Sermon – When We Disagreed

Sermon presented by Lay Worship Associate – Jay Kiskel
Oct 30, 2016 at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Sandy Springs, Georgia
Note: Readings are at the end of the sermon

Sermon

With whom do we covenant?

To whom do we extend our promise to honor the strength found in our diversity, to embrace the full measure of our common humanity, to communicate in kindness?

I would like us to ponder the answers to those questions as I share a story in our congregation’s history. It is a story of Rev. Isaiah Jonathan Domas, a minister who served our Atlanta faith community in the late 1940’s. At that time both our Unitarian and Universalist faith members gathered together in a church that once stood on West Peachtree Street where today’s North Avenue MARTA station stands.

A physical part of that church is with us today in the stained glass windows that hang here in our sanctuary. We are the direct descendants of that church and, therefore, their story is our story.

I ask you then to ponder the questions I posed because during the ministry of Rev. Domas we so disagreed with one another that our Unitarian Universalist faith movement in Atlanta collapsed.

We may not face the same decisions and controversies that confronted Rev. Domas and his congregation, but we have our own modern decisions and controversies. The question to ponder then is . . . will our covenant to one another preserve our faith community for future generations or could we too dissolve in disagreement.

The story starts in the first chapter in a yet to be published book on Rev. Domas, written by his daughter, Claudia Reed, entitled “Crazy for Justice, the Optimism of a Blacklisted Minister.”

The story is told through Claudia’s eyes and takes place in the living quarters of the parsonage that stood next to the West Peachtree Street church.

When the Ku Klux Klan threatened our family in the fall of 1947, I was too young to be told and too short to look out the high windows. If I saw anything alarming it was the odd way my parents stared at the street. My mother stood on one side of a closed drape; my father on the other. Each lifted just enough cloth to let in a sharp slice of Georgia sunlight.

On West Peachtree Street, two floors below, a convoy of battered cars and rusty pickup trucks stretched from Third Street to Ponce de Leon. Each was full of Klansmen in white robes tilting back their pointed hoods to hunt for motion behind our drapes.

Claudia’s mother later shared that the Klansmen had their car windows down and she could see rifles sticking out.

Claudia asked her mother if she and her father were scared upon seeing the parade of armed Klansmen.

Her mom responded, “We were too angry to be scared. Your father was not about to let a bunch of bigoted nincompoops tell him what to do.”

Rev. Domas had recently moved his wife and young Claudia from Vermont to Atlanta.  He was a determined spirit and wanted to bring justice, equality and compassion to a city with a long-standing social norm of racial segregation.

Rev. Domas believed that justice, equality and compassion without action renders such beliefs without substance and Rev. Domas was a man of substance.

So why had the Klansmen donned their white robes, clutched their rifles and circled the church?

It was in response to a simple act of justice, equality and compassion, or, maybe better stated, a simple act of defiance. Rev. Domas decided he would invite a friend and colleague from Atlanta University, Dr. Thomas Baker Jones, to attend church services. Dr. Jones was black.

Rev. Domas described the Sunday visit of Dr. Jones and the cascading events that followed in a letter to the American Unitarian Association.

“He was seated without incident, even to the taking of his offering . . . but the matter was hardly allowed to rest there. An ultra-race conscious minority promptly rushed to the telephone and served notice on those two members of the board with whom they felt they had the most in common that I should be fired forthwith.”

“The next Sunday, I did what any right-thinking liberal minister might do under the circumstances: I preached a sermon denouncing race discrimination, in church or out, and defended, most emphatically, Dr. Jones’ God-given right to do precisely what he did.”

God may have made the case for brotherhood on the sixth day of creation, but Atlanta’s Unitarian-Universalist Church had yet to make up its mind.

A formal vote was called for. On December 5, 1947, 21 members of the “liberal” congregation voted to “exclude the Negro from all church functions.” Fifteen opposed the measure. The rest, in the best hush-mah-mouth Southern tradition, declined to cast a ballot.

Dr. Jones spent the following Sundays at home, there being no separate-but-equal Unitarian Universalist church for “persons of the colored or Black race.”

With whom do we covenant?

To whom do we extend our promise to honor the strength found in our diversity, to embrace the full measure of our common humanity, to communicate in kindness?

I wish . . . I wish . . . I could say that the congregation’s segregation policy was the only pressure bearing down on them.

This was 1947. Only one year earlier, former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared that an “iron curtain” had descended across Europe cleaving the world into two vast blocs of uncompromising ideology.

A fear griped the United States that the rampant spread of Communism would undermine the purity of Americanism. The House Committee on Un-American Activities was in full swing investigating suspected threats of subversion.

The mere suspicion of liberal thinking could expose one to a full-throated accusation of being a liberal left-wing pinko socialist commie.

Imagine now the intense scrutiny an activist liberal Unitarian from Vermont faced in the Deep South.

The Atlanta papers, for example, did not let go unnoticed that Rev. Domas had been the co-chairman for a speech given by third party presidential candidate Henry Wallace in Atlanta.

Wallace had been Vice-president of United States in FDR’s third administration, was an ardent supporter of New Deal liberalism and a proud de-segregationist.

Wallace’s liberal leanings no doubt attracted Rev. Domas. And undoubtedly the minister’s embrace of Wallace fused in the public mind his image as an untrustworthy lefty.

The Atlanta paper also made sure to point out that Wallace’s Atlanta speech was given “before a mixed white and Negro audience in a Negro church.”

But it gets worse.

Rev. Domas had once invited Don West, a friend, poet, educator and civil-rights organizer to speak at the Unitarian Universalist church.

In my conversations with Claudia I asked her if she remembered Don West.

“Oh, yes,” she said, “Don would come over to the parsonage and my father and he would frequently chat.”

I then shared with Claudia that my research had found reference to her dad and Don West in FBI files made public by a request through the Freedom of Information Act.

“According to this informant, West had a long discussion with the Reverend I. J. Domas, pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist Church, Atlanta, on 12/16/47.”

This was serious business.

In an article in the Atlanta papers entitled, “The Unitarians Have Reason to Fret” it was stated as fact that:

“. . . the Communist Party has caused the Unitarian Church, because of its liberal policy, to be selected for infiltration purposes and for use in various Communist front purposes.”

The accusation was rubbish. But an open public suspicion had been raised against the Unitarian-Universalist church and its minister.

In May 1948, a vote was taken in the church with sunlight flowing through those very stained glass windows on whether or not to accept the resignation of its 38-year-old minister, Rev. Isaiah Jonathan Domas.

His resignation was accepted by a vote of 33 to 32.

Again, the Atlanta papers reported that Rev. Domas

“. . . in less than eight months has stirred up a hornet’s nest in the church by

  1. Favoring the acceptance of a Negro college professor for membership
  2. Public espousal of the presidential campaign of Henry Wallace”

The congregation made a public announcement that the minister’s resignation was accepted:

“not because we dispute the minister’s right to his own political views, but because we feel he is simply not the person for leadership in the situation down here.”

Two months after Rev. Domas departed, a business meeting was convened to address the concern that the congregation had been “tarred with the brush of Communism.”

A lengthy resolution was passed stating in part:

“ . . . any person or persons allegedly connected with or in sympathy with the Communist party are no longer actively connected with the local church.”

After Rev. Domas departed Dr. Earle LeBaron was called as the minister.

Dr. LeBaron was neither a Unitarian nor a Universalist. His background is not exactly clear, ex-Catholic, ex-Methodist. We do know that before accepting the pastorate he had been the head of the history and political science departments at Brenau College in Gainesville, Georgia.

Calling a non-Unitarian or Universalist may have been the congregation’s only recourse.

Responding to the segregationist positions held by the Atlanta congregation, the American Unitarian Ministers’ Association urged its members to refuse a call to Atlanta pending a change in the congregation’s policy.

This position by the American Unitarian Ministers’ Association may have had some influence on the removal of the prohibition barring Negroes from attending church services as noted in Hannah’s reading.

What was clear to the national organizations of the Unitarians and Universalists was that the Atlanta congregation would remain segregated and thus operated contrary to core principles of both organizations. Consequently, both organizations withdrew support.

The congregation soon collapsed. The church building on West Peachtree Street was sold to the Bible Research Foundation and congregation members scattered.

Resurrection would occur, but that is a story for another time.

With whom do we covenant?

To whom do we extend our promise to honor the strength found in our diversity, to embrace the full measure of our common humanity, to communicate in kindness?

If ever there was time for a congregation to hold among themselves a covenant, the congregation of the late 1940’s was one that would have derived the most benefit.

Covenant comes from the Latin phase con venire (con ven nar’ re) meaning to “come together.”

Would a covenant among our fellow Unitarians and Universalists nearly 70 years ago have helped them avoid the decisions that set in motion the collapse of their faith community?

Hard to say.

I do know that in the three plus years that I have been researching our UU history, only rarely has the concept of covenant been seen.

Lacking a tradition of a sense of right relations among congregation members, I believe the enormous social pressure of rapidly changing race relations and the global menace of spreading Communism was just too much for our brothers and sisters of the 1940’s.

Honoring diversity, embracing a common humanity, communicating in kindness may have been simply a bridge too far.

Today it is different. In our church, Rev. Davis has a renewed focus on our responsibilities and the clear articulation of the meaning and value of right relations.

We covenant to seek to understand others’ truths by listening actively and respectfully.

Nor are we a “bunch of bigoted nincompoops” as Rev. Domas referred to the Klansmen.

Rather our doors are open. We affirm each Sunday that we have a:

“faith tradition that celebrates and welcomes all of us regardless of religious background, ethnicity, age, ability, political persuasion, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.“

So when a social justice issue such as the defense of LGBTQ rights is raised from the pulpit, we respond with united affirming action.

When our minister speaks of a Just Mercy to address the injustice of the mass incarceration of African-Americans, we listen. Some are moved. None oppose. We are in covenant with one another.

When reference is made to Black Lives Matter from this pulpit, are we as embracing? Do we seek to understand others’ truths by listening actively and respectfully? Do we have confidence in our trust in one another to freely speak our minds and hearts? Or is there silence?

We have recently added political persuasion to our open door litany.   Do we thus declare that the strength of our covenant empowers us with loving confidence to embrace fellow congregation members whether they are voting for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump?

There is never a generation free from decisions or free controversies.

Let us hope that we have the strength to honor diversity, embrace our common humanity and communicate in kindness so we can pass this congregation forward to a future generation filled with greater wisdom and more love than we hold among ourselves today.

May it be so.

I invite you now to remain seated, and join me in singing our hymn #119 Once to Every Soul and Nation, which is found in the gray hymnal.

This hymn was Rev. Domas’ favorite and his daughter Claudia asked if the congregation would sing the hymn in honor of her father.

Reading

Today’s reading is from a newspaper article that appeared almost 70 years ago in the Atlanta papers on October 9, 1949.

The language in this article and today’s sermon reflects Southern society of that time. Jay and I offer our apologizes for any disquieting feelings that we may resurrect.

African-American citizens, for example, were then commonly and openly referred to as Negroes or Colored.

However, as we travel back in time to witness our congregation’s history, it is illuminating to see ourselves unfiltered.   That is, to hear the words and language used by earlier but fellow Unitarians and Universalists as they navigated the pressing issues of their day.

From a historical perspective, a year after the publication of the 1949 article that I will shortly read, our joint Unitarian and Universalist faith community in Atlanta collapsed.

The events that set into motion the collapse of our Atlanta UU faith community will be covered by Jay in today’s sermon.

The title of the newspaper article is: Unitarians Vote to Repeal Resolution Barring Negroes.

The articles reads . . .

The congregation of the Atlanta Unitarian Universalist Church voted to repeal the resolution barring Negroes from the worship service of their church, Dr. Earle LeBaron, minister of the church, said yesterday.

“I have long advocated the repeal of this resolution,” Dr. LeBaron said. “However, the resolution refers only to attendance at divine worship and not to membership. There is no thought or intention on the part of the congregation to establish an inter-racial church.”

“The matter of church membership remains in the hands of the congregation,” he said. “We simply want to offer Negroes of the liberal religious an opportunity to worship according to the dictates of their conscience since there is no Unitarian or Universalist colored church in Atlanta.

The customs of the City and the South will be observed in seating visitors at the worship service.”

It was at this church during the presidential campaign last fall that Henry Wallace supporters tried to disrupt services because of the race resolution. The question hit a feverish pitch at one time during the campaign and was culminated in the resignation of one of its pastors.

Here ends the reading

 

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