The Arc of our UU Universe
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Anti-racism has become a central aspect of our faith tradition. It may seem a little odd to consider it that way, but have I not spoken for some time about how the center of our Unitarian Universalist faith is not found in beliefs and creeds, but in values. We are values-centric faith. And one of the values rising to the fore in our communal conversations is anti-racism and multiculturalism. We value justice, inclusion, and mutual respect. Thus, anti-racism has become a central feature of our values as Unitarian Universalists.
But that was not always the case. It is interesting really to think about the version of Unitarian Universalism we are living today and how we are sometimes tempted to think it has always been like this, that our commitment to religious freedom and tolerance has always led us to behave as we do today. But ask some of our long-term members and we’ll remind ourselves that ours is an evolving faith tradition. We grow, we change. This heavy emphasis on anti-racism is somewhat new.
In our reading, (from the introduction of Mistakes and Miracles,) the authors describe an event happening at General Assembly back in 2017. Rev. Peter Morales was our UUA president from 2009 to 2017, and 3 months prior to the end of his 8-year term, he resigned in a controversy of UUA hiring practices and charges of institutional racism. Those events and our association’s response contributed to the rise of the phrase “White Supremacy” among us. We in Binghamton participated in the national “White Supremacy Teach-in” back in the spring of 2017. I expect some of you can recall that time. It was a little messy. But then, Unitarian Universalism has struggled with racism for a long time.
I mentioned the issue with Thomas Jefferson’s legacy during the Time for All Ages. We Unitarians have loved him for his stance on the separation of church and state, for his commitment to the use of reason in religion, for his lofty words in the Declaration of Independence. For a long time, we simply didn’t talk about the contradiction and hypocrisy of his role in the slaughter of native people, of his owning of slaves, of keeping an enslaved mistress, and of not even doing that bare minimum of decency of freeing his slaves upon his death – several of whom were his children – all after proclaiming “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”
In 1993 there was a significant event for Unitarian Universalists that cracked open a major conversation around old TJ. 1993 was the 250th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birth. Our UUA General Assembly was schedule to happen in Charlotte, NC, which at the time was located in the district named after Thomas Jefferson. The minister serving the Thomas Jefferson UU Church in Charlottesville, VA offered to do a workshop on “The most famous Unitarian in history.” People wanted to celebrate Jefferson’s legacy among us.
The GA planning committee suggested a celebratory ball in his honor, inviting people to wear period-costumes. They thought it would a bit of fun to have people attend dressed in costumes from the early American time period. It simply was not on many people’s radar that this idea might cause pain to black and indigenous people. Notably, Hope Johnson read a statement during the plenary which included the question, “Must African Americans such events in rags and chains?”
People countered saying that the event was intended to honor a luminary from our Unitarian history. People countered saying the good Jefferson embodied is still worth praising and to do so does not automatically make one a racist. The planning team responsible for hosting the Jefferson Ball tried to respond but the response dissolved into blame. One member of that planning team, Rev. Keith Kron, said this a few years later:
“We think of racism as being an overt thing,” Kron reflected. “As someone who had lived in the South and had seem as a 5th grader, my elementary school become integrated, I knew what racism was. And I was right. Or half-right. There are a lot of people who consciously want people of color to be second-class citizens. What I and the rest of the Planning Committee didn’t know at the time was that much of racism is not conscious – just part of the system, and you have to be awake to see it.”
I was in seminary a few years after these events and will offer the perspective that my entire time as a minister has been during the version of Unitarian Universalism debating multiculturalism, working to unlearn racism, and waking up to the ways white supremacy shapes our history and our values as a faith tradition. That’s the version of our faith I know professionally.
I remember a time early in my ministry when I had attended a conference on anti-racism and during an informal time, I was chatting with an elder UU lay-leader who was set against our attempts at diversity because he doesn’t want to dumb down Unitarian Universalism to win over black people. I was shocked by the ignorance and illogic of this argument, but learned as the years went by that this was a common argument against integration among us. It was a pattern.
I am reminded of the advice one of the co-presidents offered from our reading. In reflecting on how to move forward, Rev. Bill Sinkford commended us to “focus not on the persons but the patterns.” In this context, I am drawn to notice the patterns of our history rather than a single person – contemporary or historical – save as they reveal something about our patterns.
Are you, for example, familiar with the story of Rev. Egbert Ethelred Brown? He was born in Jamaica, trained by Meadville theological school from 1910-12 to be a Unitarian minister, and launched the Harlem Unitarian Church in 1920. But he had little to no support in his ministry. The American Unitarian Association dropped him from fellowship in 1929 only to have it reinstated in 1935 with the support of the ALCU.
Unitarians at that time were not interested in supporting the spread of Unitarianism among black people. To be sure, there were white Unitarians who went against the tide, but the leadership of the association labeled African Americans as ‘lower class ‘shiftless rascals.’ (from Darkening the Doorways, ed Mark Morrison-Reed; p51) This claim that our faith is somehow inaccessible to ‘lesser’ people is an arrogant failing that continues to appear among us through the years. This, despite Rev. Brown being described as a radical leader offering thought-provoking sermons.
My contemporary colleagues have commented about this, how their sermons as people of color are critiqued as being too emotional – ‘too Jesus-y’ is a coded way of saying much the same.
Back in 1860, an incredibly rare example of an encounter before the 1900’s, the Rev. William Jackson applied to join the ranks of the Unitarian clergy in Bedford MA. After being in conversation with a Unitarian clergy friend, Jackson felt moved to become a Unitarian. He was denied. One historian from the ‘70’s produced a widely reproduced quote about the response:
The Unitarians took a collection … and Mr. Jackson was sent on his way. No discussion, no welcome, no expression of praise and satisfaction was uttered, that the Unitarian gospel had reached the ‘colored.’ (from Patterns of Antislavery among American Unitarians 1831-60, Douglas Stange; p 227)
And the Universalist have their own track record. There is an amazing and tragic story about what came to be called the Universalist Negro missions in Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia. Under the leadership of two dynamic African American Universalist, the church and the school connected to the mission bloomed and blossomed. The first leader died young and the next eventually left Universalism, being over extended and under-supported by the denomination.
The mission fell into the hands of the Rev. Joseph Fletcher Jordan, who became the pastor of St. Paul Universalist church in Suffolk VA and principle of the Suffolk Normal Training School for 25 years in the early 1900’s. Along with his wife, Mary Jordan, and later his daughter, Annie Willis, the Jordans brought the message of God’s love to countless people of color in Virginia. Support from the Universalist’s General Convention would ebb and flow through the years depending on who was in charge and who was paying attention. Not having another African American Universalist ready to step in, the mission faded away when Annie Willis died.
Similarly up here in New England, Jeffery Campbell attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY to become a Universalist minister. After graduation he officiated at his sister’s wedding and then moved to London, unable to secure a pulpit in this country as either a Universalist or a Unitarian in the 1930’s or ‘40s. The wedding he officiated for his sister was an interracial wedding to another seminary student, Francis Davis. Rev Davis, while being white, had no luck securing a Universalist pulpit either, due to his interracial marriage.
I suggest one pernicious pattern in this history among both our Unitarian and Universalist ancestors is a willful apathy and distain aimed to ignore the issue away. And so, I for one applaud the courageously called who have refused to fade away. I am grateful the issue and values of Anti-racism have worked their way into the center of our faith’s conversation and attention. I am please to acknowledge the change and the centering of those who had so long been pushed to the margins.
Years back now, Unitarian preacher and activist Theodore Parker said:
“I do not pretend to understand the moral universe. The arc is a long one. My eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by experience of sight. I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” -Theodore Parker, 1853
So with all this evidence from our own history of hypocrisy and racism, what do are we to do? What do I do about this moral arc and the messy legacy of it all? Where do I as your minister look for evidence of this bending arc? I will share one final story.
I have mentioned the annual General Assembly of the UUA several times this morning. It is perhaps fitting to close my sermon with one more story for a General Assembly. This time from 2019, the Sunday Morning worship service. The preacher, the Reverend Marta Valentin, had finished – her sermon had been titled “It Is Time Now” and she had told us that we were in a ‘turning’ as a faith, a turning toward greater wholeness and justice and beloved-ness. She had told us that the hard path we are on of becoming an anti-racist, multicultural faith tradition, we are at a turning of the path. Things are changing.
At the end of the service, the choir began singing the postlude song by Karisha Longaker of the musical duo, MaMuse. The song says, “We shall be known by the company we keep, by the ones who circle round and tend these fires”
And the worship leaders all moved off to one side as other people began joining them on the large stage while the choir sang. First a few folks in scooters or using canes, then more people came up starting a second row behind those who had arrived a moment earlier.
“We shall be known” the choir voices rang out, “by the ones who sow and reap the seeds of change alive from deep within the earth.”
And if it wasn’t clear before, no one would miss it now as more and more people arrived on stage. Here were the black, indigenous, and people of color who have been leaders in our faith tradition at this particular time in our history.
“It is time now,” the choir sang, “it is time now that we thrive.”
Here before us on the stage was a snapshot, a moment in time, revealing the active leadership in our faith who were not white. When I entered ministry in the late 90’s there were a handful of people of color in leadership in our faith. Here now were several dozen people filling the stage. Clergy and prominent lay leaders, elders and youth. And remember this was only those who were present at General Assembly that Sunday morning.
“It is time now, and what a time to be alive,” the choir sang.
And we know it is not about counting up the diverse people and patting ourselves on the back for good numbers. It is about transformation and growth and becoming a little more like the Beloved Community each day. And what I witnessed on the stage that Sunday morning was about something new growing among us, something about leadership and change and love.
“In this Great Turning,” the choir sang, “we must learn to lead in love.”
And the choir sang, “In this Great Turning, we must learn to lead in love.”
In a world without end,
May it be so.