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UUA plans 50th anniversary celebration

Big events scheduled for 2011 General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C.
By Donald E. Skinner
12.27.10

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A birthday party’s coming!

The Unitarian Universalist Association turns 50 next year and planning for that milestone is well underway. The anniversary of the consolidation of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association is actually May 15, 2011, but the real festivities start a month later at General Assembly 2011 in Charlotte, N.C.

The opening ceremony on June 22 will be given over to a celebration of that anniversary. One of the highlights will be a hymn, commissioned for the occasion, with words by the Rev. Thomas Mikelson and music by composer Tom Benjamin.

The ceremony will also include past UUA presidents, said Lynda Shannon Bluestein, chair of the GA Planning Committee, noting that, “This worship service will set the stage for the rest of GA 2011.”

After the opening worship the wall dividing the plenary hall from the exhibit hall will be rolled back and a party, sponsored by exhibitors, the Planning Committee, and the 50th Anniversary Task Force, will commence in the exhibit hall. “There will be cake for 3,500 people,” said Don Plante, General Assembly and Meeting Services planner.

Anniversary events later in GA will include a lecture on the past and future of Unitarian Universalism, a panel discussion on UU social justice history, and a “New Epiphany Revival Show,” led by UU song leader, composer, writer, and performer Nick Page. Members of the UU Musicians’ Network will also lead a “big sing” Saturday night before the Ware Lecture.

The lecture on the past and future of Unitarian Universalism will be given by Dr. Gary Dorrien, the Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Professor of Religion at Columbia University. The Rev. John Buehrens, former UUA president and chair of the anniversary planning team, said Dorrien “will give us an assessment of what Unitarian Universalism has contributed to the liberal religious scene and suggest how we might do better.” Buehrens is minister of First Parish in Needham, Mass.

The panel on UU social justice will include the Rev. Leslie Takahashi Morris, co-minister of Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, Calif.; Dr. Leon Spencer; and former UUA moderator Denise Davidoff.

“We want to devote some time to retrospection and self-assessment that will give us some impetus for looking forward as well,” said Buehrens. “We’re also working with the Young Adult Caucus so that the voices of the people who will be the stewards of the movement in the next generation are heard.”

In addition to the opening ceremony, the 50th Anniversary Task Force is sponsoring two other worship services focused on UU history.* The Rev. Debra W. Haffner, director of the Religious Institute, will also be giving a GA presentation, “Fifty Years of Sexual Justice.”

Mikelson said the title of the new musical work he is creating with Tom Benjamin is “Holding Together.” “Each of the four verses explores some dimension of the liberal religious way of creating religious community,” he said.

Buehrens said people who attend GA will be invited to share their memories of the past 50 years. “We hope to have a sound booth set up for that purpose.” Another place to share stories is on the UUA’s 50th anniversary web page, where you can also read stories posted by others.

He said the UUA will spend about $40,000 on the anniversary celebration. “This is not an era when we can afford to spend lots of money, so we’re being frugal.” The cost is being shared by the UUA and the UU Funding Panel.

More celebrations

Congregations have their own part to play in commemorating the anniversary. First Parish in Concord, Mass., began a series of sermons this fall to mark the anniversary, and other congregations are having similar events. The UUA’s Pacific Central District will hold its annual conference on the actual anniversary, May 13-15, with the anniversary as the theme.

The UUA’s St. Lawrence District held the first event of the anniversary back in October 2009, devoting part of its annual conference to the October 1959 meeting in Syracuse, N.Y., when representatives of both faiths met and voted to adopt a plan for consolidation, a plan that led to the formal creation of the UUA two years later. The 2009 event was held in the same hotel ballroom as the 1959 conference.

The UUA’s annual fundraising campaign, Association Sunday, is also playing a role in marking the anniversary. Katrina Bergmann, director of Donor Relations and Individual Giving for the UUA’s Stewardship and Development staff group, said the anniversary is the theme for Association Sunday events through next spring. She said 576 congregations have signed up to participate in Association Sunday this year, compared to 503 at this time last year. “There is definitely more interest and part of that is because of the anniversary,” she said.

She added that Stewardship and Development is also encouraging individuals to make legacy gifts to the UUA through their wills or other planned giving in honor of the anniversary. “We’re hoping for 100 new gifts. We also want people to tell us the stories of their involvement with our faith.” She said about 50 legacy gifts have come in thus far. Donors will be recognized at General Assembly.

New books on UU history

Several books exploring aspects of UU history will be published in time for GA. Buehrens has written Universalists and Unitarians in America: A People’s History, which he called “a reassessment of our collective history.” He said the book, which will be out in April, is “less institutional and intellectual” and would include “views from the pews and the parsonages as well as from protest marches and various other perspectives.” Buehrens will present a lecture at GA on his book.

Harris has written Elite: Uncovering Classism in Unitarian Universalist History (Skinner House Books). The book adds to the historical understanding of Unitarian Universalism from the basis of class and is a call for greater economic diversity.

Morrison-Reed has written Darkening the Doorways: Black Trail Blazers and Missed Opportunities in Unitarian Universalism (Skinner House Books), a new history of African-American involvement in Universalism, Unitarianism, and the combined faiths. It will be available this spring. Morrison-Reed is on the faculty of Meadville-Lombard Theological School and has written extensively about the African-American experience within Unitarian Universalism.

Gordon Martin, the UUA’s current and longtime GA parliamentarian, has written Count Them One By One, Black Mississippians Fighting for the Right to Vote (University Press of Mississippi, 2010).

Another new UU history book is Stirring the Nation’s Heart: Eighteen Stories of Prophetic Unitarians and Universalists of the Nineteenth Century (UUA) written by Polly Peterson, a freelance writer and member of First Parish in Concord, Mass. All of these books will be available from the UUA Bookstore.


Correction 1.16.11: It was incorrectly reported that the Rev. Mark Harris and the Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed would be leading worship services at GA. They will be leading workshops, but not worship services.Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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