Jan. 22, 2018.
These past few weeks, as I delved into UUCF’s history of racial justice for a class project, I kept hearing a dramatic story retold. A member famously stood up in a worship service and asked why we had done nothing about racial justice in 20 years. This was in the 90s. Listening to more stories of our history and combing through the archives, I began to wonder, is this a pattern? Are we stuck in some historical “repeat” where we take on racial justice work one year and then put it down?
You will have to read on to find out. But first, I want to thank the members who gave their time and energy to help me with this project. I also want to thank Penny Jackson, among others who contributed, for our wonderful archive. It is rare treasure among congregations!
Our story began in 1955, during the civil rights era. Inspired by Rev. A. Powell Davies of All Souls Church Unitarian in DC, we began meeting at Oakton Elementary School. But in 1960, Virginia law required segregated seating in leases. We refused to comply, and purchased land on Hunter Mill Road to construct a building. We struggled with this and lost a few members. Still we chose our aspirations. The physical structure of our first building (now the Administration Building) is a symbol of our conviction and hope in racial justice. Sitting in that building each day, I feel like the pillars and beams are holding up our principles.
Through the 1960s, a few individuals led our racial justice efforts. Examples include sharing a list of segregating businesses to boycott, educating the congregation about race and tutoring Black children. We also hosted an integrated Brownie troop and sponsored an integrated day care.
When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., asked clergy to join him in Selma, AL, on Mar. 9, 1965, our Rev. Rudy Nemser responded immediately. And, at great personal sacrifice, our Director of Religious Education Jane Visco Boyajian left DC to lead the national mobilization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference for the march from Selma to Montgomery.
Our few committed racial justice leaders continued their work through the 60s. Then, in 1971, amid stark declines in our pledges and membership, we raised almost $800 in a special collection for the UU Black Affairs Council for Black empowerment work. This was more than 1% of our operating budget – at a time of great uncertainty and financial strain. To put that 1% in perspective, it would be equivalent to $12,000 today.
But our early racial justice work lacked an infrastructure to sustain the work without passionate leaders. After Rev. Rudy Nemser left in 1973, racial justice work faded to the background. Two decades passed with little-to-no mention of racial justice work.
Then, in early 1992 the Rodney King riots renewed our attention to racial injustice. That is when member Furman Riley stood up in a worship service to decry our lack of action for racial justice during the prior two decades. Within a few months, Furman Riley, Ann Wood and Judy Harrison had formed a Race Relations Task Force to “dismantle structures that sustain racism and other forms of social injustice.” The task force led a workshop and worship service on race, countered mortgage-lending discrimination, tutored minority children, educated the congregation and even spawned the Mosaic Harmony choir (they still sing today, find out more here). Yet, the task force leaders were soon pulled to other pressing social justice issues and the group dissolved after 1994.
As a longtime member told me, support for racial justice has indeed waxed and waned here depending on dedicated leaders. Today, however, a new theme is emerging. And I am energized by differences between our past and present.
In contrast to racial justice work of the past led by one or a handful of individuals, our 2-year-old Racial Justice Steering Committee has a healthy 18-person membership. The committee has ongoing funding and obtained an Endowment Fund grant to expand its work. The committee is taking a long-term view, is working to forge new relationships in the community and is seeking partnerships for sustained action to address racial injustice. And, the committee invites more members of all ages and backgrounds to support its growing work.
In addition to the steering committee, we are incorporating racial justice into our community through the ministry team, religious education and a broad base of supportive members. Instead of being in competition with other pressing social justice concerns, social justice areas are beginning to work together with the understanding that this work is related to most of the social justice work we do; it is intersectional with many other concerns.
Today, I see a new structure being built around us – a congregational justice structure that includes racial justice as a fundamental foundation of our work as a congregation. Like our first building, this new structure is holding up our principles and our aspirations. With continued attention and labor for what we are building together, I believe we will keep the promise we once made to “dismantle structures that sustain racism and other forms of social injustice.”
May it be so.