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Exhibit features D.C. church's activist clergy

All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington celebrates 186 years of clergy activism.
By Jane Greer

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Social justice exhibit panel

A panel featuring the Rev. A. Powell Davies from an exhibit showing the social justice commitments of the 24 senior ministers of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy of All Souls Church, Unitarian, Washington, D.C.)

Washington, D.C., as our nation’s capital, has been the stage upon which much of the country’s social justice history has played out. And All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., has been a regular player on that stage. Since its 1821 founding by such American historical figures as John Quincy Adams and John C. Calhoun, its ministers have been especially vocal in lobbying for causes ranging from abolitionism to world peace.

Now All Souls is honoring this tradition of activism with a unique photo exhibit called “The Ministers’ Journey Toward Social Justice: 1821 to Present,” displaying images and text about all of its senior ministers since 1821, along with information about the social justice causes each espoused. Taken together, the exhibit shows the continuous commitment that Unitarians and later Unitarian Universalists have had to contemporary justice issues such as racial equality, human rights, and peace.

Among All Souls’ most famous ministers are the Rev. Rush Rees Shippen (1881-1895), known for his commitment to community service including serving as a trustee of Howard University and working with Clara Barton in the founding of the Red Cross; the Rev. Ulysses Grant Baker Pierce (1901-1943), the church’s longest-serving minister, community activist, and U.S. Senate Chaplain from 1909–1913; the Rev. A. Powell Davies (1944–1957), noted for his outspoken views on racial injustice, censorship, and unfair Congressional investigations during the McCarthy era; and the Rev. David Hilliard Eaton (1969–1992), the congregation’s first African-American minister and a community activist, who took a predominantly white congregation and transformed it into a culturally diverse one. The Rev. James Reeb, killed in 1965 while participating in a civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, was an assistant minister of the church from 1959 to 1964.

The exhibit consists of 18 panels featuring an image of most of the church’s 24 senior ministers, along with a description of their ministry and their social justice activities. The first panel starts with the Rev. Robert Little (1821–1827), the church’s first minister and one of the church’s founders. According to the panel, Little believed in the divine authority of Christianity and that Jews were favored people. The last panel features the Rev. Rob Hardies, the current senior minister (2001–), who has distinguished himself as an antiwar activist as well as a strong advocate for marriage equality. In the course of the church’s 186-year existence, it has had two African-American senior ministers, both within the 20th century, and no female senior ministers.

The exhibit was organized by the Silver Souls, a group of the church’s senior members—an offshoot of the Senior Concerns Committee formed in 1988. “We were looking for something special to do for the church that went beyond fellowship around food,” said Emily Dyer, co-chair of the committee that designed the show. “We hope that people will be inspired by this exhibit to learn more about their church and why it continues to struggle for social justice.”

The research for the exhibit took 18 months and drew researchers to the Library of Congress, Andover-Harvard Theological Library, and the UUA’s Boston headquarters. The final mounting was done by Kenneth Victor Young, a former exhibition designer at the Smithsonian Institution.

The exhibit, which runs until Christmas, kicked off with a reception on November 3, drawing more than 200 people. “The best days at All Souls are still ahead,” said Hardies at the opening. “But we won’t achieve this unless we learn from the past. Seeing the faces in this exhibit gives me the inspiration to move into the future.”

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