by Russ Araujo
On Sunday, October 28, 2018, Rae Jane and I attended the Installation of the new minister at First Church, Rev. Connie Simon. An Installation is a solemn and joyful event, not to be missed. Unitarian Universalist ministers come from miles around and process in wearing their robes and stoles. Our own minister was there.
Rev. Connie is an African American, and First Church is in a mostly black area of the city. Back in the second half of the 20th Century, First Church had stuck it out in the city while other churches, including our own, followed “white flight” to the suburbs. Fifty years ago, First Church had a congregation that was much more racially mixed, but over time had become majority white. The members of the church now wanted to get back to an anti-racist vision and mission, and had chosen Rev. Connie, the first black minister of their church (or of any UU church in Cincinnati, for that matter).
The Installation had wonderful music, from “Lean on Me,” to “With Love” (written just for this occasion), to a version of “Amazing Grace.”
And the Installation had wonderful examples of public speaking. There were Greetings and Prayers and the Sermon. The sermon was by the Rev. Dr. William G. Sinkford, the former president of the whole Unitarian Universalist Association. He had grown up in this very church. His return made this a historic moment. And boy, could he give a good sermon.
But this was a really historic moment for another reason, emphasized over and over by speaker after speaker. Rev. Connie was about to become the first African American minister of the church.
Throughout the service, there were two or three people who came halfway down the aisle and took pictures. One of these was the “he” of the title of this piece. He is a long-time member of another UU church in Cincinnati. He had been a Tuskegee Airman in World War II. And by my telling you that, you know that he is African American. The military services were not integrated in WWII, and the black men who wanted to serve their country were grouped into segregated companies. And also by my telling you that, you know that he is old. For privacy reasons, I am not using his name.
There is something else about the “he” of the title of this piece. He is the grandson of the Rev. W.H.G. Carter. In 1918, Rev. Carter had organized his own church in Cincinnati. He believed in Unitarianism, and had named his congregation “Church of the Unitarian Brotherhood.” He applied for his church to become a member of the American Unitarian Association, and the AUA had sent someone to investigate. That person reported back to Boston that the church was in a storefront and had a Negro minister. The AUA turned down Rev. Carter’s request.
The story of Rev. Carter came to light in the late 1990s. And at that time, the Tuskegee Airman let it be known that Rev. Carter was his grandfather.
And now here, at the Installation of the first African American UU minister in Cincinnati, the old Tuskegee Airman came down the aisle and took some pictures with his cell phone. Then he returned to his seat.
As the Installation progressed, he again made his way down the aisle, took some pictures, and returned.
At the end of the Installation, Rev. Connie’s niece, singing with the Installation Choir, sang “Love’s in Need of Love Today.” Up until now, the music and the words of installation reflected the European-American origin of Unitarian’s roots. The ministers had processed in while singing “Rank by Rank Again We Stand,” a song of long (white) tradition, originally written in England in the 1800s. But now in this Installation, Connie’s niece moved and swooped across the chancel, the choir swayed, and the singing brought forth the joy and energy usually found in the black church. And as the niece sang her joyful song, she clapped her hands above her head, and got all of us to clap our hands too. And as she sang, she motioned for all of us to stand, and we stood too. It had a rhythm and an energy that seemed like it could go on forever.
And then the Tuskegee Airman, the grandson of the rejected Rev. Carter, made his way down the aisle one last time for this Installation of the church’s first black minister. He was the only one in the aisle at that moment. He held up his cell phone and took more pictures. Then he put away his phone. He had waited his entire life for this. His body started swaying, his fingers started snapping, and, though his old feet did not move, he danced.