If Unitarian Universalism has an éminence grise, it may well be the Rev. William G. Sinkford.
In recognition of a lifetime of service to the faith, Sinkford received at General Assembly 2022, to a standing ovation, the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, one of the most prestigious awards bestowed by the faith.
When the waters of the faith need calming, it so often is Sinkford—or Bill, as he’s known to the thousands of Unitarian Universalists whose lives he has touched over decades of service—who is called to the task. After serving as Unitarian Universalist Association president from 2001 to 2009—the first Black person to head a predominantly white religious group in the United States—Sinkford was called back to that role upon the sudden resignation of UUA President Peter Morales and other top staff in 2017.
As interim co-president with the Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt and Leon Spencer until the election three months later of current president the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, Sinkford immediately called a staff meeting where he quickly reassured the “shocked and traumatized” UUA staff, prompting one to remark, “‘That’s what leadership looks like,’” according to former UUA Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery.
And when the waters of the faith need stirring up, Sinkford does that too. He left the faith in the late 1960s during the Black Empowerment Controversy, which he says he “experienced more as a White Entitlement Fit,” as he wrote in his 2016 Service of the Living Tradition sermon and related essay in UU World, “The Dream of White Innocence.”
“His commitment to justice and service, and his enduring spiritual courage, exemplifies for all of us what it really means to be a religious leader,” said the Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, president of Starr King School for the Ministry, who presented the award to Sinkford at GA.
An exceptionally gifted orator and writer, a kind and typically upbeat and wry presence, Sinkford is nonetheless a stern figure when Unitarian Universalism shirks its commitment to shared liberation. He insists UUs fulfill the promise of the faith and doesn’t hesitate to call it to task when it doesn’t. He preaches Beloved Community, and he embodies it.
As UUA President, Sinkford formed tight bonds with Muslim Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. He spearheaded the UU commitment to marriage equality in the early 2000s. Sinkford received national press when he performed the wedding ceremony of Julia and Hillary Goodridge, UUs and lead plaintiffs in the case that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts, at the UUA headquarters on Boston’s Beacon Hill. He also led a push, controversial amongst UUs, to infuse the faith with a language of reverence.
After eight years as UUA president, Sinkford fulfilled a long-held dream of becoming a congregational minister, serving as senior minister at one of the largest congregations in the country, First Unitarian in Portland, Oregon.
So many UUs have been touched, even transformed, by his “hard-won wisdom,” “keen political instincts,” and “pastor’s heart,” Bray McNatt, his longtime friend and colleague, said during the award presentation. “Our whole movement has been blessed by the gifts that Bill has shared with us.”
Sinkford’s journey within the UU faith began when he was 14, after his father died and he and his mother moved from California to Cincinnati and joined First Unitarian Church. As a member of Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), from which many of the faith’s most prominent ministers and lay leaders emerged, Sinkford was elected president of Continental LRY. After graduating cum laude from Harvard, he worked for decades in the private sector before enrolling at Starr King in Berkeley, California.
At the request of UUA President John Buehrens, Sinkford deferred his goal of congregational ministry to become head of the UUA’s Congregational, District, and Extension Services Department, where he quickly won over critics who thought he lacked experience for the job. In the role, he traveled the nation gaining a deep understanding of UU congregations. Running on a platform for UUA president that included urging a greater presence for the faith in the public square, “his election was one of proudest moments of my life,” said Bray McNatt.
From 2009 until June 2022, Sinkford served as senior minister at one of the faith’s largest congregations, First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon. He announced he would be retiring at the end of the 2022 church year.
Yet he again has been called to calm stormy waters. For the next year, Sinkford will serve as transitional minister at All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, D.C., as it searches for a settled minister after a difficult period. “I’ve known All Souls D.C. for a long time,” Sinkford explained in an interview with UU World, “so I have a long affection for the congregation, and some of what they’re dealing with are issues of identity, some of the complexities around race and culture, and I believe I may be able to be helpful to them.”
So he’s not really retiring? “It appears I might not be quite done,” he responded, with his trademark smile, which is always warm and often wry. “I’m 75,” so while retirement is “not inappropriate, it also feels like I’m not quite ready to put in that order for a rocking chair.”
Reflecting on the Distinguished Service Award, he said, “I am very honored, very honored, to be in the company of those who have received it before, all significant contributors to this faith. I was just deeply honored and quite surprised.”
“I have certainly been around long enough to be part of a number of important movements within Unitarian Universalism,” he said, “and that too is a blessing, to have a least a little opportunity to get on the balcony and look back and around to see how this faith has developed—which it has, and I think I’ve been a part of some of that.”
“Unitarian Universalism is now pretty comfortable understanding itself as a religion,” Sinkford said, “and I think I had a part of that in the language of reverence and my leadership, that feels like a real maturing of this faith, and there are some perennial challenges—race being at the very top of the list—that just break my heart, when they continue to plague us. That was certainly the case when I was called back [as UUA co-president] in 2017, with Sofía and Leon, and it continues today with the pushback against the Eighth Principle,” a movement to add to the current Seven Principles one that specifically commits UUs to dismantling racism and other oppressions. “I believe that Unitarian Universalism is going to move through that this time, because I am a hopeful soul at the DNA level, but I have to remember that Unitarian Universalism did not move through these issues before, so that’s a kind of a cautionary tale for me.”
What does he see as the greatest challenge facing the faith today? “One of the things that I would name would be our faith’s capacity to understand that although we have much to contribute, we are not in charge, and that the priority is for us to be building relationships, not trying to lead,” he said, “and understanding that the highest and best use to which we can be put is not to promote liberalism but liberation.”
In terms of dealing with white supremacy culture, he said, “One of the dangers for us is that we will live out our faith from the neck up rather than making a fully embodied expression of who we are and what our hopes are. And so the argument about whether a particular approach to dealing with race is the right approach misses the truth that we need to deal with race.”
For many UUs there has been progress over the past ten or twenty years on confronting racism, he said, which has accelerated in the last four or five years, “so we’ve learned a lot, but not all of us have, and the learning needs to be deeper.” But UUs must be willing to understand how pervasive and deep white supremacy culture is, including in UU congregations and the communities they serve.
“We need to be willing to go deeper to understand how much a part of the creation of that culture our faith has been, and how we can develop enough capacity for self-understanding to seek how we participate in it still,” he said. “Like most progressive folks we love to have victories and believe we are finished with things and unfortunately that’s not how the world works.”
He urges congregations to get in relationship with marginalized communities—not that there aren’t “folks with marginalized communities in our congregations, there are—witness myself”—and work to repair the brokenness of the world. “I think it will take a process of remaining in relationship, and real discernment, to understand what love is calling each of us and our congregations to do.”
Many progressives, including some UUs, were shocked when the U.S. Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked in May, “but if we were surprised, we shouldn’t be—because the forces that led to the opinion had been building for decades,” Sinkford said. [The Court’s final official opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was announced on June 24, overturning the right to abortion enshrined in Roe.] “The resistance to the movement toward Beloved Community is concerted and well-funded and able, seemingly, to disregard the rules of the game that we believe we could play by and achieve success,” he said.
“That does not mean we need to give up obeying the rules but it means we need to have a different level of willingness to stay the course on issues, and, I believe, a greater willingness to understand the extent of the fundamental changes we need to be promoting, to be allied with, and the various communities we need to move with,” Sinkford said. “I think we need a different understanding of how change takes place, and a different understanding of how much change is necessary.”
He emphasizes that the many ongoing battles for justice—racial justice, reproductive justice, transgender justice, climate justice, and many more—are interrelated. While it is appropriate to celebrate successes, such as the legalization of same-sex marriage, “we did not take it far enough, and we need to be willing to take the next movement forward rather than be satisfied with the modest successes we may achieve.”
Given the current political and legal climate, Sinkford warns that there will be few successes in the near future. UUs and progressives will have to be more resolute “and more grounded in faith, I think, over the next period of years,” he said. “We have to find a way to sustain our commitment and energy that doesn’t rely on success to hold us up.”
That “takes us into the realm of faith,” he added. “We have to be committed enough, to believe enough, to live enough like we believe that love is actually stronger than hate and fear so that we can begin bringing more love into the world.”