There is something in the human spirit that craves diversity. People share the urge to learn about other cultures by reading or traveling. There is growing religious pluralism in our country and increased interest in experiencing the spiritual practices of other religions.
Among Unitarian Universalists, there is also a very real longing to be in a spiritual community where we are surrounded by the sacred gift of otherness. We revel in diversity. Norbert Capek knew this need well when he created the Flower Communion. He was not satisfied for his community to be a plain and simple church. He wanted theirs to be a beautiful church. So do we.
The current tenor of discourse in this country seems to belie the idea that humans share this desire for diversity. The xenophobia, racism, and sexism we are seeing might lead us to think that diversity is undesirable and fosters hatred – at least in some segments of our population. The gift of otherness is not always received as a gift. Being amid people who are just like us can be a lot more comfortable. The truth is diversity can trigger fear and discomfort – in politics and in religious community. Individuals need only search their own lives with fierce honesty to see that we each embody aspects of that fear and discomfort within ourselves. Diversity challenges us to change, and most people don’t like change.
And yet, embracing diversity is a profound cry of the human heart and soul – and a need we all have. Encountering the other is the path toward such beauty, toward wholeness and healing for all of us. Rev. Fred Muir says: “Diversity means embracing otherness and, in so doing, becoming whole.”1 None of us can be truly whole until all of us are given a voice and a place at the table. The Unitarian Universalist principles promote the spirit of otherness. We affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person not just those like us. Our call to justice and world community as well as the affirmation of interconnectedness among humans and non-humans urges us toward greater inclusivity.
Over the past few months I have had the opportunity to visit a variety of communities I am not regularly a part of. I spent time with progressive African American Christians, Hindus, and Buddhists as well as Unitarian Universalists. Each of these experiences brought me into new understandings of otherness.
At an anti-racism conference in Houston, I worshiped and learned side by side with progressive African American Christian leaders. I was there, so obviously everyone was not black. There were a few white people, also Jews, Latinos and Latinas. I felt welcome even as I found myself experiencing otherness – both feeling myself to be other and having an awareness of the diversity around me.
As Marcus Aurelius said, “We are the other of the other.” How true. Sometimes the members of a community, the people who hold the power, forget that, that they too are the other.
At the conference, I became aware that the preachers and workshop leaders were using the term “we” throughout the conference. One of the recurring messages was that “’we’ need to find ways to hear the voices of young people and those who are not in our churches.” They were not talking about Unitarian Universalist churches. They could have been talking about UU churches. But they were directing their attention to the traditional black church and launching an important self-critique. I was awakened to the struggle of the black church to be more age diverse. I never thought about the black church having to struggle to be more inclusive of young people. I think of white churches as the ones needing to work on diversity, not black churches.
But why should this be so surprising? Most religious communities have to wrestle with how to be faithful in sharing power and pushing beyond the status quo. Religion can be one of the most conservative institutions. The result is to block certain people and ideas from full participation. Unitarian Universalist congregations, like other faith communities, are challenged to make space for the bodies and voices of the other. Despite our espoused desire for diversity, people of color, immigrants, transgender and bisexual people, millennials, people with disabilities, Christians and Muslims, as well as others too often find themselves outside or on the edges of the circle of community.
The Flower Communion embodies what Rev. John Crestwell, one of our Unitarian Universalist ministers of color, calls life’s “beautiful assortments.” May we revel in the beautiful assortment. May we honor all the colors and all the flowers of who we are.
But this morning, let us also hold fast to our aspiration for a truly multicultural community, diverse in so many ways we may not yet imagine them all. Let us revel in the colors and flowers of those who have yet to arrive.
I offer each of you this challenge this morning. Do not lose hope. Hold on to the dream. I want to come and go to the land where we are bound with a beautiful assortment of people. That is the land of freedom and justice. Believe that it is within our reach. I can see it. Can you?
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.