Sunday, February 19, 2017: Our Black Pioneers

By: sailn1

(photo of Gloucester UU Church, Gloucester, MA)


“This is the central task of the worshipping community: to invite the Spiritual Presence, to unveil the connectedness of all humanity through the story of life; and thus to reveal this universal truth, which is only discovered amid the particulars of our own lives and the lives of others. Once felt it inspires us to act for justice.”

(by The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed in “Black Pioneers in a White Denomination”)



CALL TO WORSHIP: “What We’ve Started” (by Betty Bobo Seiden)

We are here today because we want our religious journey to include more than one holy land, more than one vision, more than one scripture…

We sing praises in many styles and in many languages. We make a joyful noise unto whomever nourishes and sustains all life.

When we look around us here today we see the beauty of diversity-people of various sizes and shapes, head so different colors and textures. We see an age span of several generations. We are aware of personality differences, of differences in perspective, of ancestors who represent every continent of our world.

Come let us celebrate our diversity.

Come let us worship together.



May this light be a call to freedom.

May this light illumine our way.

May this light hold the time of remembrance.

May this light call us onward,

A people together, with courage and grace.

(by Anita Farber-Robertson)

OPENING HYMN:Gather the Spirit” (#347)


Love is the doctrine of this church,

The quest for truth is its sacrament,

And service is its prayer.

To dwell together in peace,

To seek knowledge in freedom,

To serve humankind in fellowship,

To the end that all souls

Shall grow into harmony with the Divine.

This is our great covenant,

One with another, and with our God.


From all that dwell below the skies,

Let songs of hope and faith arise,

Let peace, good-will on earth be sung,

Through every land, by every tongue.



Inventor and engineer Lewis Latimer was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on September 4, 1848. Latimer was the youngest of four children born to George and Rebecca Latimer, who had escaped from slavery in Virginia six years before his birth. Captured in Boston and brought to trial as a fugitive, George Latimer was defended by abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. He was eventually able to purchase his freedom, with the help of a local minister, and began raising a family with Rebecca in nearby Chelsea.

Lewis Latimer worked to help support his mother and family. Returning to Boston after an honorable discharge from the Civil War, he accepted a menial position at a patent law office. He taught himself mechanical drawing and drafting by observing the work of draftsmen at the firm. Recognizing Latimer’s talent and promise, the firm partners promoted him from office boy to draftsman. In addition to assisting others, Latimer designed a number of his own inventions, including an improved railroad car bathroom and an early air conditioning unit.

Working with Alexander Graham Bell, Latimer helped draft the patent for Bell’s design of the telephone. He was also involved in the field of incandescent lighting, a particularly competitive field, Thomas Edison.

Latimer’s deep knowledge of both patents and electrical engineering made Latimer an indispensable partner to Edison as he promoted and defended his light bulb design. Edison’s light bulb had a problem with the filament burning out too quickly to be useful. Lewis Latimer invented an improved carbon filament design which he patented and which made the light bulb really practical. In 1890, Latimer published a book titled “Incandescent Electric Lighting: A Practical Description of the Edison System.”

He was a founding member of the Unitarian Church in Flushing, NY where he and his family were very active. In addition to his drafting skills, Latimer enjoyed other creative pastimes, including playing the flute and writing poetry and plays. In his spare time, he taught mechanical drawing and English to recent immigrants at the Henry Street Settlement in New York.


Go now in peace, go now in peace;

may the love of God surround you,



you may go.





READING:I See her From Time to Time”

(by The Rev. David Eaton, Senor Minister All Souls Unitarian Church, Washington DC for 23 years. He passed away shortly after he retired.)

Many people left the church, and some for legitimate reasons. A lot left because they could not stand what I am talking about to you this morning.

Something wonderful and beautiful happened in the midst of it all. A woman, 62 years old, came to my office. She was crying, and I went over and held her in my arms.

She said, “I’ve got to leave the church.”

I asked, “Why?”

She said, “I’m not comfortable anymore. It was all right before, with ministers who were white. There were a few blacks, but now there are too many joining the church. I’m not comfortable any more. I feel ashamed of myself.”

She said, “I’m a liberal and I never thought that I could have racist feelings, but I do.”

I said, “Well, you can try to change.”

She said, “No, I’m too old for that. I can’t change. When I go to church I want to be comfortable. But I’ll send you money every now and then to try to help the church out.” And she left.

I see her from time to time. She is out in one of the suburban churches. I see her through the corner of my eye. And if she sees me before I see here, she vanishes quickly. And I let her. But if I see her first, she smiles and we hug each other. She asks me how things are and we quickly part. But I appreciate her honesty.


READING: “The Church Must Decide” (by Whitney Young)

Instead of an asset, religion has been a liability in the struggle for social reform. The Church, until recently, anesthetized one of the major forces of social change: the American conscience. It provided people with a place where they could congregate regularly in a beautiful setting to hear pious platitudes and mouth meaningless cliché’s.

Then it turned them loose to discriminate against their fellow (humans) the other six and nine-tenths days of the week. Eleven to twelve a.m. on Sundays has been the most segregated hour in America, and it has been easier to integrate the chorus line of a burlesque show than to integrate a choir in most of our churches.

The Church must decide what it is going to do and what it is going to be. Is it a physical plant or is it a social institution? Is the ministry a profession where practitioners are more concerned with the facial expressions of their largest contributors than with helping their congregations to live up to the teachings of Scriptures? Will ministers only reflect the congregation, will they merely mirror the prejudices of the congregation, or will they mold and lead their congregations?

ANTHEM: “Will You Harbor Me?” (Words and music by Ysaye M. Barnwell, copyrighted)

READING: “Without Love” (by E. Ethelred Brown)

As we face a troubled and puzzled world, we too are troubled and puzzled. As our fond dreams remain unrealized and our bright hopes of yesterday wither in the bitter disappointments of today, our courage fails, our spirits droop, our faith trembles, and frustrated, we bow our heads in despair.

Nevertheless, we come to God in this hour of worship, in this house of prayer.

As we pray for peace in our time O God, may we ourselves be at peace with the world, with ourselves, and with Thee. May we know that without love there will never be peace. Teach us therefore, to love. What does this world need more than love?

May we, after hearing the message of the day, leave this place inspired and strengthened, faithfully to fulfill the duties of tomorrow.

HYMN: “There Is More Love Somewhere” (#95)

“Our Black Pioneers”

The Rev. Dr. Anita Farber-Robertson (copyright)

Melrose Unitarian Universalist Church

February 19, 2017

Readings: selected from “Been in the Storm so Long”, edited by Mark Morrison-Reed

In 1785 Gloster Dalton signed the Charter of the Compact of the Glouster Universalist Church, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, creating the first Universalist Church in America. He was one of the 85 signatories, and he was a black man…One of the first black people in what has remained an essentially white denomination.

One hundred years later, in the latter part of the 1800’s Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a black woman and member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia said:

“We want more soul, a higher cultivation of all spiritual faculties. We need men and women whose hearts are the homes of high and lofty enthusiasm and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom.”

It is a compelling vision Harper lays before us- as powerful now as it was when she uttered those words more than one hundred years ago.

I think we want to be those men and women, those “men and women whose hearts are the homes of high and lofty enthusiasm and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom.

I think we do. I do. And I know it is hard. It is hard to find that kind of spiritual depth and grounding that can hold us constant in living our values and pursuing our aspirations. We know that there are needy people out there. And we know we should help as we can. But the truth be told, we know that we are needy too, that our souls and spirits sometimes flag, we may feel tired, drained ourselves, our own lives broken in ways sometimes large and sometimes small. Do you know what I mean? Have you been there too? Maybe you are there now. And yet, the call is real, the aspiration ours, the longing to make a difference ever present. Are you with me?

And so unfolds our story, the story of Unitarian Universalism, a story of people who sometimes did what Harper asked, people who were “ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom,” and sometimes did not.

Ours, my friends, is a checkered history. Checkered, I’d guess, in our personal lives, and therefore, not surprisingly, checkered in our institutional history.

The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed said it well, when he spoke to the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in 1993:

“Our (UU) history in regard to racial justice is brave enough to make you proud, tragic enough to make you cry, and inept enough to make you laugh, once the anger passes. We also have a future. Today’s talk (he said) is to learn from what was and move on. To move on will mean creating a vision for the future. May concern for our faith and love for one another guide our efforts.”

To cast a meaningful vision, one that will inspire and compel us to do what Frances Ellen Watkins Harper wisely noted is necessary build a just world, “lay(ing) time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom,” we must understand from where we have come, hard as it is, proud at our times of courage, disappointed at our fearfulness, sometimes embarrassed by how much it is we still have to learn, emboldened by how deeply we long for our own spiritual authenticity.

All through the 1880’s African Americans belonging to essentially white Unitarian and Universalist churches. But how did we manage it when one of those members felt the call to leadership, the call to ministry?

In 1889 Joseph Jordan was ordained as a Universalist minister and he started a mission in Norfolk, VA.

Six years later, in1895 Thomas R. Wise was fellowshipped as a Universalist and with Jordan began a mission in Suffolk, VA.

Nine years later in 1904 Joseph F. Jordan was fellowshipped as a Universalist minister and took over the ministries in Suffolk and Norfolk, VA.

Two years later, in 1906 Don Speed Smith Goodloe graduates from Meadville seminary, but is denied an opportunity to serve.

Ethelred Brown, whose prayer we heard this morning, graduated from Meadville seminary in 1912 and returned to Jamaica to start a congregation. Eight years later, in 1920 he moved to Harlem founding the Unitarian Church there.

Bear with me friends with these dates – we are not memorizing – there is no test at the end of the sermon. Just feel the flow of history, our history.

In 1927 William H.G. Carter founded the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood in Cincinnati. While the local ministers know of him, they do not inform the AUA.

I know those were a lot of dates, and being given a lot of dates to remember is what led many folks to hate history, but I am not interested in memorization. I gave them to you so that you might be able to perceive the pattern.

What emerges is that from 1785 on, there are African American members of Unitarian and Universalist congregations. And, from1889 on, there have been African American Unitarian and Universalist ministers.

However, there was no commitment on the part of the denominations to settle them in our existing essentially white churches. The African American ministers who served, were ministers who began their own congregations.

And the denominations were ambivalent about them. In places such as Cincinnati, the good news of Unitarianism is spread through the African American community almost by stealth. The local ministers knew that Rev. Carter founded and was serving a Unitarian congregation, but they kept quiet about it- didn’t let the denomination know. Didn’t trust the denomination not to undermine this fledgling African American Unitarian Church.

“Our (UU) history in regard to racial justice is brave enough to make you proud, tragic enough to make you cry, and inept enough to make you laugh, once the anger passes.”[1]

1927 Lewis McGee approached Rev. Curtis Reese about becoming a minister and is told “if you want to be a Unitarian you’d better bring your own church.” That was the accepted wisdom.

The sad tale continues:

In 1945 Alvin Neeley Cannon, a Starr King seminary graduate is refused fellowship because of lack of opportunities.

In 1947, true to the pattern we have observed, Lewis McGee founded his own congregation- but this one is different. McGee founded the inter-racial Free Religious Fellowship in Chicago. That is a milestone…an intentionally inter-racial congregation in 1947. A sacred space is created for embodying Harper’s vision- a …”cultivation of all spiritual faculties…men and women whose hearts are the homes of high and lofty enthusiasm and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom.”

Finally, in 1948 African American Maurice Dawkins is called and settled as minister of education at the Community Church of New York, so that there are now five African American Unitarian ministers – three settled, one in student pastorate.

Fast forward to1961, when Lewis McGee becomes the first African American Senior Minister in a white UU congregation at Chico Unitarian Fellowship in California.

By1968 There are eight black ministers. Two are settled – one part-time, fewer settled than there were in 1948.

But in the 1960’s Unitarian Universalists took their places on the front lines of the civil rights movement. It was the murder of the white Unitarian Universalist minister from Boston, James Reeb who had gone to march in Selma, that proved the tipping point, and catalyst which moved President Lyndon Johnson to act, championing the Voting Rights Act which he got through congress and signed into law just five months after Rev. Reeb was murdered.

The sixties were a time of turmoil for the country and for Unitarian Universalists as we struggled with what it meant to be supporters and allies of the Black community. We were brave, we were cowardly and we were confused- inept enough sometimes, to make you laugh, were it not so disturbing.

We carried on, two steps forward one step back, and by 2014, the most recent date for which I was able to retrieve numbers, UUA had approximately 90 ministers of color, at least 40 of them African American.

Are we where we wanted to be? Have we cultivated, in the words of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, all of our spiritual faculties? “… men and women whose hearts are the homes of high and lofty enthusiasm and a noble devotion to the cause of emancipation, who are ready and willing to lay time, talent, and money on the altar of universal freedom.”?

We are working on it Frances, bit by bit day by day. A little bit closer, a little bit wiser, a little bit humbler about how far we have to go. But we take up this rich and precious legacy as our own, and find within it, the love, the passion, and the ever present flame that feeds and fans our fire of commitment.

May it be so.


CLOSING HYMN: “The Fire of Commitment” (#1028)

CLOSING WORDS:Love Is All” (by Lewis Latimer)

What is there in this world, beside our loves,

To keep us here?

Ambition’s course is paved with hopes deferred,

With doubt and fear.

Wealth brings no joy,

And brazen-throated fame

Leaves us at last

Nought but an empty name,

Oh soul, receive the truth,

E’er heaven sends thy recall:

Nought here deserves our thought but love,

For love is all.

(by Lewis H. Latimer)

EXTINGUISHING THE CHALICE (read by the congregation):

We extinguish the flame but not the light of truth,

the warmth of community,

or the fire of commitment.

These we carry in our hearts until we are together again.



May the long time sun shine upon you,

all love surround you,

and the pure light within you

guide you all the way home.


Note: All readings this morning were written by African American Unitarian Universalists.

[1] Mark Morrison-Reed, Speech at the 1993 UUA General Assembly

(below: One of several memorials to Rev. James Reeb in Selma, Alabama. “This Good Man” was clearly willing to lay his time, talent, and money – and more – on the altar of universal freedom)