Transformative Faith–The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism

Black Lives Matter (Wikimedia Commons)

In July 2015, a group of Black Unitarian Universalists met at the Movement for Black Lives Convening in Cleveland, Ohio and formed a new organization: The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism Organizing Collective (Black Lives UU or BLUU). While this group, which included Leslie Mac and Lena Gardner, both activists in the Movement for Black Lives, did not set out for Cleveland to create a new organization or faith community, that is exactly what they did. Drawing from the seven Principles of the broader Unitarian Universalist (UU) movement, as well as the ideology of the Black Lives Matter movement, Black Lives UU developed its own seven principles, including “All Black Lives Matter,” “Love and Self-Love is Practiced in Every Element of All We Do,” and “Spiritual Growth is Directly Tied to Our Ability to Embrace Our Whole Selves.” The group quickly grew and engaged in effective fundraising that allowed it to bring over 200 Black Unitarian Universalists to the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) General Assembly in 2017, a record for Black attendance at that annual meeting. It likewise boasts a vibrant social media presence that has made the organization the go-to space for Black UUs around the country and around the world to share ideas, support one another, and build community.1

While the creation of Black Lives UU might seem to be a novel development in the history of both Black and liberal religion, African Americans have engaged with and been key figures in American religious liberalism since the eighteenth century. Gloster Dalton, a freed slave, was a founding member of the first Universalist church in the United States in 1785. Amy Scott, a free Black woman, was likewise a founding member of the First Universalist Society in Philadelphia in 1790. Egbert Ethelred Brown founded a Unitarian congregation in Jamaica in 1908 and then moved to Harlem, where he assembled the Harlem Unitarian Church in 1920. In 1947, Lewis A. McGee founded the Free Religious Fellowship in Chicago, a Unitarian church that is still in existence. Along with these pioneers, Black members of the denomination founded the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) in the late 1960s in an attempt to make the denomination more responsive to the demands of the Black Power Movement. While that organization lasted just six years, it provided a model for the contemporary Black Lives UU movement.

Just as BUUC aimed to wed the political principles of Black Power with the theology of Unitarian Universalism, so too has BLUU endeavored to bring together the politics of the broader Movement for Black Lives with the religious ideals of the denomination. Indeed, for the current leaders of the BLUU Organizing Collective—including Lena Gardner, Takiyah Nur Amin, and Mykal Slack—there is no sharp distinction between their faith and politics. If Unitarian Universalists proclaim the “inherent worth and dignity of every person” as the first of their seven Principles, then leaders of BLUU would argue all members of the denomination should be advocates of Black Lives Matter (BLM), both as a movement and as a political ideology. Additionally, BLUU has become a spiritual resource and home for BLM activists who are wary of traditional Black churches. Rather than show up and pass out church flyers at activist gatherings and events, BLUU leaders instead show up, take part in, and help fund these events, activities that provide a powerful example of faith in action for activists suspicious of faith leaders. BLUU has thus built on the powerful historical legacy of its predecessors in the denomination while creating something entirely new—a community of Black religious liberals with the funding to control their own organization and the drive to improve the lives of those on the margins, especially Black women and LGBTQ identified individuals.

Founding BLUU

Probably the main driving force behind the founding of BLUU was Leslie Mac, an activist who founded the Ferguson Response Network after the murder of Michael Brown in August 2014. Shortly after Darren Wilson killed the unarmed teenager, Mac got into a conflict with the UU minister of her Cherry Hill, New Jersey congregation. He had written an op-ed in a local newspaper calling the protests in Ferguson a race riot, a characterization with which Mac strongly disagreed. Mac notes that she ended up leaving the church because “the more black liberation work I was doing, the less inviting the church became to me.” Mac was surprised and excited to find a number of other Black Unitarian Universalists present at the Movement for Black Lives convening and they shared similar experiences with her. “I remember Royce James,” she states, “who was one of the founding members of BLUU. He was there with his daughter Isis and he said ‘well you know, I’ve just gotten to the point where I’ll drop the kids off, and I really can’t go in there anymore.’” Lena Gardner, who would become the Executive Director of BLUU, expressed a similar sentiment, noting “‘as soon as I started doing that work, it became, every time I go into church, somebody wanted to confront me; somebody wanted to ask me or tell me what I should or shouldn’t be doing, and it stopped being a safe place for me.’”2

Lena Gardner was another driving force behind the founding of BLUU and reflects well the dual goals of providing space for Black UUs while also helping forward the Movement for Black Lives. Gardner’s religious upbringing was decidedly non-institutional, largely because of her grandfather, a conservative Baptist preacher who espoused a theology where “women were evil…dancing was evil, everything was evil and everybody was going to Hell.” Her father, traumatized by his early church experiences, tried to shield her from that and introduced her to “spirituality and God as sort of in nature and also in community, and sort of to be really honoring the divine in every person and every individual,” values that would mesh well with Unitarian Universalism, which she was introduced to shortly before starting a Master’s degree in Justice and Peace Studies at the United Theological Seminary in Minnesota. Even as she was drawn to the faith and its theology, she still struggled with the demographics of the congregation and the denomination, both of which are overwhelmingly white. Nevertheless, Gardner posits, “there are no open and affirming black churches in Minneapolis…and identifying as a queer person, I just made a choice that I would rather put up with the racism and the whiteness at the UU congregation…than the patriarchy and the homophobia at the black churches around here.”3

Gardner’s experience at the First Universalist Church of Minneapolis would end up being similar to Leslie Mac’s and would propel her to take a leading role in Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. Gardner was one of the founders of the Black Lives Matter chapter of Minneapolis in 2014 and she states that once the movement there began “that tore up my soul a little bit because, you know, I would go to church and, you know, these white people would say the most ridiculous things, and I was like man, I don’t think I can do this anymore. You know they had these political analyses that are void of an understanding of structural and systemic oppression…they pull out of an ahistorical vacuum.” Like Leslie Mac, the lunch that Gardner attended at the BLM convening in Cleveland with other Black UUs was eye opening and raised an important question that remains a central one for BLUU: “how can we make a home that is unapologetically black and makes room for a diversity of black experiences and…perspectives and viewpoints and is also theologically UU?” This question led to Gardner, Mac, and others to found BLUU in August 2015. “We started it by putting our UU principles through the lens of blackness,” she posits. “That means our first principle was black lives matter.”4

BLUU and the Movement for Black Lives

Along with providing pastoral and spiritual care to Black UUs, Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism was explicitly created to forward the Movement for Black Lives. Lena Gardner notes that goal is “the one area where all of us are very aligned as far as on the OC (Organizing Collective). Like we must be working as part of a broader Movement for Black Lives, and, you know, that’s just very important to us…and in solidarity with other movements for justice.” One way they do this is by showing up and being there for protests, demonstrations, and other activities that are part of the movement. Another way is by using their funds to support people and organizations in need. BLUU donated $5,000 to the Highlander Center in Tennessee and likewise provided $90,000 in disaster relief from Hurricane Harvey, most of which went directly to Black women who were affected by the storm. BLUU leaders note that in addition to them being influenced by BLM, they are in turn trying to shape the movement. As Leslie Mac claims, “this belief in the inherent worth and dignity of all people, when you put that in the context of black liberation, that means that all black people have to be considered when you’re organizing, when you’re planning, when you’re thinking what you’re going to do.”5

Showing up and actively contributing to the Movement for Black Lives is BLUU’s indirect way of proselytizing and growing its membership. According to Takiyah Amin, “UUs were never good at the whole proselytizing thing. But if there is any proselytizing, it’s through the work. And I think people seeing us show up as folks of faith to work and not to pass out pamphlets that say ‘come to my church’ has been really effective in terms of getting folks in the movement interested in what we’re doing over here.” Leslie Mac expressed a similar sentiment, noting that “we have so many people that we lovingly refer to as BLUU adjacent, so they’re not technically UUs, but they continually come to our events, they come to our spaces, they connect with us, and I think they see us living out our faith in a way that’s in alignment with the cause of black liberation, and it speaks to them.” An ultimate goal of this approach is for BLUU to become the spiritual home of activists in the Movement for Black Lives. While many of these activists are wary of traditional religious institutions and religious authorities, BLUU’s leadership, which consists predominantly of queer-identified and trans individuals, is not just open and affirming toward those groups, but actually reflects much of the leadership of Black Lives Matter, many of whom also identify in similar ways. As Takiyah Nur Amin posits, “in my dreams, Unitarian Universalism could become sort of the faith of the future for those of us who are committed to this kind of justice and liberation thing.” In just a few short years, BLUU has become an incredibly dynamic religious movement and represents another powerful example of the way that Black Lives Matter has and is in the process of shaping the contours of African American thought and culture.6

  1. Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism, “7 Principles of Black Lives”, Accessed August 6, 2019.
  2. Author Interview with Leslie Mac, August 30, 2018.
  3. Author Interview with Lena Gardner, December 18, 2018.
  4. Author Interview with Lena Gardner, December 18, 2018.
  5. Author Interview with Lena Gardner, December 18, 2018; Author Interview with Leslie Mac, August 30, 2018.
  6. Author Interview with Takiyah Nur Amin, August 22, 2018; Author Interview with Leslie Mac, August 30, 2018.
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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.

Comments on “Transformative Faith–The Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism

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    Thank you for this article, Chris. I just finished participating in the 2020 Virtual General Assembly of the UUA, and BLUU was a real presence there. Mykal Slack, a member of the Commission on Institutional Change, also participated in several presentations that I attended. I’m hopeful that this will be a moment when UUs begin to implement the real change needed to address systemic racism in individual congregations and in the larger denomination.

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    Thank you for this article. BLUU is very central to my understanding and support of Black Lives Matter. As a white UU, I am very thankful for the critique that BLUU has provided to UUism. We have to listen and follow the report from the Commission on Institutional Change. If we fail this time, UUism is doomed.

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