The problem with being on the fringe... [Cooley]

From Rev. Dawn Cooley:

I have heard Unitarian Universalist congregations described as "Islands of Misfit Toys." This metaphor comes from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV show from the 70s that many of us are probably familiar with.

The problem with acting as though we are islands of misfit toys is that we just stand around doing nothing. Toys are meant to bring joy to peoples' lives. Television viewers celebrate when all the toys leave the island and go find homes where they can live into the fullness of their creation. If we, as Unitarian Universalists, relegate ourselves to the fringe, to being islands of misfit toys, then we are not out there living into the fullness of our past, present, and future.

Taken one step further, if we want to be about cultural transformation, we cannot abdicate our power by putting ourselves on the fringe. We need, instead, to be out there, amongst people, speaking the language of the culture that we are trying to transform. Goodness knows they need us actively loving the hell out of the world, particularly in weeks like this when hell is on display in every window.

A few years ago, I saw an increase in my colleagues taking Spanish lessons as we prepared to have a very unique General Assembly in Phoenix. We wanted to be able to speak to people on their terms, about their lives. This is as it should be.

Beyond Phoenix, and beyond Spanish, I believe we are uniquely positioned to be multi-lingual. We have the ability to speak to those on the fringe (where many of us, are, frankly, more comfortable). AND we have the ability (if we are willing to claim it) to speak as peers to those in power.

If we, as a faith tradition, are content with being on the fringe, then we might as well write our obituary. Not only will we not be about cultural transformation, but we will have lost our way entirely. Let us instead use our power and privilege in solidarity with those who need it. So many do.


  1. YES! May I quote you?

  2. Have Jews been "on the fringe" and relegated to the sidelines because they're not part of "Christendom"? Have they not rather, on many occasions, provided this country with powerful moral witness despite that "handicap"? What about Hindus (an even better educated and wealthier cohort than UUs, and one which is bound to become increasingly influential in the future as second and later generations come to the fore)? And Buddhists? With respect, I believe you are setting up a false dichotomy here between "fringe" and "part of Christendom", and one that tends both to divide us and to inhibit us from continuing to develop our own distinctive voice.

  3. Danielle, yes, please quote away.

    Steve, I don't mention Christendom in this post for exactly the reason that you bring up. If you have never heard the "Island of Misfit Toys" metaphor for UU congregations, then consider yourself lucky! This is about living our mission and claiming our power (which comes from a variety of places, and that is an entirely different post).

  4. Thank you for the clarification. I think that, with phenomena like Standing on the Side of Love and strong UU participation in Moral Mondays, the temptation for UUs to stand on the sidelines is already a thing of the past.

  5. In thirty years of lay and clerical leadership, I have seen way too many UU "islands of misfit toys." Some were self-created, almost literal islands, as downtown congregations abandoned their historic buildings and civic profiles to build new buildings in woodsy suburbs, locations you can barely find with a compass and identified with a v-e-r-y discrete little sign. Only those already in the club or the highly-motivated (with cars) would find them. "Well, you know, we're not for everybody," I heard more than one member say when I asked about their well-hidden location. (It would take a longer essay to lay out the different reasons various congregations cite for this physical move to their "Island.") Years ago we were quite smug about this. Now, however, as our membership plunges and we can no longer make our living on "come-outers" willing to seek us out, we've, at last, begun to wonder whether this was all such a great idea. It never was, but I'm not sure if we've realized that too late.

  6. The church I belong to made the move to the suburbs mistake way back in 1961, but is highly engaged with social justice work in the city and is growing at a healthy clip, including people who certainly don't fit the old Fellowship stereotype. So no, it's not too late, except for congregations that prefer to wither away rather than to to change and grow.

  7. Steve Cook4:18 PM

    Simply a clarification. Flying fingers evidently posted my comment above beginning "In thirty years" before I completed typing my name! I shall try it again.


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