Sunday, September 05, 2004

Conflict Over UUism

This morning we attended, for the first time, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Monica. Unitarian Universalism is a liberal religious community that requires adherence to no particular creed or dogma but bases its unity on a set of fairly general ethical principles. My mother is a member of the congregation in Waterloo, and I have attended the occasional service there and in Hamilton.

I am conflicted about whether I want this particular institution to be a regular feature of my life. On the one hand, UUism is definitely ethically engaged and sometimes socially engaged, and this particular church has an active social justice committee. On the other hand, the politics that UU churches tend to embody are not my politics. The congregation in Santa Monica appears to very white, very middle-class, and despite being officially welcoming to queer folk, there seemed to be fewer people (I only saw one, in fact) representing a queer sexuality in their personal aesthetic than in Hamilton or Waterloo. Of course, I am white and middle-class and straight, and it would be snobbish and unproductive to dismiss other people because they share that identity. However, a clustering of identity among self-selected members of an institution can be a useful indicator of the institution's practices and politics -- when few of those members are members of historically oppressed groups, that can be quite telling.

The service was presented by a guest minister who is executive director of an NGO devoted to mobilizing Los Angeles' faith communities in support of low wage workers. Her sermon was on an important local labour struggle, which is pitting low-wage hotel workers against their multinational employers. I heard her speak on KPFK last week, in fact, and it sounds like her organization (founded and still chaired by Rev. James Lawson of civil rights movement fame) does some great work. However, there was a hint of self-righteousness and noblesse oblige to it all that I find icky -- not to her organization, but rather to the framing of social justice issues within the main body of this specific congregation. Not that I'm feeling very confident these days with my own ability to advance a political practice that combines the privilege inherent in my identity with effective, radically grounded social change work, but given my feelings of lack in that area right now is this really a place where I can find what I'm looking for?

An illustration of the positives and negatives was the story that one of the members of the social justice committee read to the congregation's children as part of the service. It provided a brief history of labour and Labour Day. There aren't many institutions of any sort that make a point of including any working-class history in education for children. But the history that was presented omitted what is for me one of the most important features of Labour Day: The North American labour hierarchy advocated for its adoption as labour's holiday instead of Mayday (even though Mayday's origins as a significant day for labour around the world come from events that took place in Chicago) in an effort to distance itself from the more radical labour movements elsewhere in the world.

Another example: The latest newsletter of the social justice committee had a short essay on prison reform, as they are thinking of adopting that as an issue in the future. I think that's great because prison reform is often something that gets neglected by progressives with privilege. But the essay did not once mention the issue of racism, which is central to prison issues on this continent -- a vastly disproportionate number of those adversely affected by the right's law and order agenda are people of colour and Aboriginal people.

So I'm going to wait and see. I think it's a question of more clearly defining for myself what I might want from this institution before I can decide if some part of that can be found there. One positive discovery was that there is a weekly peace vigil in a park just a few minutes walk from where we live now, so I'll definitely be checking that out on Friday.

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