William G. Sinkford was elected President of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations in 2001. His term ended on Saturday, June 26, during the UUA General Assembly held June 24-28 in Salt Lake City with the election of a new President.
Describe the spiritual journey that led you to be President of the UUA. I became a Unitarian Universalist when I was 14 when my mother dragged me kicking and screaming to church. I found a community where I knew it was ok to be a person of color, and where I could bring all of my questions about faith. When I was making a career decision in my late 40s, my minister asked me if I ever considered becoming a minister myself. I knew right there that I would become one. Soon after I was asked to work on the staff of the UUA President, who was a former college roommate. At the time, an election was coming up and enough people asked me to run so that I took it seriously and luckily had enough support to be elected President in 2001.
How do you feel about having your conference in Salt Lake City, in light of the Prop 8 issue with the LDS Church? Unitarian Universalism has been in support of the rights of LGBT community for decades, and we've been a prominent voice in support of marriage equality. But we decided to pay the contracts for this site 5 years ago, so it would have been difficult for us to switch locations. So while we're here, we will be as supportive as we can to the LGBT community. We're having a dance inviting LGBT folks, which we did 10 years ago when we were here.
Have you met with LDS leaders while you're here? I met with Elder [M. Russell] Ballard, as well as several other leaders. It was really a courtesy call in many ways. But we had some good and frank conversation around LGBT issues. We certainly didn't change any minds in the course of the meeting, but we were clear where we stood. We also had positive common-ground discussions regarding immigration rights and trying to help dreadful conditions in many parts of the world.
Is running a religion without creeds a challenge? Because we pitch a big theological tent, it's absolutely normal in our congregations for a liberal Christian to be sitting next to a pagan, sitting next to a humanist, sitting next to a theist, sitting next to a Buddhist, and we think that's a good thing. Because we don't require belief in a particular creed, there is a sense of openness to the realities of people's spiritual journeys that we affirm and celebrate. On the other side, it does make it difficult for our folks to understand how they can talk about Unitarian Universalism out in the real world. So I've called on us to practice our elevator speeches and to reclaim the ability to use some religious language so our people have more resources to understand their own faith journey, and be able to describe it to others.
What progressive issues are the UUA concerned about? We are strong advocates for marriage equality, and that will continue—that's an ongoing commitment. The rights of immigrant families is another issue we are particularly concerned about, especially the ICE raids and deportations taking place around the country which are tearing families apart. We will continue in this direction until a coherent national policy on National Immigration is implemented.
Why do you think there is strong resistance to comprehensive sex education? There is a theological difference that informs much of the reaction around things having to do with sexuality. One view is that sexuality is evil, a source of sinfulness, dangerous, and needs to be controlled. We have a very different theological point of view. We believe sexuality is one of God's greatest gifts and, although it should be treated respectfully, is a huge gift to us to be celebrated and affirmed. The conversations that take place in the public sphere are informed by these two different attitudes. I hope and argue that we can move away from that theological debate and look at the reality of people's lives because abstinence only education is hurting people, not only in this country but abroad.
Here is a question I know a lot of other faiths would ask: If everyone is saved, what is the motivation to be good? Unitarian Universalism is a faith that focuses on this life rather than the next life, whatever what that may be. In my view, no one knows what that is. When we say we believe that everybody is saved, we mean that every person has inherent worth and dignity, or to use traditional language, a child of God. Operating out of this principle calls us to relate to people and the world in ways reflecting that belief. Rather than relying on any sense of fear or punishment about what could happen in the next life, we try to operate out of a positive vision of the beloved community here that guides and aspires.
By day, Nathan Spenser is a cool substitute science and math high school teacher for the Granite School District. But two to five nights a week, he is in the Salt Lake City music scene as a multifaceted artist.