The Diversity Thing

Diversity isn’t as simple as it sounds. Increasingly the business world is paying attention to multiculturalism and cultural diversity issues. They're training their people to recognize those differences between workers that are grounded in the worker's culture-worthy-of-respect. Doesn't sound complicated.

At my congregation, and in my denomination (Unitarian Universalists), we have a lot of certain kinds of diversity. Like many UU congregations, the membership of mine includes pagans, and Christians, and Buddhists, and humanists – all sitting side by side, walking hand-in-hand, sharing in the faith that life is good, that justice is attainable, that caring redeems us, and that joy is one another’s company. Some UUs journal, some take quiet walks in the woods, some (like me) meditate, some of us turn to scriptures of Eastern or of Western religious traditions – yet we are unified by our covenant to stand by each other, stand for our seven principles, and stand on the side of love. How much more diverse would we -- or any group -- want to be? What are reasonable and fair aspirations when it comes to diversity? That's where it starts getting complicated.

There is something that we might call a Unitarian Universalist culture. We UUs are predominantly white, upper middle class with an average of 17.2 years of schooling, which puts us at a Master’s degree in our educational level, and that’s significantly higher than the general population. Rosemary Bray McNatt in the recent issue of our magazine, UU World, characterized UU culture this way:

“Many of us are the people who brag about not owning televisions because there is nothing worth watching, unless it is PBS. Many of us are the people who refuse to listen to popular music because it is misogynistic and violent, and more than a few of us regard rap music as nothing more than noise and confusion. Many of us change the channel, and listen to NPR and love Garrison Keillor and Prairie Home Companion, and laugh when Keillor makes fun of us. Many of us are unapologetic nature lovers, and the only thing we might love more than hiking in the woods is building our congregations in the woods, complete with tiny elegant signs that blend in well with the natural environment but cannot possibly be seen by a seeker on the highway. Many of us eat locally, we shop at farmer’s markets, and we would never be caught in Wal-Mart, unless it was a dire emergency. Many of us do look ahead in our hymnal to see whether we agree with the words, and forget that the person sitting next to us may need exactly the words we are refusing to sing."

We have a kind of culture. And even though UU congregations include a lot of members of whom McNatt’s description isn’t at all true, we have managed to be the sort of place where people who do more-or-less fit McNatt’s description feel at home. This in itself doesn’t mean we aren’t diverse. We may have a higher proportion of Public Radio fans than the general population, but we also have a number of members who don’t listen to Public Radio at all.

My colleague, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, an African American Unitarian Universalist minister, insists that Unitarian Universalism is an ethnic faith. He spoke of his multi-ethnic neighborhood in Toronto where there are a large number of houses of worship which are predominantly of one culture or ethnicity: a Korean church, a Thai Buddhist Temple, a Mosque, a Greek Orthodox church, all within walking distance.

Morrison-Reed says the Unitarian Universalist Congregation is every bit as much an ethnic faith as those others. The Armenian Orthodox church in town is a center of Armenian culture; the Cambodian temple a center of Cambodian culture. These institutions don’t try to be culturally diverse – it’s a large part of their function to maintain their own one culture. Maybe we Unitarian Universalists should lighten up on ourselves – stop flagellating ourselves for not attracting more people from more widely varying cultures – settle for the wide and impressive theological diversity that we already have, and accept that we are an ethnic church, a culture center for Prius-driving, fair-trade-coffee-drinking, PBS-watching, vegetarian, world religion dilettantes.

Well, no. That’s a caricature of Unitarian Universalists, of course. Most UUs aren’t that way. So what are we? To describe the Unitarian Universalist culture a little more fairly and accurately: We’re people who have a style of worship that is basically Protestant – in its structure and its form, though not its content. We light a chalice, which, for us, symbolizes the flame of divinity held in the container of community. And we sing from, and read readings out of, a particular hymnal: Singing the Living Tradition. If you had to point to one thing that is characteristic of just about all UUs and no non-UUs, this hymnal would probably be your best bet.

Unitarian Universalists do constitute and comprise a distinct culture. That doesn't mean, however, that the average UU knows her own culture very well. It's important to respect and honor diversity. At the same time, our congregations would do well to keep in mind that they are never going to attract significant numbers of people who want something different from what Unitarian Universalism is. By knowing who we are, and being authentic to who we are, we will be able to attract more people who are like us even if their cultural background is nonwhite.

It's also worth reminding ourselves that change will come whether we want it or not. Unitarian Universalists have (or are) a culture, but it's a different one every year -- every day -- and like the rivers of which Heraclitus spoke, the same one cannot be stepped in twice. If you want us to change, have no fear. It is inevitable. Society around us is changing, and we change with it. As more African Americans, Asians, Latinos and Latinas infiltrate all strata of society, more of them will come to want the sort of approach to religion that Unitarian Universalism especially emphasizes -- an approach that:

- does not tell them the one way they must believe;
- urges people to think hard and diligently about what to believe, but that ultimately does not define one’s religion in terms of belief;
- shares a covenant to affirm seven general principles and no theology more specific than that;
- insists that every birth is a blessing, that everybody’s actions matter, that no experience of divinity can be lightly dismissed, and that no one has to go it alone – and that anything much more specific than that is optional as long as, together, we stand on the side of love;
- sings and reads out of “Singing the Living Tradition”, that lights chalices, and politely mentions Jesus from time to time – at least on Christmas and Easter;
- carries forward a history of free and thoughtful people wrestling with religious questions and church governance, a history going back 400 years to the early years of the Reformation itself;
- stands upon the shoulders of William Ellery Channing, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodor Parker, Olympia Brown, Eleanor Gordon and Mary Safford, John Dietrich and Curtis Reese and peers into a still more glorious dawn that they upon whose shoulders we stand could not have imagined.

When the barrier to inclusivity has been gender, Unitarian Universalist history shows that we have moved well to surmount that barrier. It’s true that we had a number of women ministers in the late 1800s, and that a backlash against women Unitarian minister meant that there were virtually none by 1920. But it’s also true that when second-wave feminism came in the 1960s, our congregations accepted large numbers of women ministers more readily than any of the mainstream denominations.

When the barrier to inclusivity was sexual orientation, Unitarian Universalist history shows that we have moved well to surmount that barrier. We performed same-sex unions (in some congregations as far back as the 50s), and eventually began observing them as simply marriages – religious marriage rather than civil marriage. We came to accept gay and lesbian ministers – and eventually transgender folk in our pews and in our pulpits.

These moves to tear down barriers to inclusivity have been matters of being authentic to what Unitarian Universalism is. Freedom, reason, and acceptance are the very definition of liberal religion.

But when the barrier to inclusivity has been culture, we run into trouble. We are good at tearing down barriers by being true to who we are. Not surprisingly, we aren’t so good at the kind of tearing down that would require us to stop being who we are. So our level of diversity in terms of race isn’t nearly as high as our diversity in terms of theology, gender, and sexual orientation.

And race is culture. The scientists tell us that, biologically, there is no such thing as race – that genetically, the differences within the group we identify as “black” and the differences within the group we identify as “white” are larger than the differences between white and black. If race is not biology, then it can only be culture. Yet culture is not monolithic, it isn’t fixed. It is always changing, and the efforts of some to preserve their culture can succeed at some levels but are doomed to fail at others. Mostly you can preserve the artifacts of a culture: you can, sometimes with some success, deliberately motivate a group to keep wearing certain kinds of clothes, keep cooking and eating certain kinds of foods, keep making and listening to certain kinds of music, and keep speaking a “native” language, but these artifacts of culture inevitably take on new meanings as history and the wider context rolls on, and the artifacts preserved will inevitably come to feel more and more like museum pieces and less and less like un-self-conscious manifestations of a way of life.

Unitarian Universalist culture is changing – and each slight change makes this faith tradition attractive to a slightly different sort of newcomer, and each newcomer shifts our culture still further. In my lifetime as a born-and-raised Unitarian Universalist, I have seen us increasingly recognize that scientific understanding is compatible with disciplining ourselves to exercise to strengthen certain neural pathways that help us have more joy and more kindness in our life. I’ve seen us develop more taste for reading a certain kind of writing sometimes called “spiritual.” I’ve also seen, in my life time, that substantial lowering of the barriers to inclusivity of women and GLBT folk. Our Unitarian Universalist culture is changing, and the African American culture is also changing, and all the various nonwhite cultures are evolving.

It’s true that our membership roles under-represent nonwhites. In 10 years, 1998 - 2008, the proportion of the US population that were people of color (either nonwhite or Hispanic or both) climbed from 28 percent to 34 percent. In the same 10 years, the proportion of UUs that were people of color climbed only from 9 percent to 11 percent. Yet, as Morrison-Reed points out, the people of color who do become Unitarian Universalist are those happy to operate within our norms. As more people of color become comfortable with those norms, we’ll see more of them. And as we see more of them, they will shift our norms – incrementally, in small steps. One sign of our moving culture was the appearance a few years ago of our hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, with more current and popular styles of music represented.

While cultural evolution has an organic component to it – it happens willy-nilly (will-ye-or-nil-ye), and in ways we cannot predict – there can also be a thoughtful, intentional component. Unitarian Universalist culture represents the combined efforts of centuries of free and thoughtful women and men looking for a way to nurture our spirits and help heal our world. We mean to be respectful of other religions, we mean to learn from them, we mean to honor and accept and celebrate what they show us of human creativity in response to the conditions of life. Their example teaches us profound lessons about human capacity – we learn what we too would have been had we merely been raised that way.

For all our respect and open-ness to learn from other religions and other cultures, we have our own. And our own is necessarily our best guess about how we can nurture our spirits and help heal our world – this we, in turn, offer back to the world insofar as it is willing to respect and learn from us. To put it bluntly: we do think we’re right. Right, that is, about the modest claim that this Unitarian Universalist path is the best way for people more-or-less like us to nurture our spirits and help heal our world. That’s our claim. If we didn’t think this was the best way for us, we wouldn’t be doing what we do. If we thought that something else was better, we’d have adopted it.

The trouble with diversity comes if our respect and open-ness to learn leads us to view all cultures as needing to be preserved. Some diversity, our planet is better off without. The African American culture that grew up under Jim Crow, was a testament to human resilience under difficult conditions. It was a paragon of community solidarity, and ingenuity and courage and leadership under oppressive circumstances. There is much to admire and much to learn from. Some in the African American community have sometimes seemed nostalgic about those days because of the solidarity people showed. Even so, the culture that arose as a response to Jim Crow is a culture that we can be glad, all things considered, doesn't exist anymore.

A culture is a set of interlocking coping strategies. So when we remove horrific things that have had to be coped with, a culture is lost. As we move forward, we can remember the flowers that bloomed amidst the pain of what we left behind – yet let us, indeed, not fail to leave it behind.

It’s possible, for example, that we might one day be able to eliminate deafness. Widespread access to cochlear implant and gene therapy might someday make every human on the planet able to hear. This might be many years away – conceivably, it might not be so many. Would this be a good thing? I think so, yes – although there would be a loss. There are deaf activists who regard the cochlear implant as cultural genocide. Deaf people have a culture and a language – ASL, American Sign Language – and part of the richness of the world of diversity is inventive coping strategies these humans have come up with. That’s a culture to respect, to cherish, to honor, to learn from, to be inspired by. It’s also, I believe, a culture to be eliminated if we can do so by eliminating deafness.

Take, for another instance, poverty and the culture of poverty. There are growing disparities of wealth in the US – and not just between the very rich and the very poor, but between the “kinda rich,” say the 80th percentile of income, and the “kinda poor,” say the 20th percentile of income. In constant inflation-adjusted 2004 dollars, the gap between an income at the 80th percentile and an income at the 20th percentile has more than tripled – from under $24,000 in 1947 to over $75,000 in 2005. (Remember: those are inflation-adjusted 2004 dollars!)

The culture that emerges as a group of people together copes with its economic oppression is something we can learn from – and we can admire lives of dignity and integrity in the midst of deprivation. But all things considered, we would be better off without that culture and the poverty that produces it. Since the days of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society programs, concern with poverty and flat-out economic injustice has all but dropped completely out of the national discourse. When was the last time you heard a politician advocate redistribution of wealth? There’s a real need to reawaken attention to poverty, to economic inequality – to the elmination of poverty if we have the will and the means to do it, even though that would also mean the passing of a certain culture.

On the troubling question of cultural diversity, it comes to this:

- Your own culture: know it well. Go deep into it.
- Other cultures: respect them and learn from them.
- Cultures that arise as responses to oppression, injustice, or disability: respect and learn from them, too -- while also working to remove the harmful conditions that make them necessary and possible.

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