Of the countless times i joined in singing “We Shall Overcome” in the heady days of civil rights progress in the 1960s, I most vividly remember singing it on the streets of Atlanta in 1968, when the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was buried. It remains vivid today because I remember the sting of tears in my eyes.
As the movement lost energy in the 1970s and disappointment grew, we sang to remind us of our commitment and rekindle our energy. Deep in my heart, I do believe, that we shall overcome someday—I sang the words hundreds of times, but one day found I couldn’t bring myself to sing them again. They rang hollow. We were no longer moving forward on dismantling racism. To sing “We Shall Overcome” felt like a lie.
As I talk with colleagues and Unitarian Universalists in our congregations, I hear a deep sense of failure, a promise unfulfilled not only for our nation but also for our faith. In the hopeful days of the civil rights movement Unitarian Universalists lived out a strong commitment. We spoke out, we sat in, we marched. Hundreds of our ministers joined King in Selma, and the Rev. James Reeb was murdered there, a civil rights martyr. Those were proud days for our faith. But UUs I talk with today sense that we are stuck in the fight against the racism that still stains our national life—and our predominately white faith.
Now Unitarian Universalism has been handed a fresh opportunity to move forward. It is a gift to us from the forty-two seminarians preparing for our ministry who are persons of color and Latino/Latina/Hispanic people. Our opportunity is to rise to the challenge of making these new ministers welcome in our congregations as they are ordained, a challenge we’ve often failed in the past. Many of their predecessors have left us. Only fifty are in fellowship with the UUA, of whom only thirty-two are serving in our more than 1,000 congregations. Our record of supporting their ministries has been abysmal. It breaks my heart every day.
We can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing, or we’ll end up simply extending our abysmal record. So the UUA’s Diversity of Ministry Team, of which I am a member, has outlined a plan for welcoming the new ministers. Although not yet complete, it is a good plan, and I am committed to seeing that it happens.
Ten years ago our Association committed itself, at the General Assembly in Phoenix to becoming an antiracist, antioppression, multicultural organization. For a decade we have been struggling and learning new truths. And despite the slow rate of change in our denomination, many people of color and Latino/Latina/Hispanic people have remained in our pews and our pulpits, and remained hopeful and faithful. At this year’s General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, we will observe the Phoenix milestone and we will hear the truths that some of our congregations have learned over the last year in their work toward racial and class reconciliation.
One truth I’ve learned is that seizing our opportunity will require a new commitment of UUA resources. At least as important, it will require a deeper commitment to ministers of color and Latino/Latina/Hispanic ministers who are new to us and those already in fellowship, a deeper commitment to the congregations who welcome ministers of color, and a deeper commitment to strengthening all the relationships that are inevitably tested when different races and cultures are brought together. We will be looking for about a dozen congregations whose sense of identity and mission include dreams of a multicultural ministry, and for ministers and seminarians who feel a powerful call to serve in new ministries.
Another truth is that the claim of innocence is not an option, because ignorance of truth does not alter its legacy. If we do not embrace the opportunity our seminarians have brought to us, Unitarian Universalism will pass on a legacy of failure that our children and their children will have to redeem. The time for this redemption is now.
Correction 5.21.07: Due to an editing error, the version of this column published in the Summer 2007 magazine incorrectly identified Calgary, Alberta, as the city where the 1997 General Assembly met. The 1992 GA in Calgary did adopt a resolution committing the UUA to racial and cultural diversity, but the 2007 GA is marking the ten-year anniversary of the antiracism resolution adopted in 1997 by the GA in Phoenix, Arizona.