The practice of diversity is prevented by a well-meaning but ineffective model of inclusion I call “Open Door Syndrome.”
“Open Door Syndrome” is the single biggest myth preventing Unitarian Universalist congregations from the genuine practice of diversity. It goes like this: “I opened the door to MY house—why aren’t YOU walking through it?”
But imagine, being poised at the doorway, peering inside, and seeing no one you recognize; no face or family that looks like yours. An open door, however sincerely propped and unlocked, is not unto itself a welcoming beacon, but just a beginning.
Last week, in contemplating the movie, Gran Torrino, I realized that Clint Eastwood’s character only makes a difference when he finally consents to become part of the wider community, rather than insisting that others adapt to him. And ironically he uses his privilege as leverage to change the fate of that community. His character is a manifestation of Martin Luther King Jr’s “creative maladjustment.” And that is the cure for “Open Door Syndrome” —that we do something other than stand at the threshold, waving people in—the genuine practice of diversity requires that we step outside.
Unitarians have done this before, to good effect. Currently, half of the candidates preparing for Unitarian ministry are women; and while there are no statistics kept, our congregations regularly attract ministers and members from the gay community. Many of our congregations, this one included, have completed a program of education, outreach, and commitment to intentionally support members, friends, and families from the lesbian-gay-bi-trans-queer community to achieve the official designation as a “Welcoming Congregation.” But the label and the program do not guarantee that this space feels safe to anyone who does not recognize themselves in the faces and attitudes of the assembled. One symptom of “Open Door Syndrome” is the common dismissal to the “Welcoming Congregation” program and other diversity initiatives: “but we already are a welcoming congregation.”
Reality check: if you look around the room, and everyone looks just like you, dresses like you, and is partnered like you—well, it’s no surprise that you feel welcome. Like attracts like. . . we are naturally more comfortable with people who look like us.
So, the first step in practicing diversity is to acknowledge your place in the crowd—if you are among the majority, and therefore carry a certain privilege of assumed belongingness—then ask yourself if you would feel quite so welcomed if you or your family looked or lived differently from most of the others in the room. Be aware of who is, and isn’t—in this space.
Second, the practice of diversity requires that we stop making assumptions about the people around us. In doing so, we alienate others. As a “boundary dweller” I “pass” as a lot of things that I kind of am, and sometimes am, but maybe I’m not. . . “Open Door Syndrome” works under the myth that becoming “one of us” is somehow the finest compliment. To be truly welcoming, we must be aware of the ways in which we make assumptions about class, education, vocation, gender, sexual orientation, and cultural background, and instead, we are called to use intentionally inclusive language with one another, and embrace, not negate, our differences.
Third, the single most effective way to practice diversity, is to become diversity itself. Let me be clear: this congregation has beat the odds of most Unitarian churches, and the membership here spans a healthy spectrum of many demographics in education, income, and age . . . . Now, wouldn’t it be great if I could tell you that I have a fabulous plan that will ensure our cultural diversity 5 to 10 years from now? Instead, I assure you that it probably won’t happen. Judging by the statistics of most Protestant congregations (Unitarians are not unique in this way), what we see today is very likely what we will continue to get . . . especially if we continue to simply prop open the doors and expect people to just walk on in.
“Open Door Syndrome” hooks our congregations into an unhealthy obsession of making “diversity” a kind of measured goal, and however well-intended, makes things worse. In a popular Adult Religious Education curriculum called Weaving the Fabric of Diversity, there’s a short farcical play to illustrate the kind of weird desperation our congregations can succumb to. In it, a “membership search committee” visits the Diversity Store shopping for new members to “prove” the success of their multicultural initiatives. Now, I don’t remember how it goes exactly, but the plot more or less had them contemplating choices like the lesbian couple, an Asian family, a war veteran, and a factory worker. By the end the committee enthusiastically selects an African American bisexual male in a wheelchair with a lesbian daughter from Nicaragua to be “one of them.” Gee, isn’t he lucky?
Instead of shopping at the Diversity Store, we have to leave our comfort zones and experience it for ourselves. The practice of diversity does not happen from “this side of the door;” diversity happens “out there.” I cannot explain, demonstrate, or illustrate what it is to be the ONLY one of your kind unless you yourself, as an individual, have experienced it. Tourism doesn’t count. You must have lived or worked as a minority, in order to really have practiced diversity. We become “welcoming” by actually creating relationships with others, not by theorizing how perfectly nice we are.
Within the congregational setting, there are several ways to become diversity; all of which require partnerships across the threshold of our open door. Some churches have organized “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” parties, where small mixed groups of race, religion, orientation, and culture simply share a meal together. It’s awkward, so it’s effective; and it’s really revealing and disturbing to discover how uncomfortable being unmoored from the majority can be, even over a few hours around a dinner table. Our music committee has suggested choir exchanges or interfaith choir events as a way to enrich our relationships in the community. We could consider ways to creatively share our space, make this building and our resources available to community groups. We can sponsor community events, opening the doors for purposes that suit our values but expand our practice. And, the most effective way as a congregation to practice diversity in this model is to ultimately partner with another church, one of a different demographic, in a joined social justice effort. When we work side-by-side and find what binds us together, we build relationships. This is how we become established in the community; not as a faith that debates diversity, not as a faith that fishes for otherness as some kind of trophy of inclusion, but rather as a congregation committed to relationship and vision with programming for the human community. That’s the big dream I have today. Rather than insist that “THEY join the church,” why not have “the church join them” (as Thomas Bandy says in Kicking Habits). Nothing else will make a difference.
On Tuesday I watched the US presidential inauguration. The camera swept over the vast crowds of the mall as an African American man spoke. The scene was reminiscent of that one, decades before, when Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. The culmination of that dream—Barack Hussein Obama—has been elected to the US Presidency. Aretha Franklin started singing, and I didn’t stop crying for hours. Because—in the face of that anonymous crowd I knew that my D.C. students, the ones who survived the violence of their lives, would be standing there with their children, watching hope incarnate signal a new day with a new face that finally mirrors the diversity of this hemisphere. A face that refused to be defined by cultural norms of what he could or could not become—a person committed to creative maladjustment, who steps beyond the threshold as a personal and political practice, not insisting that others come inside to be included, but rather extends the invitation for engagement “out there.” As such, the entire world is poised at a new threshold, standing at the ready for a new way to build a world community.
Together we can shape a world that defines everyone as someone and no one as “other.”
Open the door, beckon to everyone—but to practice diversity, we must now step outside.
–Excerpted from “The Better Angels of Our Nature,” by Rev. Jessica Purple Rodela, delivered 1/25/09 to the First Unitarian Congregation of Waterloo (reproduced with permission)