Thursday, May 8, 2008

Prejudice, Diversity, History

--by Mike Adams

For years, I worked construction as a carpenter and later as a foreman. Two years ago in spring, I began searching for a new project or for regular employment. I responded to newspaper ads, sent resumes, made phone calls and kept appointments. One day, a builder wanting an interview phoned me and after some conversation, he said I sounded like a good candidate. He said that he had several Mexicans who, he explained are good, honest workers; however, because of cultural inferiority, they will never be foreman material. He knew from talking with me that I had that certain ‘Anglo’ something, which would make me a good construction lead.

I am not making this up either!

You may have noticed that I’m not Anglo! He couldn’t tell on the phone, so I set an appointment, with no intention of getting the job. I did look forward to his reaction when Michael Adams the guy with that special ‘Anglo’ sense walked through the door with dark skin. I don’t think he even noticed I wasn’t white. He offered me a job, which I didn’t take, because I didn’t trust him.

But I was shocked…didn’t he know that we’re in a new millennium? I mean thank goodness I don’t encounter that often. I am a longtime UU and we gladly welcome people regardless of race or national origin. We welcome gay people, Hispanic people, African American people, young people, old people. I myself am half Native American. We have members who identify as being Jewish, Pagan, Christian, Buddhist, etc… We welcome diversity!

In fact, after last year’s inspiring General Assembly, I looked into starting a Spanish speaking UU service. I wrote to a well known UU minister, who I thought had already tried and the minister responded telling me that there had been no Spanish speaking effort, that the college educated people in that minister’s area already spoke English, and because the local Spanish speaking population were poorly educated Mexican Catholics, there was no need. OUCH! I couldn’t believe what I was reading. And it was coming from a well known and widely respected UU minister.

Another influential UU whom I personally know wrote to me, “This country consists of several cultures besides our own. (what would you call ours – European?)…I don’t agree that a Spanish speaking minister or church would make us more liberal. It sounds to me more like trying to force our image on other cultures.

Sometimes I wonder who people are talking to when they communicate with me. I mean look at me, I am not Anglo. I’m not European. I’m Native American, I speak some Spanish, until recently, I worked construction, I don’t have a college degree. I don’t have a good salary. In fact, during our church’s recent pledge drive, I struggled internally with having to lower our pledge substantially. I am working evenings and Saturday mornings. Occasionally, I worry about paying our basic expenses.

When I delivered my pledge card, I felt embarrassed and upset. People are raising their pledges by 30% and I wanted to do the same. Sometimes, it is not comfortable coming here because we are able to make only a symbolic financial contribution. I know that any contribution honestly given is at least theoretically valuable.

My concern, how do we impact those who struggle to make ends meet. Would my friends feel inferior if I brought them to a UU service?

Please! Don’t assure me after today's service that I am welcome and valued…I do know that already. Instead, let’s consider how our assumptions about what credentials and financial resources a UU has might actually turn some people away.

I am not suggesting that we abandon our pledge drive or that we stop asking for members to raise their pledges…just consider how we could ensure that all who visit feel welcome.

Consider…would we really welcome anyone…Regardless of their appearance, regardless of their intelligence or lack thereof, regardless of their low income or blue collar background or basic vocabulary. Would we welcome people who “aint” educated? Would we view and treat them as equals?

Are we here to serve all, including the working class in our community; is our message really available to everyone? Or is ours a message meant for the intellectuals, the college graduates, the upper crust of American Society?

In short…have we surrendered the working class to conservative religion?

If so, how can we hope to impact our world? How can we meaningfully promote our seven principles at large in that seething mass of humanity, who make up our planet’s daily activities?

On March 18th, in Pennsylvania, Barrack Obama responded to attacks on his African American church minister, a civil rights veteran from the sixties. Obama said, “For the men and women of Reverend Wright's generation, the memories of humiliation and doubt and fear have not gone away; nor has the anger and the bitterness of those years. That anger may not get expressed in public, in front of white co-workers or white friends. But it does find voice in the barbershop or around the kitchen table. At times, that anger is exploited by politicians, to gin up votes along racial lines, or to make up for a politician's own failings.

And occasionally it finds voice in the church on Sunday morning, in the pulpit and in the pews. The fact that so many people are surprised to hear that anger in some of Reverend Wright's sermons simply reminds us of the old truism that the most segregated hour in American life occurs on Sunday morning.

So here we sit on Sunday morning, look around you, look at the people, at their skin color, their age, consider their profession.

…are we diverse?

...are we prejudiced?

...are we turning people away by assuming that UU ’s have college educations and expendable financial resources?

Remember, I have worked in the construction field. I have shared an apartment with fifteen people from Guatemala. I promise you that blue collar workers, and laborers and immigrants care as much about freedom, about the environment, about social justice and about racism as do UU’s. America’s working class loves their children as much as America’s professional class. America’s laborers share the same sorts of dreams and aspirations as do America’s educated people.

While race is an important topic in our country, I do believe that most in this room are on the same page. We could and should look at questions of race in our denomination and in this congregation. But our real struggle in Unitarian Universalism is with classism. If we want to have an impact on race relations…if we want to have a true diversity of membership, we must confront our unseen prejudices and make our faith available to all who might share our concerns and values.

There are very few people I have ever met on a construction site, whom I would invite to a UU service. Not because they would disagree with what we have to say, not because they would be insulted by our message or values, but instead, because I believe they would leave feeling judged as stupid or unimportant or less than.

If we truly want to be a vital, open and diverse religious group, our challenge is not to be more welcoming to people of color, but instead we must welcome people whose earnings barely pay their bills. We must welcome people who lack any college. We must welcome people whose vocabulary is simpler than what many of us may be used to. We must open our doors…and our hearts…and our minds to people who work at the drive thru…or the laundr-o-mat…or the convenience store.

We have a choice to make. And it is my hope we will embrace the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “Everybody can be great... because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” It is my hope that WE will take up this challenge.

But REMEMBER…we won’t do this alone, we can do this together and it is definitely something we can do. We are the right people for this task. So, let us accept that challenge…Let us raise the moral bar for our denomination. Let us raise the moral bar for our society and for our country. Let us ensure that the next generation of UU’s will look at our legacy with pride. We have a long and proud history of this kind of work

In February 1841, John Quincy Adams, fifth President of the United States, Harvard Professor, Congressional Representative and a founding member of the Washington DC’s All Souls Unitarian Church stood before the US Supreme court and attacked the President of the United States. He challenged the members of the court to try and live up to the legacy of those who had gone a generation before. This was Adams’ last case. He was defending thirty-six people who had been kidnapped from Africa and shipped across the ocean on the slave ship Amistad. They had revolted, taking control of the ship and killing many of their captors. They were charged with murder. Adams prevailed and the Amistad victims were returned to their home.

124 years later, in March 1965, the war against racial oppression was still raging and in Selma, Alabama, 39 year old Viola Liuzzo, mother of five, a Unitarian Universalist and a civil rights activist had been driving people to and from the march at Alabama’s Capitol. Liuzzo was intercepted by four members of the KKK, who chased, shot and murdered her. Liuzzo left a grieving family but her husband said, “My wife died for a sacred battle, the rights of humanity. She had one concern and only one in mind. She took a quote from Abraham Lincoln that all men are created equal and that's the way she believed.”

In every generation, every UU who has struggled to promote justice, has had to face their own personal prejudices and shortcomings. The beauty is that despite their pitfalls, despite their frailty, despite their humanity with all of it’s fear, with all of it’s fury, despite all of that, they did great things. So now it is up to us. We can either rise to the occasion and lay claim to our proud UU heritage or we can sit down at the back of the bus and pass the torch to another movement? Either is a valid choice, but only one is consistent with our seven principles.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

Thank you, Amen, Blessed Be