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Waterfire in Providence, RI

At WaterFire, 'love is the transformative element'

Public witness event at 2014 General Assembly will send UUs into public art festival with a message of love.
By Elaine McArdle
5.19.14

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Water and fire, two of the primal elements of life, expressed through more than 80 bonfires blazing on three rivers in the heart of a city; music filling the night air and echoing along river walkways; and tens of thousands of people sharing the experience—WaterFire in Providence, R.I., is considered one of the most moving and dramatic expressions of public art in the U.S.

At this year’s General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, in Providence June 25–29, WaterFire will be the public witness event that highlights and informs the GA’s “Love Reaches Out” theme, which seeks to grow and share the Unitarian Universalist faith both within and beyond congregation walls.

“We really wanted to do something different and bold,” says Alex Kapitan, Congregational Advocacy & Witness program coordinator in the UUA’s Multicultural Growth and Witness staff group, who is helping plan the event. “Love is the biggest justice issue of our time because love is what we bring to make our justice work different from secular work. Love is the transformative element we bring as people of faith.”

The Unitarian Universalist Association will be the sole sponsor of WaterFire on Saturday, June 28. Immediately following the GA worship service Saturday evening in the Rhode Island Convention Center, members of GA will walk three blocks to the riverside. At dusk, UUs will participate in lighting the fourscore of braziers in the center of the rivers, as the public is invited to join local choirs in singing familiar hymns along the riverbanks. For several hours, people on boats will continue to rekindle the fires with wood, and the celebration will continue with music and other events until after midnight.

The event is particularly fitting for Unitarian Universalism and this year’s GA focus, says Peter Van Erp, a member of First Unitarian Church of Providence and a longtime board member of WaterFire. The unique project—there is nothing like it anywhere else in the world—“is really a very UU experience,” he says.

“WaterFire is an art installation but it allows people to approach it on many different levels,” Van Erp says. “In much the way our congregations invite people in in a way that doesn’t require you to believe or do certain things, and invite people into our churches in a way we hope is very welcoming, WaterFire allows everybody to approach it on every level they like.”

In that way, he adds, “My hope is that we’ll open people’s eyes to who we are as a church.”

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the award-winning WaterFire art installation, created by multimedia artist Barnaby Evans and first presented in December 1994 as part of First Night Providence, a New Year’s Eve celebration. Two years later, WaterFire was established as a nonprofit arts organization, as it quickly began to draw nightly crowds as large as 50,000. WaterFire is widely credited with fostering the renaissance of downtown Providence, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. It now includes a professional staff and hundreds of volunteers and is sustained through sponsorships and donations. The WaterFire art installation has been taken to and shared in a half dozen American cities as well as in Singapore and Rome, says Van Erp.

Cathy Seggel, director of religious education at First Unitarian in Providence and incoming president of the Liberal Religious Educators Association, is part of the committee organizing the UUA’s sponsorship of WaterFire. Seggel says she takes part in every WaterFire she can. “I love being immersed in the music serenading people of all ages and many cultures strolling together and just being,” she says. “I think it will be a wonderful arena for sharing the Unitarian Universalist message of love as the 2014 version of witness.”

In addition to the central event on the waterfront, the UUA’s WaterFire evening will include several meditation areas and a tent with information about Unitarian Universalism, all open to the public.

The UUA’s GA Planning Committee contributed $25,000 toward the $35,000 cost of sponsoring WaterFire.* The Ballou Channing District, which is hosting GA this year, and which includes 45 UU congregations in southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, raised the other $10,000 with donations from its own board members, the three other New England districts, and others, says the Rev. Bill Zelazny, district executive for the Ballou Channing District.

Those who’ve participated in WaterFire believe it will make a big impact on the UUs who participate from around the country, as well as share the UU message with the public who attend that evening. “We want people to leave the littlest state, Rhode Island, and Providence, with a wonderful memory of a great GA,” says Zelazny, “and something very special to take home with them.”


Correction 5.23.14: Due to incomplete information, an earlier version of this story misstated the cost of the UUA’s sponsorship of WaterFire and the ratio of funding from the GA Planning Committee and the Ballou Channing District. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

Photograph (above): WaterFire in Providence, R.I. (© Chris/TechSavi). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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