"Nurturing Inclusive Community"- Rev. Tracy Johnson, Feb. 27 2022

Back when I was initially studying Human Services, diving into psychology and sociology for the first time, there appeared to me a rather heated debate over the concepts of nature and nurture, and which held sway in what makes a person who they are. Nature – that which is inherent in us, genetically determined, our biology. And nurture – that which is learned through socialization and exposure. They were posed as an either/or proposition. And it turns out that the argument had been going on for centuries with varying degrees of intensity over time.


I was fascinated by the question in part because I had been blessed with this little life in my midst, a daughter to tend to and to prepare for existence in our complicated world. And I wondered how much of what I was witnessing in her behavior was essentially hard-wired and therefore unchangeable, and how much was based on things she was exposed to in her environment. I leaned toward sociology in those days as a predictor of outcomes and was of the mind that I might shape this being in certain ways, that what I taught and shared by example of my own living and the context in which we had our existence would draw her toward one direction or another. I was a believer in the power of nurturance. And I dare say I still am today.


What I came to know over time and as the science shifted, was that we may be born with instincts that drive us toward behaviors, but that depending on which of those we nurture and in what ways, toward what ends, we engage in that process, we do have an effect on how things turn out – sometimes positive and sometimes not so much. So, it is a power to be wielded cautiously and responsibly.


More recent research into the field of epigenetics – the science of how the environment influences genetic expression- is playing a role in changing the conversation around nature v. nurture. David S. Moore, in his book, “The Developing Genome,” says that what matters is not so much what genes you have, but instead what your genes are doing, and this influenced, of course, by their environment. Epigenetics shows how this constant interaction of genes and environment produces characteristics over a lifetime. Nature and nurture are always working together. Some studies point to the idea that one’s environment early in life can have a long-term effect on one’s nature later in life. They also suggest that events later in life can have the effect of ameliorating prior ill effects. And beyond this, it is possible that over time these latter adaptations can be passed down genetically. The jury is still out on this, I believe, but I found it an interesting concept, none the less. It gave me hope.


So why all this talk about nature v. nurture this morning?! When we settled on language for our mission statement, we said we wanted to nurture inclusive community. This is fitting as it seems to imply that inclusivity may not be something that comes naturally, that it is part of our genetic makeup, but that it needs a little prompting. And sure enough, I found that our more primal instincts, at least according to evolutionary psychologists, are ingrained with hunter-gatherer mentalities, one trait of which is to fight furiously when threatened.


The bottom line with inclusivity is, and we have talked about this before, that it is a step beyond being welcoming, which might be more of a natural propensity as in the hunter-gatherer tendency toward trading information and sharing secrets, befriending behaviors, I think of those as. We are a Welcoming Congregation, an official designation for faith communities who have studied the practice of welcoming folks regardless of age, race, gender, identity; welcoming folks with all that they bring! And when someone new shows up on our doorstep we are intentional about noticing them and making them feel at home in our midst.


Inclusivity though, requires something additional of us, something that may have the potential to feel threatening. Without a concerted effort toward nurturance, we might turn tail and run when faced with what it takes! I spent some time pouring over a series of essays edited by Linnea Nelson, executive director of the UU Wellsprings program, in a book entitled, “Beyond Welcome: Building Communities of Love.” The authors are a multicultural group of present-day Unitarian Universalist leaders and minsters. It asked that prior to reading each essay I pose the question to myself, “How does my congregation or organization need to change culture or structures in order to allow everyone to fully engage and belong?” In an essay on accessibility I pondered how we might employ a minister or an office person who used a wheelchair in our sanctuary. In thinking about the creation of robust communities of care I was reminded that care involves both giving and receiving and I wondered about our ability to receive as a sign of inclusivity. I read about the concept of restorative justice in the midst of personal attack, and how it might be to think in terms of “no one losing their humanity on my account” when it comes to crime against one’s self and its antidotes. How would I respond?


According to the Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti, belonging can become a form of social currency intertwined with power and access and resources. Who belongs, he says, can turn people into commodities that have value for those who already are a part of things. Sometimes our cultural norms can become a vetting process that sets up conditions for belonging. We accept folks with all kinds of religious beliefs and political leanings, but we might be more inclined to extend the hand of belonging to someone more closely aligned with our own ways of thinking. Those who are already here have the power to offer belonging or not.


He cites Indigenous wisdom traditions which tell us that belonging rests in and is defined by a sense of mutuality. The trust required for mutuality to exist asks us to let go of the kind of thinking that says that the “other” for lack of better terminology – that person who comes with different ideas and ways of being and doing, their belonging is not asking me to lose something like prominence or control, is not something to be feared as if everything will change upon their arrival. Indigenous traditions tell us that belonging is implicitly woven into the fabric of all that exists and is not something we own or to be wrestled from another.


The 16th century bishop, Frances de Sales, takes a nature-based approach when he says that “Each of us has his own endowment from God.” He suggests an impertinence in questioning why, a lack of respect for the Creator or for the created, but likens the church to “a garden patterned with countless flowers,” such a variety of color and scent and size, each perfect though as it is, with its own charm and value and joy, the whole of which makes for “beauty in its most graceful form.” Inclusion doesn’t ask us to question so much as to marvel at simple and beautiful contribution of each life and to be bound up with all of it as in a glorious bouquet, each stem an offering to the whole.


Dr. Janice Marie Johnson is a Black internationalist, a Unitarian Universalist who has lived and taught among the folks at the Community Church of New York. She talked about cultural competence which asks us to know who we are and to learn who others are with a ‘holy curiosity’ and a willingness to embrace other ways of being. This, she says, requires us to develop a deep cultural humility, to decenter ourselves while centering the gifts of whoever is in our midst. She believes in the African teaching that we are seen into existence, that we are who we are because of other people. Nurturance.


This idea of decentering self as individuals and as a congregation can be scary! It asks us to think about what we need to let go of in order to build this community. Inclusion asks us to explore what might be getting in the way of building the beloved community we strive for. To know ourselves is to explore our roots, our history, to come to terms with what has shaped us in order to then reshape ourselves in ways more open to knowing others in all of their unique and diverse ways of being. Inclusion asks us not to welcome people into what is, but to incorporate who they are into who we are, creating an exchange that is constantly remaking and renewing what is. It asks us to be willing to change, to grow.


And so, it requires nurturance! Because none of this is easy or happens quickly. It is a process of becoming. If inclusion is the result we are seeking, nurturance is the vehicle to that destination. Nurturing happens here within these walls and these hearts. We are one another’s teachers. Together we can explore in a space of mutual trust what might be blocking our passage to more inclusion. What are we afraid of? What might we lose personally if alternative practices or structures were discovered or employed? How willing are we to let go of power or control or status in order to swing our doors open as wide as they can be? It is a deeper, more intimate coming together than simply gathering for a talk and a snack. But it is a step on a path toward the inclusivity that we desire.


Therapists Jett Psaris and Marlena Lyons, in their book, “Undefended Love,” suggest that many of us may have defended and protected ourselves for so long that we don’t know how to access our hearts and to love in an unguarded way. Allowing ourselves to be truly known can feel both vulnerable and exhilarating. When we are open to being known and then choose to know and love others, without reservations, we arrive at a level of intimacy and authenticity otherwise unattainable. This place we journey to is about the freedom for all people to be themselves. And this, I would say, is at the root of inclusion.


We are doing some of this work in our current study of Rev. Kristen Harper’s book, “The Darkness Divine.” It asks us to look at ourselves and our faith and our world through an alternative lens and we are grateful to her for preparing it for us. Through it we come to know the struggle for belonging of African Americans in our tradition, to try on the experience and know both ourselves and those who have been othered in our midst more fully. Out of this knowing evolves a more inclusive spirit. We nurture one another in this process.


So again, we need one another to get to this place. We need to feel safe enough in community, to trust and support one another on the journey to talk through our fears and misgivings knowing we are accepted still, and to celebrate one another as we break through what holds us back. In so doing we will be creating something here that meets the longing of our times. In the midst of this world of constant struggle reside persons whose deepest desire is community, real community, authentic community, intimate community.


My hope for us here at UUMH is that we are able to do the hard work together, to shed whatever barriers we uncover, to grow together in love and to extend that love from genuine hearts and generous spirits. My hope is that we nurture into being a place in this larger community where people know they can come as they are and find depth and meaning for the journey of life. My hope is that you are willing to open your hearts and minds and spirits, to nurture and to be nurtured on the path to inclusive community.


Blessed be and amen.




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Celebrating 25 Years: Rising on the Hill 1996-2021

​Unitarian Universalist

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