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Turmoil over diversity strikes Unitarian Universalist Association

What led to the Rev. Peter Morales’ undoing and eventual resignation as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association was the hiring of yet another white male to a leadership position.

This is a liberal religion that prides itself on diversity in beliefs, but whose 200,000 members are predominantly white. Morales, the first Latino UUA president, whose eight-year-term as president was to end in June, had pledged to fight the status quo.

But last month, a white male retired from leadership of the UUA’s Southern Region and was replaced with another white male by the religion’s director of Congregational Life, the Rev. Scott Tayler.

That didn’t sit well with many members, including Christina Rivera, a Latina who said she had been a finalist for the position. Rivera, a UUA trustee from Charlottesville, criticized the hiring process in a blog post.

“I have had to sit my sons down, fierce warriors of Unitarian Universalism who love their faith deeply, and explain the realities of racially discriminatory hiring,” she wrote.

Outcry among members continued to grow.

“Over the next week, charges spread on social media that the UUA had hired another white person over an unidentified woman of color who was a qualified finalist for the Southern Region job,” reported UU World.

Unitarian Universalism was formed in 1961 by the consolidation two religions: Unitarianism and Universalism. The religion has no shared creed, but embraces seven guiding principles, including “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

“We need not think alike to love alike,” the UUA website states. “We are people of many beliefs and backgrounds: people with a religious background, people with none, people who believe in a God, people who don’t, and people who let the mystery be.”

The UUA president serves as the religion’s chief executive officer and chief spokesman. The president is responsible to the board of trustees for the “administrative policies and programs” of the association, according to the UUA website.

Handouts about “white privilege” are posted to the UUA website. UUA members have long battled for diversity, multiculturalism and inclusion in society as well in their own ranks, but like many religions rooted in Europe, it has struggled to attract nonwhite members.

Despite efforts to change, members of several popular Protestant Christian denominations, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the United Methodist Church, are more than 90 percent white, according to a 2015 report by the Pew Research Center.

The hiring decision that led to the recent UUA tumult touched a nerve among members who felt leaders were not practicing what they preached about diversity.

More than 120 ministers and other leaders signed a letter that said “the practice of hiring white people nearly to the exclusion of hiring people of color is alarming and not indicative of the communal practice to which our faith calls us.”

Morales sought to calm the storm with a letter of his own, sent to UUA staffers last week. But that appeared to make matters worse.

While agreeing that greater staff diversity was needed, he said “significant progress” had been made, noting that “people of color” among UUA staff had increased from 14 percent in 2008 to 20 percent today and that the proportion of managers had grown from 5 percent to 9 percent.

“I am afraid that the current controversy is distracting us from a larger long term issue,” he wrote. “That issue is that the membership of our congregations continues to be overwhelmingly white and of European origin.”

Then he appeared to attack his critics.

“I wish I were seeing more humility and less self-righteousness, more thoughtfulness and less hysteria,” he wrote of the controversy.”

Three days later, Morales resigned.

“Unfortunately, a note I sent to UUA staff a few days ago made matters worse,” he said in a letter to the UUA’s board of trustees. “I reacted when I should have listened. I am deeply sorry.”

The last president of the Unitarian Universalist Association to not finish a term was The Rev. Paul N. Carnes, who died from cancer less than two years after his election in 1977.

The three candidates to be the next UUA president are all white women. Each has pledged to foster greater diversity in leadership, if elected.

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