SOCIAL EVOLUTION for UUs Part 1: BLACK AND RAINBOW HISTORY

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1 Rev. Bob Klein UUCLR February 19, 2012 SOCIAL EVOLUTION for UUs Part 1: BLACK AND RAINBOW HISTORY I was a little young to be in any of the marches, having been born in December of 1956, but I am certainly a product of the era and proud to have been a youth advocate for Civil Rights. As a Methodist youth, I sang and played We Shall Overcome on my guitar along with other songs calling for justice and peace far more times than I can remember. We sang them at every youth retreat, and sometimes every meeting, and we held hands and sang them when the riots in Chicago were leaving blocks burning just a few miles away. I am not quite as proud to say that the suburban schools I attended and the western suburb where I lived were virtually all-white. I have certainly benefitted from white male privilege, but I will address that next week. I lived through much of the Civil Rights era, as did many of you. Paired with the Vietnam War, it was one of the most turbulent times for American Society. From chaos often comes order, or at least new solutions. Though I hope American Society will continue to evolve, it is clear that the challenges of the 1950s and 60s brought about a transforming social evolution which affected all parts of society, even amidst the sources of the most segregated hour of the week on Sunday mornings. As history has often shown, evolution and revolution are closely linked. The Civil War, (what is it y all call it down here, the War of Northern Aggression?) may have succeeded in freeing black slaves at a terrible cost of lives on both sides, but justice, equality, and acceptance have only slowly progressed along racial lines in the century and a half following that war. There remain great imbalances in the way that whites and blacks and other rainbow people are treated. Social evolution has progressed slowly in societal institutions including the churches. Unitarian Universalism has been theoretically color-blind since merger, but the reality preceding as well as following merger has not been nearly so clear-cut. Even today, Blacks and all other persons of color constitute a tiny fraction of membership in UU churches even though many UUs have been in the forefront of efforts for Civil Rights as far back as the beginning of abolition efforts to end slavery in the late 18 th century. 1

2 When Martin Luther King called for ministers to march in Selma, a higher percentage of UU Ministers went than any other group. Unitarian Universalist Minister, James Reeb and Unitarian Universalist laywoman, Viola Liuzzo both were killed because they went to Selma. Yet there are few UU Ministers of Color, few multi-cultural churches, and only one Black Unitarian church, in Harlem, in our history. We are theoretically inclusive and welcoming to persons of color, but we have done far better at including and welcoming GLBT and Q persons than we have ever done with persons of color. There are persons of color in almost every congregation, and finally in 2001 we elected the Rev. Bill Sinkford as the first Black President of a mostly white denomination and he has been followed by a Latino, the Rev. Peter Morales. (We have yet to elect a woman president). The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, one of our most respected UU Ministers, who happens to be black, and who authored Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, continued and expanded his work in describing Black trailblazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism, in his 2011 Skinner House book, Darkening the Doorways. The back cover describes the book as a tale of systemic paternalism and a prejudicial failure of vision, of squandered opportunities and good intentions turned into tragedy more often than triumph. The back cover continues, asserting that, it s also a tale of idealism, courage, dogged determination and steadfast loyalty in the face of rejection. In the historical section of Morrison-Reed s book, there are stories of Black Unitarians and Universalists about whom I had never heard or read a word. Silence in a tradition where we write, talk, and think about ourselves incessantly, is at the least, surprising. Now, I am not a lifelong UU, let alone third or 4 th generation UU, but then, few are. Why the silence about Black UUs? Perhaps shame at not looking deeper into the hypocrisy of our own shadow side? Perhaps the knowledge that we could have done so much better? Here at UUCLR, the wonderful history of involvement by the congregation s women in the Emergency Committee to Re-Open the Schools after the integration crisis at Central High is often repeated, but could the congregation have done more at that time to invite and encourage Black members? Over the years, I have frequently been asked by visitors, members, and friends of this congregation as well as in other congregations why we are not multicultural, why we do not attract and keep more persons of color. I often take the 2

3 easy way out, responding that it is hard to attract Blacks and Latinos who find more family and cultural support in Black and Latino churches even if they do not support the theology, and that we use too much music written by dead white guys. While these things are true, there are also deeper reasons which start with the reality that we are not ready to do the work of building multicultural congregations, that we are too comfortable as we are, and that we would rather work to change society than to change ourselves. One of the things that appears again and again in the stories of how Black Unitarian and Universalist ministers were treated, was that they were not seen as well fitted to lead predominantly white U or U congregations. Congregational search committees often did not even consider Black ministers who might be presented to them on lists of ministers to consider for new settlements, and not many were put on those lists. Women and GLBT and Q persons at times have faced the same kind of subtle or not so subtle discrimination in this movement and elsewhere, but where such things have been discovered in our history we have often lost members and friends. Another factor for Universalism s failure in reaching Blacks is described by Morrison-Reed in a chapter entitled Universalism s Theological Conundrum. In that section he describes how, even beyond the out and out racism often displayed by white Universalist and UU leaders, the core theological premise of Universalism, Universal Salvation, made a mockery of Black suffering. Blacks found little hope for deliverance nor sense of meaning in a tradition proclaiming the easiest variety of free salvation. Whereas other traditions gave hope to Blacks for deliverance for themselves and punishment for their oppressors, radical Universalism tacitly accepted the abuse of slavery and Jim Crow laws by not somehow rewarding or even appreciating what Blacks suffered in such a way that would be uplifting. This lack was perhaps even more obvious since Universalism (like Unitarianism, and more recently UUism) made little effort to reach out to Blacks anyway. The lesson from such shadows in our history is in what we can learn from these situations and do things differently in the future. One of the results from some of this work was the Journey Toward Wholeness Program passed by General Assembly in I will talk more about that program next week, but I came to believe that some such efforts became problematic because they demanded 3

4 single-dimensional quick solutions including confessions by white UUs for gaining from or enjoying white privilege rather than digging deeper into a multi-faceted failure of UUism to live up to our Principles despite the best intentions of thousands of UUs. Social Evolution even for UUs is a slow process involving frequent backsliding, unclear gains, and uncertain goals. We are not sure where we are going, so we will likely continue to stumble around in the wilderness until perhaps we may figure it out. I was still too young to join the marches by the time the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, but I am proud to have joined with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and many UUs at the Universalist Unitarian Church in Riverside, California to protest the December 1998 shooting of Tyisha Miller by white and Latino police after she was found locked in her car semi-comatose with a gun on her lap after having a flat tire. Racial injustice continues today, with almost daily incidents in the news. Unitarian Universalist churches still have a long way to go to be truly welcoming and accepting of Blacks as equals. There are still few Black UU ministers and fewer truly multi-cultural congregations. Over the last few decades, Unitarian Universalists have been far more successful in welcoming GLBT and Q persons into full fellowship and membership in our congregations. The Welcoming Congregation Program, which we finally completed just a few years ago on the second try, helped congregations looked at their values around GLBTQ issues and gave an opportunity for congregations such as this one to become intentionally welcoming to Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning persons. Today there are many Gay and Lesbian UU ministers, and at least one or two Transgender ministers. Social Evolution continues, even though some UUs still would prefer that we not make such a big thing about welcoming GLBT and Q persons. Some worry that we will get to be known as a Gay and Lesbian church and that that will hinder our growth among the broader populace. I would like to see us known as a church that welcomes all persons of goodwill and works for justice and love within as well as in society at large. I believe that Unitarian Universalism has come a long way on the journey toward wholeness that has long been envisioned by proponents of racial justice and equality, but the journey is hardly finished. The UUA and member congregations have come further faster in regard to GLBTQ persons, but 4

5 significant progress has been made. In many UU congregations today, Blacks and other persons of color may be welcomed too enthusiastically! We still have not worked through all the issues around racial justice and acceptance, but we have progressed so far as to welcome persons of color into our congregations, at least as long as they will share our theology or lack thereof, listen to our music and sing our songs! I hope that we can learn to be more loving by opening up the door into our shadow side as a movement. There is no guarantee that we will come out where we may expect when we begin a journey (or a sermon). I have been surprised by the inconsistencies between what our forebears preached toward society and what they practiced within our own congregations and association. Other religious communities struggled as much or more with race issues, but it is disappointing to discover the depth of our own shadow. May the new awareness we have of the failures of our own movement in the past lead us to do more to build the beloved community of the future! Let us ever seek to be more loving, more accepting, more committed to justice with compassion in our congregation and throughout society! So May it Be! Amen! 5

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