In an atmosphere electric with passion, anger, and hope, the 2016 General Assembly challenged Unitarian Universalists to work much harder for racial justice in order to live the values of their faith and to complete unfinished work begun more than fifty years ago during the civil rights era.
While its official theme was interfaith partnerships—“Heart Land: Where Faiths Connect”—GA’s clearest motif was racial justice, culminating in the Black Lives Matter–focused closing celebration June 26, when dozens of black UUs marched into the closing ceremony, followed by at least 100 allies, chanting “Black lives, they matter here!”
The worship service reached its emotional high point when Glen Thomas Rideout sang David Frazier’s gospel song, “I Need You To Survive,” backed by the 180-person General Assembly choir. Rideout, who is director of music and worship at the UU Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan, invited people to turn and sing to each other, “I need you, you need me, we are all part of God’s body . . . I love you, I need you to survive.” In the front of the plenary hall, where the marchers had gathered, people hugged each other and reached across rows of chairs to clasp hands.
Article continues below.
From the public witness event to the worship services, from informal conversations to a responsive resolution drafted by the youth caucus, racial justice was the beating heart of GA 2016.
But other concerns also coursed through the annual convention of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which drew 3,780 people to Columbus, Ohio, June 22–26. Grief and dismay about the massacre at an Orlando, Florida, nightclub June 12 fueled a petition on gun violence. The delegation from Orlando brought large white angel wings for UUs to wear as a screen around a handful of protesters from the anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church who picketed GA with anti-transgender signs. A large contingent of activists gathered at GA in “Say Yes to Divest” shirts to promote an ultimately unsuccessful business resolution targeting corporations that profit from the occupation of Palestine. And a keynote address to the UU Ministers Association about UU clergy sexual misconduct (see page 29) provoked the most questions submitted for the three candidates seeking election as the next UUA president.
GA 2016 may have drawn the largest attendance by black UUs in decades, including seventy-one who attended with financial help from the Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism organizing collective, which raised $89,980 through a special collection June 25. “Thank you for investing in black leadership,” organizer Lena K. Gardner told the assembly. “Thank you for investing in black lives. Let this be the beginning of a journey together.” Some of the money will fund a “convening” for black UUs later this fall.
BLUU also organized a four-program track on the experiences of black UUs and hosted an explicitly black space for healing and discussion that many called transformative. “Having the BLUU space made my GA,” said Isis James-Carnes, 15, from All Souls in New London, Connecticut, who was attending her second GA. The BLUU space helped her feel “truly a part of the UU community.”
Preaching in the Service of the Living Tradition, the Rev. William G. Sinkford, senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, who served as the first black president of the UUA from 2001 to 2009, urged UUs to face racism head-on. “Our faith looked away [after the civil rights movement]. We did not ‘stay woke,’” Sinkford said. He exhorted UUs “not to look away this time,” adding, “Resistance is what love looks like in the face of hate. Resistance is what love looks like in the face of violence.”
At the public witness event, “State of Emergence: Faith Filled People Rally for Racial Justice,” the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, leader of the Moral Monday movement and a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said that injustice, inequality, and oppression evince a “heart problem” in America. He brought the crowd to its feet as he called on UUs and people of faith to “stop what you’re doing” and “keep shocking the heart!”
UUA President Peter Morales and the presidents of the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Islamic Circle of North America each spoke about their solidarity with the movement for black lives. After Barber’s speech, they stood together as the Rev. Cheryl Walker, president of the UU Ministers Association, urged UUs to sign a pledge of support (uua.org/love).
But the specialized programming, standing ovations, and statements of support did not of course overcome years of frustration or signal the end of racism within Unitarian Universalism. In the final general session, the youth caucus and members of BLUU gathered at the procedural microphone to introduce a responsive resolution. “We as a religion have acknowledged that we support the Black Lives Matter movement with the passage of the [Action of Immediate Witness] last year, but this has done very little as to our attitude towards people of color,” said Eli Breidford, a black young adult from Seattle, who introduced the resolution. “Voices of color continue to be marginalized and spoken over and for.”
“Guess what? Racism hasn’t been solved,” added youth caucus leader Alison Butler-Córdova.
The resolution asks the UUA’s leaders to produce a multiyear report on its antiracism work—but before the delegates voted to approve the resolution, trustee Christina Rivera called on UUA Moderator Jim Key for a personal commitment. “I’d like an affirmation from you, our leader, that we hear the call,” she said. Key invited the youth and young adults to join him on stage to “speak their truths for all of us to hear.” Flanked by numerous allies, including Sinkford, Isis James-Carnes delivered a blunt poem and two other young black UUs spoke about their experiences in UU communities.
“The moderator hears you,” responded Key. “You need more than being heard, and the moderator and the board, have no doubt, we hear you.” He urged delegates to take the call for action back home to their congregations. At the UUA board meeting the next morning, trustees promised to stay focused on the issue of racial justice.
The fact that so many delegates and others at GA were eager to focus on racial justice was apparent in the popularity of the many programs with that focus. One of them—“The Spirituality of Hip Hop,” sponsored by the Sanctuaries, a Washington, D.C., collaborative for spirituality, arts, and social change—drew a room packed with UUs of all ages and races. Osaretin Obaseki, a community organizer in D.C., debunked myths about hip-hop and led the audience in writing their own lyrics. The UU “rappers”—from a middle-aged white woman to a young black man—shared their feelings and lyrics to loud ovations. “Osa really knew how to make it accessible to everyone, especially the folks who don’t know hip-hop very well,” said Yashi Janamanchi, a youth caucus leader.
Many UUs also expressed concerns about clergy sexual misconduct, in response to the Rev. Gail Seavey’s Berry Street lecture to the UU Ministers Association (see page 29). That difficult issue surfaced over and again throughout GA, including at the Presidential Candidates Forum, where the question most requested by delegates was how each candidate, if elected, would handle the problem of clergy misconduct. Appearing together before a packed general session, the candidates—the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke—discussed their respective visions for the faith and their qualifications as president.
Regarding clergy misconduct, Miller, senior minister of the Morristown, New Jersey, Unitarian Fellowship, asked, “How is it that some people were not held accountable for such a long period of time?” She promised a task force to examine the problem at every level of the association.
Pupke, minister of First UU Church of Richmond, Virginia, promised to form a commission to address the issue, so that the problem is “attacked with vigorous and thorough-going examination and adjudication.”
Frederick-Gray, lead minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, thanked Seavey’s congregation, First UU Church of Nashville, Tennessee, for its leadership in addressing clergy misconduct, especially through UU Safety Net. She said the tendency toward “diffuse power” within the UUA “means no one is fully accountable.”
Over the next year, before the presidential election at GA 2017, they will appear together at five regional forums sponsored by the UUA. (Learn more about the candidates: Susan Frederick-Gray, Alison Miller, and Jeanne Pupke.)
A business resolution asking the UUA to refrain from investing in companies complicit in human rights violations including in the occupied Palestinian territories was the most overtly controversial issue at GA. Supporters argued that the UUA has expressed inadequate support for Palestinian rights and said they hoped the UUA would align itself with other denominations that have criticized Israeli policies. Opponents argued that the resolution would damage interfaith relations between UUs and Jews without helping Palestinians, especially since the UUA had already adopted a human rights investment screen that removed shares from the companies the resolution targeted. After a lengthy debate, 54 percent voted for the resolution—short of the two-thirds it needed to pass.
The debate highlighted a perennial complaint about the procedural process at GA, a process organizers had hoped to improve upon this year. An experiment planned to serve as a model for giving delegates more space to discuss meaty topics got bumped off the schedule when debate over the Palestinian resolution ran long. Designed by the Task Force on Covenanting, chaired by the Rev. Dr. Susan Ritchie, it was to divide delegates into small groups for discussion led by trained facilitators. The board of trustees, at its post-GA meeting, discussed the limitations of strict adherence to process, including Roberts Rules of Order, and will discuss other possible options in future meetings.
The peaceful UU response to protesters from the anti-LGBTQ Westboro Baptist Church generated the most media attention to GA. A dozen UUs wore large white angel wings that had been used the week before to block Westboro protesters from interrupting funerals for victims of the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando. About 200 other UUs sang and chanted their support for LGBTQ inclusion and acceptance of all persons at the June 24 demonstration outside the Hyatt Hotel.
Angela Bridgman, a transgender woman from Wendell, North Carolina, was one of the twelve UUs who wore the angel wings at GA. She wrote in response to UU World’s online coverage of the event: “This one event . . . literally transformed and renewed my soul as nothing before ever did. One person put on those wings. Another person took them off about an hour later. Twenty years of horrible experience were washed away from me in thirty minutes . . . and replaced with so much love that I was moved to tears.”
Three Actions of Immediate Witness (AIWs) passed with overwhelming support from delegates—expressing solidarity with Muslims, advocating gun reform following the Pulse massacre, and affirming support for transgender people. Delegates adopted a business resolution, “Thanksgiving Day Reconsidered,” which calls for a period of “truth and reconciliation” regarding the English settlement of North America, to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrims in 2020. Delegates approved a one-year suspension of the AIW process for next year’s GA in New Orleans, to make time available for other kinds of justice education and action. And they chose the next four-year Congregational Study/Action Issue: “Corruption of Our Democracy.”
Unitarian Universalists were in a generous mood at GA. In addition to their gifts to BLUU, GA-goers also gave $68,265 to the Living Tradition Fund (which provides assistance to ministers in financial need), $9,120 to the Katie Tyson Fund for Youth and Young Adult Ministries, and $50,800 to the Horizon Prison Initiative, which works with prisoners in Ohio. The UUA’s “Be a Friend” individual donor campaign raised $29,549.
In an uncontested election, the General Assembly elected a new financial advisor, Lucia Santini Field, and three new trustees: Sarah Dan Jones, Richard Jacke, and Elandria Williams. Dorothy Holmes and Denise Rimes, who were appointed last year to fill vacancies, were elected to full terms on the Board of Trustees. Randy Burnham, Ken Wagner, and Amanda Weatherspoon were elected to the Nominating Committee.
As UUs look ahead to next year’s GA in New Orleans, which will focus even more on racial justice, many said this year’s GA laid the groundwork. “Our work to back the Black Lives Matter movement has not ended,” said Butler-Córdova. “It has only begun.”
With reporting by Christopher L. Walton.