2004 Recipient: Rev. Robert Nelson West

UUA President Sinkford announced that the 2004 Distinguished Service to Unitarian Universalism Award is granted to the Rev. Robert Nelson West. West, who was not able to be present at GA due to a longstanding family commitment, was elected President of the UUA in 1969 from a field of seven candidates, and he served in that capacity until 1977. Those were turbulent times, Sinkford said, with the UUA's finances in chaos, the Black Empowerment movement challenging us, the Vietnam War tearing us apart. West, though, kept his eyes on the larger prize as he shepherded the UUA through staff reductions, rebuilding of the annual program fund, and keeping faith with the discussion on race even as it appeared that the movement stepped back from that important issue. He had the courage to support Beacon Press in publishing The Pentagon Papers, and his work made our finances sound and our spirit of faith renewed enough so that his successors could do the rebuilding of the institutions.

Many of the decisions West made, said Sinkford, caused him deep pain. "He always had the best interests of the Association in mind, and we handled the differences of opinion badly." Sinkford noted that time has headled many of these wounds and that "these days, Bob West returns frequently to 25 Beacon Street, and his contributions to our work on civil liberties are welcome." Sinkford told delegates that "what we do now would not be possible without Bob West's preservation of our Association." Sinkford said, "Let us learn from him to trust leaders at every level," and added that her personally thanked West, and apologized to him for the treatment he had received in the past. "May we name his return to us a blessing," Sinkford said, adding that the award would be presented to West this fall in Boston.

Statement and Citation

By the Rev. William G. Sinkford, UUA President, delivered at the UUA General Assembly, June 27, 2004, Long Beach, California

This year's recipient of the DSA is the Rev. Dr. Robert Nelson West.

Bob cannot be with us here in Long Beach. He is officiating at a long scheduled family wedding on the east coast. We understand, because these days we know how important weddings can be.

The UUA Board will present him with this award in person during their October meeting in Boston.

Let me read to you, from the award citation, the reason for his selection.

After Bob's distinguished career in parish ministry, serving the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville, TN (1956-63) and the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, NY (1963-1969), influential Unitarian Universalists urged him to run for the UUA Presidency. He was elected in 1969, from a field of seven candidates, and served until 1977.

Bob led our Association through what were, without a doubt, its most difficult years. Our finances were in chaos. He had to drastically reduce UUA staff, attempt to preserve and rebuild our endowment and revitalize the Annual Program Fund. What has been called the "Black Empowerment Controversy" was tearing our eight-year-old blended family of faith apart. The Vietnam War was contentious in our congregations. And Association membership was in sharp decline.

Despite the draconian financial decisions he had to make, Bob always kept his eyes on the larger social goals and purposes of liberal religion. While it appeared to many that Unitarian Universalist retreated from engagement with the difficult issue of race, he kept faith with the quest for racial justice. He had the great courage to publish the Pentagon Papers. He left the finances of the Association sound and the spirit of our faith renewed enough so that his successors could begin the process of rebuilding.

Many of the decisions he made caused him genuine pain. Though with hindsight, we can imagine other possible decisions, we know that Bob always had the best interests of the Association in mind. But also with hindsight, Unitarian Universalism handled our disagreements badly. Bob suffered abuse that was shameful, especially in a religious community. It took its toll. After the Presidency, Bob moved away from active relationship with our faith and worked in the private sector, as an administrator in two prominent Boston law firms. Thankfully, he now frequently returns as a visitor to 25 Beacon St. and is a welcomed contributor to our work on civil liberties and our history.

This award honors Robert West for the faithful stewardship he exercised in his leadership. Our success now would not be possible had he not preserved this institution through those difficult days. Let us learn from his years as our President to trust the good will of those we select for leadership, at every level. We thank him, and apologize to him and name his renewed presence among us as a blessing.