Celebrating Black History Month: Frances Ellen Watkins Harper

(Information for this article was taken from the Dictionary of UU Biography.)

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was an African-American woman born in Baltimore in 1825 to free parents and raised by her uncle, the abolitionist William Watkins. Frances developed a love of literature at an early age and began writing poetry, publishing it in the local newspaper. After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 she moved to Ohio and Pennsylvania and began working to free escaped slaves on the underground railroad. She became a successful poet, writing poetry that attacked the institution of slavery. She also traveled extensively throughout the country as a popular lecturer speaking out against slavery. She used the proceeds from writing and lecturing to free slaves.

In 1859 Frances Watkins published the first short story written by an African-American, called “The Two Offers.” This work introduced feminist themes. The Dictionary of UU Biography says:

Although cast in fictional form, the piece is actually a sermon on the important life choices made by young people, women in particular. The tale relates the tragedy of a woman who mistakenly thinks romance and married love to be the only goal and center of her life. "Talk as you will of woman's deep capacity for loving," Watkins preached, "of the strength of her affectional nature. I do not deny it; but will the mere possession of any human love, fully satisfy all the demands of her whole being? . . . But woman—the true woman—if you would render her happy, it needs more than the mere development of her affectional nature. Her conscience should be enlightened, her faith in the true and right established, and scope given to her Heaven-endowed and God-given faculties."

A lifelong member of the AME church, Watkins was introduced to Unitarians through her work on the underground railroad. Her theology became Unitarian. After the abolition of slavery, Frances Watkins (now married and known as Frances Harper) joined the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia but retained allegiance to both churches.

After the Civil War, Frances Harper began to work for women’s rights, including the right to vote. Although she worked alongside Unitarian women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frances challenged the preoccupation of their feminism with white concerns. Many feminists of that day opposed the 14th and 15th amendments because they did not want to give the vote to black men ahead of white women. In her biography at poets.org we read:

In May 1866, [Harper] delivered the speech, “We Are All Bound Up Together” at the National Women’s Rights Convention in New York, sharing the stage with Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony. “You white women speak here of rights," she said. “I speak of wrongs.”

Along with the prominent African-American journalist Ida B. Wells, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper fought for African-American rights and against the evils of lynching. Her writing was widely published in news magazines and popular journals. She is known today as the “mother of African-American journalism.”

In 1894 she helped found the National Association of Colored Women and served as its vice president. She also continued all her life to do local service work in her community.

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper died in 1911. Although her literary reputation declined in the immediate aftermath of her death, her substantial body of work, including poems, short stories, and novels, is being rediscovered and appreciated anew today.

From the Dictionary of UU Biography:

During the 20th century, as her reputation waned and the best of her poetry languished unread. Harper's gravestone fell over and was covered by grass. In her celebrated poem, "Bury Me In a Free Land," she wrote,

I ask no monument, proud and high,
To arrest the gaze of passers-by;
All that my yearning spirit craves,
Is bury me not in a land of slaves.

In recent decades, however, black women and feminists in general have resurrected Harper's legacy. In 1992 African-American Unitarian Universalists honored her and commemorated the one-hundredth anniversary of Iola Leroy by installing a new headstone. In the excavation, the old headstone was uncovered, forgotten but still enduring. Harper's call for full human development—black and white, male and female—also endures, as urgent and vital during these decades following the Civil Rights movement and Women's Liberation as it was during Reconstruction and its aftermath.

For a more complete biography, see: http://uudb.org/articles/francesharper.html

You can read some of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s poetry here:

https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/frances-ellen-watkins-harper

Celebrating Black History Month at UUI

Dear Friends,
The poet Nikki Giovanni wrote in her poem “BLK History Month,” “If Black History Month is not viable then wind does not carry the seeds and drop them on fertile ground.” (See the complete poem at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/90179/blk-history-month)

We are kicking off a month celebrating Black History Month at UUI. Look for stories in the eblast and during services throughout the month telling of the contributions of African-Americans to Unitarian Universalism from the past up to the present day.

In the meantime, here are a few things you can check out:

Listen to Dr. Sofia Betancourt’s address at General Assembly 2018 (about 15 minutes) on creating a theology of liberation for the future of Unitarian Universalism. Dr. Betancourt is a professor at Starr King Seminary and was our first woman president of the UUA. She says, “Our first principle calls us to learn a language of resilience and liberation in response to the pain of the world that we have inherited.” https://www.uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/commission-institutional-change/blog/centering-theology-conversation-about

Listen to the Rev. Dr. William Sinkford’s sermon at General Assembly 2016. Dr. Sinkford is a former president of the Unitarian Universalist Association and Senior Minister at First Unitarian, Portland. His sermon begins with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the UUA in 1966 and discusses our denomination’s mixed history of successes and failures around racial justice work since. Seeing in the present moment a chance to start anew, he asks, “Are we willing to live as if the Beloved Community is more than just an idle dream?” (Dr. Sinkford’s sermon starts at about 1:29 in the video.) https://www.uua.org/ga/past/2016/worship/slt

Read the book Centering, edited by Mitra Rahnema, about the experiences of religious professionals of color in Unitarian Universalism. https://www.amazon.com/Centering-Navigating-Authenticity-Power-Ministry/dp/1558967990

Check out the website for Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism: http://www.blacklivesuu.com

It’s going to be a wonderful month exploring our African-American Unitarian Universalist heritage and celebrating the voice and vision of African-American UUs today. See you on Sunday!

The Five Practices of Welcome Renewal

Dear Friends,

I wanted to share with you an important change beginning in 2019 for the UUA’s “Welcoming Congregation” Program. The Welcoming Congregation Program is designed to help UU congregations live out their commitment to be welcoming to all people, and specifically to be welcoming to all sexual orientations, gender identities, and forms of gender expression. Today, the great majority of UU congregations (more than 800 of our 1,000+ UU congregations) are Welcoming Congregations.

UUI proudly became a Welcoming Congregation in 2003 as an expression of our core conviction that all forms of love and all gender identities are beautiful, and that we are enriched collectively when we are all free to live as our authentic selves. We also recognize that the society in which we live does not always practice these same values, and so we share a common commitment as a religious community, grounded in our UU principles, to work for justice for LGBTQ people.

With these values and commitments in mind, I was troubled by three separate items yesterday that came across my news feed:

  1. A news report that the U.S. Supreme Court has reinstated the President’s ban on transgender people serving in the military;

  2. House Bill 1525, introduced into the 2019 Indiana General Assembly, which would prevent public schools from accommodating transgender youth in use of restrooms appropriate for their gender identity;

  3. A report from TRUUsT (Transgender Religious Professional UUs Together) surveying transgender UUs for the first time, who report not feeling as welcome in our congregations as we aspire for them to be.


With the right of transgender people simply to exist currently under attack, our congregations need more than ever to be places of welcome, spiritual care, support, and healing for our trans siblings. We need to be fully living into our commitment to be a Welcoming Congregation.

In 2019 the UUA is launching a new program by which congregations can annually re-certify their status as Welcoming Congregations. It is called The Five Practices of Welcoming Renewal, and you can learn about the five steps here. I am happy to report that UUI’s commitment to welcoming and LGBTQ inclusion is such that we already live out most of these practices. The UUI staff, with the support of the Board of Trustees, will help guide the congregation over the course of the coming year in those areas where we need deeper engagement.  

If you are interested in learning more about this commitment or would like to help be a leader in this important work, please email me at ministry@uui.org.

In the meantime, here are some things you can do:

  1. Follow transuu.org and read their report on The Experiences of Trans Unitarian Universalists

  2. Subscribe to UPLIFT, the quarterly newsletter from the UUA's LGBTQ Ministries

  3. Learn more about Indiana Youth Group, which UUI supports through our Share the Plate program.

  4. Learn about the Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education program, which provides fact-based, shame free and LGBTQ supportive sexuality education to our UU youth,

  5. Call and write your representatives: be an advocate for LGBTQ people in local and national issues,

  6. Support an LGBTQ organization financially or with your time or expertise.


I’ll close this letter with a prayer from the Reverend Theresa Soto, “Prayer for Trans Justice”:


We come to you with words of grief,

but also, silent rage. We know that You

have made us and called us:

We are trans. And we are holy.

We are intersex. And we are sacred.

We are gender-diverse. And we are divine.

We know that Justice is

always on the side of the

Oppressed. Stay on our side now,

Creator. Call your people

to this place. Remind them

that Love is

more than saying.

Love is being and doing.

**

May it be so with our community.

Peace,

Jamie


An Update and a Few Thoughts on My Internship

Dear members and friends of UUI,

As many of you know, I am currently going through the process of seeking preliminary fellowship status with the Unitarian Universalist Association. This is the process by which our association credentials candidates for UU ministry. I wanted to give you all a little more information about that process, where I am at with it, and what that all means.

The fellowship process is separate from and different than ordination. Only congregations can ordain ministers, and it is ordination that confers ministerial status. The fellowship process certifies that a ministerial candidate has met a rigorous body of standards and been found suitable for professional ministry. Ministers who are both ordained and fellowshipped are welcomed into collegial covenant with other Unitarian Universalist ministers. This covenant between ministers is an important means by which ministers are both supported and held accountable in their service to congregations and to the larger faith.

As part of the process of seeking fellowship, I will be doing many things. Many of you know I am attending seminary at Christian Theological Seminary here in Indianapolis. Assuming all goes well, I’ll graduate in 2020. I am also required to serve 400 hours in a hospital chaplaincy setting. And I will spend a year serving as a supervised intern at a congregation. This year is my year of supervised internship, and the congregation where I am serving it is, of course, UUI.  What does that mean?

Formally, it means I have been paired with an experienced UU minister who I will be talking to weekly about all the ins and outs of ministry. My mentor is the Reverend Barbara Child, who served as our interim minister at UUI from 2008-2010. Rev. Child is an extremely accomplished minister, and I am fortunate to be benefiting from her wisdom and counsel. I also have a Ministerial Support Committee here at UUI, consisting of five members of UUI with whom I will be meeting monthly to discuss and evaluate my internship experience this year. Serving on the Ministerial Support Committee are Susan Cassada (chair), Mervyn Cohen, Janet Dunmyer, Mel Pleiss, and Kristel Robinson. I am very appreciative of the commitment they have made to help me through this process.

That is the formal work. But what is the internship really about?

The internship is a very important time in the ministerial formation process. It is time of guided action, followed by reflection. And then more reflection, and then some more reflection. The goal is not just that the intern learns the practical nuts and bolts of ministry, although there is that. The goal is that, by “doing ministry,” the intern becomes clear in their understanding of what THEIR ministry is--what it means both to themselves and for the world--and that both the future minister and the future ministry are spiritually mature and deeply grounded in Unitarian Universalism. Now, in my case, I have already been doing ministry more than most interns have at the time they begin their internship. And that suits me well. I LOVE to do things! I am a doer at heart. For this year, the challenge for me will be to focus more on the reflecting piece—to do less and reflect more. To spend more time in quiet with myself, to spend more time walking with our UU ancestors (and all the other great moral and spiritual teachers of humanity), to give my own spirit more room to speak—that is the charge for this year.

One of the things I love about Unitarian Universalism is its emphasis on lifelong spiritual development. In this tradition, we are all encouraged to be continuously learning and growing in our understanding of the world, in our understanding of ourselves, and in our understanding of the living tradition of Unitarian Universalism. This is our third principle. As someone going through ministerial formation, the internship year is intended to be a year for me when this principle takes center stage in my life and is lived out more intensely. The benefits to myself are personal. The benefit to UUI will be a Director of Ministry (and here’s hoping—a future minister) who is more maturely grounded in our shared religious tradition. I am very excited to be in the midst of this next stage of growth, and both delighted and gratified to be experiencing it here at UUI.    

--- Jamie