In a music-filled Service of the Living Tradition Thursday night, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly honored credentialed religious professionals, from those newly fellowshipped or credentialed to those who died in the past thirteen months, and challenged all in attendance to hone in their commitments to justice work as a form of ministry.
Former UUA President Bill Sinkford urged Unitarian Universalists in his sermon to “confront hard truths we would rather avoid” and to see themselves “not as the already conscious waiting for others to wake up,” but as activists more willing to join Black Lives Matter protests, Pride parades, and, generally, “not to look away this time.”
Of the history and legacy of Unitarians and Universalists between the mid-1960s and today regarding racial justice work, Sinkford said, “Our faith looked away. We did not ‘stay woke.’ There is no innocence left for any of us.” He pointed to a possible brighter future, saying, “Resistance is what love looks like in the face of hate. Resistance is what love looks like in the face of violence.”
The Rev. Kimberly Quinn Johnson, one of 45 newly fellowshipped ministers and minister of the UU Congregation of South Fork in New York, said after the service, “I appreciate how energetic the worship feels, but I also feel discomfort, as it seems like the music, largely from black traditions, makes our faith look different than what we really are.”
Johnson also praised Sinkford’s words about the Black Empowerment Controversy of the 1960s, after which hundreds of black UUs left the faith. In his sermon, Sinkford, who is black, referred to the controversy as “a fit of white entitlement,” receiving laughs and enthusiastic cheers from many in attendance.
The Rev. Sarah Lammert, UUA director of ministries and faith development, began the service with a “shoutout” to the Rev. Kathryn Schmitz, minister of First Unitarian Church of Orlando, Florida, for her witness and commitment to assisting the Orlando UU community—and the larger Orlando area—following the June 12 PULSE nightclub shooting. Schmitz joined the UU hall via video streaming and received sustained applause from the assembly.
The Rev. Abhi Janamachi, alongside his spouse, Lolita, held the assembly in moved silence as he recounted the story of his son’s medical struggles. Janamachi implored the gathering to “let love guide you” as he hoped those listening would give to the Living Tradition Fund, a fund supporting ministers, religious educators, and musicians in need of financial assistance.
The choir followed Janamachi’s words with performances of “City Called Heaven” and “I Need You to Survive.” The crowd expressed fervent appreciation for the back-to-back songs and for the music throughout the evening.
Theresa I. Soto, a newly fellowshipped minister on stage, was among a handful of individuals holding “ouch” signs to point out frustration with hymns and other songs relying on “standing” and “walking” language to show strength and solidarity, which many describe as ableist language. GA choir director Jennifer Hayman expressed her commitment to find more inclusive songs and words towards the end of the service.
65 ministers were honored for completing full-time service to the faith, twenty more than those most recently fellowshipped. UUA President Peter Morales then led the assembly in a somber recitation of the 25 UU ministers who died within the previous thirteen months.
Vonna Heaton, a member of the River Road UU Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, reflected to UU World after the service how impressed she was at “how seriously” Thursday’s General Assembly events engaged the Black Lives Matter movement and UU racial justice history. “I’m encouraged, and I’m still skeptical. There have been lots of words. It remains to be seen if there will be any action.”