Joseph Santos-Lyons is this city's first homegrown minister of color in the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the church that proudly represents the far left pole of American religion.
During the UUA's recent national General Assembly here, Santos-Lyons was "fellowshipped" (the equivalent of a large-scale ordination), a milestone for the liberal UUA, which is 92 percent white, by its own estimates.
But as he assumes his minister's mantle, Santos-Lyons is speaking out about the elephant in the room: Liberals embrace multiculturalism in theory, he says, but there's a reason the UUA and other progressive movements, from anti-war to environmentalism groups, remain nearly all white.
Liberal whites are no more comfortable with race issues -- and often more defensive -- than their conservative counterparts, he and other congregants say.
The points of tension are telling:
Should discussions of racism focus on white privilege and the inherited responsibility for historical wrongs, especially slavery?
Does creating separate ministries for people of color divide an organization based on unity?
And should the ethics of transracial adoptions be questioned?
"A habit of liberals is to want to fix everything on the outside," says Santos-Lyons, 34. "But we don't turn inward and fix ourselves."
The Rev. William Sinkford, the first minority president of the UUA, said some uneasiness is generational. The church and many of its leaders, black and white, were at the front lines of the civil rights movement.
"Many of us thought we were going to solve racism and poverty," said Sinkford, who is African American. "To come to terms with the unfinishedness of that work is almost acknowledging a failure for my generation."
Historically, liberal movements have been predominantly white, upper-middle class phenomena, said Portland political pollster Tim Hibbitts.
"In the '60s and much more so now, there is a kind of radical chic-- the boomers who listen to Joan Baez in their Beemers and who haven't lived a terribly hardscrabble life and have adopted liberal views because they can afford to," he said.
Santos-Lyons, who is mixed Asian American and white, said he decided to speak out about race now because the UUA is at a turning point.
A series of events -- flare-ups between members, funding decisions and hiring choices for positions of power -- has led to discouraging conclusions for many minority members, he said.
Some have left the faith.
Santos-Lyons is used to shaking things up -- his personal blog is titled "Radical Hapa (Half Asian Pacific American)," and he learned his organizing techniques from Chicano activists at the University of Oregon who led boycotts on behalf of vineyard workers.
He took those sensibilities to his church, leading the UUA's campus ministry and field organizing office during the past decade. He said the UUA is too quick to see people like him -- who are adamant about minorities having their own identities and coalitions -- as militant or radical.
"People tend to see people of color meeting together as adversarial," he said.
The Rev. Manish Mishra, the leader of the UUA's multicultural ministries organization, said the faith and its leadership are sometimes unfairly blamed for issues that affect "all of white liberal America."
"It's not easy for liberal America to hear that what we believe about ourselves may not be true," said Mishra, an Indian American who says he is one of only three Hindu ministers in the UUA.
To focus on funding decisions, the sheer number of minorities or discomfort among otherwise well-intentioned people "is a very superficial analysis," he said. Many minority Unitarian Universalists regard the 2005 General Assembly in Forth Worth, Texas, as symbolic.
There, two Korean Americans who had been adopted by white families came to speak to a denomination that, by anecdotal accounts, has one of the highest rates of transracial adoptions.
The title under which the two adoptees spoke? "Transracial Abductees."
"You could see the discomfort on people's faces," said Meggie Dennis, a Korean American adoptee. Like Santos-Lyons, also an adoptee, the UUA was the church of her white parents.
"Many of us grew up in a white suburban church where nobody wanted to point out how a child was different, so race was just not talked about," Dennis said. "That set us up for a sudden identity crisis because we had not learned about our cultures."
Petra Aldrich, a Boston-based anti-racism trainer for the UUA, said Unitarian Universalists have an insecurity that stems from the faith's lack of theological structure.
"Because we don't all believe in the same thing, people look for structure and commonality in how we behave, who we are or who we aren't," said Aldrich, who is white, "whether that's people who wear batik or people who are not racist."
Sinkford said he is trying to take the UUA to the next step -- truth and reconciliation.
During the General Assembly, Sinkford challenged fellow Unitarian Universalists to address reparations for slavery -- specifically $1 million dollars that had been promised, but not paid in full, by the UUA three decades ago. It was controversial then, and it is controversial now, he said.
"Many of our churches with beautiful steeples on the New England coast were built with money from the slave trade," he said. "We have to be able to tell the reality of our history. This is spiritual work."
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