Our response to the talk on June 25

This past Sunday at the Humanist Hour, a very old controversy, with all its deep discomfort, resurfaced at All Souls. After the service, a number of people reached out to let us know they were surprised, confused, and also hurt by what was said in the service. We hope this letter helps you better understand what happened and its impact.

The events known as the ‘1921 Tulsa Race Riot’ are embedded in the story of Tulsa and of All Souls, and this painful history is something we have been wrestling with for decades.  Recently, All Souls Minister Emeritus Dr. John B. Wolf said, “I realize now that people in the African American community have always understood what happened in 1921 as a massacre and not a riot. If I had known that years ago I would have called it a massacre, but I did not have the relationships with African Americans as I do today. It certainly was a massacre.”

In April, a feature article about All Souls’ work for racial justice was published in the UU World. The article, Humiliation and Reconciliation, a Riot Lives On, highlights one of the co-founders of All Souls, Richard Lloyd Jones, a newspaper owner and editor who, before and after the tragic events of 1921, published disparaging and derogatory views about African Americans and the Greenwood District. Prior to and since the UU World article was released, our ministers spoke about Mr. Jones from the pulpit, both acknowledging his racial views while also seeking to represent him as a man who was much more than his prejudices.  

Watch Rev. Lavanhar’s sermon Life, Liberty & Legacy published on Feb. 12, 2017.
Watch this sermon by Rev. Barbara Prose, Rev. Gerald Davis, Bishop Carlton Pearson, and Rev. Dr. Marlin Lavanhar, Wrestling With the Past: Race, Riot and Religion published on March 14, 2017.

The Jones family has been a part of All Souls from its beginning in 1921 and for generations has shown great leadership and dedication. Recently, the granddaughter of Richard Lloyd Jones, Georgia Snoke, told us she felt we were not being fair or accurate regarding our depictions of her grandfather. We respectfully offered her a chance to share her perspective with the congregation on a Sunday morning in the Humanist Hour, even though it directly opposed our ministers’ positions. As a lifelong member of the church, with deep roots over three generations, it seemed appropriate to give her this opportunity in the tradition of the “Free Pulpit.”  

This centuries-old “Free Pulpit” tradition insists that ministers and other speakers be encouraged to speak from the depth of their intellect, commitments, and values without being constrained by dogmas or doctrines. This tradition also allows for the “Freedom of the Pew,” meaning each member has the right and responsibility to make up their own mind about what they hear, including whether they agree or disagree with what is said from the pulpit or podium. In our tradition of religious freedom, there is a high priority placed on not censoring ideas and perspectives, trusting that the container of the church and the covenant among members can hold the conflict of values and perspectives.

In this tradition, it is the responsibility of the ministers to ensure our services and programs reflect both our commitment to fight oppression and promote our values of inclusion. It is our responsibility to provide the necessary context, preparation, support, and follow up for our members, friends, and visitors when we are wrestling as a community with such painful issues as racism and violence. Considering some of the speaker’s choice of words and that the talk was counter to the values of All Souls’ ministers, it is clear we did not adequately prepare our congregation this past Sunday. For this we are deeply sorry. We were also disappointed to learn of her resignation from the church at the end of her talk.  

Our church has always been a religiously and politically diverse congregation. Inevitably, the more culturally and socially diverse the congregation grows, the more challenging it is to remain in covenant. Nonetheless, we are determined.

We want to hear from you as we continue on this spiritual and emotional journey. As we seek to further our congregation’s commitment to greater cultural understanding, and our work for racial and social justice, we want your thoughts and ideas. Please email us.

All Souls is like many American institutions today, from universities to municipalities, that are wrestling with their past, the legacies of their founders, and with choices about how to tell their stories. As campuses and churches have become more diverse, their leaders have become more intimately connected to the sensibilities and sensitivities of many people of color.

Please know that Barbara will be speaking on When Speech Is Not Free on Sunday, July 2, in the Traditional Service and the Humanist Hour. Her message will go deeper into the reasons we believe the free exchange of ideas is essential to the discovery of truth, inclusion, and the building of justice. In the Humanist Hour, she will directly address what happened last week and how we could have provided a better context and container for the expression of the diversity of opinions and perspectives within our congregation.  

Today, All Souls’ commitment to truth and reconciliation and to racial justice and understanding is as strong as ever. We believe there is something profoundly healing and important about All Souls’ vision of creating the most inclusive community possible, grounded in a covenant of love and service. We are committed to continuing to learn how best to support the unfolding of a free community where people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs, personal and political, can dwell together in peace, seek the truth in love and help one another.    

With Love Beyond Belief,

Marlin and Barbara   

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