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Unitarian Universalists Denounce White Supremacy, Make Leadership Changes

Jun 24, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now a different take on believers struggling to adjust to this moment in America. Earlier this week, one of the most liberal churches in the country, the Unitarian Universalists, met to re-examine how their decades-long commitment to social justice may be undermined by the lack of diversity in their membership. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: A high point in the Unitarian history of supporting civil rights came in 1965, when hundreds of Unitarian ministers from across the country joined Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. The black people they marched with were impressed.

MEL HOOVER: And we said, there's some white people who really want justice.

GJELTEN: Reverend Mel Hoover, who leads a congregation in West Virginia, told that story at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in New Orleans this week. After that Selma march, he said, thousands of African-Americans joined the church. He recalled one such assembly back then where a third of those people attending were people of color.

HOOVER: And we couldn't handle it in this association. We weren't strong enough then to find a way into relationship with one another.

GJELTEN: Today, the Unitarian Universalist Association is one of the least diverse denominations in the country. Over 80 percent of the members are white. It's an embarrassing record for a church long-identified with progressive causes. An effort is now underway to change it, but it's been difficult.

Some Unitarian congregations embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, others did not. Faced with a rebellion over hiring policies that seemed to favor whites, several top church leaders were forced to resign. Sofia Betancourt, one of three co-presidents who took over, told the assembly delegates that their church's problem is a mentality of white supremacy.

SOFIA BETANCOURT: That extends and spreads to a culture of domination that impacts everyone.

GJELTEN: At a time when so much attention is focused on white nationalist extremists and the alt-right movement, the idea of Unitarian Universalists as white supremacists may seem far-fetched. But in an interview, Sofia Betancourt said she's talking about the very water we swim in.

BETANCOURT: It's not about whether an individual person considers themselves a white supremacist. It's about how we're all influenced by the everyday messages we receive in our culture, by decisions that we make without even really thinking about it.

GJELTEN: Betancourt told the assembly that her board has commissioned what they're calling a racism audit. Among those white church leaders who will have to deal with the conclusions is Rob Eller Isaacs.

ROB ELLER ISAACS: That means not shrinking when I'm afraid I'm going to be called a racist, patriarchal, old minister.

GJELTEN: One of the challenges that come with a leadership position these days in what's probably the most liberal denomination in America. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL BUHO'S "CINDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.