The Limits of Diversity

Reading “The Purpose of the Church”
In 1948, most congregations and houses of worship in the United States were segregated (separated) by the color of their members’ skin. Some were segregated by law; others by custom or by a lack of actively trying to welcome and include all people. The First Unitarian Society of Chicago was one of these congregations. Although their church was located in a neighborhood with many African Americans, only whites could join, according to the written by-laws (rules) of the church, and according to custom.

The day came that many members began to believe they needed to take action against racism, if they really wanted to live their values and principles. The minister, the Reverend Leslie Pennington, was ready for this day and ready to take action. So was James Luther Adams. James Luther Adams was a famous liberal theologian and social ethicist — a person who studies religion, beliefs, and values. Doctor Adams taught at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, right across the street from the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. And he was a member of the congregation’s board of directors — a leader in the congregation.

Along with some others, Reverend Pennington and James Luther Adams proposed a change in the church’s by-laws to desegregate the church and welcome people whatever the color of their skin. They wanted to include, not exclude. They saw this as a way to put their love into action.

When the congregation’s Board of Directors considered the desegregation proposal, most of them supported it. However, one member of the board objected. “Your new program is making desegregation into a creed,” he said. “You are asking everyone in our church to say they believe desegregating, or inviting, even recruiting people of color to attend church here is a good way to tackle racism. What if some members don’t believe this?”

Desegregation was a very controversial topic. In 1948, anything about skin color and racism was controversial. Some people, even some who supported African Americans in demanding their civil liberties, believed in a separate, but equal policy which kept people apart based on their skin color.

Respectful debate ensued at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. Both sides felt, in their hearts, that their belief was right. Perhaps they were so busy trying to be heard they forgot to listen. And so, they kept on talking.

The debate went on in the Board of Directors’ meeting until the early hours of the morning. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Finally, James Luther Adams remembered that we should be listening twice as much as talking. He asked the person who had voiced the strongest objection, “What do you say is the purpose of this church?”

Suddenly, everyone was listening. Everyone wanted to hear the answer to this crucial question. Probably, the person who objected was listening especially hard to his own heart, as well as to the words he had heard from other Board members through the long discussion.

The Board member who opposed opening the church to people of color finally replied. “Okay, Jim. The purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them.”

The First Unitarian Society of Chicago successfully desegregated.

Sermon – The Limits of Diversity
Over this past year, Marc and I had a few philosophical conversations we kept coming back to – one of many joys of having multiple ministers in a church – lots of opportunity for philosophical debate.

One of the questions we often returned to has been the philosophical question of unity.
Given life’s incredible diversity, given the unfathomable cultural differences present across this world, the unimaginable vastness of the universe – is there any reasonable way that we Unitarians today, can affirm life’s oneness?

One of us would throw out such a question, and then inevitably, the other of us would bring up Stephen Prothero’s book, God is Not One. The enlightenment gave us the idea of oneness, afterall, but today’s post-modern world likely requires a less romantic concept of reality – life is broken, fragmented, diverse, random.

As Prothero proposes – God is not one. We are not one. This is the theology that one of my professors in seminary, Edward Antonio, would often assert.  God is not one.  Or at least Professor Antonio would start there.

Perhaps because he was talking mostly to Western mono-theists and part of the point of any good introductory theology course is to shake you out of your assumptions.  Western monotheists would be a reasonable description – by the way- of the Unitarian Universalists in the room, since at least historically we differentiated ourselves so much on the point of God’s unity that we took it into our name – the Unit-arians.

And although UUs today may offer a variety of opinions on the idea of god, we mostly come to agreement around the idea of Life itself being One, an idea of an underlying unity at the heart of Reality.  Even science seems to indicate that at some basic level –  all life is one.

Professor Antonio said however, this whole Unity business is a problem. Because, in most cases, “Unity” simply means we are ascribing our perspective onto others. Looking for our oneness, we assume we are the same in ways we are actually not, which often makes the minority or less powerful ways of being or doing completely invisible.

We assume the most common way is the right way, and historically this perspective has paved the way for cultural and religious imperialism and colonialism.  Professor Antonio’s approach, particularly informed by his experience as a colonized African, encouraged us Western monotheists – to stop emphasizing reality’s ultimate unity and instead recognize its vast diversity. All paths are not simply different routes up the same mountain. God is Not One. God is many, multiple, diverse, divergent.

Taking this in – taking in life’s profound diversity- how profoundly different each person and each expression of life truly is – how ever-changing and growing the spirit of life is,
there seems to be only one appropriate response – which is – humility.

We have a small sliver of truth! We hold such a little piece of life’s reality. Our experience is so limited, and diversity and possibility so vast! Knowing this, all questions and inquiries, all interactions with others, all building of relationship, all of these suddenly require such care and attention, such an awareness that we cannot know what the other knows simply because they are another human in our proximity. Knowing and accepting our diversity, leads necessarily to humility.

Perhaps predictably, once my professor saw this recognition and practice of humility in his students, he would pretty quickly encourage us to articulate a new and more nuanced theology of unity. Both of these things are true – after all – unity and diversity.

Actually, this combination offers one my favorite ways to conceive of the divine –
On the one hand, life is ridiculously, overwhelmingly diverse; there are not many paths up one mountain, and perhaps not even many paths up different mountains, but maybe when we look more fully, we realize that there are mountains, and plains, and deserts, and oceans and sky. And yet – on the other hand, holding that diversity – somehow, mysteriously, impossibly, is some kind of unity. Some kind of link. Some kind of profound connection across all time and space and incarnation.

I don’t pretend to understand it, but I feel it. I believe it. We are one. And – we aren’t.

A couple years ago, I was serving a church that was struggling with its diversity, specifically its theological diversity. They wanted to resolve their differences and more clearly define themselves on the humanist-theist spectrum. No matter how often I reminded them that as Unitarian Universalists, we came together not over shared beliefs
but over shared promises – that we were covenantal rather than creedal – they just couldn’t let it go.

I urged them to be open to the ways they could, that they must learn from one another’s experience and understanding – that we all hold a piece of the truth – and we need each other to approach wholeness. They’d nod their heads and say they got it, but then when it came right down to it, they couldn’t escape that desire to be with “like-minded” people. People who believe and think as they did.  

Finally I decided to preach a sermon on the value of pluralism as a source of truth and authority in Unitarian Universalism. I told them – Officially, Unitarian Universalists claim six sources – first, direct and personal experience; second, words and deeds of prophetic women and men; third, wisdom from all the world’s religions; fourth, Jewish and Christian teachings; five, humanist teachings, and finally, our sixth source, spiritual teachings of earth-centered religions and the teachings of the natural world.

But, I suggested, in a world where we realize that we all hold just a piece of the truth –
I would propose another necessary source of wisdom and authority – a seventh source –
which is, the gathered community. The community who has promised to walk together, in right relationship, in mutual obligation. Without being a part of such a community,
truth is not fully discernible, and life is less than whole. And – I told them – Critical to a meaningful use of the gathered community as a source of knowledge and truth –
is the presence of diversity.

The more diversity the better.

The more places where our individuality and self-expression meet up with the boundaries of another individual and their self-expression, the more possibility for the creative interchange that allows for us all to grow and change, to release ourselves more fully from our illusions, to get just a little closer to Reality.

My sermon went over great, and looking back, I think it helped empower the congregation in its differences – rather than seeing them as a problem to be solved.

It went great, except for one little unintended consequence….

One of our members, who was particularly proud of his capacity to see things from a totally different perspective than any other person in the church, and then make it a point of hijacking the whole community to accommodate his personal opinion – he came to talk to me about the sermon.

Let me confess, this person was someone I really hoped I could reach with the sermon,
someone I hoped would hear it as a call to be more open to changing and growing with others, a call to humility – perhaps. So when he came to see me, and it turned out –
he loved it, wanted a copy, wanted to make sure people who weren’t there that Sunday would know about it – well I was feeling really proud and self congratulatory -like – yes! I did it!

And then….he told me what he loved about it…I loved it, he said, because it helped underscore just how important it is that in every meeting, every gathering, every time I ever come to something for the church – I will be sure to represent “the Devil’s Advocate.”
It took everything in me not to tell him just how right that label was from my perspective.
I didn’t. I didn’t roll my eyes or sigh in exasperation.

What I did instead, was listen and try to keep the conversation going. Ministry is always a process. A longer process for some than others.

But the other thing I did was – I began to plot my follow-up sermon. It took me nearly two years, and a move to a new congregation, but this Sunday is that follow up sermon.

Which brings me to an illustration, one that my colleague the Rev. Robert Latham –
coincidentally my co-minister during my first year of ministry in my former congregation-
an illustration that Robert – whenever the topic of diversity comes up likes to refer to.
It’s from a Hagar the Horrible cartoon. Do you know Hagar the Horrible? Well this one shows all the vikings in a boat, rowing. Some of the vikings are using one end of the paddle. Some, the other. Some are going in one direction.  Some the other. Some are paddling fast.  Some slowly. And the boat – you can imagine – is sitting motionless, despite lots and lots of viking activity.  And the caption has the one guy saying to the guy calling out the instructions: “‘Will you please stop saying ‘different strokes for different folks?!'”

Whether we are talking about ultimate reality and the spirit of life, or the practical communal incarnations of these holiest visions – this Hagar the Horrible cartoon reminds us that diversity is not the whole story – any more than the whole story is a matter of unity and conformity.

For a moment, let’s think back to our singing earlier. The four songs. All different, from different traditions. We each chose the song that spoke to us, representing our free capacity to choose our own path. Diversity.
And yet – in order for the music to work we had to sing in a shared rhythm. We had to concede to a shared key. We had to follow the leader of our chosen song. We had to limit the expressions of diversity.

Robert and Hagar the Horrible and our singing together – all remind us that at some point,
diversity becomes a danger rather than a gift.At some point, in order for a community to grow and for life to flourish, we must discern appropriate limits for our diversity, and with humility construct a robust practice and theology of unity.  For a community to grow and life to flourish, we must acknowledge a boundary where we stop saying – everything anyone does or says we affirm out of respect for diversity, and instead say – if you act like this, if you believe like you behave like, this, it’s not going to work here.

For a community to grow, it must have boundaries – things we can point to and say – here is the edge of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, or what it means to be a ember of Foothills Unitarian Church – and anything beyond this threatens our capacity to move forward together.

Perhaps you have said – or heard it said, that Unitarian Universalists can believe whatever you want. The story we shared about the church in Chicago offers a great counterpoint to this idea. Somewhat paradoxically, in order to affirm the value of diverse community, that church had to draw a boundary around the acceptable limits of membership in their community. They had to say that diversity required a limit.

The question that the board member asked -“What if some members don’t believe this?” is a question we in an intentionally pluralistic community have had to wrestle with throughout our history.

When do we affirm and accommodate and when do we set aside individual perspective, opinion, or comfort for the good of the whole?

In order for the Chicago church to navigate where and how to draw the boundaries of diversity in community, they went back to what their core purpose was – and in that return, they had to acknowledge that their core purpose could not be to affirm each person’s individual beliefs. In fact it was that board member who was most personally challenged by the move to desegregation that acknowledged the church’s purpose had to be transformation – which I would say begins with the humble recognition that some or even many of our ideas and practices might need to change so that we can all be our best, most loving selves.

I find that Unitarian Universalist congregations – which is to say – people – struggle to draw the boundaries at the appropriate and helpful limits of diversity in two main ways.

First, as individuals, we fail to engage that practice of humility. We approach our congregations…or our friends and family….as if everyone agrees with us, or should.
And then, when things don’t go as we think they should, we are confident that the church – or our friends, or family – they need us to bring them back on course.

Now maybe you’ve already in your mind thought up someone you know who fits this description. But what I’d ask you to do is to imagine that I’m talking about you. Or me. Because we are all well-trained in this tendency. Our educational systems teach us to prioritize certainty, and our consumer culture tells us we should get it “our way.”

And so though we might like to believe that these not-so-humble trouble-makers are someone else, the practice of humility begins by acknowledging at any time any one of us might be that board member Lenny gave voice to earlier – that person ascribing our way as everyone’s way, that dear one who insists on our personal preferences, failing to remember the true purpose of the church is to help us all become our best selves – which likely means letting go of our personal preferences!

The second way I see Unitarian Universalists – that is to say, people – struggling to set the appropriate limits for diversity falls into a category we might describe as “conflict avoidance.” Although, that’s not what we usually think or say we’re up to when we are missing this limit – we call it affirming individual freedom, affirming an individual’s dignity, or respecting individuality…

In the name of our first principle, we can let all kinds of inappropriate and destructive behaviors fly – in our churches, in our communities, in our families. We sacrifice the good of the whole because one among us lacks the self-awareness, or self-control to recognize that the mission of the congregation is not to serve their personal agenda. The Chicago church could have easily stepped away from that desegregation conversation when it met resistance, placing a higher value on one person’s discomfort than their community’s greater vision for the world. Instead, they stayed in the difficult dialogue and asserted the boundaries of the church’s mission.

We fail our communities when we avoid drawing these boundaries appropriately –
but we also fail our friends who are acting out of covenant.  It does none of us any good to be affirmed in our destructive, selfish behaviors by our religious community.

Discerning the limits of diversity in community requires careful and loving consideration.
It is – like everything – a practice. To help us in our practice, I want to conclude this sermon by reminding us of words often attributed to Francis David, Unitarian from Transylvania in the 16th century: “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Contemporary Unitarian Universalist minister and scholar, Alice Blair Wesley says in our congregations we often assert how much we need not think alike, but we fail to fully discern and articulate what it means to love alike. Where “not thinking alike” is where we can celebrate diversity; “loving alike” is where we must draw its limit.

James Luther Adams and his church in 1948 decided that “loving alike” meant upholding desegregation. Loving alike today, helps us assert the full inclusion of gay lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer people in our congregations. Loving alike means there are boundaries around our community, things that describe what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, a member of the Foothills Unitarian Church.

As we walk this path together with people who may not think alike, may our loving alike allow us to be a place where we can discover our best selves. And together may we grow in our capacity to love one another, the world, and the spirit of life itself. In its vast diversity, and in our mysterious and ultimate unity.

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About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley serves as the Senior Minister of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, CO. She's relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation and poetry, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy and often-great-depth of popular (and less popular) television and music. She and her partner of 17 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (10) and Josef (8).
This entry was posted in Covenant, Justice, Sermons, Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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