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.

 

From a college UU: value people, not brands

Yesterday in the weekly meeting for Unitarian Universalist students on campus, our service leader gave us definitions of “personal brand.” The discussion was interesting, but I felt nobody delved into how much conflict exists between the concept of a “personal brand” and a UU worldview. Since there wasn’t a good opportunity to explore my feelings then, I’m writing a response now.

Personal branding is emphasized in business circles, particularly among entrepreneurs. Just like with a traditional brand, participants attempt to broadcast a positive portrait of themselves, that uses whatever skills and resources they have. The idea, in theory, is to have a unique profile that makes you special.

Advocates of this process say that everything you do contributes to personal brand- education, work, choices regarding romance and children. One definition says that you need to define what you really find important.

But here’s the short-circuit. One thing you can value is not being bound by business concepts like brands. Thinking of people as brands is profoundly dehumanizing, and conflates personal identity with capitalist practice. Personal identity is broken up into quantifiable traits, because brands have no need for intangibles. “Value” is given a crass, narrow definition. Emphasis on personal branding- where everything, not just work-related, is crucial- fundamentally clashes with a spiritually fulfilling life. American capitalism is many things, but it is not a very spiritual realm.

It is depressing to read my life trajectory described in five-dollar word business speak. To bring up personal branding is important- I think UU young adult groups should discuss it since it’s ever-present in the adult world- but not with a starting assumption that it’s a positive thing. That needs to be proven. Forbes is not the arbiter of what principles we should hold.

Uniqueness is an empowering trait, but the flip side should be considered. Thinking in terms of brands atomizes people- existing in tension with the collective. Collective experience, religious, social, and economic, is essential to existence. When we are together, concepts like equality and dignity have meaning. For me, Unitarian Universalist spaces allow refuge from a world where nearly everything has adopted a corporate mindset. The campus that we had this meeting on is in crisis because the administration has become more like corporate executives and less like public servants.

What I ask here is to think about identity, and then personal branding. To you, are they similar, or not? What unites or separates the two?

 

Press Kit: Help spread the labor struggle of #Greenpeace canvassers

Here is a collection of all the major media we have available to media. Please spread this as far and as wide as you can, because the GP strike is going well, but it needs media attention to sustain its push- we’re talking three weeks into the strike.

Please direct any questions or requests for interview to Bryan Kim (619-382-7888). 

A labor strike based in San Diego and Sacramento is now three weeks old. Greenpeace Frontline staff, the people who raise money outside of supermarkets and at farmer’s markets, are striking because the quota system they are all held to means no job security- have two bad weeks in a row and you’re fired, no matter how much you raised before then. 

Please check out recent San Diego news stories on the strike:

http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2015/aug/27/ticker-pay-decent-greenpeace/

http://sandiegofreepress.org/2015/08/san-diego-takes-the-lead-in-greenpeace-strike/

Also on the strike Facebook (facebook.com/GreenpeaceOnStrike) gained the endorsement yesterday of Paul Watson, original Greenpeace member, founder of Sea Shepherd, and star of Whale Wars on Animal Planet.

Here is a letter signed by 66 ex-Greenpeace staff, including city and regional coordinators:

Solidarity Forever – An Open Letter in Support of Greenpeace on Strike Additionally the Change.org petition (here) shows international supporters for the strikers. 

Check out video from an 8/19 rally in Balboa Park, including Kiku Adair, a striker:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MD2Wj0q01V8

And Sarah Saez, program director of United Taxi Workers, based in City Heights:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV1LA_tOKOk

The strike is working, but more people need to be circulating the information. It’s the only way to keep things running and potentially expand the scope of the strike.

General Assembly: Why wasn’t there a second banner?

This will be the first of several posts written in the aftermath of Unitarian Universalist General Assembly 2015, held in Portland, OR from June 24-28.

A workshop I wandered into on Friday was “Class Diversity: Exploring Our Past, Building Our Theologies”, which was an interesting take on why class-diverse Unitarian congregations are rare exceptions- the socioeconomic strata of membership being very similar to what it was in the 19th century.

This was on the day that the Supreme Court announced same-sex marriage was a right under the 14th Amendment. Right outside the room this workshop was being held in, a massive rainbow banner had been constructed and signed by hundreds upon hundreds of people.

[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]
[Credit: Wong/Getty Images]
A woman came up during question-answer and gave an emotional statement that I think really dug at the heart of how Unitarian Universalism can have clear biases with regards to class. I don’t know how many people ever thought of the day as an exercise in classism, but her remark made it clear to me that there was a double-standard in play at Assembly.

Her question is this post’s title. While the court ruling about marriage equality is landmark and an important victory in the 21st century civil rights movement, it was not the only important ruling that week. The day before, the court upheld a key portion of the Affordable Care Act, which threw a lifeline to millions of poor Americans:

The latest filings show that about 10.2 million people had signed up and paid their insurance premiums through the exchanges as of March, and 6.4 million were receiving subsidies to help afford coverage in the 34 states that had not set up their own marketplaces.

Those consumers stood to lose their subsidies, worth about $1.7 billion a month, if the justices had agreed with the challenge.

These two rulings affected several million people directly. Being unable to marry who you love and being unable to pay for live-saving medical care are both serious social problems which were addressed to some degree this week. But there wasn’t a banner out in the convention center hall celebrating that 6.4 million people could keep their health insurance.

Detroit's racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white. [http://www.radicalcartography.net/]
Detroit’s racial segregation. Blue is black, pink is white.
[http://www.radicalcartography.net/]
And I think if a banner was appropriate to celebrate a civil rights victory, a third banner should have sat there as well. The same day as the ACA ruling (Thursday afternoon), and the day before the marriage equality ruling, the Supreme Court enacted a significant change in how the law deals with discrimination cases. It allowed for a new type of argument in cases of housing discrimination. Previously you had to prove intent in a very strong standard- basically a smoking gun saying “I’m denying housing to this community based on race”. Obviously it was hard for those affected to successfully sue; now something called disparate-impact theory can be used- if evidence shows that a law statistically promotes housing segregation, that can be enough. If this is to spread to other places- disparate-impact is used for hiring in some circumstances, but not many other places with potential for discrimination, it will be just as important as the marriage equality and ACA cases.

So why only one banner? The housing case is also a discrimination issue, and both are part of the modern civil rights movement. The ACA ruling in terms of dollars is a big win for the working class. I don’t know why there was only one banner, though I’ll offer this potential theory:

What makes marriage equality different from healthcare subsidies and housing discrimination is that marriage equality is a civil rights issue that affects everyone regardless of race or class. In a faith that skews white and upper-middle class, the presence of one banner (and one banner for that particular case) is evidence of implicit bias. I agree with the woman who spoke up, she added a concrete sense of what classism is that the workshop really needed to be worthwhile.

The next post will tackle how the Black Lives Matter movement caused tension and strife, both across racial lines but also generational ones. Certainly if Black Lives Matter, a step towards ending racial discrimination in housing (with its ties to the ghetto and redlining) should be celebrated. How does Unitarian Universalism grapple with its own diversity questions, the balance between support and paternalism, and being a leading force for change versus being earnest and strong followers?

The San Diego cycle: First UU Church of San Diego

This is part two in my series on UU congregations in San Diego county. The first, on UU Fellowship of San Dieguito, is located here. Please note that this is a personal reflection, and I seek to be honest here.

Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Wooden chalice on wall of meeting house, First UU of San Diego

What are the core elements that make a congregation the right fit for you? Is it solely the people who attend alongside you? Is it convenience within your other commitments? Is it the theological flavor of that particular minister? Maybe some, maybe all, and maybe it’s just a deep, innate feeling of belonging. When you move into a new house or apartment, there is an invisible line when it stops being a place to live and becomes a home. How that comes to be is not quantifiable, but it emerges. Well, hopefully.

First Unitarian Universalist Church of San Diego (website here) is the sixth congregation I have attended services at. What constitutes right for me has become clearer. Three of the congregations were mid-sized or smaller, while three, including First UU, were quite large. Some were very modern and neutral in their language, while another used quite a lot of Christian language. I encourage those who have the geographical fortune to live next to multiple UU congregations to explore and find out what they are about. As one should expect from a liberal, noncreedal religion, each congregation has their own strain of radical individualism.

Meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Meeting house, First UU of San Diego

First UU is a gorgeous campus. The chalice pictured first in this article is one of several carved wood pieces of art, with the component pieces engraved with donors. In their parlance, the ‘meeting house’ has lots of natural light from the back and with one wall stage-left being a giant window. The organ is a spectacle unto itself. Everything fits into a rich wood-tone landscape. Outside are grey and sand tones, mixed with desert landscaping. No visitor can doubt that First UU has been built on love and communal sacrifice to make it a reality.

Perhaps the greatest effort the church has made is not its aesthetics, but accessibility. The 11:30 service has a sign-language interpreter. Song lyrics and benedictions are projected on large, easy to read screens. The church maintains a separate branch to the south where the same sermons are given (on different Sundays) with simultaneous Spanish translation. One of the continual struggles UUs address is diversity, and moving towards new types of inclusion. This kind of outreach is very forward, and appreciated.

Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.
Order of Service for October 5th, 2014.

The amount of programs offered is overwhelming. Each part of the website is overflowing with tabs and sub-pages explaining the different parts of their youth program, the various fellowships for Buddhism, Hinduism, and earth-centered spirituality. Social action, community work- even without attending a service I could tell that this was a very large and ambitious congregation by standards of Unitarian Universalism.

So we reach the point where my personal preference ran up against First UU. Large meeting halls and huge arrays of programs don’t gel well with me. My previous visit in August to the First Unitarian Church of Portland gave me an initial inkling, but I did not have enough information to figure out what precisely gave me a bad feeling. Despite being very different in many ways, the Portland and San Diego churches share a sense of scale and spectacle. As unfair as it is, anytime I enter a church of a certain size I get very negative associations flowing in. Megachurches powered by money and consumerism. Those vast gilded cathedrals in Peru, side-by-side with crippling poverty on the streets of Cuzco.

Size is weird to me. I don’t seek large groups by nature. I am happy being in the political or social minority. When I enter large gatherings like protests, I do so with a firm individual (or small group) identity. On May Day I was in a San Jose immigration march, but when an organizer yelled at me for not being the right portion of the march, I left. A flaw, perhaps, is that I associate large institutions with conformity. In the end, I did not like my experience at this church.

Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego
Pulpit and chalice, meeting house, First UU of San Diego

Such a visit allows me to do serious personal reflection. It also allows me to dispense a bit of advice: one cannot think that a bad experience in one congregation means that Unitarian Universalism is just not right for them. If you know someone who was discouraged by their first visit to a UU church, or are yourself discouraged, please seek opportunities in your own area, or perhaps seek out the Church of the Larger Fellowship that can provide another perspective no matter where you live.

And ultimately I have the luxury of joining UU social action and community work even if I ultimately choose not to spend my Sunday mornings alongside its congregants. Each community is much more than a meeting house, a preaching style, a sociopolitical focus. We have much available to enrich ourselves, as long as we create a niche that is right for us.

Vista from First UU of San Diego
Vista from First UU of San Diego

Go big, or go home: where do the answers lie?

My earlier post about the state of Unitarian Universalism in 2014 has found an audience I didn’t expect, getting shared by UU PlanetI Am UU, and ministers and congregations all over the country. Typically, my blog gets a couple dozen hits a day. It’s spiked like never before. The best moment for me was when my congregation shared the story, even though I hadn’t told anyone there about it.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The one recurring bit of response: yeah, but what should we do? It’s a valid critique, as my piece focuses mostly on the nature and structure of the problem, rather than what solution could be. If I had easy solutions I would have written the Unitarian Universalist Association a letter with them spread out. Instead I cast some thoughts into the void of the Internet and found many people with the same concerns.

While the cliché is that youth will save us, that’s not true. Youth are the vessel by which the faith survives in the 21st century. But the people with the lived experience are the grey-haired generation. They have seen UUism go through its previous evolutions, and their perspective will inform the next evolution. Also, the struggles of the faith predate my involvement with it. A dialogue must mix youth voices with those that sat in pews in 2004, 1994, 1984, and 1974. UUism, as a decentralized institution, changes slowly and deliberately. Those that have seen the long arc have much experience that is needed, though they may be too entrenched to fully use it. That’s why growth is an exchange between the new, the old, and those in the middle.

One thing I floated, and some congregations may already do this, is the concept of exit interviews. People arriving for the first time fill out information about themselves and how they came to know about the local church. But those that stop going, or go rarely, aren’t asked why their habits changed. UUism has low social pressure- members don’t try to shame others into attending. That openness should allow us to ask departing members frankly about why the faith wasn’t working for them anymore. Only though data can we understand the problem of retention. If you’re an active UU member and absolutely love it, it’s hard to understand why others don’t. There isn’t the luxury of perspective.

The options for freethinkers, humanists, and unorthodox believers are growing rapidly. I can’t stress how quickly this process is picking up. Sunday Assembly, the new option for ‘churchgoing atheists’, isn’t even a year-and-a-half old. It has three assemblies in the Bay Area where I live. Once upon a time UUism was an oddball, clearly distinct from other gatherings. It was the political and spiritual renegade- endorsing gay equality decades before the issue broached the mainstream. It put scripture, literature, and science on equal footing and used them in conjunction rather than having Sunday service be purely religious.

It’s not an oddball anymore. The demographics are shifting. The traditional UU political stances are more mainstream, and humanists and atheists are starting their own alternatives to religious practice. On one hand, the country is moving in a direction where the Seven Principles and Six Sources sounds more reasonable. On the other hand, that movement is spawning other institutions. The political and social sands are shifting, but that doesn’t mean thousands of people are falling right into UU congregations.

I don’t want to paint Sunday Assembly and its kin as some kind of foe. It looks hella fun, and I hope to get there in the next couple months. But its existence presses Unitarian Universalists to answer key questions: what makes us different? why does UUism need to exist today and in the future? in a 2014 where the church’s signature stance on marriage equality is being accepted socially and in the legal system, how do we capitalize when we are on the right side of history? All of these ‘competitors’ allow for self-reflection. If questions like these can’t be answered with conviction and power, then we may be on the path from concern to crisis.

These discussions have electrified me, and many others have been part of this ongoing path towards finding the place of Unitarian Universalism in the second decade of the 21st century. Every congregation is full of incredibly bright and dynamic individuals; in conjunction, they are capable of incredible things.

As I transfer to a campus UU group this fall, and see how young UUs like myself are organizing their action and their thoughts, I hope to gain more of that perspective. Since the church is so diverse, every new UU (or potential UU) can help us answer the key questions: why are you here? why do you stay here?

Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home.

A recent feature in Boston Magazine addresses the core crisis of Unitarian Universalism – how does the movement keep from dying out? As Alyssa Giacobbe points out, UUism is not a fan of zealous self-promotion:

Yet a marketing endeavor risked alienating members. As part of their ethos of acceptance and “finding your own path,” UUs are very averse to evangelism, or anything that looks like it. “One church’s marketing is another church’s proselytism”

I am part of the problem- the young members who come to the movement yet don’t regularly attend. And it is true- there is a lot of competition on Sundays if you’re a young activist looking to help society out a little bit. Perhaps this is why Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto’s alternative Thursday evening service was so attractive. Most of the regular Sunday attendees are my parent’s age or older. Getting up in the morning is not a huge issue. For twentysomethings, it can be.

The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association
The fancy new logo of the Unitarian Universalist Association

The ongoing marketing shift by the UUA is needed, and I do like the new logo and the work on the website. There’s a difference between trying to be hip and trying to be modern. All religion is an interplay between past traditions (going back, at the very least, decades if not centuries, or millennia) and the expectations of modern society. Both sides of UUism date from around the birth of the American republic, and ever since the Constitution was signed there has been a split between the originalists who see things frozen in time, and pragmatists who see ideas and concepts that come to us from the past as alive. Life means change. The rules of evolution apply to institutions as well as living things: adapt or die.

Thankfully, this feature was long enough to deal with the complex nature of UUism. I’m sometimes asked to provide a brief explanation of what the faith is and what its structure is. There are some parts that can be boiled down to the core. Though on the contrary, there exists the need to tack on ‘it’s complicated’ or ‘I can’t really speak for everyone.’ I enjoy that freedom to choose my own spiritual path, and not have the weight of representing a whole faith. Anyone with a marketer’s mind hates that.

Each and every year, another one percent of Americans ditch organized religion and enter the nebulous rank of atheists, agnostics, and none of the aboves. Those that identify with a church may be less active participants than in the past. Only ten percent of that group are actually looking for a replacement. Though the rise of hard-line evangelical Protestantism gets all the press, the trend seems consistent. Members of any faith should assume it to be a given, and know that this one percent a year is coming from somewhere.

In some ways, UUism does not have as much work to do. To get an irreligious or agonistic person to care about all the dogma and rigid rituals of some organized faiths requires a lot of legwork. If I go to a Baptist congregation, the membership will have a lot of convincing to get me on board. That was a beauty when I walked into a Unitarian Universalist church: I didn’t need to change myself to fit in. I slid right in, and my spiritual evolution could start from a natural beginning.

Dave Ruffin, who is the focus of the feature, makes some statements that are both sensible and divisive. I do understand what he means here:

What UU needs to survive, he believes, is a radical rethinking: It needs to stop defending its liberalism and embrace being a religion. “We need permission to be the people of faith that we are,” he says. “We need to actually get religious.”

Having done some Q&As with mainline Christians and the non-religious, the main confusion is why Unitarian Universalism calls itself a religion and not a political or social club. At first I found this belittling and a tad offensive. With perspective it’s not hard to see why the two are hard to distinguish.

What is UUism’s “secret sauce”? Why do you need to get down to the church on Sundays and participate?

What sustains me and my religious community? Social justice and egalitarian mores, yes, but the Human Rights Campaign can say the same thing. A large chunk of congregants came from another faith, sometimes a very aggressive and zealous one. There’s a certain fear of religion built into UU communities, even if it’s not admitted.

Ruffin is right. Quite simply, in the 21st century Unitarian Universalism needs to go big or go home. There are plenty of other Sunday morning activities that can engage people. UUism doesn’t have a monopoly.

Not even close.