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2007 Recipient: Dr. Leon Spencer
Born and raised in the segregated community of Savannah, Georgia, in the late 1940s, Leon E. Spencer first glimpsed a crucial part of his future in the local black newspaper, via an ad that proclaimed, "You may be a Unitarian and not know it." But it was not until his military training took him to Germany in the 1960s that he encountered the small fellowship that would be his genuine introduction to Unitarian Universalism. Amid this military setting, Leon Spencer found in that local fellowship a place for himself as well as Inge, the German woman who would become his wife in 1967, at a time when laws still existed that forbade marriage across racial lines.
By 1970, Leon, along with Inge and their children, had been transferred by the military to Dayton, Ohio, where they sought a congregation with the kind of religious education that would encourage the liberal religious values they wanted their children to experience. The Dayton UU church was such a place. There the Spencer family flourished, and Leon Spencer found a hint of the grandeur of our religious faith. His service on the congregation's board, with its RE program and on its social justice committee solidified his commitment to our free faith, and Leon Spencer never looked back.
Transferred once again to Germany in the mid 1970s, Leon worked with a British Unitarian minister to co-found the European Unitarian Universalist Conference, a precursor to the International Conference of Unitarian Universalists created to connect expatriate UUs living throughout Europe. During the same period, Leon worked in a variety of social action programs to help military members and their families address issues as varied as race relations, equal opportunity and substance abuse, work that has shaped his professional life as well as his service to Unitarian Universalism ever since.
It was Leon's professional training, including a doctorate in education as a counseling psychologist, that first exposed him to the work of family systems theory, including his work with the family therapy pioneer Virginia Satir. Rooted in a clinical tradition that taught him to see deeply, to understand ingrained patterns, and to cultivate the love, patience and clarity it takes to help others become more fully human, Spencer has for many years moved seamlessly between his chosen career and his chosen faith. Whether it has been helping to identify the roots of racism and other oppressions in individuals or in our religious movement, even when the task has been hampered by unrealistic expectations or by the very oppression he has worked to dismantle, Spencer has proved himself again and again to be a skilled diagnostician, a principled advocate, a warm, direct and loving healer.
His groundbreaking work in racial concerns became focused in 1985 with his service on the Black Concerns Working Group, initially charged with changing racial attitudes outside Unitarian Universalism. But the working group soon shifted the focus much closer to home, and Spencer helped to draft and implement a host of educational materials about race for use in UU congregations. In the following years, Spencer co-chaired the UUA's Racial and Cultural Diversity Taskforce, and fostered an ongoing conversation in our movement about issues of racial justice, the linking of oppressions, and the ways in which all of us might honor our multiple identities and act justly in our world.
It is this work of justice and wholeness has grounded Leon Spencer's commitment to Unitarian Universalism throughout his life. But it is our entire movement that has reaped the benefits. In his work on the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Team, in his eight years of service on the UUA Board of Trustees from the Thomas Jefferson District, and even in his efforts to change that district's name from Thomas Jefferson to Southeastern (an unsuccessful act that brought our entire movement to a deeper consciousness about our complex history) all of us are blessed by the work of this man, called to speak the truth with both integrity and an abiding respect for every person. Unitarian Universalism continues to become a better and larger religious home for so many because of Leon Spencer's steadfast and loving insistence that we live into the promise of our faith. It is with great pride and pleasure that we award the 2007 Distinguished Service Award to Dr. Leon Spencer.