"We were in the car," Bill recalls, "and my mom said, 'Did you know
that just by being who you are, you get more privileges than other people?'"
Barbara Yager had learned about white privilege from sermons and conversations
at First Unitarian, which has long had a deep commitment to coming to grips
with racism, and now her son was coming to grips with his whiteness. She
says he quickly grasped the concept of white privilege, which is central
to the Unitarian Universalist Association's antiracism thinking, and its
implications make him as uncomfortable as they do most white adults.
"He said, 'Mom, I just won't have anything to do with it,'" Barbara
Yager recalls. "And I said, 'But you've got it, and there's nothing you
can do to get rid of it.'"
Says Bill: "It kind of makes me mad that some people think we're better
than other people. What I don't get is why. I'd personally like it if everything
was even, that nobody was above anybody else."
The story of Bill's transformative insight is unusually dramatic because
he is only a sixth grader. Similar transformative experiences--for whites
and people of color, for people new to antiracism thinking and people long
committed to it--now dot the continental map of Unitarian Universalism,
where congregations have responded to the UUA's ambitious Journey toward
Wholeness antiracism initiative.
That said, as antiracism proponents measure them, the dots are too few
and far between. There are over 200,000 UUs in North America; by even the
most optimistic estimates, not more than 5 percent have made a commitment
to antiracism. (For a definition of this term as the UUA and many advocates
use it, see the Antiracism Primer
on page 31.)
In pursuit of enough dots on the map to create an army to fight racism
in UU congregations and the UUA, as well as the wider world, the Journey
toward Wholeness (JTW) initiative has a growing staff and budget and passionate
volunteer supporters. Still, some believe the JTW will need the aim of
a David to have a chance against the Goliath of racism that for five centuries
has tormented North American culture and institutions--and helps define
the identities of us all, regardless of our heritage.
Leon Spencer, a professor who teaches cross-cultural and community counseling,
and a long-time Unitarian Universalist leader, says what makes racism so
intractable is white middle-class people's fear that by coming to grips
with it they might lose their identity and the privileges the culture has
People in the United States "don't want to think about racial issues,
talk about them, or feel them," says Spencer, who a dozen years ago became
the first chair of the UUA's Black Concerns Working Group and who in 1999
completed eight years as a UUA trustee. "The fear is that we might have
to give something up."
JTW, which is managed by the UUA's Department for Faith in Action and
monitored by a committee appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees, faces
not only the resistance that Spencer describes but also growing pains and
passionate UU opponents to its approach to fighting racism. According to
a wide range of denominational leaders interviewed for this article, how
best to fight contemporary racism has become the most contentious UU issue
since a controversy about black power wracked the movement in the late
1960s. (See The UUA Meets Black Power on page 42.)
The name Journey toward Wholeness denotes a theological search for the
integrity of humanity, for wholeness, with each person held sacred. The
JTW agenda was shaped at the 1997 General Assembly, by a sweeping business
resolution approved with only one dissenting vote. It calls for the UUA
to transform itself, including "comprehensive institutionalization of antiracism
and multiculturalism" and antiracism trainings for all Unitarian Universalist
leaders, including ministers, religious educators, leaders of associate
and affiliate organizations, governing boards, UUA staff, and theological
faculties, and at future General Assemblies. "Whether or not a group becomes
multiracial," the resolution notes, taking into account how few people
of color belong to UU congregations, "there is always the opportunity to
The resolution also urges individual UUs to examine "their own conscious
and unconscious racism as participants in a racist society, and the effect
that racism has on all our lives, regardless of color." Finally, it urges
the UUA to work with international and interfaith organizations "in order
to transform the racist institutions of our world."
By many accounts, this year is another turning point for JTW. Members
of most congregations have had little direct experience with JTW so far,
but lots of energy has gone into transforming the UUA's institutional core.
As much has gone into refining the two-and-one-half-day antiracism analysis
trainings for UU leaders and the introductory Creating a Jubilee World
workshops that JTW offers congregations. Now, with revised curricula ready
to go, JTW is working on plans to increase the number of congregational
workshops it can offer.
Three years after the General Assembly resolution propelled the UUA
onto the Journey toward Wholeness, how far have we come? How bumpy is the
road? And where is it heading?
Exploring the lessons in Bill Yager's story, and in some other transformation
stories of people and institutions within Unitarian Universalism may suggest
Transformation Story: UU Institutions
he Rev. Melvin A. Hoover, director of the Department for Faith in
Action, is fond of pointing out that creating antiracist organizations
in the US is so difficult that it has never been done--yet. The UUA is working
hard to be the first. The internal transformation will show up, for example,
in religious education curricula and in the way this magazine is edited.
The association sends staff members and others in leadership roles to
take part in analysis trainings so that antiracism understanding will inform
their work; so far, more than 500 leaders and ministers have attended,
from the board of trustees on down. Nowhere is structural transformation
farther along than in the board.
"We will be sitting around the board table discussing just about anything,"
says UUA Moderator Denise Davidoff, who chairs the board, "and just about
anybody will pipe up and say, 'You know, if I look at that through my antiracist
lens, I come up with another way of thinking about that.' It's really
extraordinary to me how that has become a part of the board's culture."
The board has established an internal assessment team to make sure that
antiracism is taken into account in every aspect of its work. Davidoff,
who has been engaged in Unitarian Universalist racial justice efforts for
more than three decades, will step down as moderator next year confident
that the board's antiracism sensibility is indelible. "When I am no longer
moderator," she said, "they will still be committed."
A more structural change is in progress, too. Board members are drafting
bylaw amendments to write antiracism into the association's most fundamental
document. The board has also charged the committee it appoints to monitor
the Journey toward Wholeness to take the lead in designing the next phase
of antiracism efforts. The group, called the JTW Transformation Committee,
is expected to report back this fall.
Here are reports on other parts of the institutional structure:
Administration and staff--The most significant step, says Executive Vice
President Kay Montgomery, has been creating the Department for Faith in
Action to oversee the Journey toward Wholeness and building the department's
resources. The new department--which also includes the UUA Washington Office
and the Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns--resulted
from merger of the three smaller programs. It started life with 10 and
a half positions; four years later it has 14. UUA President the Rev. John
A. Buehrens says the department's budget--now $1,261,631--has been growing
faster than any other department's in recent years.
Directors of all UUA departments and programs must take part in an antiracism
analysis training. Other employees are offered one-day workshops. Annual
performance evaluation forms have a line for comments on each employee's
The administration now requires UUA departments to include antiracism
efforts in their annual plans and to use antiracist criteria when making
decisions such as whom to hire or what to publish. In an ongoing strategic
planning process conducted by the Executive Staff Council--the UUA's president,
executive vice-president, and department directors--every proposed objective
must be designed for maximum antiracism impact.
The Rev. Susan Suchocki, minister of First Church UU in Leominster,
Massachusetts, a former UUA trustee who now chairs the board-appointed
JTW Transformation Commit-tee, says she is impressed. "I see a real shifting
in resource allocation," Suchocki says.
Nonetheless, several antiracism advocates interviewed for this article
expressed frustration, wishing for broader and faster changes in the way
the staff incorporates antiracism into its work. Robette Dias, an antiracism
program associate for Faith in Action, for one, calls for an institution-wide
transformation team. "We advocate this approach for congregations," she
says, "but we don't do it at the institutional level."
Districts--The field staff in the association's 23 districts, who deliver
a broad array of UUA services to the congregations, have taken part in
analysis trainings, as have many district board members. Three districts
have formed transformation teams to help congregations build antiracism
understanding among their members. Several other districts and geographical
clusters of congregations are considering similar approaches.
Antiracism understanding has seeped so thoroughly into the district
structure that when six new UUA trustees elected by the districts showed
up for their first board meeting, in October, Davidoff was struck that
all six "came on the board expecting to do antiracism work."
UUA committees--The board invites members of the myriad volunteer
such as the Pamphlet Commission, the General Assembly Planning Committee,
and the Congregational Property and Loan Commission--to antiracism analysis
Suchocki singled out the GA Planning Committee as a transformation story.
When her committee initially brought up antiracism, "They all said, 'But
we're not racist, we want to be inclusive, but we've got a task to do.
We've got a GA to run; we know what we're doing; we have success; we don't
need nor want to be bothered.'"
But after working with the committee as two GAs were planned, Suchocki
cites successes including an additional dance--to Latin music--and a new
caucus room for people of color, modeled on the youth caucus room.
Other UU institutions: Leaders of the UU Ministers Association (UUMA),
the Liberal Religious Educators' Association, and Interweave (UUs for Lesbian,
Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Concerns), have taken antiracism analysis
trainings, and all characterize themselves as gaining momentum.
UUMA President the Rev. Gary E. Smith, senior minister of First Parish
in Concord, Massachusetts, says JTW leaders confronted UUMA leaders more
than two years ago, asking, "When are the ministers going to take some
In the last year, JTW has conducted analysis trainings tailored for
ministers in six districts, and Smith says ministerial support has been
warming up. To build on this, the UUMA is planning a conversation on antiracism
before this year's General Assembly for up to 100 ministers. "We want to
model what is being done well," Smith says, "to lift up some of the colleagues
who have been doing wonderful antiracism work. We want to build on it."
Hoover, the Faith in Action director, welcomes this development, saying
ministers' leadership tends to be crucial if congregations are to take
antiracism seriously. He also reports that he is pleased that the UUMA
and the religious educators are working cooperatively on the subject.
Patricia Ellenwood, director of religious education at the Unitarian
Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, and president of
the educators' association, said its board took part in an analysis training
a year ago, formed an antiracism team, and has begun working toward
transformation "from the inside out."
Ellenwood has a suggestion for making JTW work better. "We are starting
at the top, trying to transform adults," she says. "It's much easier to
transform children, if you have developmentally appropriate materials.
That way, we won't have to be doing remedial work a generation from now.
Initiatives aimed primarily at adults will not solve the essential problem."
Susan Gore, chair of Interweave, reports a surge of interest in antiracism
after an analysis training for its board. One result is a program Interweave
is planning for the June General Assembly in Nashville entitled Turning
Boundaries into Intersections.
"One thing about being bisexual, gay, lesbian, or transgender," Gore
says, "is that we can be of any race."
The wider world: Hoover says the depth of the UUA's antiracism commitment
has won the respect of other denominations. Buehrens tells this story:
"I went to the dedication of a new UU church building, and the local Episcopal
priest said, 'I hear great things about what you guys are doing on racism.
Can you send me some material?' If we persist in this path we are going
to have greater influence beyond our own circles."
Transformation Story: Leslie Takahashi Morris
t was the first time Leslie Takahashi Morris had attended a meeting
of the Thomas Jefferson District board. She says she went out of curiosity
and didn't even know about the agenda item that would propel her onto the
district antiracism transformation team.
"It's been a painful transition for me," Takahashi Morris says of the
new racial understanding she has gained since. "The biggest transformation
in my life before this was finding Unitarian Universalism. It was like
a homecoming for me, very important.
"For a long time," she says, "I was a booster, a cheerleader, for Unitarian
Universalism. Now I'm more of a loving critic. I do think we can make progress,
but it's very slow. So many people have come in, have found this home,
and they don't want to think they may not be welcoming because of their
The 1997 meeting she attended followed defeat of a proposal to change
the district's name after months of deep reflection and sometimes heated
discussion on the part of UUs in congregations throughout the district,
which encompasses North and South Carolina, most of Virginia, and parts
of Georgia and Tennessee. Thomas Jefferson thought of himself as a Unitarian,
so the district where he lived was named for him 40 years ago to honor
his central role in shaping American democracy. But Jefferson also went
to his death an unrepentant slave-owner, and many contemporary UUs were
focusing on that.
Takahashi Morris's comments on the topic caught the ear of Leon Spencer,
who was then the UUA trustee representing the district. He supported her
for the 40-member transformation team, the oldest and largest in the UUA.
She accepted and soon was attending a UUA-sponsored antiracism analysis
"The first day, I almost couldn't stay in the room," Takahashi Morris
recalls. "At first I thought I'd just been to too many trainings"--she runs
a nonprofit leadership program on human relations and had spent 30 days
in similar trainings that year--"but then I figured out that my discomfort
came from the fact that this was a setting that mattered so much to me:
"I'm biracial, half European American, with ancestors here dating back
to the 1600s, and half Japanese American. My life is impacted by my father's
internment in World War II. I've had to come to terms with many uncomfortable
conversations with people at church who said essentially racist things.
This denomination is so important to me that I was willing to overlook
them, but I'm not any longer.
"It won't be a quick fix. My fear is that we'll do the assessment way
too soon and JTW will be judged a failure, that people will come in with
a yardstick and say, 'Well it's been two or three years, have you ended
racism yet?' This is work for a lifetime, not a project."
Transformation Story: Congregations
akahashi Morris's congregation, the Eno River UU Fellowship in Durham,
North Carolina, was the site for the pilot test of the Creating a Jubilee
World workshop a dozen years ago; it has been immersed in justice issues
since before antiracism became part of the UUA's vocabulary. The First
Unitarian Church of Denver, which Bill Yager attends with his mother, is
another of the dozen congregations that JTW leaders regard as pacesetters.
Few of the hundreds of smaller UU congregations have made such strides
with JTW, but many are working on racial justice issues.
"I am always startled when I visit a congregation or see a church newsletter
at how pervasive this work is, whether they call it JTW or not," says Moderator
Davidoff, whose travels take her to congregations across the continent.
One small congregation that has taken a big step is the 89-member First
Church Unitarian Universalist in Leominster, Massachusetts--it has written
antiracism into its covenant. One factor in this--but hardly the only one--is
that Suchocki, chair of the JTW Transformation Committee, is its minister.
"It was not without some controversy," she says. "Particularly because
it's a very beautiful covenant about beauty and truth and goodness and
a democratic, nurturing community. Suddenly you want to put in there
democratic, nurturing community,' and there were a lot of conversations.
"At a parish committee meeting, the persons who were reluctant said,
'Well, maybe we could just say "tolerant in our acceptance."' A person
of color who was a member of the parish said, 'You're just going to tolerate
me? That's not why I want to be here. I want to know that you're going
to be walking beside me, and with me, and we're going to be working together
to be an antiracist community.' About four people sitting around the table
went, 'I get it, I get it.'"
Members from more than 200 congregations have taken part in Creating
a Jubilee World workshops in the dozen years since the pilot workshop at
Eno River. As the JTW focus shifts to congregations, Hoover, the Faith
in Action director, says the number should rise. A first step for many
congregations has been conducting a JTW Sunday program with a special
split two-thirds for the congregation's racial justice projects and one-third
for UUA grants for urban ministry. One hundred congregations took part
in the first JTW Sunday in 1999, and 140 signed up for the program this
Transformation story: Robette Dias
hen Robette Dias found Unitarian Universalism by taking a job as director
of religious education for the UU Fellowship of Sonoma County, in Santa
Rosa, California, she was already comfortable with antiracism thinking,
which includes an analysis of who has power over whom. But she was suspicious
"I first learned about power analysis at the University of California
at Davis," she recalls. "It was the time that they were ending affirmative
action admissions, and I got a grant and did a research project on admissions
policy. So when I came into the UUA, my mindset was compatible."
In 1997 Dias, as a volunteer, joined a continental team working to shape
the UUA's antiracism processes. She and other new members from a variety
of racial backgrounds wished to broaden the UUA's understanding of who
is affected by racism. "They were still talking just about African Americans,"
she says. "They weren't inclusive."
Since then, Dias has joined the Faith in Action staff and the JTW Transformation
Committee and has been elected president of Diverse Revolutionary UU
Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM), an organization for professional UUs of color. She
has made a big impact on UUA thinking about racism, and in the process
she herself has become transformed.
"So many of my prejudices about other people of color have been shattered,"
she says, "finding that our differences aren't so big after all.
"As an Indian person, I've been so suspicious of organized religion,
and Christianity in particular. Some of the trainings I attended were in
Christian settings, and this was a huge challenge. But I've found out that
Christianity isn't what it's been made into. Jesus was a great change agent,
a great prophet."
Transformation Story: UUA Antiracism Thinking
he seed from which today's antiracism initiative sprouted was planted
20 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was elected president and conservatism
and the religious right were ascendant in the US. The agonies and triumphs
of the Civil Rights era seemed distant.
It was a complicated time for Unitarian Universalism. Membership in
UU congregations, plummeting for a decade, was finally showing signs of
bottoming out. The Rev. O. Eugene Pickett, UUA president at the time, says
that for a decade almost all the association's energy had been devoted
to financial struggles, "survival, really."
Times were so hard that UUA departments had been consolidated, the staff
for district work had been cut drastically, and the social justice department
had been cut to only one person.
Since then UU church membership has been growing, and so has the commitment
to racial justice. They have taken many forms over the years as thinking
has changed dramatically, and often stormily. Racism excites passions,
and passions have run high as people with differing perspectives have struggled
to steer the course. Twenty years ago, the staff for racial justice was
a fraction of one person, and it remained so for years; for a while, efforts
to address racism operated under the limiting concept of urban concerns.
Ten years ago, the resources had grown, but the focus was on increasing
diversity, far from today's aim of dismantling institutional racism.
The storms are rarely visible from the church pews but passions continue
to run high among JTW insiders, activist supporters, theologians, ministers
with varying points of view, and the leadership group on the UUA staff
and in volunteer committees. There have been an assortment of lightning
Congregational polity: Many ministers and some other critics have complained
that JTW violates the bedrock UU principle of congregational polity, in
which each congregation is independent and no central authority can make
rules. These critics assert that by setting out to transform congregations
the UUA is acting like a central authority, not the service organization
it's supposed to be.
"Leaders are elected by the people they serve, to lead," responds Davidoff,
twice elected moderator. "If advocating seems top-down, it seems to me
that this is the rule of leadership. If it seems like a good thing to do,
why do you care where it came from? Do you want to have an argument, or
do you want to do something?"
Many critics also assert that the JTW wants people to sign on to what
amounts to a creed, a statement of faith in a particular approach to racial
"People want to argue about semantics instead of reality," responds
Hoover, "and that's what I want to talk about: Are you committed to having
an authentic culture in which benefits and privileges are available to
Black/White vision: The UUA's view of racism is rooted in the abolition
movement; the civil rights movement reinforced it. In recent years, reflecting
demographic trends, an increasing number of Latinos, Asian Americans, Native
Americans, and others who have experienced racism have come into the UU
movement to find themselves invisible in the UUA's antiracism thinking.
The Latino/a UU Networking Association (LUUNA) has vocally sought to change
this and still thinks the JTW leadership has work to do to take into account
the experience of Latinos as people who think of themselves as neither
black nor white.
"While we're trying to be more inclusive, some of the antiracism analysis
has not changed," says LUUNA President the Rev. Patricia Jimenez. "In reality,
almost everybody is a mixture. Where we don't even begin to go is the children."
Because of interracial marriages and adoptions, the children attending
RE classes in many UU congregations are a far more diverse group than the
adults in the sanctuary; immigration and intermarriage trends ensure that
the overall population will become more diverse--and more mixed--in coming
"As a chaplain," says Jimenez, "I work with families where one parent
is black and one is white. How do you help the kids who want to identify
with both of their parents, to love and honor both of them?"
Training issues: Several elements of the extensive antiracism analysis
trainings conducted for UU leaders have inspired major contention. Until
recently, the UUA paid the interfaith Crossroads Ministries to lead the
trainings; to many critics the Crossroads-led trainings flew in the face
of UU history, theology, and principles. Others have complained about the
tone of the trainings.
"I wish we could be both antiracist and anti-righteous," says Gary Smith,
the UUMA president. "There are people in the leadership of antiracism who
are taking it upon themselves to say who is right and who is wrong."
But Smith allowed that the Jubilee World workshop conducted for his
congregation in 1998 was very different in tone and has led to continued
interest. He says it has inspired the congregation to form an antiracism
task force and hold further antiracism events.
Meantime, JTW leaders have finished shaping a uniquely Unitarian Universalist
analysis of racism; in December, Faith in Action and other UUA staff members,
with no further support from Crossroads, began conducting analysis trainings
based on it. The first staff-led training received uniformly positive reviews,
unlike the contentious responses to the Crossroads-led trainings.
The most contentious issue in the last year stemmed from a workshop
called Why Antiracism Will Fail at the 1999 General Assembly. It was conducted
by the Rev. Thandeka, a theologian who teaches at the Meadville/Lombard Theological School, the UU seminary in Chicago, and who is aggressively critical of JTW. Most JTW leaders are just as critical of
Thandeka's thinking and are troubled that some Jubilee World workshops
have been canceled or postponed by congregations that have heard about
Says Davidoff: "People who don't want to think about white racism and
white privilege can hide behind Thandeka's power wall. All they have to
do is embrace 'It won't work' and reject it. It provides them with cover."
The Rev. Mark D. Morrison-Reed, cominister of the First Unitarian Congregation
of Toronto, whose 1980 book Black Pioneers in a White Denomination helped
renew UU interest in racial justice, takes a mellower view than many.
"To my mind," he says, "it's healthy that we have a diversity of opinions,
consonant with our religious values. And it's good that we don't have a
monolithic black-white voice. I find hope in the turmoil."
Resources: Hoover, the Faith in Action director, is the most powerful
voice among many JTW supporters who assert that the UUA has not spent enough
on fighting racism and other oppressions.
When Faith in Action was created, Hoover says, "We said we are going
to need substantially more resources so we can take this into the congregations.
The day came for us to do that, and the resources weren't there. We had
folks all excited, all charged up. And then we wondered why we stumbled."
Adds Dias: "This is such a critical time right now. We don't have the
structure to do the strategy and implementation work that's needed. I definitely
think it needs more resources now."
The antiracism seed planted 20 years ago was a consultant's audit of
racism in the UUA Board of Trustees and administration. Pickett, then UUA
president, calls the audit's findings sobering. "They came in with 32
recommendations," he recalls. "They didn't give us very high marks." Pickett says that in
two years 20 of the 32 recommendations had been followed, starting with
the UUA's first affirmative action policy. "We were a pretty lily-white
headquarters staff then," Pickett says.
Before the audit, he says, racial justice had not been in the forefront
of the association's concerns since the black power upheaval of 1968-79.
"It was still a sensitive issue," Pickett says, "but enough time had passed
that we could take another approach."
Many urban UU congregations were struggling to stay alive, and as a
movement to help them gathered strength, racism's impact on cities became
a focus. The informal movement inspired formation of the Urban Church Coalition
in 1979, and its leaders helped to push for the 1980 racism audit.
In 1985, a grass-roots movement at the General Assembly led to passage
of a resolution recommending formation of a Black Concerns Working Group
and urging the UUA Board of Trustees to begin a process leading to a racially
and culturally diverse UUA. A year later, a group of volunteers was appointed
and given a budget of $5,000. General Assembly resolutions in 1992 and
1996 prepared the way for the sweeping 1997 resolution that has so accelerated
the Journey toward Wholeness.
Clearly, the UUA's antiracism thinking is a transformation story still
in progress. "This thing is not called Journey toward Wholeness for nothing,"
Davidoff says. "The journey is what it's all about."
Transformation Story: Leon Spencer
ven an old racial justice hand like Leon Spencer has found himself
transformed by his antiracism work. A big moment came in the same analysis
training for the Thomas Jefferson District transformation team that got
into the soul of Leslie Takahashi Morris. When asked about his experience,
the words came tumbling out.
"The recognition in that moment, in that setting," Spencer says, "was
that Leslie and I looked at each other and silently communicated. We were
fish out of water, and we found water. It was knowing what my work is--it's
not working with white people and privilege but with people of color. I
was flooded with ideas and emotions.
"What some of us yearn for is a larger community of color," he says,
pointing out how isolated people of color can be in largely white UU
congregations. "People of color need an opportunity to talk together and to work on our
own issues. How can we honor and express the gifts we have to bring?"
Spencer has worked since that day to strengthen the people of color
caucus within the district transformation team and to extend its reach.
His eight years as a UUA trustee behind him, in April Spencer is to become
president of the Thomas Jefferson District, a stronger UU, he says, because
of his transformation and new sense of direction.
How far have we come on the Journey toward Wholeness?
"We are changing, but it's hard to trust it," Spencer says. "We seem
to make progress, but then we slide back. We've been doing this for a dozen
years, but I'm telling you, we're just getting started."
Tom Stites is editor-in-chief of the World.