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General Assembly Report 2004

Annual event in Long Beach, California
By Christopher L. Walton
September/October 2004 9.1.04

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The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles opened this year's General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations with jubilant songs proclaiming "vive la différence" and "diversity makes us strong.” Those themes resounded throughout an Assembly focused on building new and deeper relationships. Meeting June 24 through 28 in Long Beach, California, the gathering of 4,700 Unitarian Universalists celebrated a year of unprecedented visibility for Unitarian Universalism in the battle for same–sex marriage and looked for new opportunities to share their faith and values.

New initiatives this year emphasized denominational, interpersonal, and community relationships:

  • Responding to an invitation from President William G. Sinkford, 282 congregational presidents came to GA with subsidized registrations for a half-day conversation about ways to make the Association more truly a community of congregations. The presidents represented almost half of the 580 congregations that sent delegates to this year's Assembly and just over one quarter of the Association's member congregations.
  • Thirty-five covenant groups met daily, bringing the popular small-group ministry movement to GA for the first time. Approximately 250 Assembly-goers took part.
  • For the first time, the Sunday-morning GA worship service was explicitly addressed to new and potential UUs attracted by a month-long advertising campaign in greater Los Angeles and welcomed by a small army of greeters.

Reaching out. The telegenic, intergenerational worship service, led by a team of ministers dressed in the colors of the rainbow, emphasized celebratory music and basic Unitarian Universalist themes. The Rev. Jason Shelton, music director at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, Tennessee, led the congregation of 5,000 in a rousing fifteen-minute sequence of opening songs. The service included a dramatization of a children's story, "What If Nobody Forgave?," a responsive litany with musical accompaniment, and a sermon by President Sinkford on making mistakes and making amends.

"We are still a work in progress," he said, inviting newcomers to join Unitarian Universalism's work in progress. "We offer no simple salvation, no set of religious rules that promises either happiness or wholeness. We offer only ourselves, with all of our shortcomings, and the great liberal religious tradition in which we stand."

The UUA invested $36,000 in a month-long publicity campaign in the Long Beach area using newspaper, public radio, and billboard advertising to introduce Unitarian Universalism and extend an invitation to the Sunday morning worship service, according to the Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, UUA director of congregational services. One hundred greeters from eight area congregations ushered people to the service from all sides of the sprawling convention center and hosted a coffee hour for newcomers after the service. The service clearly attracted hundreds of local UUs, but greeters said they encountered only a few first-time worshipers.

Although few newcomers responded directly to the campaign, the service provided Assembly-goers with a vivid demonstration of the "seeker service" approach promoted by many church-growth consultants. Barbara Atlas, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach who coordinated local volunteers for GA, said that preparing for the publicity campaign brought many changes to her church, from refurbishing the building to hanging two "Uncommon Denomination" banners on their property. "There was a real awareness that 'company would be coming,'" she said in an e-mail interview, "and the congregation decided that they needed to get ready for them."

The General Assembly didn't simply invite the local community to worship, however. As GA was in session, the Long Beach congregation and the Greater Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization (ICO) sponsored a march and public rally to promote affordable housing in the city. President Sinkford and about 150 Assembly-goers joined several hundred local residents in the rally, where the local UU congregation announced its contribution of $20,000 to help establish a homeless shelter. At Sunday morning's GA worship service and at a booth in the exhibit hall, UUs gave $51,352 more toward the effort—more than twice the amount given to any recent GA service project. (Assembly-goers also contributed $88,628 to assist ministers in need during the Service of the Living Tradition, which was moved from its traditional Sunday morning slot to Friday night, and $38,917 to support the development of a new comprehensive religious education curriculum.)

Visible Leadership. Perhaps the most notable change at this year's Assembly was the introduction of the UUA's new moderator, Gini Courter of Traverse City, Michigan. Courter was elected acting moderator by the board of trustees after the resignation last October of Diane Olson, who had been elected by the General Assembly in 2002. Courter ran the Assembly's plenary sessions with such parliamentary grace that one delegate asked at the end of the final plenary session if it would be in order to elect Courter "moderator for life." Instead, she was elected by the Assembly to complete the final year of the moderator's term. At next year's Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, delegates will elect a president, moderator, and financial advisor to four-year terms.

Courter told the congregational presidents assembled at GA that denominational and district leaders "would like to find ways either to help you be in better relationship with one another, or if we are the barrier, we want to get out of the way." Better training for lay leaders is becoming a priority for the Association, she said. The presidents brainstormed ways to share concerns and success stories with each other and expressed interest in more opportunities to meet with peers.

President Sinkford said in the Opening Ceremony that he considered the presidents' gathering the beginning of "a denomination-wide discernment process." He invited UUs to "imagine a communion as compelling as our autonomy."

In his annual report, Sinkford announced the successful completion of the UUA's largest capital campaign, the $32 million Campaign for Unitarian Universalism. Only $9 million have been cash gifts, "and we've been using that cash as it has come in," Sinkford said. Two-thirds of the gifts to the campaign are deferred in bequests. Sinkford hailed the generosity of donors as one of the most important signs of hope for Unitarian Universalism's future.

He also celebrated Unitarian Universalist efforts on behalf of same-sex marriage. "Our religious witness in support of freedom to marry has resulted in more press coverage of Unitarian Universalism than, well, anything in the history of the Association," he said. "Our support for recognizing love and commitment between two people regardless of gender has raised the profile of our faith almost beyond our imagining."

Sinkford characterized the advocacy work as an expression of fundamental UU religious values: "We are not raising our voice to make ourselves feel better, nor to attract new members—though I believe deep in my heart that thousands of persons and families want a faith community which stands on the side of love. Our objective is to help change the culture. Our goal is to help the universe bend toward justice."

Hillary Goodridge, executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Funding Panel, was certainly a celebrity at GA: As one of the lead plaintiffs in the landmark gay marriage case in Massachusetts, Goodridge v. Department of Public Health, she spoke at several events to help UUs work toward same-sex marriage in other states. In the Opening Ceremony, she received the Mark DeWolfe Award for contributions to bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender causes on behalf of the seven UU plaintiffs in the court case that in May led to the first state-recognized same-sex marriages in the United States.

Reverence Revisited. Several workshops and plenary speeches expanded on conversations begun at last year's Assembly about religious language. Last year, a delegate's request opened up forty-five minutes of plenary discussion in response to President Sinkford's call for a renewed "language of reverence" in the UUA. Some perceived his call as a reactionary move toward mainline or conservative Christianity, but others saw him urging religious liberals to acknowledge the spirituality that is already among us.

This year, Sinkford invited the Rev. Dr. Lee Barker, president of the Unitarian Universalist Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, to lead the Assembly in some "deeper reflection" on the subject. Barker invited UUs to ask two questions as they considered religious language. "First, how are you personally deepened by your experience of Unitarian Universalism? And second, what key words did you use to answer the first question?"

Two Meadville Lombard professors then addressed the plenary session on religious language. History professor Dean Grodzins suggested that UUs are focusing too narrowly on how we talk about religion. "Driving this debate is a widespread sense that UUism is not living up to its potential as a religious movement," he said. "People wonder whether these problems would be eased or solved if only UUs would talk differently about religion." In all our talk about words, however, Grodzins argued that UUs have ignored the history of Unitarian and Universalist religious behavior.

"Religion," Grodzins said, "is above all something that you do." He urged UUs to pay attention to the history of our religious actions—from rituals like communion and chalice lightings to community activities like book groups and sports teams—for signs of Unitarian Universalism's "vital element."

Meadville Lombard theologian the Rev. Dr. Thandeka told the Assembly that "our reverence for the spirit of life—for life itself—is not a creed, an idea, or a thought. It is not a doctrine. It is a feeling—the feeling of being held, loved, and cherished." She argued that this feeling comes before words, thoughts, or concepts. Our religious tradition, she said, helps us articulate these feelings in a language of reverence, which she summarized in three affirmations:

First, hold life dearly. Nurture and attend to life, all of it, come what may. This principle makes us a justice-seeking people. Second, love life deeply. Know the worth and dignity of all persons and treat them with respect. Revere life. This rule makes us a moral, compassionate people. Third, cherish life always. Honor life. Honor the life of others. Our ethics of interrelationship begin here.

In other workshops and lectures, the Rev. Dr. Marilyn Sewell, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, urged UUs to embrace the religious purpose of the church. "We are not a social club," she said. "We are not a debating society. We are not a place where like-minded people come to confirm their beliefs. We are a religious movement. Every meeting, every class, every Sunday morning service should be framed in the context of our reason for being." She identified that fundamental religious purpose with Universalism's proclamation of an ultimate forgiving Love.

The Rev. David Bumbaugh, another professor at Meadville Lombard, revisited the controversy he inspired three years ago when his lecture, "Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence," inspired President Sinkford's advocacy of "reverence." Bumbaugh lamented that Sinkford and others had embraced words like "God," which, he argued, have been irredeemably corrupted by a history of ecclesiastical abuse and commercial manipulation. "I do not believe we will find a language of reverence adequate to our times or our own experience of the world," he said, "by embracing the rituals and language of others or of the past or by rummaging around in someone else's traditions."

The Rev. Dr. Kendyl Gibbons, minister of the First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, responded to Bumbaugh by arguing that there are three legitimate purposes for a language of reverence: to respond to the experience of reverence, to describe the experience of reverence, and to elicit the experience of reverence. "We do not invent love, or even suffering, for ourselves," she said. "We learn what to do with our feelings by the example and precept of others, who demonstrate what love looks like in action, or how to endure pain, or how to express reverence."

Gibbons defended humanism and religious naturalism, but said: "To think that we must dispense with all traditional language and symbols and concepts in order to speak about that which is deepest and dearest, the enduring focus of our commitment and the precious source of human good, is to assume that no human beings were ever before so clever, so profound, or so committed as we are, that those who have been down the path of life before us have no wisdom to teach, and that we can learn nothing from all that they have left to us."

She said she interpreted Sinkford's call as a recognition that "a religious tradition that does not help its members to discover meaningful and satisfying ways of expressing and responding to the human experiences of reverence . . . is missing a crucial and central piece of its function."

Dismay and Resolution. The Assembly was strongly marked by dismay about the war in Iraq and the Bush administration's domestic policies.

The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA and former president of the UUA, denounced the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in an electrifying plenary address. "How have we gotten to this juncture that our top leaders could countenance, even encourage, such barbarity?" he asked. "How have we come to a point in our national journey that America, once loved, once heralded, is now to so many around the world an outcast, a symbol of all things cruel and dirty?"

"The good news," Schulz said, "is that this scandal has shocked the conscience of a nation. But consciences are ephemeral things and they require constant pricking. My Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers, I'm asking you today to be a bunch of pricks."

Anger at the prisoner abuse scandal generated an unusual and vigorous response from the delegates. No one introduced a resolution focused specifically on the prisoner abuse scandal using the procedures for Actions of Immediate Witness, which require petitions from at least 150 delegates from 25 congregations. One congregational president who had come to GA at Sinkford's invitation was powerfully inspired by Schulz's remarks, however. On the final day of the Assembly, Steve Buckingham, a first-time GA delegate and president of the Bowie, Maryland, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, introduced a resolution in response to a report that condemned "the use of torture by any individual, any group, any organization, or any nation" and urged "all people of conscience . . . to hold accountable any individual, group, organization, or nation that conducts, authorizes, condones, funds, or covers up the use of torture." The resolution passed overwhelmingly.

Delegates also endorsed a Statement of Conscience defending civil liberties in the United States and opposing many of the policies promoted as part of the "war on terrorism." The Statement, written by the UUA's elected Commission on Social Witness after two years of congregational review, demands holding Attorney General John Ashcroft "fully accountable" for advocating policies that have eroded civil liberties and calls for the repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act.

For the first time since 1997, delegates chose an environmental issue as the focus of congregational justice work for the next two years: global warming. Congregations will receive an initial packet of material on the subject this fall.

The Assembly considered and passed five Actions of Immediate Witness. Delegates voted overwhelmingly to oppose a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman. (The U.S. Senate rejected the amendment proposal in mid-July.) In three other Actions of Immediate Witness, the General Assembly came out against the use of electronic voting machines that do not generate voter-validated paper records of each ballot, called for the renewal of the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban, and defended the 1789 Alien Tort Claims Act under which foreigners may sue corporations in U.S. courts for violations of international law. (Two days after the Assembly's vote in support of the Alien Tort Claims Act, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the law despite challenges from the White House and corporate lawyers.)

Moderator Courter took the parliamentary step of moving the Assembly into a "committee of the whole" to debate a final Action of Immediate Witness concerning the U.S. role in Iraq. Competing proposals demanded on the one hand immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops, and on the other, U.S. compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1546, which calls for the withdrawal of all international troops by December 31, 2005. Delegates overwhelmingly supported the U.N. plan and rejected calls for immediate withdrawal. The adopted resolution calls the United States to abide fully by the Geneva Conventions and urges the U.S. to compensate families of Iraqi civilians injured or killed in the war.

The full text of each resolution is published on-line at www.uua.org/csw/.

Political passions. Despite the General Assembly's nonpartisan nature, national politics were very much in the air. Former Clinton labor secretary Robert Reich, who drew a huge audience at last year's General Assembly, told a packed ballroom this year that the presidential election in November "is the most important election since 1932." Folksinger and activist Holly Near, who gave the Assembly's keynote Ware Lecture, was perhaps the most explicit: "I don't imagine this conference as a body is able to make certain statements," she said, "but I'm a guest, and I have vowed I won't go anywhere without saying it: We have a rare window of opportunity coming up here, hugely important, to act on behalf of the whole world. On November 2, we must get George Bush out of office." The audience cheered loudly.

Other liberal celebrities at GA included journalist Amy Goodman, co-host of "Democracy Now!"; farm labor organizer Dolores Huerta; actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr; community organizer Mary Gonzalez; retired journalism professor and Beacon Press author Ben Bagdikian; and William Upski Wimsatt, the founder of the League of Pissed Off Voters, who urged young activists to have fun while building a movement of politically engaged citizens.

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