Liberal Religious Race Clumsiness

October 25th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

While a master of self-promotion, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed is even better at candor and thought-provocation. He crisply nailed the background on why Unitarian Universalists have had such trouble attracting non-white middle class and above members of different skin tones and cultures. UUs are perhaps most fretful about this, but is applies to other liberal religious groups as well.

In his Jack Mendelsohn lecture in Boston yesterday, he simultaneously promoted his existing and pending books (new one due in March) related to aspects of the subject while providing both cautions and how-to. In an predictable sidelight, the audience at the UU Urban Ministry was almost entirely white, seemingly middle class and above, and middle age or older. That is the reality and the issue at hand.

For UUs or any other liberal religious sorts, his clear punchlines go far beyond the usual hand wringing. He has little patience with laments like, “We’re open, why don’t they (blacks, Latinos and others) come in?”

Click note: Use the arrow on the player at the post bottom for a 7 minute Q&A from the lecture on a prickly issue for UUs on attracting blacks and Latinos.

More background: There are other related resources I cite a post earlier this year here.

Grimy History

Morrison-Reed has made himself into an historian on African Americans and UUs, before and after the 1961 merger of the two into the UUA. He uses vignettes (snapshots as he says) to illustrate the issues that reach back over 150 years. Among his examples are:

1860 — New Bedford, MA, Baptist minister Rev. William Jackson, appeared at the American Unitarian Association (AUA) Autumnal Convention. He was among the first black men to declare himself a convert to Unitarianism. Apparently he was hoping to be welcomed and serve as a building block in his community. Instead, the group took up a collection ($49.46) “and he was sent on his way”

1887 — Freed slave Joseph Jordan in Norfolk, VA, became the first African American Universalist minister (completed process 1889). The denomination helped support his school for black kids and adults, but not his church. With a dwindling congregation and lay ministry, the church and school closed after his death. There seemed no effort or interest in ordaining  black Universalists.

1929 — Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown had become the first black Unitarian minister (1912). When the American Unitarian Association stopped funding his pioneering church in Jamaica (1917), he founded the Harlem Unitarian Church in NYC during the Harlem Renaissance. It was heavily social activist and Morrison-Reed says every socialist in the city belonged.

1938 — In Cincinnati, the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood finally received AUA attention 20 years after Rev. W.H.G. Carter founded it. Other churches of the denomination had given it the cold shoulder and no one had informed the association it existed. When a minister visited to investigate, he recommended that the church in a poor neighborhood not receive Unitarian fellowship or get any subsidy. It eventually dwindled and closed.

From such cases, Morrison-Reed extrapolates. What if either part of what became the UUA has encouraged African American ministers and churches? How different would the church and its diversity be if, even when integration was difficult and unlikely, they had ordained black clergy and supported their churches?

Too Late and Not

He is an anomaly in a few ways. On a very superficial level, there aren’t many UUs, much less UU ministers, who wear dreads. More to the point though, he was raised a UU, not at all common for African Americans even today. (The membership is under 2% black as well as relatively small.) Personally, he is also intellectually and emotionally out-there. As he speaks, he is prone to raising his voice or lowering it to a tearful whisper as he freely reveals his rage, disappointment and hope.

That may somewhat relate to his 60-something age. We men do tend to relax our defenses as we age.

Intriguingly enough, Morrison-Reed does not necessarily see growth in attracting African American congregants. Rather he as much as says UUs have pretty well blown it with blacks. He warns that without careful planning and action, we could do the same with the rapidly increasing Latino population.

There is obvious visual humor here. The past president of the UUA is black and the current one is Latino. They don’t represent the composition of a typical UU church. Indeed, Morrison-Reed notes that churches in the association often set themselves apart from the larger community by class trappings, as in where they build.

Moreover, most UU churches do not appeal to black and Latino area residents for more obvious reasons. The music is often sonorous and does not use terms, ideas and allusions familiar to non-UUs. As you can hear in the clip on the player below, he also says we need to get over our fear of saying Jesus and even Christ beyond the annual Easter sermon.

On an even trickier point, he addresses the concerns of former Catholics and ex-Christians who don’t want any of the trappings of their former, oppressive upbringing. Morrison-Reed is firm in saying that each of those needs to own their religious wounds. They should discard what they found hurtful and move forward, holding on to what was good.

That’s tough, but he says it is essential.

Click the arrow on the sound player below for just under 7 minutes of Morrison-Reed’s comments on my questions about incorporating God and Jesus in UU churches.

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4 Responses

  1. ogre says:

    I’m not convinced that you’ve not *somewhat* misrepresented Morrison-Reed. I heard him speak in April, and what he said (then) was that black and Latino UU numbers have paralleled higher education in those populations. The issue with Christianity–as he points out in this clip–is that it’s not so much “ours” (as a movement), it’s the result of so many of us being converts to UUism who bring (or brought) a deep woundedness over their experience with Christianity out there. Not in here. Not with UU Christians and UU Christianity. Nor is that much of an issue with those of us who are raised UU. We don’t have those wounds. We’re actually far, far, far more interested in Christianity (particularly UU Christianity) and in being fully accepting of liberal Christians/Christianity. We’re deprived of that in services by the sometimes violent antagonistic reactions of a relative few who don’t want to hear a word about Christianity (unless it’s a sneer). But that’s not the majority, I don’t think. Just the very squeaky wheels. At least now–and certainly not among those raised UUs. My own kids haven’t found theological Christianity appealing (for themselves, and are in fact, kinda baffled by it). But they have heard about Jesus, and his ethics, and *that* is appealing. But where the kids are largely over this… the adults (many) aren’t. As Mark says, they’re not tending their wounds and healing, they’re nursing them and making sure that they remain open and bleeding. That’s a problem. And we’re going to have to find a way to tell them to get over it, because we’re moving on.

  2. Harrumpher says:

    Perhaps you need to hie down to Harvard Square on Sunday morning for yet another shoe dropping. The claimed misrepresentation is in the other 80 minutes or so of his lecture and he promises to expand on the Jesus and Latino thing in his sermon. A minister who has already heard that gave me the recap. I didn’t pass that along, being hearsay as it were.

  3. ogre says:

    Harvard Square is, alas, the other side of the continent. I’ll check in with Mark the next time I see him.

  4. Harrumpher says:

    I’ll attend so you don’t have to, and report here. By the bye, there’s some magic about 25 Beacon still. While at a political press conference in front of the State House, I saw Morrison-Reed approaching with a veritable gang of UUA/Skinner House sorts. I chatted him up again. He may be from Canada and sometimes Ohio, but he still visits the house that John Hancock donated.

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