Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Unitarian Universalism--Found and Lost

                If you’ve read my book, Political Frugality, and the odds are you haven’t, you know that when that book came out in 2005 I had just joined a Unitarian Universalist church. I was enthusiastic. Back then we had a minister who was down to earth and, well, human. And he had a sense of humor. Once when he invited Dan to visit the church, Dan, who grew up Catholic, said he was not into organized religion. The minister said, “That’s OK. We’re not organized.” It helped, I think, that his wife was a Methodist minister. The church offered courses such as the History of Unitarian Universalism, Thoreau, Emerson, and so on. I loved it.
                Alas, all good things come to an end. Our minister moved, and the church moved on to a series of humorless dogmatic ministers who reminded me of the reason I left the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod I grew up in.  There was one exception, but she was only temporary. There was even a purge of staff who no longer “fit in.” Courses these days tend to be along the lines of “Concepts of White Supremacy,” which is the actual title of one of the courses. It’s estimated more than 90% of all Unitarian Universalists are white. Interestingly, we used to have a Protestant predominantly African-American sister church. We’d get together for a picnic on Labor Day. That, too is no more. Too much fun, I suppose.
                I’ll be among the first to agree we all need to learn about white privilege. I just finished reading The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson. The book is about the Great Migration of blacks from the south starting roughly during World War I and continuing to 1970 or so. I had no idea how bad conditions were in the south, and to what lengths, after the migration had begun and there was an increasing shortage of black labor in the south, southern whites would go in order to keep people from leaving. Amazingly, treating their help better and maybe not lynching so many never occurred to white southerners. This is one book I’d highly recommend. I’m now reading Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White, which is interesting and mercifully short, but he’s nowhere near the writer Ms. Wilkerson is. At any rate, yes, we need to be aware of white privilege, but even dog trainers recommend against rubbing puppies’ noses in their mistakes. And couldn’t we have some history of the church classes, too? And maybe—just maybe—could we have a sense of humor?
                Earlier this year the church made the news when a vacancy occurred in the church’s southern region. A white man was selected to fill the position, and the shit hit the fan. One of the finalists for the position was a Latina who criticized the selection. This led in rapid succession to the resignations of the President of the church (its first Hispanic) and some of his staff. A woman was eventually chosen to replace the President.
                This has all been written up within the church as a positive step toward more inclusion and sensitivity, and it may well be. But I’d like to know why the white guy was selected. How likely is it a church so bent on inclusion would select a white male if he were not the most qualified? I doubt we’ll ever know.
                Just when I thought things could not get stranger, I read an article in the latest UUWorld about Standing on the Side of Love, a song written in 2004 by a Unitarian Universalist minister to protest marriage discrimination. Thirteen years later it occurred to some people that the song discriminated against the handicapped. They can’t stand, you see. And I guess it didn’t occur to anyone to look up the word “metaphor.” The song’s being reworked.
                In the 1960s Li’l Abner creator Al Capp invented a group that satirized campus protesters. The group was called S. W. I. N. E., or Students Wildly Indignant About Nearly Everything. At the time I didn’t think it was funny because I was young and agreed with many things students were protesting--civil rights, Vietnam, and so on. But things have changed, and I’ve grown up. Being wildly indignant about nearly everything wears me out, and looking for innocuous things to be wildly indignant about strikes me as ludicrously unproductive.  
                Last year the Lutheran church near me had a breakfast. Dan and I went. I was extremely impressed with the minister, who reminds me a lot of the Unitarian Universalist minister who moved.
He didn’t look askance at Dan and me—even though he is Missouri Synod, and they’re not officially too accepting of gays. The church runs a thrift shop and food bank. It occurred to me this church is actually doing something to help the poor rather than just holding classes on white privilege. And they have classes on Martin Luther.
As part of a class on becoming Unitarian Universalist, we wrote our credos—what we believed. Part of my credo, from 2004, is:

“I believe, when it comes to churches, fellowship, not the official teachings of the church, is what’s important. I believe that each of us develops our own beliefs, that no two people believe exactly the same things, and that it is more important to be with people I enjoy but with whom I do not agree than it is to be around people with whom I agree but do not enjoy.”

Given how polarized the country has become since I wrote that, I’d say it’s even more important that we spend time with and listen to those we don’t agree with if for no other reason than to avoid sequestering ourselves in an echo chamber.
I doubt I’ll ever care about Transubstantiation or a host of other doctrines, but I’m going to pay a visit to that Lutheran church soon.     
                If it’s possible to be a lapsed Unitarian, I am one.

© 2017 Larry Roth

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