Friday, October 16, 2020

What a Universalist Hero Looks like Now

This moment we are living right now will be in history books. This pandemic, this recession, this election, and the movement for Black Lives, you can just feel that the world is not going to be the same after we pass through this time.

This morning we've heard the story of John Murray's Universalist Miracle, we've heard the story of Olympia Brown's fight to claim a voice for women. But Universalism is not a story that ends in the past. Universalist heroes are not only found in our storybooks, they are making history right now.

© 2015 Nancy Pierce/UUA

The hero I want to lift up in our celebration of Universalism today is Elandria Williams. Elandria grew up in the Knoxville Tennessee UU church, in their Sunday school, in their youth group. Elandria came to her passion for social justice early and found support for that passion in E’s congregation and in our movement. Elandria experienced firsthand the ways in which our movement is not always welcoming to people of color, and yet E stayed, and worked to change our movement to embody our Universalist values. E was a founding member of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU) Organizing Collective, served on the UUA board for 6 years, and was the first UUA co-moderator. E came to that position at a time of great tumult and conflict in our organization when we needed bold new leaders to guide us into a more just future, to help us create the beloved community we dream of.

Elandria also was a change agent in the wider World. E worked as an educator at the Highlander center, “a catalyst for grassroots organizing and movement building in Appalachia and the South. [working] with people fighting for justice, equality and sustainability, supporting their efforts to take collective action to shape their own destiny.” E had gone to camp at the Highland Center as a young person, because a member of E's UU congregation was a founder of the center. E joined the education team at the Center and created experiences that brought youth and adults together across cultural difference. Elandria’s work supported and nurtured the growth of emerging organizers and leaders. Part of E's legacy lives on in those leaders who are shaping a more just world even now.”[i]

For the past 3 years Elandria was executive director of PeoplesHub, an online education center for “connecting and supporting people who are resisting, reimagining, and restoring our communities.” In their tribute to Elandria, the People’s Hub wrote:

“Elandria learned early on that as a Black, queer, disabled and chronically ill person, you have to carve spaces for yourself because the system will not. In carving out space, E brought others along with them, and made space for so many more to join in. Their life was a testament to the collective, to claiming space and creating space for Black, Southern, disabled, queer, elders, youth and more.”
Elandria died at the age of 41, E’s whole life having embodied our Universalist values. Hundreds of people gathered with Elandria's UU congregation in a virtual memorial, to honor E's warm heart and bold vision. The words of that video we just heard were Elandria’s, written for worship at E’s Tennessee Valley UU congregation. They speak the essence of modern Universalism- “All are worthy”. You can tell how deeply Elandria believed those words, because E lived them out again and again.

Today as we celebrate 250 years of American Universalism, let us commit ourselves to be like Thomas Potter, building a space to share the good news of God’s universal love. Let us be like John Murray, and keep sharing even when we are broken-hearted. Let us be like Olympia Brown, using our voice every day, ensuring everyone has a voice and a vote. Let us be like Elandria Williams, carving spaces for ourselves and others when the system will not, listening deeply across the lines of difference, supporting and nurturing emerging leaders, “Let us everyday live our [Universalist] values out loud”[ii]


[i] https://www.uua.org/re/tapestry/adults/btwwdaya/workshop7/highlander-school

[ii] https://www.usworker.coop/blog/rest-in-power-elandria-williams/