Good morning! My name is Bruce Schwartzentruber and today I’m going to speak briefly about 25 years ago, last May, the Philippines, Kenya, Angela Klassen’s job and diversity. I’m going to introduce you to some good people and unveil what’s under that cloth.
Last May, during the Annual Conference and Meeting we hosted, I attended the International Dinner event and, on the strength of the presentation by the International Council of Unitarian Universalists, decided to attend this past February’s conference in the Philippines. I regarded it as my personal Unitarian sabbatical.
Like many adventures I have had during my travels, I was paid handsomely in experience and in learning about how people live in other lands. In the Philippines I met Unitarian Universalists who were very much like us and many who were very different, both in appearance and in other demographic variables such as income, education and living conditions. In the Philippines, many UUs are rural, walk many kilometres to attend services, and are only able to muster up the equivalent of a few dollars among them when the offering plate is passed around. They live in a country where 81% of the population is Roman Catholic. Believing in spiritual freedom in the Philippines requires uncommon courage and commitment. For example, Marianne told me that she complained of headaches one day and her neighbour chided her for leaving Catholicism. God, the neighbour insisted, was punishing her for becoming a Unitarian.
Sam from Uganda lives in a country where the death penalty awaits gays and lesbians. Mark from Nigeria described himself as a freedom fighter. Social action there can deprive you of more than your spiritual freedom.
I met Josphat Mainye, of Kenya where he leads the Kitengela UU Congregation outside Nairobi – a congregation of 70 adults and 60 children. Sixty children, 60 children, I kept repeating it in my mind, thinking, What would Angela Klassen, our wonderful Director of Lifespan Religious Education, do? Quit?
When I asked Angela this question tongue-in-cheek a few weeks ago, she said, “Oh we have 60 children registered here.”
I didn’t know that, I confessed. How many of you knew that? Still, think of the odds; 70 adults and 60 children. Using the Kenyan adult to child ratio, we would have over 150 children here. I’m planning to find out how Josphat’s congregation manages and how it worships when I travel to Kenya later this summer. Josphat and Ben Macharria from Nairobi and Fulgence Ndagijimana from Burundi have invited me to visit and I am looking forward to living, eating, communing and rejoicing in the spirit that is Unitarian Universalism in Africa. If the people I met in the Philippines are any indication I will be met with love, acceptance and an incredible sense of belonging.
Just exactly how I feel here at First.
I’m hoping that I will be able to bring back a special connection between us and my African friends and that I will bathe in the unique experience of being among UUs who do not look or sound at all like me. I’m hoping that the experience of likely being the only white person, the only Anglophone, the only North American, will help me in the leadership position I took on at our January congregational conversation about diversity.
During the open discussion that day, I, without thinking of the ramifications, suggested that we needed a group to work on the issue of our diversity, or lack of, here at First. Our board President Margaret Kohr struck like a cobra, challenging me to lead that effort. Too late, I realized that I had been ensnared by the volunteer coordinator’s code: That is, anyone who comes up with a good idea better be prepared to take it on.
Twenty-five years ago, I worked in health and social services organizations which were challenged to change the way they delivered services to accommodate the dramatic influx into this city of immigrants from around the world. Mainstream organizations were ill-prepared for the changing demographics and the cultural shifts in their clients and communities. We had to make intentional changes that would welcome and appropriately serve Toronto’s newcomers. Later I was the executive director of a pioneering mental health planning organization that had mandated equal board membership for people on both sides of the mental health system. Instead of focusing on developing more psychiatric beds, improved anti-psychotic drugs and better treatment protocols, the people on our board who had gone through the system as consumers and patients, told us to go in a new direction. While better professional services remained essential, they told us what they felt they really needed. They needed decent housing, jobs and opportunities for social connections in a world that often stigmatized and shunned them. We worked hard to make those things happen. We worked hard to make them happen, I believe, because we were intentional about diversity at the highest decision-making level of the organization.
So I guess I can say that I’ve seen this movie before. When Margaret challenged me to lead our quest for greater diversity, I couldn’t plead ignorance or indifference. Of course, this is hardly a one-person job. Working with me as members of the Diversity Working Group have been the following:
Janil Greenaway, Wendy Peebles, Marlene Campbell, Catherine Lake, Fiona Heath, Art Brewer.
Our mission statement, arrived at after the usual Unitarian wordsmithing marathon, is as follows:
To advance the congregational goal of intentionally welcoming people from diverse ethnic and racial communities, including Aboriginal peoples. The ideas and actions that emerge from this focus will be a solid basis upon which to broaden our commitment to diversity as we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.