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Fired Up: General Assembly 2005

Sermons, music, and politics fired up the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalists.
By Donald E. Skinner And Christopher L. Walton
Fall 2005 8.15.05

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The spontaneous ignition of a conga line in the closing ceremony of the UUA General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, signified that Assembly-goers had been paying attention. For five days and nights in June, speakers and musicians and dramatists had been exhorting Unitarian Universalists to get fired up with social activism and enthusiasm for their faith.

The Rev. Dr. Patrick O’Neill introduced the theme in his sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition by using the story of Henry David Thoreau’s retreat to Walden Pond and his subsequent reengagement with the political world as a lesson for UUs. Unitarian Universalist congregations have been in several decades of “Waldenesque retreat from effective activist engagement in the critical moral struggles of our time,” O’Neill said. “Walden, our beloved liberal religious haven from the world, Walden is on fire! And it is time for Unitarian Universalists to catch fire, too.”

Speaking directly to the new ministers just recognized in the service, O’Neill said: “Do not seek here amid these thousand-plus congregations for ministries of quietude, or for more churches in the woods, where you can take shelter in theological reverie while the social policies of our country are increasingly determined to protect the already privileged and to ignore the already deprived. Ignite, young colleagues, I beseech you! Catch fire!”

Although frustration with conservative politics in the United States—and in Texas—clearly marked an Assembly that denounced torture, sharply criticized U.S. prison practices, and mobilized against the death penalty, these strong stands weren’t nearly as surprising as the fact that this GA seemed more, well, religious than usual.

“The primary challenge facing religious liberals . . . is a spiritual one,” the Rev. Robert Hardies, minister of All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, D.C., preached at the Sunday morning worship service. “Until the religious left can offer all those seekers out there a compelling story of how their lives can be filled with meaning and transformed by love, we don’t stand a chance. The answer to the marginalization of the religious left will not be spin; it will be fire.”

Other speakers referred back to Hardies’s and O’Neill’s sermons, but what really amplified the mood was the music. Singing the Journey—the UUA’s new seventy-five-song supplement to Singing the Living Tradition—was introduced in every plenary session and worship service of the Assembly, often with a full band playing jazz or calypso or rock as needed. People swayed, clapped, and danced while singing spirited pop songs like “Lean on Me” and “Turn the World Around” or new UU hymns like “Standing on the Side of Love.”

Choir leader Jeanne Gagné, one of the songbook’s editors and music director of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Middleboro, Massachusetts, says she was the last person in the arena to know that, as she was directing “Dance with Me” in the closing ceremony, a conga line had formed in the youth section and proceeded down onto the main floor until nearly all the open floor space was filled with lines of jubilant, swaying people of all ages. “I turned around from directing the choir,” she said, “and almost fell out of my shoes.”

The new songbook was so popular that the UUA Bookstore sold all 800 copies it brought to GA. By mid-July the entire first printing had sold out, and a second printing is under way. (For a review, see "Books to Note;" for additional information and audio samples, go to www.uua.org/publications/music.)

Another religious theme arose from presentation of a three-year study, Engaging Our Theological Diversity, by the Commission on Appraisal, an independent review panel elected by the General Assembly. The Commission concluded that tentativeness in articulating what UUs are about religiously may be our greatest liability. The Rev. Earl K. Holt III, minister of King’s Chapel in Boston and a Commission member, introduced the report by alluding to the final paragraph of the UUA Principles, which says: “Grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understanding and expand our vision.” Holt asked:

Just what is the “faith” that is enriched and ennobled by the religious pluralism for which we are grateful? How do we deepen our religious understanding and expand our theological vision? And, if we mean to say to everyone, “you belong,” just what is it that we are inviting them to belong to?

The Commission urged a “denomination-wide effort . . . to develop and articulate a deeper understanding of who Unitarian Universalists are as a religious people,” urged congregations to focus intentionally on facilitating greater dialogue about theology and shared purpose, and proposed development of a variety of resources to help.

The published report was the UUA Bookstore’s number 2 bestseller after Singing the Journey. One copy of the published report has been sent to each congregation, and a Web site www.uua.org/coa/TheoDiversity offers additional resources.

Workshops on theological and philosophical themes captured many UUs’ imaginations this year. In a lecture called “Reverence without Theology” sponsored by the independent affiliate organization HUUmanists, University of Texas philosopher Paul Woodruff argued that reverence is not fundamentally about religious piety. Found in every culture, reverence is a “developed capacity for a feeling of inarticulate awe at whatever it is that we recognize as transcending us and our culture: truth, nature, beauty, justice—or perhaps God, or life itself.”

Woodruff, the author of Reverence: A Forgotten Virtue, said “reverence has precious little to do with the gods—except for reminding you that you’re not one of them.”

Elaine Pagels, a well-known historian of early Christianity, captivated an audience of 1,700 with her Ware Lecture—the Assembly’s keynote address—on the non-biblical text known as the “Gospel of Thomas.” UUA President William G. Sinkford introduced Pagels by suggesting that her research might help Unitarian Universalists counter the influence of the Christian right:

What we need to fear most is not the presence of faith in politics, but the dominance of a religious fundamentalism which proclaims that there is only one way to be religious, only one scripture worthy of being read and followed, only one way to be a family, only one way to lead a good life.

Dr. Pagels offers us the invaluable insight that the Christian tradition, which is being used in such a narrow and mean-spirited way, has always been one of great theological diversity. Her work shows us that Christianity has always included the gospel of love, which is at the heart of our faith.

In her lecture, Pagels described competing versions of Christianity in the first centuries after Jesus’ life: One version, which revered Jesus’ teachings collected in the Gospel of Thomas, said that “the divine light is manifest in all beings”; the other, which has come down to us especially in the New Testament Gospel of John, taught that the divine light is manifest only in Jesus. In the fourth century, the bishop of Alexandria ordered the destruction of texts like the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of John became an official part of the Christian Bible. The Gospel of Thomas was lost—until a copy was discovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.* Pagels’s book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas, was the best-selling book by a non-UU author at GA.

POLITICS AND JUSTICE

When Hardies preached about the revitalization of the “religious left” in his Sunday morning sermon, he launched a day-long exploration of Unitarian Universalists’ role in the national debate about the place of religion in public life. Much of that conversation took shape around the ideas of cognitive linguist George Lakoff of the University of California at Berkeley, who addressed the Assembly three times on Sunday.

Lakoff’s books, especially Moral Politics and Don’t Think of an Elephant, have introduced the idea of “frames” to progressive political circles. Each word we use, Lakoff says, not only points to an object or idea; it also evokes an entire frame of reference, a way of understanding the world. He has identified two competing frames rooted in conservative and liberal ideas about the ideal family: Conservatives expect political leaders to behave like strong fathers; liberals expect society to treat its members the way a nurturant parent would. (See “Bookshelf,” May/June 2005, for a review of Lakoff’s Moral Politics.)

Lakoff said conservatives’ understanding of their own worldview has led them to shape political language that makes the “strong father” frame attractive, while liberals have failed to understand what unifies their positions and have thus failed to promote their ideas as effectively. “Voters vote their identity, not their self-interest,” he explained, and urged progressives to frame their ideas in terms of “traditional American values” that don’t cater to strong-father conservatism. An example: “We believe in the use of a commonwealth for the common good so that we can all be free to pursue our personal goals.”

Delegates clearly shared many of Lakoff’s concerns: They selected a two-year study/action issue for Unitarian Universalist congregations entitled “Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society,” which asks UUs to find ways to express our shared moral values in a civic debate shaped by conservative religious voices. “[I]f we are to be relevant at all,” the study/action issue warns, “we are challenged to offer our message of public witness in a framework of moral values that is recognized . . . well beyond our own ranks.” Congregations are to receive information to help them explore this issue in the fall.

In a lecture sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA and former president of the UUA, offered a message of hope to people feeling overwhelmed about human rights abuses, war, genocide, and torture, linking his human rights work to three key affirmations of the Unitarian Universalist tradition:

“At the heart of the Unitarian Universalist faith is the conviction that truth takes many forms,” he said. “Osama bin Laden doesn’t believe that; Donald Rumsfeld doesn’t believe that; Fidel Castro, I’m sorry, doesn’t believe that; Pope Benedict doesn’t believe that; Bill O’Reilly doesn’t believe that; Howard Stern doesn’t believe that. But it’s true.”

Second, Schulz said Unitarian Universalism had always cultivated moral imagination—the capacity to care about another’s suffering: “I’ve never been tortured; I’ve never had my arm amputated—but I know plenty of people who have,” he said, “and I am compelled to make a metaphorical leap from my own trivial sufferings into the hearts of strangers, and what I find there is something astonishing: I find familiarity.”  Without this leap, he said, “Abu Ghraib, Bhagram, and Guantanamo Bay would merely be names on a map and not markers of the eternal shame of all Americans.”

Finally, he asserted the UU belief that history is never finished. “The future is not fated,” he said, “what comes next is in our hands.”

In other General Assembly actions:

  • Several hundred Unitarian Universalists gathered for a rally and vigil against Texas’s death penalty Saturday afternoon outside the Convention Center, where Ken and Lois Robison spoke about the execution of their mentally ill son in 2000 (see profile in Life). Rick Halperin, member of the Amnesty International USA board of directors, told the crowd, “You are standing in a state which is the worst killing jurisdiction in the free world.
  • Delegates adopted a Statement of Conscience on Criminal Justice and Prison Reform after two years of study by congregations. The statement calls on UUs and congregations to help reform the criminal justice system by forming study groups, joining with existing community groups, establishing prison ministries, and lobbying elected officials.
  • Several Actions of Immediate Witness were approved with minimal debate. One denounced “all government-sponsored acts of torture, regardless of circumstance,” as “immoral, unjustified, and illegal,” and asserted, “United States-sanctioned torture is not justified by national security needs. It engenders hatred against us. It does not keep us safe. Our practice of torture has shamed us and endangers our troops abroad and citizens at home.”

Delegates also called for U.S. support for the Millennium Development Goal One, an international effort to alleviate the poverty of people who earn less than $1 a day; joined a boycott of Gallo Wines for its labor practices; called for full funding of public broadcasting and a moratorium on the sale of publicly owned airwaves; called for increased U.S. support for African Union–led peacekeeping forces struggling against genocide in Darfur, Sudan; and supported a fair trial for Dr. Sami Al-Arian, a University of South Florida professor fired and imprisoned on charges of supporting Palestinian terrorism. (For more on this year’s resolutions, go to www.uua.org/csw/.)


While many of the injustices delegates considered this year could be thought to take place “out there,” the Assembly ended in a way that reminded the UUA’s Board of Trustees of unfinished business within the Association.

The morning after the Assembly adjourned, several youth leaders reported to the Board of Trustees that young people of color had experienced a series of demeaning and upsetting incidents throughout the week, including a heated confrontation with several white adults outside the arena during the closing ceremony. The Youth Caucus cancelled its intergenerational dance, which was scheduled to follow the closing ceremony, because many youth of color were meeting to discuss the incidents; Moderator Courter met with them.

In response to the youth report and other inquiries, the Board issued a letter on July 6 that said, “At General Assembly in Fort Worth, there were several incidents that reminded us that we have much work to do in our journey to becoming an antiracist, antioppressive, and multicultural association.” The Board expressed “deep sadness and regret” for incidents involving “apparently disrespectful and racist treatment of our youth by Fort Worth officials,” other incidents in which “white UUs assumed that UU youth of color were hotel service people and asked them to carry luggage or park cars,” and an altercation during the Closing Ceremony in which “some UU youth of color were made to feel that they were not welcome.”

The exact circumstances of some of the incidents are still unclear. The Board has formed a Special Review Commission, which expects to offer a more complete report on the incidents at its October meeting and a complete report in January. The Board vowed to provide “safe space to process issues and concerns around oppression and racism” at future General Assemblies.

ASSOCIATION OF CONGREGATIONS

This was the second year that congregational presidents were invited to meet with Sinkford, Courter, and other UUA and district staff at GA. More than 300 came, about half for their first GA. The presidents met twice in “Presidential Conversations,” where they broke into small groups and shared stories, and Sinkford and Courter met with the presidents three times, inviting them to help their congregations join the Association’s initiatives on antiracism/antioppression and increasing youth involvement. “We learned a great deal from them,” Sinkford said.

It was the first GA for Bev Buhr, president of James Reeb Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Madison, Wisconsin. “I just loved meeting with other presidents,” she said. “There’s been a free flow of honest conversation about what each of us is dealing with. What I want to take home is passion about growing our movement. I think people in our congregation and our community are hungry for this.”

Attendance of the presidents is part of a growing effort to more closely focus GA on the needs of congregations and lay leaders. The UUA Board is looking for ways to make it easier for congregations to present GA workshops. At a GA hearing on independent affiliate organizations, the Rev. Marlin Lavanhar said his congregation, All Souls Unitarian Church of Tulsa, Oklahoma, could not get a workshop last year to promote the small press it started. “It’s really important that congregations doing ministry to help other congregations be able to have a presence at GA,” he said.

Each plenary session this year featured a presentation by a “Breakthrough Congregation” that has experienced significant growth. The UUA’s Growth Team selected the First Unitarian Church of Dallas; All Souls Church, Unitarian, of Wash­ington, D.C.; White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church of Mahtomedi, Minnesota; and Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Port Town­send, Washington. Each breakthrough congregation presented a short film about its experience, and congregational leaders told delegates some of their stories. (Articles about the congregations are listed as Related Stories in the sidebar to the right.)

In his annual report, President Sinkford told the Assembly that he had achieved the most important part of his 2001 campaign pledge:

I promised, when I was elected, that my first priority would be to raise the visibility and voice of Unitarian Universalism, to make us a respected voice for liberal religious values. . . .

Our ministers have been in the press in unprecedented numbers. Our congregations are becoming the “go-to” liberal religious voices in community after community. Our visibility and voice is at an all time high. We are becoming a respected voice for liberal religious values in this nation.

Sinkford celebrated the first anniversary of the legalization of marriage equality in Massachusetts--which Unitarian Universalist congregations and individuals had high-profile roles in supporting--and introduced to the Assembly his wife, Maria Sinkford, whom he married in a ceremony at UUA Headquarters in April.

How does Unitarian Universalism’s higher profile play out in the world? Delegates this year were clearly fired up with outrage over torture; they were fired up with interest in sharing liberal values and promoting them more effectively in the public square; and they were fired up about seeing Unitarian Universalism grow spiritually and intellectually. Cindy Salloway, who directs the Friends of the UUA program, says she sat next to a woman who had come to the Sunday morning GA worship service because of UUA advertising in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. “She told me this was her first UU church service,” Salloway said. “She was clapping, singing, crying, and laughing. She asked me if it was like this every week. I told her, Yes—but on a smaller scale.”

Correction: The print edition inaccurately described the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas, the subject of Elaine Pagels's Ware Lecture to the General Assembly. The Gospel of Thomas was one of the long-lost texts uncovered at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945; the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered that same year at Qumran, Israel. Click here to return to the corrected sentence.
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