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Sunday, December 13, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Large

Faith In The Mix -- Rainier Valley Unitarian Church Finds That With Worshippers' Different Styles And Needs, It's Hard To Get Everyone In The Same Multicultural Pew

Seattle Times Columnist

Here is what the Rainier Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation set out to do: "Our purpose is to build a compassionate faith community which is multicultural in membership and celebration and which works for justice in our neighborhoods, our city and the wider world."

It is a wonderful ideal and just the sort of mission statement a group of Unitarians might be expected to make.

The membership can control the latter part of their mission - working for the good of the community - because it requires only that they do what they wish to do.

But this new congregation, set down in the midst of the Northwest's most integrated cluster of neighborhoods, wants to be something most congregations are not: a truly diverse mixture of races, classes and sexual orientations.

That requires getting other people to act.

Because of who they are, they yearn for that, and, partly because of who they are, that goal remains distant.

They are mostly college-educated, intellectual, liberal in politics and religion, middle-class, often upper-middle-class. They look for earthly solutions to earthbound problems and experience the world through their brains more than through their souls.

Unitarians inviting blue-collar folks, blacks, Hispanics and poor white people to join is like inviting cats to a vegan feast. It's a good thing, but not to everyone's taste.

We are talking about groups of people who want and need different things from their spiritual lives. And yet part of that spiritual life calls for unity that transcends race, class and other earthly differences.

Sundays are still the most segregated days in America. Efforts to change that are not new. What's interesting here is that Unitarians, by definition, live out their ideals, and equality is at the core of those ideals.

Other religions may ask their members to do good works as part of their faith, but with Unitarians it can seem that the works are the faith.

Unitarian principles do not speak of falling out with the Holy Ghost but of "humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit." It is a religion for people who want to help more than for those who need help.

The Rev. Dr. Lucy Hitchcock is the new congregation's minister and someone who has had experience with efforts to draw a more varied flock.

She was a growth consultant to four Unitarian Universalist congregations in the Puget Sound area. Part of her job included helping to start new congregations somewhere in the area.

The Puget Sound Council of Unitarian Universalists considered start-ups in Gig Harbor, North Bend and Southeast Seattle. After a feasibility study, it settled on Southeast Seattle.

They had their first service in the spring of 1997 and began regular weekly services in October of last year after finding a home. Services are held in the evening at Findlay Street Christian Church. Their liberal creed got them turned down elsewhere, but Findlay Street is a liberal church noted for welcoming gay and lesbian worshippers.

On my first visit, the service began with music, then a Czechoslovakian chant for the seasons. There was an affirmation in Spanish and English, more songs and then a play, "The Magic Ride of Fred the Slug," about friendship.

There were more songs, a meditation time, a sermon, also on friendship. The closing words came from an Arabian proverb.

Lots of cultures were represented, though not necessarily from the surrounding neighborhoods.

The feeling for me was still of a white, middle-class church. Even the fact that they were extraordinarily welcoming could make a visitor feel a bit fidgety in his conspicuousness.

Hitchcock recognizes the difficulty. "Sociologists say people go toward the group most like them, where there is the most comfort."

And she says, "Racism is part of it, historically, but what is potentially different is that people have chosen to live in the South End because they value diversity."

That is true of many people, but perhaps more people came to Rainier Valley - European immigrants, black folks from other parts of the country and Asian immigrants, - because it was the place with the most open doors.

Much of the diversity is in those blue-collar and ethnic communities. These are the folks the Unitarians and other appreciators of diversity have sought to be near, and they aren't automatic Unitarian material.

The University District, in contrast, is UU territory. The Unitarian church there is huge and flourishing, full of professors, journalists and others of like mind. People who examine things and say, "Um," not people who say, "Yes, Lord, have your way."

Not people who seek deliverance, but people who have the wherewithal to deliver.

University Unitarian is big, but it is not diverse in the ways Rainier Valley hopes to be. It abounds with a diversity of ideas, but it is not a physical rainbow. That doesn't always feel good to people who champion the value of all cultures and hold dear justice, equity and compassion.

It feels bad because we know that part of the reason worship was segregated in the first place is one people's rejection of kinship with another.

It feels bad because so much of our lives are still segregated along those lines.

And, because we have been separate for so long and because where we are in life is so different, we have become accustomed to different kinds of worship, so that even people of the same denomination may not feel comfortable in one another's pews if they are different in race or class.

Into this complex situation comes a group of Unitarians who want to do good.

There are 84 members of the new church. Hitchcock says about 13 percent are people of color. Much of the diversity is in the children, often brought by white parents in interracial marriages or adoptive families.

Another 13 percent, and probably more, is gay and lesbian. There are several members who are not financially sound, though many more are, as Hitchcock says, "typical Unitarian Universalists, educated, professional people who work at Boeing, Microsoft" or similar places.

Members drive to the church from Snohomish County, from Redmond and Tacoma. Many live in the neighborhood.

Hitchcock moved from the North End to be a part of the community.

What do they know about tailoring a church for people whose needs and expectations may be different?

Hitchcock worked out of the national office in Boston to help get some diverse congregations off the ground. From 1986 to 1991 she was extension ministry director and new-congregation director.

She sent ministers to Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Tulsa. They were young African-American ministers right out of seminary.

They wanted to try something new, but, she says, they were too green. "They didn't have the confidence or organizing skills to pull it off."

There are a few success stories, but because so many efforts have failed, some Unitarians balked at trying the multicultural approach again here. For Hitchcock, however, this is an important quest. Her career has been spent growing new churches.

"Personally it's the culmination of my career. I love where I'm living. I love the diversity. I'm determined."

The church advertises in neighborhood newsletters and newspapers and has held some special events to attract attention. So far, all of the people who walked in have been white.

"Every single person of color had come because they met someone who invited them. I tell (the congregation) it's going to be out of their friendships that we attract people of color, and that is more likely to happen in the South End because people have a diverse friendship base."

Dick Burkhart and Mona Lee are, in some ways, representative of the congregation.

Burkhart and Lee moved from Auburn in May of last year when Lee got a job as a vocational rehabilitation counselor at Services for the Blind on South Alaska Street.

Burkhart, who does research-level mathematics at Boeing, says his wife had always wanted to get out of the suburbs.

"Forget property values," he says. "I came here to live." In his neighborhood there are Southeast Asians, blacks, whites, Filipino families, a Japanese friend.

They say it is not just color diversity that makes their neighborhood special. Gays and lesbians can be more out in the open. There is a mix of poor and rich, young and old. People are more open-minded.

"We're riding a wave of the future," Lee says. "We tend to have liberal views. We tend to believe in equal rights, social justice and equal opportunity. Here you have more people who sympathize with your views. People are so much more friendly."

They've been Unitarians for a long time. His mother was a Unitarian and he grew up attending the Tacoma Unitarian church.

Lee has been a member for more than 20 years, 10 with the Kitsap congregation and 10 with the church in Des Moines.

Lee agrees with Hitchcock that the personal relationships of church members and others in the community are critically important.

Burkhart and Lee immediately got involved in the neighborhood. They started going to community meetings. Burkhart has joined the Rainier Beach Planning Committee, and Lee is on the Holly Street Planning Committee.

"The best way to get to know a community is to get involved and make a contribution," he says.

Besides community involvement, Lee says the church needs more input from other ethnic groups.

"If we had an African-American co-minister, that would be really great," she says, or even an African-American music director. "We love our minister and our music director, but you have to get more exposure."

Comfort with the service is a matter of what you are accustomed to.

What you want to take away from the service is a matter of what your life is like and what you need most to sustain you.

Are you wanting and needing a little joy to carry you through to the next week? Do you have the luxury of pining for a purpose?

Glover Barnes says the congregation is fishing in a stream, not a river; it isn't for everyone.

Barnes is a urology professor at the University of Washington and a longtime civic activist.

He grew up in fundamentalist black churches in Akron, Ohio, so he knows UUism doesn't serve the same purpose or the same audience.

"The difference between Unitarian Universalism and the black church is the same difference as between Unitarian Universalism and the white fundamentalist church."

He says UU is not a replacement for those traditions, but a supplement, though he contends the Rainier Valley UU is more lively and urban than most UU services.

He offers a comparison to show that mixing isn't the only worthwhile goal. "We're not trying to replace the synagogue, and yet we have very good relations with the Jewish community."

Twenty-six years ago a group of Unitarians called the Southenders met in Barnes' Mount Baker home for a couple of years, and he was a part of initial discussions that brought about this congregation.

Barnes joined the Unitarian church in 1952. In college he'd moved away from his fundamentalist roots and one day came across the mission statement of the denomination. He read about the movement and decided it was for him.

It is iconoclastic, he says, a church for people who have intellectual curiosity, tolerance and a humanistic commitment.

People who find UU matches their orientations will find the congregation and be welcomed by it, Barnes says.

He quotes a biblical phrase, " `By their fruits shall you know them.'

"Growth will be there and it will be realized if we stick with our mission, which is to serve community, to serve individuals and to be friends of humankind."

In the end, what is best about Rainier Valley UU is that its doors are open to so many, and that in their lives its members try to be open to worlds beyond the one where they find the most comfort.

Jerry Large's column appears Sundays and Thursdays in the Scene section of The Seattle Times. You can reach him c/o The Times, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111. Phone: 206-464-3346. Fax: 206-464-2261.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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