Friday, January 12, 2001

Shunned minister honored


Unitarians reach out with an apology, at last

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's never too late to apologize and make amends — even after more than 80 years.

        That's the message members of two local Unitarian churches hope to send this weekend on the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

        They will host a series of events acknowledging discrimination against a black Unitarian minister and his West End congregation in the early 1900s.

[photo] Leslie Edwards (right) stands with Unitarian Rev. Sharon Dittmar, who holds a portrait of Mr. Edwards' grandfather, the Rev. W.H.G. Carter.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        Members of First Unitarian Church in Avondale and Northern Hills Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Wyoming will apologize to descendants of the Rev. W.H.G. Carter. He was a minister who founded the Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood in Cincinnati in 1918.

        They hope the service will help them face the truth of their past and focus on social-justice issues.

        “This service is not a punishment, nor retribution, nor a guilt trip,” said the Rev. Sharon Dittmar, minister at First Unitarian Church. “This service is recognition of collective truth and responsibility. It is an apology. It is an education.”

        The Rev. Mr. Carter founded his church at a time when blacks and whites did not worship together. He sought assistance from the city's two Unitarian churches at the time and from the national denomination, the American Unitarian Association.

        He received neither support nor financial assistance.

IF YOU GO
    The reconciliation events this weekend are open to the public.
SATURDAY
   7 p.m.: The Carter family will perform a sacred dance at First Unitarian Church, located at Linton and Reading in Avondale.
   7:30 p.m.: Slide presentation by the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, author of Black Pioneers in a White Denomination, on African-Americans in Unitarian-Universalism at First Unitarian Church
SUNDAY
   10:30 a.m.: Service of reconciliation, First Unitarian Church (arrive early for seating)
   1:30 p.m.: Gravestone dedication by the Carter family and Northern Hills Fellowship at Beech Grove Cemetery, 436 Fleming Road, Wyoming.
   Of note: First Unitarian Church is establishing the Rev. W.H.G. Carter Memorial Fund. It will provide emergency money to people, who for a variety of reasons, don't qualify for any other funding. Congregants say the fund honors the minister, who often found ways to help people through his storefront church. Seed money will be collected at Sunday's service. Funds will go to inner city children and families.
        Although the Rev. Mr. Carter was never a member of First Unitarian Church, current members — along with those of the Northern Hills Fellowship — will honor the Cincinnati pastor, who died in 1962.

        With more than 70 of the pastor's descendants looking on, church members will take responsibility for the way the reverend was treated and to honor his contributions.

        “We ignored our liberal religious values when we shut Rev. Carter out ...,” the Rev. Ms. Dittmar said. “We shunned one of our own because we had no vision, because we couldn't see beyond the color of his skin and the neighborhood where he lived. And today we are the poorer for it.”
       

Humble location

        The Rev. Mr. Carter's church, described in an American Unitarian Association memo in 1939, was a vacant store with a small coal stove and about 30 chairs. Some were old pews. A picture of Jesus drawn by the pastor hung on the wall.

        Outside the store at 732 W. Fifth St. in vivid paint read, “Unitarian Brotherhood Church.”

        The pastor's grandson, Leslie Edwards, who will light the chalice at Sunday's service, remembers the church and the man. Through the Rev. Mr. Carter's faith, Mr. Edwards said, he struck a chord.

        It took the connection of ministers going as far back as 1938 who, when they heard about his story, wouldn't let it go, said Mr. Edwards, 76.

        “W.H.G. Carter rung a chord that went through all these ministers,” he said. “And that chord said, "Acknowledge me.'

        “And it kept ringing.”
       

A name from the past

        The idea for a reconciliation service was borne out of a sermon the Rev. Ms. Dittmar preached when she was interim minister in 1997 at Northern Hills Fellowship.

        She referenced a paragraph in a book called Black Pioneers in a White Denomination by the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed, a Unitarian minister in Toronto. In discussing the role of African-Americans in the denomination, the author mentioned a W.H.G. Carter of Cincinnati.

        A man stood up after the service and said he was the Rev. Mr. Carter's grandson.

        “He said, "I never thought I'd hear his name mentioned in a Unitarian Universalist church,'” the Rev. Ms. Dittmar said.

        As time passed, church members, in search of the congregation's identity within its urban community setting, wanted to explore race relations — past and present.

        Simultaneous to the reconciliation service, some congregants are working on a project called Let Freedom Ring, an effort to study the church founders' involvement in the Underground Railroad.

        They want to spur the process of racial reconciliation first in their own church, in hopes it will spread throughout Cincinnati.
       

The right thing

        The service, Mr. Edwards said, shows members are headed in the right direction. They are emulating a principle his grandfather believed in: Always do the right thing.

        “You can say, "The right thing wasn't done back then,'” Mr. Edwards said. “"And I wasn't (there) back then, so I'm going to go ahead and forget about it. The past is the past.'”

        “Or you can say, "If there is anything I can do to recognize (that) what was done in the past was wrong, I want to acknowledge it and step forward and do what I can.'

        “The Unitarians have dealt with the fact that there was an omission, and they have done it so beautifully.”
       



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