From the Minister
In Jay's column in the current issue of Voices,
he discusses the notion of being different verses being indifferent. An archive of these and other columns by the Ministers is maintained and is accessible on the left:
March 10, 2014
I once heard holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel give a speech at Wake Forest University in the 1980s, around the time he won the Nobel Peace Prize. I knew Wiesel first from his classic book Night and then from reading several of his other books. A figure not without significant controversy, Wiesel has been a voice for peace and human dignity for decades.
In 1997, Elie Wiesel spoke here in Charlotte. An excerpt of his remarks made it into the Houston Chronicle. I was living in Houston at the time and read it there. It stuck with me and remains with me still. Wiesel declared:
I have been fighting my entire life for men and women everywhere to be equal and to be different. But there is one right I would not grant anyone. And that is the right to be indifferent.
In this powerful play on words Elie Wiesel stands us as individuals and as a congregation before a powerful dichotomy. Our liberal religion has a long track record of valuing difference. In a reading that appears in our hymnal, former Unitarian Universalist Association president Bill Schulz asserts:
This is the mission of our faith:
To teach the fragile art of hospitality;
To revere both the critical mind and the generous heart;
To prove that diversity need not mean divisiveness . . .
When we are at our best, we don’t simply tolerate difference, we welcome, even encourage difference. So, our congregation’s Ends Statements commit: “We are intentionally growing in our diversity as a congregation, each of us working with others to overcome the barriers that divide the human family.” Like Elie Wiesel, we’ve understood that at the very core of our faith is the struggle “for men and women everywhere to be equal and different.”
But what about indifference? Are we committed to a world in which people have a right to be indifferent? Are we committed to creating a congregation in which members and potential members have a right to be indifferent?
At times, we’ve wanted so much to be welcoming and so much to be unlike other religious communities that we’ve offered a message that sounded a good deal like sanctioned indifference. Don’t worry—come if you like, or if you think you’ll like what happening on any given Sunday, but no one here is going to care if you don’t show up. Join if you’d like or just enjoy what others create for you without worrying about making a commitment. Get involved if you want to but don’t feel any pressure to pitch in if it’s not convenient. Contribute financially if you can but don’t think that means you should sacrifice anything else you want just to help support our congregation. Find some way to make this a more just and equitable world if that works for you but don’t worry if it doesn’t.
As Unitarian Universalism nationally continues to struggle to grow our congregations, how much of this has to do with a message of indifference? Has our miniscule religious movement become even smaller during this past decade due to our own seeming indifference?
It may seem counterintuitive to some that, both within and outside Unitarian Universalism, those who pay attention to such things suggest that the congregations that are thriving are those that are “high demand congregations.” By that they mean, congregations whose members believe in their spiritual community so much that they are willing to create a culture of high expectations. These congregations have members who communicate in one way or another to one another: We need you; you matter; your involvement matters; your participation and financial support matters; this is too important for us to treat it casually or . . . or indifferently.
I’ve altered my message in the Discovering the UUCC sessions we offer to inquirers and prospective members. I say in there, if the biggest question you know how to ask in considering whether or not to make this your spiritual community is—“What’s in it for me? What will I get out of it?”—then you aren’t ready to make a substantive commitment here. I then invite these interested participants to consider an additional question—“What do I have to offer? How might I contribute to making this a place that changes lives and changes the world?”
I’m deeply committed to the right of people to be different. But, I am so deeply committed to the importance of changing lives and changing the world that I am unwilling to offer a message that suggests that we are committed to being a place where it is perfectly acceptable to be indifferent.