It was a public witness event with a distinctly New Orleans flavor: hot, humid, joyous, full of music and dancing, and with a keen focus on the social justice that the city and the world, too, so desperately need.
As the temperature hovered at a balmy 90 degrees of wet, tropical air Friday afternoon in New Orleans, over 1,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered in front of the Ernest N. Moral Convention Center for “Love Resists: Rejoicing for Sanctuary and Solidarity,” where Jolanda Walter led a spirited chant of “Love resists!”
Then the New Orleans festivities began. The Young and Talented Brass Band, along with the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club, led the handkerchief-waving, parasol-brandishing, high-stepping UUs through city streets in a traditional “second line” procession. A second line was established by black New Orleanians to express grief and celebrate life, and for generations has offered cultural resistance to systemic oppression.
The Original Big 7 Club, founded in 1996 in the Saint Bernard Housing Projects to help the community, danced in festive orange, green, and yellow suits and hats, along with JaQuan McNair and Malcolm Atkins, members of the Red Flame Hunters, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. As the brass band played loud and strong, the club members and Cloud paraded at the front of the procession, with Dwayne Johnson, 10, at the front moving with impressively complex footwork and bouncing up and down to the music.
Among the UUs near the front of the procession were the three candidates for president of the UUA—the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the Rev. Alison Miller, and the Rev. Jeanne Pupke—who carried a “Love Resists” banner and gamboled along with the brass band. A police cruiser, a motorcycle officer, and police on foot stopped traffic as the crowd frolicked through the streets of a city so steeped in non-stop festivity that motorists delayed by the celebration leaned out of car windows to clap and yell encouragement.
The tropical rains so present for the first two days of GA were nowhere to be found, having given way to sun and a humid breeze. A dog marched with the group wearing a “Standing on the Side of Love” T-shirt. Many UUs held umbrellas and parasols, which are traditional to second lines. Some of those umbrellas read “Black Lives Matter” and “love trumps hate.”
One umbrella-carrier was Donna Perkins, a self-described Creole woman from Neighborhood UU Church in Pasadena, California. Perkins and a friend had gone to the “Art and Resistance” workshop earlier Friday and decorated the umbrellas. “It is fun to be part of the second line,” Perkins said, as the procession danced its way down Julia Street near the convention center. “It is a form of black life, and I felt black and UU at the same time being part of this.”
The procession ended at Mississippi River Heritage Park, where high in a tree sits the “Scrap House” memorial to Hurricane Katrina, built by New Orleans artist Sally Heller. The memorial is across the street from the convention center, where many refugees lived after the hurricane and flooding destroyed their homes. In the park, Sara Green, a New Orleans-born black young adult who just finished her master of divinity degree, and the Rev. Darcy Roake served as emcees with an urgent call for racial and social justice.
“I love y’all, UUs!” shouted Edward Buckner, president of the Original Big 7 and founder of the Original Big 7 Cultural and Heritage Division, of which the Red Flame Hunters is a program. Buckner said that he lives in a New Orleans neighborhood that has one of the highest murder rates in the country. He thanked UUs for working to help rebuild New Orleans after Katrina and for other justice work they have done in the city. He described his hopes that the younger men in the club can someday own their own homes and businesses. “We have to turn our back on all that racism stuff,” he said. “Love will overwhelm all the hate they are trying to portray—let’s give it up for love!”
The Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a catalyst in New Orleans and beyond for racial, social, economic, and environmental justice, was the local host organization for GA, and its co-directors, Ruth S. Idakula and the Rev. Deanna Vandiver, spoke to the crowd. “New Orleans is a beautiful place but a hard place at the same time,” said Idakula.
Other local activists addressed the crowd about pressing issues including justice for day laborers and immigrants, get-out-the-vote efforts, and sanctuary. Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa, an antiracist and reproductive rights activist who identifies as a black, Kenyan, immigrant, queer, womyn, pan-Africanist poet, shared two of her poems, which focused on the pain of racism.
“I like when we get outside and give witness, and we as UUs get noticed,” said David Winther, a trustee of First Parish in Brewster, Massachusetts.
“I love it. It’s in my DNA to move like this,” said Nicole Ogundare, ministry and life events coordinator at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She said about the 2017 General Assembly, “I tell you what—it feels good to know white people are willing to take responsibility for what they know and don’t know, and as a black woman, I can begin to open trust.”
“Amazing turnout, especially for the heat,” said emcee Green after the rally ended. “It’s a testament to how UU people can show up when we decide to.” Green, who has been involved in activist communities in several cities, said it was a new experience to be part of “such a high-level, elaborate production” as the UU public witness. Green credited Carey McDonald, UUA outreach director and organizer of the event, for her involvement in it.
McDonald said connections with New Orleans leaders, UU and otherwise, helped the event have a local feel, which he called “essential.” About the decision to have a second line, he said, “Art culture is sanctuary, and then we followed generous black leadership here in the city who told us that we can do this if we do this the right way.” He added, “I hope this inspires Unitarian Universalists to really act, to resist racism, to resist homophobia, to resist hate, and to resist so many forms of injustice.”
Johnson, the elementary-school student who led the march in a brilliant yellow and green suit, has been dancing with the Original Big 7 club for two years, he said. “It’s magical, and they’re very nice in the band,” he said.
“The UUs are silent partners” in helping the community, Buckner said, giving particular credit to the Community Church UU in New Orleans. “They are so humble and don’t look for credit. Meeting everybody at the GA, all the UUs, everybody has the same spirit—you can’t lose.”
Roake said many of the New Orleans-area UU ministers are deeply committed to community involvement. She lamented the smaller-than-hoped for white progressive faith presence in the city overall.