Monday, August 10, 2020

Unitarian Universalist Latino Inclusion

Over the past few days I've been writing about how denominations are facing their chronic loss of membership, spanning generations since the mid-20th century, by targeting the Hispanic community in the United States for growth. I have found that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Episcopal Church (TEC) have leveraged their traditional liturgical style, which already resembles that of Roman Catholicism, in order to attract Latinos. This has involved, among other things, adopting Hispanic Catholic imagery and festivals. Most striking to me was the presence of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lutheran settings. I went into this with a negative assumption that Hispanic people were being essentially duped into thinking the Lutheran or Anglican parishes were the same as Roman Catholic, and learned that not only is this not the case, it doesn't give proper credit to people's ability to discern between traditions. Today I'm turning to what might be of significance or value in all this to Unitarian Universalism.

To begin, it's very clear that a core motivation in outreach to the Latino community — which encompasses Hispanic people of numerous and varied countries and traditions as well as, to a lesser degree, Brazilians — is institutional survival. The Episcopalians are very forthright about this fact.

In the midst of various challenges resulting in the Episcopal Church’s membership decline, our church also faces the unprecedented opportunity to embrace the changing times with excitement, zeal, and hope. The dramatic increase in the numbers of Latinos/Hispanics in communities throughout the country should be seen as an evangelistic opportunity and hope for the church. The Episcopal Church's Strategic Vision For Reaching Latinos/Hispanics, The Episcopal Church 

The Lutherans, for their part, have a strategy that was appropriately put together by Latinos, and note the dramatic growth of their population in the United States.  

The Latino population in the United States has surpassed 54 million, according to research done in the summer of 2013 by Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project. We are now—at 54.1 million—the second largest ethnic group in the U.S. We make up 17% of the U.S. population. The majority are born in the U.S. because immigration has declined. We are also the youngest ethnic group, averaging 27 years of age. — Latino Ministry Strategy, Evangelical Lutheran Church of America 

Turning to Unitarian Universalist I've discovered that while there are ministries and programs directed toward the Latino community, and a strong social justice commitment to immigrant and racial justice that connects strongly with that segment, there doesn't seem to be an outreach strategy. That isn't altogether surprising, as Unitarians and Universalists haven't been particularly interested in mission work since the late 1800s, early 1900s. UUs are generally uneasy about anything resembling proselytizing, as we do not believe that we have a corner on the truth, and many of us have had negative experiences with religions that had absolute certainty of their rightness. While I don't think that institutional survival should be any kind of priority for UUism, as there's no point I can see in perpetuating an organization 'just because,' I am of a mind that we do have gifts to offer, and should in tern welcome the lessons brought by newcomers. 

The current status of formal Unitarian Universalism with regard to racial, ethnic, and immigrant makeup is not promising. The Unitarian Universalist Association is a strongly white majority organization that has repeatedly attempted to come to terms with its failing to include and affirm non-white participation and ministry.
While it is perfectly understandable that denominations in the United States would want to welcome immigrants, I have to make it clear that this isn't a panacea. Writing about the value of immigration to the national economy, Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson made a point that I think is applicable here.

Immigration is not a permanent solution to the problem of an aging and declining population. For one thing, migrants aren't all that young; their median age is thirty-nine, according to the UN. At thirty-nine, most people are pretty much done producing children. So the fertility potential for much of the migrant population is actually quite weak. For another, immigrants quickly adopt the fertility pattern of their new home. "The big reason immigrants' birth rates are falling is that they tend to adopt the ways of their host communities," The Economist observed. "This happens fast: some studies suggest that a girl who migrates before her teens behaves much like a native." — Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline

Speaking only of Hispanics, they have been present since the nation's earliest days. Many became citizens (eventually) because of the annexation of the Southwestern region of the United States from Mexico. Cubans have a long history of migration to this country, as do Dominicans. More recently we've seen a strong uptick in Central Americans fleeing the poverty and violence of their homelands to take up residence in the United States. There are people of Hispanic descent in our part of North America whose ancestors presence predates that of most of my lineage. While there are distinctive Hispanic cultures that are maintained through the generations and at points blend, the individual attitudes and outlooks of people tend to harmonize broadly with those of the 'mainstream' culture. 

Basically, if churches are already having trouble keeping their white adherents, they are only forestalling the inevitable with any 'immigrant' ethnic group they bring in. 

One might think that as the demographics of a neighborhood change, so should those of the neighborhood churches. Clearly this is not the case. Churches seem to grow strongest through existing social networks. People bring family, family brings friends, and so on. If a critical mass is hit, either through the nature a congregation's governance (including conflict management), some limit to the extent of the social network, or a combination of factors, the church plateaus and begins its decline. Often a neighborhood that started out predominantly white shifts as the original residents relocate to the suburbs, or simply raise their families, retire, and pass on. In the meantime, the local church sees membership dwindle. I personally know of one congregation where this happened, with the neighborhood becoming predominantly Hispanic and African-American, and the shrinking pool of parishioners was composed of older white people driving in from elsewhere.

In the early 2000s there was a great deal of talk about 'missional church.' This type of church is outward-focused, not engaged in navel-gazing. It directs its resources towards the local community and the wider world, engaging in social projects for the benefit of people beyond the four walls of the sanctuary. This approach is, in my opinion, entirely valid and would help stem the tide of decline if congregations were to engage in it from a very early stage. Churches that look around them and engage actively with the community should be able to keep up more naturally with demographic change in the area, growing through an expanded social network that is constantly refreshed.

It is notoriously difficult, though, to get people to think of others...particularly when the others look and speak differently. 

There is a strong social justice component to welcoming immigrants, whether Latino or otherwise, and particularly within Unitarian Universalism. With the historic and ongoing dominance of white people within the association, people of color have long been denied a platform and the support needed to have their voices heard and acknowledged. White UUs are acting on their stated principles and deepest values when they truly center the perspectives of people of color, whatever their race or ethnicity. For example, having more black clergy in the pulpit should not be to 'set an example' for black and brown children, but rather a matter of setting right a wrong that has been perpetuated for centuries in denying people of color full and equal status in ministry. This obviously applies to Latinos as well. 

In reviewing the published strategies of the ELCA, TEC, and the Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) for Latino/Hispanic outreach, I found that the PCUSA led with the historical perspective before moving on to theology, TEC leaped right in with institutional survival and got around to theology later, and the ELCA laced their document with theology, but didn't have a specific section for theological justification. As I mentioned, the UUA doesn't seem to have a strategy document, but it did publish an important report this year regarding white supremacy culture within the association and its congregations. It began with an overview before getting into theology.
Our justice work without theological resources and spiritual practices leads us down the path of burn out. Many of us have come to this faith seeking an alternative faith home and drawn by its actions in the world. Yet we don't often work to heal from our religious past. Those most harmed by the divisive and stressful times we live in are in need of faith tenets that can hold us fast in confusing times and help us make ethical and values-based choices about how to engage. — Widening the Circle of Concern: Report of the UUA Commission on Institutional Change

Just before that quote the observation was made that within UUism, social justice often takes the place of theology. This is a matter that must be addressed. The report calls for investment in theological studies and development, something that, again, must center people from racial and ethnic groups that historically have been excluded or silenced. Frankly, I welcome the development of a more robust UU theology. While it exists, it often seems tepid and thin, with the most robust portions centered around social justice activism (and honestly much of that is borrowed). 

Thinking about how Lutherans and Episcopalians are working to accommodate Latinos in particular, it would be tempting I believe for thoughts to go toward doing similar things in an effort to roll out the red carpet into UUism. That would be a terrible mistake. Essential to the formation of the Lutheran and Episcopal strategies was the work of Hispanic theologians, clergy, and laypeople. They came together and worked out how best to minister to their communities, and what has developed came about in harmony, with some surprising contrasts, with their liturgical traditions. The same must happen within Unitarian Universalism, with not only Latinos but all historically excluded groups being supported through provision of actual resources. Money, time, networking, and an ongoing platform must be dedicated to this work. 

There are already religious and liturgical resources within the UU tradition that can be called upon, should they be considered of value. It might seem unusual, for example, to think of a congregation within UUism akin to what I've described among the Lutherans recently, but we do have a 'high church' parish in King's Chapel. Founded as a parish of the Church of England centuries ago, it eventually became unitarian and then part of the UUA. I have a copy of their Book of Common Prayer next to me on the desk as I write these words. I'm not suggesting that King's Chapel would take a role in creating a Latino ministry in their image. Instead, I'm saying that they set a precedent and potentially could provide a starting point should anyone be interested in building on the idea.

At the same time, our flexibility accommodates many styles. While most seem to adhere to a traditional, neutrally Protestant format for worship, with some uniquely UU rituals and occasions, there are Christian and Humanist congregations as well, and even one that takes an earth-centered approach to spirituality (Gaia Community). The question is whether the theological breadth that UUism embraces can be extended to cultural differences as well. This very much remains to be seen.

Aside from platforming, resourcing, and including diverse cultures, at the root of all of this, in the theology that sustains us, must be a heart for people. It is in pastoral care and community ministry that we can share what Unitarian Universalism has to offer, and welcome the wealth of human experience into our faith tradition and our lives. If we truly believe in our faith, and are committed to human flourishing, nothing less than genuine openness to mutuality and relationship with others should be the result. Perhaps then a renewed UUism will begin to flower.