The Beauty and Challenge of Diversity
Rev. Tim Temerson
UU Church of Akron
November 15, 2009
Good morning and welcome to Association Sunday 2009. Association Sunday
is an initiative from the Unitarian Universalist Association in which all of our nearly
1000 congregations across North America are invited dedicate a Sunday morning to
a common theme or challenge Unitarian Universalists are confronting. This year’s
theme lifts up our work to end racism and oppression of all kinds, and to build a
more diverse, inclusive, and multicultural Unitarian Universalism. The Unitarian
Universalist Association has a number of very important and worthwhile programs
aimed at helping congregations like the UU Church of Akron do this work, and when
we take our collection this morning after the sermon, you will note there are
envelopes in your orders of service in which you can make a donation to support
these very important programs and initiatives.
I must say that whenever I think about my own experience with diversity
and multiculturalism, my mind is almost always drawn back to a Tuesday morning,
about 4 years ago, when I was working as a student chaplain at a hospital in
Boston. That morning I was asked to visit and pray for a patient named Esther.
Esther was in her late 70’s, a Baptist, and a recent immigrant from Haiti who didn’t speak or understand English. But I learned that one of the nurses on her floor was
also Haitian, and that the nurse had very graciously offered to translate.
As I made my way to the Esther’s room, I thought about my past
experiences praying with patients. When I first started working as a chaplain, there
was nothing more intimidating or nerve-wracking for me than being asked to pray.
Prayer had never been part of my spiritual life, and the thought of praying in
general, and especially with patients who had very different beliefs than my own,
left me feeling uncertain and, quite frankly, scared.
But as time went on, I grew more comfortable with prayer. I developed a
kind of prayer strategy which I used whenever I talked with a patient. You see, as
I listened to my patients share their thoughts and their feelings, I would make mental notes that I would then draw on later should they ask me to pray. Those notes might contain things they had shared about their family, their feelings, or the faith. By lifting up or even repeating some of their words, I hoped my prayer would reflect what was in their hearts and on their minds.
In many ways, I think my approach to prayer was very Unitarian Universalist. For one thing, I tried to focus my attention on the needs of the individual rather than on the doctrine or theology of their faith tradition. And I also focused a great deal of energy and effort on the content and words of my prayers, doing my best to discover what my patients needed and then striving to find just the right words to meet those needs. Prayer, for me, was all about the words, the right words, the correct words.
That morning as I walked to the woman’s room, I wondered how well I would
be able to follow my prayer strategy with a patient who I would not be able to speak with directly. I had used translators a couple of times before and had found it hard to understand what the patient was saying or feeling. In fact, I had felt so lost during both of those visits that I ended up not offering to pray for either patient. I know that sounds terrible but without some clue as to what the right words might be, I felt completely lost.
While I blamed my difficulty with those patients on the language barrier, I knew in my heart there was more to it than that. You see, while I’ve always thought of myself as a tolerant and open-minded person, the truth of the matter is that encountering people who are different from me has always left me feeling uncertain – uncertain not only about what to say or not say, but also uncertain
about exploring and discussing those differences. That’s why I’ve spent much of my life being tolerant of difference without ever really engaging it, learning from it, or being transformed by it.
In some ways, I think the concept of tolerance needs to be replaced or at least re-examined. Think about it. When we say we’re tolerant of someone or
something, what we’re really saying is that although we recognize our differences,
we are in the right and have truth on our side. We will put up with difference but won’t make the effort to explore it or possibly to learn from it. Nick Carter, the
President of my seminary, Andover Newton, defines tolerance in this way.
“Tolerance is really a negative judgment wrapped up in avoidance.” Let me say
that again. Tolerance is a negative judgment wrapped up in avoidance. Nick goes
on to say that tolerating something or someone is a kind of don’t ask, don’t tell
approach to engaging with a stranger. I will do it my way, you can do it your way,
and we will do all in our power to avoid really talking or listening or appreciating
But if tolerance has outlived it’s usefulness as a concept, what should it be replaced with? In many ways, I think Unitarian Universalism is on the right path in
that we affirm “acceptance of one another” in our principles and purposes. I think
of acceptance as a kind of warm-hearted tolerance – as not simply putting up with
difference but of welcoming it into our communities and into our lives. We
Unitarian Universalists can and should be proud of our commitment to acceptance,
and especially to how that commitment has helped us welcome and accept our
GLBTQ brothers and sisters into our congregations, into the ministry, and into our
And yet, I don’t think acceptance by itself ultimately gets us where we need to be. You see, although acceptance is warm-hearted and welcoming, it still
doesn’t challenge us to really engage with difference, to listen and learn from the
other, and to open ourselves to the beauty and the transforming power of diversity.
If I could point to one thing that’s missing not only from the concepts of tolerance and acceptance, but also from our own Unitarian Universalist experience
with difference and diversity, that one thing would be humility. You see, in the
midst of our tolerance and even our acceptance of difference, what has been
missing is recognition that those who are different have something to offer us –
something that we need in order to be whole and to make our journeys of the spirit.
And that something is truth – the truth that lives in their beliefs, in their
experiences, in their journeys of the spirit. If we are to weave what David
Blanchard calls “a larger tapestry of meaning,” we must open our hearts and our
minds to not only those who are like us and with whom we agree, but also to those
who are different and with whom we share little in common.
Of course, opening our hearts and minds to diversity and difference can be
so very challenging, as I learned that morning in the hospital. When I got to
Esther’s room, she and the nurse were waiting for me. After introducing myself, I
began by asking Esther a few questions – How was she feeling today, did she have family in the area, did she have a particular faith tradition, and so on.
Although the nurse translated my questions and Esther answered them, I
could tell from their facial expressions that something was very wrong. They looked
at one another as if they didn’t understand what I was doing. At one point the
nurse very gently reminded me that Esther had requested that I pray for her, and
that prayer was all she needed from me.
Now I must say that the nurse’s gentle advice annoyed me. After all, she
was interrupting my prayer strategy, and how was I going to discover the right
words if I didn’t get a chance to ask my questions. So I plunged ahead, asking
Esther to tell me more about her life, her family, and her faith. And the longer I
talked, the more confused and exasperated both the nurse and Esther became.
Finally the nurse interrupted me rather abruptly and said for the second time,
“Look all Esther wants is for you to pray for her. You don’t need to know anything
about her and you don’t need me to translate. Just pray and she will follow you.”
Follow me? I couldn’t imagine what the nurse meant by that. Esther and I
were separated by so many differences and so many barriers – differences of age,
race, class, language, religion, nationality, you name it – Esther and I were truly,
So out of desperation and frustration, I closed my eyes and began to say the
only Christian prayer I know by heart – the Lord’s Prayer. I remember thinking to myself - this is totally pointless because Esther won’t understand what I’m saying and the prayer will be absolutely meaningless to her.
But as I began to pray, something unexpected and truly remarkable
happened. You see, after I finished saying the first line of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our
father who art in heaven” Esther repeated in a soft and barely audible voice, “Our
Father Who Art in Heaven.” After I said the next line, she repeated it and the one
after that until we got to the end of the prayer.
Although I was the one who had come that morning to offer prayer and
comfort, something happened to me in that hospital room, something that has
forever changed the way I understand not only prayer but also my spiritual life.
You see, as Esther repeated the words of the Lord’s Prayer, I began to feel deeply,
deeply connected – connected to her and connected to something holy and
beautiful present in that room. Esther taught me that prayer is ultimately not
about saying the right thing or getting the words just right, but instead that prayer
is about being deeply connected and about being in the presence of the Holy. In
fact, that’s how I’ve come to understand the meaning of spirituality – deep
connection to oneself, to others, to the universe, and to the sacred. And although I
can point to many experiences and people who have shaped my understanding of
spirituality, I don’t think I would have come to this point had it not been for that
amazing moment with Esther – an extraordinarily wise and deeply spiritual person who was so very different than me and from whom I had so much to learn. That
moment with Esther will forever be part of my larger tapestry of meaning, and I am
so very grateful and blessed for her presence in my spiritual life.
As my experience with Esther reveals, encountering difference and
embracing diversity can be difficult and challenging. But if we have the courage and
the humility to welcome and be open to difference, I believe we will find ourselves
in a sacred place, a holy place, a place in which we can truly listen, learn, and be
transformed. Let us commit ourselves as Unitarian Universalists and as seekers
after truth – let us commit ourselves to opening our hearts, our minds, and our
spirits to the beauty and the wisdom of diversity, because when we enter a place
where difference is celebrated rather than simply tolerated, we can weave that
beautiful tapestry of meaning – a tapestry guiding us along a path to truth, friendship, and love.