SALT LAKE CITY
When news spread last November that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, headquartered here in Utah's capital, had played a pivotal role in persuading California voters to reject same-sex marriage, many Unitarian Universalists, especially those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, asked the congregation to move its 48th annual general assembly to another city.
But the Rev. William G. Sinkford, then-president of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association, refused to boycott Salt Lake City. Boycotting, or leaving the table, did not fit his governing style or adhere to his theology of "relationships."
"I'm a strong believer that you can only work for change when you are in a relationship," he said. "I'm one who believes that you find partnerships where you can on the issues where you can. It's an opportunity to talk about other things. … We're trying to raise our voice in terms of support for the (GLBT) community. Unitarian Universalists have been without a doubt the strongest voice for equality in marriage.
"What better place to raise that voice than in Utah? We want (Utah residents) to know that there is a liberal religious voice that is supporting the inherent worth and dignity of every person. A voice that says we are all God's children and that the most important task for all of us is to find a way to live together, not despite our differences but in celebration of them."
Sinkford's words affirmed his unique journey as the leader of the association, framed the tenor of the Unitarians' five-day presence in the heart of Mormonism and underscored the association's commitment to social justice and diversity.
Elected in 2001 as the UUA's seventh president, Sinkford is the first African-American to lead a historically white denomination in the United States. During an interview last year, before Barack Obama ascended to the Oval Office, I asked Sinkford what his election meant to his fellow Unitarians.
"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," he said. "In fact, if anything, it meant that (our work) was just beginning again. … 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."
Although term limits prevented Sinkford from running for re-election, the congregation again made history by electing the Rev. Peter Morales of Golden, Colo., as the first Latino to lead a historically white denomination in the United States. His opponent was the Rev. Laurel Hallman of Dallas. If elected, she would have made history by being the first woman to lead a historically white denomination.
The 62-year-old Morales was born in a West Texas barrio to Mexican-American and Spanish parents. He is bilingual, and he enjoyed successful careers in academia and publishing before entering the ministry.
In a letter hours after his victory, Morales reassured the more than 3,500 assemblygoers, especially those who voted for his opponent, of his Unitarian Universalist bona fides: "Mil gracias ('a thousand thanks'). The challenges before us are great. We continue to live in a world where fear and hatred cause suffering and violence. Greed and acquisitiveness threaten life on our planet. We are surrounded by millions of people seeking a spiritual home that is free and open. We face historic cultural and ethnic change in America. We must learn to express our love and values in new cultural contexts. … Ours will be a presidency passionately engaged in the great moral issues of our time: economic justice, peace, and human rights."
Unitarians know that numbers and perceptions are against them. According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, only about 0.3 percent of American adults identify as Unitarians. Many nonmembers see Unitarians as a strange group. Unitarians, however, shown to be the most educated of all U.S. congregations in some surveys, believe they represent the essence of what it means to American.
"Here in the United States, Unitarians believe that we actually invented American democracy," Sinkford said during our 2008 interview in Boston. "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."
(For the record, five U.S. presidents were Unitarians. The other two not mentioned above are Millard Fillmore and William Howard Taft. Taft also served as the only Unitarian U.S. Supreme Court Chief justice. Illinois Gov. Adlai Stevenson, a Democrat, was the last card-carrying Unitarian presidential candidate. Although seldom mentioned, Obama has Unitarian roots, which can be seen in many of his social justice statements and policies.)
Morales said he wants the congregations to "reach all those people who are looking for a nondogmatic, liberal religious community." He said that the social justice work and welcoming tradition of Unitarian Universalism can "help heal the world."
Bill Maxwell has been a Unitarian since 1969.