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Inaugural celebrations

Unitarian Universalists mark the inauguration of Barack Obama as president of the United States.
By Donald E. Skinner

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UU Fellowship of Door County

Members of the UU Fellowship of Door County in Sister Bay, Wisc., invited community members to present four-minute messages and music celebrating democracy as part of their inaugural celebration. (Marilyn Hansotia)

Unitarian Universalists marked the inauguration of President Barack Obama last week in a multitude of ways. They danced in Annapolis, composed a prayer in Albuquerque, and hosted a democracy forum in Wisconsin.

All Souls Church, UU in Washington, D.C., had a full program of events starting with a worship service January 18 honoring Martin Luther King Jr. That night All Souls held its own Inaugural Ball. UUA President William G. Sinkford, who leaves office in June, was honored at a reception before the ball. “We wanted to lift up his ministry, especially in the nation’s capital, and his commitment to multiracial, multicultural ministry,” said the Rev. Rob Hardies, senior minister at All Souls. About 200 people attended the reception and 500 attended the ball.

Then on Monday, the day before the inauguration, All Souls hosted an Interfaith Peace Rally as a member of the Olive Branch Interfaith Peace Partnership. Participants included the Rev. James Forbes Jr., senior minister emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City; Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine; the Rev. Dr. Robert Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause; and the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches (USA).

Hardies said about 1,300 people attended services at All Souls on January 18, about double the number of a typical Sunday. He said the best moment of the weekend for him came at the start of the second worship service on Sunday. “We processed in to the South African Freedom March “Siyahamba.” The energy was palpable,” he said. “We welcomed people right after that, noting that we were celebrating not only Dr. King, but the first black president. That brought a huge roar from the crowd and a standing ovation. It was the most exciting Sunday of my ministry here at All Souls.”

Does having a new administration change how Unitarian Universalists will minister to the world? “We have opportunities to be constructive rather than oppositional,” said Hardies. “We need to be aware of that shift so that we can live into the promise of an America where there is freedom and justice for all. We are the people responsible for living into that promise.”

In Annapolis, Md., members of the UU Church of Annapolis held their own inauguration ball in a member’s home, said the Rev. Fred Muir. “The energy here is just unbelievable,” he said. “People understand that we have new opportunities to promote issues that have to do with the gospel of Unitarian Universalism. Two or three times I’ve preached about the new president and the services are always packed. People are into it.”

Many UUCA members traveled the 30 miles to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration itself, he said. “It was interesting all the different ways they found to get there and avoid the traffic, from going to Baltimore and taking Amtrak down, to getting dropped off and hiking five to seven miles. But no one I talked to regretted for a moment that they went.”

Members of First Unitarian Church in Albuquerque gathered Tuesday at church to watch the inauguration––and to offer a prayer for Obama and the nation. “Originally we planned this in reaction to the outcry over the appointment of the conservative Rev. Rick Warren as the one to offer the invocation in Washington,” said the Rev. Christine Robinson, Albuquerque’s minister. “Then we decided we didn’t want to make this an anti-Warren thing. But we still offered our own prayer.”

Robinson preached this past Sunday on the election of Obama, observing, “The election of an African-American president is a triumph for everyone and a special joy and affirmation to African Americans and other persons of color. We should enjoy that without imagining that this means that all our problems are solved or that racism is over.” The UU Fellowship of Door County in Sister Bay, Wisc., invited community members to come and present four-minute messages and music “celebrating democracy and hope” as part of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center project to collect audio and video recordings from this historic inauguration.

Despite a snowstorm, 70 people came out and 20 of them spoke, said retired minister the Rev. Cynthia B. Johnson, a member of the 98-person lay-led congregation. “A couple of people talked about how there was no other place in the world they’d rather be than at our fellowship, talking about the inauguration and democracy,” said Johnson. “There was a real sense of gratitude that we were doing this.”

At the UU Church in Reston, Va., co-minister the Rev. Sydney Wilde said she's seen a new "lightness of spirit" and a commitment to becoming involved in the congregation since the election. "The theme I have been talking about is that Obama cannot make change happen alone.” She said at the Sunday service a week ago 15 people came forward to support a local interfaith group, one that had earlier lacked support. "Our hope is that the lightness of spirit and renewed hope will raise all the ships in the harbor.”

The Unitarian Universalist who is most enthusiastic about the new administration may be Adam Gerhardstein, interim director of the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy, who witnessed the inauguration from 14 blocks away, at a spot near the Washington Monument. “It was absolutely phenomenal,” he said. “The energy of the crowd was contagious. It was so cold, but no one was complaining. When Obama was sworn in the crowd broke out in the largest display of euphoria I’ve ever seen.”

Before the inauguration, representatives of the Advocacy office or their interfaith partners met probably a dozen times with parts of the Obama transition team, Gerhardstein said. The meetings have been on immigration, reproductive health, torture, climate change, and other issues.

That’s a world removed from the last administration, he noted. “In the last eight years we were invited once as an office to meet with the administration. Now we feel like our opinions matter. You get the sense that we’re all in this together.”

Gerhardstein is confident that certain things will happen with this new administration: “Guantanamo will be closed, torture will be outlawed, there will be significant progress on building a green economy and on climate change, and there will be good news about BGLT equality,” he said.

All of these issues are natural ones for UUs, he noted. “We helped build all these issues. They’ve gone from being fringe issues to key issues. So some of this is about the hard work we’ve been doing for years and years.”

Some issues will be especially challenging, he added, even with the new alignment of Congress. “We have our work cut out for us on full marriage equality. We just have to continue being faithful stewards of justice and pulling those in power toward a just position.”

He encouraged UUs to come to Washington, D.C., and meet with their members of Congress. “We’ll help them set up those meetings,” he said. “We want to make their visits productive and meaningful. The attitude is different in this city now. It’s a good place to be.”

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