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Congregations Respond to Racism, Oppression

When Debra Gray Boyd of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, OH, went to the microphone on the last day of General Assembly (GA)  in June and invited all other Unitarian Universalists (UU) to do something about racism before the next GA they pretty much did what she said.

Hundreds of them went home and either got behind existing antiracism and antioppression programs in their congregations or started new ones. Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator Gini Courter, who has spoken to many groups since GA, says that Boyd's request, which became a GA resolution, was taken to heart. "I'm blown away by the number of congregations that are picking up the GA resolution and running with it," she says. "I'd guess that at least half of our congregations are actively responding to it."

What does it take to get a congregation involved in antiracism work? It could be one committed individual such as Sarah Berel-Harrop of the Unitarian Fellowship of Houston.

At GA 2005 she was moved by an antiracism workshop she attended. At GA 2006 it was Boyd's resolution that compelled her to bring an antiracism dialogue to her congregation. This fall she helped organize a group that read the book Soul Work. The group plans to present a worship service on what it learned. The congregation also participated in the Amnesty International weekend of faith on the death penalty and has incorporated information about racism into worship services. It also purchased the course "Weaving the Fabric of Diversity" and will present it next spring.

Berel-Harrop, partly inspired by the resolution and partly by her own experiences, felt driven to become involved with antiracism work—and to involve others. "There were some members I approached," she says, "who expressed a similar attitude toward antiracism as they did about Welcoming Congregation—'Aren't we past that? Aren't we already antiracist?'" She says she hopes that people who respond to the resolution will do more than just work on a specific issue. "Part of the problem as I see it is a desire to equate antiracism with some kind of advocacy. That's to some degree a way of avoiding introspection into how oppressive systems work and where we fit into them."

The First Unitarian Church of Portland, OR, began seven initiatives in response to the resolution. They include a church audit on barriers to diversity, adult classes on antioppression, and a workshop entitled "Class Matters." It has also created and will begin selling a documentary, Heart Beat of the People, which shows how the arts can help change racist attitudes. First Unitarian has also called a third minister, Leela Sinha, to help create an alternative worship service that will intentionally appeal to young adults and communities of color.

Debra Boyd's congregation in Columbus sent several youth to two district antiracism trainings and they will share their experiences and also hold a discussion about the PBS show "Race, the Power of an Illusion." Two youth groups plan to see and discuss antiracism movies as well.

Boyd says she was moved to stand up at GA and make the plea for antiracism work because of a group of youth, who, just before she spoke, talked about discrimination they had experienced at GA. Says Boyd, "I was very moved by them. They spoke very clearly about the need for all of us to address this issue in a very active way. This is important spiritual work for us to do individually and collectively."


Resources for congregations wanting to engage in antiracist, antioppression, and multicultural endeavors are available through the Office of Racial and Ethic Concerns. More information is at the UU Allies for Racial Equality website.

Email stories about what your congregation is doing to respond to these issues: ResponsiveResolution06 [at] uua [dot] org.

About the Author

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner

Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.

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