We Were Always Here

Connie Simon
February 28, 2024

By Connie Simon

“White supremacy, as a culture, wants to claim anything of value and get you to believe that nobody else had an intellectual tradition.”
—Dr. Takiyah Nur Amin

As a new UU in Philadelphia, I’d walk through the church doors every Sunday and see a portrait of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper. I’d known of her only as a writer. Before 2009, I had no idea that she was a Unitarian and a member of my home congregation. When someone lists Unitarians or Universalists, they usually name white men from the nineteenth century: Channing, Parker, Thoreau, and maybe Ballou. Never anyone Black like me.

Maybe that’s why I was stunned when, at a recent visit to a congregation, a member came up to me and shared their understanding that Unitarian Universalism is a relatively new religion, and they learned it was started by James Reeb on his trip down South in 1965. I was too stunned in the moment to even process that, or ask who had taught them that. Even if it was a misunderstanding, it’s a telling one: the assumption that our faith arose from a white founder.

I used to teach a UU history class for one of our Regions, and I would always ask participants if they were aware that a person from Africa was one of the first proponents of Unitarian theology. No, they would say. That’s not possible.

Arius was a religious leader born in Libya, Northern Africa, who argued against the trinitarian view that God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were one: "If the Father begat the Son, then he who was begotten had a beginning in existence, and from this it follows there was a time when the Son was not.” He was declared a heretic at the Council of Nicea in 325 CE—a bit before James Reeb. While some white UUs would prefer to think of Arius as European, the fact is that this Black ancestor has shaped our faith for nearly two thousand years.

A piece of "the free and responsible search for truth and meaning" includes being responsible in how you partake of the stories of others—for example, are you considering all the stories? It’s not responsible to say that people who look like me weren’t part of this tradition—because we were. As I heard Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed say years ago, we were always here.

Prayer

Spirit of Understanding, kindle the flames of our curiosity, opening our hearts and minds to the untold stories that ground us and shape this faith. Show us the depth and breadth of our spiritual roots. Give us the wisdom to value these stories for the gifts they are.