Carol and I live in a multiethnic neighborhood. Based on income, class, and cultural attitude, the people in our neighborhood are just the kind of people who would come to a Unitarian Universalist congregation. I’ll give a brief description of our neighborhood, and then based on our experience of living in our neighborhood I’ll tell you why I think they wouldn’t be welcome in most Unitarian Universalist congregations.
The people across the street are white, and the family has been living in the same house since it was built in the 1890s. The house next to us on one side was recently purchased by an immigrant Russian couple, and we often hear them speaking Russian to their Pug dog. Down the street are several houses and apartments with Latino families; the ones we know about are Mexican. There used to be a couple of African Americans living down the block, but I ahven’t seen them for a while. We see east Asian people walking down our street, and based on their looks (an unreliable way of determining ethnicity), I’d guess some of them are probably Filipino, Chinese, and Japanese.
The people in our neighborhood have a variety of professions. We know there are several gardeners in the neighborhood not just because our landlord hires one of them to take care of the yard, but also because they park their pickup trucks on the street. We know of an architect, an artist, a college student, and a test driver who tries out new cars. We all learned there was a child pornographer, but he’s in jail now. There’s a stay-at-home mom, a school bus driver who parks his bus on the street when he comes home for lunch, and several people who walk to the Caltrain station dressed in business casual.
Claritas (now owned by Neilsen) has a “lifestyle segmentation system” that defines which “lifestyle types” predominate in a neighborhood. Our ZIP code is dominated by the “American Dreams” lifestyle type:
American Dreams is a living example of how ethnically diverse the nation has become: just under half the residents are Hispanic, Asian, or African-American. In these multilingual neighborhoods — one in three speaks a language other than English — middle-aged immigrants and their children live in upper-middle-class comfort.
And the “lifestyle type” that is next most common in our ZIP code is “Bohemian Mix”:
A collection of mobile urbanites, Bohemian Mix represents the nation’s most liberal lifestyles. Its residents are an ethnically diverse, progressive mix of young singles, couples, and families ranging from students to professionals. In their funky row houses and apartments, Bohemian Mixers are the early adopters who are quick to check out the latest movie, nightclub, laptop, and microbrew.
In spite of all we have in common with our neighbors — Carol and I fit pretty clearly into the “Bohemian Mix” lifestyle type — we don’t know many people in our neighborhood. There’s a language barrier in many cases: everyone speaks English, everyone’s polite, but as our neighbors walk down the street they seem to prefer to talk with their friends in Russian, Spanish, or an east Asian language. And even when there’s not a language barrier — with African Americans, with third or fourth generation Latinos — our neighbors may simply prefer to spend time with people of their own ethnicity.
We’re comfortable with the fact that not everyone wants to socialize with us. But most Unitarian Universalist congregations expect everyone to know and like and socialize with everyone else. This is in large part because most Unitarian Universalist congregations are quite small — an average weekly attendance of less than 150 people — but I think there’s also an assumption among many Unitarian Universalists that you’re supposed to have a great deal in common with other people in your congregation. In some congregations, you’re supposed to listen to Garrison Keillor on the radio, you’re supposed to vote reliably Democratic, you’re supposed to send your kids to an elite college (which means you’re kind of expected to have kids, and you’re supposed to care a good deal about certain Western cultural icons: Bob Dylan, Beethoven, Betty Friedan, Alan Ginsberg, etc.
But why do you have to try to associate with everyone in your congregation? (Obviously I have to, because I’m a minister, but I’m speaking more broadly here.) Why can’t you just hang out with the people with whom you have the most in common? Why is there so much pressure in Unitarian Universalist congregations to remain so socially homogenous? Why do I feel so much pressure to not say how much I dislike Garrison Keillor, or say the Democrats are too far to the right, or talk about how I believe elite colleges give a crappy education, or mention that I think Bob Dylan and Beethoven are vastly overrated and that I prefer Fernando Pessoa to Alan Ginsberg?
Some people will tell us that it’s racism. Some people will say that it’s classism. Some people will say that there’s a “UU culture.” I’m sure racism and classism are at work, Mostly, though, I think the problem lies in the misguided notion held by many Unitarian Universalists that we are supposed to feel comfortable hanging out with everyone in our congregation. We feel we must achieve a social consensus; we must have congregations where there are no divides of any kind.
That’s why people in my neighborhood won’t fit into a Unitarian Universalist congregation. Yet I believe they might go to a liberal congregation if there were no implicit social consensus they were expected to fit into. I might be wrong in this, but I believe it’s something to think about.