A LETTER FROM THE PRESIDENT
"Why didn't you say anything?" she asked. I was tempted, and watchful. Were people going to get out of hand? Were comments going to be unintentionally hurtful? Were people going to write things that were insensitive?
When one of our new members posed a question about worship styles and how they are a reflection of our gender, class and racial make-up, I was a little nervous. But for the most part, the respondents were self-policing and open. Personally, I do not think a discussion board is the place for significant, potentially difficult conversations. On the other hand, calling a meeting didn't seem the appropriate response, either. All that to say, that a lack of response doesn't mean the issues surrounding diversity of worship styles, race, class, gender or sexual orientation are being ignored by the fellowship. They are on the agenda in several areas of fellowship life and work and I am glad so many of you responded so honestly.
There is work to be done beyond expressing opinions. The wheels around diversity have been turning for quite some time at MVUUF, and perhaps longer at the UUA. MVUUF has a pretty good track record around issues of sexual orientation and gender identity. We were one of the earlier congregations, and the first in our district, to be officially designated as "Welcoming" to LGBT persons. We're still learning how to be affirming, but many of our leaders and members identify with one of these designations. But how well do we do welcoming of people of color, or people of poorer economic circumstances? After all, the old UU joke is, Do you have to have a PhD to be a member here?
We are largely a white, college educated, middle class membership. Our liberal religious tradition is partly responsible for our makeup and there are some real benefits to being who we are. We are liberal, meaning open minded to diverse thought, to change, and to challenges to the status quo. In our early heritage we were persecuted, and even executed, for expressing the view that God was not a trinity but a single God. We arrived at our diverse views and put our ideas into action through means that were available to an educated class, starting programs and organizations, affecting policy, etc. However, we also joined hands with people across boundaries in work such as Civil Rights and more recently, community organizing. We want to see a better world for more people and seek ways to "heal a hurting world." The long list of strong, justice actions by the UUA would make anyone stand in awe of our wisdom and accomplishments.
Yet, here we are. We care, and we do good work, but why are we so consistently mono-cultural? We do not reflect the diversity we say we want to see, or do we? Just a couple of years ago the Social Action Committee organized a Dayton Dialogue on Race Relations effort. While it was a most enlightening and meaningful experience for the small group that participated, we could not move it to another level of doing something for the MVUUF community, or even more importantly, for the greater Dayton community. We ran out of steam, in part because the numbers of us engaged was small, by design. Nor was that program designed to increase our diversity; it was intended to help us better understand race and race relations. Why were so few people interested in participating?
So how do we become more diverse ourselves, and through the process become more conscious of who we are and who we could be? How would being more diverse be a benefit to us and to others? What are the implications of being so isolated and insulated from our own community? At the UUA, there is a concerted effort to change the ethnic and demographic profile of the congregations so they better reflect the changes that are occurring in society. And the results are visible and impressive, but slow and difficult.
Much of the intention to be welcoming and affirming to more diverse populations comes in at least four significant ways. First, the UUA is making a concerted effort to invite diverse persons into leadership positions. Second, the UUA board has engaged in a process called The Journey Toward Wholeness for many years now, to address oppression within our own institutions and in the greater world. It involves training and consciousness raising. See http://www.uua.org/leaders/idbm/multiculturalism/history/jtw/index.shtml for more information.
Third, the UUA has a Right Relationship team that is present at every General Assembly to help make oppressive behaviors public if it will raise the consciousness of the assembled. One of the classic incidents that occurred early on was when a white delegate asked an African American minister to carry her bags, assuming the minister was a hotel staffer. We are learning through these public, but sensitively presented reminders, of how to avoid unintentional oppressive acts related to race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and ethnicity. I have personally grown a lot when I hear about these incidents.
Finally, GA reflects diversity in worship and music, drawing on traditions that may not be our own, but we are informed about and made sensitive to the roots of the music. For instance, if we sing an old African American spiritual we need to understand the background that music comes from. We can learn from it, respect it, be moved by it, even if it is not our own. It makes the music all the more powerful to know the circumstances that created it.
At MVUUF we still have work to do. Our own Covenant of Right Relations has obviously made a difference in how we talk with one another. If you are new here, look for one in the gathering space, or visit http://www.mvuuf.org/08design/data/rightrelationsbrochure.pdf
But what would make our culture more welcoming and inviting to more diverse people in the Dayton area? I will ask the board to begin thinking about ways we can take this on as a congregation. If you have ideas, please consider contacting me, Rev. Amy Russell, or other important leaders in the areas of worship, music, social action, membership, activities, or religious education. Diversity is not going to happen through a single event or even a single program. Being truly welcoming will require experience, learning, and a state of mind. Let us go forth in love.
~ Alice Diebel, Board President