The 8th Principle and Religious Education
Written by Alison Hart and Michael Hornsby, members of the Religious Education Council, and Leah Purcell
Religious Education communities have often been leaders in our denomination. Did you know that Unitarian youth and Universalist youth met together before the two denominations decided to become one? The same is true of the religious educators. Our religious education program at Albany UU has been using covenants for at least 20 years, long before we adopted our congregational covenant just this year. We started using themes of the month for RE sessions and family ministry before the adults started aligning their programming to thematic ministry. It’s easier to create innovations for programming and ministry for children, youth, and families perhaps because children, youth and families are naturally always in transition and because they are most impacted by change in the world.
Our RE Council has been laser focused on how to address the needs of everyone in the program in these rapidly changing times. And so, this past year, the RE Council decided to use the proposed 8th UU Principle to guide its work.
You may be familiar with this Principle through the work of the Inclusivity Team and the Board of Trustees: We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions. Where did this idea come from? Paula Cole Jones, a longtime leader in our Unitarian Universalist movement, realized “that a person can believe they are being a ‘good UU’ and following the 7 Principles without thinking about or dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level.” Our children and youth are already living in multicultural settings and the REC knew that they too need guidance dealing with racism and other oppressions at the systemic level.
The RE Council reviewed and considered several tools to assess how our Albany UU Religious Education Program is progressing in our work to dismantle racism and build Beloved Community. We chose to devote time and attention to completing the work asked of the Lifespan Assessment Tool, developed by a team led by Jessica York, Co- Director of Ministries and Faith Development of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
The Lifespan Assessment asks participants to grade themselves, their RE Programs, and their Congregations on an expansive series of statements designed to probe our policies, practices, and cultural norms around race and diversity. We’ve chosen to focus our conversation on the RE Program scores. While perceptions are inherently subjective, as we’ve looked at scores in aggregate, we’ve uncovered areas that are ripe for growth.
Each section of the Assessment is weighty, and we are taking our time to discuss each area that our group RE Program score falls at or below a 3.5 out of 5. In particular, so far, we’re identifying the limited racial diversity present in our congregation as a significant impediment to our progress across multiple dimensions. Finding ways—both in our RE Program and our congregation more broadly—to meaningfully increase our interactions with people of color and build authentic, reciprocal relationships will be key to our progress.
We intend to continue working through the Lifespan Assessment until complete, making recommendations along the way, and renew the process regularly.
Using the 8th Principle as a guide, the RE program has made subtle but intentional moves to promote antiracism. For example, RE has been intentional in making sure that the classroom guides and the RE Council itself reflect, as much as possible, diversity in race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. This intentionality is brought about by active recruitment of congregants from minority groups when a volunteer spot needs to be filled. Usually, the active recruitment is simply a phone call or an email asking a specific person if they would like to help. However, even if the possible recruit declines the invitation, the asking itself serves to let the person know that they are considered to be a part of the congregation which, in turn, may lead to increased participation in congregational activities.
The stories that are told during the service are a wonderful example of how multicultural perspectives can be used to teach Unitarian Universalist values. The stories have become a very popular part of each service and help to “normalize” the antiracist message of the 8th principle deliberately and without fanfare.
The curricula of each of the classes, for the youngest children up to the Coming of Age group, are designed to teach the values of the 1st Principle as well as the 8th Principle. This year, the 8th grade group read the graphic novel trilogy March, an autobiographical story of the late civil rights icon John Lewis. These books tell the story of Congressman Lewis’s involvement in the Civil Rights Movement from the earliest efforts to desegregate lunch counters to the March on Washington, from the Selma march across the Edmond Pettus Bridge to the legal triumphs of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. Interwoven into the story are vignettes of the inauguration of President Obama, as well as personal reflections on well-known leaders like Martin Luther King and, of particular interest, stories of lesser known civil rights heroes like Fannie Lou Hamer. Perhaps the greatest lesson that the book could impart is that a committed group of ordinary citizens, fueled by righteous anger and shielded by the highest spiritual principles, can use love to make positive changes in the world.
What does all this mean for all of us? Just as some people argued in the 1960s that there was no need for a Civil Rights Act because everyone’s rights were already codified in the Constitution, there may be those Unitarian Universalists who don’t think that we need to adopt an 8th Principle specifically on discrimination. Doesn’t the 1st Principle, which affirms the inherent worth and dignity of every person, take care of that? Unfortunately, just as the Bill of Rights didn’t prevent discrimination, we UUs must recognize that our Seven Principles need amending to include specific language against discrimination and encouraging an intentional antiracism. We must acknowledge that the Seven Principles did not prevent racism in our denomination. Of course, adoption of the 8th Principle will not instantly end white supremacy within our denomination. However, words are important, and the 8th principle speaks to our aspirations and clarifies our intentions. And if you want to see the 8th Principle in action, you need look no further than our RE program.