Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Faith Like a River: A Program on Unitarian Universalist History for Adults

What Makes a Creed

Adapted from the Tapestry of Faith story "James Luther Adams," by Jessica York.

Present the story Introduction and Part I, reading aloud up to the point marked "STOP." Then, lead a role play and discussion as instructed in Alternate Activity 3, Description of Activity. Following the discussion, read the conclusion of the story (Part II) aloud.


Unitarian Universalism is a living faith. We think that people should be free to believe what they must believe—the truth of their life experiences—instead of professing belief in what they are told to believe. This is what we mean when we say ours is a "creedless" religion. Creeds are often associated with "orthodoxy," or "straight teaching." Those who do not agree with the beliefs stated in the creed are often labeled as "heterodoxical," or even "heretical."

Being a living faith means that any one of us can change what we believe, if we experience a deeper truth that contradicts our previous beliefs. But in order to change, we must be open to new thoughts, new ideas, and new experiences. We have to have our ears open to hear the experiences of the people with whom we share community. There is a saying that people were created with two ears and one mouth because we should listen twice as much as we speak. When we come together in community, we have the opportunity to listen to each other and gain a perspective greater than what we would have alone.

Sometimes we listen with our ears. When you are a part of a sacred, beloved community you listen not only with your ears, but also with your heart.

Part I

In 1948, most congregations and houses of worship in the United States were segregated by the color of their members' skin. Some were segregated by law; others by custom or by a lack of actively trying to welcome and include all people. The First Unitarian Society of Chicago was one of these congregations. Although their church was located in a neighborhood with many African Americans, only whites could join, according to the written bylaws of the church, and according to custom.

The day came that many members began to believe that if they really wanted to live their values and principles, they needed to take action against racism. The minister, the Reverend Leslie Pennington, was ready for this day and ready to take action. So was James Luther Adams, a well-known and respected liberal theologian and social ethicist. Adams taught at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, right across the street from the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. And he was a member of the congregation's Board of Directors.

Reverend Pennington and James Luther Adams joined with others to propose a change in the church's bylaws to desegregate the church. They saw this as a way to put their love into action.

But in 1948, desegregation—in fact, anything about skin color and racism—was controversial. Some people, even some of those who supported African Americans in demanding their civil liberties, believed in a separate, but equal policy.

When the congregation's Board considered the desegregation proposal, most of them supported it. However, one member of the Board objected. "Your new program is making desegregation into a creed," he said. "You are asking everyone in our church to say they believe desegregating, or inviting, even recruiting people of color to attend church here, is a good way to tackle racism. What if some members don't believe this?"

Respectful debate ensued at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. Both sides felt, in their hearts, that their belief was right. Perhaps they were so busy trying to be heard they forgot to listen. And so, they kept on talking.

(Facilitator: Stop here. If you choose to, stage a role play of the preceding part of the story, as described in Alternate Activity 3, What Makes a Creed?)

Part II

The debate went on in the Board of Directors' meeting until the early hours of the morning. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Finally, James Luther Adams remembered that we should be listening twice as much as talking. He asked the person who had voiced the strongest objection, "What do you say is the purpose of this church?"

Suddenly, everyone was listening. Everyone wanted to hear the answer to this crucial question. Probably, the person who objected was listening especially hard to his own heart, as well as to the words he had heard from other Board members through the long discussion.

The Board member who opposed opening the church to people of color finally replied. "Okay, Jim. The purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them."

The First Unitarian Society of Chicago successfully desegregated.

About the Author

Jessica York

Jessica York is the Director of Congregational Life at the Unitarian Universalist Association. During her fifteen plus years as a religious educator she has served on the Liberal Religious Educators Association’s Integrity Team, the MidSouth District’s RE Committee, and the...

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