Nathan C. Walker
It is an honor to serve as the minister of your sister congregation, the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia established in 1796. The founder, Joseph Priestley was known for preaching about the inequities of slave trade. Our first minister, William Furness was known for having armed guards at his side while preaching abolitionist sermons. In the mid-20th century, a young student came to our sanctuary to learn about how Mahatma Gandhi adopted the philosophy of a famous Unitarian, Henry David Thoreau. That theory was non-violent civil disobedience. That student was Martin Luther King Jr. who later met his wife, Corretta, at a Unitarian church in Boston. These are but a few of many positive and liberating stories in our history. Today, my intention is to publicly uplift part of our humbling past.
During his Presidency, Ulysses S. Grant assigned twenty Christian denominations to designate clergy to serve as U.S. Indian Agents. The American Unitarian Association was assigned the Ute Indians in Colorado, and for almost a decade the AUA funded two agencies on the Ute reservation. In 1879, a conflict between the Utes and Agent Nathan Meeker led to a massacre. In response, Congress invalidated previous peace treaties and stripped the Utes from their twelve million acres of land.
This last Sunday, we invited historian Dr. Ted Fetter to lead a worship service dedicated to this story (Read Sermon (PDF)). We spoke the truth about how Unitarians served as civil-appointed missionaries: as agents of cultural imperialism. Today, we are committed to admitting our participation in cultural and religious conquest. We take responsibility for telling this history so as not to exempt us from historic and systemic racism.
This last June at our General Assembly of congregations, the President Bill Sinkford came before leaders of the Ute Tribe to acknowledge this history and to sincerely apologize. He did so as part of our commitment to the spiritual practice of truth, repair and reconciliation.
I believe we must be just as vigorous about highlighting our negative history, as we are enthusiastic about uplifting our legacy of liberation. In doing so, we collectively take responsibility for the sins of the past, and teach ourselves and future generations how not repeat such tragedies.
In the name of all those who came before us, in the name of all those who will come after us, "may we use our power to heal with love, to help with compassion, to bless with joy, and to serve the spirit of freedom," on this day and all the days to come.
Originally delivered at an Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Worship Service, November 25, 2009.
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Last updated on Wednesday, February 27, 2013.
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