I feel a more further explanation is needed and I will provide one. The point is not to slander, so I will use no names and refer to the churches I visited in quite vague terms.
To back up, let me discuss my religious upbringing. I was raised by two parents who, albeit Christian, always possessed a healthy sense of skepticism regarding organized religion: more so my father than my mother. My father had been raised working class in the small town South by a chronically ill mother who never could quite seem to stay healthy for long. As such, she used religion as a means by which to hopefully heal her afflictions. Her father, my great-grandfather, was a Holiness of God minister. His church was Charismatic and effusive, with services full of praying in tongues and running up and down the aisles. My father talks about how terrified such behavior made him as a child observing the goings on in front of him.
Indeed, my great-grandfather took the Bible quite literally, in particular, the passage in Matthew 19:23-24 which states "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God." He had not the luxury to be a minister full-time, indeed, his sermons were composed at the end of a long day at work in a textile mill. This was the way most in East Alabama made their living, slaving away for six days a week in filthy conditions weaving cloth.
My mother was also raised working class. Her parents ran a small well-drilling business. Honest, but filthy work. They attended the local Methodist church but I can not recall them ever being particularly devout to the cause. They attended more as a social outlet than as a means for spiritual growth. Indeed, like so many people, my parents never pursued a church until their children were born. That church was Methodist, out of deference to my Mother.
I was confirmed and baptized a Methodist at the small, insular church we attended until I was around twelve. It wasn't a particularly welcoming congregation. Like many small churches, it didn't really want to grow, and looked up visitors with obligatory friendliness yet it made no grand designs for expansion. The worship service was very traditional and I remember squirming and fussing about having to wear a coat and tie to church every Sunday. The minister was a well-meaning, but frankly dull woman whose sermons lulled me into sleep. The church itself was fast asleep. Reform was a word mentioned with caution. Things had pretty much gone on the way they always had, so conventional wisdom was why rock the boat. This was about five years or so before the idea of Contemporary Worship caught fever.
Next, my parents took us to a much more liberal Methodist church that had only recently required its own building space. My parents hoped that their shy, heavily introverted, carbuncular, self-conscious son might find some sense of community amongst the numerous young adults. To their disappointment, he did not. Instead, he maintained his frustratingly reticent nature and clung to the shadows, whilst hard at work staring at his shoetops. My mother initiated our move from that liberal Methodist church because they had the gall to openly invite lesbian and gay members. My mother is remarkably tolerant on most matters but finds homosexuality an abomination. So away we went.
My parents heard of a non-denominational church that used elements of theatre and rock music in the service. I was firmly into my teenage rebellion stage and anything that smacked of conformity was to be scoffed and scorned. Admittedly, I made some acquaintances there but I was unable to maintain them because I was beginning to fall into an abyss of depression that became my first nervous breakdown.
In short, I had never felt a part of anything, ever. My head was full of doubts, full of questions, full of unresolved conflicts to which no one could provide any satisfactory answers. I stumbled into the local Unitarian church because I admired the writings of Robert Fulgum and had done my homework. Unitarianism sounded like everything I had always craved and I was particularly attracted to the lack of dogma or creedal requirements, which had always been to my annoyance.
This church did not take to me in a spirit of welcome. They instead looked at me rather suspiciously. The fact that the church had been housed in the old money part of town added a level of exclusivity. I only spent a year or so in high school RE--surrounded by a tight-knit group of children who by in large, attended private schools. They had known each other since early childhood and by the time I, with my numerous eccentricities arrived on the scene, they didn't particularly feel inclined that their little group could admit another member. High school is a tough time for any outsider to break in--I feel particular sympathy with military brats who have to uproot frequently and try their best to adjust to brand new surroundings on a regular basis.
With time, I proved my worthiness to the church. I threw around such terms as "college", "final exams", and this impressed them. I never tithed, preferring instead to show up early, tidy up the church, and converse with the older gentleman who had been the usher for years and years. I played guitar for several offertories and preached a sermon or two. I then found myself being referred with some degree of deference. Yet, I was the only member in his twenties who routinely attended service and any effort we made towards establishing a young adult group was half-hearted and never really coalesced.
I suppose the final straw for me was when the decision to build a new building was officially mentioned to the congregation. Admittedly, we could have made do with more RE space, but I felt that the added expense of a brand new mortgage and higher energy costs would provide quite a shock to a congregation who had long paid off its existing building and who could safely estimate its power, water, and sewer bill from month to month. I was one of four members to vote against building the new facility, but alas, the zeal of a brand new space won out over common reason.
Our minister, who despite being highly available to all congregational matters, was far from an inspiring speaker, took the opportunity to become an interim minister. I had always liked her. Indeed, she had often been kind to me during trying times in my life. She was very maternal, very sheltering, but did not challenge the status quo. The church was fast asleep and in need of some healthy shakeups. The shakeup occurred in the form of a man who quickly became my religious mentor.
He called out the members on a variety of sins. I remember him grumbling The Shanghi railroad runs more efficiently than this place. He transformed the Circle of Lights from Activists' Corner to a much more dignified ceremony by which those with actual life changing events could express their grief and joy rather than having to stand privy to someone's personal crusade. He made a variety of changes that had long since been needed. For the first time, all visitors were mentioned in the order of service and newsletter, sincerely thanking them for attending.
By this time, I became active in C*UUYAN affairs and attending two consecutive national cons. What I observed in my travels abroad deeply upset me, particularly with the militancy of the Anti-Oppression/Anti-Racism programming. I was further shocked to realize that UUA dollars were supporting, whether directly or indirectly, the works of several people wanted by the Federal Government for shuttling fugitives across the border into Canada. It had been my first experience with radical leftists and the experience left me confused. This wasn't at all what my church experience led me to believe. Instead, I was surrounded by a group of people who were even stranger and odder than me. Though overt drug use had but recently been banned, it was an unwritten rule that attendees could likely find casual sex without too much trouble. I'm far from a Puritan in that regard, but the fact that a religious organization could at least condone this sort of behavior seemed to me to be rather shocking. Indeed, I felt like I had been magically time-warped back to the late 60s, minus the hedonistic drug usage.
The UUA itself seems to either be oblivious to what actually transpires at these cons or unconcerned. It signs the paychecks, but does it realize what it is paying to support?
I was having a boatload of personal problems at the time and so I ended up unskillfully breaking ties with C*UUYAN.
I moved to another city, where I found a church I perceived to be in a much more healthy state of affairs. Furthermore, they had a group of twenty or so young adults close to my age. Perfect! This is exactly what I had been missing in my previous UU experience. Yet, as I dug deeper, I realized that this church had some major issues of its own. This is not to say that there is any perfect church but some have farther to go than others. Its long-term called minister had left, creating a void in his absence. Anytime a long term minister leaves, a cult of personality builds around him or her and understandably some members will feel disconcerted when he or she leaves. As I entered, the minister had but recently left. In his place, was a interim minister who I had no particular qualms against yet apparently several members of the congregation thought his direct references to Jesus of Nazareth unpardonable sins. They circulated a petition calling for his removal.
Some time recently after that, the long-time assistant minister left under dubious circumstances. We were never given an exact reason for her departure, but she had some degree of rapport amongst many members. A rumor advanced at the time, but never confirmed, was that she had tried to directly influence the selection of the called minister. I can neither confirm nor deny this as I was not privy to such sensitive information. Apparently the UUA found it important enough to send the District Representative along. We were provided little to no information as to what had really transpired, which led to further discord.
Due to a personal matter I feel uncomfortable discussing in such a public forum, I was requested to take a leave of absence from the church. I disagreed strongly with the logic behind the request, but nonetheless chose to bite my lip and abide by the decision.
I had many concerns about Unitarian Universalism long before that confrontation but that incident brought them clearly into focus. I've discussed these concerns in depth in a previous entry so there's no reason to mention them here.
In short, the reasons why I feel that Unitarian Universalism has miles to go is because its very nature is so disjointed. UUs are a small denomination and I believe a greater degree of networking is necessary to remedy the problems. My primary concern regards C*UUYAN which serves as a sense of solace and community for young adults whose home churches show them utter disregard or have not enough young adult membership to encourage weekly attendance. This is not the way things ought to be. Home churches need to serve the primary role of fellowship for young adults and it's truly unfair that the only way they can find true community is at these once or twice a year gatherings.
It should go without saying that I strongly disagree with the very existence of Anti-Oppression/Anti-Racism.
My feelings on AO/AR work have always been deeply ambivalent.
I’ve seen, with my own two eyes it create more problems than solve. It tends to rip scabs off of open wounds in (IMHO) a misguided effort to reveal the inherent racism amongst Caucasian society. Indeed, I know of no other religious group that has institutionalized this form of well-meaning, but ultimately self-destructive practice.
I’ve seen a particularly militant demonstration of AO/AR programming literally create an immense drama storm during Opus/ConCentric ‘03 the likes of which turned many people away for good and produced many a letter of protest to Michael Tino.
That particular con, I felt as though I was been asked to flagellate myself for the sins of my whiteness. I refused to do so.
I know of people who deliberately avoid C*UUYAN and GA functions specifically to protest of AO/AR programming.
The point of all this is not to trivialize the concerns of African-Americans and LGBTs within UUism. Let me underscore that. Their concerns are valid and I certainly understand them. I think we need to come together as a unified force. We have more than enough enemies lined up against us; why create strife within our own ranks? What good does it accomplish?
AO/AR, no matter how gently performed, is always going to be a combative, controversial, highly emotional endeavor that risks bursting into flames and rapidly getting out of hand.
I agree with one blogger who compares this to “the left eating its own”.
Off the record, MidSouth District leader Eunice Benton expressed to me no small degree of consternation about AO/AR programming and mentioned that she had complained about its very nature, but that her complaints had fallen upon deaf ears.
Furthermore, I encourage those of you who are interested in this matter to look into the not-so-recent past and find that such matters and battles have already been fought. Indeed, under the subheading of The Black Empowerment Crisis in 1968, UUs may learn that this denomination has never adequately dealt with the matter. UUs seem stuck in the late 60s and utterly without a new course of action. We don’t like to talk about it, but being that it is important history, nothing is needed more than open, honest dialogue.
For those unfamiliar with the Black Empowerment Crisis, I’ll give a brief summary. For those curious to explore more, Beacon Press has an excellent book on the subject and a series of articles on this issue ran in UU World some years ago.
It is well-known that white Unitarian clergy were instrumental during the Civil Rights Movement. They proudly marched on Selma and we hold dear the name of a martyr by the name of James Reeb who was killed there by an angry mob. That was in 1965. Fast forward a few years.
By the time GA rolled around in 1968, it was tacitly assumed that white clergymen would be able to meet in committee with their black brothers and sisters in faith. Instead, they found their paths blocked. Black clergymen and leaders wanted their own private meetings without white attendance, which struck many white attendees as deeply hypocritical and a slap in the face, since they had stood hand in hand with them during Selma, Freedom Rides, and at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, amongst other places.
This created immense turmoil amongst the delegates of that GA, leading to a substantial number of delegates actually walking off the conventional floor. Fights nearly broke out. Concessions were made towards a African-American only group of UUs known as the BAC, who had the full funding of the UUA. As the group became more radical and as the tide turned against its existence, it was dissolved due to lack of funding after only a few years of existence.
Whether this was due to racism on the part of the White controlled UUA board or the increasing militancy of the African-American only group is a matter of conjecture that I wish not to state an opinion one way or another. Suffice it to say that I am stating the facts.
The current president, of the UUA, Bill Sinkford, remembers how the Black Empowerment Controversy lead to massive disillusionment on the part of both whites and blacks and admits that the wounds of those days have not fully healed.
As an aside, let me also point out that Sinkford was president of LRY (Liberal Religious Youth) which got so far off into left field that it ended up having to be dissolved in the early 80s. I could tell a multitude of stories about the problems that led to the dissolution of LRY, but they read as a scandal sheet and I am not inclined to rake the muck.
Clearly, we must take stock of our history before we forge ahead in our present. We are split amongst baby boomers entrenched in their home churches, disenfranchised young adults who use FUUSE , GA, Opus, and ConCentric to find community, and those young adults lucky enough to attend churches big enough (and these are usually in big cities) where there are simply enough YAs present to justify having small group ministry. Each of these subgroups exist in its own universe, totally unaware that there are alternative options out there to explore.
Unless UUs can take stock of this and find better ways to remedy this, other than important-sounding movements like "Mind the Gap", then the faith will be fundamentally flawed. That, above all else, is why I have decided to look elsewhere in my faith journey. I seek to be healed, rather to heal that which I feel I cannot heal in spite of my own best intentions.