Walking always in two worlds—one of things as they are, the other of things as they ought to be—and challenging us to love them both, Jack Mendelsohn has exemplified, for more than half a century, what it means to live with commitment—the life of liberal religion. In pulpit, in print, and in person, he has called us to greater racial justice and gender equity. His advice and consolation have been sought by the leaders of nations and denominations. His books and his pamphlets have enriched our tradition and helped to create its future. His personal ministry has guided countless seekers on life’s spiritual journey, while his interfaith community organizing has shown us the living power of faith in action.
Ordained a Unitarian minister in 1945, Jack Mendelsohn’s service has spanned the merger of our two historic faiths, their testing the fire of the black empowerment movement, and their transformation by feminist principles. His has been primarily an urban ministry—at the Beverly Church in Chicago and in Rockford, Illinois; in Indianapolis, Indiana; at Boston’s historic Arlington Street Church; and at Chicago’s First Unitarian Church. Fostering new approaches to the life of inner-city churches, Jack has sought to reach and involve the diverse communities of the city: people of color, students, the urban poor, single adults, the elderly, artists, and social activists. As Chair of the Alliance to End Repression in Chicago, he played a major role in ending the worst abuses of unchallenged political power in that city. In his last settled ministry, at First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts, he encouraged an urban-suburban connection that remains strong to this day.
The gift of Jack Mendelsohn’s writing has helped us understand who we are as Unitarian Universalists. Thousands of us first became acquainted with this tradition through his introductory books and pamphlets. His classic biography of William Ellery Channing: Reluctant Radical has deepened our sense of heritage. The gift of his counsel has made him one of America’s best known and respected pastors of liberal faith.
As friend and advisor to public figures including Adlai Stevenson, Robert Kennedy and Jesse Jackson, he has traveled widely in pursuit of justice and of reconciliation. The gift of his leadership has inspired us and challenged us as a movement. As President of the Boston Urban League, as CEO of the Civil Rights Project, Inc., he has made a prophetic witness on behalf of what he has helped to make a collective goal among us: to dismantle racism in our time. The gift of his service has been shared on behalf of the UUA Women and Religion Committee, Beacon Press, Collegium, the UU Minister’s Association, the UUSC, and in a campaign, in 1977, for the presidency of the UUA itself.
He has embodied what he has said the liberal ministry requires: “the will and courage to look at all aspects of life—mystical, political, personal, institutional, workaday, global—the feeling eyes of religious insight and conviction.” For those feeling eyes, for his great will and courage, for his grace-filled and persistently prophetic presence among us, this grateful Unitarian Universalist Association honors and thanks Jack Mendelsohn for his truly distinguished service to our cause.
—Distinguished Service Award Presentation, Unitarian Universalist Association, 1997
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