Liveblogging the Ware Lecture

Bringing it home now — back to the image of the beach and the crab. The moment of transcendant glory is past; now the hard work of faith begins. This isn’t a time to lose faith. Quoting the UU hymn:

“Praise song for trouble, praise song for day, praise song for every hand-lettered sign…” (Sorry: the teleprompter typist is faster than I am.)

Melissa Harris-Lacewell giving the Ware Lecture

What we need now is love. “Beware the crabs in the sand, but keep your eyes on the horizon. With reason and faith, let us walk forward into that light.”


It’s easy to write off faith talk as inherently divisive — but if we do that, we cede faith, and lose the use of it as a tool for the struggle for self, community, and justice. (Amen!)

(Your blogger is loving this part: I argue it often with my progressive blogging friends, most of whom are secular and don’t believe in the power of faith to create change.)

Faith is an exercise in intellectual humility, a habit that makes us recognize our own limitations, helps us come to terms with what we don’t know and can’t do.

“We come here together to day to make the most incredible faith claim of all: that we can establish a world that recognizes the inherent dignity of every single human being — and that we can make that world using the power of love.”

(Wild cheering!!) (more…)

"What's wrong with a Pentecostal Unitarian or Universalist?"

Last night I was covering the “Guess Who’s Coming to Worship?” talk.

You can read my news report here, but the short version is that Pentecostal megachurch minister Carlton Pearson had a John-Murray-style Universalist conversion experience a few years ago, and the remnant of his congregation has recently joined All Souls in Tulsa. Tulsa’s second service now has the same intellectual content as its first service, but it also has some of the look-and-feel of a Pentecostal service.

If I had to sum up the attitude projected by Tulsa minister Marlin Lavanhar last night, it would be: Why not? Somebody explain to me why we can’t do this and still be UUs.

And Pearson asked the $64,000 question: “What’s wrong with a Pentecostal Unitarian or Universalist?”

One Pearson quote didn’t fit neatly into my news article, but does match a theme I’ve been developing on this blog. When he started coming to All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa, Pearson discovered some people we didn’t know were there.

“There are people in [All Souls] church who are ORU [Oral Roberts University in Tulsa] graduates, who are from the Baptist church and the Pentecostal church. Some of them still speak in tongues — quietly.” After a burst of laughter, Pearson said something very interesting: “I found that this church was quietly more inclusive than they knew.”

UPDATE: I happened to run into Marlin Lavanhar later and asked him how many people we were talking about. He said about 35 people from Pearson’s New Dimensions congregation had joined All Souls, but that as many as 100 were participating in one way or another.

Liveblogging Plenary 3

5:10 p.m. MDT

And everyone heads off to the rally for immigrant rights….

5:05 p.m. MDT

There’s another motion to refer this motion back to the Commission on Social Witness. It needs a two-thirds vote. Gini Courter says the motion carries on a visual vote. “By a whisker,” says someone near me.

So the peacemaking SOC goes back to the Commission on Social Witness for additional study….

4:58 p.m. MDT

We’re getting into convoluted parliamentary procedures. Gini Courter says, “Now I’ve even confused our general counsel.” She explains, tries to call for a vote, but now the parliamentarian consults with her. The vote is on calling the question. The delegates vote to call the question. The vote to refeer the question failed to get two-thirds vote. Back to the amendment microphone.

Some people still look confused (I’m one of them). But here we are, back where we were ten minutes ago….

4:53 p.m. MDT

A motion is been made to refer this whole motion back to the Commission on Social Witness. A few groans audible from the delegates. The motion to refer has to get a two-thirds vote…. (more…)

Rethinking our approach to diversity

Whenever I hear something I haven’t heard before, and then hear something very similar again from a different speaker the next day, I start to wonder if maybe there’s a trend developing. Wednesday I drew your attention to a quote from Rosemary Bray McNatt, the African-American minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, in which said that race was often standing in for issues of culture, and that flagellating ourselves and each other over racial issues is making the cultural issue more difficult.

Thursday morning I went to the “Perversity of Diversity” talk by another African-American UU minister, Mark Morrison-Reed. He kept saying “We are an ethnic faith” until eventually he got the room to repeat it back to him. Like McNatt, he was referring to the primacy of culture, not race, in determining who fits in and feels at home in UU congregations.

Culture prevails. Diversity advanced more quickly when the primary barrier to inclusivity wasn’t culture, but gender or sexual orientation. And indeed the people of color who become UUs are always those who have operated within our current norms. People like me. Raised middle-class, lifelong UU, trained at Meadville-Lombard — I’m pretty assimilated.

The #1 predictor of UUism being education, Morrison-Reed observed that the number of African-American UU ministers increased as the number of African-Americans with bachelors degrees increased — independent of what the UUA policy might have been at the time.

What has happened over the last 70 years is that the make-up of the groups that our congregations draw from has changed. … Rather than leading, we are simply reaping the reward of a changing and evolving society.

And that gives us a self-image problem. We want to think of ourselves as social leaders, not social followers. (more…)

UU Geography

I go to a lot of conferences — maybe half a dozen a year — as part of my job. There are a couple of things about GA that are absolutely unique.

The first is the sheer openness of people. You can just plop down anywhere — in the sessions, in the halls, in the restaurants, elevators, bathrooms (which can be disconcerting, yes) — and people will just start talking. And the first question is usually: Where are you from?

Which brings us to the second part, which is the playing of a game I think of as “UU Geography.” It’s always striking how many of these conversations end up very quickly locating people and places you and your new acquaintance have in common.  A couple of examples:

At the first night’s opening worship, my friend and I (the only two delegates from our church, and perhaps the only two from Canada) found ourselves sitting directly behind folks from First UU in Dallas — where our recently-called minister interned just three years ago. Of course they knew him — and gave us a note to take home to him.

Last night, I hopped into the hot tub at the Marriott, and struck up a conversation with a guy who was already there. He’s from New Jersey. I’m (originally) from a tiny town in eastern California that’s so remote that most of the rest of the state (including the state government) doesn’t even know we exist. So I was pretty surprised to learn that not only did he know where it was — he’d been there just last week.

Life at GA can be seen as sort of skittering through the day like this, discovering the vast universe of connections that bind together all these strangers. Which means we’re not really strangers. Which is why it feels like home.

Race and culture

Every year, GA is preceded by Ministry Days, an event put on by the UU Ministers Association. Ministry Days concludes with the annual Berry Street Essay, a lecture series that goes back to William Ellery Channing’s “How Far is Reason to be Used in Explaining Revelation?” in 1820.

I’m not a UUMA member or even a minister, but no one was checking badges at the door, so I slipped in to hear Paul Rasor present this year’s essay. Meaning no disrespect to Paul, who is one of our best theologians and spoke well about our UU struggle to be more multi-racial and multi-cultural, the quote that stuck in my mind is from the response by Rosemary Bray McNatt. (Traditionally, another minister “responds” to the lecture. The response isn’t adversarial, but is more of a commentary on the ideas the speaker has presented.)

After humorously noting a few of the quirky (and often negative) tastes widely shared by UUs (rejecting all mass media other than PBS and NPR, refusing to be caught dead shopping in WalMart, distaste for rap music, and so on) she said:

Race and ethnicity have stood in during our conversations for something more ineffable, more complex and edgy than we have been willing to discuss. We have been talking about culture, a Unitiarian Universalist culture that many of us have refused to acknowledge. We have been unable to address these issues because we have been confused about the conversation that we have been having, and we cannot escape the boxes to which we are likely to be assigned if we start talking about it. …

For people who are as blessed as we are by this gift of relgious community, we are also cursed with a nasty little Calvinist streak that we would do well to examine. We would rather be angry and judgmental with ourselves and with each other than be tender and merciful in simple recognition of how hard it is to do what we must do in our congregations.

We must admit that we have a specific, often alienating culture, and we must change it. And we must grieve the loss of the familiar, and gain some measure of courage to embrace the new.

The full list of Berry Street essays, with links to the text and sometimes audio, is a great online resource for anyone who wants to know the history of Unitarian (and eventually UU) thinking.


Monday evening, I was a stranger in a strange land. Things worked out surprisingly well. Or at least I was surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been.

On the plane to Utah Monday afternoon, I started reading Beyond Tolerance by Gustav Niebuhr.  I’m supposed to cover Niebuhr’s talk on Saturday — he’s getting the 2008 Melcher Book Award for making “a significant contribution to religious liberalism” — so I thought I’d better do my homework.

It’s always risky to summarize a book you haven’t finished — I’ll write something better grounded on Saturday — but so far Niebuhr has made two major points:

  • Compared to the rhetoric of intolerance, holy war, crusade, and religious oppression, our talk of “tolerance” is very weak. Tolerance is at best a middling position, a (perhaps grudging) willingness to let other people be. We have precious little terminology for talking about a more positive appreciation of religious difference, and (perhaps as a result) our news media often misses stories in which religious people put themselves out to make those of another faith feel safe and welcome.
  • Person-to-person experience is the best — and perhaps the only — way to defuse negative stereotypes. Niebuhr talks at length about interfaith cooperation projects and the mutual appreciation they can nurture.

It’s easy for a UU to feel good while reading this book, and I did. We’re mentioned unusually often for a group our size. And even when we’re not named, Niebuhr is lauding the kinds of things we do: participating in interfaith worship services, contributing to interfaith community projects, inviting practitioners of frequently demonized religions (like Islam) to come educate us, and so on. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but in general I think religious liberals look better in Beyond Tolerance than religious conservatives do. “I’m one of the good guys,” I thought.

Then I landed in Salt Lake City and came right up against my own preconceptions and prejudices.

The one time I’ve been in northern Utah before, I was driving to California and I only stopped for gas. So until yesterday my image of Salt Lake City and of its most prominent religious group, the Mormons, had not been contaminated by any of that person-to-person experience Niebuhr recommends. Even my second-hand knowledge of Mormonism mostly comes from people who grew up in that faith and converted to something else.

So my head is full of second- and third-hand stereotypes of Mormons and of Utah in general, and they regularly get reinforced by people who probably don’t know any more than I do. Just last week, when I told a non-UU friend that our annual convention was going to be here, he responded, “Where’s it going to be next year? Mecca?”

I never thought this through in so many words, but as I packed for GA, emotionally I had been steeling myself for a trip behind enemy lines.

And then I got here and needed help. It was nothing life-threatening, but during the flight my wife started developing symptoms of an eye infection. As soon as we got to our hotel, we had to start relying on strangers who live here and have local knowledge: people at the hotel desk, cab drivers, emergency room clerks and nurses and doctors.

No one was anything less than warm and compassionate. No one tried to take advantage of the needy out-of-towners. No one was even just coldly efficient. One and all, they treated us … probably better than I treat a lot of people. On the cab ride back from the emergency room, our driver helped us figure out what to do when the only drug store we knew turned out to be closed. She stopped the meter, made phone calls, estimated how much it would cost to drive to the only 24-hour pharmacy she could find, and supported our decision to save money by going back to the hotel and filling our prescriptions in the morning.

Would I have done that?

None of the people we met last night mentioned religion, so I have no idea how many were Mormons. Just statistically, probably several. Or maybe all. Or none. Who knows?

The point is, it didn’t matter. We were strangers who needed help, and strangers put themselves out for us to the best of their ability. And in spite of all I’ve ever heard or read or thought, right now that’s all the truly first-hand knowledge I have of Salt Lake City.