Despite our commitment to diversity and inclusion, sometimes we aren't as welcoming as we hope and intend to be. What might radical inclusion look like for UUCD?
The complete sermon can be read below:
I invite you to join me in a worship world tour.
Starting with a long flight to Bujumbura, Burundi in central Africa,
one of the world’s poorest countries,
and where, amidst intense political unrest and socioeconomic upheaval,
a small group of Unitarians continue to worship each week.
Were it 5 years ago, the congregation’s minister, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana,
would leave his house early in the morning to walk to the church.
Not because it was a long distance on foot; it was only a kilometre.
But because he would be stopped for conversation so many times between his door to the church door that the trip would take 10 times as long.
In a majority Christian, Catholic country,
the Burundian Unitarians, though Christian themselves, are dissenters.
Rev. Fulgence learned about Unitarianism primarily on the internet,
and his congregation through him.
Worship at the Unitarian Church of Burundi is in French, more formal than many African congregations. The congregation grew from 5 to 60 people over its first 7 years. Hearing Rev. Steven Epperson refer to the Bible as the “occasionally very good book,” Rev. Fulgence clarified with a smile that for the Burundi Unitarians, it is the “usually very good book.”
Imagine yourself there, reading, singing, praying with the Burundi Unitarians. How do you feel? How do you fit? Would you join in or hang back?
It’s a busy day and we’re heading next to Tulsa, Oklahoma and the All Souls Unitarian Church. Here we have a choice of three services: a traditional Unitarian Universalist service, followed by a Contemporary Service, followed by a humanist hour.
You may want to attend all three, but today timing suggests we’ll be at the Contemporary Service. Walking in the Sanctuary, we find electronic music, people raising their hands in praise, and a congregation of many younger people and people of colour. During the offering we’re invited to give by texting LOVEBB PLATE to 73256.
The sermon is titled “Forgiveness: The art and act of self-love.”
“Amens” echo through the sanctuary as the sermon progresses;
people are expressive when they are moved by the words and music.
Unlike the humanist service that follows, this service is about God.
People are yearning to connect.
And here we are in the room. Do you call out amen? Do you raise your hands in praise? Does the music electrify your soul?
Next we have the opportunity to transport back in time to OPUS, the continental young adult retreat, the last time it happened at Unicamp in Ontario. “OPUS wishes” are being fulfilled throughout the five days together, where every person at the retreat names a wish, and someone in their touch (or check-in) group fulfills it. Singing serenades, canoe rides by candlelight, dancing to a particular song, a flash mob pop up at random moments.
It is an evening worship service, after nightfall, in the field at camp. The moon and stars and our chalice bring the only light. Tonight, someone has requested a baptism from an old name to new as she begins her journey to interfaith ministry. Integrated into the service, I baptise her with water, touching her forehead and each cheek as a symbol of all of the renewal and rebirth awash in her life.
And then I invite anyone else making a significant transition to join in the ritual,
if they are so moved.
At first, everyone remains seated; I don’t think anyone else will come forward.
And then someone stands. And someone else.
And soon I am baptising almost everyone in the circle as we sing verse after verse of “As I went down to the river to pray, studying about that good old way
and who shall wear the starry crown good Lord show me the way.
Oh sister let’s go down, let’s go down, come on down.
Oh sister, let’s go down. Down to the river to pray.”
Sisters, brothers, siblings, weavers, lovers, dancers, parents, children, grievers, sinners, all, we sing.
I will never forget the weeping of the soon to be father as I touched his face.
And this time, you are in the circle. Do you sing? Do you come forward to be baptised? Is this your congregation today?
Our final stop is just around the corner here in Brooklin, at the Moksha Yoga Brooklin studio. Not Unitarian Universalist, I know, but full of seekers: seekers of health and wellness; seekers of spiritual growth; seekers of community.
We leave our shoes at the door, get changed, and then choose between classes in the hot room, set to 40 degrees Celsius, or the regular temperature room.
Besides us, there can be anywhere from 8 to 50 others in the room for each of the almost 50 classes a week.
It’s chilly today, so we quietly enter the hot room.
People are already lying on their yoga mats.
Soft instrumental music is playing.
The lights are dimmed and soft faux candlelight warms the space.
We, too, lie down on our mats and wait for the class to begin.
When the instructor enters the room, she invites us to relax and breath.
To notice our bodies. To accept ourselves. To find balance and peace. And to make this practice our own – even if we choose to spend the full hour lying here on our backs in savasana, or corpse pose It’s tempting, given the heat. Some of us are tired, and decide to do just that.
Others of us move through the class, at times straining and stretching, graceful and clumsy in turn; she invites us to accept it all, not to take ourselves too seriously.
At the middle of the class and again at the end, we all lie in savasana again, breathing quietly.
The instructor ends the class with a quote about the importance of community, of loving ourselves so we can best share our love with the world. And then we are left to lie quietly in meditation as the music plays softly for another 10 minutes.
Is this where you want to be for this hour? Can you feel the relaxation? Is this your spiritual practice today?
And now let’s imagine a person or family from each of these communities moves to the Durham region and walks in the doors of this congregation.
Rev. Fulgence has a powerful story: he is arrested and almost killed by government forces in Burundi, but due to international pressure, is released and escapes to Canada. He now lives in Saskatoon and is working on his North American ministry qualifications.
What would his experience be of our UUCD community, our culture?
A young black man from Tulsa moves to this region and is looking for his UU spiritual home.
Used to the contemporary worship at All Souls,
what would be his experience of our UUCD community, our culture?
A young adult who was active in youth group and bridged at Canuudle, our national Unitarian Universalist youth conference, felt like she didn’t bridge but walked off a cliff. Recently baptised at OPUS as she embarks on a new career trajectory, she finds herself living in Whitby and wants to find her people. She finds the participatory worship of youth and young adult circle worship meaningful, where ritual and dialogue and song replace sermons and hymns and worship is a co-created experience.
What would her experience be of our UUCD community, our culture?
And the spiritual seeker who has found yoga but hopes to expand her spiritual horizons, and to journey more closely with others, hears of our solstice service and loves the candle light and poetry. She decides to skip yoga this Sunday morning and come to church.
What would her experience be of our UUCD community, our culture?
Verna Myers says:
“Diversity is being invited to the party;
inclusion is being asked to dance.”
Last year I surveyed Unitarian Universalist young adults, people aged 18-35,
from across Canada about their experiences in our congregations.
Some of the responses I received broke my heart:
One person shared this story:
“The first time I attended a UU service, about halfway through the service, the director of religious exploration called all the children to the front of the sanctuary to read a story. She read a book called "and Tango makes three" wherein two male penguins adopt and raise a baby penguin. That moment was transformational for me, seeing all these children gathered around listening to the story, and knowing that every single one of them would know from a young age that whatever gender they are, whoever they love, that this community would support them and love them. I can't know what that kind of knowledge would have been like growing up but I'm so glad these kids have it.
Not a single person spoke to me at that service or at coffee time but I continued to come back because I wanted to be a part of a community who would read that book to their children.” (repeat)
I am looking for a UU community that knows me and remembers me week to week. One of the most difficult parts of attending Sunday services for me is reintroducing myself to folks I have known for about 15 years. I would also like to participate in congregational events and activities without being labeled as the one young person who is responsible for being the voice for all young people in the congregation. I am not all young people, I am me. This has been an issue since I was a youth. Sometimes it is valuable to just participate without the pretext of representing a demographic.
And one more:
My overall experience has been that the intention of this community is authentic, good willed and sincere but I have experienced times in which that intention is lost in language that can serve to separate and unintentionally offend…[I’m looking for] places where I can bring the other people in my life without fear that they will be harmed there.
As UUs we have the invitation down;
we’re still working on inviting people to dance.
And to expand our dance repertoire, so that each congregation offers more than just a chance to waltz.
The stories of young adults’ experiences are just one tiny wave in the ocean. People of colour, people of different abilities, people who hold diverse political beliefs, people who identify with different religions… the stories of heartache could fill a new sacred text.
Connie Simon, a UU candidate for ministry, said:
“I am a Black Woman. When I look around on Sunday morning, I don’t see many people who look like me. In most of the congregations I visit, I don’t see anybody who looks like me. So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I don’t hear voices of people who share my experience. But it still hurts.”
Like fish who don’t know the water they swim in, we can be oblivious to our surrounding waters: our norms and practices, our culture. Just what is Canadian culture? White culture? Educated culture? Unitarian culture? UUCD culture?
When we don’t know our waters, our best intentions may yield mixed results. We need to own not just our intentions, but the impact of our words and actions. And we need to own our culture.
The path from curious individual who may check out our website, to visitor welcomed for the first time, to connected friend who attends more regularly, to engaged participant who finds a spiritual home, to integrated leader who pours life energy into this community can be magical and easy, or challenging but worthwhile, Or it can be just too hard and people leave.
If we truly value diversity, we need to get intimately acquainted with the waters we swim in. All of the waters that make up who we are as a spiritual community.
May we embrace all of who we are, each of us and together;
And acknowledge all of what we aren’t;
And then allow ourselves to sit in the discomfort of the space between;
So that when we next invite people to the party;
We can all learn new dances together.
So may it be.
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