2022 Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism: Rev. Dr. William G. Sinkford

Presented by the UUA to the Rev. Dr. William G. Sinkford

The Rev. William Sinkford has a long history in Unitarian Universalism. He first joined our movement when his family moved to Cincinnati and became active at First Church there. Eventually, Bill joined Liberal Religious Youth (LRY), and by 1965-1966, he was elected president of Continental LRY. Many of our respected ministers and lay leader elders came out of that era of LRY. Like some of those same elders, he left our faith for a time, during the Black Empowerment walkout of the late 1960s, but eventually returned to his spiritual home.

After graduating from Harvard, Bill joined the private sector and worked in marketing, but he’d always planned to go to seminary and become a parish minister. He finally did that, moving with his family to California to attend Starr King School for the Ministry, where he graduated in 1995.

Near the end of his seminary training, Bill became the head of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Congregational, District and Extension Services Department. In this role, he travelled extensivelylis—listening, showing up, and gaining a deep understanding of our congregations and their needs. In those years, he was a powerful influence in every development at the Association.

Rev. Sinkford was urged by people from nearly every part of Unitarian Universalism to run for UUA President. With his election in 2001, he became the first Black person to head a primarily white denomination in the United States. Being a First is a mixed blessing and the years of his presidency were a testimony to that. He was expected to represent all UUs and to transform us; yet it was an expectation that he often fulfilled.

Rev. Sinkford ran for President on a platform that urged a greater presence in the public square. He didn’t have long to wait—his first visit to Washington DC took place on Sept. 11, 2001. One of the pre-scheduled meetings for that trip was with the American Muslim Council (AMC). Because the AMC’s board had been unable to leave town because of national flight cancellations, Bill met with all of them for several hours on September 12th. He formed a bond with the AMC board members that lasted throughout his presidency, and the experience cemented his commitment to interfaith work.

Rev. Sinkford and our movement were in the public eye again when, in 2003, he was interviewed—and misquoted—by the Fort Worth Star Telegram in speaking about the need for “a language of reverence.” The resulting dialogue—some might say firestorm—brought new attention to the many spiritual commitments of our congregations and their members.

One of the most public roles Unitarian Universalists played during Rev. Sinkford’s presidency came during the early struggles for marriage equality. Massachusetts was a center of that movement because of a lawsuit brought there. Several of the plaintiffs were members of Unitarian Universalist congregations and one was a UUA employee. Our Association was clear and public with its stance: “Civil Marriage is a Civil Right.” When that right was won, and marriage licenses issued in 2004, it was Rev. Sinkford who officiated at the wedding of the lead plaintiffs, Hillary and Julie Goodridge, at the Association’s historic headquarters at 25 Beacon St.

When his presidential term ended in 2009, Rev. Sinkford was called to First Church in Portland, Oregon as its Senior Minister. It’s rare for someone to find themselves embracing a long-delayed desire, but Bill is a rare person. He loved the role of parish minister, serving well and faithfully until his retirement just this month. He has also served on and chaired the board of Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago. And, he has continued to serve the broader Unitarian Universalist community as well, with the support of the Portland congregation in Portland. When the Association’s president resigned in 2017, three months before the end of the term, the UUA Board of Trustees called upon Rev. Sinkford again—this time, to join the Rev. Sofia Betancourt and Leon Spencer as interim Co-Presidents. In this difficult and crucial period, Bill enthusiastically served our Association again, with special attention to UUA staff needs. And no matter where he is, or what he is doing, Bill retains his ongoing commitment to our movement’s communities of color, particularly our religious professionals, with whom he has been both kind and wise, as well as generous with his time.

Our movement’s gratitude to the Rev. William Sinkford is broad and deep. His love for our faith and its practices, his commitment to justice and service, and his enduring spiritual courage exemplifies for all of us what it really means to be a religious leader. It brings me great joy to honor you for all you have done for Unitarian Universalism, Bill, and to thank you for your distinguished service to our faith.