The UUA has described the effort to end the roots of racism in ourselves, our churches,
and society, as a journey toward wholeness. How have we fared on that journey and how far
have we yet to go to reach the holy land of wholeness? The truth is we have come a long
way, but we have a long way to go.
Unitarian Universalists have a well deserved reputation as standing up for the rights of minorities and those who are oppressed and we have a history we can be proud of in this regards, but our history has a shadow side which we also must own if we are to make our journey toward wholeness true to who we are and have been and would yet be.
We can take pride in the fact that one of our own church members, Chief Justice William Cushing of the Mass. Supreme Court ruled against the institution of slavery in the Comm. of Massachusetts in 1783 long before the nation put an end to it with the Civil War. But his ruling really only freed one slave at the time and those who still owned slaves were permitted to keep them for a few more generations. What he did was to set a legal precedent for the future liberation of slaves, not the immediate overthrowing of the entire institution. We assume that his fellow parishioners applauded his decision with full acclaim, but we can be sure that all those in the parish who still owned slaves were not happy with his ruling.
William Ellery Channing, the Father of American Unitarianism, waited nearly 30 years before he finally worked up the courage to speak out against slavery from his pulpit at the Federal St. Church (now the Arlington St. Church in Boston). In the end it cost him his job. When the controversial Unitarian abolitionist, Charles Follen, of Lexington died, Channing proposed holding a memorial service in his church and pulpit. Channing's church board voted it down because some of them were slave holders and they didn't want the controversy. Channing held the service anyway and then resigned.
The people of First Parish Norwell showed great courage in 1830 when they called Samuel J. May, to be their minister knowing of his work and membership in the Abolitionist Society in Boston and his close association with the Founder, William Lloyd Garrison, a Universalist. Six and a half years later Samuel J. May resigned his pulpit because of controversy over his speaking out against the segregation of slaves in the balcony of the church. He didn't want to remain the minister of a divided parish and so he chose to accept a position as Director of a Normal School in Lexington.
My predecessor, John Kolbjornsen, was minister here during the divisive days of the Civil Rights movement. He was one of many UU ministers who went to Selma in 1975 to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. You may remember that two Unitarians lost their lives in Selma--the Rev. James Reeb of Boston, and a lay leader, Viola Liuzzo, of Detroit, one beaten the other shot. Some parishioners objected to John K.'s going to Selma. He should attend to problems at home they said. Later when King was assassinated, he held a memorial service and draped the church entranceway in black. Some were upset at his holding the service and at least one church member resigned from the church because she did not think it was right to hold a memorial service for a black man.
We can take pride in the fact that Lydia Marie Child in 1833 had the courage to write and publish "An Appeal in Favor of that Class of Americans called African"; and that in 1863, Robert Gould Shaw, son of a Unitarian minister, was the Colonel of the 54th Mass. Infantry, the first Regiment of African American volunteers from the North to fight in the Civil War; and that another Unitarian, Julia Ward Howe, wrote the hymn that became the marching song of the war against slavery, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic", "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
We like to remember that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Parker did all in their power to resist obeying the Fugitive Slave Law, but we would rather not remember that it was a Unitarian President, Millard Fillmore, who signed it into law in the first place. We rightly salute Parker for his courage and tenacity in resisting the institution of slavery in all of its forms, but we forget that he nonetheless believed that African Americans were inherently inferior in gifts of mind and intellect. It is good to recall that John Haynes Holmes, a white minister of the Community Church in New York, helped found the N.A.A.C.P., and that Whitney Young, Jr., a black member of the Atlanta U.U. Church, became an outstanding leader and Executive Director of the National Urban League, but we would prefer that no one mention that the infamous K.K.K. was co-founded by a Southern Unitarian General.
As you can see we have a history of anti-racism that we can be proud of, but it is somewhat of a checkered history, and the heroes and heroines of our faith had to struggle for their achievements not only against forces of resistance in the larger society, but also from fellow Unitarians and Universalists who did not agree, and many of those Unitarian Universalists were strong lay leaders in their churches. So what we have is a history of individual heroic acts and accomplishments against a background of institutional racism which was itself a reflection of the larger society.
It is a fact that for many years the AUA (now the UUA) resisted welcoming or encouraging African American ministers into our fold. Ethelred Brown tried for many years to get accepted into fellowship, and was for a brief period before being removed from fellowship in 1929. A few years later his fellowship was restored but only after the ACLU threatened to take the denomination to court. Things have changed considerably since those days, and black religious professionals are starting to come into our movement in greater numbers, but it has been a slow process. In the late 1960s the UUA was nearly torn apart by an internal struggle between integrationists and black power advocates, neither one truly understanding or appreciating where each was coming from. The issue, you see, was really about sharing of power and decision making, of having parity of access and influence in a predominantly white upper middle class denomination. The result was that the issue of racial inclusiveness!
was put on the back burner for a couple of decades.
In the interim the UUA went through a period of coming to terms with first, the feminist revolution, and then the intentional effort to become openly affirming and welcoming of gays and lesbians as members and religious leaders. Women are now nearly a majority in the UU ministry and will soon be so, and gays and lesbians are gradually finding access to pulpits and positions of religious leadership. Many UU churches, our own included, have gone through the process of becoming an intentionally open and welcoming congregation for gays and lesbians.
There is a definite linkage between welcoming gays and lesbians and struggling to become a racially inclusive multi-cultural church and congregation. One of the things that I recently learned was that Bayard Rustin, who was a close associate of Martin Luther King, Jr., was a black gay man, who was very talented as a community organizer. Because of his sexual orientation he was pressured to resign from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference early on in the Civil Rights Movement because he would be an embarrassment. But when it came time to coordinate the 1963 March On Washington, Rustin was invited to be the key organizer. This time when Sen. Strom Thurmond tried to expose Rustin as homosexual who had been arrested on a morals charge years before, King and the SCLC leadership rallied behind their man and stuck by him. The March was a huge success largely because of the organizing skills of Bayard Rustin.
It was about six years ago that the UUA General Assembly was held in Charlotte, N.C. Charlotte is in the Thomas Jefferson District of UU Churches. One of the things planned by the G.A. Planning Committee that year was to hold a gala Thomas Jefferson Ball with delegates invited to attend in period dress. Well, there were quite a number of black delegates attending that G.A. in Charlotte and many were offended at the notion of attending the ball in period dress. How should they come, dressed in slave clothes? Thomas Jefferson, you will remember, though critical of the institution of slavery, was himself a slave holder to his dying day. That incident in Charlotte later led to the delegates from the Thomas Jefferson District voting on whether to keep their name or to change it to a merely geographical designation. It required a two thirds vote to change. It got a majority, but failed to get the two thirds, so the Thomas Jefferson District remains.
From my point of view I'm glad the TJ District did not throw out the name of one of the few Unitarian Presidents we have had, and no doubt the greatest. Thomas Jefferson embodied both the best and the worst of who we are as a people and a nation, and who we are and have been as Unitarian Universalists. Our movement was founded as a predominantly white Judeo-Christian Eurocentric institution which sought to give expression to the best values of that tradition. The fact of the matter is we judge the worst of Thomas Jefferson and ourselves by the best of Thomas Jefferson and ourselves.
Even Martin Luther King, Jr. used the words and thoughts of Jefferson to judge the failure of white America to live up to the high ideals of the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal" and "born with certain unalienable rights," that of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." What would King's legacy have been without the words and marred legacy of Jefferson himself? We are who we are and we can never change the facts of our past history or the failure of our leaders or their presumed followers to live-up to their stated ideals. What we can do is resolve to change our current history and practices and to make Jefferson's credo the practice of our personal and institutional life. That is what the Journey to Wholeness is really all about. All men really means all women and men, gays and straights, blacks and whites, Asians and Orientals, rich and poor, simple and educated. The question is how much of the varied and wonderful modulations of the faces of humanity can we welcome into our hearts and minds and the household of our faith?
The challenge for the future of the UUA and its members churches is to be more openly affirming of people of color and the rich multi-cultural gifts which African-Americans, Native Americans, and Latinos and others can bring to our movement--in short, to use Jefferson to go beyond Jefferson, to liberate the captives and their children's children and to welcome them into our household of faith with open minds and chastened hearts. Ah, the times they are a-changin'! The UUA itself has now become a denominational institution that has women, gays, lesbians, and people of color in prominent positions of policy formation and leadership. It is no longer just an institution of liberal white guys mouthing platitudes of equality and integration. We have worked mightily to put our denominational house in order.
In 1992 the UUA established the Office for Racial and Cultural Diversity, just as it had previously established a Women and Religion Committee, and an Office of Gay and Lesbian Concerns. This new Office was established in order that the UUA and its member churches and fellowships might become intentionally anti-racist and multi-cultural in purpose and program. The new UUA hymnal was in part a fruition of that effort. We how have more music and worship materials from African-American, Native-American, pagan, oriental, as well as traditional Jewish and Christian sources, than we have ever had before.
The UUA has asked all its member churches this year to hold a special Journey To Wholeness Sunday--thus the reason for this service--and to have a special collection for the support of urban ministry programs of the UUA and local racial justice programs of our own choosing. They have asked that we give one third to the UUA Whitney Young Urban Ministry Fund which issues grants to: strengthen UU urban congregations, train UU leadership for urban ministries, provide seed money for new UU societies of diverse racial and economic make-up, create channels for suburban-urban and international cooperation, develop interfaith racial and economic justice initiatives, build advocacy and leadership programs for youth, and to affirm in concrete ways our commitment to the cities and to anti-racist multi-culturalism. Racism, by the way, is more than just an attitude of prejudice. It has been defined as "prejudice plus power" meaning that the prejudice has become embodied in social and institutional structures and practices. To eliminate the destructive effects of racism you must do more than simply change the way individuals think and relate, you must also change the institutions that embody those prejudices.
The remaining two thirds of this special collection is for a project to be determined by us. The Parish Committee and minister agreed that we would like to support the work of the First Church in Roxbury Youth Program which we have supported for the past two years by a stewardship project through the church school. We have had black high school young people and their adult advisor speak from our pulpit on two occasions and last spring youth and adults from our church participated in a Work Day program at the First Church in Roxbury along with white and black UUs from many other towns. It was a great success. Blacks and whites worked closely together in a common endeavor. This spring we intend to participate again in the First Church Roxbury Work Day.
Because the church school has chosen another worthy stewardship project, The Road to Responsibility, which we enthusiastically support, we thought it appropriate that the adults of First Parish take on the support of the First Church in Roxbury Youth Program which ministers to the black young people of Roxbury under the auspices of the UU Urban Ministry. So, at the conclusion of my sermon we will have a special collection for this purpose. I am giving $50 of my personal funds, and an additional $50 from my Minister's Emergency Fund. If you wish to write a check you can make it out to First Parish Norwell with a notation that it is for Urban Ministry Project.
Incidentally, our church is going to be the host for a gathering of delegates for the UU Urban Ministry on Saturday, January 30. Alison Barr and Becky Smock are supporters and delegates from First Parish as are Jean Christensen, Frank Mercier, Rachel Tedesco, and your minister. If you would like to attend or be of help in providing refreshments, etc. please speak to Rachel.
There is obviously much more we could do and someday will do to make our church in Norwell a more inclusive, diverse, multi-cultural and racially just religious body. If we can't increase the numbers of people of color in our midst because of the fact that our town and region is still largely a white middle class enclave we can at least reach out and establish links and relationships with people and programs in greater Boston, and we can in turn invite leaders and young people to meet with us and challenge us to live up to our Gospel of freedom, equality, and respect for the dignity for every human person. May it be so.