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?