Some of you have asked questions about the history of anti-racism in the UUA. There are three videos we highly recommend to help you understand the history and some of the context in which our current conversations are taking place.
For its spring 2017 Minns Lecture Series, the Minns Lectures Committee hosted a group of leading and insurgent Unitarian Universalist historians, ethicists, and activists who presented their research on the historical and future trajectories of Black Lives Matter and Unitarian Universalism. Who were the African American leaders in Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist congregations? Why don’t Unitarian Universalists today know about our black antecedents? What is the relationship between this “black hole” in white consciousness about African Americans and the contemporary Black Lives Matter movement?
Curated by the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, the series consisted of two lectures:
Friday, March 31 – The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, Affiliated Member, Meadville-Lombard Theological School, with respondent Rev. Mary Margaret Earl, Executive Director and Senior Minister at the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry (UUUM)
Saturday, April 1 – The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, President, Professor of Unitarian Universalist Ministry and Heritage, Starr King School for the Ministry with respondent DiDi Delgado, writer, activist, organizer, and freelance journalist.
The struggle for black empowerment and racial justice within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) came to a head in 1967-1970. The video, Wilderness Journey tells the story of what happened through the voices of those involved at the time. It is highly recommended viewing for those interested in understanding the history of the time. One of the speakers at General Assembly, Dr. Sanyika, was a participant in those events and referred to them in his speech to the delegates during plenary. We cannot embed the video in this blog, you will need to visit the link to watch it.
If you are interested in seeing the speech by Dr. Sanyika at GA, we have included it below:
You are also invited to attend the new monthly #UUWhiteSupremacyTeachin Curiosity Circles Webinar led by Rev. Renee Ruchotzke at 6 pm ET on Wednesday, July 6 and on the first Wednesday night of each month. This is an opportunity for our Central East congregational leaders to learn together so you can find their own theological center and voice in this important time. Wherever you stand or however you feel, we will meet and walk with you.
If you need additional resources in this time, please reach out to your primary contact.
Many churches celebrate important anniversaries, but it’s rare that congregational historians take a wider view. But when Bill Parke, the Church Historian of the UU Church of Buffalo noted this anniversary, he researched the topic and came up with this lovely display and story.
2016 is a bicentennial year for our faith! All the way back in 1816, The Reverend Stephen R. Smith arrived here and began a preaching circuit, bringing a new religion — Universalism — to Buffalo and Western New York.
Take a moment, and teleport yourself back in me and imagine life in June, 1816 when 27-year old Mr. Smith arrived:
At this me, except on the great lateral roads from Genesee River and along the shore of Lake Erie, the settlements were comparatively few – and sometimes “far between.” There every thing but the eternal woods and waters, was new. –Almost every family still occupied its primitive log cabin–the roads were but cart-paths in the interminable forest–the streams were in most instances without bridges, and the soil deep enough to render every traveled way almost impassable. And yet, it was among these settlements, that the preacher of Universalism was to find hearers, and friends, and hope to raise up congregations!
Just a few years earlier, the village of Buffalo was overrun by British soldiers during the War of 1812. Nearly all its buildings burned. Recovery was slow. And just two Universalist societies existed in New York west of the Genesee River. But even if there weren’t churches, there were early believers: Benjamin Caryl, who helped found one of the village’s first businesses, a bank, was one. He had a house in Williamsville and invited Mr. Smith to stay with him and begin preaching. As a result, Universalism arrived in our land. Here is Mr. Smith’s own account:
On the 24th of June of this year (1816), a Masonic celebration in the then village of Buffalo, furnished a convient (sic) opportunity for the introduction of Universal Salvation into that place. The appointment was accordingly made; and at 5 o’clock, P.M. the same building and the same seats were occupied for the service, that had been fitted up for the festival. It was a new Barn, attached to one of the Taverns— and though its accommodations would now be thought rather humble, they were the best which the place afforded, and were duly appreciated by the citizens. A respectable auditory attended, and gave very patient and candid hearing to a discourse from the 6th ver. of 126th Psalm—“He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.”
Mr. Smith found receptive audiences for his message and established a preaching circuit which, he wrote,
in its windings to and from the vicinity of Buffalo, embraced about two hundred and y miles. And from this time, during most of the year, this distance was very regularly traveled every four weeks. The number of discourses usually delivered in making the circuit, varied from twenty to thirty-two—that is, from five to eight per week.
What about in winter? After all, today many Buffalonians shy away from winter weather; but not the circuit riding preachers of yesteryear. Roads would be frozen and not muddy, making travel easier. In January, 1817, Mr. Smith wrote from Buffalo to his parents, “I have preached twenty-one times in twenty days.”
In most localities, Universalism was wholly unknown. Mr. Smith was “the pioneer, the first herald of salvation, within their borders.” Mr. Smith himself wrote, “Doors are opened everywhere, and the walls of Zion are, by the divine blessing, laid in fair colors.”
Having laid a foundation of faith, in 1817 Mr. Smith departed. Ensuing years brought ebbs and flows to Universalist fortunes here. Many open-minded Bu alonians were recep ve, but the Universalist message contrasted sharply with Christian beliefs of the time, and general acceptance was hard-won. Thank goodness for stalwarts like Benjamin Caryl. He helped establish the first permanent Universalist Church in Buffalo, by organizing the first board of trustees, signing a certificate of organization to form a congregation on December 6, 1831, and seeing a church built on Washington Street. Shortly after it was dedicated in August, 1833, Mr. Caryl wrote to Mr. Smith: “Br. Smith: We have got, as you have heard, a beautiful house dedicated to the worship of Almighty God, but unfortunately, we are destitute of a minister…” However, Mr. Smith could not be persuaded to return. Finally, in a turn of events presaged in words spoken by Mr. Smith in his first service in Buffalo in 1816 — “He that goeth forth and weepeth bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” — Mr. Smith did return to Buffalo, commencing a ministry on the 1st day of May, 1843 and remaining in the pulpit for six years. The city was booming, the church “was highly prosperous and, above all, there was aboard in the place and neighborhood a spirit of deep religious inquiry.”
In time, however, Mr. Smith’s exertions over the decades took their toll. He preached his last sermon in the Buffalo church in 1849. In declining health, he was forced to give up his beloved pulpit. Then, one Sunday in February, 1850, the end arrived. And in fitting fashion, Mr. Smith connected with his faith — and our church — on his last day: “When the bells rang for church in the morning, he listened to them with deep interest, and finally selected that of the Universalist church from among the rest, and appeared to listen to it with unusual pleasure.” At the end of the day, “— in calmness, in peace, in purity, — closed the earthly career of one of the best of husbands, one of the best of fathers, one of the purest and most upright and exemplary of men, and one of the most eminent and faithful of the disciples of Christ and servants of God.”
“Although churches be distinct, and….equal and therefore have not dominion one over another; yet all the churches ought to preserve church communion one with another…The communion of churches is exercised in sundry ways. ( 1). By way of mutual care, in taking thought for one another’s welfare.” (Chapter 15, Cambridge Platform)
The above quote is from the Cambridge Platform, the 1648 declaration by our Puritan New England ancestors that established the structures of church organization that we Unitarian Universalists call congregational polity. When some of the New England churches because Unitarian in the early 1800s, they kept and reaffirmed their roots in congregational polity. And we affirm these foundational roots today.
Though congregations are autonomous, the Platform affirms that there must also be a community of churches in relationship with one another, living in interdependent mutual covenant. And the first duty of this covenant relationship is that congregations must seriously consider each other’s welfare when making decisions.
This mutual covenant stands at the deepest historically roots of our Unitarian Universalist way to doing church. And yet we tend to operate as if church autonomy requires a distorted form of congregational Darwisnism –- an assumption that survival of the fittest is the way things are supposed to work and congregations compete with one another for scarce resources and members. The strong survive and the weak are relegated to the sideline to wither.
In all of my years of attending congregational meetings, I’ve rarely, if ever, heard a discussion about how the decisions we make might impact other Unitarian Universalist congregations in the cluster or district or region. Sometimes we reluctantly talk about our obligations to pay district or UUA fair share assessments, but we rarely discuss that financial obligation as part of the much larger covenantal duty we have to all of our sister congregations.
If our congregation is thriving, we rarely give thought about how we might help other congregations nearby that aren’t doing as well as our own. We might express some sympathy in passing or we wonder about gaining some new members if the weaker church folds. But we don’t see the other congregation’s fate as an essential concern of our congregation.
And if our congregation is not doing that well, we rarely think to ask for assistance from other neighboring UU congregations. We think we are fated to face a harsh reality all alone and may develop an attitude of bitterness or resentment of other congregations.
Our Puritan ancestors knew better. They believed in congregational autonomy in mutual covenant; not congregational Darwinism. They knew they were all in it together — and that the strength or weakness of one was the strength and weakness of all.
If we are concerned about the future of Unitarian Universalism and if we want to be true to our roots in congregational polity, we need to put a stop to congregational Darwinism – whether we find it on our boards, in our churches or in our districts.
Rev. Joan Van Becelaere
Congregational Life Consultant and CERG Staff Lead