Sojourner Truth Congregation: A Study in Diversity
Originally Published in the Reclaiming Quarterly #75, Summer 1999
My First Visit
"The Sojourner Truth Congregation (STC) of Unitarian Universalists of Washington DC", read the announcement for the November 1991 service on Sojourner Truth. I had been receiving the mailings for several months as a result of meeting the minister while working in coalition with a local peace group. This was a service that could not be missed I mused, so my first visit to STC was to hear about Sojourner Truth the woman. But what I remember most was Sojourner Truth, the congregation.
The congregation that had been formed in the mid 80's to be an intentionally racially diverse congregation was full of surprises. The services were vibrant, inclusive, non-dogmatic (no shouts of "Jesus" pierced the air) and the music was incredible. The people were warm, funny, socially active, politically aware and completely committed to the fight for social, economic and racial justice. I had found a home.
As I had shared later during one of my services, at STC I get mirrored back to me all the beauty I have inside in all the ways it is denied in my regular life.
A Rich Tapestry
One of the early stories about STC concerned the fact that many of its founders were gay and lesbian. If you were openly gay and visited a suburban church in the early days, you were often advised that "you might be more comfortable" at STC. So entrenched was this view, that when in later years the UUA embarked on a national effort to make its congregations more welcoming of queer folks, a few suburban congregations actually asked for token gays from STC to sit in on their internal discussions of homophobia.
STC on the other hand regularly participated in Pride events, provided a platform for Queer Theologians such as Elias Farajaje Jones, and has always had a queer presence in leadership.
One of my fondest memories was a board meeting when the straight members fought bravely to preserve a STC presence at the DC Gay Pride march against the wishes of some queer board members who were afraid of a backlash. Later over dinner, many expressed astonishment that Gay Pride meant so much to the straight members of the congregation.
The Role of Black Women
The leadership of black women has always figured prominently within STC. A black woman minister along with about a dozen people from surrounding UU churches founded the congregation. Several of the founding members were established powerhouses within the black community and within the larger UU movement. Many of these founding black women are still active today.
Strong black leadership from women ensured that racial diversity was a reality and not a pipe dream. These pivotal women were anything but traditional church ladies. They held office as president as well as other executive positions including at large board members, directed social action programs, led task forces and committees, spoke from the pulpit as minister and lay leaders, represented the congregation within community coalitions and held national positions within the UUA.
As one gay member has expressed time and time again, "It's because of the strong black women of STC that I keep coming back".
The one thing STC has always had a short supply of was straight men, especially straight black men. Many reasons have been offered, including the presence of so many strong black women and the openly gay presence. But the reality is that in DC, black men are a minority in churches generally. So the question is not where are the black het men, but what keeps the black women (straight, bi or lesbian) presence so consistent? The answer may lie in the music, the services and the leadership style.
A key feature of STC is that almost all of its members are activists. Almost every movement for racial, social and economic justice has a representative within our rolls. This means that most of us are way too busy saving the world most times to keep STC running and in health. And anyone who does take time to keep the congregation going does so at great personal expense, physically, emotionally and sometimes financially.
The other side of the coin, is the reason given by these same activists for joining STC, they desperately needed the spiritual support in order to keep up the fight. So every time, STC tries to close its doors due to a lack of volunteers, these activists come out of woodwork screaming, "No, we need STC." Apparently the church's very existence helps those who never even have time to attend regularly.
Pagans also figured prominently in the beginnings of STC. At least one of the founders was a witch, with still others identifying as pagans. Over the years, because STC provided a welcoming space for pagan ritual in the Sunday Services, the number of witches has steadily increased.
Dark Flame Coven (DFC) was in fact formed primarily through connections made at STC. The relationship between DFC and STC is long and at times so intermingled that during one period, the STC board members referred to "our choir, our committees and our coven".
DFC had celebrated Beltane and Samhain at STC for several years, and in recent years its members has taken over the Equinox/Solstice services, lead the Sunday services committee, and taught more than a few ministers the fine art of ritual. Currently a coven member acts as part time minister and the coven runs the entire Sunday service program.
In effect the pagans generally and DFC in particular, brought a key ingredient to the already high commitment to dynamic, unique and diverse spiritual experiences - ritual construction and the allure of magic.
Sharing of Joys & Sorrows
One of the most moving rituals within STC services is the part we call "Joys and Sorrows". It is where everyone is invited to come forward to light a candle in remembrance of a joy or concern. Initially it was done in silence, with each person who cared to, lighting a candle and quietly going back to their seat. Emotions ran high, and sometimes tears fell from the silent, but anguished eyes.
A visiting minister one asked us to speak our feelings, and it was as if a dam broke. The misery, pain and suffering were immense, but so was the joy. And so a new tradition was born. Now we sometimes complain about the soliloquies we get during Joys and Sorrows, but always the sharing is sincere and the support is real. It truly is the part of the service that speaks to the heart of STC.
Unique, Dynamic Worship
A Sunday Service at STC can be pagan, Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Sufi, Buddhist, or Marxist. It could include a litany of poems, a jazz creation, a rant, a polemic, a performance from a local school, a dance, or everyone just sitting around sewing dream pillows. On any given Sunday, the person in the pulpit can be a Christian minister, a S&M enthusiast, an elected official, a published author, a ministerial student or a local community activist. We have taken our services into the woods, on to the streets, inside a march for justice, and into a cathedral like sanctuary. Some services require attendees to jump the Beltane fire, travel from birth to life to death and back, or play hopscotch.
Unique, dynamic services are the hallmark of STC, it is also is our greatest challenge. How do you keep people used to innovation from getting bored!
I finally managed to push the boundaries further when in 98, I held the congregation in orgasmic awe during one of my Sacred Sexuality services. The fundamentalist Christians may have folks speaking in tongues, but only STC can get them to have orgasms during a service!
The Sound of Music
The Little-Big Choir
STC has always been blessed with great singers. In fact, I refused to sign the membership book until the congregation formed a choir. I wanted so desperately to sing with these incredible people. And singing was just the beginning. STC has had over five different choir configurations over the years, but one thing is common. All the successful choirs were A Cappella, and sang a lot of Sweet Honey in the Rock songs.
The tradition was cemented by having a former Sweet Honey member, the incredible Eveyln Harris, as the choir director. She was so formidable that one of the choir members once remarked that all great choir directors have two qualities in common "Diva, and Drill Sergeant, and our Eveyln has it all and then some". The choir, always loved by the congregation, was soon a favorite all over the Washington area. Although small in number, we seldom numbered over 6 to 8 members, it made a big sound. And soon became one the most notable features of our small quirky congregation.
More Than Hymns
The music of STC always reflected its racial diversity, with a special emphasis on African American musical traditions. As a result, the STC anthem, the UU principles set to music by a former minister coupled with "Ella's Song", usually rocks with a gospel beat.
On any given Sunday you can hear jazz, blues, gospel, Chinese melodies, drum solos, electric guitars, rap, arias, folk songs and pagan chants, and that doesn't include the recorded music! At one point we tried to pick a song out of the UU hymnal to learn each month, but that soon deteriorated, since we needed someone at each service that could sight-read or play the piano to help us learn the new songs. So we fell back in to singing what we liked, and it seems to work fine for us.
The black focus of the music is what, for many of us, makes it welcoming to a diverse crowd. It is accessible, and as long as there is at least one decent singer in attendance, it usually hits its mark. The point is that everyone wants to sing gospel style music even if they are atheist. So even if it sounds terrible, everyone has a good time trying. And since STC members are known for changing anything they don't like, often everyone is singing different lyrics as well -- which makes it very funny and confusing at times for visitors.
Structure follows Vision
When STC was founded, the UUA had no real idea of what was required to help support a urban new start congregation, so they applied the existing standards for suburban congregations. This failed miserably, and later after much back and forth discussions, a program was set up to specifically assist STC and the other urban start-up congregations that sprung up around the country.
One of the assumptions was that for the congregation to be successful it had to grow quickly and have a minister. So STC spent a lot of its early years desperately trying to grow and scraping every dollar it could find to pay a minister. We were constantly fundraising. The UUA provided up front half of the minister's salary, but we had to raised the other half in order to get matching funds with which we could run the church. So the funds to run the congregation were dependant on us raising money to pay the minister! But if we had only needed to raise money to run the congregation, we wouldn't have needed the support from the UUA in the first place. It was a hopeless exercise, it ended in 1996 when our minister left to teach, and STC reorganized to simply fund us.
STC use to also have a standard leadership model based on a President, Vice President, Treasurer and Secretary. And the board consisted of the officers plus 6 to 7 at-large board members.
In 1996, after much internal reflection, we changed to a cluster model. We have four clusters; Programming, Finance, Communication and Community Building. Representatives from each cluster sits on the central council that runs the day-to-day operations. Several times a year the congregation meets to set priorities, enact policy and resolve disputes.
It was interesting that we lost some membership with the change in the leadership model. Apparently some felt that the new model was a little too loose, and reflected a lack of commitment. The new model places a lot of the responsibility for follow through on the individual clusters, and removes the council from managing details that had overwhelmed it in the past.
Part of the justification for the change in focus, and the change in leadership models was a need to re-examine our fundamental assumptions. Most members liked STC as it was, a small intimate, quirky congregation. We really were tired of trying to grow into a large urban church. There were already two other UU churches in Washington, if people really wanted that large size, they had existing choices that would suffice. So STC in a show of self-determination stepped “off the dole” and declared ourselves free to choose our own destiny.
It has been hard, without a minister or a staff, we had to rely more on each other to keep the congregation going. I stepped in as part time minister in 97, but the religious education and social action activities have been few and far between. Then in February 1999, Dark Flame Coven stepped in to take over the programming cluster which is responsible for two Sunday services and one religious education class a month. We also head up the community building cluster that handles the social action Sunday and congregational celebrations.
We have learned a lot about what diversity means in a urban church dedicated to racial diversity. In a recent religious education discussion of our mission, we discussed whether STC truly represented a model of diversity. We could easily answer yes, given our make up and our history.
But then we asked if a person of any faith would actually be comfortable within our community. The answer was no, but then maybe everybody doesn't have to be comfortable here. A commitment to diversity is not about comfort, it is about a willingness to be challenged.
Everyone who is without a voice, who suffers in silence due to prejudice, discrimination and oppression, is welcomed here. And we agreed that we had no intention of making our community comfortable for folks who deny the right of individual spiritual authority, who seek to harm others or harm the earth, who seek only to gain and not to give, who seek to control and not to understand.
In short, STC's diversity is rooted within and representative of the oppressed within our society. So although we will continue to seek greater and greater diversity, we do not now nor do we envision in the future making our church a home for anyone who doesn't share our commitment to human dignity, social justice and intentional diversity. Attending STC should be a challenge as well as a homecoming.
The number one lesson we offer to anyone who cares to listen is to be true to your values, and your vision. And when you find yourself off course, get up, brush yourself off, and get back in the mix. Just keep asking the question, " What is our intention, what is our mission?" And be ready to re-invent and re-define yourself, time and time again.
©Katrina C. Hopkins1999