The Spirit of Life

Multiculturalism and The Spirit of Life

Rev. Anthony David

April 10, 2011

When I think about the issues that the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt spoke to in the reading from a moment ago—about multiculturalism in our congregations, culture clashes, confused and hurtful conversations, but also having “a lot more humanity to learn about, a lot more practicing to do, with a lot more people than we are used to”—when I think about all this—“practicing what it means to be human in an ever widening circle of humanity”—a poem comes to mind, by Naomi Shihab Nye, entitled “Wandering Around an Albuquerque Airport Terminal”:

After learning my flight was detained 4 hours, I heard the announcement: If anyone in the vicinity of gate 4-A understands any Arabic, please come to the gate immediately.

Well — one pauses these days. Gate 4-A was my own gate. I went there. An older woman in full traditional Palestinian dress, just like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing loudly. Help, said the flight service person. Talk to her. What is her problem? We told her the flight was going to be four hours late and she did this.

I put my arm around her and spoke to her haltingly. Shu dow-a, shu-biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, sho bit se-wee? The minute she heard any words she knew — however poorly used – she stopped crying. She thought our flight had been cancelled entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for some major medical treatment the following day. I said, No, no, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just late, who is picking you up? Let’s call him and tell him.

We called her son and I spoke with him in English. I told him I would stay with his mother till we got on the plane and would ride next to her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while in Arabic and found out, of course, they had ten shared friends. Then I thought, just for the heck of it, why not call some Palestinian poets I know and let them chat with her. This all took up about 2 hours. She was laughing a lot by then. Telling about her life. Answering questions.

She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool cookies — little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts — out of her bag — and was offering them to all the women at the gate. To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the traveler from California, the lovely woman from Laredo — we were all covered with the same powdered sugar. And smiling. There are no better cookies.

And then the airline broke out the free beverages from huge coolers — non-alcoholic — and the two little girls for our flight, one African-American, one Mexican-American — ran around serving us all apple juice and lemonade and they were covered with powdered sugar, too.

And I noticed my new best friend — by now we were holding hands — had a potted plant poking out of her bag, some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country traveling tradition. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.

And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and thought, this is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in this gate — once the crying of confusion stopped — has seemed apprehensive about any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too. This can still happen, anywhere. Not everything is lost.

That’s the poem, from Naomi Shihab Nye. Don’t you just want some of those homemade mamool cookies? Everyone here too, covered with powdered sugar, laughing and smiling—wouldn’t that be fine?

But first there’s the crying of confusion. The older woman crumpled on the ground, and the flight service person perplexed, wondering what’s her problem? Then there’s the attempt to speak another person’s language, however awkward. From all that, everything follows. The Spirit of Life revealing itself in strangers discovering unexpected common ground; strangers giving and receiving gifts to each other; spontaneous shows of generosity; new best friends. The Spirit of Life, setting us free with the sense that “this can still happen, anywhere.” That IS the world we want to live in, as Unitarian Universalists and as human beings. That’s what I want to talk about today.

Start with the Rev. McNatt’s contention that Unitarian Universalist congregations have a definite culture which makes room for only certain styles of being in the world. If your style resonates, then you feel perfectly at home, like a fish in water. If your style doesn’t resonate, then you feel squeezed out. You feel like you have to work extra-hard to stay in. You can feel invisible. You can feel lonely. You love the Seven Principles as much as anyone else. You love affirming the inherent worth and dignity of every person and the free and responsible search for truth and meaning and the interdependent web of all existence, but multiple ways into this are not available. It’s one-style-fits-all. And when you try talking about this, it’s the poem all over again. It’s the flight service people at the gate, saying What is her problem? Any of this ringing any bells?

But what is this Unitarian Universalist culture? What is this water which many of us swim so effortlessly but others of us, not so much?

How about: stuff white people like? And I’m just gonna randomly go down the list I found when I googled “stuff white people like”: picking their own fruit, Mad Men, sea salt, black music that black people don’t listen to any more, hummus, frisbee sports, figure skating, bumper stickers, knowing what’s best for poor people, Toyota Prius, NPR, Whole Foods, nature, not having a TV, diversity, and (the #1 item on the list) coffee.

What do you think? Was that helpful? It kind of summarizes a Euro-American middle and upper-middle class style of living, but … I don’t know … doesn’t go very far. Perhaps it’s better to talk more about unwritten yet very real rules about communication styles, or senses of time, or approaches to knowing. Public communication needing to be toned down and not emotional if it’s to be taken seriously; physical gestures needing to be in medium range and not large or frequent; directness in stating one’s point, purpose, and conclusion; feeling pressured by the passage of time and the need to save it, never waste it; and taking an approach to knowing that stresses the rational and the cerebral. Perhaps here we’ll go farther in our attempt to pin down the dominant culture of UU congregations, which are endlessly fascinating by how they invariably reproduce the New England culture of the ancestors—the William Ellery Channings, the Ralph Waldo Emersons—even though New England might be far removed geographically.

Let’s double-check our work so far. I’m going to quote from a book entitled Diverse Worship: African-American, Caribbean & Hispanic Perspectives, where the author, Pedrito Maynard-Reid, describes characteristics of worship cultures quite different from our own. As you listen, think to yourself, would that fly here?

Here’s one: “Congregational responses to the preacher include phrases and exclamations like ‘Preach it!’ ‘Tell it like it is, Rev.!’ ‘Help yourself!’ ‘Go ahead, brother preacher!’ ‘Well!’ ‘Amen!’ ‘Hallelujah!’ ‘Praise the Lord!’ ‘Bring it on home!’ or nonarticulate responses such as moaning, humming, nodding the head, shedding a tear, clapping, waving the hand, swaying, or making unidentifiable sounds.”

Would that fly here? Or how about this?

“There is no rushing away from worship. Worshipers don’t ask, ‘How long will the service be today?’ Time constraints are not an issue. Church members almost never complain that the service should be scaled back to an hour. […] Worship is unhurried. Every element is celebrated to its fullest, whether it be the music praise by the congregation, professional vocalists and instrumentalists; the offertory; the announcements; the preaching; the prayer or the call to discipleship.”

Would that fly here? Says theologian Justo Gonzales, “People complain when the service is not over in exactly sixty minutes, but then get excited when a basketball game goes into overtime.”

Now we’re getting clearer on the culture of Unitarian Universalist congregations. In the poem we see the elderly woman traveling with a potted plant in her bag, because that’s her way of staying rooted to her culture. And now we’re seeing what the potted plant in OUR bag looks like, OUR way of staying rooted.

Which takes us to the next issue. Now that we see more clearly the dominant culture of Unitarian Universalist congregations, what do we do with it?

Certainly one thing is this: to help explain the disturbing inability of Unitarian Universalist congregations to keep up with a fast approaching multiracial and multicultural future. Our children and youth already know it well. From UU theologian Paul Rasor we hear that “44 percent of those under age 18 are minorities, and children are projected to be majority non-white by 2023. Among the generation born between 1980 and 2000, one in five has at least one immigrant parent, and one in eight was born in another country. Finally, more than half of all multiracial persons in the United States are under age 20.” That’s where the future is going, but as for Unitarian Universalist congregations? A continued supermajority (89-91%) of Euro-Americans. A supermajority that hasn’t budged for years, anchoring a cultural style that can be off-putting to people of color, immigrants, and the multi-racial who aren’t moved by public communication styles which are toned down and not emotional; who don’t feel the Spirit of Life in experiences which are feasts only for the mind. A supermajority out of step with the future.

And we know this. As an association of congregations, we’ve been talking about this—in varying states of anxiety—for years. From our reading today you’ll recall the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt at General Assembly in 1985, at a workshop on diversity. The days “when our movement was close to dragging people of color off the street, if necessary, and into a UU church.” Then she says, “But what I remember most about that workshop was the white man who stood up during the discussion period, looked straight at me and said, in perfect seriousness, ‘But I don’t like gospel music.’”

The conversation is happening, but here is what I believe: it loses its way, gets off track when our “nasty little Calvinist streak” bubbles up and “we would rather be angry and judgmental with one another and ourselves than be tender and merciful.” “I don’t like gospel music,” says the white man in that workshop from more than twenty-five years ago, no doubt feeling a complex cocktail of shame (as in “the music I like is offputting to other people”) and rage (as in “don’t you dare tell me I’m bad! I have as much right to my culture as you do yours!”) A complex cocktail. Drink it, and it messes with your mind. Drink it, and the solution is either/or: either cultures changing place—as in underrepresented cultures taking center stage and the dominant culture shutting up—or stuckness, the status quo staying put, nothing ever changing.

The conversation has lost its way, and it needs desperately to get found, needs to get back on track. Let’s not talk anymore about some cultures being bad and others good. It’s not about bad or good. Everyone needs a potted plant in their bag when they go traveling. Every kind of potted plant works. The only real problem is lack of awareness of how this is so. The older woman in full Palestinian dress, crumpled on the ground, and people are absolutely stumped, no one knows what to do.

The thing to do is get culturally savvy. To recognize it when, in our congregational activities and events, we’re drawing exclusively on Euro-American cultural forms, and to resolve to add others to what we already know. To create a fairer balance of cultural forms, so that we’re able to speak to more and more people. Say to that woman on the floor, however haltingly, Shu dow-a, shu-biduck habibti, stani stani schway, min fadlick, sho bit se-wee? No culture gets to be one-up or one-down. Multiculturalism means we see value in them all, including Euro-American culture, although Euro-American cultural forms no longer get automatic and uncontested say. Perhaps in some areas we scale Euro-American cultural forms back, so as to see more of other forms. We’ve been doing it all year long in worship. We’re doing it today.

It’s all about creating a fairer balance. It’s also about generosity. There need be no losers. Brings to mind golden words from one of my seminary profs which I’ve shared with you before. “If,” he said to me, “you feel entitled to being satisfied completely by everything that happens in a worship service, then you are in trouble. No service will ever be good enough. You have to reframe your expectations. Be satisfied if a worship service has touched you in at least one deep way—that is enough to have made it a success. Be positive and look for the one thing that will feed your soul; let all else pass. And know that the parts which are unimportant to you—perhaps even offensive to you—may very likely be feeding the souls of others. Feeding the souls of the people sitting right beside you.” Folks, multiculturalism in worship and everywhere else does not mean that everyone is going to like everything in equal measure. But it does mean this. That when something is happening in worship and you don’t like it or you don’t get it, feel good! Feel good, because your not liking it and your not getting it are hard evidence that a different cultural vocabulary is being spoken. A different cultural soul is being fed, and it’s your congregation doing that! It’s your congregation bucking the dismal trend. It’s your congregation staying relevant in a changing world!

The on-track conversation about multiculturalism is about creating a fairer balance, it’s about generosity, and it’s also about faithfulness to our central purpose as a religion. In Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem, once the cultural gap has been crossed and the block to relationship dissolved, something amazing happens. Strangers discover unexpected common ground; strangers become new best friends; homemade mamool cookies (those little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and nuts) go flying out of the elderly Palestinian woman’s bag, and everyone receives them graciously, like a sacrament, everyone’s covered with powdered sugar; then, amazement of amazement, the airline breaks out free beverages, and two little girls (one African-American, one Mexican-American) run around serving everyone, in the gate of late and weary ones, people laughing. All of this, I call the Spirit of Life. The Spirit of Life is whatever brings hope and renewal to people, a sense of connection and a sense of adventure. Whatever inspires healing and resilience, love and justice. Whatever keeps people from dropping out. Whatever keeps people keeping on. That’s the Spirit of Life, and all our Unitarian Universalist talk about freedom, reason, and tolerance has value only to the degree that they remove stumbling blocks from people plugging in and experiencing the Spirit. Freedom, reason, and tolerance serve something larger. They serve the call of the Spirit in our lives. If we have any medicine to offer to the world, this is it.

Having a culture is absolutely not a bad thing. But when lack of awareness leads us in our congregations to imagine that there are no other valid alternatives to how we’re already doing things, and the result is people feeling lonely and invisible, people feeling squeezed out, people having to work extra hard to stay in, then we’re not being faithful to our sole reason for existence. We’re withholding medicine from people who need it. We become like the doctor who drives on by when he sees someone by the side of the road needing medical attention. Just drives on by. Let’s not do that! We’re a Spirit of Life people, and we’ve got Spirit of Life medicine. Got to share it far and wide. Mamool cookies for everyone! Everywhere, powdered sugar! This can still happen, anywhere!

The Reading

Our reading for today comes from the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, senior minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City.

The very first General Assembly I went to included a workshop on diversity, in the days when our movement was close to dragging people of color off the street, if necessary, and into a UU church. But what I remember most about that workshop was the white man who stood up during the discussion period, looked straight at me and said, in perfect seriousness, “But I don’t like gospel music.”

Now I happen to like gospel music, but I realized that his discomfort was not with me—at least, not with me simply for my race. He was telling the truth and pointing to what did make him uncomfortable. For race and ethnicity have stood in during our conversations for something more ineffable, more complex, more edgy than we are willing to discuss. We are speaking as well about matters of culture—Unitarian Universalist culture—that many of us have been unwilling to acknowledge, and we have been unable to address these issues because we have been confused about the conversation we have been having, and we cannot escape the boxes to which we are likely to be assigned.

But the truth is that community is precisely what we need here, most particularly religious community. More than one person in our movement has remarked over the years that, for people who are blessed with the gift of free religious community, we are also cursed with a nasty little Calvinist streak that we would do well to examine. We would rather be angry and judgmental with one another and ourselves than be tender and merciful, in simple acknowledgement of how hard it continues to be to do what we must do in our congregations. We must admit that we have a specific, sometimes alienating culture, and we must change it. And we must grieve the loss of the familiar and gain some measure of courage to embrace the new.

These things are … the work of the spirit. These things call us to be faithful to James Luther Adams’s observation that church is where we practice what it means to be human. We have a lot more humanity to learn about, a lot more practicing to do, with a lot more people than we are used to. If we really mean what we say, we will have to get a lot better at some very Universalist values: We will have to learn to love each other more, and in better ways than we do right now. We will have to learn to forgive each other more, and in better ways, than we are used to doing. We will need the Universalist gifts of “hope and courage,” too. We—ministers and laypeople—want our congregations to be safe. But safety is a relative term when it comes to religious community. For if we are really practicing what it means to be human, in an ever widening circle of humanity, our congregations may become some of the most dangerous places we know, because they will become faithful communities of change, as we call each other into that territory of the soul that distinguishes the church from a social club, or a sorority, or a coffee house for the vaguely spiritual.