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. Different Unitarians may draw on elements of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and other world religions.
Sinkford, elected the 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.
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. Are you no longer an atheist? What happened? 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.
We're a very pluralistic faith, religiously, and my experience of and relationship to the holy does not need to inform the experience or the relationship of the holy of others in our faith.
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 of the Episcopal Church, transubstantiation, the triune of God (the Trinity).
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. I didn't think that I needed anything beyond my own power.
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 a remarkable experience, where the real doubts of people were valued as much as the things that they proclaimed to believe. It automatically became my home. 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. Because the congregation had been very active in the civil rights struggle in the 1950s and early 1960s, there were a significant number of African-Americans in the congregation. 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, as proof that Unitarian Universalism was in favor of racial justice and was not caught up in the trap of racism that dominates so much of our society. 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. It did not mean that they were perfect and free of racism and racist assumptions, but it might mean that Unitarian Universalism was willing, once again, to look at those assumptions and to try to make the kind of changes that would lead to the beloved community that we all want to see.
This sermon that our work on race was not done — but only beginning — was hard for some Unitarian Universalists to hear. They wanted to believe that their work was done with my election, but I think that most of our folks have gotten over that and understand that 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.
First, we have to look back in history. There was a time — in the 1960s particularly — when a significant number of African-Americans joined our congregations, and it was based entirely on the kind of public witness for civil rights. Our ministers were out in public. They were leading demonstrations. As you suggested a moment ago, hundreds of our ministers went to Selma to march with Dr. King. We were clearly a group of allies in the struggle, and many persons of color came, checked out our congregations and found them welcoming spiritual communities and joined.
In 1968, 1969 and 1970, there was what most of us experienced as a retreat. In 1968, the Unitarian Universalist Association had made a commitment to reparations for the black community, even before the call for reparations was made. Many of us were buoyed and enthusiastic that this was a continuation of that witness for justice. But things got complicated. The reaction to that commitment was controversial in the Unitarian Universalist congregations, and finances were tight. And so that commitment, it was then a million dollars, was never fulfilled. Only half of it was ever paid.
And the reaction of many persons of color in our movement was, and I am among them, was one of a deep sense of betrayal. You know, this was a faith community that offered us so much hope, and for that commitment to be withdrawn was more than I could tolerate. And it actually led me to leave Unitarian Universalism for a number of years.
A second reason for the difficulty in attracting people of color has to do with where our congregations are located. In the period of the rapid development of the suburbs, many of our downtown congregations elected to move out into essentially lily-white, often legally lily-white, suburban communities. And so it's really no surprise for those congregations that they don't have a significant number of people of color there. And I preach this, as well. You have to look at the decisions you've made and the impacts those decisions have on who's able to be present.
The third thing is that Unitarian Universalists are the most highly educated people in the United States, and much of our worship came to be dominated by the intellect rather than by the heart. One of the things happening now in Unitarian Universalism is that we're reclaiming some of that heart, and I think that opens us to membership by a broader range of persons. We're not just the crowd of university professors and the terminally overeducated folks anymore.
Maxwell: Let's talk about sin. How do you view sin, and how do most UUs view sin as a concept? What role does it play in their personal lives?
Sinkford: The broad religious community is quite divided in terms of the theological concept of sin. For many in the Christian community, sin is viewed as something that is inherent and is very much tied to human sexuality. Unitarian Universalists take a very different view. We believe that human sexuality is one of God's greatest gifts to us, that it needs to be used responsibly, of course, but that it is not a source of sinfulness. It's a source of holiness and of joy.
Having said that, 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. And it's that human fallibility I'm referring to when I talk about sinfulness. The reality for the Unitarian Universalists is that it is in the religious community that the fallibility can be most effectively held, where we have direct lines of accountability to others, where we can recognize the mistakes that we've made, the selfishness that we've fallen prey to and find forgiveness for that and find a way to move beyond it.
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.
Our roots begin with American democracy, but here in this country, we go back even further to our pilgrim and Puritan ancestors from whom the congregational way of being religious evolved. Our religious ancestors have been a part of the American story since there was an American story. We're the furthest thing from being new on the scene that there could be.
And Unitarian Universalists have always been prominent in all of the social movements in this country. We were prominent in the abolitionist movement, and Unitarian leaders, both men and women, were very prominent in the struggle for women's empowerment, women's right to vote, and so it has continued on to the present day. We support the struggle of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. So we have been a part of the American democratic tradition since there was one.
Maxwell: Throughout its existence, the UUA has shied away from proselytizing. What made the church change its mind and proselytize at this time? Or do you call it proselytizing?
Sinkford: No, we don't call it proselytizing. We call it marketing. We're making Unitarian Universalism available to those who yearn for a liberal religious home. What we found in looking at our faith community was that as people found our churches, they would come in and tell very much the same story, regardless of what part of the country they were in.
They would come in and say: "I never thought I'd find a church like this. I never thought I'd find a church where I didn't have to check my intellect at the door. I never thought I'd find a church where my children could receive religious education based on values that I actually affirm. Where have you been all my life?"
And so in hearing these stories, we decided that Unitarian Universalism had made a mistake, that we had been willing to be the best-kept religious secret in town for far too long. There were many people out there who were actually yearning for what we find in our congregations every week — yearning for a place where they could bring their religious questions and religious doubts and their religious certainties into a community where they could receive support for their individual spiritual journey rather than some theoretical religious journey based on a particular creed or belief.
Maxwell: In that light, 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.
I think that there's no doubt that that's continuing today, and I'm delighted that we're a faith community that can honor and support those persons. But frankly, more of the people who are joining our congregations now would describe themselves as un-churched, at least for a while. These are folks who left their church of origin and had been out in the world without a religious affiliation for some time.
Many of them come in when they marry and have children, and they want their children to receive religious education; they want their children to know something about religious matters and faith development. Some are older persons who have been happy to live without an affiliation with a church — in some cases, for many years. But they find, due to a particular passage in their life, that they need a church now.
I was asked some time ago whether we were benefiting particularly from the stresses and strains in some of the other faith traditions, particularly the Catholic tradition. My response is that we're not particularly benefiting any more than we have been for decades. What we do is to try and make our faith available, and we're having some success.
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. I was in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 11, 2001, and my first thought on Sept. 12 was the American Muslim Council because I knew that Muslims would be profiled and targeted. I just had no doubt. And when we got there — I was with another Unitarian Universalist leader — the death threats had already started coming into the switchboard. They were very thankful to receive our support.
So one of the ways to deal with today's landscape is to actively reach out, and that's what we've been doing for the last six years, not just with the Muslim community — although that has certainly been a constant — but to other religious communities, as well.
MAXWELL: The UUA has no creed but it affirms and promotes seven principles that are clearly liberal. Do these principles put the church at odds with the major mainline faiths?
SINKFORD: Our principles are one of our strengths. From affirming the inherent worth and dignity of each and every person to affirming the reality of the of the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part, they provide a set of ethical values that we can come together around in our theological diversity. They provide a center for us, and it's a different center from Christian or Muslim or Jewish. It's a different center, but what I have found and, what I believe deeply, is that the heart of those principles that we affirm also are the heart of all of the world's great faith traditions.
There's a function for the church, for any church, in helping folks get through the week. That's not to be downplayed. But for Unitarian Universalism, it really is true that we expect more of our folks than that.
We expect them not only to be nurtured and supported and get through the week, as they say, but also to understand that they're called to try to make the world a better place. It really is deeds, not creeds for us.