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Dealing with Diversity: The Coming Years

(Return to main 2010 Sermons)

Rev. Craig Scott

(June 06, 2010)

After careful deliberation, the Fellowship adopted the theme for this past year of “UUs Touch the World”. As our sub-theme for the spring, we have discussed issues concerning diversity, especially how this country, and indeed the world, are becoming increasingly multi cultural. Today, I want to discuss the issues of inequality, diversity, and multiculturalism with you from the perspective of how we as a congregation might deal with these issues over the coming years. This Fellowship is now 20 years old – we are no longer in our adolescence. What do we want our next 20 years to look like? Is there a role for us to play in a local area, a state, a country, a world, of increasing diversity? How can we be relevant in shaping the changes that will take place over the coming years? How can we make manifest the central teaching of all the great religions that we must treat our human brothers and sisters with compassion and love? How can we work to make the world a better place?

This morning I want to consider three areas in which we might begin to address these issues: race and ethnicity; inequality of wealth; and sexual orientation. We live in an area that is overwhelmingly white, apart from a significant Native American population. This Fellowship helped to found the annual Martin Luther King celebration, and continues active participation in that event. But I have tended not to emphasize race and ethnicity in our outreach and welcoming efforts because of the scarcity of minorities living in the area. More recently, I have come to see that looking at the issue that way causes us to ignore other aspects of the issue of ethnic diversity that we need to consider. Recently, I attended a UU workshop on diversity, and I came away feeling that we have work to do in this area. Consider this fact – Of people in America over the age of 70, 75% are white; of people under the age of 10, 75% are nonwhite. What does this say about the future of this country? For sure it says that we are rapidly becoming a multiethnic, multicultural society in which white people will no longer be in the majority.

Our Unitarian and Universalist forebears in the 19th Century often played active roles in the movement to abolish slavery. More recently, we certainly see ourselves as a movement that is progressive in terms of race. We say that we welcome everyone, and we mean it; we believe it. For the most part, we see ourselves as “postracial” – that is as being “colorblind.” But the culture we live isn’t colorblind, as we have seen in all the hoopla since President Obama was elected. There are many folks out there who fear losing the position of white privilege that has existed over the centuries. And make no mistake, whether we are rich or poor, being white is one important aspect of privilege in this country.

Most white people, I would argue – and this includes us – don’t see themselves as having a racial identity. Being white is simply being normal; it is the “default position” in this society. But, as Robert Carter points out in our reading this morning, we all have a racial identity. And we can’t really sort our way through all the ramifications of race, until we examine our own identity as white people. As Judge Carter tells us, “racial identity development is a lifelong process that begins during childhood and requires resolution throughout one’s life.”

Our Unitarian Universalist Association has some excellent materials on exploring questions of race and diversity, beginning from where we are right now. A possible project for us would be to take on the exploration of the role of race and ethnicity in our own lives, beginning with our own racial identity. With that as a starting point, the goal would be to work toward being able to separate from the values of the dominant culture that maintains racial and ethnic hierarchies. Having done so, we would engage in collaboration with people of color to work towards true multicultural solidarity.

Let’s turn to the question of inequality of wealth affluence versus poverty. From the late 19th Century until the 1970s, America was becoming less unequal. Thanks to progressive taxation, government subsidies for the poor, provision of social services, guarantees against acute misfortune, and corporate regulation, the advanced societies of the west, including the US, were shedding extremes of wealth and poverty. Over the last 30 years, that has all changed; inequality of wealth is as great as it has ever been. In 2005, 21% of US national income went to just the top 1% of the population. In 1968, CEO of General Motors made 66 times the amount paid to a typical GM worker. Today, to take just one example, the CEO of Wal*Mart earns 900 times the wages of his average employee. And the wealth of the Wal*Mart founder’s family is estimated at $90 Billion. That is equal to the wealth of the bottom 40% of the American population – 120 million people. Income inequality is far higher in the US than in any other developed country, with only Britain coming anywhere near.

Well, so what’s wrong with that? Well, it turns out that income inequality brings with it a host of societal pathologies. There has been a collapse in social mobility. The poor stay poor. Being poor translates into ill health, missed educational opportunity, and increasingly familiar symptoms of depression, such as alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, gambling, and criminality. The US, with the highest income disparity, also ranks lowest, by far, on indices of physical health, crime, mental illness, and life expectancy. By contrast, Sweden and Finland, both have a very narrow gap separating their wealthiest and poorest citizens, also lead the world in most indices of measurable wellbeing.

For this information, I’m relying on a new book by the historian Tony Judt. It’s called Ill Fares the Land. When I heard the title, I was immediately taken back to my high school English class, where Ms. Fanning had us memorize part of a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, called “The Deserted Village”. The verse begins:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay . .

And it continues:

Princes and lords may flourish, or may fade;
A breath can make them, as a breath has made;
But a bold peasantry, their country’s pride,
When once destroyed can never be supplied.

This 18th Century poem speaks to what is happening to us today, with overcrowded prisons, inadequate health care for so many of our citizens, and many people living in poverty in the richest nation in the world.

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,
Where wealth accumulates, and men decay . . .

Ok, so what does all this have to do with us? Well, I am very pleased that this year we have started helping to keep the Lambert Drop-In Center open on weekends. Thanks to Diane Doddridge and Jackie Irene for starting this effort, and to many others for keeping it going. We are going to be looking at some additional ways, as well, in which we might be of service to those in need – this is a difficult time for so many, and it is good to help when and where we can. But I also want us to keep in mind the larger systemic issues. Helping those in need is terribly important, but it doesn’t address the growing gap between rich and poor in this country. We need to keep the larger issues in mind, and to speak out on them when they come – for example, in supporting or opposing legislation. A good place to start might be to form a study group to read and discuss Tony Judt’s book, and then to move on to other resources. Educating ourselves would be an important first step.

And finally, let me turn to sexual orientation. We know that something on the order of ten percent of our population is gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender. Virtually all of us have family members and friends who are gay. And yet, GLBT folks still do not enjoy the rights and straight people take for granted. There is much work still to do. This congregation, and our larger UU movement stood solidly in opposition to Proposition 8 during the 2008 election. We lost – narrowly – but we know the issue will be back – probably in 2012. In 2009, we hosted screenings of the film “Fish out of Water,” which rebuts the various claims that the Bible condemns homosexuality. More than 100 people saw the film. These were good efforts, and I am proud of our congregation for taking them on.

One thing that we have not yet done as a Fellowship is to go through the process of formally declaring ourselves to be a “Welcoming Congregation.” Our denomination has created a program by which congregations can become “welcoming” by taking some formal steps. The first step would be the creation of a “welcoming congregation” task force. The next would be for the task force to host a series of educational programs. This is no small matter. As in the case of racial diversity, we tend to think that we are already there. And in some ways, perhaps we are. But we need to learn from readings, films, and personal conversations about the experiences of GLBT folks and about the reaction of straight people to those experiences. There are other steps to be taken, but that is where we would need to begin. I considered starting off with the educational part of the program this past spring, and I talked it over with Cheryll Giles, who helped by reviewing the materials. As we considered it, we realized that we really needed to start with creation of a task force of interested members. The initiative for this kind of project should not all be coming from the minister – we need to have a core of people committed to working on the issue.

So – racial and ethnic diversity; inequality of income and wealth; and full rights for the GLBT community. All are important issues. All deserve our attention. I would like to see us address them all, but not, of course, all at the same time. We need to focus our energies so that we take on projects we can handle and do them well. This is where you come in. Over the next couple of months, I would like to hear from you about where you would like to see us concentrate our efforts in the coming year. You probably have ideas of your own. For each of the issues, I have mentioned, we need to focus on things that we can do as a Fellowship in the near future. In each case, I would see us beginning with the formation of a task force that will organize an educational program centered on the issue we have chosen. In the case of racial diversity and sexual orientation, we have curricula available to us from the UUA. For addressing inequality of wealth, we could begin with Tony Judt’s book, or something like it, and branch out from there as we learn more.

But I do encourage us to challenge ourselves to take an active role on one of these issues, or some other one. In the Gospel attributed to Matthew, Jesus is talking to the disciples about who will inherit the kingdom. And he says:

for I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,
and I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,
I was a stranger and you welcomed me,
I was sick and you cared for me,”

and so on. and the disciples say to him, “we don’t remember that. When did we do these things? When did you feed, and clothe you, and give you something to drink?” And Jesus says “just as you did it to the one of the least of the members of my family, you did it to me.” And that is really what it is all about, isn’t it? For members of all faith traditions, and certainly for us as Unitarian Universalists, the point is to work for a world in which we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, welcome the stranger, and so on. So, as we embark on our next 20 years of existence as a Fellowship, let us think about how we want to go about doing this work. How is that we want to help to heal the wounds of our country’s racial strife, to help to narrow the gap between rich and poor, to secure full membership in this society for our GLBT brothers and sisters. How is that we want to work to make the world a better place?