Moral Imagination: 50 Years of UU Social Justice
Presenters: Rev. Scott Alexander, Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, Rev. Richard Gilbert, Denny Davidoff
The triumphs and struggles of Unitarian Universalism (UUism) to be more inclusive since the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in 1961 are highlighted in this event. A brief history of our Association’s struggles with racial justice, the women’s movement, gay rights, and economic justice are presented. Young adults offer their future-oriented perspectives.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Good morning. It's good to see you here. Welcome to our session on Unfurling Moral Imagination: 50 Years of Unitarian Universalist Justice Making. This is one of the programs that is brought to you today by the 50th Anniversary Planning Committee, a task force which I have been honored to be a member of, as we commemorate this 50th anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association, gathering together. I am very grateful to be on the platform today with this amazing and illustrious group of people. One of the things that I like about being a Unitarian Universalist—
[? SCOTT ALEXANDER: ?] What drug are you on?
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: I should say, illustrious and boisterous group of people.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: She's already lost control of the meeting.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: I know, see? There you go. I'll have to bring it back into control, [? as the ?] moderator. One of the things I like about being a Unitarian Universalist is that you get an opportunity to meet an amazing array of people who have done amazing things to contribute to the betterment of our world. And the people who are sharing this platform with me this morning are people who have done that and are doing that and will continue to do that. So I'm very grateful to be with all of them. And we'll have introductions in just a moment.
As we were planning for this particular anniversary, one of the things that we wanted to be sure to do was to lift up our prophetic tradition, and to think about the ways in which, in the 50 years that have passed, we have contributed to continuing to build the world that we dream about. And it's in that context that we conceived of this panel, the idea of looking at justice-making over 50 years. Having conceived of that idea, we then realized that to do that was a bit of an impossibility. There are so many ways, and so many different issues, and so many things that we have addressed among us. There are ways in which we have grown in this 50 years about our awareness of our place as part of the larger world, our awareness as part of the larger environment. There are ways in which we have grown in our awareness in our struggles to be part of the human family. There are ways that we have witnessed, as we heard some last night in our opening session, about our role in human conflict and our dreams of peace.
There are many ways that we have learned, together, how to be more effective. Our work in our congregational level, our work in our districts, our work nationally, on witness, and also, the important work that our state legislative ministries do. There is also, of course, international work, and there is advocacy work that happens at all different levels, both at a community level, state levels, at our national level, and now increasingly internationally, as for example our work on BGLTQ [bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, and queer] issues in Uganda illustrates so well.
Having said that, in the next 90 minutes, we are not going to cover all of that and all the other issues that I have not even yet begun to mention. What we are going to focus on in this morning's session is our struggle to more fully embrace the spectrum of the human family that we care to affirm and promote, as part of both our first principle—affirming the inherent worth and dignity of all people—and also our seventh principal, which affirms our place in the interdependent web of all existence. So it's in that particular tradition that we gather here and listen today not only about a recitation of our successes, but also the ways that we can learn as we go forward from the things that we tried that didn't go as we hoped the first time. For to me, as a student of history, one of the reasons that we need to know where we have been is because it so informs where we are going. So it's in that spirit that we are very grateful to be gathered here in reflecting today.
The format that we're going to use today is—we will hear from a panel which will give us some snapshots around different issues that we have wrestled through together as an association. And then we'll have some dialogue among the panelists. We will then also hear from four respondents.
Our panelists represent people who have been leaders for us, who have been prophets for us, really, in many ways, who have guided us through difficult decisions and difficult times in our history. And our respondents represent, I believe, the best of what is and what is still to come—people who hold a vision for where we need to be going as we look forward beyond this first 50 years into today and into the future. And so we will have responses from them afterward, and then a dialogue to conclude. So that's the format we will be using today. And I want to begin by allowing our panelists just to say a sentence each or two about themselves, and to introduce themselves to you.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: I'm Denny Davidoff. I am a dedicated, determined lay leader in our movement, with a penchant for process-oriented mischief.
MARK MORRISON-REED: I'm Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed, affiliate faculty at Meadville Lombard, and my brand-new book is—already forgotten. Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. And it's an unpacking of a piece of this history that we'll be talking about today.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: Scott Alexander. I've been a Unitarian Universalist minister for almost four decades. I served the congregation of Vero Beach, Florida, and I was the original architect of the Welcoming Congregation program, which we put out in eight months.
RICHARD GILBERT: Dick Gilbert. Retired after 50 years in our Unitarian Universalist ministry. And I regard myself, in the terms of Bill Moyers, as a public nuisance, economic justice being a particular interest in our movement. And the book—shameless commerce plug—is How Much Do We Deserve?, an inquiry on distributive justice.
COLIN BOSSEN: Thank you. And Reverend Colin Bossen, Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland. And I'm here for my shameless plug—I co-wrote the new Tapestry of Faith curriculum, Resistance and Transformation, on Unitarian Universalist social justice history.
MELISSA CARVILL-ZIEMER: I'm Melissa Carvill-Ziemer, the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent in Kent, Ohio, and also the president-elect of the Unitarian Universalist Allies for Racial Equity.
RAZIQ BROWN: I'm Raziq Brown. I'm a janitor. And I'm from Fort Worth First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church.
NATHAN ALLEN HOLLISTER: My name is Nathan Allen Hollister. Everybody can call me Nato. I'm a student at Meadville and an internationally licensed brewer.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: I told you they were both esteemed and rambunctious. Let's give them just a round—[APPLAUSE] I understand that we have a feedback problem in this room. And they are working to correct it. I think that we still need to try to use the mics, because otherwise we'll have a different issue, about not being able to hear each other at all. So if you can bear with us, we understand someone's coming over to try to correct that issue.
We had a lot of conversation about how to begin this panel, and we could have begun—every single one of these eight could have talked to you for the whole 90 minutes and left you spellbound. But since we're going to try to get a variety of perspectives, what I'm going to ask our first panelist to do is to share with us one story that illustrates, for you, the Unitarian Universalist struggle to be just and inclusive. And so I'm going to ask Denny Davidoff to start.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: I want to acknowledge the enormous skills of Leslie Takahashi-Morris in gathering this group together. Just presiding over a phone call with this crowd takes a lot of courage and skill, but Leslie, when you talk, I listen.
So, struggle stories. They're not pretty, you know. Here's one. In November of 1980, the second Women and Religion Convocation, co-sponsored by the Women and Religion Committee that had been formed in the aftermath as a change agent, after the 1977 General Assembly at Cornell University where we passed the Women and Religion Resolution. So it was the Women and Religion Committee which had been formed as part of the UUA President's Office and the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation who brought this convocation in East Lansing, Michigan at Michigan State University together. On the final day of the convocation, the women who were present voted to bring a revised set of principles to the 1981 GA schedule for Philadelphia.
Now you have to remember that the principles that the Women and Religion and this group of women were proposing to change had largely been adopted in 1961 at the consolidation. And the proposed changes, which were written through a feminist and humanist lens, engendered great consternation in many quarters, particularly among the ministers who were part of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship. My sisters and I, who were serving as officers of the Women's Federation, were sympathetic to the frustrations of those who wanted the changes.
But we were also deeply concerned about process. I told you in my introduction, I am devoted to process. And we couldn't agree with our Women and Religion friends that bringing their new version of the principles on to the floor of the Philadelphia GA for an acrimonious fight and then, what they wanted was an up or down vote—we could not agree that that was the way to go. So I, having been elected UU Women's Federation president two days prior to the opening of the Philadelphia GA, and Virginia Wheelwright, my new vice-president, and several others of us set about forming a coalition to bring a compromise resolution to the floor, and introduce it with the coaching of Gordon Martin, parliamentarian extraordinaire. And we agreed that we would bring it as a substitute resolution.
Dearest of friends on the Women and Religion side were furious, hurt, frustrated with the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation. They felt we were selling them out. It was the most painful experience, caught up as we are and were in 1981, which was really just a part of a nascent feminism.
Well, long story short—the substitute motion prevailed, and as a result, the four-year process to change our principles went into effect, with passage of the new purposes and principles taking place in 1985 at the general assembly in Atlanta. We women learned we were not a monolith, and we would not break if we entered into serious conflict, conflict over four years. And I, on a personal level, got to work with the likes of the Reverends Carl Scovel and Kim Beach, and other liberal Christian clergy within our movement, who have taught this granddaughter of the shtetl much.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Next I'd like to invite the Reverend Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.
MARK MORRISON-REED: Story number two. 1964. Hymns for the Celebration of Life—remember the old, blue hymnal—was published. It makes sense that a new hymnal could consummate this new relationship between universalism and unitarianism. Worship, after all, is at the core of our communal life.
It was the mid-'60s. You would expect the hymnal to address—well, not feminism, for sure, but racial justice. The chair of the commission was the Reverend Arthur Foote. He was a minister in Unity in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He was a member of the local NAACP, a member of the local Urban League. He had been on the Unitarian Commission for Intergroup Relations from 1952 to '54. In that context, he had worked with the renowned Howard Thurman, mystic African-American minister, prolific writer. Another member was my beloved Chris Moor. In 1956, he had founded the Chicago Children's Choir at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. That was interracial from the beginning and sang a multicultural repertoire. I know. I was there, the second African-American child in that choir.
There was Ken Patton. 1947—Patton, on a radio show in Madison, Wisconsin, had resigned from the white race. 1947. That was headlines. Later he traveled to Chicago with a major magazine, testing whether he and his black comrade companion could be served, or what would happen when he went in and announced that he was black in a restaurant. He later wrote this: "I begin to see that no white man can know what it is like to be one of a marked group. He can not experience a lifetime of frustration and blocked hopes and ambitions. But I was coming as close to an inside glimpse as any of my group could. I have crossed the line, through a deeply emotional experience and I have no desire to cross back." Ken Patton.
Now, given the commitments and relationship to the black culture of these three ministers that I have mentioned, given that it was the '60s, given our espoused values and our general assembly resolutions that were in support of integration and desegregation and African independence, you would expect that the material by or about African-Americans would be in that new hymnal. Hymns for the Celebration of Life.
No. There is none. Not one reading, not one spiritual—nothing. Now because Patton was interested in world religion, you find [UNINTELLIGIBLE], you'll found [UNINTELLIGIBLE], but nothing by an African-American. And these were—we know these guys. These were good committed people living out their values, working for racial justice in their lives. But they lived in a Euro-American cultural hegemony, and from inside they could not imagine that African-Americans—who were coming in, at that point, in increasing numbers because UUs were so visible in the area of fair housing and equal access—would like to have their culture reflected in UU worship. Or that Euro-Americans would profit from hearing about from Thurman or from Langston Hughes as from Theodore Parker.
So powerful is the centrifugal force of Anglo culture that, in 1993, when Singing the Living Tradition was produced by, again, good committed people with feminist sensibilities, by that point, and African-Americans present on the committee, there are only two hymns and one reading rooted in Hispanic culture.
Good intentions are only a beginning. The cultural forces that shape consciousness and keep us blind are powerful while our progress is incremental.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Reverend Scott Alexander.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: In the last 50 years, the story is really about three generations of—I'm focusing, really, on ministers who were gay. At the beginning of the Association, there was a whole generation of closeted male ministers who were married, wanted children, wanted to serve our churches. There was only one way to do that, and that was closeted. And so they did. And I'm not going to mention their names—there were many of them. Dozens of them. I talked to one of them this week, and he confirmed how difficult and complicated it was.
So at the beginning of the Association, we had a whole generation of closeted men, mostly, because we had very, very, very few women ministers. The only exception, in the entire history that I know of gay and lesbian people, of tolerance was in the late 19th century, when some lesbian women were allowed to live like sisters and travel, as you know, in the [? Ohio ?] Iowa Sisterhood and all of this. There were openly closeted gay women. But then we went into a very dark period in the '50s and '60s where all of our clergy who were gay were closeted. And some of them, of course, as you know, came out late in life, because then in the '70s and '80s, as a few ministers began to stick their heads up above water—Jim Stoll, Frank Robertson, Lucy Hitchcock, Mark Belletini, myself, Doug Morgan Strong, Barbara Pescan, Ann Tyndall. And then a flood came. A flood.
So we really have, I think, in the last 50 years—the story of the generations is what interests me. We had the closeted era, the coming-out era which had a lot of slow arduous bumps and pain. Many of you know those stories about congregations rejecting ministers who came out. Now, of course, an openly gay or lesbian minister can be settled comfortably. And while I'm sure there's some anxiety and depression and discrimination in pockets, in this current generation, it's a whole different story.
But I want to really tell the story, and affirm the story, of the men in the '50s and '60s who felt that the only way they could pursue their calling was to be closeted and married. And I want to honor the pain of that. The Department of Ministry was not at all supportive in the '50s and '60s, of course. But I want to talk a little later about—I think we need a doctrine of sin and forgiveness for ourselves, because obviously we were just simply participating in the common culture, and the deep, deep homophobia of the common culture at that time.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Reverend Richard Gilbert.
RICHARD GILBERT: In 1977, Paul Carnes appointed me chair of the Committee on Economic Justice for the UUA. I had learned, in writing my book, the prophetic imperative that economic justice was an Achilles Heel for the movement, and I discovered that was really true. We developed a rather radical statement providing for ceilings and floors in economic justice. This did not sit well with some people, and so I was summoned—I think that is the word—to the UUA Board of Trustees to explain our position. And so we wound up not making a really prophetic statement on behalf of the movement, but a rather more timid statement of general principles to the movement.
It was not until some years later that the UUA general assembly passed a resolution on economic justice. And I raised the question in those days, can a prophet chair the board? And the UUA moderator of the time—not Denny—asked me, did I have her in mind? I did not. It was simply a metaphor. So the dilemma with which we are faced is, can a movement which has prospered in the American economy be in a position ethically to provide a very prophetic critique of that very same movement which had benefited it?
Fast forward to 2003. My friend and fellow member of Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community, Chuck Collins, inherited half a million dollars from the Oscar Mayer Wiener Foundation, a lot of money in the '60s. After grappling with his conscience, he began to give it away, much to the chagrin of his father who was a very conservative libertarian. He wrote an article in the UU World in 2003 describing his feeling about his money that he'd inherited through no effort of his own, and then what should he do with that benefit? What should he do with that privilege?
And so he talked about giving it away, and how it made him feel human, really, for the first time. That article appeared in the World, and sure enough a very sharp letter to the editor came back. And I'm going to quote from that article. This is from a UU layperson from Arkansas.
"Who does Collins think created that society and economic system? The answer is people like me. I haven't taken anything from the system. I have added to the system. Collins seems to be saying that I should be paying to participate in the system, that my adding to it isn't enough. I don't believe I owe the system anything. Collins asks why the huge gaps in income and wealth aren't more of an issue. The simple reason is that most folks think that if they made it, they should be able to keep it. They know that if they ever make it, they will want to keep it." What I would call an Ayn Rand philosophy, about which much is being said today. So the issue being raised is, as a people of privilege by and large, how can we make prophetic critique of the system from which we have benefited, which is so unjust to so many others?
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Thank you, and I want to pose a couple questions to our panelists, and then I'm going to offer you an opportunity to comment on what each other has said, if you have comments or further dialogue about that. The first question that I want to ask is, when we think about our history and the broad sweep of our history—you've shared some stories that illustrate for you some of the challenges that we face. What are some of the lessons that you draw from knowing our struggles, our challenges, and the things that we have wrestled with in the last 50 years. We'll let Mark start, and then—or Denny wants to start? Lead the way.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: OK. Well, I think one of the things that we have learned is that vast amounts of patience are required around passionate issues. And making patience and passion work together is a challenge. Channeling passion into orderly process is yet another challenge. We saw these questions of values with process in last year's floor debate about going to Phoenix to stand for liberalized immigration laws.
I was thinking about what Mark said regarding Hymns for the Celebration of Life, which Chris Raible famously renamed Hymns for the Cerebration of Strife. And I am reminded of how many of us, just last night—all of us have brothers and sisters back home in our congregations. We all sing Carolyn McDade's "Spirit of Life." It's one of the pieces of glue that binds all of our congregations and all of us together. We all know the words.
Carolyn was a leader of the Women and Religion group at that stormy 1981 general assembly in Philadelphia. And she and I reconciled publicly in 1996, 15 years later, at the general assembly in Indianapolis. It took that long for us to be able to talk to each other. And yet, as much of a contribution as I have made to the Unitarian Universalist movement, so too has Carolyn McDade with her music.
MARK MORRISON-REED: So picking up on Denny's theme of reconciliation, we had this other event in 1967, '68, '69, '70, the empowerment controversy, it's known as. And there we have to say that reconciliation still has not happened. It was a battle. It became about power rather than justice. All the participants were intoxicated, with righteousness, Denny knows, and good intentions, Dick knows. Some thought that meant cleaving to a particular integrationist philosophy that at that point, though they didn't know it, was becoming passe. Some thought that UUs would commit to a black nationalist agenda at the cost of individualism, freedom of conscience, and democratic process. I don't think so.
We were institutionally—do you know how old we were? We were seven years old. We were nearly bankrupt, with new growth coming from where? Fellowships. And what about fellowships? What do we know? Fellowships were largely anti-authoritarian, anti-clerical, and ahistorical. Yes. So we chose fratricide over justice. We chose lose-lose over win-win. A decade later—while there was conflict, while there were raised voices, while there was pain and, God knows, politicking in regard to women's rights and to LGBT concerns—having learned a little bit, there was more dialogue, more cooperation, a lot more process, which served us much better than vying for power.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: I've always been a glass 3/4 full kind of guy, which my spouse finds very irritating. But I think the lesson of the last 50 years, with the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender thing, is how impatient and judgmental we can be with ourselves. In the span of one generation we have undone hundreds of years of homophobia and hatred and ignorance, and we have come light-years, so far, so fast, and yet when I was director of the office, there were gays and lesbians saying, oh my God, this is a horrible denomination, there's still churches that are turning us down.
We've come so far, so fast. Who are we to think that we can escape the prejudices and hatreds of the common culture overnight? We led all the other denominations in this. And sure, we were slow, and sure, it was bumpy and halted. But by God, look how far how fast we've come. Now we're seeing the lingering problem with transgender. It just pushes people's buttons. They don't understand it. They're uncomfortable in ways. They don't even know why they're uncomfortable with it. So we've got these lingering things.
But I want to affirm that we need a doctrine with ourselves of understanding that we are not instant saints against culture. We've come so far so fast.
RICHARD GILBERT: I"m reminded of Mark Twain's observation that human nature is widely distributed among the human race. Or another phrase, that we are all more human than otherwise, because we—Unitarian Universalists, thinking of ourselves as a little bit different, almost a chosen people—realize that we are caught up in the same self-interest as the rest of the culture. And so I hark back to Lord Acton, who said power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I insert the word affluence tends to corrupt, and absolute affluence corrupts absolutely. We've yet to grapple, I think, with our sense of privilege and economic success.
And the letter that I read from the UU in Arkansas shows to me the need to move from an "I," our rampant individualism which we cherish—build your own theology, but do it in a group please—but our sense of individuality sometimes gets in our way. And we need to move from that concentration on the "I" to "we." I've said that in my later years, one of my projects is to help UUs understand that we are not so much individuals as we are members. A member is both an individual and part of something larger. An individual is isolated all by him or herself. So that moving from the "I" to the "we" is our next big challenge.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: So Dick Gilbert has begun to take us in the direction that I wanted to take us for our last question as well, which is, when we think about our history, when we think about where we've been—and we do tend, I think, even outside the fellowship movement to be a largely ahistorical people. It's one of the things about us, that we tend to think that we just sprang as we are into this generation and need to know nothing from the past, that we'll simply go forward. So if we stay with that historical frame for a little bit longer, what are some of the other tensions that our history suggests we will face in the future. And I invite any of the panelists to respond first.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: Everybody, but Mark particularly, has touched on our long-standing tradition of independence, individualism, and anti-authoritarianism. These are killer traits, in the 21st century, for maintaining and growing a liberal religious movement in the United States of America. So what I would see is the need for all of us to take back home—one, the teaching of our history. Too many of the people who are active in our congregations are clueless about our history. I don't mean just our history of 50 years, though it would be useful if they knew that, but I mean our history going all the way back.
And the other is to learn how to be truly part of a community. It's not about me, it's not about you as individuals. It's about "we." And the crying imperative to live in a communitarian society is I think going to make or break us.
MARK MORRISON-REED: Just to build very slightly on that, and to see American Unitarian Universalism as just one form, one particularity of a worldwide movement that spans the Philippines, Uganda, Transylvania. And we're just one piece of that, with a very particular way of articulating what it means to be a liberal. But it's very particular to us. And the only way for us to discover who we truly are is to be in relationship with our sister and brother associations around the world.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: I just want to lift up that we are such well-meaning pietists. I mean pietism in the good sense—what would Jesus do? That was what the original pietists were all about, the Lutheran pietists. We are so earnest. We want our lives to be in accordance with our highest principles and we want it now. And it leads to our incredible search for personal goodness and for community goodness. And I want to celebrate that.
We stumble over it because when all our feelings and actions aren't in immediate conformity with what we know to be God or ultimate truth, we beat up on ourselves. And that's why there's been so much trouble with the black-wite relations in the movement, the whole multi-cultural thing. We struggle so very hard. But I"m a 3/4 full kind of guy. And I admire us for our total earnestness. And I think we ought to celebrate that.
RICHARD GILBERT: I think the two issues we need to wrestle with, or two phrases, are from the German theologian Jurgan Moltmann, who talked about a theology of relinquishment. And by that I don't mean giving to charity if you're wealthy. I mean looking at the allocation of power in our society, our grasp of it, what we have—which is considerable, given most of us being middle-class, upper-middle-class, tends to be Unitarian Universalists—how we understand the sharing of power in our society.
And the second phrase of his is an ethical class betrayal. Very often I find I am advocating—I think the denomination from time to time has advocated—for measures, for legislation, for programs that actually go against our own personal self-interest. I think that's what's required. And I'm struck, finally, by a story that I read sometime ago in the paper after the Japanese tsunami. [? Hiroko ?] [? Konno ?] was a plant worker who—he had no family, no dependents—he volunteered to go into that atomic plant at risk of life, with a suit, knowing as he said that he would probably never be able to work again in this in this industry.
And he was asked, why would you do this? Why would you sacrifice your life? And he said, in eloquent simplicity, we eat from the same bowl. A very simple phrase, but an extremely difficult lesson. And one I think that we need to learn.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Thank you. I'm going to offer the panel any opportunity to comment on anything that each other has shared, or offer any other observations. And then we'll hear from our second panel as well.
MARK MORRISON-REED: We've talked enough.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: We've talked enough.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Well, that's an amazing, astounding event right there. So thank you. I want to thank you for the richness of what you shared. And we have more richness to come.
Our second panel, as I said previously, represents those among us who have already sacrificed, or already giving thought to what it is that we need to do to go forward into the future, taking this legacy of our history and making it into our tools for the future. And these are folks whose voices are already prophetic among us. And I am greatly honored to have them share their perspectives about the future. And what I asked them to respond to is what they do see, each of them, from their very different points that they are located in our midst—what are the challenges of the future that you see? And what do we take forward from our history as we address them? And I'm going to invite them to go forward and—I was trying to see where the mic is, there. Why don't we have—yes, you should come up to the podium. So why don't you come up first, Colin?
COLIN BOSSEN: Alright, so, I want to offer what I think is our biggest struggle, and what I think is hopefully our biggest hope. I think that the biggest struggle for Unitarian Universalists over the next 50 years is simply to remain relevant. If you look at the situation in our denomination today, it's not all that different than the situation the universalist denomination faced in the late 19th century and early 20th century. As a movement we represent what David Bumbaugh has termed a movement that's losing market share. Our numbers remain relatively static while the US population increases. Additionally, the historic demographic base of Unitarian Universalists in the United States—white middle-class people—is shrinking in terms of the overall percentage of the populace.
So we have to address that issue. We have to break past our historic demographic base.
Additionally, we face a situation where religious people in the United States represent a shrinking demographic. So we have to figure out how do address building a market share, building our appeal in a shrinking market. So I think that is our biggest challenge, if we're going to have any impact as a social justice movement. We need to be able to continue to have an impact simply as a movement in the wider culture.
The hope that I see is actually what Mark was just talking about, in terms of the international appeal of our movement, the international possibilities of Unitarian Universalism, and in what something the scholar Joanne Braxton calls "organic universalism." And she describes this as a theological tradition that resists the division of humanity into the saved and the damned, and is concerned with the salvation of all souls, all beings. She says that organic universalism is a theological tradition that dissents from religion that functions oppressively. And she's gone out and looked at instances where, basically, forms of universalist theology, forms of this organic universalism, exist within the wider culture outside of Unitarian Universalism.
And so I think that if we're going to remain relevant as a religious movement, we need to figure out how to bridge the gap between our institutional Unitarian Universalist Association and these organic universalists that are out there floating. And I actually was doing a brainstorm about instances of organic universalism that I could think of. I was able to come up with a half page just this morning. One example might be—there's a church called the Primitive Baptist Universalist Church in the Appalachian Mountains in West Virginia that preaches a doctrine of universal salvation. In the indigenous rights movement in the United States and internationally, there are people who adhere to various universalist doctrines. I'm thinking particularly of the teachings of John Trudell, who talks about how we all come from tribes, and from a single human family. Or from the Zapatista movement that urges for us to build a world where many worlds are possible.
Now, I could go on, but I think that the point that I want to bring here most clearly is that we have to figure out how to work with those communities. There are some of us who have actually started to think about how to do that. And I actually would like to lift up the work here of All Souls in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where the organic universalist Carlton Pearson took his African-American universalist congregation and merged it with All Souls. And in doing so, they had to reexamine the way they did church, and reexamine what the purpose of their congregation was. So, thanks.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Thank you to Reverend Colin Bossen. I'd like to ask the Reverend Melissa Carvill-Ziemer to come forward.
MELISSA CARVILL-ZIEMER: I did not grow up in a religious community. When I was in college, I heard about the Unitarian Universalist society in my town, and I went and immediately knew that I had found my religion. And I knew that because there was a woman minister who reflected the kinds of concerns that I was exploring as an emerging feminist. I knew that because the congregation embraced me and my emerging lesbian identity without prejudice, without fear. I knew that because the congregation made room for me as a person from a working-class background. I knew that because the congregation had a concern for racial justice. I knew that. I knew that I had found my religion thanks to the work that all of you and your compatriots had done.
Unitarian Universalism has enriched and blessed my life. And I believe that we have important gifts to offer to the world. We have grown, we have changed, and we have more room to grow and more changing that we need to do. There are many people of historically marginalized identities who still might come to our congregations and not have the experience that I have. They might feel themselves at home theologically, but culturally perhaps our embrace is not as wide as it needs to be. And so I want to lift up three groups of people from historically marginalized backgrounds for whom I think we need to continue to grow and change to make even more room.
We have room to grow in our understanding, affirmation, and embrace of transgender, gender-queer, and other people of diverse gender identities. And I appreciate that you've lifted that up as a challenge that we face. In 2003 at our general assembly, I convened a group of young adults who were interested in exploring why it is that the general assembly did not designate a gender-neutral bathroom for folks. And I am proud to say that those young adults organized themselves, approached the general assembly planning committee, brought their concerns forward, and now there is a gender-neutral bathroom at our general assembly. This is work that we need to do in our congregations, and not just about bathrooms. How much do we need to grow and change to make room for people of diverse gender identities among us?
We have room to grow in our understanding, affirmation, and embrace of people who have immigrated to this nation. Last summer I had the honor to participate in the National Day of Noncompliance against SB1070, the racist law that strives to drive immigrants from the state of Arizona. I spent 26 hours in a jail cell, having an opportunity to talk to the folks with whom I was arrested, and had an opportunity to share about Unitarian Universalism of them with people of Latino, and Latina, and Hispanic, Chicana descent who were interested, wanted to know why it is that we came, what it is that brings Unitarian Universalists to stand in solidarity and witness for justice.
And I wondered to myself as I left, if those folks go check out a Unitarian Universalist congregation and find the theology fits what we were telling them in the jail cells, are they going to find music and readings and a cultural experience that makes room for them?
We have room to grow in our understanding, affirmation, and embrace of multiracial people who are not willing to just check one box to describe their racial identity. The racial categories and identities that were most salient for people a generation, two generations, three generations ago are not necessarily the racial categories for whom multiracial people embrace today. And this, for me, is personal. All of my nieces and nephews are multiracial. Two of my nieces came to live with me a few years ago and were the only multiracial kids in the Sunday School in my congregation.
They had a wonderful experience—four and five years old, they had a wonderful experience. They felt at home. And yet I see our youth and adults who are multiracial, who are struggling as they get older and embracing their racial identity, complex as it is and wondering, is there really room? Is there really room in Unitarian Universalism for their voices and their experience.
We have challenges. And we have room to grow. But there is hope, and we know that there is hope because we've grown and changed and we've heard those stories this morning. And I think one of the keys to our continuing growing and changing is to be willing to listen. We have to be willing to listen to the experience of people from historically marginalized backgrounds, to encourage and support their leadership and be willing to heed the changes they suggest.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: I'd like to invite Raziq Brown forward.
RAZIQ BROWN: Howdy, folks. I'm just going to get right into it. As the recession gets worse, everyone is going to have to tighten their belts a little bit. But that's not going to stop my generation from being very resentful about that. Locally I'm watching my home church creep into a slow irrelevant death because the elders of the church care more about what people say rather than what they do. Nationally I've watched a community of intelligent minds who gather together to fix the world, organize, and live for purpose turn to a group of youth and young adults who are wholesale disenchanted. And they really want to change the world, but they don't know how anymore, and there's no one around to teach them. And they don't think they can actually afford to do it.
I was talking to a youth from my church recently. And he's working now. And I asked him, why don't I see you at church more often? And he was like, well, why should I go? They don't really talk to me about the things I care about. And, honestly, my Christian friends can afford to take off and go to church because it's fun for them, and they'll pay me to work on Sunday.
My generation is having to ask the toughest questions now. Sure, I stand on the side of love. But as far as I can tell, love is very expensive. And everyone gets divorced at the end of the day anyway. Can I afford to care about other human beings anymore? Because I really am barely making it myself. Can I afford to take care of my parents when they're older? And if I can, why should I? As far as I know, I'm going to be working until I'm 75.
But thankfully, I'm a Unitarian Universalist. And I got to grow up in this church and in this community before the wholesale dismantling of our youth and young adult programs. So I have hope that we can change. I meet a lot of young people now that aren't very business-minded like the older people I know. They really want to help. They're willing to volunteer. They're willing to work for nothing because they want to see things change. And so that's where I see the future going.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Nathan Allen Hollister.
NATHAN ALLEN HOLLISTER: I learned something this morning. When you're on a panel with brilliant people, if you keep taking notes of more things you think of, you'll have way too much to say.
I'm a third-generation Unitarian Universalist, so the first thing I can reflect on is that I have a generational resentment or even anger. I have frustration and pain around having been raised among the most kind-hearted and dedicated hard-working people working towards justice, but somehow injustice rolls on. And the bend and the arc remains very difficult to see.
So I was raised among hippies and civil rights activists, and then I looked out on the world during the Reagan era, and there was a disconnect there that was very painful to me, and still is. So I'm from the punk rock generation, basically. But a few things that I wanted to say in response to that reality, to the frustration of not having as much of a transformational impact on the world as I wish so deeply we could.
The first thing I'd like to say is that our privilege demands of us audacity in our work. And what I mean by that is that we have to be willing to risk our own social position, and our own privilege, if we actually want to change anything. I don't think we can simultaneously preserve our social status or social position without risking it all, and actually make the earth-shattering changes that we always talk about wishing we could see.
One example of this, historically, was—Theodore Parker, after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, formed something in Boston called the Vigilance Committee that physically protected folks who were formerly enslaved people who'd escaped to the north, as the thugs came to kidnap those people and take them back south. Theodore Parker wrote his sermons at a desk with a revolver in it, because he was protecting people in his home, in the church, putting himself and the congregation at great risk. What would that look like, for instance, today around immigration, about families being ripped apart?
So another thing I would like to say is that we have a prophetic imperative to not be bound by what currently exists in the world. And what I mean is that you can take from the universalist mission, what we're supposed to be doing here, which is to literally, literally create heaven on earth. And we always talk about the great reforms that we want to do. I would say that it's going to take a little bit more than reform to create heaven on earth.
For me—just full disclosure—the Rev that I hope to have in front of my name someday will stand just as much for revolutionist as it will for reverend.
And so, what might that look like? We've done, for years, lots of work around anti-racism, and coming into an awareness of and an acknowledgment of our white privilege for the those of us who identify as white, and seeing what that does in society. I would just, as a as a suggestion for thought, maybe suggest that perhaps whiteness can't be reformed. Perhaps the concept of whiteness only exists to keep a social status and social position intact, and that there's nothing valuable there. There's nothing positive there. So I would ask that maybe perhaps our work should not be involved in trying to reform whiteness to make it nice, but to dismantle it as something that only supports a social position of dominance and oppression.
In regard to what some of the panel has said about moving from "I" to "we"—the way I like to think about it is, everyone's familiar with the line, we need not think alike to love alike. What I draw from that, though, that I think we miss is that we do need to love alike to get anything done. And that's what I think of when I think of our need for collective action. We all do so much as individuals. We volunteer, we work in profits, we give to causes, we organize, we advocate, we witness. Each of us doing our little thing isn't going to do it. So I think we need to be involved in some serious talks on a congregational level and regional and cluster levels about collective action.
I guess the last couple of things are—one, that I'd like to see us approach social justice work religiously. We have a unique place in society and in culture as religious community. We are not a political action committee. We are not the progressive arm of the Democrats. We can play other roles there. So in that unique role, we need to be thinking creatively and religiously about how we transform the world. And I would posit that we're not legislators, and we're not lobbyists. We are literally involved in actually creating heaven on earth. And I think our congregations could be models of that in society.
The very last thing I would like to see is to take some lessons from the historic black church and immigrant churches that serve not just a spiritual homes and as nourishment for souls, but also as mutual aid societies, and were able to facilitate mutual aid and support there at church. For me, just as some others have said, my community—Sunday morning doesn't exist for us. Most of my friends are out-of-work carpenters who work in food service. You make your rent with Saturday night. Sunday morning doesn't work. So we need other forms of engagement, other forms of accessibility, for us to move forward. Thanks.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: I'd like to ask you to just help me thank, again, our second panel. I want to say that—[OVERLAPPING VOICES] --in my life and work as a Unitarian Universalist, I have been so informed by the work and the words of every single person on this table. And as I said before, I think we have much to be grateful for in that realm.
I'm going to invite all of our panelists, in a minute, to ask questions of each other that they may have based on what has been said. But I want to just say that we have had a great richness of the things that we've said. And some of the things that perhaps we could explore further together, is the way in which we wrestle as Unitarian Universalists with both the how and the what. What is it that we are going to do together? And—this is a question that Nathan raised at the end—how do we decide together what it is that we do, or do we do that together at all? And then as Denny said, with her self-declared love for process which I also share, because that is how we do it. And that is an important piece of it as well.
I think that the panelists have raised the issue of how—our struggles among us can also create tremendous tensions in our relationships with each other. And we often pay the cost for our principles and for our own visions of what it is that we do through our relationships. And the way in which we pay those very deep costs are important.
It is also true, as I think the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed said, that we create sometimes fratricide over justice. So that's an important piece to think about. It is also true that we are constantly engaged with our own sense of what we could be, and that sometimes we confuse that with what we are. And sometimes it's in the tension, the gap between those two distances that we have a difficulty in understanding how we can do the things that we do among ourselves. And then also still go out into the world and play the important roles that we do play that allow us all to be at this table today, which is very important. So those are some of the tensions.
And the last one I want to hold up, before we start a dialogue among our panelists for our remaining time, is one that is sort of an undercurrent, but I think it's very important. When we talk about the justice work we do in the world, and the way that it is supported, it is supported by the decisions we make among ourselves. And some of those decisions are about what it is that we choose to work on together. But some of them are more Subtle What we choose to fund. What we choose to provide staffing for. What we choose to give resources to, of time and energy and money.
And I think it's important as we do that—and this was part of what Raziq said, and I want to make sure that that came out—our work to dismantle structures that have served us that are maybe no longer serving us, but that leave us in a void, for example, with our youth and young adults currently, where we are struggling still to see what our structure is across our association to support the importance of our future generation.
And another quick example would be the budget cuts we've had to face in these last years because of the economy that we're in, that several of our panelists spoke to so eloquently, but which have caused us to make deeply painful decisions. For example, unfunding the staffing for our accessibilities work, which is another important issue among us. And losing the staff for that in our movement. So I want to tease that out because I think it's important to realize, some of our decisions and some of our dialogues are explicit and some of them are implicit in what we do and the decisions we make. And so it's important for us to grapple with both of them.
So in that context, I want to ask our panelists—we're going to just take a little time with this, because we're going to let you also make some brief closing statements. Question, Denny.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: I'm sitting here and thinking about the embrace of change. Nato Hollister has just finished his second year of seeking that revolutionary Rev. He's a student at Meadville Lombard. And I, full disclosure, am the senior consultant for development. So I raise money for Meadville Lombard. And Meadville Lombard has, in the last two years, recreated, or created from scratch, an entirely new way of educating and training and forming ministers for Unitarian Universalism.
And we have sold our campus. We have sold our campus. Think about selling your building. And the changes are so exciting, which does not mean that they are not problematical and they are not scary. But there's a sense of forward movement in the name of the institution that is Unitarian Universalism that resonates with me as I hear Nato say that his friends—Sunday morning doesn't work. And I hear testimony that my church is in decline. And what it is only really spending so much time keeping a system going that needs revolutionary change?
We need to get really serious about that. We are dealing with a current Unitarian Universalist Association that is very justice-focused. It is also obsessed with governance. I'll say no more.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: I'm going to invite Mark to go next—
MARK MORRISON-REED: I'm going to be very short.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: No, that's right, because they were—
MARK MORRISON-REED: Very directly, what Denny—what we're talking about is change.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: Yes.
MARK MORRISON-REED: And change creates anxiety. And we do not have good mechanisms within our worship communities, within our process, to contain our anxieties as we do what we know we need to do. So that's why good process is important, but we need to do in terms of worship, in terms of a small group ministry. We know where we need to go but we're scared shitless, gang. And we need places to take that to work it through, and confidence that we can move forward. The other thing is we get to do this in complete confidence, because what do you need to know about Parker?
Parker was a complete total racist. I have quotes about African-Americans and quotes about Hispanics. He said they were a despicable race, Hispanics. But we've come to where he could not believe that our last two presidents were an African-American and a Hispanic man.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Other responses, anywhere down the table? We're not going in order for once. Colin? Colin would like the mic.
COLIN BOSSEN: Well, yeah, I guess I want to agree with Danny and Nato. I think that we really have to reexamine the way that we do church and reexamine how we gather together. I frequently have experiences where I'm talking to people my age, or 10 to 15 years younger than me, who have Unitarian Universalist values and would never ever set foot in one of our churches. And it's not because we're mean people or anything like that. It seems that what we do when we get together doesn't seem particularly relevant to them. It doesn't reflect the culture that they're part of or the experience that they have their daily lives. So we have to figure out how to address that.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: And while we're passing the mic and we figure out who's going next, which—it looks like it's Raziq. But I want to say that it reminds me, as we're talking, that—I think it was Maria Harris who said that everything is religious education. And what I've come to believe is that everything we do is about social justice in our congregations, too, from the smallest decision we make to the largest decision. And how we are in our forums and what we decide to do collectively in all senses is undergirding what we are able to actually go out and make a difference in the world about.
RAZIQ BROWN: I feel like I just got up here and talked about gloom and doom. I do want to say, though, and I want to reaffirm that this church made me the person I am now. And I am—I forgot the right word for it. This church made me the person I am now, and like he said, there are a lot of young people in our church that aren't there, but really want to change it. But because of that governance thing that we were talking about, even within our own churches, we can't make any effective change at all.
Just for me to just get a couple of young people together to just talk about accountability, and not in the larger racial justice sense, but just like, how do you talk to people? We don't even know how to do that anymore. I have to go through like three boards to do it. And then they have to know what I'm going to say. It's almost ridiculous what—but still, I think it's great. Because we live that democratic society that we all talk about. So I guess it's more of us trying to figure out a middle ground.
MARK MORRISON-REED: Let me just jump in—the governance is about our anxiety. And it's one of the ways we control anxiety and control and keep things from happening. And that's what we need to call down on it, that we need other mechanisms without sitting on all of us, including mostly the young people who aren't as empowered as this older generation who's running the show right now.
NATHAN ALLEN HOLLISTER: Yes. I just wanted to echo the—there is optimism, there, as well. The only reason I'm devoting my life to service in this faith is because I believe in this faith, and I believe in the possibilities. So I just wanted to say that.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Any other questions or concerns from the panelists? OK. What I'm going to ask you to do is, I'm going to give you each a chance to make just a brief closing statement. We had said at the beginning that we weren't going to take questions from the audience, just because we knew we had so much to cover in the time that we had. But let's go—we're going to go—
SPEAKER 1: A request?
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Oh, a request. Are we taking requests?
SPEAKER 1: Yes. A brief request.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: Are you trying to make a brief request, sir? OK, well, we probably can take one brief request. We have a request for one brief request. But you have to come to a mic to make a brief report.
SPEAKER 1: Sure. [INAUDIBLE] --some feedback. OK, I'm Wayne Dawkins from the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Virginia Peninsula. I'm proud to say I grew up, as an infant, in the great Community Church of New York, of Donald Harrington and John Haynes Holmes—
MARK MORRISON-REED: Closer to the mic.
SPEAKER 1: Closer to the mike? OK. And the request is this. I've heard a few of you say some things are hopeless because of the anxiety. You know what we need to do? We need to—I have an assignment for many of you here. You need to go back to your congregations, and we need to do much more serious scholarship and journaling of our history. I just realized the problem I have. I grew up in a church movement, but as a middle-aged adult, I'm in a fellowship movement that's ahistorical. Drives me crazy.
It does, because it is dangerous. You can't study American history seriously, up until the '60s, and not bump into a Unitarian Universalist. It's impossible. But we have not been documenting ourselves well. And a movement that has enough room to evolve needs to really be documented. So—OK, I'll speak quickly—go back. Some of you need to do oral histories of the elders who have done remarkable things in lives and you just don't know it. But we just need to be better at telling our story, as far as the story in popular culture. Because I'm not surprised that Unitarians and Universalists do great things. People in here are doing great things all the time. But let's record it.
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: OK, so thank you. And I'll just say that our congregation just mark its 60th anniversary, and we did just that—oral histories, and it was a very, very, very rich thing. But you know what, I'm going to have to ask you—we're out of time. OK. So we're going to take the time to allow each of our panelists to state their name, but I do want to say that it is very important that we continue to look at the resources that we have. And there will be a bibliography with a number of things that our panelists have suggested that will be posted by the recording for the session. So if you're interested in learning more, we will be providing that information.
And I would invite you to look at the sheet for the 50th anniversary. Because there are a number of other programs, including those on scholarship, as well.
So we're going to go from the far end, from Nathan down. And we're going to—just quickly say your name, and then any quick closing statement that you have.
NATHAN ALLEN HOLLISTER: My name's Nathan Allen Hollister. I believe that it's possible to create heaven on earth.
RAZIQ BROWN: My name's Raziq brown And I'm going to quickly challenge that the statement, in love. I grew up a Unitarian Universalist, and I went to RE my whole life, so I can tell you about Thoreau and I can tell you about Barnum and I can tell you about Jefferson all day, until the cows come home. But that isn't what I need right now. And I challenge us to think about that as well.
MELISSA CARVILL-ZIEMER: My name is Melissa Carvill-Ziemer. And just quickly, I'll direct your attention—if you're not already acquainted with the work of DRUUMM, Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries, and ARE, Allies for Racial Equity, please stop by the exhibition hall and learn more. And take the resources back to your congregation.
COLIN BOSSEN: Colin Bossen. And I guess I'd like to leave you all with a challenge. I'd like to challenge each one of you to go out there and try to find an organic universalist in your community.
RICHARD GILBERT: Dick Gilbert. I have worried for a long time but the graying of social action. My anxiety on that is down a little bit on the basis of what we've seen here, which reminds me of the importance of connecting religious education and social justice. I'm working on a book on this, and my mantra is that our focus is—as Unitarian Universalists, our purpose is to grow a soul, to love and to be loved, and to help prepare the world.
SCOTT ALEXANDER: Scott Alexander. The social justice landscape has become so much more dire since 1961. We are now playing in the endgame in so many important ways. We must do what we can do. We are not going to save the world by ourselves. There are a whole lot of other people of faith and goodwill out there which we can partner with, and if we try to carry the burden ourselves, we're going down with the Titanic.
MARK MORRISON-REED: Make as many mistakes as possible. It's the only way to learn anything and to figure out where we're going.
DENNY DAVIDOFF: I am deeply touched, looking at the faces in this room. I am seeing people who were leaders in FULLBAC in 1968, people who were closeted male ministers in the '50s, dear companions from early days on the UUA board who have labored for years and kept the process going. And to the extent that I represent all of you dear people, isn't it good to be alive?
LESLIE TAKAHASHI-MORRIS: The challenges are many but the resources are many as well. And we've been very blessed this morning to hear from some of those who have helped to make sure that this is true within our particular association, our particular piece of this great struggle that we have to realize, to make this world into the place that we wish it to be—heaven on earth, if you put it in those terms, in the terms that the Reverend Dave McPherson, who's here, would commend us to use.
So I want us to please go forth from this place, taking home I hope a renewed commitment to our justice work together, in its many and diverse forms and with all its many and ponderous problems and concerns and challenges. But let us do it in a spirit of love, and of justice, and of faith, and of gratitude, and let us express our gratitude to all of our panelists now.
Moral Imagination: 50 Years of UU Social Justice is General Assembly 2011 event number 2009.
For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.
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Last updated on Friday, September 30, 2011.
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