In a historic moment for Unitarian Universalism, the Unitarian Universalist Association Board of Trustees has agreed to provide $300,000 immediately to Black Lives of UU and committed to guaranteeing BLUU another $5 million in long-term funding for its efforts to support black UUs and expand the role and visibility of black UUs within the faith.
The board’s decision, on Friday, October 14, came during its three-day October meeting, at the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset, New York, in response to a presentation and funding request by BLUU. UU World will report on other aspects of the October 14–16 meeting in a second article next week.
The board did not take a vote on the decision to fund BLUU, but set aside Robert’s Rules of Order for the trustees’ conversation about BLUU’s request for $5.3 million. It took this unusual step, trustees said, in recognition of the frustration many UUs, especially people of color and young people, expressed about an emphasis on process over content and meaning during the successful but contentious debate and vote on an Action of Immediate Witness to support Black Lives Matter at the 2015 General Assembly. In recognition of the frustration and the need for new approaches to decision-making, the board framed the BLUU funding decision as a “religious act, not as a piece of corporate business,” said trustee the Rev. Patrick McLaughlin.
Two founding members of the BLUU organizing collective, Leslie Mac and the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith, came to New York to give a presentation about BLUU’s efforts and to request funding for its ongoing work. Since UU principles align with the principles of the Black Lives Matter movement more generally, Mac said she hopes BLUU’s work will attract more black people to the faith. “I have a dream that black people will know they can go to any UU church and be welcome,” she said. “I can’t say that now.”
In its first fourteen months, Mac and Smith told trustees, BLUU composed a “ Seven Principles of Black Lives” that links its work directly to the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism; created a Facebook group for black UUs that has 250 members; created and presented a BLUU program track at the 2016 General Assembly in Columbus, Ohio; developed and led GA’s closing worship service with the Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost, a racial justice-oriented band that fuses gospel, blues, funk, and soul; and provided immediate support around the country for UU congregations in emergency situations related to the killing of black people by police.
“The fund will allow us to create real change in our faith and to fully realize the potential of organizing all UUs for justice in the world,” added Smith, a UUA employee on the Southern Region’s Congregational Life staff.
UUA President Peter Morales said he found BLUU’s work and Mac and Smith’s presentation about it “fabulous,” but said he had “some cautionary concerns.”
“This is asking for something that is not part of the UUA,” Morales said. “It’s creating a separate organization that is not part of the administration. That’s something the board should not do without thinking that through very carefully.” He added, “I worry about five, ten, twenty years out [because] we are creating a separate nonprofit organization responding to a need now. I’d advocate for much thoughtful reflection and discussion and work with the administration.”
Mac responded, “We still want to be part of this association in a meaningful way.”
After BLUU’s presentation, trustees discussed their strong support for BLUU’s efforts.
“Are we ready to take this leap of faith?” asked UUA Moderator Jim Key.
“I think we just did,” answered trustee Gregory Carrow-Boyd, who was among those who pushed for an alternative way for the board to make a decision without actually voting.
The board then gathered outdoors for a laying on of hands. BLUU members joined hands in a circle with trustees and observers who are black, including trustees Carrow-Boyd, Dorothy Holmes, and Elandria Williams and the Rev. Cheryl Walker, president of the UU Ministers Association. The rest of the trustees and observers placed their hands on their shoulders as they gathered around the circle, many of them in tears.
“Today is a tremendous day for our faith,” the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective said in its statement celebrating the decision.
Details about the funding—which the board has framed as a guarantee against the endowment—will be worked out by the board over the next few months and discussed at its January 2017 meeting. UUA Treasurer and Chief Financial Officer Tim Brennan said he is unaware of any precedent in UUA history for such a large financial commitment against the endowment, which has about $25 million in unrestricted funds. The UUA’s FY2017 budget is approximately $25.7 million.
Financial Advisor Lucia Santini Field said she was supportive of the decision but emphasized that the board must commit to a financially responsible means for funding it, which she is confident it can do.
Trustee Dorothy Holmes and others emphasized that a major fundraising effort would present an excellent opportunity to highlight the importance of BLUU’s work among congregations across the country.
“This is a huge deal,” said Key, after the decision. “Progressives have been timid on resolving the nation’s racial injustices. To me, this is the most pressing social challenge of our day, so it’s a privilege to be at the table when the board had the courage to do this.”
While it’s unclear now where the money will come from, Key said, “We are confident that we can fundraise and increase our generosity through the board partnering with the administration, particularly Stewardship and Development, and other groups.” Key said the board has made a commitment to fundraising “because we don’t want to put the other [UUA] programs in jeopardy—and we won’t.”
All three candidates for UUA President—the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke—attended the board meeting and expressed their strong support for the decision.
The day before the board meeting began, trustees participated in an all-day training in multicultural, antiracist, and anti-oppressive work. Several trustees said the training was powerful and influential in helping them reimagine how the board makes it decisions.
“We were able to successfully make a decision without using Robert’s Rules of Order,” said Carrow-Boyd, interim director of religious education at Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena, California. “We made a decision that we all understood without [first] perfecting the language, so we managed to challenge white supremacist decision-making.”
The decision was also historic because it links back to a similar commitment from decades ago that the UUA never fulfilled, Carrow-Boyd said. “This $5 million is the current value of a $1 million commitment that [the General Assembly] affirmed in 1968” to give to the Black Affairs Council, but never did, he said. “So we are fulfilling a promise that GA committed us to close to fifty years ago.”
The 1968 General Assembly committed $1 million to the Black Affairs Council over four years. The UUA provided the first $450,000 between 1968 and 1970, but an acute financial crisis in the UUA and conflicts among UUs and competing UU racial justice groups brought direct funding by the UUA to a halt. In 1971, the Shelter Rock congregation gave another $180,000 to BAC as part of a $250,000 grant to the Fund for Racial Justice, and BAC raised money from individual donors for several years. (Read more about the controversy over the funding for BAC from UU World’s archives, “The UUA Meets Black Power” and “The Empowerment Tragedy,” and in the book The Arc of the Universe Is Long: Unitarian Universalists, Anti-Racism, and the Journey from Calgary.)
“This commitment is just one step in a long journey towards fulfilling promises made to Black Unitarian Universalists in the 1960s,” the board posted on its Facebook page. “The Board is fully committed to working collaboratively with the UUA administration to develop the funding sources necessary for this financial support of BLUU.”
BLUU will be in charge of the funding and how it is spent. “What they are wanting to do is wholly in line with our values and our mission and the way we want to see beloved community occur within our faith,” said trustee Christina Rivera, director of administration and finance at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I have no problem sending that money outside our fiscal control. That’s what we sign on for as ally-ship.”
The first $300,000 in funds will go to work in 2017 to support the BLUU Convening in March 2017 in New Orleans; to engage black UUs from around the country in shaping BLUU’s goals; to develop BLUU programming for the June 2017 General Assembly in New Orleans; and to expand the Revive Love Tour, a “spiritual sustenance” celebration created by BLUU, Standing on the Side of Love, and the Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost that went to five cities in September and October.
The $5 million in long-term funds will go toward ongoing work, including creating healing spaces for black people in person and online; growing more opportunities for pastoral care specifically for black UUs; continuing to develop relationships with non-black UUs of color; providing resources for white antiracism work among UUs; and providing direct support to congregations during times of racialized conflict.
“I look at things from a governance lens in trying to assess the risk,” Key said later. “To me, doing nothing—or doing something more timid—was a greater risk to our movement and the values we say we have and the way we live in the world. It would put our overall mission at risk not to deal with society’s most pressing issues now.”
An earlier version of this story erroneously reported that the UUA had provided only the first $250,000 of a $1 million commitment made by the 1968 General Assembly to the Black Affairs Council. In fact, the UUA paid $250,000 in fiscal year 1969 and $200,000 in fiscal year 1970 before BAC disaffiliated from the UUA in 1970. (See Crisis and Change: My Years as President of the Unitarian Universalist Association, 1969–1977, by Robert Nelson West, Skinner House Books, 2007, pages 21–28.)