Religious Exploration – Embodying Sankofa
Leah | Oct 30, 2018

In our Family Chapel this month we’ll learn about the African “Sankofa” (san-KOH-fah) symbol.  It is a goose with its feet planted forward and its head facing backwards.  It means “Go Back and Get It” to many West African peoples. It is called an Adinkra (ah-DIN-krah)  symbol. Each symbol has a special meaning. Sankofa is also used by some African American people to symbolize the importance of going back and telling the missing stories of African American people so that we can move into a better future.

From our colleagues in Soul Matters program:

One of the ways our Unitarian Universalist religion is embodying Sankofa is to go back and do an honest even painful retelling of our UU history. We are reminded that retrieving gifts from the past can be painful, but to not do it causes pain for others and it’s a reminder that all of history, the painful and the joyful, needs to be included for us to be whole. One particular example is being led by the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, who is challenging us to learn and share the story of Joseph Jordan, the first African-American Universalist minister.

Joseph Jordan, First African-American Universalist minister

from Tapestry of Faith, Virtue Ethics, Respect

“Joseph Jordan” adapted from the Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, 2017 Minns Lecture “Historical and Future Trajectories of Black Lives Matter and Unitarian Universalism”

 The Universalist denomination helped support the Norfolk, VA school and congregation. However, Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed completes the story by telling the painful and important parts of the story have been left out.

In 1892, Joseph Jordan founded an African-American congregation in Norfolk, Va. Then, he wanted to found a Universalist theological school to train African-American ministers. He needed $6,000.00 for this endeavor. He travelled the Northeast, raising funds but only was able to collect $1,500.00.

To put this in perspective, in 1890, Universalists began their mission in Japan. In contrast to the reluctance to fund a theological school for coloreds, they contributed $6,000.00 per year to the Japanese mission and up to $275,000.00 at one point. This sad tale points out the systemic racism which existed in Universalist and Unitarian denominations. Morrison asks, “What would we be like now if there had been Black Universalist preachers preaching about God’s enduring love? What would our music be like if Black UU preachers sang with their congregations about freedom?”

We learn about UU racism in order to learn how to move forward into wholeness and into a more just and anti-racist society. The story continues below in the efforts of Joseph Jordan’s daughter, Annie B. Jordan Willis, to keep the school open despite the white, Universalist board decisions.

In our religious education program we are careful not to promote Unitarian Universalist “exceptionalism” and instead to work to tell a full history of our movement.  

I have just recently started to share with others that my mother found a KKK hood in my great uncle’s attic after he died. I knew that many of my relatives (we all identify as white) were openly racists. I’ve shared with my children that when I was young, I asked my mother about things my grandfather said about “colored people.” She told me that my grandfather was indeed “prejudiced” and that she was less prejudiced than him and she hope I would be less prejudiced than her. One reason my husband and I joined a Unitarian Universalist congregation was to help us raise them with liberal, tolerant viewpoints that could enable us to work to end racism in ourselves and make ourselves whole and to work against systems of oppression.

When you tell stories about your family, how might you include stories those of family members who did not always uphold your values?   

yours in faith,


Leah Purcell

Director of Religious Education and Family Ministry