Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Memorial Congregation

(keep the following number in mind; 86)

I think I have to start this post with a question: do you know who Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is?


Last month I got to spend a weekend in Kansas City at the BLUU Revival with approximately 115 African American Unitarian Universalists (and a couple of Unitarian Universalist adjacent folk). Even more, I got to be part of the team that set the frame for the weekend. What’s more, I was part of the group that planned out the worships.

It was a wonderful weekend. And it has got me thinking.

Part of the reason Revival was so freeing was none of the people in the room had to hold back in bringing their full selves into the room. We all knew the white gaze was not going to be there. Those of us who got to plan the worships knew that we could play music and have readings and rituals from the African diaspora and not have to explain why we were using them or having to do a 10-minute education session about them. That is freeing too.

So to the 86.

86% of churches in this country are mono-racial/cultural, even after all these years since King remarked that 11:00 a.m. on Sunday was the most segregated hour of the week.

This leads to a question: why are we trying to integrate UU congregations? Let’s be more honest than is comfortable; we can count the number of truly integrated UU congregations on one hand. What most UU congregations have is a token integration; people of color are seen as an exotic occurrence, a way of showing just how open and accepting white liberal religion is/can be. And, until recently, the way diversity/inclusion was talked about in UU circles was that this was for white people and that people of color were “allowed” to be a part of it; that white people were magnanimously gifting to people of color liberal religion.   (trust me when I say that some of the words you good white liberals use/have used when talking about people of color and religion and why UU churches are so white would turn your stomach if I repeated them back to you)

Which brings to mind another question: is it time for a separate but equal Unitarian Universalism?

Since we know that 86% of congregations in this country are mono-racial/cultural and we also know that the only set of churches that have stayed stable or have grown in the religious world in the last 20-or-so years (at least if one looks at longitudinal studies) are ethnic churches, shouldn’t we be putting our energies into growing churches in the places where they are most likely to grow? In other words, isn’t it time for UUism to go to the ‘hood or the barrio instead of the the exurb or non-inner-ring suburb?

The history of Unitarianism/Universalism/Unitarian Universalism in communities of color has been mostly sabotage (the only majority minority UU congregation I know of survives because it has kept an arms-length distance from other UU congregations), yet when people of color find their way to UU congregations the welcome they receive is FAR from welcoming.

What would the reception be for Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Memorial Congregation–an explicitly majority minority congregation–be today?



One thought on “Frances Ellen Watkins Harper Memorial Congregation

  1. I love Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poetry. Her poem “Let the Light Enter” is one of those poems that has brought my through some hard times; as an educator, “Learning To Read” is also a favorite; and so many others.

    I tend to agree with what you say about mono-cultural/racial non-white UU congregations, with two caveats….

    First, given what a small percentage of the population is UU, such congregations will only work in major metropolitan areas. In fact, we do have a meager history of trying a few such congregations in major metropolitan areas: Church of the Open Door in Chicago’s SW side was a memorable effort from the 1990s-2000s; and of course Ethelred Brown’s Unitarian church in Harlem.

    Second, it will be interesting to see how the rising generations — the younger Millennials, and the generation after that — will view mono-cultural/racial congregations, whether white or non-white. They come from generations that are majority non-white, and they are institution builders. Will they choose to build mono-cultural/racial institutions? I would tend to think so, except for one thing: the fastest growing religious group in the U.S. is arguably Pentecostalism, many of whose congregations have been deliberately multi-cultural and multi-racial for the past couple of decades — and our local Pentecostal churches tend to attract a much younger crowd.

    In spite of those caveats, Unitarian Universalism is just so determinedly white, and I just haven’t seen much movement among us white people to let go of power; I’m skeptical that UUs can become as multi-cultural/racial as some branches of the Pentecostals have done. So I come back to your proposal as probably the best option for Unitarian Universalism — an explicitly majority-minority congregation. Now my question is: given that congregational polity means we’re supposed to help each other out, how could the rest of Unitarian Universalism help support such congregations?

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