Unitarian minister Waitstill Sharp and his wife, Martha, were a young couple at the head of Wellesley’s Unitarian Society in 1939 when they got an unexpected phone call. The American Unitarian Association wanted them to go to Czechoslovakia to help save Jews and other refugees from the Nazis.
The duo joined an underground resistance, learned how to craft encoded messages, eluded surveillance, and destroyed evidence of their work feeding and sheltering desperate Czech refugees, resettling as many as possible outside the country. They ultimately brought dozens of persecuted men, women, and children out of Europe and into safety in the United States.
Modern-day Unitarians haven’t traditionally been big self-promoters, which is one reason their stories aren’t more widely known. The Sharps are quietly honored with a room named after them in the Wellesley church, where their portraits hang. Their grandson, Artemis Joukowsky, a Sherborn-based activist and filmmaker, connected with codirector Ken Burns to tell this small piece of history in the documentary “Defying the Nazis: The Sharps’ War,” airing on PBS this month. It is a clear-cut story of heroism for a faith that’s trying to learn from its own, complicated history.
These days social conservatives are often the most politically outspoken, yet there has always been considerable social and intellectual ferment in the left side of the pews as well. Unitarians, who joined forces with the like-minded denomination known as Universalism in the early 1960s, have long been a progressive movement. But even as its current era of activism turns to efforts like helping resettle Syrian refugees, the overwhelmingly white faith continues to grapple with a lingering racial rift that dates to the civil rights era.
Unitarians trace their history back to early Christian heretics — many of whom were burned at the stake or otherwise executed — who believed in the oneness of God rather than the Holy Trinity. Universalism was founded on the belief that anyone could achieve salvation and that no one was predestined to eternal damnation. The two groups merged in 1961 and formed the Unitarian Universalist Association, based in Boston. Unitarian Universalists often call themselves UUs for short.
While mainline Protestant denominations have seen dramatic declines in membership over the past 50 years, the UU church membership has stayed relatively steady. The UUA counts 200,000 members in the United States, plus 500,000 Americans who identify as UnitarianUniversalist but aren’t members of a church, according to the Pew Research Center.
Unitarian Universalists were notably active in the civil rights movement, and the church continues to honor its role in that period. In its new Seaport headquarters, a bronze memorial stands for the Rev. James Reeb and Viola Gregg Liuzzo, Unitarians and white civil rights activists who were killed in Selma, Ala., in March 1965, along with Baptist Deacon Jimmie Lee Jackson, an African-American who was shot to death by an Alabama state trooper in February 1965. The plaque is also an unintended remembrance of a historical moment when white and black visions of Unitarian Universalism began to seem incompatible.
Reeb was a UU minister who left his home in Roxbury to join the marches and was beaten to death by locals two days after arriving. Two of his fellow UU ministers survived the attack. A few weeks later, Liuzzo, a white UU from Detroit, was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members.
After these outrages, the UUA moved its annual board meeting to Selma, and hundreds more UUs flocked to join the marches. Dr. Martin Luther King led a multifaith memorial service for Reeb, proclaiming that he’d “placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.”
Though King’s eulogy sought to galvanize the crowd, black UUs lamented that Reeb’s death received far more attention from the predominantly white UUs than had Jackson’s.
King’s personal experience was also indicative of a larger problem. “Martin and I realized we could never build a mass movement of black people if we were Unitarian,” Coretta Scott King told scholar Rosemary Bray McNatt, a UU minister.
Before Selma, a national meeting of Unitarian Universalists in 1963 rejected a proposed racial antidiscrimination policy, though it was subsequently required of new congregations.
Feeling increasingly outnumbered and even unwelcome, African-American UUs organized and became more vocal throughout the decade. Los Angeles-area UU churches formed a group called the Black Unitarians for Radical Reform in 1967. One response was an “Emergency Conference on the Black Rebellion,” from which most of the black delegates defected to form a caucus focused on black nationalism. The newly formed Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus requested $1 million from the UUA “to fight political repression and economic exploitation in the black community.”
The UUA board turned down the request.
The national organization estimates that more than one thousand blacks quit the church during a prolonged period of infighting. By 1981, an internal audit found that “institutional racism is still embedded” in the church and pledged to ameliorate the problem with responses including racism awareness training and affirmative action policies.
Present-day Unitarian Universalist leadership is well aware of past missteps and leery of repeating that part of the church’s history. “There are some things we could have done better in the 1960s,” said Carey McDonald, outreach director of the UUA. “We need to not mess this up this time.”
During the tenure of the UUA’s president, the Rev. Peter Morales, the first Latino to lead the organization, the church has made a decided effort to ally more closely with African-Americans and Hispanics. The proportion of white UUs maxed out at 99 percent in the late ’60s and ’70s; now, that figure is still high, but noticeably reduced at 88 percent.
Last year, the annual General Assembly of UUs passed a resolution formally supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. Cornel West gave the keynote lecture.
And at a time when the phrase has begun to elicit white backlash — see the ongoing protest over the banner hanging on Somerville’s City Hall, for example — more than 100 UU congregations across the country now hang Black Lives Matter banners on church grounds.
UUs have also lobbied aggressively for immigration rights in recent years, helping create the New Sanctuary Movement, a coalition of religious communities that offer protection to undocumented immigrants. Though each church operates independently, the UUA provides action guides, logistical support, and promotion for social justice initiatives related to Black Lives Matter and racial justice, the environment, LGBT rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, and refugee assistance.
Inspired in part by his grandparents, Joukowsky, the filmmaker, is working with other Unitarian Universalists to build a national action campaign to challenge Islamophobia and promote a welcoming climate for refugees from Northern Africa and the Middle East. Under the theme “We Defy,” the goal is to hold hundreds of film screenings, public protests, and solidarity events with their Muslim neighbors and refugee communities. These have already begun.
In Houston, a congregation stood outside the mosque next door, holding signs like “Love Thy Neighbor. No Exceptions.” and “We Support Our Muslim Neighbors.” In Providence, Unitarians packed into the State House with similar signs to counter a press conference being held by an antirefugee group. In Middlebury, Vt., a group met with organizers of the local county fair and persuaded organizers to ban the sale of the Confederate flag there.
“In this time of rising racism and scapegoating, Unitarian Universalists are called to stand in solidarity with our Muslim neighbors,” reads an action guide created for “We Defy.”
In an echo of the refugee-resettlement efforts of the Sharps and others, UU churches are increasingly active in the effort to assist Syrians fleeing their war-torn homeland. In New London, Conn., the Rev. Carolyn Patierno and the 300 congregants of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Congregation raised $85,000 to purchase a house directly next door to the church, which will be a sort of a halfway house for recently arrived refugees. The plan is for families to stay there for up to six months as they plan a more permanent move.
There’s already been some backlash, Patierno said, judging by some “really nasty comments” on Internet news stories about the project. One poster wrote, “We can’t take care of our own but let’s bring in others.” Another agreed, adding: “Just another reason to not go to New London.” But she’s experienced no significant pushback from neighbors. “Whatever backlash they might receive, what they’ve been through, how much worse can it be?” she said of refugees.
In a political season in which the idea of resettling Syrian refugees in American communities has been hotly politicized, Unitarian Universalists say it’s the latest manifestation of a long tradition in the faith. “A lot of our congregations really tuned into this moment in history right now,” said McDonald, the UUA outreach director. “What am I going to tell my grandkids about what was going on right now? We’re talking a longer view than just what happens in the next election cycle. We’re working on a different timeline.”
Kevin D. Grant is the cofounder and managing editor of The GroundTruth Project, based at WGBH. Follow him on Twitter @kevindgrant.