Sunday, November 20, 2011

“No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here”

Attaining diversity and inclusion is not a linear process. As soon as you think you’ve successfully tackled an aspect of prejudice or inequality, you have to go back and assess the situation. We see that in so many fights against inequality in this country. Are we living in a post-racist, post-sexist time? Definitely not, though we’ve made great strides as a nation. It should go without saying, though, that you cannot check off the “anti-racist” box in your search for equality quite yet, no matter who you are or what you believe. You have to keep checking the system.

In the UCC, we pride ourselves in being all-inclusive. When I told some friends about the diversity assessment presented at the Joint Boards meeting this last weekend, their reaction was “well aren’t you already an all-inclusive church? I thought that was kinda your thing.” And its true, our church history is pretty impressive when it comes to prophetic activism. In 1785, a historical strain of the UCC became the first Protestant denomination to ordain an African American pastor. In 1853, we ordained Antoinette Brown, the first woman since New Testament times elected to serve a Christian congregation as a pastor. The UCC’s Golden Gate Association ordained the first openly gay person, Rev. William R. Johnson, as a minister in an historic Protestant denomination in 1972, and in 2005 the General Synod became the first leadership body of a large U.S. church to support equal marriage rights for same-sex couples. That’s a pretty good list of firsts, and is just skims the surface of the UCC’s push for equality and inclusivity in its polity and activism. “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here,” is a tag line the UCC wrote and embraces.

So why are we still concerned with justice, equality, and inclusivity in the UCC? Well, I don’t think it can be denied that when one battle of this sort is won, another two present themselves. The UCC did not, and could not, abandon the issues of racism once it ordained an African American pastor. Just because a system no longer actively prevents groups of people becoming leaders, it still may unconsciously (or, unfortunately, consciously in some cases) prevent groups from being molded into leaders. And that’s just one aspect of universal inclusion. In every group, the majority of the people don’t want to necessarily be a traditional “church leader,” but still deserve a church that holds their presence as a thing of value.

This past meeting I think the Holy Spirit called the UCC out a little bit. The Collegium was about half way through their diversity report, when a woman stood up and asked for a point of personal privilege. The room went quiet as she, in obvious frustration, remarked the lack of acknowledgement of people with disabilities in the presentation. When she was speaking, two other women stood up in solidarity with her comment. It was a humbling moment for the whole body, and apologies were gracefully made. Geoffrey Black, the UCC’s General Minister and President, made a good point, though, when he said, “This is not the first time we’ve had this conversation.” Inclusion and equal access is not a linear process. We can’t even hope to name every marginalized group at this point. As the world grows and changes, our dynamics as society change as well. We need to go back and check ourselves to really make a difference.

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