Fierce, indomitable, and deeply compassionate, Elandria Williams served as UUA co-moderator from 2017 to 2020.
UUA Co-Moderator Elandria Williams (who died September 23, 2020) addresses the 2018 General Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri. (© 2018 Nancy Pierce/UUA)
Fierce, indomitable, and deeply compassionate, Elandria Williams was a beloved activist and an incomparable Unitarian Universalist leader, serving as co-moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association from 2017 to 2020.
Williams, 41, died suddenly on September 23, 2020, in Knoxville, Tennessee, leaving countless friends around the world and a legacy of living into the true meaning of Beloved Community.
“It would be impossible to capture all the ways Elandria left an indelible mark on Unitarian Universalism,” said UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray at the memorial service held on October 10, which was attended by hundreds of people and hosted on Zoom by the Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville. Frederick-Gray said it was a “great honor” to serve with Elandria for the three years E was co-moderator.
“E lived an intersectional life,” said the Rev. Mr. Barb Greve, who served as co-moderator of the UUA with Elandria. “E was African American, E lived with disabilities, and I don’t know how Elandria defined E’s gender but certainly not cis. E moved in and out of those communities reminding us that people could live multiple truths simultaneously.” At E’s service, Greve said, “In each relationship and setting Elandria was known by different nicknames and pronouns, a true reflection of the beautiful ways Our Beloved moved through life and community.”
A lifelong UU, Elandria was not an ordained minister but ministered reflexively through bold leadership, kindness, and hugs. E’s passing immediately prompted the hashtag #ElandriaTaughtUs, with people writing such things as, “practice radical love” and “Never forget to say I love you.”
E was especially attentive to people who were suffering, said the Rev. Chris Buice, senior minister of TVUUC, where Elandria and E’s family have been members since the 1990s. When Elandria visited UUA headquarters, Buice said, “people lined up whenever she walked in the room, the custodian, the president, everybody, so there was an energy and a light that just took off.” E's presence became imbued in myriad aspects of the UUA as an organization. On the UUA's review of the Commission on Institutional Change recommendations to center antiracist practices in ministry and seminary training, Buice reflected, “I think that’s a good legacy conversation” that honors Elandria.
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Elandria Williams dances with Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika during the Opening Ceremony of the 2017 UUA General Assembly in New Orleans. (© 2017 Nancy Pierce/UUA)
E held numerous roles in Unitarian Universalism, including as a founding member of Black Lives of UU (BLUU). In 2007, Elandria was the recipient of the Outstanding Antiracist Activist & Leadership Award from Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM). E sought to create justice and equity for all including those with disabilities, noted the Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, Conflict Engagement Transformation Team Director in Congregational Life at the UUA.
E was elected to the UUA Board of Trustees in 2016 and became co-moderator of the UUA, with Greve, in the difficult period after former President Peter Morales resigned unexpectedly and Moderator Jim Key—with whom Elandria was close—died suddenly.
“She navigated the denomination through such a storm and led it to such a good place,” said Buice.
“E was willing to push the boundaries of our understanding of governance,” said Greve. Importantly, E saw relationship as central to everything. “Elandria had one of the biggest hearts I’ve ever met,” said Greve. Even when they disagreed, their conversations ended with “I love you,” Greve recalled.
E’s relational approach changed how business was done at the UUA and at GA, such as adding a moment for delegates to turn and talk to their neighbors before voting on important matters, Greve said.
“E took the role as co-moderator with reverence,” dedicated to ensuring that people are heard and served, said Hafidha Acuay, a longtime friend who also worked with Elandria at PeoplesHub, an online training hub for transformative change where E was executive director. In E’s travels around the world, “E wanted nothing less than transformation and global impact.”
UUA Co-Moderator Elandria Williams (with arm raised) cheers beside President Susan Frederick-Gray and Co-Moderator Mr. Barb Greve from the sidelines of the Opening Ceremony of the 2019 UUA General Assembly in Spokane, Washington. (© 2019 Nancy Pierce/UUA)
Elandria “was so multifaceted it kind of even defies my imagination, the different contexts in which so many of us knew her,” said the Rev. Janice Marie Johnson, the UUA’s co-director of Ministries and Faith Development. “And yet the essence for most everyone was crystal clear and solid as a rock: she exuded love.”
E’s spiritual home was TVUUC but “had a level of passion for that big, big picture that was uncontainable in just the congregation,” said Buice. E’s ministry often flew outside traditional ways of doing things. “You have to step back and say, this is genius at work.”
Dr. Leon Spencer, who served as an interim co-president of the UUA in 2017, was among E’s early mentors, and also “one of her mentees. I never stopped learning from Elandria,” Spencer said.
E was particularly devoted to centering youth and young adults in the faith, beginning with E’s days as a youth leader with Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU). E was also a leader with DRUUMM, as well as with the Continental Unitarian Universalist Young Adult Network (C*UUYAN), Journey Toward Wholeness, the Groundwork antiracism training collective, and other groups which are no longer in existence but whose legacy are a key part of UU history, noted Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward.*
“She really believed in youth leadership,” said Susan Williams, who knew Elandria from the Highlander Research and Education Center, a social justice leadership training school and cultural center in New Market, Tennessee, where E worked for eleven years on the Education Team.
“Even if Elandria was going off on you, there was a deeper level of just pure love, love of this faith and each other,” said Janice Marie Johnson. “She was exceptional, she really was.”
Elandria and E’s twin brother, Frederick, were born July 13, 1979, in Knoxville, Tennessee, to Erven and Elnora Williams. Elandria’s parents and her grandfather were very active in the civil rights movement.
“She was just giving and giving and giving,” said E’s mother. “She loved people and loved to share and loved for everybody to be a part of things, oh gosh, she just had so much spirit and high energy, and she would talk so fast!”
E died unexpectedly due to complications following a heart procedure. “I think her body couldn’t keep up with her spirit,” said Buice. “Her body was saying slow down, slow down, and that spirit was on the move, on the move.”
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UUA and Other Tributes to Elandria Williams (10/2/20; UUA.org)
Updated 11/12/20: This story has been amended to include a mention of the Groundwork antiracism training collective. Click here to return to the updated paragraph.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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