After this service, one of the wonderful leaders, J., who attended Mark’s talk at our church, and who had said he wished he could come to Thursday’s meeting (“Toward a More Diverse UUCPA”) but had a conflict, came up to me and said, “I wasn’t going to come Thursday because I had a prior commitment. It’s still prior, but this is more important. I’ll be there.”

Do you see why I am filled with confidence? Do you see why I love my congregation and have such faith in their ability to do whatever they set their minds and hearts on? I can’t wait ’til Thursday.

Sermon: “Getting Unstuck”
June 19, 2011

Happy Father’s Day! What is it we are celebrating when we celebrate fatherhood? I ask this question because it strikes me that the answer is very different now than it would have been in 1911, or for that matter, 50 years ago, in 1961.  There have always been fathers, and the expectations of what it means to be a father is strongly passed down from father to son, and yet fatherhood has changed, for individual men and their families, and for society as a whole. This is good to remember, because according to some points of view, namely a lot of women and mothers I know, there is nothing more resistant to change than an American father. Clearly, it’s not true!

At some moments, we believe that change is all but impossible, whether on a personal, an organizational, or a social level. On a personal level, we know all too well the cycle of resolutions and failures: of swearing to work out more, eat less, change our work habits, but not achieving the change we aimed for. We can sing every day with the hymn we shared earlier:  “I wish I could live like I’m longing to live.”  (“I Wish I Knew How,” Singing the Living Tradition, No. 151) We know all about the frustration of asking our spouses to change just one single annoying habit and having it never happen; of trying to get our housemate to just empty the darn dishwasher instead of pulling clean dishes out of it on an as-needed basis; of getting our employees or co-workers to abide by a few simple common-sense guidelines that they’ve been resisting for year. We are very good at sabotaging change efforts. We do it so effectively that it’s sometimes amazing that change ever happens at all.

And yet it does. As William Schulz (Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, former Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, and former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association) retold when he spoke here two months ago, he was once part of a conversation where academics were debating whether the state of human rights was better now than it was 100 years ago. One after another lamented that it wasn’t, but if I’d been there, I’d have responded to them the same way Schulz told us he did: by asking them, “Are you guys nuts?!” The advances have been truly incredible. A step back for every two forward, often, but still, the change, a change for the better, is clear.

What happened with human rights, with the changing roles of fathers and mothers, women and men in our society—did human nature change?  Or are there perhaps more concrete, repeatable ways to bring change about?

I’ve been reading a book about change recently because I’m particularly interested in how to bring about wanted changes. It’s called Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath. Like everyone, I have all sorts of hypotheses about why individuals, organizations, and societies do or don’t embrace change. But hypotheses beg to be tested, so I turned to research. There has been a wealth of research about what works for people seeking to change. The Heaths’ book digests this research and sets out some principles, beginning with three surprises about change:

(1)   “What looks like laziness is often exhaustion”; help people to tap into their source of energy and they will change.

(2)    “What looks like resistance [to change] is often a lack of clarity”; give clear, specific direction and have a clear destination, and people will change.

(3)   “What looks like a problem with the people is often a problem with the situation”; tweak the situation, and people will change.

We can get very stuck, and stay stuck, and I’d like to spend the rest of my time this morning looking at one case of stuckness and what we know about how to shift it from research such as that compiled by the Heaths. The case I’m interested in is Unitarian Universalism’s welcome, or lack thereof, of people of color—what the Reverend Mark Morrison-Reed constructively frames as “missed opportunities.”

Reverend Morrison-Reed is a historian of African-American pioneers in Unitarianism, Universalism, and our denomination since the merger of the two in 1961. He has written a few books on the subject, and his first, Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, published almost 30 years ago, has been on the required reading list for ministers in preparation for many years, and I’m happy to learn, still is.  He spoke at our District Assembly last month, and then here at UUCPA a few days later, invited by our Minister of Religious Education, Dan Harper, who also wrote the opening essay in Rev. Morrison-Reed’s most recent book, Darkening the Doorways: Black Trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism. In that book, Mark told one story that illustrates this problem of getting stuck.

It’s the story of the hymnal commission created after merger, in order to create the first hymnal of the new, merged denomination, the one just before our “gray hymnal,” the “blue hymnal” called Hymns for the Celebration of Life. It was the early 60s and the commission included people who were acutely attuned to racial justice and the racial issues of the country, particularly black-white issues. One was Kenneth Patton, who led the way in shaping a Universalism that drew on all different traditions and world religions, and who made headlines when he wrote an essay declaring his resignation from the white race. Another was Christopher Moore, who founded the Chicago Children’s Choir, an intentionally multiracial, multicultural chorus that began at the First Unitarian Church of Chicago.  And yet the hymnal that resulted had not a single reading by an African-American poet, not a single song from the African-American tradition.

The moral is that sometimes we don’t even know we’re stuck. Good people, with lots of knowledge and good intentions, and a commitment to racial justice, might still replicate old patterns.

What do we know about change that suggests some ways we could move forward? In particular, how might we apply this knowledge here, at UUCPA?

I don’t know if Mark Morrison-Reed has read Switch, but I’ll tell you, he successfully used some of their principles on me.  When I went to his address at District Assembly, I was already on board emotionally with the dream of a Unitarian Universalism that is abundantly multiracial and multicultural. I agreed with the UUA president, Peter Morales, that welcoming newcomers is “the spiritual equivalent of feeding the hungry and housing the homeless,” because we have already found here something that they need and are looking for; I saw outreach to people of color as part of that mission. I had taken steps toward leading this congregation in that direction. But I didn’t have a lot of energy for the task. It felt overwhelming, like an uphill and uncertain path.

Here are a few things Reverend Morrison-Reed said and did that helped get me unstuck. More, they showed me some ways that we as a congregation can get unstuck.

I’d love to share the Heaths’ whole framework with you first, but I can’t do it all this morning. I’ll just tell you a few things that happened for me over the past month to change me from a person who vaguely wished we were more diverse, to someone with a fire in the belly, a plan in mind, and the means to make it happen—starting with the workshop I’m leading this Thursday evening, which I hope you’ll attend.

One thing they advise is to make a big job less overwhelming by shrinking the change.  To stay motivated, we need hope, and we get hope by knowing that we’re partway there.  Studies have shown how big a difference this makes.  For example, in one experiment a group of people was given a card to fill out, eight car washes and then they would get a free car wash; and another group was given a card that said “ten car washes and you get a free car wash,” but it had the first two already punched.  Eight to go for these folks, and eight to go for these folks. The ones who had the ten-minus-two were much more likely to complete the card and get the free car wash—which was of course exactly what car wash owners wanted them to do. They got to the goal because they were already partway there when they started. Well, I went to this workshop and learned from Mark how attractive Unitarian Universalism is to people of color—how many times in our history African-Americans, for example, have eagerly come in our doors, saying “This is what we’re looking for!”–and then I started looking at how many people of color and multiracial families are already here in our congregation, and I felt this burst of energy. I was feeling so overwhelmed before, but look, I already have two punches on my card!

UUCPA shifted me. One of the keys to becoming a multiracial, multicultural congregation, Mark said, was the support of lay leaders. Like any big change, it won’t happen unless there’s a broad range of dedicated supporters among the leadership, and here is where I must apologize, because I had a lot of doubt on that point.  I looked at his list of keys, realized we had a lot of them in place, but looked at “lay leadership” and thought, “I don’t know. I don’t know if they want this.” Then Mark spoke here in our Main Hall a few days later. The crowd wasn’t big—about what I expect for a mid-week speaker, 22 people in addition to me and Dan, and I know because I counted and wrote down their names. But it was made up of people whom, if there were any change you wanted to make happen in this congregation, you would want to be pushing in your direction. I looked around and thought, “Wow, we do have that key too.” I’ve also been encouraged by the response of the Board and the number of leaders who have either told me they’ll be here on Thursday, or if they have another commitment, have taken the time to say, “I’m so glad you’re doing this—how else can I support it?”

A third thing that the Heaths advise that’s been happening for me over the past month is to look for bright spots—look for where you are already having success making the change—and replicate them. Again, there is abundant research on how effective this approach is, which I’ll share with you another time. For example, let’s look at that hymnal commission.  It would be easy to bemoan this missed opportunity—or we could look for the bright spot, which is that, as Mark Morrison-Reed points out, the next hymnal commission did much better. The hymnal they produced, our gray hymnal, is full of resources from African-American poets and writers, and music like the hymn we sang earlier (“I Wish I Knew How”). So how do we clone that? We know some of the things the second commission did differently, and we can repeat them so as to notice the opportunities we might be missing now and grab them.  For example, as Reverend Morrison-Reed pointed out, we can open our eyes to all the contributions Latino culture could make.

He started his workshop presentation at District Assembly with another bright spot, a video of a congregation that has successfully made the shift I’m hoping we’ll make, Davies Memorial in Prince Georges County, Maryland. We’ll watch the same video on Thursday. It’s a congregation I already know and admire, so that I felt, “Look, we’re already doing it there in Maryland!” It’s in much the same situation as UUCPA: it’s near a liberal urban center and located in the midst of a large middle class population of people of color. In Davies’ case, it’s the biggest black middle class population of any county in the US; in our case, it’s a huge population of middle class Latino and Asian people, a county in which 68% of the people are other than white European-American Anglos. (For the moment, as Reverend Morrison-Reed suggested, I’m setting aside considerations of class and classism, although as K. [our Worship Associate] said, they’re important too.)

Finally, the research cited by the Heath brothers emphasizes the importance of marshalling one’s sense of identity to bring about change. People don’t change when they’re told “You’re resisting change because of the kind of person you are.” They change when the change asks them not to go against their identity but to honor it. Reverend Morrison-Reed helped do that for me. He could so easily blame the whole problem on the kind of people Unitarian Universalists are, especially white European-American ones like me: that we’re not open to change, or want our congregations to remain full of people who are mostly like us, or that we’re not very welcoming. Instead, he points out how good we are, how concerned we have always been about racial justice, how anxious to be welcoming—all of which is true. It’s a part of my identity, a part of our identity, to make this change.

There’s lots more to learn and lots more to do, and I hope you’ll join me. In Julius Caesar, Cassius says to Brutus that the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. But actually, what we know about what’s happening when people stay stuck, and what’s happening when we change, tells us that we are not fated, by either the stars or our natures, to stay exactly as we are. The more we know about our own natures—what motivates us—the better we can make any change we envision. We can do this. Please join me.