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'Road to a different future'

With singular focus, General Assembly is transformed.
By Donald E. Skinner
Fall 2012 8.15.12

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UUA Moderator Gini Courter (Nancy Pierce)

UUA Moderator Gini Courter said, “We have expanded our understanding of who deserves justice. . . . I don’t think we can ever go back.” (Nancy Pierce)

Never was so much time and energy invested in a General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

GA 2012, June 20–24 in Phoenix, differed from other GAs from the start. No, it was different from the moment at GA 2010 in Minneapolis when delegates overwhelmingly decided to bring an immigration-focused “Justice General Assembly” to Phoenix rather than boycott Arizona because of the state’s anti-illegal immigrant laws.

And focused it was. From the opening worship to the closing one, the 3,714 people who registered for this GA immersed themselves in immigration topics. Educational sessions ranged from “Effective Congregational Immigration Ministries” to “Powerful Messaging for Immigrant Rights.” The music was multicultural and more than a little of it was in Spanish. Headphones in the plenary hall allowed Spanish speakers to hear live translations.

This was a “witness GA” as well. Around 2,500 UUs, plus hundreds of people from local activist groups, staged a candlelight vigil outside Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s huge outdoor jail, “Tent City” (see “‘Hold Up Those Lights’,” page 28). The vigil accomplished one of the Justice GA’s goals—drawing attention to harsh conditions citizens and non-citizens alike face in detention: The vigil led the evening TV news in Phoenix, and an Associated Press story appeared in newspapers and news sites around the world.

The Rev. Dr. Richard S. Gilbert, a UU minister who has written extensively on UU social justice work, believes the Tent City vigil was the largest public witness event in UUA history. An estimated 1,500 UUs participated in the 1963 March on Washington, he said, among 250,000 others. “That is the only thing I can think of that came even close to what happened in Phoenix,” he said.

The Arizona General Assembly took shape in response to the state’s 2010 anti-illegal immigration law SB 1070, but speakers throughout the week made it clear that immigration problems were national. Indeed, much of GA was oriented around educating participants to take home what they were learning for use there. Pablo Alvarado, executive director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, one of the UUA’s partner groups, told UUs, “Arizona is an epicenter, but do not be fooled to believe it is a rogue state. Do not allow the ugliness of Arizona’s example to keep you from seeing the Arpaio in your own backyard.”

The UUA collaborated with at least five other local groups: Mi Familia Vota, Tonatierra/Nahuacalli and Los Comités de Defensa del Barrio, Puente, Somos America, and Borderlinks. Three leaders of the United Church of Christ, including the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the 1.2 million-member Protestant denomination, also took part in GA and the Tent City vigil.

This was a younger GA. There were twice as many youth—301—as at recent GAs. Many were drawn by the social justice aspects and by efforts by congregations and districts to help pay their way.

The UU Church of Minnetonka in Wayzata, Minnesota, sent ten youth. They embarked on a fifteen-day “pilgrimage,” visiting national parks along the way. Ministerial intern Leslie Mills, one of the group’s adult chaperones, had been to Phoenix before. In July 2010 she was one of twenty-nine UUs arrested while protesting the newly-enacted SB 1070.

This was the first GA for Aliza Bogosian, 17, of the Unitarian Universalists of Marblehead, Massachusetts. “I wanted to come and learn more so I could go home and share that information,” she said near the end of GA. “This week made me realize how privileged I am. It put my life in perspective.”

Sara Surface, a co-leader of the GA Youth Caucus, reminded youth that nearly every social justice movement—from the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the Arab Spring in 2011—has had youth and young adults at the front. “Now it’s your turn,” she said. “We want to get everyone pumped about justice so we can do really cool things at home.”

The only contested item of business in front of delegates this year involved a subject many of us didn’t get in our high school history courses: the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The legal doctrine—rooted in the premise that European Christian explorers who “discovered” other lands had the authority to claim those lands and subdue, even enslave, non-Christian peoples who lived there, and still invoked in U.S. law—was the focus of GA’s opening worship and two educational sessions.

In March the UUA Board of Trustees placed a responsive resolution on the agenda repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, following a request from partner group Tonatierra/Nahuacalli. On the last day of GA, delegates voted overwhelmingly to renounce the doctrine and called on the U.S. government to do the same, over a handful of objections that congregations had not had enough time to study the issue. (A guide to UU World’s extended GA coverage and links to resolutions and other resources are at uuworld.org/ga.)

This year’s Ware lecturer, National Public Radio journalist Maria Hinojosa, told several thousand Unitarian Universalists that there are two Americas. Places like Arizona, she said, are “an America where people live in fear of any kind of authority. Imagine looking at officers and feeling fear because the police have the capacity to tear your family apart.”

Music at GA was steeped in justice. “Having a justice theme made the music very focused,” said Kellie Walker, GA music coordinator, from Valley UU Congregation in Chandler, Arizona. Musicians conscientiously chose pieces that congregations could use in justice work at home, she said. Refrains such as “We who believe in freedom cannot rest,” from Bernice Johnson Reagon’s “Ella’s Song,” enlivened plenaries, worship services, and the Tent City vigil.

This may have been the first time a GA has been dedicated so completely to a single topic. The annual Assembly typically has many workshops on congregational management issues, for example. Not this year. There were also fewer business sessions in order to keep the focus on immigration.

There were other indications of this GA’s single focus. After the opening Banner Parade, congregational banners were not hung around the convention center, as is customary, to emphasize looking outward rather than at ourselves, explained GA Planning Committee member Jacqui Williams at an orientation session. There was more worship, to feed the spirits of participants. Daily reflection groups met, giving people a chance to share their experiences with a small group.

Monica Pilman, of First Church Unitarian in Lit­tleton, Massachusetts, liked the changes. “It was more energized, more passionate, a more spiritual experience in a lot of ways. I loved the reflection groups.”

Jan Sneegas, the UUA’s director of General Assembly and conference services, said this GA was more challenging to plan, primarily because of the multiple witness events, for which locations had to be found, permits arranged, buses rented, and medical support provided. The coordination with local partners also took time. Much of that work, she said, was done by the Arizona Immigration Ministry, led by the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, and organizer Sandy Weir. AZIM was formed after the 2011 General Assembly, which raised money to fund it. Delegates this year contributed another $64,800 for AZIM to continue its work, and gave $61,800 for use by the UUA’s other local immigrant rights partner groups. (GA also raised $63,800 during the Service of the Living Tradition to support seminarians and provide emergency help to working and retired ministers.)

AZIM “made our job easier,” Sneegas said. “We could not have done from Boston what they did from Phoenix in coordinating with our partners and ar­ranging for the witness events. They found the locations, rented the toilets, arranged for entertainment, trained the volunteers, and did many other things.”

UUA President Peter Morales honored one Arizona volunteer with the 2012 President’s Award for Volunteer Service: Carolyn Saunders, a member of the UU Church of Tucson, who served as district coordinator for Justice GA.

Aside from passing the Doctrine of Discovery resolution, delegates conducted very little business.

They selected a new four-year Congregational Study/Action Issue, “Reproductive Justice: Expand­ing Our Social Justice Calling.” Congregations will receive a study guide for the new CSAI in the fall.

Delegates also finalized without debate three changes to the UUA bylaws that were introduced in 2011. One change, an amendment to Article XV, sets up a process for modifying proposed amendments to the UUA’s Principles and Purposes. Another change removed obsolete references to “associate ministers.” And delegates approved changing all bylaw references to “churches and fellowships” to the more general term “congregations” and dropping the word “local” from references to “local congregations.” This change opens the door to new kinds of congregations that are not necessarily tied to physical meeting places.

The UUA and the UU Service Committee introduced their new joint venture at GA, the UU College of Social Justice. The college brings each organization’s service learning trips—to places like Haiti, India, Central America, and New Orleans—under one umbrella. The college, which will also offer online learning opportunities, will be led by the Rev. Kathleen McTigue.

In his president’s report, Morales pointed to the rapid decline of religious affiliation among young adults in the U.S. Ten years ago, 12 percent of young adults claimed no religion; 25 percent identify with no religion today. “Church has become a bad brand,” he said, but he pointed to other studies that show that these same young people share many of the values UUs promote. “There is no place in tomorrow’s America for mediocre church.”

In her annual report, UUA Moderator Gini Courter said about Justice GA, “This has been an amazing, amazing General Assembly. Now that we know we can do this, we have no excuse . . . We have expanded our understanding of who deserves justice. Once we do that I don’t think we can ever go back. We are capable of putting Unitarian Univer­salism on the road to a different future.”


This article appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of UU World (pages 33–35). See sidebar for links to expanded General Assembly coverage and related resources.

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