It was a packed house at Sunday morning worship on June 25 at General Assembly 2017 in New Orleans, with many UUs from local Unitarian Universalist congregations in attendance in addition to delegates. Members of the public were also invited to the service.
The Rev. William G. Sinkford, who had served as one of three interim co-presidents for the previous eleven weeks, extended a “particularly warm welcome” to people from New Orleans and UUs from the area who chose to join in the worship. “We gather on this final day of GA in faith, in hope, and in love,” he said. The two other interim co-presidents, the Rev. Sofía Betancourt and Leon Spencer, also participated in service.
Under the direction of GA music director Leon Burke, choir director of Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri, the service included not only the GA choir but a New Orleans jazz band under the direction of GA bandleader Markus Grae-Hauck, music director of the UU Congregation at Montclair, New Jersey. Among the musical selections was “When the Saints Go Marching In,” a Christian hymn made famous in the 1930s by Louis Armstrong, perhaps the most well known of New Orleans’ native sons. When the band struck up the tune, the crowd leapt to its feet and clapped along, as a jazz trumpeter blew the familiar notes.
Later in the service, Betancourt sang solo on the first verse of a beloved hymn, “Comfort Me” before the audience joined in. The GA choir, led by choir director Mark Vogel, music director of First UU Church of Houston, sang the anthem, “We are One,” and, later sang “Hope.”
The service took on a heartbroken note when the Rev. Susan Frederick Gray, who’d been elected as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association the night before, announced that two UUA staff members had been attacked the night before in the city’s French Quarter. Frederick Gray and others were in the hospital with the two men through much of the night, and she asked UUs to join together in opening their hearts to support them.
The story for all ages, “A Bus Called Heaven,” by Bob Graham, was presented in video form on large screens. It told the story of an abandoned bus that was adopted by a neighborhood as a community center, bringing together people of all ages, races, and identities. Sana Saeed read the poem “Gate 4-A,” by Naomi Shihab Nye, which tells of a group of strangers at the airport bonding together after Nye translated for an older woman who spoke only Arabic and was distraught believing her flight had been cancelled. It ends with the words: “This is the world I want to live in. The shared world . . . This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.”
The morning offering went to support Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, an statewide organization that advocates for and supports the parents and families of imprisoned youth. “We need to stop the funneling of our youth, especially our youth of color, into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Verna Carr, lead family advocate at FFLIC, who stood on stage with her family and also with members of Black Men Rising. The offertory raised $105,000 for FFLIC, it was announced at the end of GA.
In her sermon, the Rev. Mara Dowdall, senior minister of First UU Society of Burlington, Vermont, told of her own son being whisked into intensive care when he was born, and how she and her husband reached out to the hospital chaplain on call, a “harp-playing Congregationalist” named Matt. His prayers “didn’t magically fix or assure everything would turn out fine,” Dowdall said. “What it did do simply and profoundly remind us we were not alone, we were part of a larger world that welcomed us just as we were right then, scared as hell and desperate in our love.”
“I believe when all is said and done,” she continued, quoting the writer Anne Lamott, “all you can do is show up for someone in crisis.” Just showing up, she said, “can radically change everything.” Dowdall lead the audience in saying aloud, “Your there-ness can change everything.” Noting that UUs are now focused on the work of “dismantling centuries-old systems and structures of white supremacy,” she urged those present to realize, “The only way we will keep this world is to share it.”