UU’s Not Spiritually Grounded Enough for POC?

The title question is mine, and inspired from reading UUA President Bill Sinkford who gave a nice interview in Tampa Bay.  His excerpt about why more Blacks are not Unitarian Universalist caught my eye.  His "standard response" is actually something I’d like to see expanded on a bit more – that inviting persons of color for the purpose of whites feeling better is not spiritually grounded. 

I have generally found myself in agreement with Sinkford’s analysis of racism despite different hopes about the UUA effort.   While probably not new, I was discussing with several ministerial colleagues the linkage of our spiritual grounding to racial diversity as a barrier for welcoming any newcomers.  This makes me cheer the ongoing releases of the Tapestry of Faith curricula for Unitarian Universalist formation, many of which are being made available online.  I’d also like to see a growth in the collectivizing and mentorship of younger persons of color in our faith. 

Indeed it is tokenizing and ultimately marginalizing to invite POC into UU churches solely based on race.  In this, I understand Sinkford’s point. 

Your thoughts on where our spiritual grounding needs to develop in order for our religious home to be a place welcoming of persons of color?

Maxwell: Although the UUA had more ministers in the civil
rights movement, including the march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr.
Martin Luther King, why does the UUA have such a hard time attracting
black members today?

Sinkford: That’s probably the most
commonly asked question I get as I travel extensively in the United
States to our congregations. My standard response is that for a faith
community that is still predominantly white, it is not spiritually
grounded to go out and try to acquire a few more dark faces so that the
white members of the congregation feel better about themselves.

First,
we have to look back in history. There was a time — in the 1960s
particularly — when a significant number of African-Americans joined
our congregations, and it was based entirely on the kind of public
witness for civil rights. Our ministers were out in public. They were
leading demonstrations. As you suggested a moment ago, hundreds of our
ministers went to Selma to march with Dr. King. We were clearly a group
of allies in the struggle, and many persons of color came, checked out
our congregations and found them welcoming spiritual communities and
joined.

In 1968, 1969 and 1970, there was what most of us
experienced as a retreat. In 1968, the Unitarian Universalist
Association had made a commitment to reparations for the black
community, even before the call for reparations was made. Many of us
were buoyed and enthusiastic that this was a continuation of that
witness for justice. But things got complicated. The reaction to that
commitment was controversial in the Unitarian Universalist
congregations, and finances were tight. And so that commitment, it was
then a million dollars, was never fulfilled. Only half of it was ever
paid.

And the reaction of many persons of color in our movement
was, and I am among them, was one of a deep sense of betrayal. You
know, this was a faith community that offered us so much hope, and for
that commitment to be withdrawn was more than I could tolerate. And it
actually led me to leave Unitarian Universalism for a number of years.

A
second reason for the difficulty in attracting people of color has to
do with where our congregations are located. In the period of the rapid
development of the suburbs, many of our downtown congregations elected
to move out into essentially lily-white, often legally lily-white,
suburban communities. And so it’s really no surprise for those
congregations that they don’t have a significant number of people of
color there. And I preach this, as well. You have to look at the
decisions you’ve made and the impacts those decisions have on who’s
able to be present.

The third thing is that Unitarian
Universalists are the most highly educated people in the United States,
and much of our worship came to be dominated by the intellect rather
than by the heart. One of the things happening now in Unitarian
Universalism is that we’re reclaiming some of that heart, and I think
that opens us to membership by a broader range of persons. We’re not
just the crowd of university professors and the terminally overeducated
folks anymore.

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3 responses to “UU’s Not Spiritually Grounded Enough for POC?

  1. I wonder where the opening “Your thoughts on where our spiritual grounding needs to develop in order for our religious home to be a place welcoming of persons of color?” comes from: the interview, or did you write it?

  2. Wow, what a question. Generally, I can agree to some of this – if spirituality has been one of the main ties of communities of color while in America, then a faith that shies away from expressions of communal faith, communal experience and communal ritual (which we do some of, at least), would seem to be inhospitable to the experiences of people of color.

    There are, of course, tons of reasons there aren’t many POC in our congregations – not the least of which is that church is often seen as a sanctuary and, as of now, our churches often contain plenty of privilege and oppression, making it difficult to truly be sanctuaries from the dominant world/culture.

    And I could go on and on and on…

  3. Namaste, Joseph.

    The question reminds me of a conversation I had at the Building Multi-racial, Multi-cultural Congregations conference in San Jose. Someone was arguing in favor of adopting a UU creed because, as he said, PoCs are turned off by moral relativism. I strongly disagreed with him about us adopting a creed but wholeheartedly agreed about PoCs being turned off by the view that “it’s all good”/”you can believe anything that you want.” Everyone who’s been marginalized, not just PoCs, knows from personal experience that *not* all views are equally valid.

    For me the frustration is that UU spirituality is not adequately linked to social justice. We have a strong tradition of social justice, but it’s approached from almost a secular view. And we have a strong tradition of openness and personal exploration when it comes to spirituality, but but it can sometimes approach self-absorption.

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