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Why I go to General Assembly

'Going to General Assembly is the best inoculation that I know to prevent denominational shallowness.'
By Greg Hines
May/June 2005 5.1.05

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Shortly after I returned home from last year’s General Assembly, I got a call from a former member of my congregation in Jacksonville, Florida, who had moved to Maryland. She was telling me about her first visit to the local Unitarian Universalist church, and she was not happy about it. The church had no Unitarian Universalist pagan group and didn’t seem to want one, the tone of the service was more Christian than she liked, and when the associate minister spoke in favor of gay marriage, he prefaced his remarks by saying, “Now I know most of you don’t agree with me.” My friend told me, “It didn’t seem like a real Unitarian Universalist church.” I tried to convince her not to give up on us and to visit one of the other UU churches in the area.

My friend’s call led me to write about why I go to General Assembly and why I believe that every Unitarian Universalist should go to GA at least once and preferably often.

To put it bluntly, General Assembly is the best antidote I know for a condition I have seen in myself and too many other Unitarian Universalists—something I think of as denominational shallowness. Denominational shallowness is the condition of not knowing enough, or even anything at all, about the history, structure, politics, personalities, and most of all present diversity of the broader Unitarian Universalist movement.

Some of this knowledge, especially the history and structure, can be learned easily at the local level. You can go to church regularly, read the brochures, attend the introductory and advanced classes, buy and read the sermons and books available for sale during coffee hour, read your subscription to UU World, and talk with other members of your church.

But the most telling symptoms of denominational shallowness are assumptions that one’s local Unitarian Universalist congregation is the standard, usual model. This is not an unreasonable assumption, especially for new members who have attended churches in other denominations. In many denominations, each local church uses the same prayers, follows the same cycle of holy days and liturgical seasons, and adorns the altar in the same way. The ministers tend to dress in the same style and use the same theological language. If you’ve been to one church, you have some idea what you’ll find in another.

That’s not how it is with Unitarian Universalists. All of those elements, and others as well, can vary widely from one church to another. Take ministers, for example.

I have been a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Jacksonville for just about twenty years. In that time I have seen three called ministers, two interim ministers, and one associate minister. Every time we have switched ministers, for whatever reason, invariably some of the people who joined under the last minister will listen to the new minister and say, “Well, he’s not a real UU minister.” But they are. I know that every single minister that we have had, whether I got along with him or not, is a real Unitarian Universalist minister. And we have not really experienced any diversity in our ministers. All of the full-time senior ministers in my time or before have been heterosexual, married, white men. None of our ministers—senior, associate, or interim—has ever been a person of color.

But go to General Assembly and you will see a grand diversity of real Unitarian Universalist ministers: young and old; male, female, and transgendered; gay, lesbian, and straight; black, white, Hispanic, Native American, and Asian. They dress in all sorts of ways: business suits, academic robes, churchy gowns, and colorful, ethnic garb. They speak in a wide variety of philosophical and theological languages. One minister I saw last year even had prominent tattoos and sideburns that Elvis would be proud of! And they are all real, true UU ministers.

Our churches and congregations vary widely as well. Yes, some of them are close matches to my church, and some of them would make many members of my church uncomfortable. But every one is a real Unitarian Universalist church, filled with real Unitarian Universalists.

That is why I go to General Assembly. Going to GA is the best inoculation that I know to prevent denominational shallowness. Better than reading books. Better than visiting other UU churches on vacation. Even better than SUUSI or SWIM or any of the other UU camp experiences. No other experience shows me as clearly how diverse and rich and energetic our faith is. And that is why I urge all of you to go to General Assembly as well. I think my church is better for it, and I think it makes better Unitarian Universalists.

This summer’s General Assembly is in Fort Worth from June 23 through June 27. My mission this year is to push, pull, prod, beg, and invite as many of my congregation’s members as possible to try to come with me. I would like to see our teens participate as well, as there are hundreds of UU youth at GA each year. I’d like more of our board and committee chairs and religious education teachers to go; dozens of workshops help church leaders learn how their jobs could be easier. I would like to see more new members come, bringing their fresh perspectives.

But mostly I want them to come for selfish reasons. The joy of being at General Assembly can never be lessened by sharing it, but is rather made greater. Going together is being part of an ever-deepening experience that will benefit us as individuals, as a church and larger faith, and most of all as friends.

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