© Karin Lin 2006. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
November 18, 2006

Ethnicity. Culture. Skin color. DNA. Race continues to be one of the most complex and inflammatory issues in human society. Frustration over illegal immigration has led to anti-Hispanic sentiment. Middle Easterners encounter mistrust and hostility in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Asians, despite their academic and business successes in our capitalistic environment, have yet to be seen as true Americans by many. And while blacks enjoy many more opportunities and freedoms than they did before the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the barriers to achievement due to racial prejudice remain.

We are at the dawn of a new millennium, and yet one sad truth remains: people of different races have not yet learned how to live together as a family. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the racial homogeneity of our churches. For example, the membership of Mission Peak is, by my estimate, 95% white. Contrast this with the population of the Tri-Cities area as a whole, which is 44% white, 36% Asian, 18% Hispanic, and 4% black. (By the way, these percentages add up to more than 100 because of rounding and mixed-race individuals, but you get the picture).

Social programs and domestic policies can accomplish only so much. As George Yancey observes in his book One Body, One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches, "it may be easier to develop a multiracial workplace or school since we are not expected to "have fellowship" with anyone who attends our schools or places of employment." I find this remark to be very insightful. Unlike in many other institutions, churches are where we find some of our closest friends, and it is thus here where we face the test of true racial acceptance. Genuine change must happen in the heart, and I believe that it is up to churches to lead us down that road.

Mission Peak is especially well qualified to blaze this trail. As Unitarian Universalists, we stand out among other religious denominations because our principles not only allow for but demand diversity. Unlike other religions, we don't claim to have the one true answer - our belief system is intrinsically inclusive. Our denomination as a whole recognizes the importance of racial issues, as demonstrated by a resolution passed at the last UUA General Assembly, which charges congregations to hold at least one program over the next year to address racism or classism. Yet I believe Mission Peak is especially qualified even among UU congregations for a number of reasons. Because our surrounding community is so racially diverse, we have a multitude of opportunities to perform outreach and to witness, such as "Wear a Hijab Day" last week which was attended by our own minister, Rev. Chris Schriner. And although our congregation itself is not racially diverse, many of us have multiracial families, work in multiracial environments, or belong to organizations devoted to the advancement of peace and equality.

There are also more selfish reasons for us to pursue racial diversity. An obvious one is our need to grow in number; there are only so many white, middle-class religious seekers in the Tri-Cities area. This is the most often cited reason, but I personally feel it is the least important. A second reason is to achieve credibility in the community. We wish to be a positive force, to promote our ideas of social justice and tolerance. We will be much more likely to be taken seriously if we truly represent the population we wish to influence. The final reason has to do with spiritual growth. The larger the variety of backgrounds and experiences within our congregation, the more we can learn from each other. How much more rich would our children's RE program on world religions be if we had Hindus and Muslims to teach our classes, in addition to Christians and Jews? How much more informed would our services on Buddhism be if we had a number of practicing Buddhists in our congregation? Michele McConville said it most succinctly in an email to me several days ago when she said, "Diversity enriches us all!"

As we ponder the question of where to begin, an obvious place is the question, "Why aren't we already ethnically diverse?" The common and easy answer is that ethnic minorities aren't attracted to Unitarian Universalism because they already have religions associated with their own cultures. To me this is overly simplistic, a way to shirk responsibility by claiming that there isn't anyone out there to join us anyway. I believe there are two far more likely reasons. One is that our church is hard to find, and UUs generally aren't keen on proselytizing. So we depend on events like "Bring-a-Friend Sunday", where we invite the people who are already in our social circles, and those tend to be people who are much like ourselves. To attract a greater variety of people, we need to recruit actively by participating in the community and with creative and targeted publicity. While we may not attract many first-generation, recent immigrants, there are many like myself - ethnic minorities born in the U.S., perhaps in interracial marriages - for whom Unitarian Universalism is a near perfect fit with our enduring search for identity.

The second reason for the lack of racial minorities in our congregation is more subtle, and the primary focus of my sermon today. There are frequently invisible barriers that prevent people of different races from connecting. We see black Christian churches and white Christian churches but very few mixed-race congregations. Racial minorities can feel uncomfortable in an all-white group even if that group tries its hardest to be open and welcoming. I'd like to try to describe for you the reasons for and consequences of this discomfort by recounting my own experience as a first-time visitor to Mission Peak.

It was a little over five years ago when Cade and I first walked through the doors of this sanctuary. I knew a little about Unitarian Universalism, and I was optimistic that both of us - Cade, a Christian, and I, an atheist - could find a home here. Yet although we both enjoyed Chris's sermon, and we were greeted very warmly by many people after the service, I couldn't help but notice and be disappointed by the fact that the congregation was almost exclusively white. I was skeptical whether I could belong and be truly welcomed in an environment where I would be such an extreme minority. In fact, it's quite possible that if Ray and Kimi Kitayama - an older Japanese couple who are no longer active members - hadn't happened to attend that day, I might not even have returned.

Obviously, I did return, and I've found many places to fit in and contribute to this community that I now think of as my family. So it's reasonable to ask me, "Why does it even matter to you whether Mission Peak is racially diverse? Why was it an issue back then, and why is it still important to you now?" To answer that question, I have to convey to you how my experiences growing up as a racial minority fundamentally affect the way I relate to others.

I can list many examples where I have felt my race acutely, from being told as a child that I didn't belong in this country, to dating men with so-called "Asian fetishes", to being stopped by the Border Patrol when visiting San Diego. But there's one incident that stands out to me as a perfect illustration of what it means to be a racial minority. As a child I was open about my family's lack of religion, a rarity in the Bible Belt state of Kansas. My peers saw me as "the weird Asian who didn't believe in God"; one friend even dared to claim that my family didn't believe in Halloween. Many years later, I moved to California to attend graduate school at UC-Berkeley, and later joined a group called Students for a Nonreligious Ethos. One day I was chatting with one of the founders, and he asked me, "So, why is it that so many Asians are Christian?" His insinuation, which he later admitted sheepishly, was that Asians were submissive and incapable of original thought, making them natural subscribers to a dogmatic religion. Apparently in Kansas, being Asian made you an atheist; in California, being Asian made you a Christian.

This, to me, is the essence of how it is to live as a minority of any kind. Your actions are not your own, but are held up as representations of your group's motivations and abilities. Every black man who commits a murder proves that blacks have a tendency for crime. Every gay man convicted of child molestation proves that all gays are sexual perverts. Every woman who struggles in a physics class proves that women are fundamentally lacking in scientific ability. It is, at times, a tremendous burden to be forced to speak for so many people.

The consequence of my experiences is that I have a sensitivity - some might call it a hypersensitivity - to needing to feel that I am welcome in a group when it is evident that I am at least superficially different. I need extra assurance that I belong, that my differences will not be used to exclude me. If Mission Peak wants to ensure that racial minorities feel safe and welcome in our church, we need to be aware and sensitive to these attitudes and reactions that may be different from our own.

For example, a common question asked of newcomers is, "How did you find out about us?" To most people, including myself, this is nothing more than friendly small talk, a way to start a conversation. Yet for a person who is already skeptical about whether he is welcome, this simple question can easily be interpreted as implying that he has no business being here. A clearer way of getting the message across might be to begin, "It's so great to have visitors, because not many people seem to know about our church. How did YOU find out about us?" It's not a huge change, but can make a significant difference in how the question is received.

I do not mean to imply that lack of racial unity is solely the fault of white people, or that white people are the only ones who must change. Racial diversity is not an easy thing to achieve, and it does not come naturally. One major reason for this is that thinking in stereotypes is a natural consequence of how our brains work, and no one is immune to it. Twice a month, I volunteer as a Spanish interpreter at a free medical clinic. On one occasion, my parking spot was stolen by someone who pulled into it as soon as the previous car had left, even though I'd been waiting with my signal on for quite some time. When I noticed that the driver was a Hispanic woman, my immediate reaction was anger fueled by prejudice. I thought to myself, "I can't believe she did that to me! I'm here, making time out of my busy life to help HER people, and this is how I'm treated?" Of course, I soon realized how wrong my thinking was. I'm embarrassed to recount this story, but I think it's important because it illustrates that grouping people based on their race is normal given the way we think. We simplify and we categorize based on past experience. The key, of course, is not to let these gut instincts adversely affect our behavior, and the first step in doing so is to recognize them and admit that they are there.

So where do we begin in trying to achieve this elusive racial diversity? Some churches have attempted fairly substantial changes in an effort to entice racial minorities, such as changing the format of the worship service, moving the time of the service, or even offering sermons in foreign languages. I do not believe it is necessary or even possible for Mission Peak to implement such significant metamorphoses. We do not need to become something fundamentally different from what we are. But publicity and outreach efforts are not enough in themselves; we need to better understand ourselves first, to look inward before we reach outward. We need to examine whether we do have practices that make it less easy for ethnic minorities to feel comfortable.

I do not stand before you today claiming to have any answers. The subject of race relations is delicate and complex, and so my only goal today is to convince you that it is a topic worth exploring and addressing. The board has recently approved the creation of a task force which I will chair, aimed at making Mission Peak a "RAD" congregation, that is, Racially Aware and Diverse. Our process will model that of past efforts to reach out to specific groups, such as the Welcoming Congregation for the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender community, and the Caring Congregation for people living with mental disorders. We will begin with open and honest discussion of our own views and experiences regarding race relations, conduct experiments to challenge our perspectives, and research the successes and failures of other churches.

I hope to assemble the task force within the next month and I invite all of you who are interested to join me in this new initiative. It is particularly important to me to have a variety of people on this task force, because experiences with race can differ so widely. Whether you are young or old, introverted or extroverted, a person of color or not, your thoughts are welcome and valuable. In January we will begin our study, presenting our findings to the board and the congregation in late spring. I also plan to return to the pulpit in a few months to share with you what we have learned. I expect and hope that when this process is finished, we will be better prepared to reach out and welcome more racial minorities to our congregation.

In Rev. Chris Schriner's sermon on self several weeks ago, he made the statement that "If you're alone and hear a cry for help, you'll probably respond." The inability of people of different races to coexist peacefully is a serious issue in our society today. While no single congregation can expect to solve such a global problem completely, we at Mission Peak have the capability to address it in our own space, in our own way, and for our own community. The cry for help has been made, and it is time for us to respond. Let us prove, to ourselves and our world, that we can truly walk our talk by demonstrating that people of many different backgrounds and beliefs can worship together peacefully, and we will only enrich ourselves in the process.

I'd like to close with the words to a Spanish song written by Alfredo Cortez and recorded by Rafael Amor, called "No Me Llames Extranjero." The English translation is below.

No me llames extranjero,
porque haya nacido lejos,
O porque tenga otro nombre
la tierra de donde vengo

No me llames extranjero,
ni pienses de donde vengo,
Mejor saber donde vamos,
adonde nos lleva el tiempo.

No me llames extranjero
que es una palabra triste,
Que es una palabra helada
huele a olvido y a destierro.

No me llames extranjero
mira tu niño y el mío
como corren de la mano
hasta el final del sendero.

No los llames extranjeros
ellos no saben de idiomas
De límites ni banderas,
míralos, se van al cielo
por una risa paloma
que los reúne en el vuelo.

No me llames extranjero,
mírame bien a los ojos,
Mucho más allá del odio,
del egoísmo y el miedo,
y verás que soy un hombre,
no puedo ser extranjero.

English Translation

Don't call me a foreigner
because I was born far away.
or because the land
I come from has another name.

Don't call me a foreigner
nor dwell on whence I come
it's better to know where we're going,
where time will take us

Don't call me a foreigner.
It is a sad word,
a cold word, that reeks
of oblivion and exile.

Don't call me a foreigner.
Look at your child and mine
as they run hand in hand
to the end of the path.

Don't call them foreigners.
They know not of languages,
nor of borders, nor of flags
Look at them, they go to the sky
with a smile, a dove that unites
them in their flight.

Don't call me a foreigner
Look me in the eyes carefully,
far beyond hate, beyond
selfishness and fear,
and you will see that I am a man,
I cannot be a foreigner.

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