UU People I Never Knew Of

Being a life-long Unitarian Universalist you think I would have heard of some of the key lay leaders and theologians, activists and members over the years.  Honestly there was little in my religious education that gave me much of a foundation on Unitarian Universalism, or Unitarianism and Universalism.  Ian White Maher reminded me of the age old debate in UU Religious Education – are we preparing "people" or are we preparing "Unitarian Universalists".    He made a good point that perhaps Unitarian Universalism is only good for people for a decade or so (I read somewhere that the average is 8 years for members of UU congregations in the mid 1990’s).  Rev. Alison Miller offered a counterpoint that the thought of UU RE NOT preparing people as Unitarian Universalists was shocking.  I tend to agree

with Alison’s point, although must say I have some apprecation for the perspective that Unitarian Universalism is a post-modern, post-Christian spiritual community that has clear limits where we are not effective – i.e. – in sustaining the religious involvement of lifelong Unitarian Universalists.  My home fellowship had this feeling, although I believe it is changing.

We digressed into a conversation about interesting UU people we never knew of before we got out of our congregation (Ian and I):

1) Rev. James Reeb who just had a memorial placed at the UUA Headquarters at 25 Beacon St.  Reeb was murdered by white supremacists in Alabama where he was showing solidarity for African-Americans.  As he left a campus ministry meeting with Clark Olsen and Orloff Miller at a small cafe, the three Rev’s were jumped and Reeb killed.  His death became a calling card for civil rights, referred to regularly by Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King (btw – I just listend to King’s Riverside Church speech opposing Vietnam.  Awesome and he also invokes Reeb’s name).

2) Robert "Bob" Alpern who used to be Director of the UUA Washington Office, succeded by Rev Meg Riley.  I met Bob at the old annual UU Social Justice Conference in 1989 when I attended a youth program there.  There were only a dozen youth, of which 3 of us became fast friends and are all in the ministry track now, and People of Color – Mitra Rahnema (Starr King), Rebecca Savage (Meadville) and me (Harvard)!  Bob and I have been able to stay in touch throughout the years.  He is consultant with the Friends Committee on National Legislation.  He is old-school effective community organizer and political director.  It is fun to sit and hear his stories, something I hope we can do again soon at his Northern Californian log cabin.

3) Rev David Eaton who became the first African-American Senior Minister at All Souls Washington DC.  At a DRUUMM Conference there years ago I remember sitting in the Eaton Room and just taking in the story of how he came to Unitarian Universalism.  In many ways he was recruited by a white male minister who was conscious of race and racism.  I don’t know if Rev Duncan Howlett saw himself as an anti-racist, but it is certainly possible (All Souls History). 

4) Ralph Waldo Emerson

5) Theodore Parker (I really want to read a new bio on him by I believe Dean Grodzkins of Meadville Lombard)

6) Thomas Starr King – who is buried at or near the First UU Church SF, supposedly one of the only white people officially buried in the city limits.  More known obviously for his anti-abolition work, street corner preaching to keep California a Free State, and then his name enshrined at Starr King School for the Ministry.

There are more folks – but curiously, who did you learn about that you find memorable and modeling for Unitarian Universalism?


6 responses to “UU People I Never Knew Of

  1. What would Ralph Waldo Emerson have said if we asked him what it’s like to be a Unitarian Universalist?

    Probably “What’s a Unitarian Universalist?”

  2. “There are more folks – but curiously, who did you learn about that you find memorable and modeling for Unitarian Universalism?”

    My top four UU roles models at the moment….

    Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web
    Ysaye Maria Barnwell, composer, scholar, singer with Sweet Honey in the Rock
    Mary Pipher, psychologist, and writer on the topic of raising healthy adolescent girls
    William R. Jones, theologian and author of “Is God a White Racist?”

  3. Two from the past who I wish I didn’t have to pay seminary tuition to find out about: James Freeman Clarke, founder of the Church of the Disciples, and George DeBenneville, pioneer of Universalist pietism (a word I wish more of us could embrace).

  4. I can’t help but think that if UU World were read by — and perhaps made more accessible to — UU young people, no one could have missed any of these people. Almost all of them have been discussed prominently in the magazine in the last decade, some more than once. (Alpern probably less than the others — his name was new to me in reading your post.)

  5. Regarding people mentioned in the comments: UU World may not have given James Freeman Clarke his due in a while, and I’m sorry to discover that Ysaye Maria Barnwell hasn’t made an appearance that I can find. Thomas Starr King has been mentioned or quoted several times, but not fully described in quite a while. Pipher writes for the magazine; Bill Jones has been quoted or pictured at least three times in the last five years; Tim Berners-Lee has been profiled twice; the magazine has run articles focused on Emerson (a cover story), Parker (a full book review), and de Benneville (a history column).

    Having said that, repetition reinforces any impression, and it’s too bad that our great ones aren’t talked about enough for any single impression to stick.

  6. Maybe it’s the “Our Whole Lives” UU sexuality educator influence in me, but I would suggest the following names for our listing of famous Unitarian Universalists:

    ** James H. Barrett, Lt Col, US Air Force (retired) – James Barrett was shot and killed while performing abortion clinic escort duty in Pensacola FL back in 1994. Perhaps we should consider him our “James Reeb” for reproductive choice? Here’s a link to his bio info from the Arlington Cemetery web site:

    ** Rev Debra Haffner – Debra has served as the CEO for the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, co-founded the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, and is now an ordained UU minister. Here’s the link to her bio info from the Religious Institute web site:

    ** Joani Blank – Businesswoman, sexuality educator, writer, and the founder of the “Good Vibrations” worker-owned business. Joani is a member of the First UU Church of Oakland CA. Her web site is located here:

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