Color Me UU

March 24th, 2010 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

A perennial source of Unitarian Universalist garment rending was an undercurrent last weekend in Brookline. The church there held a fabulous event that was an anomaly in several ways.

UUs do fret about many far too many subjects. Perhaps the greatest recurrent hand-wringing is over their incredible whiteness. Other Protestant denominations are also largely white, but UUs tally only  about 1% African American membership.

UU note: We refer to ourselves as an association and not a denomination. Despite both U and U’s Christian histories, our churches and church-like groups belong to the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. It’s OK to be a UU Christian, but it’s not the norm and disdain of Christians is an unfortunate UU habit in many congregations. It’s a reaction to the long-standing Christian dogmatic exclusion, discrimination and worse that have set the tone.

Musical Bridge

Well last Saturday, the Brookline church was not only nearly full, it had a more U.S.-representative share of brown and Black folk. It is likely that won’t happen again until there is another special event centered on an African-American person or project.

This dinner and concert double event celebrated John Andrew Ross. It was:

  • a fundraiser for the restoration of the organ
  • a project organized and produced by his recently late sister Paula Ann Ross
  • a soul-food dinner
  • a two-hour concert featuring superb jazz and gospel musicians and singers performing music John loved or arranged
  • a largely African-American musician evening, with minor exceptions like single numbers by the church’s junior and adult choirs

John Ross, who died in 2006, became the church’s music director in 1997. He arrived already justifiably famous as composer, producer, director, educator and on and on. He made his “Uncle Langston” Hughes’ Black Nativity into a continuing national phenomenon. He led the Emma Louis School of Fine Arts‘ music and founded its remarkable choirs. So for the last nine years of his life,  he ran music at the church. He quickly picked up the title Minister of Music there as well.

Throughout his professional life, his sister promoted and often managed his career. She continued after his death, culminating in this project. She worked on it until a couple of days before the celebration, originating the project, driving it to completion and seeming to die in her sleep only after everything was in place.

Prima facie, one might suppose that nearly a decade of his musical leadership, performances and presence would have attracted more Black visitors and members than a typical UU church gets. That’s not so and there are only a few non-white members of any racial or cultural background.


That is a UUA-wide concern and trait. Again, this is the kind of thing, we UUs think, talk and worry about. In this vein, a couple of articles that cover the numbers and issues appear in UU publications. Try:

Note the related articles in the sidebars to these articles.

Many Protestant denominations are perfectly content to be almost entirely white. They speak of people being more comfortable with what they know, with their own kind. That is true of predominately Black churches as well. UUs don’t let it rest at that.

For a religion that does not proselytize, UUs nonetheless seem flabbergasted that  more and more types of people don’t flock to membership. As a UU of over a quarter century and having been involved in the polity and politics of various UU churches, I recall my own experiences with this.

The first time I saw a UU church nearly full of Black people was when Rev. Victor Carpenter got his fariend Rev. Jesse Jackson to preach at the Arlington Street Church.  They arranged for the choir of one of Boston’s largest Black churches to sing. The church seats about 1,000, was filled and for once, white people were in the minority.

In the next several year, I heard that question repeatedly about what we needed to do to attract Black, Latino and Asian parishioners to the ASC. I served on various committees and ran the board for a few years, so the question was often plaintive and also demanding when I heard it.

We’d have reports from membership-committee folk who were frustrated. I asked and had others go to visitors and friends with the question. Many times, the answer as far as African-Americans was concerned focused on two aspects:

  1. Our music is comparatively stultifying with that in Black churches
  2. Our non-creedal/non-dogmatic churches did not offer Christ as lord and savior or even hold out promises and threats of heaven and hell

As counterpoints to these likely intractable problems, Rasor’s article on the subject includes:

Multiculturalism is not simply about numbers, of course. The Rev. Taquiena Boston, director of Identity-Based Ministries at the UUA, reminds us that “diversity alone is not the goal,” and that developing a genuinely multiracial and multicultural identity “must be integral to the larger mission and ministry of the congregation.” Or, as former UUA President William G. Sinkford put it, “the objective of finding a few more dark faces to make our white members feel better about themselves is not spiritually grounded.”

I note for non-UUs that Sinkford is Black. Almost to a one, UUs tend to be inclusive. His skin color was not a problem. However, I heard numerous comments that mildly disparaged his overt Christianity.

The Possible

For music, yes, it’s true. I’m not very musical myself, but I can tell the difference. Our hymns are largely old Protestant tunes, with fine-tuned lyrics to enforce our openness and downplay God and Christ and lords over humans. Simply put, they don’t rock.

For the underlying beliefs, we in fact do not and never will push absolute answers in a dogma. Many people expect and need directive creed.

Instead, we have principles, which concern people and the larger world, and share the great goals and behaviors of many other religions. That is surely why many raised as Jews or Catholics are comfortable being members of UU congregations.

The cold fact remains that for many we lack the requisite trappings of what they demand from church. We may occasionally throw in some incense and sing old Christian hymns on Christmas Eve and Easter, but we can’t offer the music and dogma.

Thus, the UUA has just over 1,000 congregations and is likely to remain both one of the nation’s smallest religions and one of its whitest. I know that I am over fretting about what we can do to attract more members or even visitors of color.

I know that many of our congregations have a role as visitors to non-UU churches, as volunteers in community programs, and in co-hosting events. We get to know each other and our ministers often participate in social action and religious gatherings with those of other churches.

That’s gotten to be almost enough for me. I am certainly comfortable without dogma, but I would appreciate some snappier music.

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3 Responses

  1. Scott Wells says:

    What your opening sounds like to me? Christians are denigrated, but it’s their fault. Not much of a starter.

  2. Harrumpher says:

    While I find it true that many Christians can be obnoxious, I see many UUs who include everyone else and sort of tolerate Christians. Yet, in the UU congregations I’ve attended, the Christian members are often the most socially activist and “good” in the classical sense.

    In those same churches, ministers will deride Christians and their beliefs — even if jocularly — from the pulpit. Some parents raised, if you pardon the non-UU expression, hell when the MRE offered even just an option of a Bible as a Coming of Age ceremony gift.

    This post is not about UU attitude toward Christians, but that’s a good topic for another one.

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