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Progressive Religious Partners reinvigorate the meaning of the civil rights movement

John Buehrens, President, Unitarian Universalist Association Our association was born 40 years ago in the midst of the American civil rights movement. We played an important, catalytic role in that struggle. Promoting interfaith cooperation for justice became central to our sense of mission in the world.

I think of Knoxville, Tennessee, where I was ordained in 1973. The congregation was formed in 1949 as the only racially integrated church in the community, and it led most of the efforts to desegregate local public facilities. Later, it helped advance women's issues, supporting people like my wife, Gwen, when she wasn't receiving backing as an ordained woman in her own tradition. While I was there, homophobic vandals shot out the windows of the church because we provided a meeting place for a congregation ministering to the gay/lesbian community.

Recently, I have been working at the national level with a group of interfaith leaders called Progressive Religious Partners. Our aim is to create a simple network of partners, of what some in the group call "faithful witnesses for the beloved community."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. popularized the phrase, the beloved community, as a more inclusive way of speaking about the Commonwealth or Kingdom of God that Jesus preached. The partners take it as a symbol of our vision of human sisterhood and brotherhood transcending every difference of race, class, creed, ability, disability, or sexual orientation.

Today, we find that vision threatened not only by racism, but also by global economic injustice. We are also disappointed that so many religious establishments perpetuate injustices based on gender or sexual orientation. We approach these matters with humility, however, knowing that none of us has done enough to make the vision real.

Last year, more than 2,000 American religious leaders joined me in signing the "Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing." We acknowledged the pain caused to women and sexual minorities through our complicity with injustice and called for their full religious equality, including ordination. We called for a single standard of responsible sexual conduct for all.

The Progressive Religious Partners believe that serving the beloved community today requires courageous religious witness on behalf of racial, economic, and sexual justice of the sort that characterized the civil rights movement.

A formative moment in my religious calling came the night after King was assassinated. I sat in a UU meeting house, pondering the ancient words of Micah: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God?" I came to believe that when the prophets are silenced or killed for posing the harder questions of justice, the hope for solutions is to be found not in the lives of individuals but in communities that attempt to live in the spirit of the prophets -- keeping alive their questions, not pretending to have all the answers, living in the very questions themselves. That's why I became a Unitarian Universalist minister.

On April 4, the 33rd anniversary of King's death, I will be with my Progressive Religious Partners in Washington, DC. We'll begin a two-day conference calling faithful witnesses to reclaim the vision of beloved community and to work together -- spiritually and actively -- to advance a progressive religious agenda.

We'll explore three threats to the beloved community. One is the blasphemous notion that the market is God, that its judgments alone are "true and righteous altogether." The second is inadequate social support of family life. We need an inclusive understanding of family life that doesn't use scapegoating, illusions, or nostalgia to divide and distract us from the real issues. Third is the drift within contemporary religion toward a privatization of spirituality, as though the life of the soul can ever be severed from a humble but active engagement in public debate.

Watch for more news of this event on the UUA Web site: www.uua.org. Encourage your interfaith partners to do so as well.

John Buehrens
President, Unitarian Universalist Association

UU World XV:2 (May/June 2001): 5.

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