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James Luther Adams

Written by Jessica York.

You may like to introduce the story with these words:

This story is about a time when a group of Unitarian Universalists had to make a difficult decision together and needed to listen to each other.

Unitarian Universalism is a living faith. We think that people should be free to believe what they must believe — the truth of their life experiences ——instead of professing a belief in what we are told to believe. This is what we mean when we say ours is a "creedless" religion.

Being a living faith means that any one of us can change what we believe, if we experience a deeper truth that contradicts our previous beliefs. But in order to change, you have to be open to new thoughts, new ideas, and new experiences. You have to have your ears open to hear the experiences of the people with whom you are in community.

There is a saying that people were created with two ears and one mouth because we should listen twice as much as we speak. When we come together in community, we have the opportunity to listen to each other and gain a perspective greater than what we would have alone.

Sometimes we listen with our ears. When you are a part of a sacred, beloved community you listen not only with your ears, but also with your heart. A listening heart has the power to help us be better people.

In 1948, most congregations and houses of worship in the United States were segregated (separated) by the color of their members' skin. Some were segregated by law; others by custom or by a lack of actively trying to welcome and include all people. The First Unitarian Society of Chicago was one of these congregations. Although their church was located in a neighborhood with many African Americans, only whites could join, according to the written by-laws (rules) of the church, and according to custom.

The day came that many members began to believe they needed to take action against racism, if they really wanted to live their values and principles. The minister, the Reverend Leslie Pennington, was ready for this day and ready to take action. So was James Luther Adams. James Luther Adams was a famous liberal theologian and social ethicist — a person who studies religion, beliefs, and values. Doctor Adams taught at the Meadville Lombard Theological School, right across the street from the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. And he was a member of the congregation's board of directors — a leader in the congregation.

Along with some others, Reverend Pennington and James Luther Adams proposed a change in the church's by-laws to desegregate the church and welcome people whatever the color of their skin. They wanted to include, not exclude. They saw this as a way to put their love into action.

When the congregation's Board of Directors considered the desegregation proposal, most of them supported it. However, one member of the board objected. "Your new program is making desegregation into a creed," he said. "You are asking everyone in our church to say they believe desegregating, or inviting, even recruiting people of color to attend church here is a good way to tackle racism. What if some members don't believe this?"

Desegregation was a very controversial topic. In 1948, anything about skin color and racism was controversial. Some people, even some who supported African Americans in demanding their civil liberties, believed in a separate, but equal policy which kept people apart based on their skin color.

Respectful debate ensued at the First Unitarian Society of Chicago. Both sides felt, in their hearts, that their belief was right. Perhaps they were so busy trying to be heard they forgot to listen. And so, they kept on talking.

The debate went on in the Board of Directors' meeting until the early hours of the morning. Everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Finally, James Luther Adams remembered that we should be listening twice as much as talking. He asked the person who had voiced the strongest objection, "What do you say is the purpose of this church?"

Suddenly, everyone was listening. Everyone wanted to hear the answer to this crucial question. Probably, the person who objected was listening especially hard to his own heart, as well as to the words he had heard from other Board members through the long discussion.

The Board member who opposed opening the church to people of color finally replied. "Okay, Jim. The purpose of this church is to get hold of people like me and change them."

The First Unitarian Society of Chicago successfully desegregated.

There are things that you know, and there are things that I know. When we are together and listening to each other, with ears and hearts, we know more.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.

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