Beliefs Politics

Unitarian Board Apologizes for `Racist Treatment’ of Delegates

c. 2005 Religion News Service

(RNS) The board of the Unitarian Universalist Association has apologized for incidents involving “apparently disrespectful and racist treatment” of youth delegates during the denomination’s annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas.

In an open letter of apology posted on the denomination’s Web site, dated July 6, board secretary Paul Rickter cited reports that on several occasions during the five-day meeting in June, white delegates assumed “UU youth of color were hotel service people.”

Rickter said white Unitarians asked the non-white Unitarians to carry their bags and park their cars. “Sadly, this was not the first General Assembly to have incidents like these,” said Rickter, who is white.

The denomination has a reputation for tolerance and political liberalism. But the UUA board’s letter has set off a debate among Unitarians about underlying racial tension in the mostly white denomination.

“If you’ve been taught to act one way, it’s not that easy to unlearn it just by writing words on paper,” said Gregory Boyd, a black Boston University student who attended the Fort Worth meeting as a leader of the youth caucus.

“No matter what we do on an institutional level, institutions are formed by individuals, and what we believe in our heads is not necessarily what we’ve been taught to carry out,” he said.

In his letter, Rickter described a confrontation between an adult delegate and a group of young Unitarians during the meeting’s closing ceremonies. According to the letter, the adult questioned the young people’s right to be there, provoking an “angry response” from the youths.

Boyd witnessed the confrontation, which he called “stressful and disheartening.”

Others say the board overreacted by apologizing for the incident. At least one witness said it was provoked by three young black delegates who entered the closing ceremony without their nametags, ripped up a program and threw other programs on the floor.

Esther Ford, a member of a Unitarian church in Cedar Park, Texas, was one of the ushers who interacted with the young people at the closing ceremony. In an open letter responding to Rickter, she said the youth, not adult church members, were responsible for the incident.

“Mr. Rickter, I have worked with youth for 25 years, and I know when I am being `baited,”’ she wrote. “Believe me, having grown up as a person of color in Texas, I would be the last one to be an apologist for racist behavior. But this was not the case in this particular incident.”

The 200,000-member denomination, which draws inspiration from a variety of sources including Christianity, Buddhism and naturist traditions, lists the pursuit of equality as one of its guiding principles.

The controversy has provoked a flurry of discussion on Internet message boards and blogs devoted to Unitarianism.

One site, FUUSE, devoted to “Forging the Unitarian Universalist Sensory Experience,” hosted a vigorous debate on the subject, with some suggesting the church’s emphasis on justice puts all racial matters in the spotlight.

One writer was Suzyn Smith Webb, a white member of a Unitarian Universalist church who lives in McLean, Va.

“To say no other church would have given this a second look is to put it mildly,” said Webb in an interview. “We absolutely have racial tensions, but not in the sense that other churches do. … But they feel significant because we have developed such a heightened sensitivity on these issues.”

Jim Sechrest, a white Unitarian Universalist in Urbana, Ill., also posted several messages on FUUSE.

“That just puts a chill on me,” Sechrest said in an interview, referring to the board’s letter. “It’s more of the same stuff. They’re going to put more hype on the anti-racism programming and I have no faith that they’re going to deal with the deeper issues.”

One such issue, said Sechrest, “is that Unitarian Universalism simply doesn’t appeal to 99 percent of the people of color in the United States.” He said the UUA board “needs to take real steps in understanding why Unitarian Universalism doesn’t appeal to other people.”

Representatives at the denomination’s Boston headquarters said the board is still investigating the incidents. Janice Hayes, an information officer for the UUA, said the church is committed “to examining ways in which we can strive to become anti-oppressive and anti-racist.”