Finding common ground for a common dream

By Leslie Takahashi Morris

The time-worn quip is that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.

The research of Korie Edwards, a sociologist at Ohio State University, explains why that’s so.

Edwards and her associates studied multi-racial and multi-cultural churches to understand what makes these exceptions work.

The title of their book, Against All Odds: The Struggle for Racial Integration in Religious Organizations, suggests the many barriers that keep people from worshipping and embodying their deepest held beliefs together.

Edwards found that people affiliate with churches because they want to belong and that, most often, this results in people seeking organizations with others such as themselves.

What changes this is if they see more-than-token efforts to diversify leadership, if the values of multiple cultures are incorporated in integral ways, and if the organization has a mission statement steeped in a multi-cultural vision.

So few can meet this standard that the divisions stand.

So what does this have to do with the nonprofit sector?

The same mono-cultural issues that Edwards discovered in her congregational research would hold true for many of the nonprofits that help determine the quality of life for North Carolinians.

The same identity issues and affiliation needs shape nonprofits as shape religious congregations — and the same possibility for deep engagement exists.

Aren’t the places where we bring our deepest passions the most fertile ground for discussing our most divisive issues — perennial thorns such as race and socioeconomic status, and newer ones such as sexual orientation and immigration status?

Now that I live outside North Carolina, I am more awed by the depth, breadth and innovation of the Tar Heel state’s voluntary sector.

Because addressing the human-relations divides that fracture our society is a key challenge of this generation of leadership, we cannot afford to let our nonprofits off the hook.

No matter what the mission of an organization, somewhere in its culture, policies, leadership choices, service decisions or operating practices is an opportunity to offer a dialogue across difference, and a chance to give those historically under-represented a chance to be more fully heard.

Alexis de Tocqueville, in his classic 18th-century work, Democracy in America, observed that voluntary associations, which offer the opportunity for personal involvement, cement the bonds of U.S. society.

Let us be bound together in our common dream of a more equitable and inclusive society.

Leslie Takahashi Morris is minister of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Va., and was a 1995-97 William C. Friday Fellow for the Wildacres Leadership Initiative in Durham, N.C.

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