General Assembly 2003
Awards and Commendations
Global Thinkers and Local Activists
By Sonja L. Cohen
In 1991, after the fall of Communism in Romania, the Rev. Dr. Spencer Lavan, then president and academic dean of Meadville Lombard Theological School, met with Bishop Lajos Kovacs and Rector Arpad Szabo of the Transylvanian Unitarian Church. “Find a way to help our students learn English,” he was told. So Lavan appointed and funded an instructor. Today, the English-language teaching program is still running strong at the seminary in Koloszvar and has been endowed to ensure that it will continue. Lavan received the 2003 Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, the highest honor given by the UUA, in recognition of his lifelong dedication to promoting religious dialogue and interfaith understanding through spiritual education and international partnerships.
Lavan started his career in 1962 as a minister at the Unitarian Church in Charlestown, South Carolina, working for equal justice during the civil rights movement. He left to pursue graduate work in Islamic studies, starting a lifelong involvement in world religions. Much of his career was devoted to teaching and academic administration. While at Meadville Lombard, he increased faculty diversity, enabled the school to create a position for a full-time professor of religious education, established the Sophia Lyon Fahs Center for the Study of Religious Education, and encouraged students from India, Japan, and partner churches abroad to come study at the school.
“What Spencer has done for Unitarian Universalism is to show us that we are worthy of being taken seriously as a world-class faith,” the Rev. Abhi P. Janamanchi said in a letter recommending him for the award. “His universal sympathies took him to different parts of the world and earned for him—and through him, for us—the renown and regard of the world’s great liberal religious traditions.”
The UUA presented the first Melcher Lifetime Achievement Award to Professor Diana Eck of Harvard University for outstanding scholarship in religious intercultural studies. Eck is professor of comparative religion and Indian studies and head of Harvard’s Pluralism Project, which has been documenting the growing presence of Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, and Zoroastrian communities in the United States. Her books include Encountering God: A Spiritual Journey from Bozeman to Banaras, which received the UUA’s Frederic G. Melcher Book Award in 1994. The UUA has given Melcher Awards to honor signficant published contributions to religious liberalism since 1964.
Marilou Coy, a member of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Chandler, Arizona, was honored as this year’s Unsung Unitarian Universalist. Since becoming a Unitarian as a young widow in the late 1950s, Coy, now 81, has been a tireless volunteer and community leader. At the Interfaith Cooperative Ministries in Phoenix, where Coy has been a volunteer for twenty years and a board member for the past twelve years, “she stays after the agency closes its doors and helps sort donations, cleans and organizes work areas, and seeks information on community resources,” writes executive director Linda Weinberg.
Coy served three consecutive terms as president of her congregation, and has served for fifteen years on its finance committee. According to Deborah Dinyes, president of the church, “she arrives early every Sunday to prepare for our UU communion: the coffee hour after the services. Making coffee is her least favorite thing to do, but she does it because she knows hospitality on Sunday morning is vital to the church community.”
This year’s Unsung Unitarian Universalist Youth Award was presented to Sara Halperin, a 20-year-old college student from the Unitarian Universalist Community Church in Augusta, Maine. First elected to the Northeast District’s Youth Adult Committee in the sixth grade, she helped plan at least twenty youth conferences—including taking an instrumental role in developing the district’s first conference just for junior high youth—and helped develop Teen Life Issues conferences at the Ferry Beach Conference Center in Saco, Maine. She continued to serve at the district level through high school and was elected to the continental Youth Council in 2000 and 2001. She is now active in the UU Campus Ministry Group at the American University in Washington, D.C.