I sang for my supper by preaching at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende (UUFSMA) last Sunday. It turns out that in addition to the week’s stay at a home provided by the congregation, Joy, Munchkin and I were treated to lunch afterwards and got to take the day’s flowers home. Generous compensation for an easy morning; I prepared, of course, because I always do, but it was much easier preparation than usual because I’d given the sermon in essentially the same form two years earler at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto. Text version is here, audio here. They were a nice bunch, intelligent and friendly.
Ten percent of San Miguel de Allende’s population come from elsewhere, and 70% of those are from the US or Canada. There are a fair number of expatriates and retirees, and lots more who come every year for a few weeks or months, plus a goodly share of one-time tourists. That’s whom the congregation serves: English-speakers who are here permanently or transiently, that is, mostly norteamericano retirees, snowbirds, and visitors. It is therefore elderly–our hosts joked that we brought the average age of the room down significantly–and has no children’s religious education or child care. As a result, we won’t be going much, since we can’t go together; if one of us goes to church, the other has sole charge of the munchkin all morning, which is okay now and then but far from a desirable every-Sunday arrangement.
They have a weekly discussion group that sounds really interesting, and a Wednesday lunch that we found welcoming, and “Circle Cenas” (like many UU congregations’ Circle Suppers). Everything seems very well-organized for people to drop in, with all information in the weekly order of service, few of the activities requiring an ongoing commitment, and membership offered in various categories to reflect the fact that many members also have commitments to another UU congregation. It’s also organized to gather up the comparative wealth of the congregation and give it to the local community; the church gives away 75% of its post-expenses budget to various San Miguel organizations, and with an all-volunteer staff, its expenses are low.
I’ve run into a couple of people who only started going to UU church when they came to San Miguel, so I know the church is doing outreach (perhaps only passively, though it advertises its services and its location better than a lot of US UU churches). Its outreach, however, is only to English speakers. It announces its weekly services in the English-language newspaper. Services, classes, group meetings are in English.
It makes me wonder about the possibility of having a church here that serves the local population–not just in the sense of the support the UUFSMA gives to San Miguel, but in the full sense that any UU church serves its members: a center for shared worship, religious education, justice work, pastoral care, etc. The vibrancy of the little group of norteamericano UUs points up the lost (or shall we say, not yet taken) opportunity to make Unitarian Universalism known to the tens of thousands of Mexicans who live in and around San Miguel.
How does one sustain a bilingual, bicultural congregation? As someone at UUFSMA noted, to make the Sunday service bilingual would make it very long. But there are other models for bringing people together into one congregation without a common language; San Jose, CA, seems to be making one work, as do many congregations in other faiths. E.g., where I live (near San Francisco) many churches have large populations that speak only or mostly Tagalog, Tongan, Chinese or Spanish, alongside those that speak only or mostly English.
Or might UUs in San Miguel start a truly Mexican congregation, maybe linking the two congregations in some kind of partnership but recognizing that they will be quite separate? There are a couple of emerging congregations in Mexico City. San Miguel might be a candidate for another.
How would someone go about starting a Mexican UU church in San Miguel, given the UUA’s unofficial franchise system (not to mention its almost complete lack of engagement with the world outside the US and Canada)? What resources does the UUA or International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU) offer to help a new congregation start in a town that already has one, in a way that diminishes any sense of rivalry and increases the partnership between them?
We also frown on UU ministers starting up congregations that they will then serve. There are good reasons for this, but it means that the only way for a new UU congregation to get started is for a very devoted group of laypeople to work at it, probably for many years, before they have the resources to bring in even a half-time minister. It also wastes the tremendous resources that ministers have to offer. In the case of San Miguel, many ministers have come through and led a service or a class; occasionally they retire to the town themselves. Maybe one who was not yet ready to retire would want to plant a church here, if they could count on support. Surely there are ways to safeguard against the problems that can come along with a minister helping to found a congregation: say, a requirement that the minister serve for only a certain number of years (five?), then has to be voted in or out by the congregation, as in the late (and lamented, by me) Extension Ministry program.
I’m not interested in the job (at least, not for another thirty years or so), but the questions make me want to do a little research into the other faiths represented here in San Miguel. I bet some of them, other than the Catholics of course, came from somewhere else and offered their message and their service to Mexicans. Maybe some of them even did it with the respect for the local culture that I’d expect from UU outreach. I’d like to see how they did it and how it’s going.