Thursday, June 01, 2006

Tolerance and Compassion, Part II

Okay, I need to write more about the previous post.

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.


Blogger Bill Baar said...

Basic hospitality is a nice way to put it...

Remember the funeral for Senator Wellstone when Sen Lott was booed?

Liberals, Theologically and Politically, have this kind of total vision of life while Conservatives much more inclined to compartmentalize the spiritual, political, family, and everyone else.

One awful result of that total visin on life is basic hospitality can go right out the window. A poltical foe's payment of respect at a funeral is jeered because everything is political; the sacred and secular are one...

You can see this coming from a UU when they talk of hypocracy.

I was at our "Framing" meeting at Chruch and said I get along fine with Evangelicals and Conservative Christians. Not that I really spend much time with them, but I enjoy the Christian Motorcyclists when I volunteer at the homeless shelter. I'll stay for their bible service, sing songs, pray with them.

A UU asked if I wasn't a hypocrite for doing that. No, not at all... I don't recite a creed or anything... It's mostly homeless people talking form the heart. It's healing... it's intensely real for me.

And I would never question a homeless person's faith in God. How could I try and cast doubt on that, with someone who doesn't have much else.

Hypocricy has become a favorite word for me now.

Matthew Arnold wrote hypocrisy was vices way of paying homage to virtue. That's so true.

I look for those hypocritical moments because I realize when I'm in them, that there's sometimes they're really a deeper truth that unites me with everyone else.

So I free sharely with the fundamentalist bikers and it's more than tolerance... there is a truth in their service and it's a truth UUs shouldn't feel they need to run from.

Basic hospitality is the requiste for reaching that truth too...

geez, I've rambled here, but I have found comfort in these two posts of yours PB.

Blogger Jamie Goodwin said...

once again, I want to apologize for the UU Bashing line, it simply put.. came out wrong. That is no excuse, but I did not mean to hurt your feelings.

I fully admit that I am guilty of UU Bashing when I am frustrated. I already responded to the other post but I just wanted to say I am sorry.

Blogger LaReinaCobre said...

It is true that UUs need to do a better job of reaching out to everyone. Not for the purposes of conversion, but just because reaching out to others is a value in and of itself. One of my good friends, Elandria, who does a lot of anti oppression work within the UUA and elsewhere is constantly talking about this and trying to spread this message within the context of her trainings. She is, unsurprisingly, able to connect with all kinds of people. I see her minister to even complete strangers on an almost daily basis. It is unbelievable. It also takes a lot out of her.

I don't find my church (it is quite large, however) to be very warm. But I often think about what I've done to express warmth towards others. It's taking me a lot of work to extend myself.

Blogger CK said...

Those stories are pretty hard to hear, but I'm glad you shared them.

I wonder, though, what would happen if we just listened for a while? Sure, the folks you describe are looking for something--probably answers. But instead of immediately jumping onto some intellectual issue, or assuming what kind of person the visitor is (they must be dissatisfied with the silliness of Christianity), what if we just listened? Asked some questions, shared from our experience... that kind of thing?

I think it really does come down to basic hospitality, sometimes. Probably I sound naive, but good listening is one of the biggest gifts we can give someone. It doesn't happen often, because we're (I am--I include myself in this) so busy thinking of the next thing to say, or judging whether the person we're talking to fits into the congregation.

Anyway, thanks for these posts--I've appreciated watching people work through this, because it helps me.

Blogger PeaceBang said...

CK, I think you're right. Unitarian Universalists tend to be a very articulate bunch with a lot to say. We would do well to cultivate that listening and "abiding with" side of ourselves.

Blogger Joel Monka said...

These posts should be required reading at the GA- I've never seen the problem addressed so eloquently. The sad thing is I've only been UU for ten years, and I have nearly as many anecdotes of that type already. My experience isn't that wide- I've only attended services at four congregations, and seen only one GA, but from my direct experience I can say this without reservation: the average Southern Baptist congregation is more tolerant, more accepting, and less judgemental than the average UU congregation. Their issues are different than ours- but they seem to be way ahead in manners and compassion.

Blogger Kim said...

At a recent meeting on Radical Hospitality, I found myself reminding the group that improving our hospitality is not just for PR, it is for our own spiritual growth (which our principles say we encourage). I think we are often so busy working on political and charity stuff that we forget to work on our spiritual selves.
But, as a refugee from Mensa, I also want to point out that UUism does tend to attract people of higher than average intelligence and that people of higher than average intelligence are often also people of lower than average social skills. There are cultural and psychological reasons for this. Maybe we need to train ourselves in social skills? (Who is qualified to teach?)

Blogger boomer said...

amen sista, amen...

Blogger Elizabeth said...

I think that these are such important issues and questions to raise. Thank you to PB and all commenters. Elizabeth :)

Blogger Bill Baar said...

There is something deeper than Hospitality at work here.

I was a member of Unity Temple in Oak Park in the late 1980s. Oak Park has one of the largest populations of Gays and Lesbians of any Illinois Community.

I knew and worked with many of them and was surprized how many belonged to conservative Churches. Often Churches with elaborate liturigal services.

I'd ask why they didn't feel any attraction for Unity Temple which prided itself on welcoming all. We'd bless same sex Unions.

Yet I guess there were more Gays in Conservative Churchs including Catholics then we had UU's in Total (and there were three UU Churches within two miles along Lake Stree then: Unity Temple, Beacon, and Third UU of Chicago).

Yet they never came to our Church... I'd ask why and they would say something about us not being Christian.

I was mildy annoyed with that answer because as non-Christians, Oak Park's council of Churches had banned us... here were Gays, often in leadership roles at their Chruches, that would not bless their Unions; but participating in banning UU's for not being Christians. Go figure...

But as look back on it, and how sad those years were, because AIDs was really starting to devastate with poor treatment options. (I remember seeing people suddenly emaciated at work.)

I realize how very different the feeling was then, and I wonder if our UU message was of no comfort to people facing painful death.

We certainly offered hospitality at Unity Temple, but I wonder if that's was enough. Our message and faith offered no answers.

If Rev Scot Giles reads this per chance, I should offer an apolgy upfront as I always found answers of a kind in his sermons. But our Church as a whole denomination may not have met the task.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure if you'll end up reading this, but...

I was a 21-year-old physically and cognitively disabled woman on SSI, who was a pretty big mess in the aftermath of institutionalization, when I stumbled into a UU church on September 11 2001 for the memorial service. I was very serious about spirituality, and also looking for some kind of community. I had been raised Quaker.

The first thing I noticed there was that most people were rich, and that the membership fees were totally impossible. I remember trying to explain that, and being told they were "only" such-and-such amount per month if considered over the whole year, and not being able to get across to the person that I could simply not afford that amount of money all at once. That was my first warning sign.

There was also very little talk about spirituality itself. There was a lot of talk about the mythology surrounding spirituality in many cultures, there was a lot of talk about politics, and while I think that spirituality is connected to everything, the way these things were being discussed seemed unanchored to any particular truth. (In fact I was told often that there was no such thing as spiritual truth.) It seemed like a combination of the most pointless aspects of all religions, rather than what I had been told, which was that it was supposed to be about the underlying reality that was available to anyone who sought it.

Nonetheless I attended the youth groups for awhile. Many people were afraid of me. I felt like a Sesame Street exhibit. (I do not feel like that everywhere, so there was something different at this place.) The adults there told me that the UU church believed in many political ideas that I found hostile to the very idea of disabled people's existence. One woman proudly proclaimed that she would rather die than receive routine treatment for the sort of routine infection that disabled people get every day, as if this was a progressive rather than a rather hateful idea.

And I was often reprimanded for things like startle response and other things like that.

So the environment was a bit hostile and a bit indifferent, and there wasn't much spirituality being discussed, and not much connection between me and anybody else.

I went back to being a Quaker and have not regretted that choice. So count me as another one of the people shut out.


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