Friday, August 3, 2007

Vitality of a Movement

--by Mike Adams

As Unitarian Universalists, one of our greatest strengths has been our desire to be inclusive…to make room for “different beliefs.” The value we place on inclusion has lead to our denominational covenant to affirm and promote our seven principles. It has lead to our movement’s participation in de-segregation and to our continued work on behalf of marginalized citizens of our world community.

Over the years, UU’s have passed resolutions at our General Assembly in order to become a more welcoming and diverse community of people. We have made some very impressive gains. Since 1970 when the GA passed a resolution in support of Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women, the number of female UU ministers has skyrocketed. There were fewer than thirty female ministers and today, more than fifty percent of UU ministers are women.

By contrast, there are currently only thirty people of color serving as UU ministers in our congregations. Here in New Mexico, more than twenty percent of our total population speaks Spanish. I’m not sure if any congregations in our state have a Hispanic Minister. However, in an attempt to discover how many Hispanic UU Ministers there are through a Google search, I discovered the following advertisement: “Unitarian Minister – Shop for Unitarian Minister, and deals on tons of other products at MonsterMarketplace. (click here).” While this was a fruitless and frustrating effort, it was at least amusing.

After attending this year’s GA in Portland, I started researching what would be needed to successfully start a Spanish speaking UU service in Santa Fe or to start a successful UU congregation in Pojoaque. I wrote to a congregation which I mistakenly thought had tried to start a Spanish speaking service. I received a reply from the minister indicating that they had never tried to start a Spanish speaking service, that in their town, most everyone who has a college education speaks English so there is no need for a Spanish speaking service.

I responded to this note with an email indicating that the minister’s response troubled me because I disagree that being a Unitarian Universalist necessitates having a college education. I believe that one of our denomination’s largest obstacles to growth is not necessarily racism, but instead classism. I pointed out that functionally, being classist makes us racist, because the majority of people who are unable to acquire a college education come from economically disadvantaged groups, many of whom are primarily of people of color. I said that I work in the construction field, that I regularly have very interesting conversations with my non-college educated co-workers about politics, philosophy and justice issues. It turns out that blue collar workers are equally concerned with the same issues that concern many UU’s. I indicated that blue-collar workers vote too, that the majority of people in this country and in this world have no college background. I said that I think it would be good if there were more people thinking about UU values when they go to the voting booth…when they decide whether to go shopping at Wal-Mart, etc…. I informed the minister that I have not completed a college degree, that I am largely ‘self educated’. I said that I have known many people, who, like me, never completed a college education, but they read books on philosophy, history, politics as well as regularly reading news papers. I indicated that a minister’s comments in particular have the power to offend and turn people away from a faith, which really could make a difference in the world. I ended by saying, “if we have covenanted to affirm and PROMOTE the inherent worth and dignity of every person, perhaps we want to consider if that might also mean making our faith available to all who share our concerns and values regardless of their intellectual prowess and educational training.”

The next day, the minister responded assuring me that self-educated is good and that there are some UU’s without a college education, that it’s fine and all are welcome. In fact, the minister indicated that there are many good and intelligent people without a college background and that we need to learn to work together. However, the minister went on to say that with regard to ‘denominational market targeting,’ it is quixotic to try and serve new immigrants who are mostly poorly educated Mexican Catholics by starting a Spanish language UU service…that it won’t work and that the minister couldn’t continue to converse…but thanks for sharing my concerns.

I decided not to respond to that message. What is there to say? Perhaps I lack the insight to respond in a way which could make a difference, but I don’t know how to acquire that skill right now. It concerns me that in a UU District which contains a very high population of native Spanish speaking people, a Unitarian Universalist minister would say that it is quixotic to start Spanish speaking services because the local Spanish speakers are, “Poorly educated Mexican Catholics” and I am left to infer they are therefore not good UU material.

I don’t believe that our well intentioned minister believes that Catholics are incapable of becoming Unitarian Universalists…in fact many of our members come from other religions, from which they turned away for a variety of personal reasons. I hope that the minister was not suggesting that Mexicans wouldn’t be good Unitarian Universalists. I feel certain that, in fact…the assumption was not about Mexicans so much as about the poorly educated. Our Unitarian Universalist movement seems to be incredibly prejudiced against people who lack ‘higher education.’ Unintentionally, we seem to value a sound intellect more than a true diversity of membership. This does not make us bad people…in makes us human, with the same sorts of prejudices, judgments and shortcomings that all people come with.

Unfortunately, as liberal thinkers, who don’t tolerate intolerance, we have accidentally made the entirely human conditions of being prejudiced and closed minded synonymous with being a bad person. We need to extricate the value judgment from the reality of human shortcomings. So long as we are human beings, we will never do away with prejudice, racism, xenophobia, impatience, greed, etc…we are stuck with those traits. As Unitarian Universalist, perhaps the best thing we can do is acknowledge those traits as we find them in ourselves and try to be responsible for them when we deal with others.

What are we going to do about this situation? I fear that as a movement, Unitarian Universalism is dying because we continue to maintain an intellectual snobbery. I don’t know what to do about it…I have only questions. I don’t feel qualified to tell you what to do…the only thing I can say is that a good place to start might be to honestly look individually and collectively at our own classism and prejudices. Maybe we ought to search monstermarketplace and find some ministers who will take racism and classism more seriously and challenge us to climb for higher ground.