Widening the Circle of Our Concern – Rev. Kristin Grassel Schmidt

Today four leaders in this congregation will share about their experience studying the Widening the Circle of Concern report. The Board and Racial Justice Task Force have only just begun this study, and I’ve already learned a lot. But this morning the most helpful thing I think I can do is explain why the Commission on Institutional Change was convened in the first place, give you some context for how this report came to be, and why it is so important. There are lots of different places I could begin to set the scene, but I think what’s become known as the Black Empowerment Controversy is the most relevant place for us today. 

In the years leading up to the 1965 civil rights protests in Selma, the newly merged Unitarian Universalist Association met for General Assembly and passed several resolutions supporting desegregation, civil rights, and integration. The savage way protestors were treated in Selma galvanized UUs in a new way, which even led to the Rev. Dr. King being invited to give the Ware Lecture at the 1966 UUA General Assembly. But things began to take a turn the next year. As Rev. Mark Morrison Reed writes in his 2012 UU World Article titled “The Empowerment Tragedy.” 

When riots spread through American cities in 1967, these memories [from Selma] were fresh and powerful. The question was how, not if, the UUA would respond to the “rebellion” in black communities, the radicalization of black consciousness, and the further fracturing of a civil rights movement that had never been monolithic.

As rioting intensified everywhere, UUs in New York City called an emergency meeting to determine how the UUA could respond. Soon into the conference most of the African American attendees left the main business meeting and began a meeting of their own, a black caucus. Rev. Morrison Reed writes: 

As they talked, they tapped into the raw emotion hidden behind middle-class reasonableness… Civil rights had changed the law but had proven ineffective at remedying black poverty; liberal religion had failed to address the experience of blackness or to settle an African American in a major pulpit.

They were naming the fact that though UUism claimed to value equality and integration, it had failed to realize either value in a structural way. Ultimately the group came back to the larger meeting and insisted a vote be taken without discussion to approve a new agenda which included $1 million budget to be directed toward the black community over the next four years. Rev. Morrison Reed writes:

Although the all-or-nothing tactic worked with the socially committed Euro-Americans at the conference, over the long haul it was doomed to fail—because ultimately UUs are wedded to individualism and reflexively distrust and resist authority, whatever the cause… A paradigm shift away from integration and toward black self-determination was taking place, a change for which the UUA was ill-prepared.

The next several years saw General Assemblies and UUA Board votes that ultimately undermined the agenda of the black caucus and stripped away the funding it had been promised, funding it had planned to use to support black UU ministers, the creation of black UU congregations, and the equipping of black lay leaders. By the end of the 1960s, many very engaged and committed African American UUs left the Association and their congregations, disillusioned by a faith that wouldn’t structurally support the inclusion and equality it preached.

The Black Empowerment Tragedy is important to keep in mind when trying to understand the circumstances that led to the Widening the Circle report. You may remember the controversy in 2017 when the UUA Board hired one of its own members for a field staff position. Despite non-discriminatory hiring statements all five people in those most senior UUA field staff positions were white. When challenged about this UUA President Morales responded with the claim that there just weren’t enough qualified candidates of color applying for these positions. That’s when one of the candidates, a woman of color with years of experience serving UU congregations, went public. 

People began to wonder what good values like inclusivity and multiculturalism are when the structure and culture of the Association still hired almost exclusively white people to lead it. The sense of the system being used to benefit white people and exclude people of color, again, reopened old wounds and feelings of betrayal. UUA President, Rev. Peter Morales, resigned in March of that year, and Rev. Don Southworth, then President of the UU Ministers Association, resigned in April. 

It was that June, at the New Orleans General Assembly in 2017, that the UUA Board announced and chartered the Commission on Institutional Change. The things the Commission learned while doing this work, and the recommendations they collected along the way, are what is captured in the Widening the Circle of Concern report. 

So far, the UUCSS Board and Racial Justice Task Force have studied the chapters on Theology and Governance, so a lot of what Phyllis, Catherine, Jane, and Maggie will be sharing comes out of learning we’ve done on these topics. May we receive their willingness to share their reflections as a gift, and may that gift help empower us to interrogate the harmful ways our own community has privileged individualism over the covenant that holds us together. And may the gift of their sharing help us dismantle the racist structures and practices in our midst and grow in equity, inclusion, and diversity.