Thursday, July 05, 2001

Man leads church he once left

Racial issues among Cincinnati native's priorities for Unitarian agenda

By Kristina Goetz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A black man who left a largely white denomination decades ago because of how it handled race issues will now lead it in hopes of attracting more minority membership and improving race relations.

        The Rev. William G. Sinkford, a Cincinnati native who joined the First Unitarian Church in Avondale when he was 14, is well into his second week as president of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.

        The church is the first predominately white denomination to vote an African-American to its top position.

        The church has more than 200,000 adherents nationally and an increasing membership.

        “Although there is symbolic power in my election, it doesn't mean Unitarian Universalism has finished the work we have to do on race,” said the 55-year-old Cambridge, Mass., minister.

        In his next four years as president, the Rev. Mr. Sinkford hopes to give his relatively small religious movement greater visibility on social justice issues such as race relations.

        He hopes to build more partnerships to accomplish that. “It is something I think we should all be trying to do,” he said.

   • Title: President of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.
   • Age: 55.
   • Residence: Cincinnati native now lives in Cambridge, Mass.
   • Family: Two children: Billy, 18, and Danielle, 16.
        The Rev. Mr. Sinkford discovered Unitarian Universalism — a liberal denomination that has its roots in the Jewish and Christian traditions — in 1961 when he joined the Avondale church with his mother.

        It was a religious community, he said, “where I could be fully myself, not checking any part of my identity at the door.”

        He felt comfortable bringing his theological questions to a church in which adherents believe personal experience, conscience and reason should be the final authorities in religion.

        Blacks and whites worshiped together in a congregation that had been active in the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. It was a place he felt comfortable being himself.

        The Rev. Mr. Sinkford, an honors graduate of Walnut Hills High School, became active in the life of the congregation.

        He graduated with honors from Harvard University in 1968. For several years, he had considered entering the Unitarian Universalist ministry but was disillusioned by the association's struggles over race relations and left the church.

        “Unitarian Universalism nearly imploded around issues of race,” the Rev. Mr. Sinkford said. “The tension just about tore (it) asunder.

        “One of my colleagues calls it (his leaving) a principled exile.”

        From there, he decided to go into business instead, until he moved back to Cincinnati to help his mother. Upon her death the childhood church that had had such an impact on his life reached out to him again.

        An old friend stood on his doorstep with a casserole, he said, and stories of his mother. The meeting helped him grieve her loss and decide it was time to go back.

        “His dedication and deep spirituality and his concern for social justice issues were very evident,” said Beverly Baker, a congregant at First Unitarian Church.

        So after years of involvement teaching religious education classes and leading Sunday school worship, he decided to become a Unitarian minister and enrolled in Starr King School for the Ministry in 1992. He received his master's of divinity degree in 1995 and was ordained in his hometown.

        Since then, he has worked at the association in Boston.

        “He knows how to get a message across,” said Ms. Baker. “He's a very passionate leader. As a country and, certainly in Cincinnati, racial healing is of top importance.

        “That's one of the things he wants to do. (And) I think it's something we can all be proud of.”

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