Service to Transform 3

In the 20th century, Rev. John Haynes Holmes famously – or notoriously – led opposition to World War I. He also lived his Unitarian faith as co-founder of both the NAACP and the ACLU.

Unitarian minister, Rev. Gordon Gibson, right, with
Dr. Martin Luther King, after Gibson and a fellow
UU minister were released from jail in Selma, in
1965 after a voter registration drive
In 1965, the call went out to Unitarian ministers across the land to join Martin Luther King in his march from Selma. At least one-fifth of them set aside their busy schedules and went to Alabama to do that. And some of those who stayed home did so because they were lead organizers in the parallel marches for civil rights in their own cities at the same time. Our Rev. James Reeb was beaten to death by white thugs at in Selma. Viola Liuzzo was fatally shot as she participated in the demonstration. These Unitarians lived their faith, and died for it.

Nationally prominent civil rights leader Whitney Young was a member of Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, worshipping on Sundays in the sanctuary in which we continue to gather and worship today. Sometimes activist values lead a person to become a Unitarian, and sometimes Unitarian values lead a person to become an activist. Often it’s a little of both. Whitney Young was speaking a religious truth of his Unitarian faith when he said:
"Every person is our brother or sister, and every one’s burden is our own. Where poverty exists, all are poorer. Where hate flourishes, all are corrupted. Where injustice reins, all are unequal."
Whitney Young on cover of Time in 1967
I cannot brag about our participation in Selma and in the civil rights movement generally without also mentioning the conflict that rived our General Assemblies in 1968 and 1969 where black and white Unitarian Universalists were torn apart over how best to address racism. We are a people who so want to do what is right, but we are not without our own blindspots – then and now.

I remember the 70s as a time when our congregations were active in the anti-Vietnam war effort, and in organizing support for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Our churches have been at the lead in the effort to end LGBT discrimination. A few of our churches and ministers were quietly performing same-sex ceremonies of union as far back as the 50s. By the 70s, more of our churches were doing that, and more publicly. Eventually, we stopped calling them ceremonies of union and started calling them marriages – distinguishing civil from religious marriage and proclaiming that civil marriage is a civil right, religious marriage is a religious choice. In 2004, the Massachusetts Supreme Court made that state the first to civilly recognize same-sex marriage. In that case, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, the lead plaintiff, Hillary Goodridge, her partner Julie, and a total of seven of the 14 plaintiffs were Unitarians living their faith.

Our Standing on the Side of Love campaign was begun in 2008 following the hate-motivated shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist church that killed two and wounded several others. It’s a campaign that has focused on issues where the national discourse is most distorted by hatred. Through this campaign, Unitarian Universalists, wearing the distinctive yellow shirts, stand on the side of love with immigrant families, with LGBT folk – and, more recently, African American communities subjected to police abuse.

Let us remember who we are as Unitarian Universalists. We are a people of activism. We are here, Unitarian Universalists gathering week after week, in order to nurture our spirits and help heal our world, for we have discovered that those are not two separate things but that each reinforces the other. We help heal our world by nurturing our spirits, and nurture our spirits by helping to heal our world.

I told a little of the story of me, and some of the story of us. Let us turn to the story of Now. How do things stand?

A lot of things are getting better. Worldwide in the last 25 years we’ve seen worldwide extreme poverty (living on less than $1.25 a day), the Global Hunger Index (a measure of undernutrition), child labor, child mortality, maternal mortality in childbirth are all substantially down and life expectancy is up by about 9 years in low-income countries. More people are going to school for longer, and literacy rates are up. More and more countries are democracies.

War is actually on the decline. Steven Pinker writes,
"The rate of documented direct deaths from political violence (war, terrorism, genocide and warlord militias) in the past decade is an unprecedented few hundredths of a percentage point."
World stockpiles of nuclear weapons peaked in 1986 and have sharply declined.

In the US, homicides, violent crimes, teen births, smoking, the unsheltered homeless population are all down.

2014 was quite the banner year for marriage equality. The District of Columbia and 35 states now recognize same-sex marriages – up from 16 states one year ago -- and Florida will become number 36 on Tuesday.

And there remains much to do.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "Service to Transform"
Next: Part 4
Previous: Part 2
Beginning: Part 1


  1. Rev. John Haynes Holmes was an advocate of "Health Marriages" too and was prepared to have the Government enforce them. You've skirted a few of his authoritarian warts.

    1. Thank you, Bill. It's a good point you raise. We all have some views which later generations will determine to be "warts." That's a good thing -- it shows the prospects of moral progress, and reminds us that progress doesn't just mean "other people gradually coming to think like me." Yet the fact that we do not have certainty about all of what is "right" must not paralyze us from acting on our convictions. It just means that our activism should also include a measure of humility.