The Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Association

Reflections from the President of the UUA

March/April 2000

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The office where the UUA president works is magnificent. Stretching across the front of the building, it has—among other things—a fireplace, wood paneling, a chandelier, antique furniture, and portraits of important Unitarian and Universalist forebears. The first time my mother came to visit, she looked up from her wheelchair and shook her finger, saying, “just don’t let it go to your head.”

In this office I work surrounded by a “great cloud of witnesses,” in the biblical phrase. One of them is an African American face from our history.

Directly opposite my desk hangs the photograph of the Rev. Lewis McGee. In 1953, when the US Supreme Court began deliberating school desegregation, McGee was, I believe, one of only two active ministers of color on either the Unitarian or Universalist side of our family. Strong enough in his opinions to move from the African Methodist Episcopal ministry to Unitarianism (he first discovered us by reading a Unitarian magazine he discovered while on the job delivering mail!), McGee was also, as friends testify, “a gentleman in every sense of the term,” with a warm sense of humor and a deep love of life. A religious humanist, he studied at Meadville/Lombard Theological School, then started a liberal congregation on Chicago’s South Side, the Free Religious Fellowship. Later he was associate minister in Los Angeles, working with the Rev. Stephen Fritchman.

Once a month, a staff team, including me, gathers around the big conference table in my office. We bring together resources from the various UUA departments to make sure we deal with every person of color interested in our ministry in the best way we can collectively manage. Lewis McGee watches over us as we help students find internships, arrange for mentoring with other ministers of color, discuss extension opportunities and congregations searching for ministers.

Most important, we try to make sure each person is dealt with as an individual human being—with strengths, weaknesses, vocational preferences, family issues, and the rest—and not as a token or a trophy. It would be easy for a still overwhelmingly white religious movement to fall into tokenism—that is, if we weren’t working to be truly antiracist and multicultural; if our only goal were “diversity” and not justice and fairness.

The procedure is simply to be attentive, human, and humane. It recognizes that every minister of color entering a denomination where most power and privilege are still held by whites is taking a risk.

It certainly was a risk for Lewis McGee. Despite several attempts, he had a hard time getting called to an established Unitarian or Universalist congregation on his own. Only in 1961, the year of Unitarian and Universalist consolidation, did he become the first minister of color called to a predominantly white UU congregation. And that took an act of renunciation. The Rev. Richard Boeke resigned his own first settlement, as minister of the UU Fellowship of Chico, CA, so that McGee could be called as his successor.

Last year, five ministers of color were called to UU congregations through the regular settlement process. At last count, there were nearly 50 ministers of color in fellowship with the UUA. The staff team helps track some 25 candidates of color who are contemplating entering our ministry.

We make progress, but slowly. We will never achieve justice in our own midst, much less help our society deal with the larger realities of racism, unless we learn to talk about our own power and privilege, not just someone else’s prejudice. Giving up some of that power and privilege won’t kill us. It’s needed.

Antiracism, we have learned, is also about just paying attention to people as real people. Lewis McGee didn’t always get that kind of attention. We try to make sure that the women and men who follow in his footsteps today will. With them, more and more of them, may we walk together on what is aptly called our “Journey toward Wholeness.”

Yours faithfully,

John Buehrens, President
Unitarian Universalist Association

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