What is Unitarian Universalist Culture?

The Rev. Joshua Mason Pawelek –

A month ago—June 15th—we held a conversation in this sanctuary about Unitarian Universalist culture. Our Anti-Racism Committee sponsored this conversation in response to a series of short essays published in the summer issue of the Unitarian Universalist World magazine collectively entitled “What is UU Culture?” About thirty-five people attended, including two members of our congregation in Meriden. It was a good conversation. I was very appreciative of those who found the courage to admit they don’t always feel fully a part of our congregation because some aspect of their cultural identity doesn’t quite fit, doesn’t feel completely welcome. In this regard people spoke mainly in terms of class and sexual orientation. We’ve invited five participants from that June 15th conversation to share their thoughts in our newsletter in the coming months.

What is UU culture? This is not a new conversation for Unitarian Universalists, not for this congregation, not for me. What may be new is the emphasis on culture rather than race. Make no mistake: this is a conversation about who feels at home in UU congregations and who doesn’t; and this is a conversation about our vision of a more racially and culturally diverse religious community. And until recently, we’ve framed the conversation in racial terms: “Why are Unitarian Universalist congregations so white?” For me this continues to be an essential question to which we ought to keep seeking answers. Our congregations have a very high percentage of white members and yet our principles would seem to imply or encourage or create a more multiracial, multi-ethnic, multicultural religious community. Furthermore, we take great pride in our theological diversity—in the fact that in our worship services agnostics sit next to atheists who are sitting next to theists sitting next to Jews next to Buddhists next to Pagans next to Christians next to mystics next to scientists next to people with no idea who they are theologically next to modernist earth-based, Taoist-inspired former Episcopalians married to Bhagavad-Gita-reading, yoga-practicing, Sufi-oriented former Roman Catholics. (I made those last two up in case you’re wondering who I’m talking about!) you.) One might think that such theological diversity would result in greater racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. One might think. But it hasn’t. Why are we so white?

For years our answer to this question was, essentially, “We’re so white because of our own institutional racism. Address racism first, both within our congregations and in the larger community, and then we’ll grow in racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity.” I still think this is the right answer. I still think we need to maintain a keen focus on institutional racism and vigilance in cultivating an anti-racist identity. And I recognize there are other ways to frame the question, other right answers. The new framework for this conversation suggests that we stop fretting over our obvious racial imbalance, that we stop criticizing and lamenting our own institutional racism, that we stop wringing our hands over our whiteness. As the Rev. Marilyn Sewell put it in her essay in the World, “Let’s take off the hair shirt.” Instead of a focus on race, let’s look at culture. Perhaps our prevailing whiteness is rooted in a unique culture, rather than solely in deep, unconscious, institutional racism. In a 2009 lecture entitled “We Must Change,” the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt of the Fourth Universalist Society in Manhattan, said “race and ethnicity have stood in during our conversations for something more ineffable, more complex, more edgy than we are willing to discuss. We are speaking as well about matters of culture—Unitarian Universalist culture—that many of us have been unwilling to acknowledge.”

In his column in the summer issue of the World, Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association wrote: “I have come to believe that the barriers of culture and social class are even more difficult than the barrier of race. We have seen this in our nation with the election of Barack Obama and in our UU movement with the election of the Rev. William G. Sinkford and myself to the presidency. Each of us is less threatening to the dominant culture because we are the products of elite educations and have spent our lives in the dominant culture. If Barack Obama sounded like a poor urban African American he could not have been elected. If I sounded like San Antonio’s West Side barrio, I would not have been a minister at a large congregation, much less president of our Association.”

And the Rev. James Kubal-Komoto reminds us, again, that this conversation is about who feels at home in UU congregations and who doesn’t. In his World essay he says, “until we understand . . . how our predominant culture makes some people feel welcome and some people feel unwelcome in our congregations, we will utterly fail in our efforts to become more welcoming to all who seek a liberal religious home within Unitarian Universalism.” Hence the new question, “What is UU culture?” But if you had to answer this question based on the essays in the World, you can’t do it. None of the writers answers the question. Kubal-Komoto’s essay describes demographics. He says we have a high level of education with many graduate degrees; we are predominantly members of the professional middle class; many have jobs that are not related to for-profit activity (which is highly correlated with political liberalism); we are predominantly white with predominantly northern European roots; we are predominantly middle-aged and older; we are predominantly female. All this rings true to me, but it doesn’t describe our culture. These demographics could lead to any number of cultural expressions.

The Rev. Jason Shelton suggests we have a common experience of having been “dorks” in junior high school. I can’t tell if he’s serious. Either way, he doesn’t describe the culture that emerges from this experience. Offie Wortham’s essay gets closer. He says our culture is “an elitist one, with a highly educated lifestyle that prides itself on certain types of literature and reading, foods, etiquette, vacations, dress, speech, dance.” These are all elements of a culture, but he doesn’t say specifically what they are. What foods? What literature? At the end of his list he adds “NPR and classical music,” which begins to tell us something about culture, but only in the broadest sense. This collection of essays doesn’t answer its own question.

Here’s my description of some of the elements of culture in our congregation. Whenever I speak about culture I use a definition I learned from an antiracism trainer and organizer named Anne Stewart, an African American Mennonite from Evanston, IL, originally from Mississippi. Anne says “culture is how you do life.” So, how do we do life here at UUS:E?

  • Dress, attire: casual, comfortable, low-key, earthy, not flashy.
  • Food: when possible, locally grown, organic, unprocessed, healthy.
  • Meat: not much; more of an afterthought.
  • Coffee, tea and chocolate: ‘fair trade.’
  • Community meals: pot-luck style; ingredients for many dishes are written out on note cards for the sake of those with food allergies. If the meal is not pot-luck, then it is likely pizza.
  • Hymns: from a variety of traditions, though mostly from western European and European-American hymnodies with lyrics updated to express theological diversity, gender-inclusivity, and liberal religious values.
  • Prelude, postlude and offertory music: most likely classical piano— sometimes two classical pianos—but also pop, folk, rock, reggae, gospel, blues, occasionally jazz. You never know for sure what style of music you will hear on Sunday morning but, except for the hymns, virtually all the music we offer is secular, not sacred.
  • Visual art: we’re still trying to figure out what to put on our walls! We have art shows from time to time, where the art is for aesthetic enjoyment and, sometimes, for sale. Quilts are important, both for their beauty and their capacity to absorb sound. There will be a rainbow flag soon!
  • Dance: Not a dancing congregation. We use dance infrequently in worship and I can’t remember the last time we held a dance. I’m not much of a dancer myself, but I really mean this when I say maybe we ought to dance more!
  • Poetry:  Nature-oriented, mystical. Mary Oliver, Rainer Maria Rilke, Walt Whitman, Jelaluddin Rumi.
  • Politics: left of center, though we forget sometimes there are people farther to the left than ourselves. We also forget there are people in our congregation who lean towards the political center, towards the Republican Party, towards fiscal conservatism, towards Libertarianism. We have a hard time hearing those perspectives here.
  • Gender Roles: We still have them, but officially women can hold any role that men can hold, even Buildings and Grounds chair!
  • Sexuality: We teach human sexuality to our middle-schoolers and are proud to do so. We don’t speak too much about sexuality in our adult public discourse, but we aren’t prudish.
  • Norms for sexual relationships: we still have heterosexual norms but more and more we believe and try to live out the words of Holly Near song when she sings “we are gay and straight together.”
  • Money: We are ‘New England’ private when it comes to money, though we’re getting better at talking about it, in part because we really needed to talk about money when we held our capital campaign.
  • Conflict: Our instinct is to avoid it, but we’re getting better at that too!
    Language: English.
  • Decision-making: Roberts Rules of Order for the Policy Board and congregational meetings; some form of consensus-building for most everything else.
  • Rituals: Our religious life is not highly ritualized. We light a chalice at the beginning of worship, which may confuse people from other traditions where they drink wine from it. We provide time each Sunday for members and friends to share their joys and concerns. We hold hands and say closing words at the end of each service. We celebrate homecoming in September, Flower Communion in the spring. We hold a vaguely pagan Day of the Dead service in the fall to remember our deceased loves ones.
  • Religious Holidays: we celebrate Christmas and Easter, though they are more about midwinter and spring respectively than they are about the birth and death and resurrection of Jesus.
  • Worship: Protestant in form, with the sermon—the word—featured as the climax of the service.
  • Worship affect: We are not overly emotional in worship; we generally do not yell out, offer praise, faint, spasm, raise our hands, sway, genuflect or speak in tongues. We lack what some would call “evidence of the holy spirit.” Some of us would like a little more spirit. Others would like less. Preacher’s note—there’s a great spirit here.
  • General affect: warm, welcoming, chatty.
  • Memorial services: As much as possible, we celebrate the life of the deceased and don’t speculate about what’s next.
  • Values: Love, compassion and justice. Truth. Inegrity. Religious freedom. Individuality. Spiritual and religious questioning, searching and journeying. By the way, Jenn Richard and I chose her songs today because, while examples of secular pop music, they resonate with UU spiritual values:  “True to Myself.” “With My Own Two Hands.”
  • Faith: We put our faith in this-worldly interdependence with the whole of life and strive to live in harmony with the earth. How we live is as important, if not more important, than what we believe.

Does this sound to you like our congregational culture? I hope it suffices for at least a beginning description. If I had the time to dig deeper, I could make links from these ways of doing congregational life back to the demographic characteristics Rev. Kubal-Komoto listed in his essay. Some elements of our culture are rooted in our whiteness, some in our predominant middle to upper-middle class identity, some in our suburban location, some in our relatively high level of education. I am proud of our culture and I also recognize its limits. There are many people of all races and ethnicities and classes and who will be inspired by the Unitarian Universalist principles and who will possess liberal religious sensibilities, yet who will not feel comfortable in our congregations precisely because their expectations about how congregations ought to do life do not match how we do life. On one level that’s sad and we ought to do everything we can to open ourselves up to a more multicultural religious identity. On another level I want to resist the urgent call: We must change! Of course we must change if we want to fulfill the promise of our principles and our theological diversity which, for me, means building an authentically multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multicultural religious community. But institutional change of this sort doesn’t happen overnight. It cannot be rushed.

How do we change? I think we begin by hearing the voices of those who are already here who say they sometimes feel like they don’t belong. Why do they feel that way? And what would make them feel more universally welcome? That is where we must begin: with the people who are already here. We need to celebrate more intentionally the diversity that is already among us. If we can learn to do that—admittedly it feels like a small step—but even that is not easy—then we will be learning how to signal to others with far different cultural expectations that there is indeed a space for them at UUS:E; that they can find a home here.

Amen and Blessed Be.



Sewell, Marilyn, “Let’s Take Off the Hair Shirt,” in “What Is UU Culture?” Unitarian Universalist World Magazine, vol. xxiv, No. 2, Summer 2010, p. 33.

McNatt, Rosemary Bray, “We Must Change” Unitarian Universalist World Magazine, vol. xxiv, No. 1, Spring 2010, p. 41.

Morales, Peter, “Hand in Hand: The New America,” Unitarian Universalist World Magazine, vol. xxiv, No. 2, Summer 2010, p. 7.

Kubal-Komoto, James, “Our Narrow Niche” Unitarian Universalist World Magazine, vol. xxiv, No. 2, Summer 2010, p. 31.

Kubal-Komoto, James, “Our Narrow Niche” Unitarian Universalist World Magazine, vol. xxiv, No. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 30-31.

Jason Shelton, “The Junior High Factor,” Unitarian Universalist World Magazine, vol. xxiv, No. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 31.

See Crossroads Antiracism Organizing and Training at: http://crossroadsantiracism.org/.