First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County

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How Colorful Is Your Circle?

May 31, 2015
Rev. Sandra Fees

How colorful is your circle? This is a question I have been asking myself a lot lately.

My circle of professional, religious, family, and personal relationships is diverse. I regularly interact with people of differing sexual orientation, religion, political party, economic status, age, gender, ability, race, profession, education, and interest.

I live in a very diverse neighborhood, which has a growing Muslim and Hispanic population. I feel fortunate to belong to three interfaith groups, which include Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Baha’is, and many varieties of Christians including Lutherans, Methodists, United Church of Christ, Quakers and Brethren. When I am in these groups, I pay closer attention to what is being shared, striving to bridge any differences in theology and outlook. I invariably learn something unexpected or discover questions I hadn’t thought about before. One of these interfaith groups is the Pride Interfaith Service group. That team includes people of different faith traditions who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender – and straight. There I am being reminded that many individuals who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender continue to be excluded from many traditional religious communities.

My Unitarian Universalist community is diverse in sexual orientation, age, income, ability, and theology.

My most intimate circle of friends and family – and I’m talking here about my closest relationships - includes a Jewish poet, a Christian educator, a Buddhist librarian, a Taoist retiree, and a young adult college student. These are the people with whom I regularly share my deepest fears, longings, and delights. This intimate circle is not as colorful as I would like it to be. When it comes to race, my closest circle of kinship does not include anyone of color.

And I am not alone. A 2014 survey shows that Americans’ friend circles could use some racial diversity. This is especially the case among white Americans. 75 percent of white Americans discuss important matters with other white people - exclusively. Only 15% have racially mixed social networks. 65 percent of black Americans reported all-black networks. And 46 percent of Hispanics reported all-Hispanic networks. (survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, http://publicreligion.org/research/2014/08/analysis-social-network/#.VWcXIc9Viko)

Let me just say a word about the study. People were asked to name seven individuals with whom “they discussed important matters in the last six months.” They were asked to name five attributes of those individuals.

Just think about that for a moment. If you were asked to identify seven people you shared deeply with in the last six months, who would they be? Who are the seven individuals who you would turn to for important and risky conversations? Americans reported on average only 3.4 people in their network. Eight percent of those asked named no one.

The results reveal homogeneity in American friendships and social networks. So how do Americans feel about that? How colorful do Americans want their circles to be? Public Radio International wanted to find out. Not long after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, they asked people. One person said: "This is just Northeastern Kentucky. What do you all want us to do, start busing in friends and sing kumbaya around the campfire or something. We associate with the people that we want to associate with. It’s that simple." Another person said: "I don’t see the necessity to prove to America that I’m not racist. I don’t go out and get me a black friend so my friends know I’m not racist."

Not everyone "pushed back." Another person said: "Demographics and where people live makes a big difference as far as exposure to people of different cultures. When you meet them you just can’t get enough." And yet another said: "It has to be an intentional effort that starts early on so that children grow up feeling very comfortable with people of other races and as a result friendships continue through adulthood."

(Race and Americans’ Social Networks, The Takeaway, WNYC Radio and Public Radio International, Host John Hockenberry)

A couple of things jumped out at me in these responses. For one thing, not everyone considers having a colorful circle important. Sadly, I already knew that. For another, there are barriers to achieving diversity in one’s social networks. And there’s something else. Racial diversity is often viewed as a personal choice, one that is culturally enriching and that helps us grow and learn, but nonetheless an individual choice.

Why is that important? Because the focus on personal choice misses the broader implications – the societal implications. Even if I had the world’s most colorful circle of friendship, which is important, that alone would not be enough. It would be a start. But there’s much more to it than that.

Kai Wright, an African American features editor of The Nation magazine, and formerly editorial director of Colorlines, argues that diversity is more than a matter of individual choice. He says:

Diversity is great for everyone’s cultural enrichment. There’s also a question of the broader issues we are trying to solve as a nation. Opportunity is still doled out along racial lines. …. Some of the pushback … is rooted in this idea that racism today is about individual choices. Since the end of the civil rights movement, we say, “I individually am not racist …” So we can move on. [Yet] we continue to have these racial divides because by policy we have outcomes driven by race, which is hard to understand because [we] don’t live together.

When the conversation focuses on individual choices, the broader justice issues – policy and outcomes - get back-burnered. And as Wright says, opportunity is doled out along racial lines. Our education system and public schools are prime examples of the way that plays out. The wealth gap is another example. The gap only deepens because most wealth is being held in homes. And as long as residential segregation continues – including white flight to the suburbs - the wealth gap will also continue. The ongoing segregation of our neighborhoods keeps intact historic barriers to building relationships across races.

The consequences of these barriers go largely unnoticed, unacknowledged, and are misunderstood. Coming out of Ferguson, for example, we learned that blacks and whites thought about the events quite differently. No wonder. For the most part, African Americans and white people don’t live in the same places. If white Americans had more experience living in black neighborhoods and were familiar with policing practices there, white people would immediately have understood the relevance of black Americans taking to the streets after the killing of Michael Brown. (Wright)

So not only does it matter how colorful my circle is and how colorful I want it to be, it also matters how colorful our circle is, our collective circle. Our Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to ask not only “how colorful is my circle?”, but also to ask “how colorful is our circle?” How colorful are our institutions and organizations and neighborhoods?

As Debra Faulk wrote in our chalice lighting words: Ours is “a faith built on freedom, reason and tolerance … a faith of wholeness.”  Wholeness for everyone. Opportunity for everyone. Our UU principles promote justice and fairness for everyone. Our principles affirm the worth of every person. Our principles call us to justice and equity in human relations. And the sources of our faith include prophetic words and deeds that challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice and love.

Think Jesus. Think Martin Luther King, Jr. Think Gandhi. These prophets and teachers confronted structures of evil with justice and love. They worked to break down engrained barriers to fairness. They worked to dismantle systems that perpetuated segregation. They fought to improve opportunities for everyone.

Our congregation has begun intentional conversations about race. Members have been searching their lives and raising their awareness. Members are examining their own choices, attitudes, and assumptions about race. We are learning, in the words of our closing song, which we will sing in a few minutes: “to trust the wisdom in each of us, every color, every creed and kind.” We are learning to “see our faces in each others’ eyes.”

Our first step is to search our own hearts and transform ourselves. Our faith demands that we also grapple with the broader societal challenges.

What will it take for us to gather a more beautiful assortment in our worship life? What will it take to build a more colorful religious community? What will it create more colorful schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods? How can we begin to turn the world around?

I can think of no better way to conclude this month’s exploration of color than for us each to reflect deeply on these questions and explore answers together. I encourage you to ask not only how colorful is your circle, but also how colorful is our circle? How colorful do we want it to be?

Amen. Blessed be.