Delegates Deliver a Mandate
by C H R I S T O P H E R L. W A L T O N
Between an electrifying rock-and-roll opening ceremony and a spirited choral farewell, the UUA's 40th General Assembly resounded with calls for renewed public engagement and commitment to congregational and spiritual growth. Gathering in a convention center just up the hill from Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, delegates from 49 states and the District of Columbia, eight Canadian provinces, Mexico, and Australia met to attend workshops, network, conduct the business of the UUA, worship, and elect a new president, moderator, and other officers.
From the way people were talking about the "good news" of Unitarian Universalism at this year's gathering of UU leaders, you can expect a very public campaign to raise the visibility of Unitarian Universalism. What may prove surprising is that the heart of the campaign, at least as outlined in Cleveland, is universalist.
It was no surprise that the Murray Grove Association sponsored a lecture by the Rev. Dr. Tom Chulak about "the rise of Universalism since merger" after all, Murray Grove is the birthplace of Universalism on this continent. But the Rev. William G. Sinkford, elected president of the UUA by the largest margin in the association's history [click here for more], seemed to catch some UUs off-guard by planting his program of public witness and spiritual renewal on the bedrock of universalism as well.
"We live in a world of hurt and we have a healing message," Sinkford told a cheering crowd packed into a Renaissance Hotel reception room late Saturday night after the election results were announced. "It is our job and it will be my job as our new president to make this healing voice heard far and wide." He challenged Unitarian Universalists to a program of congregational growth, spiritual deepening, youth and young adult outreach, and visible engagement in public life.
The crowd responded enthusiastically to Sinkford's advocacy of "a new concept of family values one which honors the transformative power of love, wherever it may be found." They cheered loudly when he said the UUA will continue to champion "racial justice and gender justice and equal rights for our bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender brothers and sisters," as well as responsible environmental stewardship and economic justice.
Rock band One Brick Shy welcomes the 40th General Assembly to Cleveland as representatives carrying banners from congregations and affiliated organizations march in Thursday night's opening ceremony. Photo by Ivan Massar.
They were much quieter, however, when Sinkford continued in a decidedly universalist tone: "As people hear this message and join with us, the artificial barriers we have placed around gender, age, and ability will give way to the reality that nothing can separate us from the love of God."
More than a few UUs are unlikely to embrace the vocabulary of their new president's good news, even if he is speaking squarely from within our own tradition. The Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, acknowledged the discomfort many religious liberals feel with God-talk in a lecture outlining what he labeled a universalism for the 21st century. "God is on the label of every bottle of religious snake-oil I've ever tasted," he said, to appreciative laughter from an audience of several hundred but he added that it is impossible to speak about universalism without addressing the concept of God.
"I recognize that for many people the word God has shrunk with repeated use," he said, "but we can always stretch it!" He said that whether we use the word "god" or some other term, the concept points to a universally shared reality that inspires humility and awe. The underlying religious impulse in both the Unitarian and Universalist traditions, Church said, is to affirm the kinship of all life and to resist subdividing our common ground. In spite of this impulse, however, we suffer from "the Protestant temptation to divide. My call for us is to resist this temptation."
The challenge for champions of the emerging universalism will be to help UUs convey what they feel most powerfully about their faith in terms others will understand. The need to make Unitarian Universalism better known was comically evident to people arriving early for the Assembly: Right there, scrolling across the electronic marquee outside Cleveland's stately convention center overlooking Lake Erie, was a bold welcome to the "Universal Uniterian Association." Perhaps it is time to get the word out.
The spelling was corrected before most delegates arrived.
CANADIANS CHART THEIR OWN COURSE
The election of new officers dominated the business of the General Assembly, but delegates also voted to add a youth trustee-at-large to the UUA board, passed a Statement of Conscience affirming responsible consumption, and selected economic globalization as a two-year Study/Action Issue for congregational review. [Click here for more on the social witness statements and resolutions.]
Also at GA, representatives of the UUA and the Canadian Unitarian Council signed a formal agreement that shifts responsibility to the CUC for most services to Canada's 54 UU societies and emerging congregations. As part of the agreement negotiated by the CUC and UUA boards, and ratified by the Canadians' Annual Meeting in May, the UUA will transfer $1.5 million in endowment funds to the CUC next year.
The Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed, president of the CUC and co-minister of the First Unitarian Congregation of Toronto, told delegates in Saturday's plenary session that the agreement will finally allow Canadians to shape programs that address their own national culture rather than trying to correct the UUA's lack of attention to Canadian concerns. (Only 3.4 percent of North American UUs live in Canada.) He said that "for many who have vested their hopes in a pan-Canadian movement," the new agreement is "a dream come true."
Although the agreement does not affect Canadian congregations' membership in the UUA, it will have considerable impact on several UUA districts that serve Canadian congregations. Ted Lightfoot is president of the St. Lawrence District, which includes Quebec, most of Ontario, and most of New York State. During a CUC-sponsored workshop about the agreement, Lightfoot called it a "separation" and said, "I'm in a state of rage." His district's annual meeting voted in April to urge the CUC to continue negotiations rather than ratify the agreement. The boards of the Pacific Northwest District (which includes ten congregations in British Columbia) and the Western Canada District (which consists of nine Canadian congregations) also opposed the negotiations.
The Rev. Brian Kiely, who serves on the CUC board, said that "we have negotiated a service-delivery agreement, and that's all. We're not leaving. This is not a split. This is not a divorce." Kiely reported that 83 percent of the delegates to the CUC's annual meeting in May voted for greater autonomy, and that every congregation in the Western Canada District endorsed the agreement.
THE CHALLENGES OF DIVERSITY
A record 4,582 people registered for this year's gathering, bringing a pageant of buttons, ribbons, books, and ideas to Cleveland. Diana Eck, Harvard professor and Beacon Press author, spent time in the GA exhibit hall Saturday afternoon before making a presentation on religious pluralism in America. She described her amazement at the "energy surrounding all these displays, the buzzing in the bookstalls, the jewelry, the harp music" and the "tremendously energetic conversations that you can hear and feel going on."
Eck wondered whether the religious diversity within Unitarian Universalism has grown so familiar to us that the diversity elsewhere in North America may catch us by surprise. She also suggested that Unitarian Universalists "might be in a genuinely critical position" to help others make sense of life in a religiously pluralistic society.
The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes Jr., who delivered the Ware Lecture on Sunday evening to an audience of nearly 4,000 people, also called UUs to a daunting challenge. Forbes, who serves as senior minister at the interdenominational Riverside Church in New York City, asked white Unitarian Universalists to consider recent census figures that indicate that whites will soon no longer constitute the majority in the United States and that Hispanics will soon outnumber blacks.
"Is that in any way unsettling?" he asked. "I mean, if you've been socialized to feel like you should be in charge of things; if you've always been called a majority; if you've always called the shots, if you've always actually defined what excellence is, defined what beauty is; if you've always kind of relegated everybody else to a position of aspiring to be exactly what you are . . . does that make you feel uneasy?"
"Why do white people feel uncomfortable when they are not in the majority?" he asked. "When somebody else comes in not just one, but a real substantial number will other folks get up from the table of fellowship and run away?"
He called Unitarian Universalists to join him in becoming "human race activists," people willing to sacrifice personal wealth and comfort, willing to risk the discomfort of change and the "inconveniences of inclusiveness," in order to break the "bone-deep racism" in American society.
Forbes said that he believes Unitarian Universalists know something profound about how to be human race activists but he urged UUs to remember the history of the UUA's response to the black empowerment movement in the late 1960s. "Votes and resolutions must come from a very deep place if the resolve is to be sustained," he said. Forbes also said that UUs must reclaim their "spiritual, transformative heritage" in order to bring about real change. "You may be asked to show what it is that takes people where they are and transforms them so that they are willing to make a radical commitment."
REVISITING A TUMULTUOUS PAST
This year's General Assembly returned to the site of one of the most troubled assemblies in the UUA's history. The 1968 General Assembly met in Cleveland's Renaissance Hotel, where a bitter debate about the creation of the Black Affairs Council (BAC) and its "non-negotiable demands" led to what Morrison-Reed has described as "a denominational tragedy." In 1968 the General Assembly committed $1 million over four years one quarter of the UUA's annual budget to fund black empowerment initiatives, but stepped back from that commitment in 1969 when the Board of Trustees discovered that the UUA was essentially broke.
Outraged by the UUA's inability (or refusal) to live up to its commitment, several hundred delegates including most black UUs walked out of the plenary hall at the 1969 Boston General Assembly, returning only after hours of tense negotiations. But the damage was done. The 1970 General Assembly cut all direct funding to BAC. UUA Trustee-at-Large Norma Poinsett, speaking in the opening plenary session this year, said that a thousand African Americans left the UUA in the aftermath of the controversy.
President Sinkford was among them. He had served as president of the UUA's continental youth organization in 1965 and was considering becoming a Unitarian Universalist minister when he graduated from Harvard College in 1968. Sinkford, who returned to Unitarian Universalism more than a decade later, said in his election-night victory speech that "the fact that I am standing here as your new president is in itself witness that we can move toward reconciliation."
The Rev. Victor Carpenter, minister of the First Parish in Belmont, Massachusetts, explored the significance of the black empowerment controversy in a Saturday evening lecture. He suggested that the UUA's attempt to respond positively to the black empowerment movement in 1968 made it the first denomination to endorse the concept of reparations. But he also said that "we permitted fear to compromise our concept of community, and to sacrifice our prophetic agenda."
A MATURING MOVEMENT GROWS YOUNGER
In his final presidential report, the Rev. John Buehrens told the Assembly that "we've not only been growing, we're growing younger!" Statistics compiled by Larry Ladd, the UUA financial advisor, show that adult membership in UU congregations has grown in every region in the past decade except New England, but growth in religious education enrollment has exceeded adult membership growth everywhere. Buehrens said there are now five times as many high school youth as when he took office in 1993 and an unprecedented 472 of them attended GA this year.
Sometimes the youth caucus helped older delegates loosen up with "energy breaks" bringing people to their feet for a few minutes of silly lyrics and much-needed exercise but they also gained a significant voice in the UUA's governance. In Saturday's plenary session, delegates voted to amend the UUA bylaws to add a youth trustee-at-large to the UUA board. The board currently includes 19 district trustees and four trustees-at-large (one from Canada), plus the three officers of the Association. At the board's invitation, two youth representatives have participated in board meetings as non-voting observers since 1999.
Ladd, who once served as president of Liberal Religious Youth the predecessor of today's YRUU (Young Religious Unitarian Universalists) spoke on behalf of the board in favor of the new position. "Youth have more to offer us than energy breaks," he said. "They question our assumptions, offer alternatives we had not imagined ourselves, and remind us, by their mere presence, of the ongoing purpose of our work." Ladd's daughter Elka will soon be offering her own alternatives: She is the board's new youth observer. The first youth trustee-at-large will be elected in 2003.
Although teenagers attending GA often stand out, their college-aged and young adult compatriots are also drawing attention. (The UUA defines young adults as people between 18 and 35.) At the start of Friday morning's plenary session, the young adult caucus introduced a motion to postpone the debate and voting on study/action issues so delegates could attend workshops sponsored by related advocacy groups later that day. Moderator Denny Davidoff negotiated with 24-year-old Catherine Blue, who has attended eight of the last nine General Assemblies, and who turned to her peers for a second motion to postpone only the voting but not the debate. "Now here's a young woman who understands process!" Davidoff remarked. The delegates concurred and moved the vote back a day. [Click here for a report on business conducted at GA.]
Young adults benefiting in part from a growing number of former YRUU leaders now in their 20s have been transforming a surprising number of UU organizations lately. At least one young adult now holds a position on every elected committee. Others are serving congregations as ministers or staff.
Two women in their early 20s Mandy Jacobson and Justice Waidner joined the board of the UU Women's Federation last year. At this year's assembly, they paid tribute to older feminists "they're radical!" but declared that "this is not your grandmother's Federation." Their lively UUWF-sponsored workshop on "Third Wave Feminism" filled up quickly with young women and sympathetic young men and took a decidedly youth-culture approach to feminism. Small groups discussed reclaiming aspects of traditional femininity, the place of men in feminism, the prevalence of eating disorders, and the meaning of sexual identity.
The surge in young adult involvement is promising, but the Faith Communities Today survey released last year reports that 90 percent of UU congregations have few or no young adult participants. Outgoing President Buehrens told the Assembly that congregations still need help knowing "how to really open up to young adults."
The $32 million "Campaign for Unitarian Universalism," which Buehrens announced during his report, should help. The new capital campaign will provide $2 million for congregational and campus young adult programs and another $2 million for youth programs. Buehrens urged every congregation to hold a special Sunday service in October 2002 to raise money for youth, young adult, and campus ministry. [Click here for more information.]
Buehrens said that more than $20 million has already been committed by donors. The campaign will also provide $8 million to help UUs engage in effective public witness; $10 million to support new and growing congregations; $3 million for scholarships to ministerial students; $2 million to launch a comprehensive religious education curriculum and provide grants for religious educators; and $2 million for lay leadership training. To recognize the leadership of Jerry and Denny Davidoff, Buehrens announced that the lay leadership fund will be named in their honor. [Click here to learn more.]
"People ask me why we aren't growing more rapidly, or why we aren't more racially and culturally inclusive. I have a simple answer," Buehrens said: "We don't want to be, and we don't want to grow. Not yet. Not really." But he said that the generosity of UUs in recent years testifies to a growing awareness that part of the UU "gospel" is to build institutions that will help "the next ones by."
HEARING THE CALL
Jonah popped up more than once in a General Assembly devoted at least in part to discerning a prophetic calling for Unitarian Universalism. Forbes, the Ware lecturer, said that "Jonah was prophetic, but his comfort meant more to him than the commitment he was called to make." Forbes said the story of the prophet who ran from his calling (only to find himself in the belly of the whale) helps people confront the "comfort-commitment ratio."
The Rev. Dr. Richard S. Gilbert also analyzed the biblical story the next morning in his sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition. Gilbert, who is senior minister of the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, New York, said that Jonah, "a timid but successful merchant," was "doing just fine, thank you," when his comfortable life was interrupted by a divine imperative. Gilbert said that "the prevailing ethos of our time is that we can live an uncalled life, not living for any purpose beyond one's self," and that discovering a larger calling for one's life is a countercultural move.
Gilbert said that he believes UUs suffer from what Abraham Maslow called "the Jonah Complex." "We Unitarian Univer-salists are not very good at listening," he said; "we are awfully busy talking." But he said that "there can be no casual commitment if we are to survive and thrive as spiritual beings, and if our movement is to flourish as a significant force in the culture."
He urged UUs to accept the challenge of committing themselves individually and collectively to "be there in love and justice," working for "a just society which will not accept the market as God which yearns for a 'beloved community' in which none shall want."
Being there sometimes means getting a bit wet, as many UUs learned while responding to a call issued by the previous year's General Assembly. While marching around Jacobs Field with Native American activists and representatives from the United Church of Christ to protest the Cleveland Indians baseball team's mascot and name, hundreds of UUs got soaked to the skin by a thunderstorm that also brought the baseball game to a halt.
Delegates voted last year to instruct the GA Planning Committee to work with the United Church of Christ (which has its headquarters in Cleveland) and local Native Americans to protest "symbols, names, and mascots which Native American people find offensive." (The baseball team's mascot, "Chief Wahoo," is a crimson cartoon of a grinning American Indian wearing a feather.)
Dr. Charlene Teeters, a professor at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and board member of the National Coalition on Racism in Sports and the Media, told delegates that many school and professional sports teams' mascots perpetuate stereotypes of Native Americans, misrepresent sacred objects such as the feather portrayed on "Chief Wahoo" and demean the humanity of oppressed people. Teeters, who is a Spokane Indian, said, "We are not mascots. We are not fetishes."
In his benediction bringing the 40th General Assembly to a close, newly-installed President Bill Sinkford invoked not Jonah, but Isaiah, who accepted his prophetic calling in spite of his own weaknesses. Sinkford closed with these words: "Let us leave committed to respond to our calling . . . and answer, as the prophet, 'Here we are, Lord, send us.'"
Christopher L. Walton is senior editor of UU World.
UU World XV:4 (September/October 2001): 32-36.