Every year at General Assembly a lecture is sponsored by the Liberal Religious Educators Association. It almost always has at its heart a focus on faith development, which of course is “all we do.” This year our speaker was Paula Cole Jones, a leader in antiracism, anti-oppression, and multicultural training and consulting with the Unitarian Universalist Association. The name of her presentation was ‘Building a Community of Communities.’
It was a complex lecture and not easily distilled, but I want to lift up some key points she made and invite you into conversation about those ideas. Remember she is using an antiracist, anti-oppression lens in her proposals. While her focus was on racism, all her points could apply equally to other isms in our congregations.
Jones posited that we need to move from thinking of church as a family to thinking of ourselves as a community of communities. “Family” has a clear authority, and we all “instinctively know who we can/cannot bring to dinner.” Family is not vision. Vision is having a table big enough for anyone who comes and finds truth in our midst. We create or build our own communities, and this is especially true for BIPOC. Jones said that growing up in a diverse UU church, All Souls DC, she has never known an all-white, one-experience faith.
There are already multiple communities within the UUA. How would our congregations shift if we considered all the groups within them to be communities? Our books groups, our interest groups, our senior coffee, Parents of Young Children — all are communities within our larger church community. Our theology is a big tent theology, but we are using a little tent metaphor (family) to define ourselves. With effort, we can make room for varying experiences and social locations at our large church ‘table.’
Jones also held up a false narrative that covenant groups are spiritual and committees are business. Committee work is faith development and our committees are communities that care for each other. When we shift to thinking of it in this way, we begin to build more communities within the congregation that overlap identity groups and build inclusion.
And here is the comment that resonated for me in my own experience, but may be the most controversial to most of the long-time UU’s in the crowd. “Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of each person is an individualist theology.” Let me be clear, I’m not saying we shouldn’t believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, but we need to read this as our promise to others, not a personal worth statement. Too many UUs have taken this phrase to put themselves at the fore of the conversation — if you aren’t listening to me you aren’t honoring my inherent worth and dignity. This is especially true when we are challenged or uncomfortable with what we are being asked to do or learn, or to consider another point of view that is different than our own.
Part of that is making room in our congregations for differences of opinion and new ways of doing things. Our commitment to a value (environmental justice is her example) may be equally strong, but it sounds different depending on one’s own social location and experience. The absence of conflict is not beloved community. If we shift our thinking to what is best for the community, our community, how does that shift our understanding of our first principle? Might it make all of us more aware of those who are marginalized and increase our commitment to true inclusiveness, not assimilation? After all, we can’t build beloved community without eliminating racism and oppression.
See you on Sunday,
Carrie Krause, DLFD