When the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Maryland, adopted an Eighth Principle in 2018, it was only the fourth UU congregation to add an explicit commitment against racism to the faith’s existing seven guiding statements of long-standing values. More than four years later, around 200 UU congregations and organizations have amended their tenets to add a version of this Eighth Principle.
The Eighth Principle
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Some Annapolis congregation members understand the temptation to regard them as leaders in the Eighth Principle movement, and to consider their early adoption of the Eighth Principle as a significant mission accomplished. But now, as the Unitarian Universalist Association considers a revision of the portion of its bylaws that includes the Seven Principles—raising the possibility of adding specifically antiracist language—Annapolis members say their vote to do this was just a start.
Their accounts of the experience illustrate the complicated task of untangling racism and highlight the importance of approaching this commitment with intention, thoughtfulness, and careful long-term planning.
“It’s a cautionary tale,” said Stan Keeve, vice president of the Board of Trustees of the congregation of some 400 members, about forty of whom, adults and children, are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), including Keeve. “You can’t count your chickens before they hatch,” he said.
A “hatching” appeared to occur on Sunday morning, April 8, 2018, at the UU Church of Annapolis, which stands amid the suburban subdivisions, townhouses, and shopping centers outside the center of Maryland’s waterfront capital. That morning, 128 congregants, roughly a third of the total membership, gathered after the worship service for a congregational meeting.
The vote in favor was nearly unanimous, with just one member abstaining and one voting “no.”
According to former congregation president Heather Millar, who is white, when the time came to decide on a congregational pledge against racism, members raised their voting cards. The vote in favor was nearly unanimous, with just one member abstaining and one voting “no.”
The overwhelming decision adopted the Eighth Principle, a statement first drafted in 2013 by Bruce Pollack-Johnson, a white UU activist in Philadelphia, in close consultation with Paula Cole Jones, a Black activist and lay leader at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., who first came up with the idea for an Eighth Principle as part of an effort to rally all UU entities to embrace antiracism commitments.
As a result of the congregation’s 2018 vote, the Annapolis congregation’s website now includes the traditional UU statement of Seven Principles, adopted in their current form in 1985, and adds this Eighth: “We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
Former minister Fred Muir, who is white, retired from leadership four months before the vote was taken in 2018, but by his account the congregation had been heading that way for years.
“There’s always been an articulated aspiration toward what we call multiculturalism,” said Muir, who retired at the end of 2017 after thirty-four years as their minister. He said that for years the congregation had been conducting workshops and discussions on multiculturalism. They invited as a guest speaker Cole Jones—who, in addition to being the creative force behind the Eighth Principle, is one of the founders of the 8th Principle Project, which has been advocating for the antiracist pledge.
"[Accountably dismantling racism and other oppressions] means we have to take action; we can’t just approve this and set this aside.”
Millar recalled regular discussion groups going on for months at the congregation before the vote, as well as presentations on the proposed language, and many questions about what “accountably” dismantling racism and other oppressions would mean. The answer, she said, is both simple and complicated: “It means we have to take action; we can’t just approve this and set this aside.”
Confronting racism was not easy, Muir said. A number of members left the church as racism emerged as a focal point. He said conversations about the subject were fraught, not least due to tendencies embedded in UU culture.
“My experience has been that UUs are very uncomfortable with power,” said Muir—including their own. “You’ve got to understand power. Institutional power, systemic power.” It has taken years, he said, to “help white people see that they have power, and [raise] awareness of sharing power.”
At the time, white and BIPOC members “couldn’t talk together and know what they were talking about,” said Muir.
Rev. John T. Crestwell, Jr., who—along with Rev. Anastassia Zinke, both serving as co-executive ministers—succeeded Muir, said he did not recall much “pushback” in response to the Eighth Principle vote. But there were still deep-seated racial and power dynamics to resolve,
to say nothing of the questions of what comes next, of how to make the Eighth Principle truly a part of congregational life, and of how to cultivate the emotional awareness the effort demands.
Both before and after the vote, there were signs that further work needed to be done.
Now in his fourteenth year at the church, Crestwell, the first Black minister in the history of the predominantly white congregation, recalls comments suggesting doubt about his ability to manage the job and about his work ethic. Crestwell came to the church in 2009 as associate minister and became minister of equal standing when Zinke—who had first served as an intern minister—was called officially in 2020, he said. Crestwell said he had pitched to the congregation the idea of having two senior ministers serve together in an equal co-ministry.
In addition to the racially charged remarks, there have been other missteps.
Years ago, the church introduced a gospel-style music program to run alongside the more traditional UU music from the western canon that they usually played, but the gospel musicians were paid about 40 percent less, several members recalled.
Zinke, who is white, now acknowledges her own “failing,” as she put it, in presiding over a Sunday service days after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty in the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, and never mentioning the event in her sermon. She heard from a number of BIPOC members who were upset about the omission.
A Black Lives Matter sign posted outside the church was torn down, and police caught a suspect, a high school student. But as the church decided how to proceed from there, BIPOC members were unhappy about the fact that they were never consulted, said Keeve, who is Black.
Compounding the challenge of the antiracist work at hand was the fact that the Eighth Principle vote took place in a transition time at the congregation.
Compounding the challenge of the antiracist work at hand was the fact that the Eighth Principle vote took place in a transition time at the congregation. Muir had left, Crestwell was assuming leadership, and he could see that some white members were uncomfortable with it.
“I didn’t look the part,” he said. “I didn’t act the part, in their estimation.”
Crestwell said he felt reluctant to take the lead on antiracism before or after the vote, lest he be seen by white members as too focused on racial matters, as falling short of serving as a minister for all members.
“I saw it as a way for detractors to upend my ministry,” he said. “At the time, the church was in a place where there was fear of racial diversity. The detractors were small [in number] but loud. I felt vulnerable as an African American.”
He felt it was best to provide support but not a leading voice.
Keeve said he understands Crestwell was in a tough spot. He describes the resulting atmosphere around antiracism work as “a vacuum of leadership . . . I think the ministers thought this would come together on its own.”
It didn’t, and for a time the effort to intentionally practice the Eighth Principle was adrift.
But then the ten-member Board of Trustees, which includes Crestwell and Zinke, took action. In 2020 it established a team to lead the effort to implement the Eighth Principle, and a plan of action, which included a series of eight one-hour classes on such subjects as the history of white supremacy and unconscious bias. The program has included guest speakers such as Robin DiAngelo, who wrote the New York Times best-selling Beacon Press book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, and a book study series, including Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran.
To reengage in an actionable commitment to its Eighth Principle, Zinke said the pay for the gospel and other musicians has been made equal, and the congregation intentionally sought out BIPOC options when they hired a Latinx contractor for a $700,000 building renovation project expected to be completed in January. She said that a $5,000 budget has been proposed for the first time for diversity, equity, and inclusion programming.
Crestwell says the congregation is not there yet. “The only thing I can think that would be ‘there’ is to look around on a Sunday morning with 200 people in the church and 100 of them are people of color,” he said.
Still, said Crestwell, the congregation—located in an area where Black, Hispanic, or Latinx people together are more than 40 percent of the population at large—is not there yet. And what would be “there”?
“The only thing I can think that would be ‘there’ is to look around on a Sunday morning with 200 people in the church and 100 of them are people of color,” he said. “‘There’ is becoming the most diverse UU church in the country.”
Muir agreed there’s still a long way to go, but he said the difficult work of living the Eighth Principle is “the hope of our movement. It’s the hope of our faith.”