"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.

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.