There will be many firsts at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2017 General Assembly, “Resist and Rejoice,” June 21–25 in New Orleans.
Delegates will elect the next president of the UUA—and for the first time, all three candidates are women. It’s the first time delegates will cast their votes electronically. And it’s the first time GA will take place in New Orleans, an historically and culturally unique city where African, Caribbean, and European influences are alive and pulsing, and where many of the country’s most pressing problems, including racial and environmental injustice, are readily apparent.
New Orleans has special significance for the thousands of UUs who worked to rebuild the city after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 left many people, especially the economically disadvantaged, without homes, GA organizers say. The city is also fun, colorful, and fascinating. “You can’t beat it for food and music,” said Janiece J. Sneegas, the UUA’s director of General Assembly and Conference Services.
“New Orleans has on display America’s ills and America’s beauty,” said Carey McDonald, UUA outreach director, who is helping organize GA’s public witness event. “If you want examples of institutional racism in this day and age, Katrina is a pretty vivid one, and if you want the blending of arts of indigenous and marginalized communities, and how they’ve inspired the world, look at the legacy of jazz and Mardi Gras.”
In recognition of New Orleans’s celebratory culture, this GA has another first: the Opening Ceremony and Worship Service on Wednesday evening, June 21, will be open to the public. “I am extraordinarily excited about [it] being open to the whole community,” said the Rev. Deanna Vandiver, a UU community minister in New Orleans and executive director of the New Orleans-based Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR), a local partner for GA. As an “embodied practice of mutual relationship and invitational hospitality,” she said, it exemplifies GA planners “faithfully struggling together to figure out how the miracle that is GA can adapt to the miracle that is New Orleans.
The GA 2017 theme, “Resist and Rejoice,” is dedicated to awakening and deepening UUs’ commitment to working in solidarity with people on the margins. For the past ten years, CELSJR—which was launched by the three UU congregations in the city and the UU Service Committee with help from the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge—has promoted social transformation through its racial justice training for UU volunteers who came to the city after the hurricane. That approach is present in GA, too.
A “Get Ready” curriculum will help GA-goers prepare for their time in New Orleans with a selection of readings, videos, and activities about the history of the city that emphasize the intersections of race, class, and economics and that center on the experiences of people of color. The curriculum was co-created by the UUA, the UU College of Social Justice, and CELSJR. “I hope folks get started on it ASAP, whether they plan to come to New Orleans or not,” said Vandiver.
Attendees can also register for a two-day Racial Justice Training before GA starts. Sponsored by the UUA, the GA Planning Committee, and the CELSJR, the June 20–21 training is designed to prepare UUs to engage in GA’s justice work, encounter other GA participants in less oppressive and more inclusive ways, and bring an “antiracist equity and intersectional lens to the justice work in congregations and communities.” The training, offered by The People’s Institute, a New Orleans-based, national, multiracial, antiracist network, has a separate fee and registration process ($275 until April 30, $310 thereafter).
This General Assembly will elect the UUA’s first woman president. The candidates—the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke—will present their platforms at a forum on Friday, June 23, at 8:00 p.m. (They are also appearing together at a series of regional forums this spring.) Voting will conclude on Saturday, June 24, and the new president will be announced after the Ware Lecture that evening.
Delegates will cast their votes electronically for the first time. They can access their ballot by following the voting link found on their delegate credential document. Electronic voting will be open from June 1 though June 24. Delegates who attend GA will also have the option of voting at a kiosk at the convention center on June 24, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Only delegates and qualified religious professionals of certified congregations are eligible to vote. Congregations decide how to select their member delegates.
If a delegate can’t or doesn’t want to vote electronically and is not attending GA in person, they may request a paper ballot by mailing a request to UUA General Assembly, 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409. Requests must include a copy of the delegate credential document and be postmarked by June 1. Completed ballots must be received by June 14 or postmarked by June 12.
Because there are more than two candidates in the race, this year’s presidential election will be a “ranked election.” Delegates will rank their first, second, and third choices among the three candidates, so that, in the event that no candidate gets a majority in the first round, there’s an instant runoff. The instant runoff provision, added to the UUA bylaws in 1969, has not been used since 1977.
More information on the presidential voting process will be posted on the UUA website and will also be sent to congregations to announce through their bulletins or other communication methods. Click here for more election information.
The Ware Lecturer this year is Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting poverty and racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Stevenson, whose book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption was the 2015–2016 UU Common Read, has successfully argued several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court and recently won an historic ruling that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. He and his staff have won reversals, relief, or release for over 115 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row.
The Rev. Cheryl M. Walker, president of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association, will preach at the Service of the Living Tradition. Walker has served as the minister of the UU Congregation of Wilmington, North Carolina, since 2009.
The Rev. Mara Dowdall, senior minister of First UU Society of Burlington, Vermont, will preach at the Sunday morning worship service.
The public witness event will explore the concept of sanctuary to support immigrants and refugees, and will feature local artists for a New Orleans flair, said McDonald, who’s coordinating public witness with CELSJR and others. “The notion of creating a safe space for people under threat has deep religious roots and is something that UUs—and Unitarians, and Universalists—have done for a long time,” he said, including through the sanctuary movement of the 1980s. “We want this public witness to be a part of the arc of work that’s happening, to try and elevate and proclaim UU values and how we’re putting them into action in a New Orleans-specific context.”
Attendees will have several service opportunities this year, Sneegas said, including one at the convention center, “Days for Girls”, where volunteers can help create feminine hygiene supply kits for girls in countries where they often are required to stay home from school when they are menstruating. The collection taken at GA’s Sunday morning worship will benefit Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children.
This year’s choir director is Mark Vogel, music director of First UU Church of Houston. Reflecting GA’s “Rejoice and Resist” theme, this year’s music will feature storytelling and local musicians with a New Orleans style. Markus Grae-Hauck, music director of the UU Congregation at Montclair, New Jersey, will be the GA bandleader, and his musicians “will add a New Orleans accent to just about everything, so we can have traditional music or spice up your gumbo with a little New Orleans flavor,” said Leon Burke, GA music coordinator and choir director of Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood, Missouri.
A special musical highlight will be a performance of “Step by Step: The Ruby Bridges Suite,” written and composed by Darrell Grant, an award-winning composer and pianist, about Ruby Nell Bridges Hall, the first black child to desegregate an all-white elementary school in the South, during the New Orleans desegregation crisis in 1960. The Rev. Jason Shelton is producing the piece, which will be presented Thursday night after the Service of the Living Tradition, Sneegas said.
There are a number of program tracks this year:
DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries) will offer a six-workshop program track for people of color culminating in a Saturday afternoon worship service. “Much programming on justice has tended to focus on what white people can do to help themselves process their roles and responsibilities to further racial justice,” said Ben Gabel, director of Service and Social Justice Ministry at Birmingham Unitarian Church in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and one of the track’s organizers. “However, UUs of color have specific spiritual needs that are not always met in GA programming.” The DRUUMM track at this year’s GA “will explore what it means to decentralize whiteness and to create a new kind of UUism centered on people of color,” he said.
A “Grow Racial Justice” track will offer three sessions guided by songs, stories, and New Orleans partners to help participants “tend to our own identity work and what we need to get free, explore our diversity as communities of people of color and white people, and gain organizing skills,” said Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen, the UUA’s leadership development associate for youth and young adults of color. Participants will meet in white or people-of-color cohort groups for two sessions, then gather as a whole group in the final session. Nguyen will guide the sessions with Chris Casuccio from the UU College of Social Justice and alumni of the Grow Racial Justice program’s “Thrive” and “Shift” cohorts.
The UU Musicians Network is sponsoring six workshops for music leaders and justice seekers in our congregations. Members of UUMN will join with social justice leaders to inspire UUs to connect music-making more deeply to our Unitarian Universalist values, said Julie Enersen, UUMN’s executive administrator.
The UU Service Committee is sponsoring a four-workshop track on “Collaborating to Address the Refugee Crisis.” According to the Rev. Paul Langston-Daley, who is helping organize the track, workshops will offer an in-depth look at how race, religion, and gender identity add to the complexity of individual stories, and will examine how criminalization dehumanizes the most vulnerable.
A four-workshop track, “The Spirits Echo: Living Legacy and Beyond,” will explore ways in which legacies are created and carried on. The workshops, sponsored by the UUA’s Stewardship and Development office, will focus on end-of-life discussions, planned giving, and art, justice, and worship, said Cameron Archibald, assistant director of Stewardship and Events. One speaker, the Rev. Nathan Ryan, assistant minister of the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge, will discuss the history and current relevance of that congregation’s "Naming Project," which honors the forty-four people who were enslaved on the plantation land where the Unitarian church now stands.
Commit2Respond’s “The Seas Are Rising and So Are We” program track offers eight workshops on environmental and climate justice. Workshops will cover emergency preparedness and anti-oppressive disaster response, stories and facts about living downstream on the Mississippi River, best practices for forming just partnerships with directly impacted communities, shared liberation in grassroots decision making and movement building, artful activism, and climate justice as decolonization and honoring of indigenous rights, according to Aly Tharp, a member of the executive team for Commit2Respond, and programs coordinator for UU Ministry for Earth and UU Young Adults for Climate Justice.