I Refuse To Pass…or Why I Will Leave Unitarian Universalism

I don’t feel like going over U.S. racial history right now, so if you don’t know what I mean when I talk about passing–email me and I’ll talk to you about it.

Now…I’m not saying that I’m leaving Unitarian Universalism today…I’m here at least until the end of my internship in July…but….

Earlier this year John Katz wrote: Damn right I don’t listen to music that promotes violence, misogyny, and homophobia. Nor do I wallow in a pop culture that actively exploits anti-intellectualism.

And last week he wrote: But to me both authors [Paul Rasor and Rosemary Bray McNatt] seemed almost frantic to expand our numbers, and at the same time almost eager to compromise who we are in order to do so.

Just exactly who are we? And why is it that the implication is that the only “good” UU is the upper-middle and upper class Anglo-Saxon one?

I’m tired of being constantly asked to pass. I’m tired of having to decide how much of myself I will be able to bring into whatever UU church I walk into.

Yes…I listen to Jay-Z, T.I.,Eminem, Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre and still mourn the loss of Tupac. Yes…I read Omar Tyree and Wahida Clark. Yes…I think one of the best music videos ever done was Ice Cube’s “Today Was A Good Day.” Yes…I watch Divorce Court and Maury and All My Children.

Yes…I am college educated and working on an M.Div. Yes…I watch Charlie Rose and Masterpiece Theatre and have fallen in love with Law and Order:UK. Yes…I read the New York Times and Barbara Kingsolver and Walter Brueggemann and have a list of books by Richard Rorty and Julia Cameron and Anthony Pinn that I plan to read. Yes…I listen to Copeland and Mendelssohn, Coltrain and Miles Davis.

So Mr. Katz, did the UU church compromise itself when I walked in the door? What was I supposed to be other than who I am? Am I not good enough for your UU church?

Why should I give up listening to Jay-Z just because I join a UU church? To satisfy your elitist vision of what UUism is (and just so you know I happen to know the difference between someone being elite and being elitist)? Why do I have to pass in order to make you feel comfortable? Why is your culture the standard?

One of my favorite church songs when I was growing up (and one I still sing sometimes) was “Just As I Am.” If you want to know why most UU churches aren’t growing, I’ll tell you. It’s because we don’t take people just as they are and tell them that they have to give up some part of themselves in order to be accepted by us. That is the reason I will leave Unitarian Universalism. I refuse to pass and I’m tired of being asked to.

Coda: After reading the comments, I’ve come to realize that maybe I titled this post wrong. I probably should have titled it I Refuse To Pass…or Why I MIGHT Leave Unitarian Universalist. However, I think I’m using the English language right the way I used it–by saying that X will be the reason Y happens. Anyway…I’m not leaving just yet; although I think I’m going to be splitting my time between a UU church and another church in whatever city I end up in. While I do have other religious options, I see part of my role as speaking up for those who don’t have religious options besides Unitarian Universalism. I want to make UUism as open as possible–without feeling like I’m being trampled on in the process.

19 thoughts on “I Refuse To Pass…or Why I Will Leave Unitarian Universalism

  1. I don’t know who John Katz is, but it sounds like he doesn’t know what he’s talking about music-wise. At any rate, he’s welcome to his opinion, and I’ll keep mine. I agree with you about Ice Cube’s “Today was a Good Day.” Kanye and Eminem are in heavy rotation on my iPod, but maybe this is just a generational thing? Maybe Mr. Katz is an old fogey? Just a guess. Anyway, you’re right that some UUs are snobs, but then again so are some Catholics, some Lutherans, some Jews, some Baptists, and so on. I’m a lifelong UU who watches rodeo and the NFL, loves Godzilla movies, doesn’t drink coffee, has both hip hop and country stations pre-programmed on his radio, and has plenty of other “low-brow” characteristics, but I ain’t apologizing for them. I’ve got every right to be exactly who I am and if another UU doesn’t like it, they can just deal. If Mr. Katz doesn’t like it, I frankly don’t care, and I invite you not to care either cause you’re welcome in my congregation. I’m grateful that my theology is big enough to encompass all the snobs, rednecks, jerks, preppies, gangstas, geeks, Republicans, and who ever else wants to show up for services. The door is open for all of them at my church. We’re all bound for the same place ultimately and it only seems decent to start getting to know them now. Although for the life of me I just cannot understand the Justin Beiber phenomenon. But hey, if that’s what people want, they can listen to it all day. Doesn’t get in my way of praying, singing, and listening each Sunday.

    I know Paul and Rosemary personally. They’re both good folks concerned about our UU future. I don’t always agree with them (I don’t even always agree with myself) but it’s always useful to consider their thoughts carefully. I don’t think they should be dismissed as lightly as your reader did.

  2. Okay, I feel like I’m late to the part and about to chime in on a conversation that I don’t even halfway understand, but all I can think is: Seriously? You’re leaving the UU faith as a whole because there are some people in it who disagree with you about the value and impact of some parts of our culture? I am sorry to hear that — and hope you’ll reconsider.

    • I’ve been trying to find a non-snarky way of responding to your comment and can’t think of one. But before I become snarky, I’ll say this…I don’t think of UUism as a faith. I think it is a way of doing faith. It would take me too long to talk about the difference, so I’m not going to here. Maybe I’ll do that later.

      Now to be snarky…

      I’m much more likely to leave UUism because of UUs who can’t tell the difference between me saying that –blank– is WHY I will leave Unitarian Universalism and me saying that I AM leaving Unitarian Universalism. I did not say that I was leaving…at least not right away. That means that there is time for things to change so I won’t feel like I have to leave.

      If you actually read my post then you would see that my issue is not with John Katz critizing popular culture (or parts thereof). My issue is with John Katz saying that Paul Rasor and Rosemary Bray McNatt, because they say that we must engage and reach out to people who like even those parts of popular culture that John Katz doesn’t like, are somehow compromising what UUism is. What happened to welcoming people just as they are? In all their complexity and contradictions?

      If people have to give up parts of themselves(or pass) in order to be a part of a UU church–is that fair? And who is John Katz to say that just because there are people out there who like parts of popular culture that he doesn’t, that UUism would be compromising itself if it reached out to them?

      That’s what I was asking.

      • I think we should have a variety of music and not be rejecting people’s preferences to anything that doesn’t hurt anyone else – some people think it does, but I don’t see how what you listen to affects me. Some UUs don’t like folk music, others don’t like jazz, and some don’t like classical, etc. In some larger congregations they have a contemporary service and a traditional one – anyone should be welcome to join the Worship Committee and the Music Committee to help make choices to what we hear in our congregations – usually pertinent to the message.

        We offer the youth a Sun. a year to do a service which includes their music. This gives us an opportunity to know them better.

        I think the problem with culture change is that we have to ask ourselves, do we change to suit people who are not here yet to welcome them? Or do we welcome people and allow them to be part of our change? And how much of what in the former category would be appropriate? But to decide there are certain types of people we don’t want in our congregations does not allow for true spiritual and personal growth, IMO.

  3. Musical confession: my favorite music is bluegrass and old time string band (ie: 1920s-2930s country music). reading confessions:
    I like to read 1930s-1940s pulp fiction: the real kind – issues of and stories from ,Weird Tales, Black Mask, dime Detective — I recently was mentioned in a book collection of Gangster stories! I don’t think I’ll run across an UU who’s seen my name in that book …I’ve even (as noted earlier) driven on a Nascar track.
    but of course, that’s not exactly what you’re talking about — my music and fun reading could be seen by UU culture as outre, and thus OK; while as noted, your musical taste are part of the mainstream culture and a symbol of what is wrong with America. Can we UUs trust a minister who is out to subvert our lives with hate music? Next thing you know, our children will stop listening to Peter, Paul and Mary and start listening to gangsta rap – or maybe even Mahalia Jackson!
    the quotes admiring UU culture do serve a useful purpose to remind me of the conservatism of Unitarians and UUs historically. Change is never easy or smooth. But those who don’t change flounder and die. Indeed change is so difficult that books on the subject are often on the best sellers list
    (who moved my cheese?). Being on the frontlines of change may not be fun either – depending on one’s own persoanlity.
    Yet, change we will – if not led or helped by you or me – then by someone. I like Peter, Paul and Mary just fine – but can take or leave Holly Near. Some folks don’t like either, and if PP&M and Near was all UUs offered, those folks wouldn’t be UUs. So to increase our inclusiveness and welcomeness we have to offer other things. But those Near and PPM won’t be thrilled.
    Kim, as for you – as much as I would love to go to an UU congregation on my travels and see you preach, you have to be true to yourself and your calling. While I think you’d serve us well, your gifts would serve you well in other places too.

  4. There’s also class bias in UUism. When I was working in a lumber yard, lots of people in my UU church of the time patronized me, and I’ve watched UUs without a college education get snubbed and patronized. Ask most ministers (most of us get lower middle class wages these days) and they’ll tell you about feeling belittled by congregants who say things like, “You can’t afford to go to the Caribbean for a week in February? Why not?”

    My feeling is that the way we’re going to change the class bias in UUism is by creating new congregations that are aimed squarely at people who aren’t upper middle class, and by injecting new energy into existing congregations that are already on the road away from being dominated by upper middle class folk. The problem is, this is going to require major entrepreneurial effort on the part of someone, and a strong willingness to ignore the UUA (which is dominated by upper middle class white culture).

    I don’t know what to do about racial bias within UUism. There are a few truly integrated UU congregations, but the only UU congregations that I know of that were deliberately aimed at non-whites have all folded — it’s tough to keep the faith in such projects when the money isn’t there, and you have to have a salary to raise your kids. Everett Hoagland, a distinguished Black poet and a UU, once told me he sticks with his majority-white UU congregation because he feels most religiously authentic as a Unitarian Universalist, in spite of the obvious racism that exists within the UUA (mind you, his congregation is not nearly as white as most UU congregations).

    I stick around UUism in spite of its obvious class bias in part because I’m a troublemaker at heart, and I like annoying the people who patronize me. But I think Everett hit on the reason that is most important to me — I’ve looked at other faith communities, and I just wouldn’t fit in — I’d feel more of an outsider than I do within UUism. I’ve given up feeling entirely comfortable in my religious home. But I don’t recommend my choice to anyone else, and I wish you luck in finding your authentic religious home.

    By the way, who the heck is John Katz, anyway? I never heard of him before this, and I do wonder why he gets so much airplay.

  5. Both quotes come from here, Dan. The first is from Katz’s original article. The second is from Katz’ comment, both on his article and on those who commented on it. It’s way down at the bottom.

    Katz says something truly remarkable in that comment which I think goes to the heart of why so many of us react so strongly and negatively to what Katz has been saying. There’s a lot that’s problematic about it, but this is what I’d like to focus on. After describing bad behaviors (and assigning them to cultures and subcultures), he says:

    I don’t need to read about these people in a news magazine, I’ve met them. I don’t meet them among Unitarians. I’d like to keep it that way.

    Another way of saying this is, “Go change yourself first, then come back to the Unitarians. We’re not in the business of changing people.”

    There’s more that’s wrong in that one little snippet, but that’s what caught my eye.

  6. I left the UUA in 2007 for several reasons including the Christophobia, the appalling ignorance of Universalist and Unitarian faith, the religiously generic character of present day UUism, and the classism. This classism I believe was a defining characteristic present in the American Unitarian Association and the UUA was formed in the AUA’s image. There’s several reasons why I feel like a fish out of water in the modern day UUA- First, I’m a Christian Universalist. Second, I listen to gospel and spirituals especially in the tradition of Moses Hogan. Third, I love emotional expression and dancing in worship (from my Baptist upbringing). Finally, I watch shows The Simpsons, South Park, Divorce Court, and Mr. Deity. I joined the United Church of Christ in 2008. I have my membership in the UU Christian Fellowship (UUCF), and the Christian Universalist Association (CUA). Ron Robinson and Tom Schade are my buddies and I love them like brothers. They are my models of Christian discipleship and offering hope to renew the UUA. Yes, I have a double Bachelors degrees in Musical Theatre and Sociology, and yes I’m middle class but I shouldn’t have to leave the UUA in order to worship God and follow Jesus in freedom.

  7. Fortunately, love, you are not alone. Though I am not of the UU faith tradition I too, experience a denomination that speaks as though there is tolerance for diversity when in reality there is no tolerance. As I attempt to walk a life true to self and humanity, I find it extremely difficult to walk into any church without feeling as though I must compromise who I am in order to “fit in.” I never did care much for fitting in. It cramps my style. I find that Palestrina helps in these times. The polyphonic tones he composed reveals at least eight different ways to hear life through musical expression. For now, I stand in solidarity with you and all that embraces diversity as a way of life, not a mindset.

  8. Pingback: Diversity, the scientific method, discernment, and other UU blogging « uuworld.org : The Interdependent Web

  9. Another way of saying this is, “Go change yourself first, then come back to the Unitarians. We’re not in the business of changing people.”

    Fortunately, although Katz apparently does not understand the reason for a religious congregation to exist, many UUs do. You do seem to get it, and so I fervently hope you will find many more reasons to continue speaking to and ministering to people who need that transformation. (And who doesn’t?)

  10. Kim, I hope that you don’t leave the church as we certainly need more people with your vitality. I have to admit that I am middle-aged, upper middle class and have rather intellectual tastes; that is just who I am. However, that does not mean that my friends are upper middle class intellectuals. Most are not. No matter our differences – the music to which we listen, the books we read, the T.V. shows we watch (Judge Judy rocks), or even the politicians for whom we vote – we always find something to enjoy about each other. Also I can assure you that the majority of my church is not upper middle class. Socio-economic class is just not considered important in our congregation. Everyone brings their own unique gifts to the table. And that it the main thing that I wish to teach my children.

    Sometimes, UU’s can say things that make people feel that they are not being accepted or welcomed. This may come about because of assumptions and ignorance, rather than judging. But I might point out, everywhere you go, people can say the wrong thing; it is certainly not limited to UU churches. One last thing, if you stay in the UUA, you might just encourage more people who like hip hop, or rap music (or whatever is in style now) to join the church, and that would only be a good thing.

    “We need not think alike to love alike.” ~ David Ferenc

  11. Damn. I wish I could say that I had hope that we’ve almost got our shit together…but I’m pretty sure that’s not true.

    I am pretty ignorant of much of pop culture. Many of the UU churches I’ve spent time in have been pretty friendly to white folk music and contradancing and whatnot (my stuff). Now I’m at one where the organ and Bach are much more important and every once in awhile I hear snide remarks about do-si-do or guitars or whatnot. Not like you at all, but a taste.

    I do have a question, I’ll try to get it in email too–trying to expand musical repetoire at said church and there is a “band” of sorts. Any songs that should be UU church songs that the white band and white ministers aren’t likely to trip over on their own?

    Ellen C-Z

  12. There is an expression: the worst demonstration of Christianity are the Christians.

    I think the same is true about UU’s. Our way of doing faith is fantastic in theory. In practice, it’s being done by lots and lots of flawed, fallen and otherwise fallible human beings who do not always get it right, nor understand that they are being exclusive in an inclusive religion. This is a conversation we’ve had at my church, and I bang my head against the wall when I hear the sorts of things that come out of people’s mouths.

    It hits home for me, because I am in a weird demographic for UUs – 24 and married, husband has a master’s degree but does blue-collar work, I’m in graduate school but have the cultural capital of a blue collar gal. I often feel that I am not taken seriously, to the point that people introducing us at our in-service forgot we were married (we’d told them many times) and introduced us as a single couple. Had we been older, that wouldn’t have happened. Despite the call for inclusion, there is certainly a hegemonic set of traits and life characteristics that people like because it makes them feel at home if they don’t in the rest of the world; unfortunately, they forget to remember their own exceptions.

    Membership in any group requires heavy bouts of forgiveness for its members. Unfortunately, the group does not get better if the people wise to change it choose not to or give up. That’s what I keep telling myself.

  13. What bothers me most about what John Katz said is how it ignores the fact that the type of music and popular culture he wants to shut the door on is reflective of real human experiences. Lil Wayne doesn’t write about violence and homophobia cause he woke up with nothing better to do that day – he writes to express the racism, misogyny, poverty, selfishness, and all other various forms of dehumanization are very much a part of the REAL world. It’s privilege that allows people like John Katz – and many other UUs – to shut the door to things they don’t like in popular culture, rather than engaging these issues in their church community. I’d like to see UUs both call our culture to account for what is wrong with those dehumanizing acts and systems, while a) honoring our country’s legacy of free speech but more importantly b) respecting the creative and healing energy that it takes for a musician to work through some of the terrible things he or she has observed and participated in by turning them into a works of art. And adding a great beat that some of the rest of us like to listen to.

    Meanwhile, just found your blog, and so glad I did. I hope you stay in this movement for a while longer – I’m in my first year of seminary and you sound like a colleague I’d like to have in ministry!

  14. I just found this blog — I realize I’m commenting on an old post where it seems like “the moment” has passed, but so much of what has been written here really speaks to me. My family joined our closest UU congregation with high hopes. Unfortunately, over time we were faced with so many truly uncomfortable situations that we no longer felt like attending and eventually left.

    We were a young family at the time (easily a decade younger than other parents), we homeschool our kids (which people really didn’t know what to do with), and my husband worked a blue collar job that provided our sole income.

    We put forth a great effort to actively contribute and “pull our weight” — we helped form small covenant groups, provide support, materials & supplies to the RE program, co-led several programs, and served on the fund-raising committee each year among other things. Just making the 2hr round-trip to attend services was a feat for us, as gas was very expensive and the distance required us to be away from home an extended period of time so we needed to pack lunch or buy meals out, which was neither convenient nor affordable. But we did it happily… until we realized that none of our efforts were going to make up for the fact that we couldn’t contribute very much financially.

    Before we joined we had a meeting with the minister & several staff members and made it clear that we would give generously of our time, energy, and other resources but that we could not afford to contribute much money. We were told it was okay and no person is turned away from membership due to finances. But almost immediately we began receiving letters, phone calls, and in-person requests from various members of the staff, asking for donations and encouraging us to pledge (or pledge more!). Each time we were forced to re-explain ourselves, which we did patiently at first but it was demeaning after a while to constantly have to apologize for our lack of available funds. I began to feel irritated that our other efforts were not being recognized as sufficient.

    The turning point came one week when three events coincided. First, we received a letter stating that we’d only contributed $5 to the congregation that year. I was shocked — we had been placing whatever we could scrape together into the basket each service! I had no idea that each person’s donation was counted & tallied. I called to correct this mistake and I was told we should have been writing checks so they could be “attributed correctly” to the right person. The idea that our cash donations “didn’t count” and we were only being credited with $5 even though we’d given so much compared to our income, and just the fact that it was tallied & counted AT ALL, like a contest, was such a turn-off! I felt ashamed, outraged, and disgusted.

    Second, shortly after that conversation we received what was the THIRD phone call requesting donations for a particular program — only this time the committee wanted to send someone out to our house to sit down with us in person and “have a discussion about the significant role that monetary contributions play in supporting the congregation”. I said we were well aware of the significance and if we had some to give we would and NO we did not need someone to come out and how on earth do they think it makes us feel to constantly have to say no. I hung up upset.

    That same week we hesitantly decided to attend the Sunday service, which was about tolerance and empathy. Sounded great when we read about it on the church website, however as we sat there listening to the service we learned it was about tolerance for LOW INCOME families. Perhaps you can imagine us trying to wrap our mind around the fact that the worship committee felt they needed to encourage members to TOLERATE people with less money! The minister announced that everyone needed to try an activity to gain understanding of what it felt like to be poor and needy — try shopping & eating on a budget equivalent to food stamps. We sat there, feeling about as small as we could, as the commentary part of the service began and several people stood up to say what a great idea it was, how we all needed to have this humbling experience of what it’s like for other people who are less fortunate, etc. We were so truly shocked that we didn’t know what to say — just three years prior we had gratefully received food stamps to help feed our family. It was the absolute confidence in assuming that not one person in our congregation could have possibly experienced this situation first hand that was appalling to us.

    That’s when I realized that our experiences, our way of life, our limited financial resources were clearly not being heard or even considered. We were considered the outliers and as such we were just… simply… not counted. We felt so displaced and excluded, as if we’d landed on the wrong planet. Later we learned that several individuals as well as two other young families left the congregation about the same time, that they had been struggling with the same issues within the congregation as we had, some for much longer than we were willing to!

    I really do not know what the solution is and I do miss many aspects of being active in a UU community. Our experience is not exclusive to our congregation, many others have shared similar stories — and those are just the people who’ve found the words and gumption to speak about it aloud. It’s a serious, ongoing issue. Some would say that we should have stayed and pushed for change from within, but we were already dealing with as much as we felt like we could handle (and sometimes more than that!) — we were seeking a place where we could recharge our spiritual batteries and rest to catch our breath. We did not need yet another issue to overcome, another struggle to endure.

    My hope is that one day we’ll be able to return and feel *truly* welcomed.

  15. We stumbled over here from a different web page and thought I might check things out.
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  16. frankly i think you have uu completely mixed up and find lack of hard structure or authority in your life uncomfortable. obviously you feel uncomfortable with a church that is so open to who you are when you don’t even know who you are or what you want to believe in and i’m sorry to hear that. hopefully you find yourself soon

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