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The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking on “Social Justice and the Emerging New Age” said, “We must face the fact that the church is still the most segregated major institution in America. At 11:00 on Sunday morning when we stand and sing and Christ has no east or west, we stand at the most segregated hour in this nation. This is tragic.”
Five years ago when the Rev. John Crestwell, Jr. started attending the Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church, he and his family were among the very few African Americans in the congregation. A graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary, Rev. Crestwell was drawn to Unitarian Universalism for its vision, message, principles, and liberal theology. Crestwell says, “The institutional church is still very tribal. Less than 10 percent of all churches in the United States are racially diverse. Unitarian Universalists break down tribalism—with our come as you are beliefs.”
Fast forward to 2007. Rev. Crestwell has been the minister at Davies for a year and a half. Ordained and installed as the church’s first African American minister in September 2005, the congregation’s membership has increased by 50 percent (from 100 to 150 members) and 37 percent of its members are people of color. Davies has become one of the most diverse congregations in the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).
The congregation is located ten miles from Southeast Washington, DC in an area that is 62 percent black, but in 2002 the congregation was 98 percent white. That year, Rev. Don Cameron, who was the minister of the church at the time, met Crestwell, a young minister who was looking for a church. The two created a partnership based on a vision for growing the congregation both in numbers and diversity over a three year period. At the end of that time the plan included a transition in ministry: Rev. Cameron would move on to another congregation.
As part of this plan, Rev. Crestwell was hired in 2003 as the congregation’s director of outreach. Church leaders and staff were encouraged to reach out to the local community to share the church’s liberal religious message and help the congregation grow in racial diversity.
In 2005, Rev. Cameron and Rev. Crestwell served as co-ministers of the congregation, and in early August 2006 Rev. Cameron left Davies and was installed as minister of the 600-member First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI.
Based on their faith and their vision, the two ministers and the congregation’s leaders put together a proposal to double the congregation in size and help it grow significantly more diverse in three years, and brought it to the Joseph Priestley district leaders and the UUA. They received a Chalice Lighters grant from the district and institutional support from the UUA. They also launched a capital campaign and worked with the district’s growth consultant.
Their strategy depended upon a course of both internal transformation and community outreach that often intertwined. Having a person of color as the congregation’s minister had an impact on the congregation and in the community. The congregation announced to the community that Rev. Crestwell, an African American minister, had joined their staff. Crestwell brought his own style of worship on the Sundays he was in the pulpit. Soon, news of Crestwell’s ministry began drawing in new people from the community.
Internally, Davies Memorial instituted an ongoing anti-racism adult education program called ADORE (A Dialogue on Race and Ethnicity) adopted from All Souls Church Unitarian in Washington, DC. Paula Cole Jones, a UUA JUUST Change Consultant and an African American member of All Souls in Washington, DC, provided coaching and support. They produced a new church newspaper, the Freedom Xpress, and used it to promote and explain their strategic transformation and as an outreach tool in the community.
The congregation installed a new bold and bright sign to attract people to their doors. They revamped their web site to include promotion of their Diversity Growth Plan, testimonials from new and longer time members, and links to the national UUA website; and they placed local ads in newspapers and worked with reporters to get press coverage about what they were doing.
All of their outreach stressed the welcoming, inclusive, justice-oriented vision of Unitarian Universalism and the congregation. They emphasized that they are a congregation of all ages, from different religious backgrounds, who gather together for spiritual and social community. They based their religious education on the themes of peace, justice, and multiculturalism. They highlighted their anti-racism programs. And the congregation’s ministers preached on social justice and marriage equality; for racial justice and the beloved community. Both ministers explored the beliefs of world religion, delved into poetry and the blues, and explored the meaning of Unitarian Universalism.
The congregation was filling a need in the community. As new members joined they brought in new energy and created an exciting atmosphere for longer-standing members.
Rev. Crestwell is convinced that Davies Memorial Church’s outreach was every bit as important as the fact that they are located in an African American neighborhood. Many UU congregations are located near a community of color and within those communities there are people who are seeking liberal religion—people who are unchurched and looking for a spiritual home. Crestwell says, “If you are willing to start the process and be the voice when there is no other, and if you fight long enough—like Rev. Don did long before I arrived at Davies—something will occur, the process will bring the players needed to play the game, your spirit will attract what you need—and magic will happen! It is highly unlikely that Don Cameron knew his bio online would attract my wife’s attention and ultimately lead us to Davies. That was a magical moment. So, as they say, ‘build it and they will come!’”
Martin Luther King said, “I think that the opportunity of the future is to really go out and transform American society, and where else is there a better place than in the institution that should serve as the moral guardian of the community. [That is] the institution that should preach brotherhood [and sisterhood] and make it a reality within its own body.”
At Davies, Crestwell says, “I’ve learned that we have to be the change we want. Our church is making Dr. King’s dream real.”
Davies Memorial UU Church has been named a UUA Breakthrough Congregation and will be recognized at the UUA’s General Assembly in June 2007 in Portland Oregon. Rev. John T. Crestwell, Jr.’s book, The Charge of the Chalice: The Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church Growth & Diversity Story, published by Movement Ministries, Clinton, Maryland, will be released in May 2007.
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Last updated on Tuesday, July 26, 2011.
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