Tolerance and Compassion, Part II
I really shouldn't be doing this, as I have a sermon to work on and a funeral service, but I'm chewing on it in my mind so I may as well subject all of you to my ruminations!
Jamie Goodwin accuses me of "UU bashing" in the comments of my previous post. That's okay with me. I'm used to the age-old question, "Why is PeaceBang such a PeaceB*#%h?"
The short answer is that I love and yearn for the possibility of vibrant Unitarian Universalism too much to watch this movement fade into self-parody and further irrelevance without a fight.
What, exactly, am I referring to in my comment to Jamie when I claim to have observed a whole lot of really offensive stuff coming out of the mouths of UUs whene'er I travel abroad from my home congregation (not to say that my own congregation is perfect, no matter how often I imply otherwise!).
A good question. I am referring to the friendly smugness, the insider lingo, the "we love you because you're one of us" coziness, the absolute certainty many UUs have that we are truly a New Thing under the sun, religiously speaking, and their oft-voiced conviction if only people were as enlightened as we are, they would find their way to us in droves.
I am referring to the casual nasty joking about Christians that is a constant everywhere I go, the unbelievable ignorance about our Unitarian and Universalist tradition (ask the average UU what Universalism is, for example, and hear the convoluted response), and the insistent drone of "we're the thinkers - we're the skeptics - we're the intellects and they're not" humming in the background of every coffee hour I've ever attended wherever I've guest preached, lectured or visited.
I've labelled this offensiveness "Terminal Uniqueness" before (borrowing the term from 12-Step Program lingo), and I think it is our biggest obstacle to practicing the love, tolerance and hospitality we are called to practice. I think it is overwhelmingly the besetting sin that keeps us tiny and unappealing as a movement to thousands of seekers who visit once or twice and are never seen again.
(Of course many of those seekers never come back because (1) they're too busy to make time for serious congregational involvement (2) that particular UU congregation was either too Theistic or too Atheistic for their preference or (3) They can't get a basic grasp on what UUism is supposed to be. But I am convinced that they mostly disappear because of the wide gap between this tradition's appeal on the page and its reality in our congregations).
I was just reading through the GA program and marking up the workshops I want to go to, when I stopped to linger over a workshop offered by Keith Kron of the UUA GLBT Office and someone else. I don't have the program here, so I'm sharing from memory. The program was called something fairly generic and positive about growing Unitarian Universalism. In its description it referred to "radical welcoming." It looks like a good program.
At the beginning of the workshop description there was a visionary phrase about what kinds of people we should expect could potentially be drawn to a UU religious life. There was mention of a "transgendered person, 6'4" in heels... and an interfaith family." I thought, there it is. And I was sad. When we think of radical welcome among us nowadays, it is almost always in terms of someone who isn't "mainstream" -- someone whose sexuality or racial identity or physical ability is fairly described as "different" or "minority." I just think that's too limiting.
Why do we assume that the people who are most likely to resonate with our values and our congregational lives must be in some way oppressed, de-valued or misunderstood by the mainstream culture? This isn't to critique Keith's workshop -- I understand the limitations imposed by the GA program, which only allows 50 words of so of description -- it's to point out a larger direction we seem to be moving in.
I want to ask, "How about the white Republican suburbanite who has three straight-arrow kids, lots of money, and a growing sense of unease about the consumeristic trajectory of her life, who seeks a place to connect with people, to pray with others, and to contemplate peace and God's higher purpose for her life?"
What if she came to one of our churches and spoke those exact words of self-description to someone at coffee hour? What kind of "radical welcome" might be extended to her? Or would the code words "Republican" "God" and "pray" lead someone to coldy explain to her that "This is a different kind of church?"
It's happened in at least one of UU congregation. I heard about it at a dinner party of old high school pals.
What about the 17-year old honor student and cheerleader whose parents are non-observant Jews and who has a serious interest in Buddhist meditation, but who thinks that abstinence-only sex ed is a good idea for kids, and who has fairly conservative personal boundaries. How will she get along in one of our youth groups? Is there a place for her? Will she be welcome as she is?
She came to us once. She was not welcomed in one of our congregations. I heard about it last summer from one of her parents.
How about the 46 year old father of two who works in the restaurant industry and comes to church good and ticked off about the rise in the minimum wage, because he'll now have to pay his servers twice as much per hour as he did last summer, and he therefore might lose his business? What kind of diverse views is he likely to hear about economic justice from the pulpit and during coffee hour? How welcome will he be, with his questions, his anger, and his fears? How about if he comes on Justice Sunday, with its unequivocal support of the living wage? Does anyone care about ministering to him?
The answer, in at least one of our congregations, is "no." I read about it in an e-mail by way of a congregant of mine.
What about the woman with two teenaged sons whose husband comes out to her, and together they negotiate an understanding around their sexual fidelity, but she wants the minister to pray with her for discernment? The woman and her husband have been attending a more conservative Christian church in the area that believes her husband can be "cured" of his homosexuality through prayer and love. The other church is praying for them, is embracing them in their struggle, and says that he is welcome to be a member of that church no matter what he decides about his sexual identity. Meanwhile, the woman feels that no one in the UU church would respect her or her husband, feeling that he should just come out and be done with it. For all the so-called tolerance at the UU church, she finds that she actually feels more accepted and cared for at the other church, and that her search for God's will in her life is taken much more seriously. She resigns her membership.
I was the pastor who received that resignation. I still grieve and ask myself questions over it.
A college age student who is in a deep depression attends one of our summer lay-led services and sits in the back row, weeping softly throughout the service. The service is not so much a worship service as a "talk." There is no word of healing, no time for meditation, no prayers for the people, no hand of fellowship or greeting. She is in so much pain that she nevertheless stays for coffee hour, hoping to make some kind of connection with somebody. No one approaches her. No one makes eye contact with her. There are only thirty or so people there. Finally, although she feels utterly humiliated, she approaches a woman who looks friendly. She introduces herself and explains that she attends the local university. The woman looks worried, as though the young woman's chronic tears may be contagious. "I'm so sorry that we don't have a young adult group for you," she says. And the young woman walks back to campus sobbing intermittently all the way.
It happened in at least one of our congregations. It happened to me. Twenty years ago, almost, and I haven't forgotten (although I have certainly forgiven).
We talk about "marketing." We talk about "casting a wide net." We talk about "radical hospitality." Until we start confronting the prejudices, intolerance and inhospitable behaviors in our congregations, marketing and casting a wide net will avail us nothing. We cannot practice radical hospitality until we learn to practice basic hospitality.