as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, May 21, 2023
Next month, at our annual congregational meeting, we will be voting on whether or not to adopt the proposed Eighth Principle as a congregation. The principle was developed by two Unitarian Universalist lay leaders. Paula Cole Jones, who led a workshop yesterday that some of us participated in, is a lifelong member of All Souls Church Unitarian, in Washington, DC. Bruce Pollack-Johnson is a longtime member of the Unitarian Universalists of Mount Airy, in Philadelphia.
The text, which Leslie Morrison referenced in her testimonial at the start of the service and which Charles Johnson and Earl and Georgette Dredge spoke about earlier in the month, reads:
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.”
This morning, I want to talk with you about why I am in favor of our congregation adopting the principle. As a way of approaching the potential importance of the principle for our life together I want to recall an episode in the congregation’s history,
A few months ago, you might remember, I shared with you some of the story around the congregation’s 1954 decision to desegregate. In case you were not here that Sunday, or you appreciate a refresher, it is worth recalling the history. Three weeks after the United States Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing school segregation, the members of the then First Unitarian Church of Houston voted to become the first historically White religious community to welcome people of all races for worship and into membership.
It was not, I told you, a decision without dust and heat. It put First Unitarian Universalist at the leading edge of racial justice. Some ten percent of the membership resigned. Deciding that they were more committed to white supremacy and segregation than they were to the principles of Unitarianism, they sent the minister at the time, the Rev. Horace Westwood, some pretty awful letters on the way out the door. They accused him of following “the communist line” and turning “the church into an atheistic organization with its primary emphasis on left-wing politics.”
Reviewing this history in the congregational archives, I found a story that the Rev. Bob Schaibly, the Senior Minister here from 1982 to 2002, liked tell about those times. On more than one occasion he shared from this pulpit the account offered to him about First Unitarian Universalist’s first African American member.
His name was Lavaniel Henderson. His name is likely familiar to those of you who are longtime members. He was active in the congregation until near the end of his life, when he died in the late 1990s.
In 1954, Lavaniel came to Houston to serve as a professor at Texas Southern University. A stranger in town he decided, like so many people who move here, to seek out a religious community.
Our congregation was not his first choice. The Sunday before he came to us, he visited one of the other churches along Main Street. I have no idea whether it was First Presbyterian, St. Matthew’s, or St. Paul’s. It does not matter. It is probably better that we do not. Whatever church it was, the ushers pulled a move prefiguring the one taken by the arch-segregationist George Wallace a few years later. They stood in the doorway of the church and stopped him from entering the sanctuary.
The next Sunday Lavaniel decided to see if we would be more receptive to him. No one stopped when he walked up the steps of the Fannin entrance. And no one stopped him when he came through the sanctuary doors. So, he slipped and found a seat someplace in the back pews–where visitors still like to reside so that they can make a quick exit if they find the sermon boring.
In one of their conversations, Lavaniel recounted to the Rev. Schaibly what happened next. There was a young White couple sitting a handful of pews in front of him. They turned around and looked at him. Then they got up and sat down on either side of him.
Lavaniel told Bob it made him “anxious.” I can only imagine. He was in the heart of the old Confederacy, in a state where between 1882 and 1945 more than 750 people were lynched. He was the only Black person in what was then an all-White church. He was by himself. The previous Sunday members of another congregation had made their commitment to segregation quite clear to him.
That was not the intention of the young couple. Their names were Sol and Thelma Meltzer. They were the kind of people we sometimes call pillars of the congregation. They served in lots of volunteer roles. Many people knew who they were and respected their opinions.
Lavaniel thought that they were coming over to him to tell him to leave. Instead, he related how they sat down “to welcome me.”
Knowing how congregations work, I can assure you that this was a big deal. In 1954, in the segregated South, the Meltzers, pillars of the community, were essentially letting the rest of congregation know that Lavaniel was under their protection. And that if anyone was going to mess with him then they were going to have to mess with the Meltzers too.
A few Sundays later, Lavaniel joined the congregation. His presence made it possible, a couple of weeks after he started attending, for First Unitarian to welcome into an African American family into its religious education program. The names of Phylicia Rashad, Debbie Allen, and Tex Allen, and their mother Vivian Allen are likely familiar to some of you. They found a religious home here because the Lavaniel, Sol and Thelma were brave enough to form a friendship within the walls of our sanctuary more than a decade before the legal collapse of Jim Crow.
The three of them remained close friends and loyal to First Unitarian Universalist until they went the way of all flesh. And the Rev. Schaibly liked to share their story, and what it meant for the congregation, every so often. I think that it represented for him the spirit of the community–our commitment to widening love’s circle–at its finest.
We are going to come back to the story of Lavaniel, Sol, and Thelma, at the end of the service. For now, I want to return to the proposed Eighth Principle and the denominational, and congregational, process around its adoption. These are not normally the sorts of things that I usually spend a great deal of time preaching about on Sunday mornings. But they are important. While Unitarian Universalism does not have a creed, Unitarian Universalist do share values. These are expressed in the seven principles of our Unitarian Universalist Association.
The Eighth Principle was launched as an effort to make our commitment to anti-racism explicit. It was originally intended to be an addition to the current principles. However, a couple of years after the launch of the organizing efforts around the Eighth Principle the Unitarian Universalist Association initiated the Article II Study Commission.
Article II is where our Association’s existing principles reside. The commission is charged with revising this text which, in its members words, “is the foundation for all of the work of our UUA and its member congregations.” The proposed revision will claim that the purpose of our Association is “the transformation of the world through liberating Love.” It will replace the existing principles with seven “shared values.” It will substitute the six sources, which are each distinct, with a more general statement about the “sources [which] ground us and sustain us in ordinary, difficult, and joyous times.”
This revision to Article II will include the intention behind the Eighth Principle in the value of justice. The text describing that value contains sentences that read, “We work to be diverse multicultural Beloved Communities where all thrive. We covenant to dismantle racism and all forms of systemic oppression.”
Paula Cole Jones, it should be noted, is not just one of the major forces behind the Eighth Principle effort. She is also a member of the Article II Study Commission. I suspect that she has played a significant role in the shaping of the words that the commission is proposing to describe justice as a shared value.
The revisions to Article II will be considered by the Association’s General Assembly. The General Assembly gathers together delegates from hundreds of congregations to make major decisions about the direction of our religious movement. This year delegates will be voting whether or not to put the revisions of Article II up for a year of study. Then, at next year’s assembly, delegates will vote whether or not to incorporate the revisions to Article II into the Association’s bylaws.
Our congregation has six lay delegates. We also have three ministerial delegates: me, Rev. Cooper, and the Rev. Dr. Dan King, our Minister Emeritus.
The proposed revisions of Article II has been circulated in various formats. I hope that you have had a chance to read them. If you are not happy with them, there are still two opportunities to change the proposed text. First, delegates can put forth amendments until June 5th for consideration by this year’s General Assembly. If you are interested in having a delegate from our congregation carry your amendment please let our Board President, Ron Cookston, know. He can connect you with one.
Second, next year congregations, but not individuals, will have the opportunity to make amendments to whatever text is passed at this year’s General Assembly–assuming a revision to Article II is passed. To that end, I have asked the Board to call for a special congregational meeting in early November so that we can, collectively, decide whether or not to propose changes to the revised version of Article II.
Like I said earlier, all of this provides far more of a focus on the institutional life of the Unitarian Universalist Association than I like to offer on a Sunday morning. But given the potential impact on our religious movement of the changes being proposed, it is important to offer some overview how the changes will unfold. Our commitment to democracy as a religious practice also calls upon me, and the congregational leadership, to let you know how you can be involved in the process of stating our shared values.
Of course, the proposed changes to Article II raise the question: Why are we even considering the Eighth Principle if the principles are going to be superseded?
To my thinking, there are at least three reasons. First, and perhaps most obviously, it will be a year before the new version of Article II–with its reflection of the Eighth Principle–will become one of our Association’s official guiding documents. We should not wait a year to make clear our commitment to anti-racism. We live in a state whose political leadership is seeking to ban diversity, equity, and inclusion from public universities. We live in a country where a man can be lynched on a train–for that is exactly what happened to Jordan Neely–and the man who lynched him can receive over two million dollars in donations to fund his legal defense. We live at a time where white supremacists are trying to reassert their dominance over a multiracial society. It is important to be clear about our commitments.
Second, there is no guarantee that the revisions to Article II will pass. If they do not, then there will continue to be a need to incorporate something like the Eighth Principle into the Association’s principles.
Third, if we chose to adopt the Eighth Principle as a congregation, we will be making a statement about our values as the religious institution that is the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston.
Now, I recognize that I just used one of those words that makes many Unitarian Universalists blush, “institution.” Many of us like to think of ourselves individuals first and members of communities and stewards of institutions second. In some periods of this congregation’s history that pattern has been so pronounced that former minister the Rev. Webster Kitchell observed that during the 1960s “attacks on authority became a holy cause.”
He was commenting about a period of time when the minister, his predecessor the Rev. Horace Westwood, had a tendency to lead the congregation in a very hierarchical manner. In recent years we have tried to move to a more collaborative model where the ministry of the congregation is shared.
But whatever the case, we have congregations like this so that we might have places where we can come together to deepen our spiritual lives, mark life’s passages, and work for justice in the world. These religious institutions we form become carriers of, vessels for, our spiritual lives. The institutional life, the structure of the church, our principle describing it–the vision, mission, and covenant–the principles of governance, the financial support that members give, these are all things that make our life and ministry together possible.
Incorporating the Eighth Principle into our institutional life will make clear what kind of religious community we intend to be. We will be stating that we aspire to be one that is intentionally multicultural and multiracial and is committed to devoting itself to deconstructing racism and white supremacy.
Now, I know that there are some people who believe it is not necessary to make such an explicit commitment. Our anti-racist intentions can clearly be found in the first principle of our Association. It calls for us to honor “the inherent worth and dignity of every person.” They are spelled out in our other principles as well. The second principle, “justice, equity and compassion in human relations,” should also challenge us to make a commitment to anti-racism. And the third… Well, truthfully, it would be a tedious exercise to read each of the existing seven principles and describe how they call on us to engage in the difficult work of building a racially just society.
Here, I return to the story of Lavaniel Henderson, Sol and Thelma Meltzers, and the Allen family. This community takes it as a point of pride that we were the first historically White church to desegregate in the city. In celebrating that story, perhaps we need to consider why we needed to desegregate in the first place. Ten percent of the congregation walked out the door shortly after Lavaniel walked in I think that the question needs to be asked: Why was that ten percent comfortable here in the first place?
In 1954 the Universalist Church of America, one of the predecessor organizations of our current Association, had as one of its statements of faith “the supreme worth of every personality.” Unitarians throughout the country could be found making similar claims–which is one of the reasons why the Unitarians and the Universalists consolidated into a single association in 1961.
And yet in 1954, despite the presence of something like the first principle in our religious communion, ten percent of the congregation felt that there was no contradiction between being a Unitarian and an opponent of civil rights and desegregation. They felt that it was possible to be a member of this faith community and committed to white supremacy.
And they were not alone. People like me like to celebrate Unitarian Universalism’s long commitment to building the Beloved Community and widening the circle of love. We preachers honor the abolitionists and activists from our tradition. We remark that the Frederick Douglass, at the end of his life, regularly participated in worship at All Souls Unitarian in Washington, DC–the congregation that has led the way with the Eighth Principle. We share the story of how much of the money that was raised to fund John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry came from Unitarians. We memorialize our martyrs to the civil rights movement–the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo who were killed in Selma–and those, like the Rev. Horace Westwood, who marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. We uplift the fact that we were first tradition in North America to ordain women–back in the 1850s–, to have lesbians and gay men openly serve as clergy–in the early 1970s–and to ordain transgender people–in 1988.
But we rarely speak about another truth. For generations open white supremacists found no contradiction between Unitarianism or Universalism and their devotion to racism. John Calhoun was the Vice President of the United States. His commitment to white supremacy was so pronounced that the historian Richard Hofstadter called him “the Marx of the Master Class.” He was a Unitarian. So was Lothrop Stoddard, who vile books from the first twentieth century provide much of architecture for contemporary white supremacist thought–Tucker Carlson’s great replacement owes much to him. There was a Universalist minister who a leader in the Ku Klux Klan. And the founder of Klan wrote approvingly of Unitarianism in one of his books and idolized Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Now, you might argue that the devotees of this part of our tradition walked out the door in 1954 when Lavaniel, Sol, and Thelma became friends. And I hope that you would be right. But, of course, the story does not end there. While First Unitarian Universalist desegregated in 1954, it has never truly become a multi-racial congregation. Yes, we have always had African American members since Lavaniel joined. But the diversity of the congregation has never come close to approaching the diversity of the city.
As I shared with you back in February, there is a clue about why this has been the case in our archives. In July of 1954, a month after the congregational vote, the Board President wrote Rev. Westwood a letter. In it, the President of the Board’s name was William Gray, reports that members of the youth group had made some friends with kids in one of the African Methodist Episcopal churches over in Fourth Ward. The youth group wanted to go over to their friends’ church one Sunday and “explain to them all about Unitarianism and the meaning of our Resolution.”
The Mr. Gray assured Rev. Westwood that he had “discouraged” the leader of the youth group who had approached him. Mr. Gray told the young man, “such an action would be in the nature of proselytizing” and that was counter to “the spirit of the Resolution.” This congregation’s decision to desegregate did not “mean,” in his words, “that we were to go out looking for [African American] converts.”
Rev. Westwood apparently concurred with the Board President. He took no action to reach out to the Black community. He might welcome people like Lavaniel and the Allen family when they walked in the door. But he was not about to devote his energy to building a truly multiracial church. It might have been that losing ten percent of the membership and suffering from their bile had taken too much of a toll. It could have been that he was not ready to truly widen love’s circle. Maybe he and Mr. Gray were simply prisoners of their time–only able to see so far and do so much–just as we are bound by ours. And that they were only willing to do so much to oppose the South’s segregationist regime.
I do not know. But what I know is this, adopting the Eighth Principle as a congregation will challenge the Board and it will challenge me to make different decisions. It will explicitly commit the congregation, by extension the congregational leadership, building an anti-racist and multi-racial church. When we make the congregational budget, make decisions about programs and staffing, we will have to ask ourselves how we are being accountable to the Eighth Principle.
In this difficult hour, when white supremacy is resurgent across the state and throughout the country, there is little work that we could do that would be more important. There is little work that would be more transformational. And there is little that we could do which would better honor the spirits Lavaniel Henderson and Sol and Thelma Meltzer. All those years ago they helped this congregation start off on a spiritual journey towards wholeness. They started the work of turning First Unitarian Universalist into an anti-racist community devoted to widening the circle of love all. That we might continue on that journey, I invite the congregation to say Amen.