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.