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UU-UNO marks fifty years at the United Nations

Unitarian Universalist voice for human rights at the UN since 1962.
By Allison Bennett
Winter 2012 11.1.12

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Adlai Stevenson at All Souls Unitarian Church

Unitarian Adlai Stevenson II (second from right) visited All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City during his 1956 campaign for U.S. president. The Rev. Dr. Walter Donald Kring (right) was an ardent supporter of the UUA’s United Nations Office; Stevenson served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations from 1961 to 1965. (All Souls NYC Archives)

This fall marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s United Nations office. For half a century, the UU-UNO has worked to promote Unitarian Universalists’ commitment to human rights and global community at the UN.

The UU-UNO hosts annual intergenerational seminars for UUs and speaks out through conferences, newsletters, and an internship program. It has raised funds to give orphans in Ghana an education. More recently, it has worked to fight the violence and homophobia in Uganda, earning it a reputation for speaking out on issues others would be reluctant to take a stand on.

“If you look at the preamble to the UN Charter . .  UU principles are UN principles,” said Bruce Knotts, director of the UU-UNO since 2008. “This is the one place where we play with the big guys.”

The UU-UNO also follows developments at the UN relating to human rights and UU special interests, which are decided through resolutions passed at the annual UUA General Assembly. The office collaborates with other UN nongovernmental organizations and educates UUs and their congregations about what’s going on at the UN and how they can get involved. (Learn more about how to get involved with the UU-UNO at uu-uno.org.)

Knotts said, “The three areas where we’ve made a difference are building Religions for Peace in the ’60s, leading the faith-based caucus to establish the international court, and recently really changing the culture of the UN to be proactive in endorsing LGBT human rights.”

UU-UNO membership includes congregations and individuals, and congregations are encouraged to select a UU-UNO envoy to serve as a liaison between the congregation and the UU-UNO. Envoys promote UU-UNO activities and membership, organize an annual UN Sunday service, and hold internationally themed events and fundraisers. Currently about half of all UU congregations have an envoy or envoy committee.

To celebrate its anniversary, the UU-UNO will hold a ceremony on November 3 at the TimesCenter in New York City honoring some of the people who were critical to its development, including Adlai Stevenson II, the Rev. Dana Greeley, and the Rev. Homer Jack, among others. Former Senator Adlai Stevenson III will be a guest speaker, announcing a special legacy fund in honor of his father’s work.


The UU-UNO was founded in 1962, following years of involvement by the Unitarians and the Universalists in both the League of Nations Association and the United Nations. Governor Adlai Stevenson II, a Unitarian who had recently been named Ambassador to the United Nations by President John F. Kennedy, wrote to UUA President Dana Greeley, saying, “In this disastrous and shrinking world it is no longer possible—if it ever was—for local communities to be more secure than the surrounding world. Our ultimate security therefore lies in making the world more and more into a community.”

The Rev. Homer Jack, director of the UUA’s Department of Social Responsibility, and Elizabeth Swayzee, the UU-UNO’s first executive director, worked together to link a Washington office and a New York office at the Church Center on UN Plaza. The Department of Social Responsibility used the two offices to promote world peace, human rights, and disarmament.

During the 1960s, the UU-UNO was a part of the UUA and received allotted funds for UN activities. But in 1971 major cutbacks forced the Association to stop financially supporting the office. The Rev. Dr. Walter Donald Kring, then minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, worked to keep the office open, and the UU-UNO incorporated as a separate but affiliated nonprofit organization supported by volunteers and donations.

In July 2011, the UU-UNO officially rejoined the UUA as part of its Office of International Resources. “It’s where we started and it’s where we belong and I’m glad we’re back at the UUA,” said Knotts.

UUA President Peter Morales, in a video created for the anniversary, said, “It just made sense that a relatively small denomination like ours should seize the opportunity to make our voices heard in what most of us think of as ‘the last best hope’ for living together with tolerance, protecting our planet, and maintaining peace and security for all people.”


This article appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of UU World (pages 62-63). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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