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We hope the transition from winter to spring has been kind and fruitful. We’re excited to share with you an interview between Dr. Janice Marie Johnson, UUA Multicultural Ministries and Leadership Director, and Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, Starr King School for the Ministry President-Elect. We also have two brief updates about recent Multicultural Ministries programs: Finding Our Way Home and a Pre-Conference Workshop designed with a focus on UUs at the Leading Edge Conference.
In faith, Audra, on behalf of Multicultural Ministries, part of UUA Multicultural Growth & Witness
Finding Our Way Home
Finding Our Way Home is an annual retreat for Unitarian Universalist religious professionals of color, hosted by the UUA through the Diversity of Ministry Initiative. This year’s event, held in Boston, was attended by nearly 80 ministers, seminarians, religious educators, directors of music, and church administrators from across North America. (Watch the 37-second video of what happened when UU World Editor Chris Walton tried to get a group photo. It speaks volumes.)
In addition to community building, spiritual reflection, and collegial support, the retreat includes a service project—and this year, participants partnered in solidarity with YMORE, a cross-race, cross-class, and cross-neighborhood community of youth, as they shared their stories and demanded policies grounded in equity and justice from their government. Read the entire blog post.
Leading Edge Pre-Conference for UUs
Ahead of the Leading Edge Conference at Middle Church, about 40 UUs participated in a pre-conference workshop titled Rock-a-My Soul!—Artistic Worship in Multiracial/Multicultural Contexts. Themes discussed included Music and Opening Ritual, Storying Vision for Justice with Worship and the Arts; Rethink Church: A Practical Lab on Multiethnic, Multicultural Worship; as well as a panel discussion with Rev. Robert M. Hardies (All Souls Church Unitarian, Washington, DC), Rev. Marlin Lavanhar (All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, OK), Rev. Fredric J. Muir (Unitarian Universalist of Annapolis, MD), Rev. Josh Pawelek (Unitarian Universalist Society: East, Manchester, CT), and Taquiena Boston (Unitarian Universalist Association). Following the workshop, everyone gathered for dinner and started “table talks” on the themes discussed by the panel. The rich dialogues will continue. Stay tuned.
“Telling the Starr King Story”
Interview with Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt
by Dr. Janice Marie Johnson
JMJ: The UUA has been working with Middle Collegiate Church in NYC. Their minister asserts that leaders tell compelling stories that counter the dominant narrative. How do you see your ministry countering the dominant narrative that you see within Unitarian Universalism?
RBM: I think that one of things important to me that I told Starr King (SK) [when I applied to be their next President] is that SK was a story I had not yet been told. It has a strong multi-religious and multi-theological story around struggle. The SK story is sometimes diminished by the “popular” story of SK as a flaky, west coast UU school that is not taken seriously. The reality is that SK had an extraordinary history as a leaderly school. It was named after a Unitarian leader!
We always worked hard to provide a well-rounded student-centered educational environment. We have always followed the lead of students, trusting students to discern and follow their own ministerial paths. For decades, SK has been educating persons who are not UU but who want to study with us and take our liberal pedagogy into their own faith communities. We’ve been actively working on this and have capitalized on it over the past 20 years; definitely over the past 7 years—from the moment we brought in a Sufi Muslim Queer [as faculty].
At SK, one-third of the students come from liberal religious, non-UU traditions. They come because they want to experience UUism and want to use it as a catalyst for their own progressive values. We have Muslims, Quakers, Buddhists, etc. amongst the student body….
JMJ: What is most exciting and compelling to you as the new leader of SK?
RBM: I’m excited about possibility! UUism—and SK—will certainly benefit as we begin to embrace the liberal and progressive communities of diverse faith traditions. SK is working on broadening the embrace of diverse faith traditions.
Fundamentalism continues to engage every aspect of our lives. We can’t allow it to strangle us. We need to be serious about our worth as UUs. A great strength of SK is that it allows us to be great witnesses to UUs and others all over the world.
JMJ: UU Multicultural Mosaic—Progress or Illusion? I would be interested in knowing if you have a vision for a multicultural future for the UUA. If so, are we making progress toward it or is progress an illusion?
RBM: Taking the second question first: Progress has been happening very slowly…. It’s so hard. It’s real hard to celebrate progress per se. Women and LGBTQ persons [have made] enormous progress, especially women. There has been growth in numbers of people of color but the growth in numbers of men—especially men of color—in UUism is abysmal. Religious professionals of color form a beautiful mosaic picture but there are not too many men in the photos!
SK faculty and staff reflect a goodly number of men of color. There is rich diversity of people, belief, religious positions, all indicative of what the world will look like. SK was intentional about diversifying…
Years ago, when I served on SK’s Board of Trustees we asked if we truly wanted to change. We spent time asking what change would look like. We talked about the pressures that we would receive from outside regarding “lowering standards” as code for “too many people of color.”… Rather than lowering our standards, we broadened the standards.
The fact is that we all benefit when diverse perspectives and groups are viewed as “normal,” sitting at the same table together talking about crucial issues and matters of faith. It is this synergy that strengthens us.
JMJ: What, if anything, do we understand about race and racism now that we didn't twenty-five years ago? What have we failed to learn?
RBM: I think that twenty-five years ago, we didn’t understand sufficiently that education regarding race and racism is simply not enough. Having the right resources is not sufficient. All “isms” that keep people from being fully whole and human are frankly, rooted in scarcity.… It is simply not enough. What is lacking is very important to move into the life of the spirit. This is a spiritual problem. At the core, we are spiritual beings having a human experience. Folks are scared, they are lost, and they think, “They’re better than I am.” Rooting ourselves in the life of the spirit helps us move past this condition. After the anti-racism/anti-oppression/multiculturalism trainings, we have to help people embrace spiritual perspective. They need prayer, spiritual practice. You can’t simply think your way out of being a racist.
[In terms of] failure… We forgot that education is not enough. Learning “the continuum” is critical as long as it creates the space to assume the best of each other. I only talk about race in a covenanted spiritual community…. This allows each of us to stay at the table. SK is a great place for these conversations with the task of rising up leaders of spirit and strength to do this work.
JMJ: Interfaith Collegiality. Would you speak to your pride in being welcomed into your presidency by leaders—especially leaders of color—in other faith communities?
RBM: I was so touched—amazed and delighted—to be warmly welcomed by complements and affirmations and that I can and will make a difference. I’ve heard from the Baptists, United Church of Christ [members], Presbyterians, etc.… Diverse theological schools welcomed me into this kind of leadership.
Anecdotally, very few black women are heading theological schools. I’m proud to note that I’m the first UU of color to head a theological school! I am in rarified air. [JMJ: I asked detailed questions and RBM answered that she believes that there are 270 theological schools in this country. Of that number, about 20 are headed by presidents or deans of color. Of that group, only 5 are women of color.]
JMJ: UU Legacy—Progressive, Multiracial, Multicultural, Multi-religious Faith. What legacy do you know that you want to leave?
RBM: I hope my presidency will be a way of honoring the African-American women ministers who paved the way for me. In addition, I want it to be “ordinary and boring” for black woman to be senior ministers of UU congregations. I want it to be a matter of course that people of color and perspectives of people of color are a “normal” part of UU theological education. You cannot be considered well educated until you are familiar with people of color theologies, theologians, and so forth. When people really think about UUism and consider it to be a progressive, multiracial, multicultural, and multi-religious faith stance, that belief will become a way of being in the world. If I can contribute to that reality, I will have done good work in my lifetime.