For Leon Spencer, growing up in Savannah, Ga., in the late 1940s was a study in religious pluralism. He lived in many faiths, attending the Baptist Church with his grandmother and accompanying other family members to the African Methodist Episcopal Church. He also attended Catholic school, where he went to daily Mass.
“Religious pluralism was something that was just there,” said Spencer, who recently reflected on his spiritual upbringing after receiving the 2007 Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. The award was presented to Spencer in June at the UUA General Assembly in Portland, Ore. “It was never the issue that one church had the answer,” Spencer said. “Churches provided places where I could grow and be social and political and be in a community. Church has always been a way of political action for me.”
Action has defined Spencer’s affiliation with Unitarian Universalism since he was first introduced to it in the 1960s during his military training in Germany. In the 40 years since then, he has been active in his local congregations and in the larger denomination, working on social justice issues, particularly antiracism and antioppression projects. Spencer helped to co-found the European Unitarian Universalist Conference (a coalition of UU fellowships and congregations in Europe), and has served on the Black Concerns Working Group as well as the UUA’s Racial and Cultural Diversity Task Force. He also served on the UUA’s Board of Trustees for eight years.
Spencer’s service as a trustee overlapped with the tenure of former UUA moderator Denny Davidoff. She describes Spencer as a “Unitarian Universalist hero.” She credits him with being her “mentor,” “soul,” and “strategist” in their work, which led to the launch of the UUA’s Journey Toward Wholeness initiative, the denomination’s antioppression, antiracism, multicultural program. “From Leon, I learned the difference between my being white and privileged and what it meant in the Unitarian Universalist context to be black—as far as I can ever learn that,” Davidoff said. “The difference is to have your eyes open, to have your heart open.”
Davidoff described Spencer as a “leader of leaders.” “He explained. He inspired. He imagined,” she said. “When he talks, people listen.”
Spencer’s professional training enhanced his contributions to the board of trustees, according to Davidoff. Spencer has a doctorate in psychology, and he is an associate professor at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga., where he teaches counseling psychology. “He actually understands how people work, and he brought that professionalism to his work in antiracism,” said Davidoff. She added, “But he is not just a one-issue person. He has warmth and wit and sagacity and stories.”
Spencer received his award on June 23 at the plenary session of the UUA General Assembly. The Rev. Doug Gallager read a laudatory citation outlining Spencer’s personal history and many contributions. He said: “Whether it has been helping to identify the roots of racism and other oppressions in individuals or in our religious movement, even when the task has been hampered by unrealistic expectations or by the very oppression he has worked to dismantle, Spencer has proved himself again and again to be a skilled diagnostician, a principled advocate, a warm, direct, and loving healer. . . Unitarian Universalism continues to become a better and larger religious home for so many because of Leon Spencer’s steadfast and loving insistence that we live into the promise of our faith.”
Spencer said he was “shocked and honored” when he learned he would be receiving the award. “I stand on the shoulders of so many,” he said. “It’s not what I have done individually around social justice or antioppression. There are so many teachers who have come before us.”
Looking back over the work he has done with the UUA, Spencer believes that it has made important strides in its antioppression efforts, although there is still much to be done. “It’s not something that you do once and it is gone,” Spencer said. “It is important to change structures, and this takes a number of years. It takes a generation. We are never done with justice work.”
The Association has made strides in bringing racial issues out into the open and looking at how to use faith to move through them, said Spencer: “We’re able to talk about it and recognize conflict and look at how we might draw upon it.” In addition, he has seen progress in training leaders to “look at who is not in the room.”
Spencer is a member of the UU Fellowship of Statesboro, Ga., along with his wife, Inge. He has three adult children: two sons and a daughter. He is a grandfather of one and is expecting two more.
Since exploring Unitarian Universalism in the ’60s while stationed in Germany, Spencer has belonged to UU congregations in Ohio, Florida, and South Carolina. He served as president of the Thomas Jefferson District of the UUA, which represents the Southeastern United States.
Spencer also serves as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. He believes that seminaries can play an important role in preparing ministers for multicultural faith communities and in supporting ministers of color.
“I have had a wide set of experiences as a Unitarian Universalist and as a person of color in this world, and a wide set of encounters with oppression,” said Spencer. “Unitarian Universalism is a place where we can work toward a multicultural, antioppressive world. It is a celebration to me that we keep working at it.”
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of UU World (page 44).