Which Black Church?

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2007 Daniel Harper.

Story — “The Lowells and Oatmeal” — as told by Helen Cohen

This is a little story about change and learning new ways of doing things.

It was 7:30 in the morning, by the grandfather clock at the Lowell household. Judge John Lowell had come to the table for breakfast.

Judge Lowell sat with a newspaper up in front of his face, as he had done at breakfast every morning for the past thirty years. All of a sudden, from the pantry, the maid came rushing inn to whisper something in Mrs. Lowell’s ear. It was clearly bad news!

The maid had burned the oatmeal! And there was no more oatmeal in the house! Mrs. Lowell thought for a moment. She said to herself, Well, I must tell him right away.

So she turned to Judge Lowell and said, “John, my dear. There isn’t going to be any oatmeal this morning.”

Now this was no minor domestic tragedy. Because, to Mrs. Lowell’s knowledge, Judge Lowell had eaten oatmeal for breakfast every morning of his life.

The silence was deafening.

Slowly the judge lowered his newspaper.

He looked at his wife, and he replied, “Frankly, my dear, I never did care for it.”

If you are someone who hates oatmeal, your first thought about this story was how awful it must have been to eat oatmeal every day of your life if you didn’t like it. And if you’re like me, you thought to yourself, Oh, why didn’t Mrs. Lowell ask him what he liked? And then maybe you thought to yourself, Yes, but why didn’t Judge Lowell just tell her that he didn’t like it?

I don’t know why! But this story does raise questions about how we live our lives, and why we don’t change things we don’t like.

[Adapted from a story told by Helen Cohen, who adapted her story from an anecdote by John Ciardi.]


The first reading this morning comes from a chapter titled “What If God Were One of Us?: Humanism and African Americans for Humanism” in the book “Varieties of African American Experience,” by the humanist theologian Anthony Pinn. Pinn writes:

“I am not convinced that religion is dying wholesale, because religion provides a language or grammar for making sense of the world in life affirming ways. Rather than dying, religion emerges in new forms of expression. Some who acknowledge this still avoid humanism because they believe that it robs adherents of valuable hopes and comforts. [The humanist Unitarian minister] John Dietrich states, however, ‘Humanism robs man of nothing that actually exists. It takes from him only his comforting illusions and substitutes from them consolations that are real and hopes that are realizable.’ Humanism challenges activities and thought that do not appear liberating in nature. Organized traditional religions, therefore, have come under increasing attach because of their perceived failure to combat continued socioeconomic and political turmoil. Although the churches’ role in promoting such transformative events as the Civil Rights movement must be acknowledged, humanists will point to more examples of the churches’ failure to engage relevant questions and issues.

“Theistic forms of religious expression resolve the problem of moral evil in the world through some interaction between god(s) and humanity. This resolution, however, stimulates additional questions for the humanist. In the words of Raymond Knox: ‘Here they lynching Negroes — if God’s all that good, how come he don’t stop the police from killing Negroes, lynching Negroes, if God is all that just?’ Or, as James Baldwin articulates the question: ‘And if one despairs — as who has not? — of human love, God’s love alone is left. But God — and I felt this even then, so long ago, on that tremendous floor, unwillingly — God is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?…’

“Humanism resolves the problem of accountability through an appeal to human accountability. Humans have created the conditions presently encountered and humans are responsible for changing these conditions.

“For African Americans humanist history demonstrates that this goal is noble but its achievement is far from guaranteed. African American humanists’ sense of optimism based open human potential for transformation is more guarded that that present in white humanist thought because of black people’s disproportionate suffering. Nonetheless, African American humanists hold that humanity has no choice but to continue seeking progress. The alternative is stagnation….”

[pp. 184-5]

The second reading is from the book “Black Pioneers in a White Denomination” by Mark Morrison-Reed. Morrison-Reed calls himself “black-born, Unitarian bred,” and in this passage he talks about the church he was raised in:

“The efforts of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago to become integrated are especially interesting…. The Reverend Leslie Pennington [of First Unitarian] had long been involved in race relations and had frequently exchanged pulpits with black ministers in Chicago…. For Pennington, it was understood that blacks were welcome, but other wanted a distinct proclamation. The Evening [Women’s] Alliance, which included Muriel Hayward, Gladys Hilton, Margret Adams, and Dorothy Schaad, pushed for a church resolution that would clearly state that the First Unitarian Church welcomed people of all races. The knew that ‘ “whites only” was never carved over the door of any Protestant church in America; it was understood.’ To dispel this assumption, they needed to make a public statement to the contrary, but this was not an easy matter, since there were people in the congregation who opposed integration altogether. James Luther Adams remembers a meeting of the board of trustees that went late into the night as they argued over whether or not to become an integrated church. Finally, in the early hours of the morning, one trustee, still recalcitrant on the issue of integration, was challenged with this questions: ‘What is the purpose of the church?’ He blurted out, ‘To change people like me!’ He and another trustee later left the church. In January, 1948, a resolution was passed at the annual meetings, and in that year the church received its first black member. Since then it had turned into one of the most thoroughly integrated church within the liberal faith….” [pp. 130-1]


This is the third in a series of three sermons for Black History Month. Black History Month is, in part, a time to celebrate African American culture. This morning, I’d like to celebrate one aspects of Black religious culture that is mostly ignored, and that is the fact that Black religious culture in the United States is not limited to the traditional Black Christian churches.

In the second reading this morning, we heard a little bit about First Unitarian in Chicago, one of the few fully integrated, truly multi-racial Unitarian Universalist congregations. At present, perhaps thirty percent of the membership is African American, and another ten or twenty percent is Hispanic or other non-white persons. First Unitarian is located right near the University of Chicago, in a racially mixed part of Chicago. The congregation meets in a large stone building they built in 1929, which is meant to imitate an English medieval church. Since it was built as a Unitarian church, there is an empty niche above the chancel to remind worshippers that each individual brings his or her own individual conception of the spirit to a worship service — an empty niche, instead of a cross or some other limiting symbol.

I went to First Unitarian for some months when I studying for the ministry at Meadville/Lombard Theological School — attended worship there, rented a room from the president of their board of trustees, and taught Sunday school now and then. I have to admit that the worship services tended to be a little too formal for my tastes; it was what I call a “high-church humanist” kind of worship service. I also have to admit that I found their big, echo-y stone building to be a little cold. And I also have to admit that since I was attending school on a very part-time basis, I only went to worship there a total of perhaps twenty times over four years. Yet I felt more comfortable in that congregation than in any other congregation of which I have been a part. Why? Because I liked being in a truly multi-racial, multi-generational congregation; and sociologists tell me that I am typical for college-educated people my age (I’m 46) and younger — we have gotten used to multi-racial settings. This in fact was one of my great attractions to our own congregation, First Unitarian in New Bedford: this congregation is already somewhat multi-racial, and given the demographics of the city has the potential to become far more so.

There are in fact many Unitarian Universalists my age and younger who really want to see truly multiracial congregations. Yet there are only about a dozen truly multi-racial Unitarian Universalist congregations in North America. I think there are two main reasons that we have remained so white. First, I think we have remained predominantly white out of habit — not out of malice, just because old habits die hard. Second, I think lots of white Unitarian Universalists have this idea that African Americans and other non-white persons just aren’t interested in liberal religion.

The first reason is easily disposed of: we can change habits, even old habits, if we are willing to try. We could do some anti-racism training, just to make sure we weren’t being held back by some residual racism; and take a few other pretty obvious steps towards becoming fully multi-racial. Indeed I’m talking with the Board of Trustees about having an anti-racism training here in our congregation this spring, so this is a real possibility. But what about that second reason? What if we decide to become truly multi-racial? Are there African Americans and Hispanics and Cape Verdeans and Azoreans and other non-Anglo persons who would want to come join us here? We are told that African Americans are all Protestant Christians, while Hispanics and Cape Verdeans and Portuguese and Azoreans are all Catholic. If that’s true, aren’t we doomed to remaining an all-white congregation?

Fortunately, that isn’t true. A few years ago, I got to do a day-long seminar with a theologian by the name of Anthony Pinn. Anthony Pinn happens to be an African American, and he happens to be a humanist, that is, he doesn’t believe in God. As an African American humanist, he got a little tired of other black scholars assuming that all African Americans are Christians. Pinn contends “that African American religious experience extends beyond… black Christianity,” and so he wrote a book titled “Varieties of African American Religious Experience” detailing his research into four non-Christian religious traditions within the African American community: Vodou, Santeria, Islam, and religious humanism.

It is that last religious tradition that concerns us most. Anthony Pinn documents that there are now, and have been for years, lots of African American humanists — atheists, agnostics, unbelievers, and others for whom traditional Christian answers appear insufficient. In our first reading this morning, taken from Pinn’s book, he quotes two such African American humanists. He quotes Raymond Knox, who said, “Here they lynching Negroes — if God’s all that good, how come he don’t stop the police from killing Negroes, lynching Negroes, if God is all that just?” And then Anthony Pinn quotes James Baldwin, who said: “But God… God is white. And if His love was so great, and if He loved all His children, why were we, the blacks, cast down so far?” What Raymond Knox and James Baldwin have to say sound to me very much like what most Unitarian Universalists have to say, which is that if God is supposed to be so good and all-powerful to boot, how come we have to suffer so much? Those of us Unitarian Universalists who do believe in God or some higher power go on to say that ultimately it’s we human beings who are responsible for our own destiny, while those of us who are humanists — and about forty or fifty percent of all Unitarian Universalists are humanists — set aside the idea of a higher power.

What Anthony Pinn shows us is that there are plenty of African Americans who think very much like Unitarian Universalists. Pinn points out this very fact in his book, and he documents the fact that a fair number of African American humanists have managed to find an institutional home within Unitarian Universalism since at least the 1930’s. The only problem is that there are only about a dozen Unitarian Universalist congregations, all of them located in cities, that are truly multi-racial — this in spite of the fact that the current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association is African American. The end result is that there aren’t that many African American Unitarian Universalists. But Pinn makes it clear that there is no theological barrier to keep us from becoming truly multi-racial; I would say the only barrier is that we have simply gotten into the habit of being a predominantly white, Anglo religion.

But there is also evidence that we could get over the habit of being white and Anglo. To show you what I mean, let me tell you a little story.

Duncan Howlett was minister of this congregation in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s, probably the greatest minister this congregation has had in this century. Howlett went from here to First Church in Boston, and then in the 1960’s he went to All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. At that time, All Souls was a very, very prestigious congregation. The minister who preceded Howlett was A. Powell Davies, who was renowned as a great preacher — he was so good, the Washington newspapers would hold their Monday editions until they could get a copy of his sermon — Davies was so good, he counted several congressmen and senators as members of his congregation. So Howlett wound up in the most prestigious Unitarian Universalist pulpit in the United States, a place most ministers would stay until they died or were incapacitated.

But instead of staying in the pulpit of All Souls forever, Howlett did something far more honorable and far more daring. In 1968, he looked around and realized that his congregation was mostly white, yet the city of Washington was mostly black. So he retired, saying that he felt the congregation needed to call an African American minister and the only way that would happen would be if he quit. He left, and they did call an African American minister. Today, All Souls in Washington remains a truly multi-racial congregation with one white minister, and one black minister.

A similar thing happened recently at Davies Memorial Church in Camp Springs, Maryland. The congregation is ten miles outside Washington, in an area where the population is more than 60% black — yet five years ago, the congregation remained almost entirely white, with a white minister. Five years ago, a young African American minister named John Crestwell began coming to Davies Memorial, and he and the white minister and the lay leaders of the congregation came up with an idea of bringing Crestwell on as an associate minister. Their shared plan and vision was that they would all work together to grow the congregation while increasing racial diversity, and at the end of a three-year period the other minister would resign, leaving Crestwell as the sole minister. Their plan worked — they grew by 50%, more than a third of the members are now black, and their old minister resigned, leaving John Crestwell as the sole minister. And Davies Memorial Church will be honored this June at the annual gathering of the Unitarian Universalist Association as a “Breakthrough Congregation.”

The story we Unitarian Universalists have told about ourselves is that we are a white religion, and that people of color don’t want to belong to our religion. It should be obvious by now that we have been telling ourselves a false story. First of all, we are not a completely white religion, and we do have multi-racial congregations, and there are plenty of non-white, non-Anglo Unitarian Universalists.

Second, given the experience of Davies Memorial Church, and given what Anthony Pinn tells us, it looks to me as if there are quite a few African Americans out there, and probably lots of other non-white non-Anglos, who would love to become a part of our religious tradition. According to the 2000 U.S. census, there are more than 4,000 African Americans in New Bedford — if 40 of those African Americans, less than one percent of the total, started coming to First Unitarian, we would be as integrated as Davies Memorial Church. There are nearly ten thousand Hispanics in New Bedford — if less than half of one percent of them found us, we’d be far more integrated than Davies Memorial Church. And I’d like to think that we’re already headed in that direction. On one recent Sunday morning, I looked around and happened to notice that ten percent of the people in this room were non-white, an additional ten percent were bilingual in Portuguese and English, and an additional five percent identified as non-white. On that particular Sunday, a total of twenty-five percent of the congregation was non-white and non-Anglo. I say we should begin to really embrace that as a central part of our identity — as a central to our core of openness.

The story we could tell about ourselves is that we are a religion that is open to whomever needs it, black, white, Hispanic, Cape Verdean, Azorean, Portuguese, gay, straight, young, old. The story we could tell about ourselves is that an openness lies at our core — that at our core, we are open to more than one theological position, that we are open to different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and ages we could say that, at our core, we are open to openness. Maybe we’d have to be open to giving up some of our traditional ways of running our congregations, by so what.

Rev. John Crestwell says, “The institutional church is still very tribal. Less than 10 percent of all churches in the United States are racially diverse. Unitarian Universalists break down tribalism — with our come-as-you are beliefs.” So says John Crestwell.

Come as you are. Come as you are, no matter what your skin color. Come as you are, with whatever liberal theology you bring. Come as you are, to a congregation of openness.