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Weaving Our Stories of Change

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General Assembly 2008 Event 4013

Presenters: Paula Cole Jones, UUA consultant to the JUUST Change Consultancy; Rev. David Herndon, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh; Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles; Deborah Holder, Program Consultant for the Mountain Desert District; Rev. Kenn Hurto, Florida District Executive

What is changing in our congregations, districts and within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) to embrace anti-racism, anti-oppression and multi-culturalism (ARAOMC)? Documenting these stories of change, and sharing them institutionally, was the incentive for a workshop led by Paula Cole Jones, UUA Consultant for the JUUST Change Consultancy, and four panelists.

The work of becoming a fully inclusive beloved community takes time. "What we know is that this is a developmental process," Jones stated. "It doesn't happen overnight. It's not an event. It's not a rally. It is a way of life."

Saturday's workshop (#4013) was a follow-on to a similar workshop (#2054) which was conducted on Thursday. During Thursday's workshop, Jones shared what has taken place over the past several years within 27 congregations in the Baltimore-Washington region concerning the work of ARAOMC. "The goal was to get a critical mass of those congregations to volunteer to be proactive" Jones stated. Within 19 of these congregations, "something got unstuck," Jones stated. She attributed the success in those congregations to the engagement of the ministers in this work. Presentations by some of the leading congregations were given, including presentations by Rev. Robert Hardies, Senior Minister of the All Souls Church, Rev. Dr. Frederic Muir, Parish Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis; and Rev. Mary Ganz, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington.

"Part of our strategy," Jones stated "is to try to achieve a tipping point of engagement." Citing a book by Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference as a reference, Jones indicated that "reaching a critical mass of people who will accept a new idea, a new way of doing things, or a new product" is how to achieve the tipping point. "At a certain point the acceptance of that product creates its own momentum." At that point, Jones indicated, there's a huge dramatic shift—the tipping point—where the idea becomes contagious and spreads to the rest of the congregation. Referencing the book by Gladwell, Jones stated that anything that becomes a cultural norm goes through this process.

She hypothesized on what might happen if one-third of the congregations in a district or one-third of the members in a congregation embraced a new way of being in community. Using the tipping point as a strategy for creating change, engaging one-third of the members in the work of ARAOMC would have an impact on the rest of the congregation.

Why do we need to change? Why do we need to be a tipping point congregation? Showing a picture of multi-racial children within our congregations, Jones stated that "We owe it to our children who will live in a much more culturally diverse world."

While Thursday's workshop concentrated on what could be accomplished in a specific region, Saturday's workshop featured stories from around the country. The guest panelists included Rev. David Herndon, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh; Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings, minister of the First Unitarian of Los Angeles, Deborah Holder, Program Consultant for the Mountain Desert District, and Rev. Kenn Hurto, the Florida District Executive.

Stories of Change

Rev. David Herndon

Herndon stated that he grew up in the Unitarian Universalist (UU) faith. As a child, he learned much about the UU faith, but the lay-led congregations to which his family belonged were small, perhaps 25 adults and a handful of children. However, on Easter Sunday in 1982, as a young man, he attended All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington DC. This was a life changing experience for Herndon. He was especially impressed by the preaching of that church's first African American Senior Minister, Rev. David H. Eaton. By September of the same year, Herndon had enrolled in Meadville-Lombard Theological School. Herndon stated that for him "It was a personal tipping point."

Herndon indicated that his church has been chosen to be part of the Diversity of Ministry program. "Our hope is … we will be calling a minister of color to this very largely white congregation, but nevertheless, (becoming) an urban congregation with a fair amount of racial, cultural, and economic diversity is not all that far away for us."

Jones added that the Diversity of Ministry Initiative is relatively new. It provides an institutional structure for helping to diversify ministry. "I personally think that multi-racial ministry teams are the future for UUs. That's my personal hope, wish." The congregations selected for this program are chosen because of the preparation work they have already done. The goal of the initiative is to prepare the congregation for calling a minister of color.

Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings

Cummings stated that in 1927 when the church was built, it was located in rich suburb of Los Angeles. In the 1950's or 1960's, the demographics of the neighborhood began to change. It is now located a block away from the eastern boundary of Korea town. In the 1970's immigrants from Central America, primarily Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala began to move into the neighborhood. "As you drive to my church down Vermont Avenue, what you will see are signs in Korean and Spanish with a little sprinkling of English" she stated. Most recently Mexicans have moved into the neighborhood.

She said that many of the Mexican immigrants moving into the neighborhood face multiple challenges, learning not only a new culture in a new country, but, surprisingly, also a new language. Since many of them speak a language indigenous to their Mexican towns, they needed to learn Spanish, the predominant language of the area around the church. "We realized that these folks are at Maslow's lowest level of hierarchical needs. They're in survival. It's basic shelter, food and security" Cummings added.

The first major shift for First Unitarian took place during the riots that shook Los Angeles in 1992. First Unitarian was located in the midst of the riots. Out of that experience emerged the Urban Ministries of Los Angeles, the board of which was made up of Unitarians from the Los Angeles area. One of the programs organized by this ministry and First Unitarian were food pantries. First Unitarian belongs to a group called HopeNet, which provides food to a number of pantries in the Los Angeles area. Another program was an "off track" school, which gives children a place to go when they are not in school. Teachers who knew what the children would need to know were hired for the "off track" school.

Another hurdle which First Unitarian faced was a discussion on whether to move or stay in the area. Many folks decided to leave the church, and some decided to stay. In a sanctuary which will accommodate 600 people, First Unitarian currently has a membership of roughly 70-75 people.

The most recent shift, which Cummings said she has seen since she arrived at First Unitarian, has been brought about by the UUA's JUUST Change Consultancy. Because of the many countries of origin, languages and cultures represented in her church, communication among members was hampered. Not only has the JUUST Change Consultancy helped them communicate more effectively, it's also helped them to "re-frame and re-define who we are in that community" said Cummings. She indicated that she did not expect growth to occur from the surrounding neighborhoods, since many of the immigrants are socially and politically conservative and were raised in the Catholic faith. So they asked themselves how could they still serve the surrounding community?

Cummings said "We've stopped trying to get people into the church, and we've changed the model to go out into the community." Members are also committed to being at the church on Saturday mornings when their food pantry is available.

Another change made by First Unitarian is to provide a completely bi-lingual Sunday service. They pay a professional interpreter to translate from English to Spanish. Rather than having a separate Spanish-speaking congregation, First Unitarian has committed to remain a fully integrated church. Their Board meetings, congregational meetings, website and all other events are all accessible to both Spanish and English-speaking people.

In conclusion, Cumming stated "We're recognizing that as the demographics of the U.S. change, we have something to offer the association. We have a model that we think is dynamic and inspiring, and something that the UUA can use: how to do truly multi-cultural, multi-lingual, multi-ethnic Unitarian Universalism."

Deborah Holder

Holder said that the Mountain Desert District (MDD) represents geographically 20 percent of the United States, all the way from Canada to Mexico. They have an unusually diverse population. However, Holder stated, "We're the largest district with the least amount of resources as far as staff and operating budget go." Given the geographical challenges and the lack of resources, one of the things the district looked at was what could be done within the clusters.

In 2003, the district restructured itself, and one of the outcomes of that restructuring was the creation of six different program areas, once of which is Justice Ministries. Part of the beloved community program within Justice Ministries is integrating the work of the anti-racism and multi-culturalism with a focus on issues related to class.

In October of 2007, Paula Cole Jones was invited to participate in a UUMA Chapter retreat. "She came and presented us with a set of tools and perspective." One of the outcomes of that retreat was that eleven ministers committed themselves to carrying the work of ARAOMC in the MDD. The district itself has now committed itself to carrying through the ARAOMC work programmatically. In January, the district will sponsor a program on the beloved community to further this work.

Rev. Kenn Hurto

Hurto said his story begins when he was a young man of 18. Although his family had moved to the suburbs, Hurto found himself commuting into the city of Chicago for school, one of three thousand white students in what was then referred to as the ghetto on the south side of Chicago. The YMCA sponsored a cultural immersion for the suburban white students which Hurto attended.

"I had the transformative encounter of being one of 200 white people surrounded by 18,000 people of beautiful color when I first encountered Dr. King" Hurto stated. "I didn't know then that I was on my way to ministry, but it stayed with me as one of the most important moments of my life."

One of the more recent events which had an impact on Hurto occurred following the Fort Worth General Assembly. Because of an untoward exchange that occurred between participants, the assembly passed a resolution asking all congregations to do one program of education with regard to racial justice in the ensuing year.

Hurto passed the text of the resolution along to the 45 congregations within the Florida District. When he asked them what they had done, only two congregations responded that they had done something in this arena. Hurto vowed that this status would change, so he began the work to shift the congregations within the Florida District to have a conversation on ARAOMC.

During the Florida District Annual Assembly last April, the main topic was reconciliation. Hurto invited Paula Cole Jones to be a presenter. "I felt like the earth moved. I came away noticing that …the consciousness shifted." His district board is now spending a significant amount of time discussing what it will take to move forward with the work of ARAOMC.

Although Florida is the fourth largest state in the U.S., and in spite of the considerable racial and cultural diversity that exists within Florida, all of the congregations are composed primarily of upper-middle class white folk. Hurto talked about Miami, which has a predominantly Cuban-American population, but the UU church in the area has a congregation of less than 200 people, and they have made very modest attempts to engage the Spanish-speaking community. "We need to find a way to take the congregation and the ministry into the community" Hurto stated, alluding to the presentation by Cummings.

Another item that has shifted within the district is the formation of the Allies for Racial Equality. This is relatively new two-year old organization. The goal is not to recruit people of color into our congregations simply to have "a lot of pepper in the salt." Hurto stated. "That would be wonderful," he said, "but what is really important is that we stand as allies in the struggle for racial equality and justice."

Following these presentations, Jones invited several members from the audience to share their stories. She then asked Joan Lund, the Florida Representative to the UUA Board of Trustees, and Charlie Burke, youth Trustee-at-Large from the UUA to speak about their work to ensure that the UUA's Board of Trustees is fully committed to the work of ARAOMC.

Reported by Victor Beaumont; edited by Pat Emery.

For more information contact multicultural @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Tuesday, June 5, 2012.

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