MAXWELL: Leading a religion that lacks a creed

4/13/2008 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper


The Rev. William G. Sinkford, the 61-year-old president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is a Harvard graduate and the first African-American to lead a historically white denomination in the United States.
Unitarians, who practice probably the most liberal of all religions, do not share a creed but hope to help each other grow spiritually. Unitarians may draw on elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other world religions.
Sinkford, elected seventh president of the Unitarian Universalist Association in June 2001, fields some questions here, including his views on Barack Obama’s former pastor, from Bill Maxwell, a Times columnist and member of the editorial board who has been a Unitarian since 1969. The answers are condensed and edited for space.
MAXWELL: For most of your adult life, before becoming president of the UUA, you called yourself a “stand-up atheist.” You’ve stopped referring to yourself that way. Do you now believe in God?
Sinkford: I gradually came to have a relationship with the luminance or the spirit that actually changed my spiritual path about 10 years ago when my adolescent son got into trouble with drugs and overdosed.
As I was sitting beside his bed in the hospital, as the afternoon grew into evening, I had an experience of being held. I didn’t know by what or by whom, but I knew that I was being held and supported, and somehow I knew that my son was, as well. As the evening lengthened and I continued to sit with him, I found that presence incredibly hopeful regardless of what the morning would bring.
Out of that experience with my son, I came to develop a prayer life, and I no longer consider myself an atheist. I do believe in God, but I don’t invest much energy in trying to define what or who that god is. I use the language of God in my ministry here with the Unitarian Universalist Association.
MAXWELL: What initially brought you to Unitarianism, the nation’s most liberal denomination?
Sinkford: In my childhood, my family attended the Episcopal Church, the black Episcopal Church in Detroit, and the black Baptist Church in western rural North Carolina. Out of that experience, I had decided that organized religion was not for me. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the liturgical mysteries.
Although the community of the Baptist Church was phenomenal, and the church was the heart of the community, hellfire was preached from the pulpit, and I had decided that if there was a God, that that would be a loving God who would not be in the business of condemning anyone to hellfire. I didn’t need a God in my life.
When my mother and I moved up to Cincinnati, Ohio, from North Carolina, where we had been taking care of my grandmother, my mother decided that we needed a new religious home. She dragged me, at age 14, kicking and screaming into the First Unitarian Church of Cincinnati.
I found there the experience of being able to bring all of my questions, to bring my announced atheism, to bring all of my honest uncertainties and questions into that congregation and to have them all welcomed. It was soul satisfying to be in a place where I didn’t have to leave my intellect at the door to come in.
I was helped by the fact that the religious educator in that congregation was an African-American woman. There were enough dark faces for me to know that it was okay to be a person of color in the presence of those white Unitarian Universalists, that it was a safe place and welcoming place.
MAXWELL: You’re the first black person to lead a historically white denomination in the United States. Is it significant that UUs were the first to embrace a black leader?
Sinkford: Certainly the press thought it was an important event. Papers from the New York Times right on down ran feature stories about that, and I think, pretty clearly, Unitarian Universalists thought it was important. It was a sign to them that it was possible for them to re-engage with the issue of race, which had been so important to us in the 1950s and 1960s, but which we had moved away from.
Many of them saw it as an affirmation. My response to that was to try to help Unitarian Universalism understand what my election meant and what it did not mean. I continually say to our good folks that the fact that they elected a black person as president did not mean that their work on race was over.
In fact, if anything, it meant that it was beginning again. This sermon that our work on race was not done – but only beginning – was hard for some Unitarian Universalists to hear. Racism was not created in a generation and it will not be eliminated in a generation, as much as we might wish it. So we are actively engaged and re-engaged now.
MAXWELL: Let’s stay with this. Video clips of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s sermons have ignited a firestorm of praise and rage. Wright, of course, is Sen. Barack Obama’s former pastor in Chicago. Almost everything regarding race, especially the role of the black church and “black liberation theology,” have been brought into sharp relief. As a black Unitarian Universalist pastor and head of the UUA, do you share Wright’s vision of America and his brand of theology?
Sinkford: First, I know few pastors who would want their ministry judged by one or two sound bites taken out of context from particular sermons preached over 30 years. And the white community should not be surprised that there is frustration and anger in the community of color over the ongoing failure of the United States to live out the promise of equality and freedom that is at the heart of the American creed. That many white Americans are so shocked and surprised is perhaps the clearest sign that we need to have a better national conversation about race and racism in this land.
Although I do not use some of Rev. Wright’s language, I do embrace the call for justice that is at its heart. Unitarian Universalists have always been in the vanguard of those calling for a more perfect union, for inclusion of more and more of us when we answer the Gospel question, “Who is my neighbor?” One critical role of the religious community is to call us to account when our society falls short of our lofty aspirations. When that prophetic voice challenges us and makes us uncomfortable, it is a sure sign that we have work to do.
MAXWELL: Although the UUA had more ministers in the civil rights movement, including the march from Selma to Montgomery with Dr. Martin Luther King, why does the UUA have such a hard time attracting black members today?
Sinkford: That’s probably the most commonly asked question I get as I travel extensively in the United States to our congregations. My standard response is that for a faith community that is still predominantly white, it is not spiritually grounded to go out and try to acquire a few more dark faces so that the white members of the congregation feel better about themselves.
MAXWELL: Let’s talk about sin.
Sinkford:I do believe, and most Unitarian Universalists believe, that there is a kind of sinfulness that we have as human beings, that human beings are, in fact, fallible creatures. We make mistakes and whether intentionally or unintentionally, we hurt people and we hurt ourselves as a result of those mistakes.
We talk about Unitarian Universalism as being a covenantal faith, and it’s based on a series of promises that we make to one another about how we will be together in community. And central to those promises is our willingness to accept the fact that we will make mistakes, our faith that we can be forgiven for those mistakes and our trust that we can always move one step closer to the beloved community.
MAXWELL: Most people don’t know much about Unitarian Universalism, believing that it is a new, even strange, denomination. What are its historical roots and influences?
Sinkford: Unitarianism and Universalism, merging to become Unitarian Universalists in 1961, have roots that go back to Europe in the very yeasty religious period that they call the Reformation and the radicalism that evolved. Here in the United States, Unitarians believe that we actually invented American democracy. Thomas Jefferson considered himself a Unitarian, and John Adams and John Quincy Adams were two other early Unitarian presidents. We were signers of the Declaration of Independence, and our values and principles – liberty, acceptance, tolerance and the freedom to believe – underpin the American Constitution.
MAXWELL: A recent Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life survey indicates that half of Americans have switched to different religious denominations from the ones they were reared in, and 28 percent have moved to a different major tradition or to no religion – from, say, Jewish to unaffiliated, from Roman Catholic to Protestant. Is the UUA benefiting from this extraordinary flux, and why?
Sinkford: It is an extraordinary flux. I have to say that we have been benefiting. We had been prescient to the reality that people have been experiencing a lack of fit with their tradition for decades. Unitarian Universalism, and Unitarianism before it, was a place where people who married and had different religious backgrounds could come and have their love affirmed. So there were many Jewish-Christian, Catholic-Protestant and Catholic-Jewish families who found that a Unitarian Universalist congregation was a place where they could both comfortably exist.
MAXWELL: As the leader of the nation’s most progressive and pluralistic denomination, what is your greatest challenge in attracting new members and gaining an effective voice in mainstream debates?
Sinkford: It is a somewhat complicated issue to operate in the broad religious community today for Unitarian Universalism because we are not easily pigeonholed. We do not consider ourselves a Christian faith, although there are many good Christian Unitarian Universalists.
We pitch a big theological tent where it’s absolutely standard operating procedure in our pews for there to be a liberal Christian person sitting next to an atheist, sitting next to a pagan, sitting next to a person who follows one of the varieties of Buddhist meditative techniques. It’s a little bit hard for some of the rest of the religious world to understand who we all are and to make relationships with us. We’ve been working hard at changing this and, again, I think with some success.
About the Rev. William G. Sinkford
Born in San Francisco, the Rev. William G. Sinkford grew up in Cincinnati, graduated cum laude from Harvard University in 1968, and spent the following year in Greece as a Michael Clark Rockefeller Fellow. From 1970 to 1980, he held management and marketing positions with Avon Products, Gillette, Johnson Products and Revlon. Later, he operated his own business, Sinkford Restorations Inc., and was a volunteer with community action groups in a not-for-profit housing development. He received the Master of Divinity degree in 1995 and was ordained the same year.
History of Unitarian Universalism
Unitarian Universalism is a liberal faith that evolved out of Christian and Jewish traditions and traces it roots back 500 years to the Protestant Reformation. In 1961, the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association combined, forming the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Nationally, the church has 268,000 members.
Learn more: Unitarian Universalists of Tampa Bay Area, or Unitarian Universalist Association,
Unitarian principles
Members share seven principles, agreeing to affirm and promote: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.