Racial diversity and religious groups

How racially diverse are various religious groups in the United States? The Pew Research Center recently investigated this question, and ranked various religious groups based on a racial diversity index they developed.

Out of 29 religious groups they looked at, the most racially diverse group was Seventh day Adventists, with a diversity index of 9.1. A higher number indicates greater diversity. Seventh Day Adventists are 37% white, 32% black, 15% Latino/a, 8% Asian, and 8% other. The study included only five racial categories, where the fifth category is “other.” Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses come close, with diversity indices of 8.7 and 8.6, respectively.

And where do Unitarian Universalists come in? No, not dead last; don’t be so cynical. With a diversity index of 2.7, Unitarian Universalists come in at 21st place. By way of reference, the racial diversity of all United States adults is 6.6. (Note that this study does not consider the racial diversity of individual congregations, but only of nationwide religious groups; individual congregations may be more or less diverse than the nationwide group.)

Given how white Unitarian Universalism is, I have a couple of thoughts about where we might put our efforts to change that. With congregational polity, no one can tell any congregation what to do; but we can offer incentives to help motivate congregations. So when the denomination and other funding bodies consider funding new congregations, first priority should go to ministers and leaders of color who intend to start non-white congregations; and ongoing funding should be tied to maintaining either a non-white majority and/or a high diversity index. And when existing congregations seek financial assistance of any kind, they can be asked to verify their racial mix, and priority should be given to more racially diverse congregations. In short, don’t belabor ’em with guilt, motivate ’em with money.

The implications of living in a multiethnic neighborhood

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. Continue reading “The implications of living in a multiethnic neighborhood”

Current issues in liberal religion: race

Talk given during a class on the topic of race and liberal religion. I co-taught the class with Amy Zucker Morgenstern at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto on 17 January 2012.

 

I want to begin by telling you a little story. A couple of years ago, I was at a Unitarian Universalist social gathering, and I was standing around chatting informally with three other people, two of whom were white like me, and one of whom was black. I forget what topic came up, but it was some political topic in which I felt race played a part. I do have a clear memory of what I said. I said, “And of course, what was really going on was sheer racism.” The black person said something like, “Well, obviously.” Upon hearing the word “racism,” the other two white people suddenly found something else to do — they melted away from our little conversational group the way snow melts away when it falls on a Palo Alto lawn. The black person watched them go, looked back at me, and said, “Well. I guess they didn’t want to talk about that.” And I replied, “Well, I don’t care.” And the two of us kept on talking.

But I did care. This happens to me a lot. I spend a lot of time thinking about race and racism, partly because from a moral standpoint I’m outraged by racism, and partly because from an intellectual and theological viewpoint the intertwined issues of race and racism provide a major impetus to rethinking the Enlightenment emphasis on individualism and the primacy of reason. Continue reading “Current issues in liberal religion: race”

Robert Gould Shaw, liberal religious patriot

For Independence Day, here’s the story of Robert Gould Shaw to inspire you. Excerpted and slightly modified from a sermon I delivered yesterday at the Palo Alto church.

Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston in 1837 to a wealthy Unitarian family. His parents were Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis; they had inherited money from Francis’s father, and Francis was involved in business and philanthropy. When Robert was five, the family moved to West Roxbury, near the famous Brook Farm community; and when Robert was in his teens, they moved to Staten Island, where the family helped found the Staten Island Unitarian church. The Shaws were abolitionists, and they may have been active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves to flee to the northern states.

Given the wealth and influence of the Shaw family, Robert surely could have avoided military service during the Civil War. But he chose to enlist. On April 19, 1861, Shaw joined the private Seventh New York Volunteer Militia. That short-lived unit disbanded after a month or so, and he joined the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Infantry), and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant on May 28, 1861. He became First Lieutenant on July 8, 1861, and Captain on August 10, 1862. While with the Second Massachusetts, he took part in several battles, including the battle at Antietam. In late 1862, he was offered the chance to command a regiment made up entirely of free African Americans from the north. He became Colonel of Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1863.

A small volume titled Memoirs of the War of ’61, published in 1920 by George H. Ellis (who was the printer for Unitarian tracts and books), tells the story of Shaw’s military service through excerpts from his lettersBelow are the excerpts relating to the 54th Regiment, which show his courage, and his growing realization that the men under his command were indeed his equals; for even though he was an abolitionist, like most white people of his day, he began by thinking African Americans his inferiors:

[Upon accepting command of the 54th Regiment, February 5th, 1862. Shaw wrote:] “There is great prejudice against it — at any rate I shan’t be frightened out of it by unpopularity.” March 25: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me.” March 30: “The mustering officer who was here to-day is a Virginian, and he always thought it was a great joke to make soldiers of ‘n——s’ [African Americans], but he tells me now that he has never mustered in so fine a set of men, though about 20,000 have passed through his hands since September. The skeptics need only to come out here to be converted.” Morris Island, July 18: “We are in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise for the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”

Shaw was offered the post of greatest danger and greatest honor in the assault on Fort Wagner, and accepted immediately. Here is a contemporary account of what happened, written from South Carolina on July 22 by an unidentified person attached to General Strong:

The troops looked worn and weary; had been without tents during the pelting rains of the two previous nights. When they came within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first and the Major the second battalion. With the Sixth Connecticut and Ninth Maine and others they remained half an hour. Then the order for ‘charge’ was given. The regiment marched at quick, then at double-quick time. When about one hundred yards from the Fort the rebel musketry opened with such terrible fire that for an instant the first battalion hesitated; but only for an instant, for Colonel Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and with another cheer and shout they rushed through the ditch and gained the parapet on the right. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on was shot dead and fell into the fort.

Thinking to humiliate Shaw and his family, the Confederate Army, shocked that a white man would serve with African Americans, buried Shaw in a common grave with his soldiers. But his parents were pleased by this, and wrote:

We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!

The story of Robert Gould Shaw is a classic story of patriotism. He gave his life in service of his country; more to the point, he gave his life while serving the highest ideals of his country, the ideals of freedom and equality for all persons. And in this case, the ideals of his country, and the ideals of his Unitarian faith, were clearly aligned. It is a classic story of patriotism, yet even so, Shaw’s patriotism questioned a dominant notion of his day: that African Americans could not serve with distinction in the military. So you see, this is a story of how a religious liberal pushed the boundaries of patriotism.

Notes:

Quote from Shaw’s parents from Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform, by Lorien Foote (2003: Ohio University Press). Other quotes by and information about Robert Gould Shaw from Memoirs of the War of ’61 (1920: George Ellis); the online biography of Shaw at the UU Historical Society Web site; and other online and printed sources.

Reasons for decline

In yesterday’s post, I talked about the numerical decline of Unitarian Universalism, and asked why we are declining. Readers left thoughtful and interesting comments giving their ideas of why we’re declining. In tomorrow’s post, In Thursday’s post, I’ll suggest some ways we might reverse our numerical decline. Now are some of my thoughts about why the numbers of certified members of Unitarian Universalist congregations are declining:

(1) During the Great Recession, congregations have been facing budget shortfalls, and one obvious way to cut costs is to reduce the number of certified members. Congregations pay dues to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) and to their local district for each certified member; fewer members means less dues to pay.

(2) UUA salary guidelines are pegged to congregation size, so a congregation that is hiring a new staffer may have motivation to have fewer certified members in order to drop down to a lower salary range in the guidelines.

(3) People who come from no previous religious background may see no benefit in becoming members of a congregation, or may not understand membership.

(4) Membership is declining because there are fewer people in our congregations — more on this in this next set of comments. Continue reading “Reasons for decline”