The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

The San Diego cycle: UU Fellowship of San Dieguito

Earlier this month I moved from Northern to Southern California. Exciting, a bit uncomfortable, but San Diego is a place of great promise and opportunity. Starting this week I will be a new transfer student at the University of California, San Diego; since I know very few people here, the half dozen local Unitarian Universalist congregations are a great starting place. Getting integrated into the community, both on a social level and as an activist, is deeply important. So I’ll be doing a write up of each place I go.

The fellowship's band performs in the outdoor amphitheater
The fellowship’s band performs in the outdoor amphitheater

Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Dieguito (UUFSD, website here) is located in the hills of Solana Beach, just east of I-5. It typifies all things Southern California. The landscaping is arid shrubs and drought-resistant trees, the buildings are of grey stone and of the flat, pueblo style. What gives it a unique flair is the outdoor amphitheater where services are held, weather permitting. A hemicycle of benches surrounds a modest red-brick stage, its back butting up against a sandy hill. Beach umbrellas shield most congregants, though if one is quite pale and sensitive to sunlight (your truly fits the category) you may have to keep shifting in order to match the rising sun.

The centerpiece of the 11am service was the coming of age program, where youth start the transformation towards having their own ideas about meaning and spirituality. In total there were twenty-five teens moving forward to the next stage, an impressive amount given my original congregation had serious issues with an imbalance between elderly and youth congregants. Overall it felt like the “moving up” days of my early schools years; this was not a graduation but more an acknowledgment of progress and the foundation of future work.

Rev. David Miller, who like many in the UU tradition has the ministry as a second career, gave a speech entitled “The Edge of Reason: Faith in an Unreasonable Age”. It dealt with the great clash in society and within all UU congregations- how does reason interact with faith, science with mysticism? He called attention to the waste that comes with hair-splitting and semantics, and that ultimately what science and religion do for individuals and the world is more important than whose ideas are better.

Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.
Walkway between amphitheater and building complex.

 

His point regarding the ‘edge of science’ and what can and cannot be proven was well taken. It reminded me of an article recently put in a Scientific American compilation called “Does the Multiverse Really Exist?” by George F.R. Ellis (PDF here). Multiverse- the idea that there are other universes outside of our own, in some structure- reaches the edge where physical theories become metaphysical conjecture. Ellis points out that if there is no way to test for a multiverse, and the theory is not provable nor falsifiable, there is no place for science. Rev. Miller illustrates that we must not lean on science for everything, because its method has only so many uses. But also, implicitly, that superstition and dogma cannot creep into the territory that science can explain.

As one hopes, the congregants were very welcoming. I was offered the chance to introduce myself early in the service and took it. Rev. Miller pointed out that given my shirt (this one from Northern Sun, only with the old logo) I was probably not a stranger to the religion. Several people came and talked about their history at UU of Palo Alto, where I came from. It was nice to talk to people from Southern California and get a sense of what the community is like down here. Members were also helpful about other congregations in the area.

View towards the Pacific from the campus.
View towards the Pacific from the campus.

I plan to visit all the congregations in the county (five of them, with the largest one in downtown having a branch with overlapping content), and this was an encouraging start. The low-70s weather was perfect for outdoor worship, and the campus itself has character. What the amphitheater had was character- not run-down, but also not sparkling and impersonal.

Given that I only have one class this week, I should be ready for a new congregation next week- Palomar Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

Edit: I ended up going to the First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego for that Sunday. The piece on that visit is here.