It was 1943, in the middle of the Second World War. Chaplain Lewis McGee, a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, son of a man who had once been a slave, lay in his Army cot in Belgium listening to the sound of bombers flying overhead. He was struggling with faith and thinking about his life. For more than 20 years, he had served small African Methodist Episcopal congregations in West Virginia and Ohio, all the while questioning the doctrines of his church. He was curious about the discoveries of
After he returned home at the end of the war, Lewis McGee made some big changes. He married Marcella Walker, daughter of a well-to-do Chicago African American family. He also entered Meadville Lombard Theological School to begin his studies for the Unitarian ministry.
North American Unitarian leaders knew about Lewis McGee. He had been part of humanist groups for a long time and was on the governing board of the American Humanist Association, all the while serving as an AME minister. What they didn’t know was how to convince a white congregation to call him as their minister.
After graduation, Lewis and Marcella charted a bold new course. Convinced that there was a hunger for liberal religion and for Unitarianism among Black people on Chicago’s South Side, they started the Free Religious Fellowship and began to gather a congregation. Both Lewis and Marcella were well-liked, and Marcella had a lot of connections in Chicago. She was able to help get the word out, and they grew a congregation that reached nearly 100 members. The members who gathered for the simple Sunday service were mostly Black people, though a few were white, and some were Japanese. The Free Religious Fellowship was supported and encouraged by other Unitarian leaders in Chicago and in the national organization.
After a few years, it was time for Lewis to move on to a new challenge. He impressed the Unitarians of Flint, MI, when he preached for them in early 1957, but when the time came to call him as their minister, he didn’t get the necessary two-thirds of the vote. Although there were five Black families in the congregation at that time, some white members felt that they weren’t ready for a Black minister.
Two years later, McGee became the assistant minister at First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, one of two Black ministers called to minister to largely white congregations that year. Finally, in 1961, forty years after he decided that he wanted to be a Unitarian minister, McGee became the minister of the Chico Unitarian Fellowship, the first Black man called as the senior minister of a mostly white Unitarian Church. 1961. Not all that long ago.
When Lewis McGee decided that he would
—UUTeachIn Resource, prepared by Gail Forsyth-Vail and Jamaine Cripe