Multiculturalism out there and in here

We gather together in all our difference
Knowing that we can not learn from sameness
We cannot grow from the encounter with others just like ourselves
Our world can not heal through connection only within our circles of similarity
We know that difference is harder than similarity
But we know too that it brings much more light
Let us be as one with all that we are and all that we bring


From the Unitarian Universalist Association

Multiculturalism means nurturing a religious community where people of all races, ethnicities, and cultures see their cultural identities reflected and affirmed in every aspect of congregational life—worship, fellowship, leadership, governance, religious education, social justice, etc. Multiculturalism means that we create religious homes where encounters between people of different cultural identities intersect [...] to create a fully inclusive community where, [...] “all people are welcomed as blessings and the human family lives whole and reconciled.”

Amartya Sen, from The Idea Of Justice

The increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ (‘this is your duty as an American’, ‘you must commit these acts as a Muslim’, or ‘as a Chinese you should give priority to this national engagement’) is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups (to all of which he or she belongs).

Message, by Andy Pakula

Each of us is different.

We became different because of our genetics and because of all the influences in our lives.

And a huge part of those influences can be called cultures. There are big cultures like national cultures and there are tiny cultures like the unique culture of your own family of origin. In between are all kinds of other group cultures.

All of these cultures influence us and help to make us who we are. We may be happy about some of those influences and less pleased about others, but culture is part of what forms our perspectives and values and ways of interacting. Some of this we realise and some of it we don’t see - don’t notice where any particular way of being came from.

When we don’t see a culture’s influence we may tend to think “that’s normal” or “that’s how everyone is.” So, we might think it’s normal to be indirect or punctual or demonstrative or physically affectionate, when those are ways of being that differ from culture to culture.

We might also dismiss the effect of culture and think, “oh, that’s just me” until we really inspect our journeys and then might see more of how we became who we are.

We have a tendency to want to think that we are who we are in some pure and immutable way - that we are an unchanging person from conception to death and that no relationships or groups with change that. In other words, we might think that we are not influenced from culture. The funny thing is that this belief that we are not influenced by culture is itself culturally influenced! That’s part of the message of our modern western culture. So, oddly enough, we’re persuaded shaped by a culture to believe that we can’t be shaped by culture.
I can recognise several of the cultures that formed me, and I’m sure there are others that played a part. It’s also the case that these cultures overlapand flow together, so they are never as separate as they might seem in a list.

I was influenced by post-holocaust American Jewish culture. This was a culture that valued education, material success, family closeness, and feared people who were different. It had little place for a deity that would allow the holocaust to happen.

I was influenced by the culture of my schooling - a culture that was competitive and taught that academic success determined your value as a person. Not going to University would be shameful. In fact, not going to a really good University would be shameful.

But there were also subcultures there - the ones that valued drug-taking, the ones that valued creativity, the ones that valued being tough or sporty or attractive and popular. I didn’t fit with any of those cultures, although if I’d been more attractive, athletic, or strong, I might have gone in a very direction. So, I fell in with the theatre and music crowd and their culture, which valued honesty, deep relationship, and compassion. It made a big difference for the better in my life, although it may have been buried for a time while strong influences in higher education and work pushed it aside.

In University, when I initially intended to become a medical doctor, I was influenced by the subculture of all the other students who were preparing to apply to medical school. Medical school admissions were extremely selective, and that caused this culture to be absolutely cut-throat. There was little helping one another since anyone who did well might take one of the few coveted medical school places. The highest value of this subculture was getting the marks and accomplishments necessary for a successful med-school application.

There was also some balance in University. I was also influenced by fringe music, theatre, and gay cultures that provided an antidote to the really damaging pre-med culture.

I decided to pursue a doctorate in Biology - another decision that was culturally-influenced. In graduate school, I was influenced by academic culture. The highest goal was to be a professor and have your own lab. Your value was determined by how many hours you worked each week - the more the better. And, ultimately, by how many papers you got published in good journals.

When I finished studying and went into the world of start-up companies, there was yet another culture. Money and promotions and how many people you managed were among the goals. Honesty was not a particularly important value, especially if it got in the way of the company’s success. How hard someone worked is how we measured one another. If you could work 24/7 and always seem fresh, you would win.

And then, the culture of a Unitarian Universalism and one particular congregation came to influence me. There, success was still a value. Intellectual accomplishment was too. But many things were new - there was less of an emphasis on possessions and much more emphasis on compassion and justice. Among the youth, who I had the privilege of working with, I found a culture of tremendous openness and mutual acceptance. And all of this influenced and shaped me too - mostly in a very positive way.

I have been influenced by London’s cultures and especially by the way many different cultures exist side by side. I remember enthusing to my friends back home about how many languages were spoken simultaneously on any bus ride and how London is a place where I might see a woman in a Burqa and a Hasidic Jew sitting next to one another on the tube.  London has a wildly multicultural culture in some ways.

I’ve also been influenced by New Unity’s culture - a culture that has changed and become more and more inclusive and courageous with each year that passes. I know that I’ve also contributed to shaping that culture, but it is somehow a dance - where we continue to shape the culture and each other as we journey forward.

Cultures are powerful. They can change all but the most resolute and self-satisfied among us. We enter a new culture and quickly learn what will get us praise and friends and approval and connection. We also learn what will cause people to turn away, to frown, to look down upon us, and to keep their distance.

As social animals, these are powerful forces. We want to be accepted and embraced, so we are changed - for better or for worse - by the cultures we enter.

There will be many cultures that have influenced the people in this room. Let’s just get a sample of that.

If you’ve lived in Scotland, raise your hand.

Wales? Northern Ireland? Ireland?

If you’ve lived in any other country besides the UK. Raise your hand. What countries were those?

If one or both of your parents came from another country, raise your hand.

Were you influenced by a particular school culture?

Were you influenced by a particular ethnic culture?

Religious culture?

Did you attend a University?

Were you influenced by the culture of a political party or movement?

By a music scene?

What else?

This congregation has many cultures in it. We have been influenced by many cultures and we bring those influences here. We are multicultural. How could we not have many cultures amongst us when we are committed to being radically inclusive?

Being multicultural is related but different from multiculturalism - a term and a kind of policy that has become a political hot potato in recent years.

The challenge there is that we mean different things by multiculturalism. To some, it means a policy of preserving individual cultures at all costs and discouraging different cultural groups from interacting in any meaningful way. That’s a kind of multiculturalism that few would support - it’s a bit of a caricature that can generate opposition.

The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared multiculturalism to be a failed experiment and described it as a contributor to terrorism.

Multiculturalism is part of the back story to the Brexit referendum. Those who see multiculturalism as a societal ill voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU.

I hope that it was the caricature of multiculturalism that Cameron and the leave-voters were opposing.

The other kind of multiculturalism is about inclusion. It’s the opposite of enforced sameness.
It’s about making room for people whose cultures are different from the dominant culture of the nation. It’s about acceptance - accepting people as they are. That’s not to say that people are discouraged from changing - life is about change. We know that when cultures blend, we will change. But we can’t change and grow when we begin by feeling we have to pretend to be someone we are not.

And this, I think, is at the heart of what multiculturalism must mean - whether in a nation or a congregation. Wherever we come from, whoever we are, we are accepted as we are. We are not doused in preservative so we never change or isolated in our little impervious corners - we know that interchange between cultures will make us all the richer - in nations or in congregations.

I want to return to speaking about this congregation now. We are a multicultural congregation in many ways.

And yet, I have heard from many of you on many occasions that we could or should be more diverse. There is no contradiction between these two statements. There are different extents of being multicultural. We include some cultures. Some are present only in small numbers. Some are not present at all.

The test for me is not numbers per se - it is not about how many songs we hear from one culture or another - it is not about how many readings come from one culture or another - it is not about how many of our staff come from one culture or another.

All of these factors can make a difference in what is really important but they are not the end in themselves.

What is truly important is that anyone who is committed to being radically inclusive in community can feel truly at home here - can feel that they can be accepted as they are.
This is our multicultural journey - for any radically inclusive person to feel accepted here.
We are far along that journey, but we have farther to go. I know from some of you that you feel like you have to leave part of yourself behind to fit in here. You feel like you need to put on a cultural mask to fit in here. And I know that none of us would want anyone else to feel that way.

The journey ahead will include much introspection. It will ask us to question our assumptions and ask what is normal or universal and what is simple the influence of a particular culture - one way of being among many.

The journey is long - in fact - there is no end. There is no perfection, there is only growth toward an every more radically inclusive, loving, accepting way of being.

Let us commit to that great journey.

May it be so.