exploring our beliefs, living our values, changing our world

Toward Diversity

The 1960s civil rights struggle has had a lasting impression on our congregation. It has affected our institutional identity and in some ways is symbolized by the shape and look of our mission and even what we and visitors see in our church building. I will discuss some of the history of UUCJ, focusing on issues of diversity. I will present survey data from several periods to give you a sense of the thoughts members had on social justice/action, diversity and related issues. Then, I will discuss where we are based on a recent survey many of you completed. Finally, I will suggest what all this means to us in terms of a path forward.

History

From the beginning, people and organizations made life hard for UUs in Mississippi. Our church even had an infiltrator. In the early 1960s, UUCJ had a “long-standing” member who was feeding information to the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission. As late as 1961 he was the building and grounds person on the executive board. In January 1962, he resigned his post and later on wrote a number of red-baiting and racist columns for the Clarion Ledger. The Mississippi Sovereignty Commission’s online archive has a number of electronic files (letters to the commission, UUCJ orders of service, etc.) that the member submitted.

In 1963, the UUA was pushing congregations to open services to everyone, regardless of race. We agreed with the UUA. As a result, about 25 to 33 percent of the members left the church. Later that year Reverend Donald A. Thompson began his ministry at UUCJ. Reverend Thompson, and Power Hearns, a long-time member of the church, were actively involved in the Mississippi Council on Human Relations, a closely-surveilled organization.

In 1965, Florence Newman, a founding member, initiated the first integrated head start program in Mississippi. No doubt the church and particular members were discussed at Citizen Council and Klan meetings. Also in 1965, Reverend Thompson was shot by racists thugs and severely injured. The congregation urged him to leave Mississippi for his safety and that of his family. With the Thompsons’ departure there was another decline in membership. This led to the formation of a dedicated core of civil rights oriented members. According to Gordon Gibson, minister to our church in the late 1960s and also in the early 1980s, the church demonstrated “an exhibition of openness: openness to out-of-state civil rights volunteers, openness to housing the Council on Human Relations, openness in membership policy when other Jackson churches were calling in the police to enforce racially exclusionary attendance policies, openness to ‘radical’ members like Bill Higgs (a white attorney who handled some civil rights cases until he too was driven from the state), and so on.”

Our stance on civil rights wavered a bit with our proclamation against the James Meredith march in 1966. The UUA and many of its member congregations supported the event. Maybe UUCJ members were battle weary. How did members feel about the church and facets of church life in the 1960s? Some information is available from a 1969 UUCJ survey administered during the tenure of Reverend Gibson. Five of seven respondents mentioned the liberal/free aspect of UU faith as being most significant for them. Other aspects mentioned were fellowship (especially inclusive fellowship), arts/music, recreation, and solving problems. Diversity, social action or justice was not mentioned.

In a 1971 survey, the magic wand question was asked: ”You have just been handed a magic wand with which you can make the [UUCJ] just what you want it to be. Tell us what you come out with.” One member mentioned having “enough of a black core group would have been attracted so that white members would no longer need to feel that they had to plan outreach to blacks while at the same time there would be no question that the life-problems & life styles of the black community would be represented by the group.” Another mentioned just having “100 paying members who could join together to act as a strong, unified body to attack the problems we face in Jackson in police misconduct, racism & poor schools, low quality newspapers, etc.” In the other camp, however, one member felt that social action was hurting the church: “Listening to the church members and in some cases non-members stress Social Action when the apparent intent is “Help the Blacks,” as if this is the only problem in Mississippi and disregarding the fact that the church came to its lowest position in its history for doing this very same thing.”

In the early 1980s there was some conflict around the issue about providing financial support for the release of Eddie Carthan and a group known as the Tchula Seven. Carthan was the first black mayor of Tchula. One month shy of completing his first term he was accused of assaulting a police officer. This and other subsequent charges, including one that accused Carthan and seven other leaders of corruption, were trumped up. Rallying support from around the nation, the Tchula Seven and Carthan eventually were acquitted. Our congregation’s social action committee voted a motion down to show our support for Carthan and the Tchula Seven.

Given our past, maybe we decided to keep our heads low. In a 1981 survey, 64.1 percent of UUCJ respondents disagreed or held little agreement with the statement “I think that we need greater emphasis on social concerns.” Perhaps as a testament to the way questions are constructed, when the question was worded as support for “social problems in the community” in a 1982 survey, the percentage of members who strongly agreed or agreed was 88 percent.

Addressing diversity from another front—spirituality, one respondent in a 1987 survey wrote “My spiritual feelings and my husband’s astrological beliefs are not acceptable in the local group so I had to refrain from expressing them and get understanding and support otherwise…Since you haven’t paid attention to former surveys I see no need for answering this one.” Twenty one percent of respondents felt “social concerns” were among the more important interests for them.

In terms of church interests, intellectual stimulation and personal friendship (fellowship) topped the list with 22 affirmative responses in a 1991 survey. Religious freedom or religious alternatives ranked 13—the same place as arts and music. Action on social causes, while not at the bottom, ranked at 11. The bottom choices were building and grounds (4) and guidance in daily living (2). Those who did write comments, however, did tend to list topics dealing with “different religious ideas,” “a wide variety of spiritual thought and paths,” and social issues. On a positive note, according to 2011 UUCJ survey, we have a higher regard for social action than during any prior period surveyed.

Other Data

It is important to see if we as a congregation are changing over time. In other words, does the church change as people rotate in and out of the church? Here again we can look at survey data to help piece together a picture of who we are. Focusing on marital status, education, occupation, and theological identity, there are a few noteworthy changes to report. In terms of marriage, the easiest way to explain the declines represented in the table is to suggest that there is an increasing tendency to be in some form of a relationship other than single, married, or divorced. Always high, our membership has gone about as far as possible in terms of education. Approximately 96 percent of our congregants in 2011 had a BA or higher. By comparison, BA or higher respondents in the Baylor Religion Survey of 2005 who identified themselves as “theologically liberal” were a little over 69 percent and mainline Christians were nearly 60 percent. Looking at occupational change, I noticed two things: 1) the sharp decline in science/engineering and 2) the increasing dichotomy between professionals and respondents in other occupational categories. It is also worth noting that in 2011, we have a sizable number of retirees. Finally, we remain heavily humanistic in orientation. Christianity, never a high-ranking choice in the congregation, slid farther down the list in the latest survey. Conversely, agnosticism and atheism have increased in appeal.

What does all this mean? In some ways, we have changed and that change will force us to gradually think about diversity in different ways as our demographics continue to shift, even if the change is slight in some ways. Furthermore, what are the implications in terms of dialogue, problem solving, and even recruitment as we become more concentrated toward the higher end of the spectrum on a number of status factors?

Diversity

Turning our attention more specifically at the issue of diversity, how do our members feel about the issue? In a set of questions about various facets of church life, the question “How important to you are the following aspects of attending services and meetings at our church?” Openness to social diversity had the highest average positive response (2.76) followed by intellectual stimulation (2.74) and fellowship (2.61). Group experience of participation and worship had the lowest at 2.16. In another set of questions, we thought diversity was highest with our friends, then our city/town, our workplace, and lowest in our neighborhoods. We tended to agree or strongly agree to “Diversity in schools is important for a good quality education.” and “America’s growing religious diversity has a positive influence on individual religious beliefs.” Finally, a higher percentage of respondents give the church low rather than high marks in dealing with issues of diversity.

The value diversity brings to the congregation was expressed in a number of ways by respondents. One of the most favored views about diversity was that it broadened the horizons for both the individual and the church. One respondent wrote: “It challenges us to see the world in a larger and more complete way. It enables us to be more in touch with the full range of humanity of which we are a part.” Another touched on how diversity made life richer using an example from art: “I see it as the difference of a colorful painting vs. a black and white pencil drawing.” Or my personal favorite: [Diversity] is like Baskin Robbins, the more flavors, the better.”

Tokenism and dissension/Balkanization were two major ways that respondents saw diversity as a weaknesses. Said one member about Tokenism: “we need to be aware of the potential to highlight the pleasure of seeing diversity in our congregation to ensure we don’t make a particular member feel like the ‘token’.” Another wrote: “Diversity that merely makes those in power feel good about themselves is not real diversity; real diversity breaks down systems of homo-social promotion, changes the power structure of the congregation, and makes its culture vulnerable to transformation.” Other members felt that diversity could slow down consensus and maybe even weaken the “forcefulness and effect of the group.”

Discussion/Conclusions

When I was first asked to talk to you about diversity, I wondered how I would deal with such a broad, fuzzy topic. Sociology as a discipline looks at diversity through a number of different lenses—race, ethnicity, class, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. For many people diversity is squarely centered on race or gender. It is not that easy. I’ll give you a quick example. A year or two ago, two men (one white, the other black) found their way to my doorsteps. They asked to see Mckenzie. Both were in slacks, short-sleeved shirts with ties, and looked quite honestly, like Rush Limbaugh. Both asked what church we attended. I told them if they had anything to ask Kenzie they should ask me. I let them know that religion, to me, was a private matter and it was not definitely not something to discuss in the doorway with complete strangers. After returning the religious tract they offered me, they turned to me and said: “Well, we’ll see you in heaven…maybe.”  The fact was that both men were the same in their millennialistic and very exclusionary belief system.

What about classism? Is it a strength or weakness that we have such highly educated congregations around? Our faith has a long history of class friction with the Universalist siding with the common man and emotions and our Unitarian heritage relying on reasoning and being reserved. Are our high levels of education and occupational prestige a blessing or a curse? Our humanism? Our spirituality—oh that is a topic for another time.

I think one of our biggest problems has been commitment—by congregants, friends of the church, and even those in the wider community who would benefit by what we have to offer but for one reason or another do not come. The philosopher Josiah Royce originated the concept of beloved community. In his view, loyalty was at the root of beloved community, and especially loyalty to something greater than ourselves.

Commitment among members is particularly troublesome. In the hundreds of documents I have studied dealing with this church, I have noticed that we tend to be very touchy and are quick to find issue with others. And when we find evidence, and we will surely will, quite a few of us bail ship. In the 2011 survey, most of the statistically significant differences are between respondents who consider themselves members or friends. Those committed enough to be members value diversity higher than do those who identify themselves as friends. Why? And does this mean the more we are committed to social justice and diversity, the more likely our numbers will decline? Especially when we move from passive forms of change (studying/reading/talking) to more active paths?

We do not need to wring our hands, wail, gnash, and put on sacks and ash. We value diversity—some of us think we can do more. They are right. Most of us could do more by enlarging our circle of associations within our towns, neighborhoods, workplace, and among our friends. In our church, we should be more ecumenical and more public. I think that might attract a larger number of more diverse people. We need to highlight our history here in Jackson. I don’t know where the local ACLU and other organizations would be if UUCJ were not here in the 1960s. Why aren’t there more Rainbow Food people here? Why did we cede our liberal heritage? Was it too hard to maintain? Apathy?

To me, church is more than me, it is us. I think we do okay with diversity. Twenty-nine percent of members and friends who thought UUCJ was doing poorly on increasing its racial/ethnic diversity. What do these respondents offer as solutions? Furthermore, would they be willing to spearhead diversity initiatives? Its all about action, not talk. When I looked at the UUA webpage entitled “Congregational Stories About Justice & Diversity,” I did not see stories about how people just complained, sat, or studied diversity. Those UUA stories were about action-not blind action, but action guided by the congregation’s covenant. I read stories about activities that actually lead to diversity. Diversity is enhanced when we pinpoint needed changes to our congregational culture that foster transformative dialogue and action (First Parish Cambridge video, 2011).

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