Rev. Douglas Taylor
April 19, 2015
One of the central values in modern Unitarian Universalism is inclusion and acceptance of all people. I remember asking my mom about this when I was young. I grew up Unitarian Universalist. The building, where my mom served as the Director of Religious Education and then as Minister of Religious Education, was a huge brick building. It looked a little like a fortress. This image was supported by an equally imposing brick edifice directly across the street of Temple Beth El, a conservative Jewish community. Indeed the two buildings were built within a year of each other.
I remember asking my mother one day about the people in the other building. She told me a little about Judaism but also that our community and their community do not do anything together, we didn’t mix. This led to the question: Would we welcome a Conservative Jew in our Unitarian Universalist congregation? My mother’s answer reflects the basic stance of inclusion prevalent in Unitarian Universalism today: “Yes, we would welcome such an individual, but that person would probably not be comfortable in our community and prefer to attend their own congregation.”
One of the design features of that big brick church building of the Rochester where I grew up is the heavy front doors. Stay with me, this all leads to the same point. The architect wanted the form to fit the function, to make a statement about the purpose of the building. So the sanctuary is a large open space, the classrooms wrap around the sanctuary, the light towers in the sanctuary feed natural lighting into the space – all of these features serve to reveal a facet of Unitarian Universalist theology and community.
Thus, the heavy front doors are heavy on purpose. Another architect, describing aspects of the UU church building of my childhood, said this of those doors: “The first touch of the heavy handles confirms the visual impression that the solid doors are meant to make the visitor conscious of the process of entering.”
There is a hymn in our hymnal with the line “Where all the doors are open wide for all who choose to step inside.” This line in the hymn and the entry doors of my childhood church reiterate my mother’s answer to me. Yes, we are welcoming for all those who really want to be here. This, I have come to see, is a passive form of invitation and inclusion. There is a difference between saying “we are willing to let you join us,” and “we want you to join us.”
Over the years, that Rochester UU congregation notice the unfortunate implication that the doors were physically difficult for some people to open. A little over ten years back, they redesigned their front entrance, removing the step and adding automated openers to those heavy doors, to make the entrance more inviting and accessible for people with mobility issues.
The architect’s bigger point still stands: the form ought to fit the function. As the message of inclusion and welcome expands, the way we demonstrate that also should expand. I’m not suggesting our Binghamton congregation needs an architectural fix to a sociological problem, or that we should launch a capital drive this month. But when we do start talking about any changes to our building, we would do well to ask deep questions about function and how our space promotes our theology and our message.
Don’t get me wrong, the congregation of my childhood was a very welcoming and inclusive place. Our Binghamton congregation today is welcoming and inclusive as well. Inclusivity is a very Unitarian Universalist trait. Our theological history leads us to be inclusive, to stretch beyond a homogenous ideology or demography. But we should still ask the question. I think there will always be someone who is not yet here but would want to be.
As a child I asked “Would a Conservative Jew be welcome?” because that was the identity group that I suddenly noticed. Substitute whatever identity you like and you will have the root question. Are political conservatives welcome, are people without a Bachelor’s Degree welcome, are ethnic minorities or mentally ill people or folks struggling with addiction welcome, are gay people or gay couples or transgender people welcome, are people with physical disabilities welcome, is my neighbor – with whatever aspect of difference – welcome, … am I welcome?
Unitarian Universalism has long stood for the strongest possible ‘Yes’ in answer to such questions of inclusion. Both sides of our theological lineage proclaim there is no separation between the saved and unsaved, the clean and unclean; instead, we say all are welcome, all are worthy. Universalism in particular proclaimed a fearless message of God’s all-encompassing love – no one is outside the love of God. Over the years as our theological identity has evolved into a nuance ambiguity with no single statement about the nature or even existence of God, we have held the message still. No one is outside.
In some ways that are problematic and in other ways that are stunningly elegant, we have largely substituted God for the Beloved Community in what was this root Universalist proclamation. The vast majority of Unitarian Universalists of any theological stripe will gladly proclaim that no one is cast out of the Beloved Community. All are included.
Here is the trick, however. Proclaiming that as our message does not make it our reality. When we declare that all are welcome, we can’t then just sit back with the doors wide open and assume we will blithely stumble into Beloved Community. We will more likely stumble into an echo of the dominate culture.
This is why the Welcoming Congregation program exists and is so successful. We declare ourselves to be welcoming specifically to gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. This is not to say other people are not welcome, but that we recognize the need to be specific. Otherwise the unspoken assumption is that those who are different are not welcome.
Being inclusive is not the default setting for any group. When we applaud ourselves for our inclusivity, it is worth the praise – being inclusive, even having the goal of being inclusive while working to become more inclusive, is counter-cultural.
I mentioned a hymn earlier. Our music is one of the ways people feel included or excluded. We’ve changed the words to some of our hymns to be more inclusive of women when we degenderize it, or to be more inclusive of the plurality of theology when we adjust the God language. This gets tricky, when we remove references to God, then the people who are looking for God in their worship hear that they are not included. But what we include the God language, atheists do not feel included. This is what I mean – we can’t be inclusive in general – it needs to be specific. But when we get specific, we need to also develop a capacity to hear each other deeply and allow for the other. I will come back to this point.
One of my favorite hymns, “Guide My Feet,” is a spiritual hymn about courage and perseverance. But consider it from the perspective of someone in a wheelchair, from the perspective of someone who will never run and whose feet do not work. I don’t want to give up this hymn, it means a lot to me; it reveals my spiritual work. But I also don’t want to send the message that people with disabilities are not included. Including more people is also part of my spiritual work.
This is a conflict I feel sharply. I love these hymns but I also want to challenge them. Being able to sing this hymn is a point of inclusion for me. But it is a point of exclusion for others. I think I will not be able to fix this. Instead I will learn how to live with things being a little messy and imperfect.
This is the point I wanted to circle back to. Inclusion can be as simple as honest hospitality. Welcoming one more person into the circle without regard for differences. Inclusion can also be complicated work, creating safe space and stretching into unfamiliar and uncomfortable territory. When we get specific about who we are including, it necessarily means we are taking a stand in favor of one thing in particular.
Being an ‘inclusive community’ takes a little extra work. But I suspect most of you know that. I put out a request for people to share experiences of inclusion. Or even challenges of not be included. I asked people to send me a brief account of their story that they would be willing for me to share. I said “Help us to both celebrate our strengths and challenge ourselves to live more fully into our ideal.” One person talked with me about the moment, soon after she started attending, when she spoke up and was not judged or shushed. That was when she really felt included.
Amorena Wade sent me a similar story:
When I first started attending UUCB, the only pants I had were heavily torn jeans. I wore them to services and expected that to be fine, but the day an usher asked me to pass the collection plate in my tattered clothing, I was truly touched. It is one thing to say “all are welcome”, but it took a marked integrity to put someone dressed the way I was on display as a representative of the congregation. It was the moment I truly believed I was included in the flock and not just the recipient of polite and cordial treatment.
Dee Davis sent me this account:
Of course, Suronda and my story is that we met at UU, were welcomed by the congregation and ultimately felt it was the only place we could possibly be married. Our hope was that we could have had a blessing during our wedding from someone in the faith tradition Suronda was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition. After meeting with a couple of priests, we found that no one was comfortable being present at a gay wedding, let alone being seen as condoning or blessing a same sex marriage. Because of this, I have resigned from my job of interpreting Mass at a local Catholic Church, because I can’t give my best work to a place that sees us in the LGBTQ community as less than deserving of the most human of emotions, love. Standing on the side of love is where I want to put my energy and spread the message, and UU is the best faith and has the best allies to help us all recognize each other’s worth and dignity.
Others have shared stories with me over the years, stories of broken-heartedness. Nobody contacted me this week with a specific challenge around inclusion in our community but I know such stories are out there. That is part of the messy reality of community. I know, for example, it is easier to be openly gay around here than it is to openly talk about loving Jesus – more than one person has share that with me. I know, for example, it is hard to bring a child with significant special needs to our community because we are not set up with the kinds of support to help the child and the parent to really be here. It involves a lot of extra work. I know, for example, it is not easy to come up to the pulpit for some people because of the steps and the lack of a handrail, or to attend a meeting in the basement room because of the stairs. I know. And I also know there is a quite a bit that I do not know.
So here is what I want to offer you as we look around our community and consider our inclusive nature and our love of justice. Notice that our authentic hospitality really matters at more than just the level of being pleasant to new people – it has a positive impact on the systems of exclusion people experience. We really are welcoming here. And second, notice we are not done. “Love and I had the wit to win, we drew a circle and took him in!” We are always redrawing the circle.
When you encounter differences that challenge you, don’t shush them or ignore them or pretend they are not important. We are always redrawing the circle. Introduce yourself. Listen to those who are different. Educate yourself. It may be messy and at times we may get it wrong. But don’t take it for granted. Inclusion is a worthy value and it leads us toward wholeness. And we don’t ever just stumble into it – we create the community and the justice we long to see in the world.
God’s love is all encompassing. The Beloved Community has room for everyone. In my father’s house there are many mansions. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground. Inclusion is a central value in our modern Unitarian Universalism. It is what we are called to become together as a community – it is our gift, our challenge, our spiritual work.
In a world without end,
may it be so