Not Your Traditional Dialogue on Race: Building Partnerships with Multicultural Arts Organizations

First, thanks to Peter Bowden for the invite to guest-post on UUGROWTH.COM. This is a great website!

My name is Josh Pawelek. I’ve served as the parish minister at the Unitarian Universalist Society: East in Manchester, CT since the summer of 2003.  Peter was curious about a recent opportunity I had to preach at Middle Collegiate Church in New York City’s East Village.  Middle’s senior minister, the Rev. Jacqui Lewis has become a familiar face to many UUs in recent years as a popular workshop leader at the UUA General Assembly. UUs have also been attending Middle’s Leading Edge conference for a number of years. Among her many skills as a pastor, Rev. Lewis knows how to build multiracial, multicultural congregations. Middle is an old and historically white congregation going back to the Dutch Reformed settlers who founded Manhattan. Yet, through concerted and very intentional effort over the last thirty years, Middle has grown into a wonderfully diverse spiritual community and a leading voice in a variety of faith-based social justice movements in the city and state-wide.

On the evening of Feb. 12, Rev. Lewis and I preached a dialogue sermon on race and racism in the United States entitled, “Many Voices, One Song.” Watch the video:

In this sermon we both tell a bit of our own stories in relationship to US racism. We reflect on current events. And we offer a hopeful vision and call to action. It’s a simple structure, but hopefully a compelling one. Certainly UUs have been wrestling with race and racism in a very intentional way since the 1992 General Assembly Resolution on racial and cultural diversity. But, just like the nation, we have many miles to go. A dialogue sermon on race and racism is simply one tool we have available to us in our efforts to build antiracist, multicultural congregational identity.

Having said that, sermons on race and racism are, in the end, not what has shaped Middle Collegiate into the congregation it is today. In short, Middle made multicultural arts central to its worship celebrations. (The term “service” is off limits at Middle: every worship is a CELEBRATION!)  Amazing music, visual arts, dance, poetry and puppetry from a wide variety of cultural traditions are what transformed Middle’s worship into a weekly CELEBRATION. On the evening of February 12th, the featured artist was Tituss Burgess. I confess I didn’t know who he was before I arrived. It turns out he is a Broadway star and a cast member on 30 Rock. If I didn’t understand before what Jacqui Lewis meant by celebration, I ‘got it’ once I heard Tituss sing! 

What can our UU congregations learn from this? Of course, it’s rare to have a star like Tituss Burgess in your congregation. And most congregations don’t have the kind of talent that Middle’s membership has, or the budgets to bring in that kind of talent on a regular basis. But it is also true that in so many communities in the United States, especially urban communities, there is a wide range of talent and a great diversity of artists from many cultural backgrounds. And most artists don’t operate in a social vacuum. Most artists participate in arts organizations, and many such organizations have unique cultural and/or multicultural identities. Why couldn’t a congregation partner with a multicultural arts organization?

We’ve been asking ourselves that question at UUS:E. It makes sense to us. Partnerships with arts organizations are an excellent avenue for building relationships with artists from diverse backgrounds, for creating new markets for artists’ work, for bringing people into urban centers, and for opening new pathways to explore spiritual themes beyond the Sunday morning sermon. Building relationships with artists is also a way to avoid the pitfalls of cultural misappropriation. Towards all these ends, our largely white, suburban congregation has begun to build a partnership with the Charter Oak Cultural Center, a multicultural arts organization located in downtown Hartford. The week after I preached at Middle, UUS:E and Charter Oak co-produced our first event, a performance by spoken word artist Uni Q. Mical. Uni Q. performed at Charter Oak on Saturday night the 18th, then participated in worship at UUS:E on Sunday morning the 19th. My post about Uni Q.’s trip to Hartford is here.  The text to Uni Q.’s poem, “restless sleepers (a motion picture),” which she wrote in response to our February theological theme of restlessness, is here.  And, for a taste of what Uni Q. is like in concert, check out one of her more famous poems, “The Radical Homosexual Agenda,” (which she also performed at UUS:E, though a slightly edited version) at 

We are only at the beginning of building our relationship with Charter Oak, but so far so good. It is helping us to think in new ways about what it means to build an antiracist, multicultural congregational identity. It is helping us to realize there is so much more we can do than the traditional antiracism workshops, sermons on white privilege and educational movie nights, as important as those are.  Middle Collegiate Church is a shining example of how a congregation can be transformed through multicultural arts. There’s no reason to think we can’t  experience such transformation if we continue with purpose and vision down this new path.

UUA Video: Multicultural Ministry

Watch video #10 in the UUA’s “A Religion for Our Time” series.  Read more about the series.

Insights from the fifteen-year journey of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis (UUCA), Maryland, toward becoming a more diverse congregation.

“So the question is, how do you in your church begin to move toward this multiracial, multicultural paradigm?” asks UUCA Associate Minister Rev. John Crestwell. “And it’s simple. It has to become a conscious, deliberate, and determined effort of the congregation. You’ve got to look at every aspect of your ministry and make every aspect of that ministry speak to the reality that you seek.”

Standing on the Side of Love in RI – Remembering a fallen friend

Vigil honoring David "Doc" St. Germain

David “Doc” St. Germain

David St. Germain

David St. Germain

While many of us were going about our business as usual,  Unitarian Universalist, activist and friend of my family, David St. Germain was hard at work embodying our popular “Standing on the Side of Love” campaign.  He worked for justice on behalf of the poor and the homeless.  He worked to make prostitution behind closed doors illegal. He worked for democracy, justice and Barack Obama.  He was doing the work I think many of us aspire to, the work our faith calls us to.

On July 23rd David took his life.  Why?  As I understand it, he lost a piece of paper and he was poor.

David had been suffering horrific pain from an accident he was in while serving as an EMT.  Doctors found the only treatment for his pain was narcotics.  Poor and in low income housing, his treatment was governed by the policies and provisions for medicating the poor.  One of them is that you can’t give away or lose a prescription.  That would suggest you’re either addicted or selling.  When David lost a recent prescription on the way to have it filled, he violated his pain contract and was instantly tagged a drug seeker and was banned from receiving what doctors had found to be the only effective treatment. Soon thereafter David took his life.

I met David through my mother, Ruth.  They were dear friends and fellow members of the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI.  I was fortunate enough to have some good conversations with him, share meals, listen to him play the guitar and make the children laugh.

David was “Standing on the Side of Love”  in Providence, working for justice for all people with a huge loving heart and sharing countless bear hugs along the way.  We held a vigil for him on July 28th at the RI State House with over 200 people attending from a huge range of organizations, coalitions and congregations.

For those wondering how to make Unitarian Universalism more multicultural, multigenerational and representative of the greater population — of great interest these days — just follow David’s lead.

Work for justice.
Use a bullhorn.
Give lots of hugs.
Never stop.

Articles
In Loving Memory of Dave “Doc” St. Germain
Providence Journal story

Bob Kerr’s Projo article

Media
Providence Journal Video
by Kris Craig
Remembering Doc Video from Candlelight Vigil
by Robert Malin
Photos of the vigil
by Tobias Goulet

Donations
Donations in David St. Germain’s name may be made to the following.

  • David St. Germain Social Justice Fund
    First Unitarian Church of Providence
    1 Benevolent Street
    Providence, RI 02906-1167
  • Open Table of Christ Kingdom Fund
    1520 Broad St.
    Providence, RI 02905

Vigil honoring David "Doc" St. Germain


Photo in this post by Tobias Goulet used by permission via Kate Eliot.

UUA Video: “Multicultural Worship” and related resources

Watch video #7 in the UUA’s “A Religion for Our Time” series.  Read more about the series.

Episode Seven, “Multicultural Worship,” illustrates how worship at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, DC, is designed to serve a diverse community. Worship planners at All Souls ask themselves every single week, “How will we reflect in worship the experience and traditions of many different cultures?” Honoring the multiculturalism of the congregation and the neighborhood is an intentional process at the heart of All Souls. And it’s a process that can be used in any Unitarian Universalist congregation.

RELATED RESOURCES

Top UUA resources on Multiculturalism

Multicultural Growth & Witness: A New Staff Group
Coming July 1st, 2010: Multicultural Growth & Witness, a new staff group dedicated to partnering with congregations and leaders to promote intentional multicultural growth and ministry, inclusion, and congregation-based public witness and social action.

Book: The Arc of the Universe Is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-racism, and the Journey from Calgary, L. Takahashi-Morris, J. Roush, and L. Spencer (2009), Boston, MA, Skinner House.

The Arc of the Universe is Long covers the fourteen years that begin with the passage of the racial and cultural diversity resolution at Calgary, in Canada, in 1992 and traces developments through General Assembly 2006. Using interviews and written records, the authors bring to life the voices and stories that represent many perspectives, all addressing issues of race and ethnicity in our congregations and our association.

Video: The Arc of the Universe: the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Anti-Racism Work
In this video from General Assembly 2009 the authors of “The Arc of the Universe” Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, Dr. Leon Spencer, and Rev. Chip Roush. share their painful and transforming experience writing and compiling this detailed history of the Unitarian Universalist anti-racism journey. Their voices were augmented by many others during this workshop: Rev. Bill Sinkford, Rev. Jose Ballister, Dr. Finley Campbell, Rev. Josh Pawelek, Rev. Mel Hoover, Rev. Clyde Grubbs, Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley, Rev. Patricia Jimenez, Rev. Danielle DiBona, Janice Marie Johnson, Rev. Marta I. Valentin, and many others, in a moving mosaic of experiences spanning 17 years since the Calgary resolution in 1992.

Descriptions excerpted from uua.org

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