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A Slice of UUA History: An Address by Former UUA President Robert West

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General Assembly 2003 Event 3029

The Reverend Dr. Robert West served as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) from 1969 to 1977, one of the most turbulent periods in the UUA's history. "I hope no other UUA president has to go through what I did during the earlier portion of my time in office," said West, speaking of the financial troubles and bitter disagreements in the UUA at that time.

In his talk, West concentrated on three major issues that he faced as UUA president: the black empowerment controversy, a major financial crisis, and the publishing of the Pentagon papers.

The Financial Crisis in the UUA

Delegates to the 1969 General Assembly not only elected West to the UUA presidency, they also "approved overwhelming to reach a balanced budget." When West took office, he said, "we were well into a fiscal year that started several weeks before I was elected." He said he discovered that the UUA was operating under a deficit budget, and additionally "the outgoing administration had spent all unrestricted capital."

At a special Board meeting held right after West took office, West had to undertake an immediate restructuring of the UUA. Due to the budget crisis, West felt he had to cut the UUA staff in half, reducing staff to only 55 employees. "All employees in the 21 districts of the UUA had to be terminated," he said, and the Board eliminated 18 committees to further cut expenses.

Two months after that initial meeting, West discovered that "in addition, our bank held an open demand note for $450,000." Worse yet, $50,000 had been borrowed after he had been elected, in that fiscal year, but the former UUA treasurer had never mentioned the loan to West, or to anyone working at the UUA.

As West worked to cut UUA programs in order to balance the budget, he tried to save those programs that would help local congregations. "I was aware I was elected president of the entire denomination," said West, representing "all of the members in our movement" rather than just one faction. "I especially kept in mind that the primary purpose of the UUA was to serve the congregations," he said. "The life and real strength of our movement is in the day-to-day activities of local congregation. They are the life and the heart and the soul of our denomination."

"The general perception today seems to be that my eight-year tenure was frontloaded with [financial] problems. Unfortunately, that was not the case," said West. While he did inherit some financial problems, the North American economy went through two economic recessions, one of which was considered the worst crisis since the Great Depression.

"We had to cut the UUA budget every one of those years," said West of the first six years of his presidency. He said that during each of his years as president, the UUA held to the principle of spending only what was on hand. "When I left office, the UUA was in sound financial condition."

The Black Empowerment Controversy

According to West, the black empowerment controversy and the financial crisis were closely linked. West recalled the 1969 General Assembly at Boston, at which he was elected. During that General Assembly, members of the Black Affairs Council (BAC) and many white supporters walked out of the plenary meeting. At the 1968 General Assembly, delegates had voted to give the Black Affairs Council $250,000 a year for four years. However, said West, the UUA was facing a financial crisis which caused the UUA to reduce the amount of funding to the BAC.

Since the UUA's financial troubles should have been evident in 1968, West speculated why no one spoke out at the 1968 General Assembly in Cleveland, when a million dollars was first approved for BAC. "Why didn’t anyone stand up and say the UUA didn't have the money?" asked West. "It is my recollection that people did stand up and say that, but they were either hooted down or ignored."

"The delegates in Cleveland were caught up in a right-sounding cause," said West, and most of them did not fully understand the financial statements. "They had little patience for financial details," he said. "Emotion and fervor overcame reality." West also recalled sensing "an overpowering movement that you are either for us or against us." Financial naysayers at the 1968 General Assembly were accused of racism. The same thing happened at the 1969 General Assembly, said West, "but with more intensity."

West recalled a UUA board meeting in 1970 that was attended by members of BAC. The Board arranged for the meeting to be held at a hotel near the UUA in order to allow large numbers of observers to attend. Even though it was a large room with plenty of room for all those present to spread out, West said he was "dismayed" by what he called the "intimidation" of BAC supporters. He recalls being disappointed that "BAC members stood over the shoulders of the UUA board," and accused them of interfering with the democratic process of the UUA Board.

"Anti-institutionalism pervaded much of American society and much of our denomination" at that time, said West. "Confrontational tactics were in vogue." He remembered certain Unitarian Universalist ministers of that time saying, "25 Beacon Street should be sunk in Boston Harbor."

"That was an agonizing period in the life of our denomination, characterized by acrimony, anger, and pain, as we grappled with how we could deploy our energies effectively to combat racism and promote racial justice," said West. But although the Black Affairs Council disaffiliated itself from the UUA, West contends that UUA antiracism efforts were not defeated. "I say that what was defeated was the particular tactic that was employed to combat racial injustice. The UUA chose not to do it their [BAC's] way exclusively."

West contends that the UUA remained committed to antiracism efforts throughout his tenure as UUA president. According to West, the UUA "gave more than million and a half dollars to black-only organizations" during that time. West says that those who feel the UUA turned its back on black empowerment and racial justice for blacks "are wrong."

"The paramount issue was whether to cut core services to our congregations," West said, "in order to give an inordinate amount of money to a single cause," that is, to the Black Affairs Council. "I was dedicated primarily to preserving our Unitarian Universalist denomination as an effective force in serving the lives of persons in our society."

"It is not enough to want to do good, but to do good wisely," he said. "I believe the tension between our financial resources and the urge to fulfill the prophetic call of our religious heritage is never far from the surface in our movement."

The Pentagon Papers

West named a number of other topics he wished he had had the time to cover. He mentioned the establishment of a newspaper mailed to every UU household, a denomination-wide program on identity, the increasing influence of women, numerous social action efforts, and the establishment of a UUA office on gay concerns. While he passed over these and other major issues, West said "I feel compelled to comment briefly on the publication of The Pentagon Papers."

"Gobin Stair came to me on a summer day in 1971," said West. Stair was then the head of Beacon Press, the UUA's publishing house. Stair told West that Beacon Press wanted to publish a collection of government documents relating to United States involvement in the Vietnam War. Stair estimated that it would cost $50,000 to get the so-called Pentagon Papers into publication. In spite of the ongoing financial troubles of the UUA, West immediately approved their publication, and the book was published in October of that year.

What followed was 31 months of dramatic events that "included a secret FBI investigation" of the UUA. The UUA filed suit against the FBI and the United States Justice Department to halt the investigation, citing issues of religious freedom, freedom of association, government intimidation, repression of legitimate dissent, misuse of the power of the Justice Department and of grand juries, and misuse of secrecy by the government. Eventually, the UUA won the lawsuit.

The Pentagon Papers revealed that the United States government lied about the real situation in Vietnam, and West says the decision to publish was based on letting the public know that they had been lied to. West said he sees parallels between government harassment of the UUA regarding the Pentagon Papers, and current events. "I often wonder what would happen if the same decision was made today to publish similar documents, and I believe that the answer is not a pleasant one," said West.

According to West, Beacon Press published the Pentagon Papers in large part to help the United States avoid getting into another military involvement like Vietnam. But, said West, in the past month similar facts have been coming out about U.S. military involvement in Iraq. He wondered, "Will someone perform a similar function today?"

"Change," said West, was one word that summed up his two terms at the UUA. In addition to the dramatic institutional changes of his first years, he said that by his last years there was a change towards a climate of hope. "The morale of ministers was much higher, people seemed to feel that problems were solvable, there was a fresh interest in worship and theology," said West. "There seemed to be a hunger for grappling with basic religious issues."

West claimed he has "never regretted" his journey with Unitarian Universalism. "I hope no other UUA president has to go through what I did during the earlier portion of my time in office. Now [the future of the UUA is] up to the people who are here, General Assembly delegates, individual members of congregations throughout the denomination," said West. "It is in your hands."

Reported by Dan Harper.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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