Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Water Cascading Over Rocks: Race, Ethnicity, Conversion

Reading Transient and Permanent led me to Monkey Mind before I got there on my own (monkey mind is a place I live, but that's a different story), and as I drafted a comment, I realized it was pretty tangential--attending more to our own open door and not really about that same issue in western Buddhism. And it was getting long, so I brought it here.

This past week, in class, David Bumbaugh posed a question to us.

Are we an ethnic church?

The reaction in that class of 20 suggests that something important got touched.

He observed that our growth patterns are classically more along the lines of ethnic churches--Unitarian churches, in particular, were planted where "our people" had already gone (St. Louis, San Francisco, Portland, San Diego...) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and then the Fellowship movement just drips of it; planting small churches where enough of "our people" existed to maybe make a go of it (with astonishing effect, too).


Clearly not in the sense of that various sects from various lands that come to North America and form themselves around their ethnic identity. A lesson that I took early from anti-racism work is that "white" isn't really an ethnicity; it lacks most of the features of that--which helps explain, I think, why Anonymous Dudley's guest speaker said she'd have to give too much up. At this point in time, we're largely a white church, and someone out of an ethnic church tradition can see and feel how much they'd lose--even if the faith they'd move into offers so much that they admire and feel drawn to.

And yet, I think that Bumbaugh's question nags at me because I suspect that while we're not yet very aware of it--and in many ways it's still somewhat inchoate to us--we're in the process of creating an ethnicity. We have begun to see our people--to know them when we see them and hear them, and sometimes to know them as "ours" even before they know of us. Hell, it's an ethnicity of people who are mostly adopted into it; native born UUs are fairly rare.

But if that identity is so tenuous for us, and we are so wary of it, perhaps many coming in who already have an ethnic identity don't see it and feel it--or at least not as an adequate alternative for them. Where's the food, music, culture?

Or is that an illusion?

We have tended to see culture as something that others have, most of us in this movement (tribe?) and we've tended to view it as a static thing. Japanese culture or Zulu culture or Lakotah culture or German culture... those things are frozen. The modern world erodes them (and it does, that's not a complete falsehood), and what exists of them now isn't really their culture (wrong! Culture is a living thing, or it's dead. I think this is part of what's so difficult and challenging about cultural appropriation/misappropriation--cultures have always adopted thigns from each other and mutated them...).

Few of us have only one culture. Most of us in some way live at the intersections of various cultures; deeper in some, shallower or more on the surface of others... and in the end, my culture is mine alone, because no one quite shares all the pieces of culture that I do, in the same way. But we still see that there are loosely (or not so loosely) definable boundaries. Groups do exist.

I think we're afraid of setting out our boundary stones, afraid that we can't move them (sotto voce: again!). I think in a sense that we've taken (and in many cases grown) the key values of North American society as touchstones of faith, which is why it feels so attractive to people--peace, life, order, liberty, happiness, good government. It's part of why they have trouble seeing it as a faith--don't almost all of us hold those values? Well, yes, most of us do. You're standing inside the doors.

Do you want claim this?

See Emma Lazarus's poem for a moment as a religious claim

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"

Look at the names of the statue that poem refers to; originally named Liberty Enlightening the World, most commonly just known as The Statue of Liberty, and re-named Mother of Exiles by Lazarus.

I think I'll end this rambling thought here.


kim said...

Clearly not in the sense of that various sects from various lands that come to North America and form themselves around their ethnic identity. A lesson that I took early from anti-racism work is that "white" isn't really an ethnicity;

"White" may not be an ethnicity, but, there may be ethnicities within "white". I think much of UUism is of an "ethnicity" I might call "Enlightenment New England" or some such. Now that the mainstream of America has passed the Enlightenment by, our continued identifying with it may make us an ethnicity.... but, what would I know?, I was raised UU.... (our food is potlucks, our dress is conservative hippy, our music is dull....)
just ruminating.

ogre said...

True enough, kim, but that's one of the points that the AR/AO trainers love making--that Irish and Italian (etc)... are ethnicities. But neither was "white" at all, until slowly and painfully coopted. Denatured of most of those cultural roots--lost the language, the music, food, etc...--and then they were ready to be whited (whitened?). When a people as painfully fair-skinned as the Celts weren't white for about two centuries, I think it proves the point. White refers to something... and it ain't skin--though that's a common marker.

Can't speak too directly to your observations (though I think there's a lot of truth there). I grew up UU too, but all of it in the West. Still, "conservative hippy" is such an apt term to capture folks from Thoreau onward...

Potluck is a form (and one shared widely; I've been to Catholic potlucks), not a cuisine. The bean and the cod didn't make it far. To claim ethnicity, we need distinctive dishes, musicians... (Pete Seeger. Dull?)

kim said...

Well, no, Pete Seeger isn't dull. I was thinking of our hymnal. But, of course, you're right, political folk music is ours. Not exclusively, but, well, not only Pete, but Malvina Reynolds and now Fred Small and I'm sure there are plenty of others.
I am from the West too, but there's still a New England feel to pretty much every UU church I've been in (except the rousing musical service in Boston when the AG was there. Ironic.)

ogre said...

Ok, yeah, the hymnal has swathes that are, um... flat. Homages to who knows what history.

But I think that you're onto it there--if we were to lay claim to an ethnic music, it's folk, and particularly political folk. And I think you're right that we have an New England feel--at least somewhat--in every congregation.

Oh, and irony is an art form for us.

Sara said...

An interesting idea. I became UU in my teens, and I've always felt comfortable in every church I've walked into. My family, although they don't agree with the theology, all feel comfortable. Then I brought my husband in, and he said it felt "strict and stoic - like Northern and Eastern European. His family is Italian-Mexican-French.

Not sure how far that goes though.

ogre said...

Sara, I think that's not a real surprise--many of our congregations have that feel. I'm multi-cultural--just largely Euro-origin. But Polish, Italian, German, English, Irish, Dutch (etc.) are simply not all the same in feel.

I can see what your husband felt.

Of course, a growing Hispanic presence... we have a slowly increasing Hispanic--mostly Mexican-roots, here in So Cal--element in our congregation. Things will shift.

But particularly in our region, I imagine that the New England roots are really distinct. Just tell him that at their root, a lot of that Eastern European feeling is Italian (several of the figures at the base of Transylvanian Unitarianism were Italians!).

I suspect we're in a condition where -- assuming that we are, in some sense, an ethnic church -- we are in the process of defining what that ethnicity is.