Thursday, May 19, 2016

Gather in Peace, Gather in Thanks

by Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life Field Staff

Gather in peace, gather in thanks
Gather in sympathy now and then
Gather in hope, compassion and strength
Gather to celebrate once again

Since I joined our Unitarian Universalist Association as a ministerial candidate in 1995, "Gather the Spirit" (#347 in Singing the Living Tradition) has continually grounded me in what inspires me about our faith. Written by our faith's own Jim Scott, it is a contemporary Unitarian Universalist song that echoes both the open-heartedness and the broken-heartedness I know from the black churches of my youth. It speaks to one of the our mantras on your Southern Region Congregational Staff that resonates deeply with me: "We Are Better Together".

I grew up at Asbury United Methodist Church, the black United Methodist congregation in my largely de facto segregated hometown in North Mississippi. The fact that white Methodists and black Methodists go to different churches in different parts of town underscores the long legacy of white supremacy that still plays out among us today. Our black church was a kind of haven for me and other families, a place where we were acknowledged for our full humanity and not judged as black, and therefore inferior and untrustworthy, as was the case at the dime store and other establishments. Our overwhelmingly black schools, churches and businesses served as a refuge from the ways we were seen by white townspeople.

Our Unitarian Universalist congregations -- especially in the Southern Region -- often serve a similar function for liberal religious and non religious folk. That is, they are places where people gather outside the gaze of the religiously conservative people who dominate the social and political landscape. When Unitarian Universalists gather here, it's an opportunity to affirm and celebrate the value we hold dear, which distinguish us in some ways from others in our surrounding communities. Paradoxical to our inclusive intentions, a deep sense of community can thrive among excluded people *because* we are excluded.

A month from now, Unitarian Universalists from all over the continent and beyond will begin to arrive in Columbus, Ohio for our annual General Assembly. We will gather as people with a common commitment to treating each other well, emphasizing 'deeds, not creeds.' We will affirm our traditions and our culture. As it turns out, there are ways in which UU culture tracks with white supremacy (How could it not?), such that we Unitarian Universalists of color often find ourselves marginalized in the places we turn to for spiritual sustenance. 

This year's General Assembly will reflect commitments large and small to bring Black Lives to the center of our liberal religious movement, and consequently create more space for all Unitarian Universalists to be fully and unapologetically themselves. Some of us are convinced that all lives will matter when #blacklivesmatter. To learn more about some of the distinguishing features of this GA, visit

So let us look forward to this year's General Assembly, and to all the many occasions we will have to gather over the summer -- The Point, Presidents Convocations, DBLE, SUULE and more. Let's gather to celebrate, again and again and again.

In faith,


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Differences Are Here to Stay

by Kathy McGowan, UUA Southern Region Congregational Life staff

I have been in many conversations recently about difference. Differences really do matter. Unfortunately, they go unnoticed or are used to divide us. I envision a place where differences not only matter, but can be a reason for us to come together. 

We live in a time of brokenness and disconnection. One of the joys of being part of a Unitarian Universalist community is that we can find connections to begin to heal the broken parts of life.

One place where our divisions are obvious is our current political landscape, where the complexity of issues has been reduced to “us vs them.” There is no room for nuance, complexity or strategy discussions.

Let’s turn to our congregational landscape. Differences abound in our congregations, but you may not know it at first glance. There is often an expression of “we are one" or “deep down we are all the same;" all part of the human family. Really? Is that as deeply as we can see each other? I hope not.

We like to think of our congregations as places where we welcome everyone. But when we have an attitude of “we are all the same,” we actually are not making room for differences. We become exclusive; the opposite of our spoken goal. 

When we are unaware of our own congregation’s unique identity, we are implying that we expect assimilation from those who wish to join us. When we don’t know why we do what we do, we allow “that’s just the way we do things around here” to become our default. In other words, when we can’t see our own congregational culture, that very culture becomes what is “normal,” and we adopt polices and practices that fit with that “normal”.

The implication is that if I am looking for a spiritual home to be an antidote to the disconnection that surrounds me, I must assimilate to the culture of the congregation. That often means giving up part of my own identity in order to “fit in.” I will “go along” to “get along”. 

Is that fair? If I am the vulnerable one; the one who took the risk of walking in the door and opening myself up to trust the people of the congregation, should I be the one who is expected to give up part of myself?

What would the generous and welcoming congregational approach be? Would we be willing to give up some of the things that make us feel at home and comfortable in order to be the place that truly values equity for all?  Instead of expecting others to change in order to become one of us, can we change?  

Moving from brokenness to wholeness is a long road. We cannot fix our oppressive world in a short amount of time. However, isn’t it our responsibility to do the shifting so that others can find a home to heal the disconnection that is breaking our hearts?