Rev. William Sinkford at General Assembly. © 2016 Nancy Pierce/UUA
Yesterday’s announcement of new interim leadership for the Unitarian Universalist Association is but a first step in healing and changing our association. I was particularly heartened by the choice of Rev. William Sinkford — the association’s first African American president (2001–2009) — to lead the UUA until a new president is chosen at General Assembly. No one is better prepared to lead us through this time of reflection and change.
At General Assembly last year, Rev. Sinkford delivered the sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition, and his words have stayed with me. Here’s how UUWorld described Sinkford’s sermon:
Former UUA President Bill Sinkford urged Unitarian Universalists in his sermon to “confront hard truths we would rather avoid” and to see themselves “not as the already conscious waiting for others to wake up,” but as activists more willing to join Black Lives Matter protests, Pride parades, and, generally, “not to look away this time.”
Of the history and legacy of Unitarians and Universalists between the mid-1960s and today regarding racial justice work, Sinkford said, “Our faith looked away. We did not ‘stay woke.’ There is no innocence left for any of us.” He pointed to a possible brighter future, saying, “Resistance is what love looks like in the face of hate. Resistance is what love looks like in the face of violence.”
The Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, one of 45 newly fellowshipped ministers and minister of the UU Congregation of South Fork in New York, said after the service, “I appreciate how energetic the worship feels, but I also feel discomfort, as it seems like the music, largely from black traditions, makes our faith look different than what we really are.”
Johnson also praised Sinkford’s words about the Black Empowerment Controversy of the 1960s, after which hundreds of black UUs left the faith. In his sermon, Sinkford, who is black, referred to the controversy as “a fit of white entitlement,” receiving laughs and enthusiastic cheers from many in attendance.
I was one of those cheering. I thought the laughter was of the nervous embarrassed sort, the way you laugh when someone points out that your fly is down. Bill Sinkford wasn’t making a joke. This was truth-telling of the highest order.
Sinkford began his powerful sermon with a description of his youthful encounter with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who delivered the Ware Lecture at the 1966 General Assembly. The video of Sinkford’s sermon is worth watching in its entirety (24:39).
To me, Sinkford’s point was that Unitarian Universalism didn’t merely miss an opportunity in the 1960s—we blew it. If you study what happened during the Black Empowerment Controversy, which broke over UUism in 1967 and has hurt us ever since, you’ll understand why questions of diversity are so sensitive and important within the UUA—and in our congregation—today. [Books have been written about the Empowerment Controversy, but you can read brief account of it here.]
As a denomination built from the ground up at the congregational level, before we criticize the UUA, we must examine our own house first. Don’t look away! Stay woke. And let’s not fall into another fit of white entitlement.