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Resistance and Transformation: Unitarian Universalist Social Justice History

A Tapestry of Faith Program for Adults


Grounded in the belief that even "failures" in our history can be instructive, this program presents the ongoing struggle of our tradition to live up to its ever-evolving ideals of social transformation. Themes include abolition, peace-making, civil rights, free speech, utopianism, counter-culture, the women’s movements of both 19th and 20th centuries, sexuality education, and LGBT equality.

About the Author

Rev. Colin Bossen, a graduate of Meadville-Lombard Theological School, was ordained by the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach in 2007 and currently serves as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland (Ohio). Colin is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist and a longtime social justice activist. He is a co-founder of the human rights and indigenous solidarity organization Colectivos de Apoyo, Solidaridad y Accion and a veteran of union organizing efforts in several cities. Colin is the co-author, with Dawn Starr Borchelt, of The Bridging Program (UUA, 2004). He, his wife Sara, and their two children live in the Coventry neighborhood of Cleveland Heights.

Rev. Julia Hamilton, a Harvard Divinity School graduate, was co-ordained in 2010 by the Unitarian Church in Summit (New Jersey) and the Fourth Universalist Society in the City of New York. Currently director of the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey, a statewide action network, in May, 2011 Julia begins serving the Santa Monica congregation as assistant minister. Previously, she was a WorshipWeb coordinator for the Unitarian Universalist Association and has preached in congregations in Massachusetts, New York, Louisiana, and New Jersey. Raised a Unitarian Universalist in New Orleans, Julia has returned to lead volunteer groups working to rebuild the city. Prior to ministry, Julia worked in theater and television, living in Los Angeles and New York City. Julia, her husband Adam, their daughter Cassia, and their cat Smeagol live in the historic downtown of Jersey City.


We would like to thank Neil McLean for setting us down the path of studying our Unitarian Universalist social justice legacy. Without him this program would never have come into being. We are grateful for our editor, Gail Forsyth-Vail. Without her patience, hard work, and helpful criticism, this project would be the lesser. The Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, the Rev. Farley Wheelwright, the Rev. Victor Carpenter, and the Rev. Gordon Gibson all read and offered advice on segments of this program. We appreciate their wise counsel; any mistakes that remain in the manuscript are wholly our own. We thank the family of the Rev. Albert D'Orlando and the First Unitarian Universalist Church in New Orleans, the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn, and Michael Ferber for sharing their stories with us.

Much of this work depended on information from the Unitarian Universalist archives at Andover Theological Library and the indispensable help of librarians Fran O'Donnell and Gloria Korsman. Additionally, we appreciate the support of our congregations and employers: the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, the Unitarian Church in Summit (New Jersey), and the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of New Jersey. Last, but not least, we thank our families for all the encouragement and love they have given us to complete this project.

We gratefully acknowledge the use with permission of the following material:

"Sharing the Floor: Some Strategies for Effective Group Facilitation," by Judith A. Frediani, from the website of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

"Embattled Faith," by Neil Shister, which appeared in the July/August 2003 issue of UU World.

"Prophetic Nonviolence" by Paul Rasor, which appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of UU World.

Fundraising brochure prepared by the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles in 1954.

"The Church and the Draft Resisters," a sermon preached by the Rev. Jack Mendelsohn on October 22, 1967 at Arlington Street Church, Boston.

Albert D'Orlando obituary from a March 3, 1998 New Orleans Times-Picayune article by Mark Schliefstein. The article is reprinted on the website of the annual D'Orlando Lecture on Social Justice.

"Southern Unitarian Universalists in the Civil Rights Era — A Story of Small Acts of Great Courage," edited and excerpted from a presentation by the Rev. Gordon D. Gibson under auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society at the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, June 23, 2000, Nashville, Tennessee.

"Characteristics of Racially Integrated Unitarian Universalist Congregations" by the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed.

"Honor Thy Womanself — The Caucus" and "Freedom," written by the Arlington Street Church Woman's Caucus and published in the "Honor Thy Womanself" program by the Unitarian Universalist Woman's Federation, 1973.

"Thirty Years of Feminist Transformation" by Kimberly French which originally appeared in UU World, Summer 2007. Copyright Kimberly French 2007.

"There was a Young Woman who Swallowed a Lie," by Meredith Tax, from the text of the Arlington Street Church Women's Caucus worship service.

"From Liberation to Health: The New UUA Sexuality Curriculum," by Dan Kennedy, originally published in UU World Sept/Oct 1999. Copyright 1999 by Dan Kennedy. All rights reserved.

"Loving Our Whole Lives," a sermon preached at the Unitarian Church of Montreal by the Rev. Diane Rollert, March 1, 2009.

"The Welcoming Congregation" by Donald E. Skinner, originally published in UU World, June 2, 2006.

"Benediction" from Telling Our Stories, Celebrating Ourselves by the Women and Religion Task Force. Published by the Pacific Central District, UUA, 1998.


Certain names and events related to our social justice legacy have become familiar to many Unitarian Universalists, even if we cannot recite the details: The March to Selma during the Civil Rights movement, the abolitionist stance of ministers like Theodore Parker and Ralph Waldo Emerson, the work of women like Susan B. Anthony toward gender equality. However, these "high-profile" cases provide just a glimpse of the rich and complicated history of Unitarian Universalist engagement with social change. This program moves beyond familiar stories into a deep exploration of our history. It provides an opportunity for those who are interested in transformative justice work to delve into primary source material, to hear stories less commonly told but just as important, and to make connections between this history and modern Unitarian Universalist practice.

Playwright Tony Kushner once said, "We must participate in the historical mistakes of our time." Unitarians, Universalists, and Unitarian Universalists have always been subject to the events, cultures, and understandings of the times in which we live and the struggles that define our era. We can find patterns of engagement and theological growth and examples of personal courage and institutional strength in the stories from our social justice history. We also find failures, disappointments, and ignorance. We can learn from it all. This program leads Unitarian Universalists to ask the justice questions that pertain to our lives, congregations, and society today, and provides models of action that inspire us to take on the social justice challenges of our era.

The Program

Once upon a time we were

Now we are

And some day (Hallelujah!) we shall surely become. — from "Some Day" by Margaret Williams Braxton

This program helps Unitarian Universalists delve deeper into the heart of their faith. Many people come to Unitarian Universalist congregations because of our movement's reputation for engaging in social justice work as a matter of faith. Too often, they learn little about the history of that engagement beyond what is taught in a new member class or offered in an occasional Sunday sermon. Unitarian Universalists who have grown up in this tradition may remember only a few pieces of our social justice history from children and youth religious education programs. Resistance and Transformation presents stories from our social justice history never before gathered in one place. Activities and questions for engagement and reflection deepen participants' understanding of the place social justice work holds in Unitarian Universalist heritage, culture, and identity.

This program is neither an all-inclusive history of the Unitarian Universalist social justice legacy nor a how-to primer on social activism. Rather, it offers a selection of stories, resources, and activities that synthesize ideas and action and blend history, theory, and practice. Participants will come away from these workshops with more knowledge about our past and a sense of how it continues to shape current Unitarian Universalist identity. The program offers vision and inspiration for future social justice work.

Resistance and Transformation consists of 16, 90-minute workshops that can each be extended to two hours. The workshops revolve around the stories of Unitarian, Universalist, or Unitarian Universalist people and congregations' involvement in social justice struggles. Each workshop encourages participants to think about their own involvement in social justice work and how the challenges, struggles, and choices of our religious forebears can inform our own choices today. Themes include:

  • The range of Unitarian and Universalist responses to slavery, and an examination of what it means to risk defying the law of the land
  • The question of pacifism within Unitarianism and Universalism, explored through stories of congregations and individuals that wrestled with decisions to support or oppose particular wars
  • Historic and contemporary experiments in forming utopian communities
  • Unitarian Universalist responses to anti-Communist fervor in American politics and society, following World War II
  • Unitarian Universalist involvement in the Civil Rights movement and the call for Black Empowerment within our Association, and the hard choices individuals, congregations, and denominational leadership made then
  • The Unitarian Universalist involvement in 20th- and 21st-century struggles for equality and justice, including the bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender movements, the women's movement, and the campaign for comprehensive sexuality education.

The workshops unfold events, issues, and challenges in our social justice history, telling the truth as best we know it and acknowledging that our forebears have at times acted in ways that make us proud of our tradition and at times made choices or acted in ways that are not in line with our religious values as we understand them today. This program challenges participants to engage with events and individuals from our history by asking good questions and discerning meaning for our own time. The concluding workshop affirms there are more Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist social justice themes and stories to uncover and invites participants to name some. May this program offer both inspiration and understanding as Unitarian Universalists faithfully face the challenges of our own time in our ongoing struggle for justice in the world.


This program will:

  • Present important themes, people, and events in Unitarian, Universalist, and Unitarian Universalist social justice history
  • Provide resources, including stories, background information, and primary source materials, to help participants engage with the questions and dilemmas that defined particular times in our history
  • Facilitate conversations on major areas of social justice work using a contemporary Unitarian Universalist perspective
  • Introduce a variety of strategies for conducting social justice work
  • Challenge participants to examine how they and their congregations can better put Unitarian Universalist values into action.


This program is well suited to being led by a team of two or more adults that includes a minister or religious education professional, but anyone with a passion for this material and a willingness to facilitate non-judgmental discussion can be a successful leader. Consistency of leadership offers many advantages; however, every workshop need not be led by the same facilitators.

While leaders need not be scholars of Unitarian Universalist history to lead this program, they will need basic knowledge of Unitarian Universalism. In addition, consider choosing workshop leaders who are:

  • Committed to the Unitarian Universalist Principles, the congregation, and the faith development components of this program
  • Willing and able to thoroughly prepare for each workshop
  • Effective at speaking, teaching, and facilitating group process
  • Flexible and willing to modify the workshop plans to support the full inclusion of all participants
  • Able to listen deeply and encourage each individual to participate
  • Able to exhibit respect for individuals, regardless of age, race, social class, gender identity, sexual orientation, and level of ability
  • Able to honor the life experiences each participant will bring to the program.


This program is for adults and older youth who want to learn more about the history of Unitarian Universalism, have an interest in social justice, and want to deepen their understanding of Unitarian Universalist identity.

Workshops can accommodate any number of participants, with six participants an ideal minimum. Workshops of fewer than six participants may do small group activities in the full group, or choose to do only a portion of those activities. The suggested maximum number of participants is 25; you will need at least three facilitators to accommodate a large group.


People with obvious and not-so-obvious disabilities need accommodation in order to participate fully. As a presenter, you may or may not be aware of a participant's need for accommodations. In addition to accommodating the accessibility needs of participants who request them, you are urged to follow these Accessibility Guidelines for Workshop Presenters for every activity.

  • Prepare a few large print copies of all handouts.
  • Write clearly and use large letters on newsprint. Use black or brown markers for maximum visibility (red and green are difficult for some to see).
  • Make a printed copy of information you plan to post on newsprint, to give to any who request it.
  • Face the group when you are speaking and urge others to do the same. Be aware of facial hair or hand gestures that may prevent or interfere with lip reading.
  • In a large space or with a large group of people, use a microphone for presentations and for questions and answers. If a particular activity will likely make it difficult for speakers to face those who are listening (e.g., a fishbowl, forced choice, or role play activity), obtain a portable microphone to pass from speaker to speaker.
  • In a brainstorm activity, repeat clearly any word or phrase generated by the group in addition to writing it on newsprint.
  • During small group work, position each group far enough from other groups to minimize noise interference.
  • Keep aisles and doorways clear at all times during a workshop so people with mobility impairments or immediate needs can exit the room easily.
  • Offer a variety of seating options, such as straight chairs, soft chairs, chairs with arms, and chairs without arms, so participants can find seating that best accommodates their needs.
  • When re-arranging furniture for small groups or other purposes, ensure clear pathways.
  • Enlist workshop participants in being vigilant about removing bags, books, coffee cups, and other obstacles from pathways.
  • Use the phrase "Rise in body or spirit" rather than "Please stand."
  • Use language that puts the person first, rather than the disability—for example, "a person who uses a wheelchair," rather than "a wheelchair-user"; "a child with dyslexia," rather than "a dyslexic child; "people with disabilities" rather than "the disabled."
  • Do not put individuals on the spot to read aloud. Avoid read-alouds that require everyone in the group to automatically take a turn. Request volunteers, or read the material yourself.
  • Ask in advance about participants' food allergies. Add to your group covenant an agreement to avoid bringing problem foods for snacks or to always offer an alternate snack food.
  • Ask in advance about allergies to scents or perfumes. If participants have allergies or sensitivities, invite members of the group to refrain from wearing perfumes and add this agreement to your covenant.

The Unitarian Universalist Association website and staff can offer guidance for including people with specific disabilities; consult the Accessibility section of the UUA website. In addition, some workshop activities suggest specific adaptation under the heading "Including All Participants."

Participants bring a wide range of learning styles and information processing preferences. With this in mind, the workshops offer a variety of activities. Review each workshop's Alternate Activities. Plan each workshop to best suit the group.

Downloading the Document

You can download this program, save it on your computer, edit it, and print it. Or, you can download individual sessions or workshops.

About the Authors

Colin Bossen

Colin Bossen

The Rev. Colin Bossen is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Harvard University. He served as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, Ohio, from 2007 to 2012. He writes at Rev. Colin Bossen is minister of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, Ohio. Rev. Colin...

Julia Hamilton

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