A Unitarian Universalism of Inclusion

Unitarian Universalism prides itself on being tolerant and inclusive, but like most people and institutions the reality doesn’t live up to the vision.  Unitarian Universalsim talks big talk about being more multicultral and open to everyone, yet the reality is that Unitarian Universalism is a mostly white, mostly middle class, or even upper middle class religious movement, with its own set of values and its own culture.  Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt spoke to this in her response to this year’s Berry Street Lecture at the UU ministers’ professional days gathering before General Assembly in Salt Lake City.  She basically said the reason our congregations are not more racially diverse is that becoming more diverse means changing our UU culture and when it gets right down to it, we’re really uncomfortable with that.

The current UU World cover story, “The Gospel of Inclusion,” is a story I wish more people were familar with both inside and outside Unitarian Universalist circles.  The story of how African American Pentecostal Bishop Carlton Pearson discovered Universalism, lost his mega church ministry because he was too accepting in his theology, met Rev. Marlin Lavanhar and landed his Higher Dimensions (later called New Dimensions) ministry at All Souls Unitarian Church in  Tulsa, where Pearson and what’s left of his congregation are now members holds many lessons.

The first lesson is that of Universalism.  It’s a grand lesson to revisit for Unitarian Universalists and a great idea for non-UU’s to be introduced to for the first time.  A loving God doesn’t send people to hell. Forever. Doesn’t make sense. It isn’t reasonable.

The second is the point made by Rev. McNatt at the Berry Street Lecture (and I paraphrase): UU Culture is keeping us from being multicultural.  From the UU World article, All Souls Tulsa before the influx of New Dimensions members:

The only problem: Everybody at this liberal church, with its hearty mix of humanists and theists, was really, really white. There were one or two brave souls of color, a few multiracial adoptive families, and periodically visitors who liked the message and the values but, after a few visits, said, “I’m just not sure my family is going to feel comfortable here.” All Souls just couldn’t seem to reach that critical mass of racial diversity.

In the spring of 2008 an opinion survey asked members what change they’d most like to see in the church. More than 90 percent said they wanted the church to be more diverse and multicultural, but there was no real plan to make it happen.

Here’s the reaction, according to the article, after the 11:30 a.m. Sunday service (the second of two services every Sunday) at All Souls incorporated the New Dimensions praise choir and band, and African American worship style, including a woman who welcomes people to worship with “Welcome to All Souls, the friendliest, trendiest, most radically inclusive church experience in Tulsa.” :

“The only hard thing for me is having the drum set and the God music,” says Julie Skye, an eleven-year All Souls member. “But I just change the words: I love the earth, the garden. There couldn’t be cooler people joining the church. But there’s something about the drums I just don’t like.”

But Brigid Kelley, a mother of six who grew up in the church and now teaches in the religious education program, thinks it’s great: “With all us young people, we need the power of the beat to bring us back to the energy of the earth. All this inclusion, I love it. We can’t be like a rock over here. We need to soften up, let some new ideas in.”

Lavanhar acknowledges that a portion of the congregation, mostly long-term members who are uncomfortable with the overtly theistic language of the music, may never embrace the new musical style at the 11 o’clock service. About seven people have told the board they are reducing or withdrawing their pledges because of the changes, he reports. And some people have stopped coming.

At the same time, about 125 new members have joined since last September, mostly younger people intrigued by the second service, and about one-quarter are people of color. Neighbors are complaining about a 17 percent increase in Sunday morning traffic over the past year, and the church has added two additional lots, because of all the visitors checking out All Souls.

Over the year, All Souls has fine-tuned the praise music: putting a sound-buffering tube on the drum set, working more UU songs into the praise mix, and paying attention to the God language.

At one point, Lavanhar mentioned to new associate music director Smith, “You know, the word Lord is going to be a little hard here.”

Smith looked puzzled. “You guys are so funny.” After all, services often start with “This is indeed a day which God has made” and end with a musical benediction, “May the Lord bless you and keep you.” The congregation sang “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today” out of the hymnal on Easter. The church’s statement of purpose, printed in the order of service each week, references “love of God” and “the essential gospel of Jesus.”

Another lesson I see reinforced in the All Souls/New Dimensions story is the importance of covenant over creed as the basis for forming religious communities.  When religious communities are formed on the basis of what people must agree to believe, it easy to damn others, to hell or otherwise, and set your group up as the holy righteous.  When communities are formed on the basis of right relationship and how they will treat each other and behave toward each other, and how they will restore relationship when and if broken, it is possible to disagree on matters of the spirit without being disagreeable.   This comes to light in the stories of real pain that surfaced for some people at All Souls when their UU church started looking like and feeling like a Christian church from their past that they left behind for the safety of Unitarian Universalism.

But behind the apparent contradiction, he discovered, was a very real pain and an opportunity for spiritual growth. Since last September, every week, a steady stream of men and women have come to talk with him about being abused—emotionally, sexually, or spiritually—as children in a Christian church. When they heard praise music sung, and saw the upraised hands, the trauma was reignited.

Over and over, he has heard his members say, “I came to All Souls to get away from all that.”

Each time he asks: What is the “that”?

“In most cases,” Lavanhar wrote in a recent issue of the church newsletter Simple Gifts, “people tell me it was authoritarian leadership, the dogma, the anti-intellectualism, the superstitious and magical thinking, the way women were treated, the homophobia, the guilt, the shame, the judgmentalism, the proselytizing, and the sense that their community was especially privileged with righteousness and truth, and the way that other traditions and ways of thinking were demonized. None of which, I point out, has been brought into All Souls.”

Unitarian Universalist churches do not have a test of belief. There is no creed, but a covenant, a way we behave toward one another.

“There is an African American experience of God,” Lavanhar has challenged members, “that has been molded and shaped by slavery, lynching, Jim Crow, and persistent racism. Many have an experience of God that involves Jesus. They don’t say it’s the only way. If we can’t accept that experience in our church, then we’re not living by what we say.

“Our history is filled with people rejected for their religious beliefs. That is something we share with them. We’re on this ship together. It’s full of excitement and possibility and also danger and risk. By living out our covenant and statement of purpose, it has forced us to change. It’s not forsaking Unitarian Universalism. It’s being Unitarian Universalist.”

There are many are lessons in this story including the every present, insidious, shape changing beast of racism, the can’t-be-overstated importance of being a welcoming congregation, and need to always, always practice radical hospitality.

No religious tradition  is perfect.  And yet, I am uplifted once again, and have hope again for the future of what Unitarian Universalism can be as I read about this story again.  This is a photograph of us in our Sunday best, a look at us being our best selves, and yet it’s so wonderful because it’s not air-brushed.

Listen to Heretics, an episode of the NPR program This American Life featuring Carlton Pearson.

Guess Who’s Coming to Worship General Assembly 2009 event with Marlin Lavanhar and Carlton Pearson.

All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, OK