Whose Culture?

In times of hardship and pain and grief
When the latest news brings horror and chaos to our senses
Anger comes to us quickly
Despair comes to us quickly
Fear comes to us quickly
Love arrives only slowly
And calls us to reach to our deepest strengths
But it is only this - love for the stranger, love across difference, love even for the enemy - that can dispel the fearsome shadow of hate
May our love grow even at the worst of times
And help to build a world of peace

Time of Silence

In the stillness, let’s remember all of the people killed in a senseless attack in Nice this week and the many more injured, bereaved and terrified. Let’s think too of the casualties in Turkey’s coup attempt. And let’s think of all of those who have been killed or wounded or whose lives have been forever damaged by violence this week.

Let us remember that violence is driven by suspicion and fear, by anger and by hatred. We will never be free of violence unless we learn to respond with love. Let us, in the stillness, offer our love to a bruised and trembling humanity.


The Esquimos Have No Word for War, by Mary Oliver 

Trying to explain it to them
Leaves one feeling ridiculous and obscene.
Their houses, like white bowls,
Sit on a prairie of ancient snowfalls
Caught beyond thaw or the swift changes
Of night and day.
They listen politely, and stride away.
With spears and sleds and barking dogs
To hunt for food. The women wait
Chewing on skins or singing songs,
Knowing that they have hours to spend,
That the luck of the hunter is often late.
Later, by fires and boiling bones
In streaming kettles, they welcome me,
Far kin, pale brother,
To share what they have in a hungry time
In a difficult land. While I talk on
Of the southern kingdoms, cannon, armies,
Shifting alliances, airplanes, power,
They chew their bones, and smile at one another.

Minority, by Imtiaz Dharker

I was born a foreigner.
I carried on from there
to become a foreigner everywhere
I went, even in the place
planted with my relatives,
six-foot tubers sprouting roots,
their fingers and faces pushing up
new shoots of maize and sugar cane.

All kinds of places and groups
of people who have an admirable
history would, almost certainly,
distance themselves from me.

I don’t fit,
like a clumsily-translated poem;

like food cooked in milk of coconut
where you expected ghee or cream,
the unexpected aftertaste
of cardamom or neem.

There’s always that point where
the language flips
into an unfamiliar taste;
where words tumble over
a cunning tripwire on the tongue;
where the frame slips,
the reception of an image
not quite tuned, ghost-outlined,
that signals, in their midst,
an alien.

And so I scratch, scratch
through the night, at this
growing scab on black on white.
Everyone has the right
to infiltrate a piece of paper.
A page doesn’t fight back.
And, who knows, these lines
may scratch their way
into your head –
through all the chatter of community,
family, clattering spoons,
children being fed –
immigrate into your bed,
squat in your home,
and in a corner, eat your bread,

until, one day, you meet
the stranger sidling down your street,
realise you know the face
simplified to bone,
look into its outcast eyes
and recognise it as your own.

Message, by Andy Pakula

After today’s gathering, we have our annual general meeting. It’s the yearly event that helps to remind us all that this congregation is the people who are here - that New Unity is all of us. 

Although you delegate authority to me and to your elected leaders, you have the power in this place. There is no external organisation with power over us - no one who can tell us what we should think or do - you are the final authority. 

Because our AGM is today, it seems like the right day to talk about this community. It seems like a good time to talk about where we are, where we’ve been, and where we might be going.

This community is important. 

It is important that we care for one another in a society that offers few ways to be in networks of mutual support. 

It is important that we emphasize the power of love in a society that speaks increasingly of punishment, monitoring, and suspicion.

It is important that we are dedicated to growing to be more loving, connected, and compassionate people in a society that tends to encourage selfishness and materialism.

It is important that we are a place where each of us can become more attuned to injustice in a society of growing inequality.

It is important that we strive for radical inclusion in a society and a world that seems more and more to emphasise separation and division.

I have been minister here for nearly ten years. In this time, and in the five years my predecessor was here, this congregation has grown.

It has grown in numbers - we are about 5-times more people on a Sunday morning than we were ten years ago.

Growth in numbers has gone hand in hand with other kinds of growth. We’ve grown in our music programme, so we have gorgeous, diverse, music every Sunday.

We have grown more multigenerational. There were no kids ten years ago and we have a delightful lively group of children each Sunday.

We’ve grown more caring of one another. We are now able to offer loving listening and support to many more people than ever before.

We’ve grown in our engagement with the larger community, giving generously to important causes each Sunday, working to help refugees, to improve housing, to provide more just pay, to speak out for love, and to press our civic leaders to carry out the work we believe will help create a more just and connected society.

We’ve grown in organisational ways. We’ve managed a complicated merger and become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation. We have an excellent staff team of Sophie, Ally, Sara, Jean-Guy, Jon, and Jean helping to provide great programmes and music, to keep our buildings up, to manage the finances, to generate income through hiring space we’re not using, and to manage the events and communication.

Perhaps the most important way we’ve grown organisationally is that there are now more and more of you helping to lead in other ways. We have built three amazing teams: the Pastoral Care Team, the Sunday Gatherings Team, and the Social Responsibility Team. Each one of these - along with more teams we will form in the near future - not only works for New Unity and and beyond; each one is a community in itself. 

Within each team, there is a deliberate atmosphere of deep care and sharing. Each team’s purpose statement includes a commitment to the growth of its members. Teams are for serving others and helping the team members become more fully their best, most satisfied, most alive selves. Teams serve as a model of the connected, loving, diverse, inclusive way we want the world to be.

New Unity is important. It is a place of values and perspectives and ways of being that our world needs to see. Most of all, that is about love. It is about a kind of love that speak of as being radically inclusive - a commitment to welcoming and seeing the best in every person, including those who are very different from us. And we know from the news that these values and ways of being are badly needed in our world.

Just as this community has changed over the past 15 years to become what it is today, it is not done changing and growing. There is much more to do for us to become truly the radically-inclusive, transformative community we aim to be.

Many of you will make those changes happen and we may initiate changes that come to fruition after our time here is done. Some of these changes are too shrouded in the fog of the uncertain future for us to see clearly, but others are coming into focus for us now.

A large part of that is connected with our current theme of culture. 

A radically-inclusive community would be one that makes welcome everyone who is prepared to support inclusion and acceptance - everyone who is prepared to make the effort to love across barriers and divisions.

And culture is at the heart of what keeps us from doing this more effectively. 

Each person carries with them aspects of the cultures they have been part of. We have brought with us the ways of our families, our home countries, our religions, our schools, our friends, and many other groups. Even if we have chosen to move toward new cultures and ways of being, the cultural influences of the past remain part of us as we move ahead.

Each of us brings along our own cultures to this place and, together, the cultures we bring - especially those of the formal and informal leaders - define the dominant culture of this place.
That might not seem like a very big deal. Some aspects aren’t at all a big deal. If an aspect of our dominant culture is to be quiet while someone is doing a reading or I’m talking in our Sunday Gathering, it’s not going to make it very hard for someone whose culture calls for a more responsive and loud way of listening to words in a congregation. They might feel a bit odd but it is not likely to repel them.

But there are aspects of cultural norms that can send people packing or at least make them feel like they have to strain to fit the norms.

Cultures are everywhere. When I became a minister, coming from science and business, I was happy to see and embrace the ways of the Unitarian Universalist ministry. And then I began to recognise that this new group I wanted to be part of had a very particular culture. It included ways of speaking, certain kinds of cultural references, and adherence to particular values. Coming from a secular Jewish childhood and a business culture, I did not fit. 

Even without thinking about it, I found myself trying to fit myself to this culture - to be acceptable and adapted to this way of being. I managed to do it while keeping enough of myself to feel authentic. I wasn’t a standard-issue UU ministry student, but I was close enough to be acceptable.

And then, when I came here, there was yet another ministerial culture - one that I found I could not adapt to and still be authentic.

Did the other ministers try to make everyone else fit their way of being? Not at all. I doubt that most of them even considered that there is a ministerial culture at all. But that absence of understanding prevented any effort to overcome its restrictions. It limited who could feel like they really belonged.

The dominant culture of a community tends to be invisible to many of its members. It is invisible especially to the people whose personal cultural norms fit. They don’t feel any disconnect or clash with their values or ways of being, so they don’t see there is a culture at all.

I’ve been taught to show up at or before the time a meeting is set for, so the fact that this is a norm here at New Unity is invisible to me until I really think about it.

In fact, though, there are other cultures where arriving on time is against the cultural norms. These are not bad or lazy cultures, although people from punctual cultures might depict them that way. They are simply cultures that are different and that may have a different notion of time altogether.

If someone continually arrives late for meetings, do you feel annoyed? Do you resent them?
If someone doesn’t make eye contact with you, do you judge them as somehow timid or maybe even untrustworthy?

What if they won’t shake your hand when you offer it?

Is it best to handle conflict with a very calm manner? If someone gets more animated in an argument, do you consider them less sophisticated?

Should the conversation in a meeting be very directed and to the point? Do people who go off in other directions annoy you?

These are all aspects of behaviour that are culturally influenced. People arrive with ways of being that they’ve learned through all the influences of their lives. 

We have grown to become a beautiful and special and nurturing community and that growth has inevitably brought with it a particular kind of culture - one that has been created by history, by majorities, and by who we choose as leaders. 

Although we aim to welcome and include all, aspects of our culture repel some and maybe many.

If you didn’t go to university, you might feel uncomfortable here.

If you love to eat meat, you might want to keep it quiet for fear of not fitting in.

If hip-hop or rap speaks to your heart more than classical music, you might feel out of place.

If you’re more interested in talking about reality TV than a thoughtful novel or an art film, you might suspect this is not the place for you?

If you admit you got McDonalds for dinner instead of tofu, you might feel like an alien here.

These are just a few examples of our culture - there are many more. And many more of them are invisible to us. They are not invisible though to people who might need this community and who might build this community but who do not fit. They see these differences clearly.

The future of New Unity depends on us asking ourselves hard and perhaps uncomfortable questions about who we are, who we are for, what we want to achieve, and who we are willing to leave out.

This is not work that ends today with these thoughts and questions. This is only the very beginning of a new part of our journey toward a greater positive impact in the world, a more diverse community, and a more complete living into our vision of a radically-inclusive community of faith.

Let us be together in our comfort and our challenge.

Let us be a growing light for one another, for our neighbours, and for a world that needs more love.

May it be so.

In times of discomfort and fear, let us turn not toward safety but toward engagement
Not toward the echo chambers of those who think like us, but the challenge of those who are different
Let us recognise and bridge the divides between us
Let us commit to the hardest and most powerful work of all… 
Let us build love