Skip to main content

Prominent Washington church accused of racism tries to move on

The Rev. Susan Newman Moore had served All Souls Church Unitarian for seven years.

July 11, 2018 04:08 pm Updated: July 11, 2018 04:11 pm

WASHINGTON - One of Washington's best-known progressive congregations was locked for months this year in a very public conflict with its associate minister, who claimed she was mistreated and pushed out because she is black. Her supporters - in the church and around the country - spotlighted the case as an example of what, to them, liberal racism looks like, and vowed to keep it in the public eye until she got a better exit package.

The conflict at the 1,100-member All Souls Church Unitarian, known for nearly 200 years as a bastion of social justice activism, became fodder for debate about the nature of racism, and whether its pervasiveness will always seep into interactions and judgments even among people and institutions who say they are fixated on fighting it.

Now, three months after All Souls reached a private settlement with the Rev. Susan Newman Moore, the impacts of the dispute are still unfolding.

Some All Souls members say they've stopped attending - or that they attend small groups, but not services when the Rev. Rob Hardies, the popular but controversial white senior minister, is preaching. Some say the conflict led to an expanded conversation about race and power, while others at the non-creedal, universalist church say nothing has changed. Moore has returned to the Baptist denomination in which she was ordained in the 1970s, and a few weeks ago the District of Columiba Baptist Convention held a "reaffirmation" ceremony for her, "as a binding of sore spots where wolves have taken a bite of you."

Moore's case has caused division among some of the city's African-American clergy.

Several of the pastors involved in overseeing the complaint against her are African-American, and several other black Washington pastors who were also investigated in unrelated reviews of their work will meet Tuesday - with Moore - to discuss what they see as a pattern, said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, longtime pastor at Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest Washington.

While Moore served at All Souls, and was initially ordained in the 1970s as a Baptist, she first was assigned a church by the United Church of Christ in the 1980s. It was the United Church of Christ that suspended her because of the conflict at All Souls. Moore resigned rather than accept the suspension.

Hagler said Moore's case, as well as his own, and those of other Washington-area black clergy in the United Church of Christ, show racial tension in liberal religious denominations that are predominantly white - such as Unitarian Universalism and the United Church of Christ. Black clergy, he said, can be perpetrators as well.

"Some of it has to do with racial self-hatred," he said. "There is a larger process going on where people fight to ingratiate themselves into the [white] power structure by tearing down others."

A request for comment from the regional office of the United Church of Christ was not returned.

All Souls board President Thurman Rhodes, an African-American judge in Prince George's County, Maryland, who thinks neither race nor gender discrimination played a role in the Moore controversy, said the dispute didn't change anything at the church.

"I can't pinpoint any changes as a result of that. We do have several initiatives [about racial justice] but I can't say they were a result of that," he said. "The mission of All Souls has not changed. Our mission is to create a diverse community, a justice-seeking community . . . that's always been the mission of All Souls."

The denomination, however, emphasized to The Washington Post that it has seriously stepped up its work on white supremacy in recent years. The All Souls dispute was one of at least 15 that the Unitarian Universalist Association was asked to help resolve in the past year involving religious professionals of color.

Marchaé Grair, a spokeswoman for UUA, told The Washington Post that two-thirds of the denomination's congregations participated in anti-white-supremacy training in 2017, and many substituted regular worship for the training. The UUA's board in 2016 committed $5.3 million to Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism - notable for a denomination whose membership is less than half a percent of the American population.

Moore was not available for comment for this story, but spokeswoman Rosa Grillo said the pastor is "emotionally drained" from the dispute and does not plan to become a full-time minister again in the immediate future.

Moore's exit from All Souls, where she had been for seven years, began late last summer, when the then-60-year-old clergywoman had a conflict with a younger white congregant. The dispute happened via email, with both sides saying they felt disrespected. The congregant later launched a variety of complaints against Moore to the national offices of the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Moore said the congregant's treatment of her mirrored years of micro-aggressions, slights and problems with her vacation and pay that she believes are all race-related.

Dozens of congregants organized around her cause. Some who saw outright race and gender bias, and others thought something more subtle - but still important - needed to be addressed. Primarily they saw a disparity in treatment between two ministers "called" - or picked by vote - by the congregation, one a white man and the other a black woman. Church leaders saw the dispute as the result of problems with both of the pastors' management skills, but Moore was the one made to pay, her supporters feel.

Details of the settlement between Moore and the board were confidential. It was reached May 10 and noted that she would "withdraw from active participation at All Souls," a brief statement to the congregation read. It encouraged people not to share speculation.

"Any characterizations or statements regarding the process or resolution you may hear are not from a reliable source. Please understand the harm done to our community when unsubstantiated rumors and innuendo are disseminated in any form," the statement read, before signing off: "As we've always prayed, let us begin again in Love!"

Nadine Bowden Ramos, a longtime active African-American congregant at All Souls, said she continues to be involved in a small group of African-American congregants, but no longer attends Sunday services because she doesn't want to hear Hardies preach. The saga around Moore's case prompted difficult conversations with her husband, a white usher, and other friends who are active there. She is encouraged that the Unitarian denomination has been reaching out to congregants to discuss what happened.

"For me, I do look around and wonder: 'Are you on Rob's side? Susan's?' People come on Sunday and just go about their business," she said. "It feels like there are well-intentioned white people who want justice on the outside, but inside you want everything to just look pretty and you're less concerned."