When the Rev. Duncan Teague was studying to be a Unitarian Universalist minister at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta in 2010, “the notion of the map,” as he calls it, bubbled into his mind and wouldn’t let go.
Although there were several UU congregations in the Atlanta area at the time, none were south of Interstate 20, an area that is predominantly Black. Teague believed that Unitarian Universalism’s message of universal love would find fertile ground in the Black community and was convinced someone should start a congregation in the West End, a neighborhood that is 85 percent Black. That someone turned out to be him.
“My calling got very specific, to not only start a UU congregation but start one south of I-20,” recalls Teague. A gay Black man, Teague worked for decades in Atlanta in HIV/AIDS care, prevention, and research before going to seminary. He left the Baptist denomination in which he was raised because of its “AIDS phobia,” he says.
Abundant LUUv Unitarian Universalist Congregation held its first service in February 2018, in the historic Hammonds House Museum, a West End museum that promotes artists of African descent. The debut followed four years of planning and fundraising with help from the Rev. Robin Tanner and the Rev. Jake Morrill at Launchpad, a ministry that was designed to help plant and grow UU congregations. Now, less than four years later—nearly half of it during the COVID-19 pandemic, when its services have been online—Abundant LUUv has established itself as a small but growing congregation that is majority people of color, with half its members identifying as Black.
Abundant LUUv describes itself as an emerging UU congregation “centered in the African American religious tradition, where we welcome your authentic self to join us in community-centered work.” Teague’s hope, he says, “is that we are an institution of change and of support in the West End of Atlanta, that when you mention our name, people smile and talk about how they were served.”
Atlanta is over 50 percent Black, about 40 percent white, and over 4 percent Asian. It has one of the highest LGBTQ populations per capita in the United States, and more than 4 percent of residents are members of the LGBTQ community. Abundant LUUv “is intentionally multicultural and intentionally predominantly Black, but I wouldn’t call it a Black UU church,” says the Rev. Sherman Logan, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Board of Trustees, executive minister of First UU Church of Richmond, Virginia, and an early supporter of Abundant LUUv. “It’s a church that was intentionally created to provide an authentic Black worship experience in a UU space. A place, in my opinion, where we could find ourselves at home.”
Before the pandemic, fewer than twenty people a week attended Sunday worship at Hammonds House, though church anniversaries and other special occasions typically drew more than sixty attendees. But attendance has been steadily increasing at the pandemic era’s online services.
“This project of changing the world is hard work, and it’s painful, so how about having a gas station for your spirit? That is Abundant LUUv, and it’s not namby-pamby love but love that will get you through the hardest times you’ve ever experienced,” Teague says. “That’s what people are responding to—that, and our commitments to social justice.”
The UU Congregation of Atlanta and other area congregations, as well as UUs around the country, have provided support for Abundant LUUv, including sometimes donating their Sunday collections and having Teague guest-preach. The congregation is “quite financially solvent,” Teague says, because they keep the expenses very low.
In turn, Abundant LUUv has supported area organizations, including the Carrie Steele-Pitts Home, to which it donated $3,000 to feed young adults during the pandemic who had aged out of foster care. It has collaborative relationships with, among others, Counter Narrative Project, a Black gay men’s project; and Sacred Truths: Atlanta’s Black Queer Voices at Emory Rollins School of Public Health.
“We’ve already done some really phenomenal things for such a small congregation,” says Dr. Arlene Edwards. Edwards, a community psychologist who works at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in HIV prevention, is on the congregation’s seven-member core leadership team. “We are really fleshing out what it means to say we do Unitarian Universalism from an Afro-centric perspective,” says Edwards, who is Black. “We are very clear we are UU, but we are UU from a Black perspective.”
The Rev. Jonathan Rogers, a white man and lifelong UU who is the affiliated community minister at Abundant LUUv, says that a number of people told them they’d heard about Unitarian Universalism, but it was only when they saw the racial composition of Abundant LUUv that they felt truly welcomed into the faith.
“This is an important opportunity for us as UUs to be closer to a majority Black community here in the Atlanta area,” Rogers says. “Ultimately, it is giving us a better shot through that proximity at having a congregation that’s helping more Black folks in Atlanta find out about UUism, and hopefully increasing the pipeline of Black UU leaders within our congregations and our denomination.”
Liberal faith is not new to the Black community in Atlanta. Teague points to the Hillside International Truth Center, a liberal Christian church founded by a Black woman, Dr. Barbara L. King, more than fifty years ago, which is now one of the city’s largest and most respected religious institutions.
But for a UU congregation to grow in the Black community, it must reflect Black culture and history, Teague and others believe. Gospel music prevails at services, and “you aren’t afraid to shout words of praise, alleluia, all that stuff—I felt very at home,” says Logan. Edwards brings a tambourine, and Teague leads the congregation in praying out loud. Worship services tend to last well past an hour, and people often linger in coffee hour, even the online version. Teague refers to God and Jesus from the pulpit, saying, “I can’t excise those words and tell Black people they are welcome or that we worship in the Black tradition. Now, what I do with those words is different, and I’ll go to places they’re not used to going to—but we’re going to talk about Jesus on Easter.”
Importantly, the minister is front and center, as is traditional in many Black churches. “To start in the African American community, I had to be up front in a way that many UUs would be uncomfortable with, but that’s a cultural difference I’m fine with,” Teague says. That means an annual celebration of the church’s founding. “That’s a Black church thing,” explains Teague, who invited Logan to preach at Abundant LUUv’s first anniversary, which drew more than sixty people. However, Teague emphasizes that Abundant LUUv is not about him. “It’s our church now,” he insists.
“I was as proud as I’ve ever been for another colleague,” says Logan. “Sometimes in this faith, as a person of color, especially, there have been difficult times, and I sometimes wonder, ‘Why do I stay in this faith?’ Duncan’s ministry at Abundant LUUv gives me hope and the encouragement to stick around. Abundant LUUv shows that there can be different ways to do UU ministry. They are small but mighty, and the enthusiasm the folks have for the ministry and for him, I feel within a few years they can do some big things in Atlanta.”
Logan wants to see more UU congregations intentionally planted in Black communities. “I don’t know that this can be replicated everywhere,” says Teague, but he has advice for other UUs wherever they are. “If we want to live into our values and share our faith with other people, that means that culturally we will have to change, and that is going to be uncomfortable,” he says.
“Quite a few of us think about doing what he did, but Duncan had the actual courage to do it,” says Logan. “Knowing Duncan the way I know Duncan, Abundant LUUv is going to succeed. I know that for a fact. He’s one of my heroes in the faith.”