play together. In these settings, people find themselves engaged in common tasks where they encounter more than surface skin color and unfamiliar traditions, settings where they can observe their common humanity.

Unitarian Universalists should be commended for wanting to create churches where culture and class don’t separate and divide. But it does a disservice to all when well-meaning progressives underestimate the very real obstacles we are up against. We’re very long on the “should” and very short on the “how.”

The only church groups that approach being multicultural are Roman Catholicism and evangelical mega-churches. Why have they been successful and we have not? Are they just more open and accepting of differences than Unitarian Universal­ists? Or could it be that their answers to the mysteries of existence are cleaner and clearer than ours and therefore have a broader appeal?

UU World asks, “Can We Change?” Before we answer that question, we need to answer several others: What accounts for our inability to move toward cultural diversity, in spite of our sincere efforts? What specific behavioral and institutional changes are we speaking of and how would we bring these changes about? How do class issues impact Unitarian Universalist efforts to become culturally diverse? What is unique about UU history and tradition, and how much of this do we wish to retain?

When I was a seminary student at Berkeley, I occasionally used to attend Glide Memorial in San Francisco, a Methodist church, which on any given Sunday has a range of attendees from recovering drug addicts to wealthy ladies in furs—plus a kick-ass jazz band and a gospel choir. I love that church because of the richness that diversity brings to its services. On the other hand, I also love Jesus and gospel music. I think it would be a stretch for most of our churches to go there—even close to there.

Perhaps we should begin by humbly asking ourselves what realistic goals might be institutionally possible for us, and then leave behind the hubris that has led us to so much self-flagellation and so little accomplishment.


For a guide to related articles, read “What is UU culture?

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