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'The threshold of a new era'

Unitarian Universalist Association's General Assembly resounds with calls for liberal leadership.
By Kimberly French
Fall 2008 8.18.08

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Ware Lecturer Van Jones (Nancy Piere)

Activist Van Jones delivered a rousing Ware Lecture on ecological and economic recovery. (Nancy Pierce)

Living in twenty-first-century America, you can forget how hungry you are for leadership, how famished for honesty, intelligence, integrity, and most of all, for hope.

Van Jones, the eco-justice activist who leads the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, California, served it all up in his Ware Lecture, the keynote address at this year’s General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. Laughing and applauding, amen-ing and yes-ing throughout his 50-minute talk, the crowd of 2,705 devoured his words.

The time of protesting and critiquing is over, Jones told the Assembly. Prepare to govern. Prepare to pull together to get this country out of the environmental and economic mess it’s in.

Vibrating through the chat, lectures, workshops, and even worship services at the UUA’s annual meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, June 25‒29, was a current of anticipation: The change in U.S. leadership that will occur on January 20, 2009, is critical to just about everything Unitarian Univer­salists care about.

“This denomination, this community, has held up the banner for human rights and for justice through a very difficult period in this country’s history,” Jones said. “And as we begin to move forward now, it’s a result of your resolve, your persistence . . . that we stand on the threshold of a new era in American politics. . . . You will make the difference between success and failure for this new president, this transition to a clean, green economy, our exit from this horrible war.”

Jones compared his presentations to what “Al Gore would do if he were black”—and, he ought to add, if he were an A-list stand-up comedian.

Shaking his jowls and waving his long fingers in imitation of a street-corner addict, Jones mocked President George W. Bush’s call to increase supply by drilling for more oil: “A little bit mo’, just a little bit, just a little bit mo’, little mo’, little bit mo’ petroleum,” Jones spat out. “It was shameful. Am I wrong? Did you see the speech? He was like a crackhead trying to lick the crack pipe for a fix.”

Jones detailed his own solution to the nation’s oil addiction and economic crisis: a Green New Deal. He helped push the Green Jobs Act of 2007 through Congress, a $125 million step toward his vision of training and employing a “whole generation of sister and brothers” coming home from war or sitting on street corners to weatherize, retrofit, and repaint millions of buildings; to install solar panels; to plant millions of trees; and to transform Detroit by making wind turbines instead of gas guzzlers.

“Cut demand and diversify the supply: Inside those few words is the key to a new America,” Jones said. “We cannot drill and burn our way out of our energy problems, out of our economic problems. If we do so, we will bake the planet. . . . But working together we can invent and invest our way out.”

When he’d finished with his recipe for economic and ecological recovery, the crowd leaped to its feet. And the handsome 40-year-old activist leaped from the stage to embrace people up and down the aisles, until he was caught at last in a group hug by the Assembly’s youth, jumping and chanting and raising their fists.

“This 2008 General Assembly has received its charge,” UUA President William G. Sinkford pronounced. The audience, filled with Jones’s fire, poured into the soupy Fort Lauderdale summer night. One man called out to a stranger, “Was that great, or what!” Days later, a homeward-bound young woman at the airport remarked she hadn’t been around to hear Martin Luther King Jr. or John F. Kennedy, but now she had an idea of what it must have been like.


This year’s GA spread a feast for those hungry for a vision to overcome the environmental, economic, and militaristic disasters that feel more inevitable with each passing day.

The Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, for example, the former UUA president and former executive director of Amnesty International USA, rattled off numerous steps the next U.S. president must take to recover the international reputation that has been squandered by current leaders. Our nation, once looked to for moral leadership, is now seen “as a wounded, rogue elephant,” he said. “Even when we are right—nuclear proliferation, whether at the behest of North Korea, Iran, or a mad scientist in Pakistan, is truly a terrifying problem—nobody believes us, and even when moral leadership is desperately needed, as in Darfur, nobody trusts us enough to follow.”

First, the military must close Guantanamo Bay: “Most Americans have no idea how much that has damaged the U.S. reputation around the world.” And the new president must swiftly negotiate an exit from Iraq and then apologize for that moral debacle. “The only way to engage the Saudis, Iranians, and Iraqis in stabilizing Iraq is for the United States in one fashion or another to eat a portion of humble pie.”

The final step may be the hardest, “and you won’t like it,” Schulz said. “We need to continue to promote democracy around the world, but not at the point of a gun. We need to continue to use those guns, but on behalf of those who are truly most vulnerable . . . as we learned in Rwanda and Kosovo and now Darfur. . . . The stupidity and tragedy of Iraq will only be compounded if we use it in the future as an excuse to let hundreds of thousands of people die.”

In worship, ministers echoed the call for Unitar­ian Universalists to rise up and lead America.

On Sunday morning, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, shared his own heartbreak at the sudden unexplained death of his three-year-old daughter. UUs around the country, he said, held him up and helped him find healing as well as passion and joy in his work again.

In this time of conflict and terror, growing extremism, and impending environmental catastrophe, Lavanhar said, “it’s going to take leaders who know where their hearts have been broken and know how to help the rest of us turn our passion into compassion and our anger into a transforming fire. . . . We need conscious, progressive, open-minded, broken-hearted people who will stand up and help reimagine what will come next. It’s a calling for us. . . . You and I can, and must, help make America, America again: the country it has never been, but yet can be.”


Those who came to General Assembly seeking spiritual inspiration, too, were sated. “GA fills me to the brim,” commented the Rev. Gabriele Parks, interim minister at Thomas Paine UU Fellowship in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and a self-described “Meg Barnhouse groupie” caught singing along to all the words at Barnhouse’s concert. “I draw from it all year in my sermons and small-group ministry.”

For Jerry Davidoff, who has been coming to GA for forty years, the 2008 gathering was all about the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, minister of public theology at the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City, who was given the UUA’s 2008 Distin­guished Service award. (Davidoff received the award with his wife, former moderator Denny Davidoff, in 2006.) He recalled a story about a young ministerial candidate, struggling with her calling, who phoned Church, a total stranger, at 9 one morning, and he counseled her for three hours. “That’s a pastoral minister,” Davidoff said. “He moves me because he is so emblematic of what we ought to be.”

In a talk based on his new book Love and Death, Church shared the religious lessons he has been pondering since his terminal cancer diagnosis last winter: “The one thing that can’t be taken from us even by death is the love we give away before we go. . . . Each day that I am sick, I pray for the sun to come up, for people to love me, for manageable tasks that I can still accomplish, for a little extra courage, for reality to blow all the detritus off my plate so I can pay attention to what really matters. . . . We cannot embrace our life fully until we find a way to accept our death. . . . To be free to accept death is to be free, period.”


As compelling and inspirational as many found the 2008 gathering, this was by all accounts a low-key, uncontentious GA.

Only half as many people attended as the previous year in Portland, Oregon: 3,020 total registrants, with 1,556 delegates representing 504 of the UUA’s 1,042 congregations. Some were undoubtedly kept away by rising travel costs and an unappealing summer destination. Others boycotted the Assembly at the Fort Lauderdale Convention Center, which is located in a port controlled by the Homeland Security Administration.

Federal regulations require each person to show a government-issued ID as they enter the facility through chain-link fences. For the mostly affluent, well-mannered, U.S.-born, white Assembly, the checkpoints felt innocuous—if anything, a waste of resources. Shuttle bus riders were transported past the checkpoints without a stop (or an ID check), lines were quick, and sheriff’s office personnel were friendly, even saying “I’ll catch you next time” to someone fishing in the bottom of her purse for an ID. For members who had previously experienced racial profiling or harassment at checkpoints, however, the existence of checkpoints was troubling.

Perhaps because of the low turnout, or because attendees were focused on pulling together to work on urgent global crises, plenary sessions moved along smoothly, with little disagreement.

The “con” microphone was a lonely place, as delegates speedily approved six Actions of Immediate Witness. (Click here for a full business report.) “I’m going to get better at guessing how long you would like to not talk about things,” quipped moderator Gini Courter, who had asked delegates to come early to create more time in that session.

One proposed resolution did excite debate, however. Delegates overwhelmingly passed the Youth and Young Adult Empowerment Resolution, which calls for the UUA, districts, and congregations to support vibrant ministries for young people. An emotional band of youth flocked to the “pro” mike, pointing out the absurdity of calling for the denomination’s growth while allowing 90 percent of its young people to drift away.

Debate was extended twice—albeit with some manipulation. Many of those at the “con” microphone argued not against the resolution per se, but that it didn’t go far enough or wasn’t enforceable. For some, like former moderator Denny Davidoff, their real motive was to keep debate open and get delegates to understand that their votes commit their congregations’ resources and are not just a rubber stamp of an ideal. “I fear this resolution will be asking this delegate body to make promises that many congregations cannot keep,” she argued.

In the final session, Courter summed up GA’s call to leadership this way: “Unitarian Universalists strive to create examples of what caring community might look like. . . a community that is engaged with civic life, with the world, and which does not flinch from its responsibilities, does not deny its role as a beacon of hope and a center of service to the folks in their community. . . . Every part of our tradition, every source of our knowing, calls us to service in the world. It isn’t just that you and I need Unitarian Universalist congregations. The world needs Unitarian Universalist congregations.”


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