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Ware Lecture by Rev. Dr. James Forbes, General Assembly 2001

General Assembly 2001 Event 4035

Speaker: Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Riverside Church, NY

Rev. James Forbes Calls for Recruitment of Human Race Activists

Rev. Dr. James Forbes, senior minister of New York's Riverside Church, echoed the theme of "calling" at the 2001 General Assembly by calling for the recruitment of human race activists.

Why the need for "serious, unapologetic, radical human race activists"? Why is it the time for progressive religious faiths to encourage and recruit such activism? Forbes told of his visit to South Africa in 1994, during the freedom election, and his insight that the South Africans, black and white, would have to meet the challenge of learning to be neighbors. Then, on returning to the United States, he looked around at deep problems of racism: the erosion of affirmative action while affirmative action for the in-group continues; the increased mean-spiritedness; the closing of gates between communities; the increasing disparities in income despite gains in general prosperity. He likened today's racism to the story of Antaeus and Hercules: wrestled to the ground, Antaeus continues to rise again. And so it is with racism: the work of the 1950s and 1960s wrestled racism to the ground, but it rises again. The need, then, for human race activists continues.

The qualities of the human race activist Forbes described as including:

  • Knows that race is a myth
  • Until the idea of race is eliminated, resonates with those who are different
  • Is sensitive to injustice and is willing to do something about it
  • Seeks to dismantle barriers between persons: race, sex, gender, differently abled, etc.
  • Promotes at least basic subsistence to support human dignity
  • Has a thick enough skin to deal with the inconveniences of inclusiveness
  • Is willing to sacrifice personal wealth and comfort for the vision
  • Is willing to risk major surgery in the body politic for the health of society
  • Says something!
  • Has enough courage to press for justice and respect

Why, Forbes then asked, is it necessary to press for such a vision? He recounted a story from 1961, when he was newly able to sit down at a lunch counter—but the white woman who had been sitting there moved away, left the store. Will white Americans act similarly when they are no longer the majority? Human race activists must be recruited, because so many white Americans will have an automatic reaction of fear, of moving away.

What will it take, then, to empower such activists, to "achieve fruitfulness?" A deep awareness, for a start. Unitarian Universalists (UUs), Forbes said, already know something that many religious people don't know, to have been so successful as a small denomination having such a large effect on the world. Discovering what takes people from where they are to where they can be transformed and where they can transform society—to narrow the gap between creeds and deeds—this, Forbes said, UUs know and need to learn to teach others.

Fruitfulness will also take what Forbes called "improving the comfort/commitment ratio," pointing to the Biblical story of Jonah as an example of unwillingness to sacrifice comfort for commitment. It will also take willingness to giving oneself to the powers that transcend the individual, whether one calls it God, love, life, the collective unconscious. Forbes quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., defining the holy spirit as the continually creating community.

Telling a story about a heart transplant, Forbes closed by a call to understand that "the heart that beats here is the heart that beats there."

Forbes said he was struck, after attending a workshop on the Black Empowerment Controversy, with the critical engagement of audience and presenters "a trademark of your association." Forbes also thanked the Unitarian Universalists for "being willing to have your hearts broken" in that 1968 controversy, for providing, in the wake of the April 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., "a place to scream rage, not into silent skies," not by rioting in the streets. Forbes also expressed his excitement at being at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly in the year of the election of the UUA's first African American president, Rev. William Sinkford.

Rev. John Buehrens introduced Rev. Forbes. From the Pentecostal tradition to the distinction of being the first African American senior minister of the historically progressive Riverside Church in New York, Forbes stands as an exemplar of public ministry, reaching out to New York and to the whole American religious community.

The Ware Lecture, an annual presentation at the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly, is a long-standing tradition, originally founded by Unitarians in honor of the Ware family. The selection of Henry Ware, Sr., as chair of Harvard in the early 19th century helped precipitate the crisis that led to the founding in the 1820s of American Unitarianism as a separate faith.

Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis.