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America's Original Sin

Small Group Ministry Session Plan

Developed by Peter Bowden

Based on Soul Work: Anti-racist Theologies in Dialogue
edited by Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Nancy Palmer Jones

Opening Ritual


In January of 2001, the Unitarian Universalist Association convened a three-day consultation on theology and anti-racism to deepen our collective understanding of the theology of anti-racism. Our session today draws on readings from the book Soul Work, which captures the thoughts and feelings of the thirty ministers, theologians, scholars, teachers, and activists who participated in this event.

Opening Words

In our opening words from Soul Work, Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt tells of a meeting she had with Coretta Scott King, the wife of Dr. Martin Luther King:

During an hour of wide-ranging conversation, I mentioned to Mrs. King that I was in seminary to become a Unitarian Universalist minister. What frankly surprised me was the look she gave me, one of respect and delight.

“Oh, I went to Unitarian churches for years, even before I met Martin,” she told me, explaining that she had been, since college, a member of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, which was popular among Unitarian Universalists. “And Martin and I went to Unitarian churches when we were in Boston.”

What surprised and saddened me most was what she said next, and though I am paraphrasing, the gist of it was this: “We gave a lot of thought to becoming Unitarian at one time, but Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian.”



Some have called racism and slavery “America’s original sin.” According to Rev. Marjorie Bowens-Wheatley and Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones, the editors of Soul Work,

Individual Unitarian Universalists and some Unitarian Universalist congregations have been engaged in racial justice work for decades, but only since the 1992 General Assembly resolution entitled ‘Racial and Cultural Diversity in Unitarian Universalism’ has the Unitarian Universalist Association made a sustained effort to address racism as a systemic issue . . . . In the ensuing years, as leaders and participants continued ever-deeper engagement in the work, it became clear that the spiritual dimension of anti-racism is of critical importance.

Discussing racism is challenging. It has challenged our leaders and our institutions. We, as a group, should expect no less. However, we have a distinct advantage. Our small group has been formed for the sole purpose of engaging in the honest reflection, personal sharing, and deep listening that the spiritual work of anti-racism so desperately calls for.

Our opening words remind us of the reality that our congregations have been, and are today, predominantly white. Soul Work identifies small groups such as ours as a natural place for Unitarian Universalists to engage in the spiritual work of anti-racism. We will begin our exploration by focusing on our individual histories with race.


  • What do you know of your family’s racial, ethnic, religious, and national background? When did you first become aware of your own race or ethnicity?
  • In Soul Work, Bill Jones writes, “The fact that something is invisible to us does not mean that it does not exist.” It is often hard to see racism that manifests in the norms of the institutions we are affiliated with. Reflect for a moment on our congregation’s worship services and other offerings. What assumptions do these offerings make of those attending? What do they communicate to those visiting with us for the first time?
  • When we gather as a group we our engaging in an intentional spiritual practice. Discussing race and racism in our group is one way to work with the spiritual dimension of anti-racism. How might we integrate anti-racism into the other spiritual practices we engage in?

Likes & Wishes

Closing Words

Our closing words from Soul Work are from Rev. Rebecca Parker:

The struggle is imperative. Racial injustice is not only a tragedy that happened yesterday, whose aftereffects can be safely viewed from behind the glass windows of one’s high-powered vehicle; racial injustice is currently mutating and re-creating itself. Its dehumanizing effects are harming hundreds of thousands of lives.

Closing Ritual

Groups often design their own closing rituals. On prepared sessions this may be simply listed as an element of the session.

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This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.

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