Friday, April 04, 2008

African-American UU Church, Pt 2

I'll admit to being offended by the idea that I've heard, phrased in different ways, that comes down to, "We'll never have integrated UU churches, because African-Americans want their 'own' church." It offends me because it seems to me to be a false dichotomy -- you can be a UU church or you can be a Black church -- you can't be both.

It makes me remember when I was a teenager, visiting a cousin of mine, who lived in a small town. Across from her house was a small African-American church. The members were outside, having some kind of a picnic, playing music. I was grooving to the beat. (Truth be told, I've been known to groove to anything, including ring tones.)

"Don't do that," she instructed me. "They don't like it when you dance to their music."

Is that where we still are? "Their" culture and "our" culture, and never the twain shall meet? "African-Americans are welcome in our churches. Our RE did a Kwanzaa skit last December and many of our members are voting for Obama!"

Okay, okay. I'll dial down the snarkiness.

Here's an idea. Rather than saying, "Why won't 'they' come to our churches?" why don't we help set up African-American UU churches ... where those who are white, Hispanic, Asian, and Vulcan :) are also welcome to attend?

I don't have a problem with the concept that people want to be with other people like themselves. That happens at every UU church in the US. The difference is, how we define "people like us."

Come Sunday morning, we want to be with people like us. For those of us who are white, defining "people like us" by race is so unnecessary, we don't even consider it. Really, the rest of your week, you never get the experience of being with other white, straight males*? So you need to go somewhere that you can have that unique experience?

Probably not. But many of us do have the experience of weaving our way through a weekday world of the politically conservative, the religiously not-progressive. A world where it is assumed that you are straight, Christian, and probably vote Republican. (Depending on where you live and what is your profession. YMMV.)

So, come Sunday morning, we want to be around people like us. Where people know how 'vegan' and 'Kucinich' are pronounced and the only gay jokes you'll hear are from your outrageous gay friend Mark. And even he will get a disapproving look. After the chuckle of understanding.

Sunday morning, we want to go to a sanctuary. We want to go to a place that feeds our soul. And I'm willing to bet that if we wound up with some churches that reflected a more charismatic, answering-back, "tell your neighbor, 'Respect and Dignity,'" "Amen!" African American UU Church, there'd be a lot of white UU's crashing the party. And I'd be one of them.

Because I want to be around people like me.

* Going for the most obvious example. You could also remove "straight." And you could remove "male." And leave it as just "white."


Jim said...

Thank you for your thoughts on this critically important issue. I appreciate your approach to the problem, but the solution you propose seems to me to be a "lite" version of "separate but equal," in which the end result would be largely segregated churches. Why not make a committed, concerted and sincere effort to make all new and existing UU congregations integrated? Such integration would require a lot of work and a willingness to change on the part of our overwhelmingly white congregations, but the result would be real diversity--and what a powerful and amazing thing that would be!

Lizard Eater said...

Thanks for commenting, Jim. I agree with your vision, but I have questions as to how it would be accomplished. Do you feel that the reason we are heavily white, as a denomination, is because we haven't made "a committed, concerted and sincere effort to make all new and existing UU congregations integrated"? (Genuine question.)

I'll take the phrasing of setting up "African-American UU Churches" out of the plan. So, let's just call it ... setting up a UU church in the part of town that is mostly African-American with a minister who is most experienced in their concerns and practiced in traditional A-A Church culture.

We already do this for our white members. A new UU congregation is set up by white members in the area where they live, fairly often white-dominated suburbs. Chances are good that their minister/DRE/Music Director will be white.

I don't mean this to sound sinister -- I don't think that race, in that instance, is ever thought about.

But maybe it should be.

My argument is not that we should have Black Separatist churches. I can't conceive of how that would work with Unitarian Universalism. My argument is that we should try setting up a Black church where all races are welcome.

Like it or not, what we've been doing is setting up White churches where all races are welcome.

hafidha sofia said...

Good thoughts, as usual, LE. I esp. like your comment: the idea of setting up a "black" church where everyone is "welcome" seems foreign to many of us - and I think it alarms people; they wonder immediately, "Would I fit in?", and yet setting up white churches run by white staff in white neighborhoods doesn't seem strange at all; and non-white people are expected to feel welcome ... why?

Jim said...

LE, there are a number of reasons most UU churches are predominantly white, not just a lack of effective work at becoming more diverse. But, in answer to your question, no, I don't think we've made the kind of effort I'm talking about. And, honestly, I'm not sure what such an effort would look like. But it seems clear that many people don't feel welcome in UU churches, despite our best intentions. Otherwise, we'd already be much more diverse, right?

And, to be clear, I think that setting up churches in churches in minority neighborhoods is a great thing to do, but it doesn't make Sunday mornings much less segregated.

kim said...

I don't think that our lack of African-American congregants has anything to do with race -- it has to do with culture. Yes, we all want to be with "people like us" -- and in the case of UUs, that's restrained, repressed, intellectual, compassionate but shy, New England style people. It's that that makes most Americans uncomfortable with us -- our shyness, our intellectuality, our lousy singing.
(having read down this far, I want to say something about your medical trials with LW -- but I don't know what to say besides I will send good thoughts your way.)