The 2010 General Assembly called on Unitarian Universalists to stand with immigrants.
Immigration took center stage at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2010 General Assembly in June. Spurred by Arizona’s controversial law targeting undocumented immigrants, SB 1070, and by calls to boycott Arizona—where the UUA is scheduled to hold its 2012 General Assembly—delegates embraced several resolutions that will focus the UUA on immigration over the next four years.
The question on delegates’ minds at the June 23–27 convention in Minneapolis was whether to hold GA in Phoenix in 2012 or to boycott the state to protest SB 1070. When the law was passed in April, Unitarian Universalists across the country laid out their positions on UUA email lists, personal blogs, and at district and congregational meetings about what the Association should do.
In May, the UUA Board of Trustees called on the 2010 General Assembly to approve pulling GA out of Arizona and to raise more than $1.2 million to offset hotel cancellation fees and to fund public advocacy work. (Click here for the resolution proposed by the board; PDF, page 33.) Arizona’s UU congregations and UUA President Peter Morales, however, said it was important for GA to meet in Phoenix to confront the law and support immigrant rights groups in the state. Safety was a big concern for some boycott supporters: They argued that UU people of color or UUs of Latina/o or Hispanic heritage could be targeted by police if they went to an Arizona GA.
The intensity of the conversation as GA approached led many to worry that the debate at GA could bring out our worst selves. It didn’t. When the debate came, on the next-to-last day of GA, delegates voted overwhelmingly to hold a “Justice General Assembly” in Phoenix in 2012 focused largely on immigration issues and hands-on work with local social justice groups. (Click here to read the resolution.)
Delegates also selected “Immigration as a Moral Issue” as the four-year Congregational Study/ Action Issue for 2010–2014 and approved an Action of Immediate Witness denouncing Arizona SB 1070 and similar legislation in other states. (For more on the debate about Arizona and the process that shaped the resolution delegates approved, see our comprehensive GA coverage at blogs.uuworld.org/ga.)
UUA leaders and delegates took care to avoid a bitter fight about boycotting Arizona, since almost everyone disapproved of Arizona’s new law. Two well-attended miniassemblies at GA hammered out a substitute resolution that would commit the UUA to holding a major immigration and human rights event in Phoenix while limiting the “normal” business of a denominational convention. Before the plenary debate about the resolution, delegates watched a film about UUs and immigration in Arizona, heard theological reflections from the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, an immigrant from India and minister of the UUs of Clearwater, Florida, and the Rev. Victoria Safford, minister of the White Bear UU Church in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. Salvador Reza, a leader of Puente, an Arizona immigrant rights group, urged UUs to take a stand in Arizona: “We stop this in Phoenix, Arizona, or we will have to fight it everywhere else in the United States.”
Elisabeth McGregor, chair of the GA Planning Committee, said at least 325 people came to the first Arizona miniassembly, and 170 to the second. She said she’d been worried by the tone of pre-GA conversations. “In a year when the debate could have been terribly contentious and divisive, the onsite reality was positive. People were able to treat each other with genuine respect and work together.”
The Rev. José Ballester, a UUA trustee, member of LUUNA (the Latina/o UU Networking Association) and consulting minister to the Religious Society of Bell Street Chapel in Providence, Rhode Island, attended both miniassemblies. “People made excellent arguments on both sides,” he said. “I think everyone knew that ultimately we were going to stand on our values.”
Ballester was part of a small group that, between the two mini sessions, crafted the resolution that was ultimately approved. Ballester, who has Puerto Rican ancestry, said, “I came to GA having decided I was not going to GA in Phoenix, because of the safety issue, regardless of what the body decided. Now I will. Safety is still an issue, but I’m willing to take that risk for the good of the Association.”
In her annual report on the final day of GA, UUA Moderator Gini Courter explained that the care taken with the Arizona vote was no accident. She said it was driven by the memory of a decision by GA delegates in the late 1960s to back away from promised support for a black UU group in the midst of a UUA financial crisis, a decision that led many black people to leave the Association.
Painful feelings remain even today about that failed promise, Courter said, adding that the “last time this Assembly faced an issue this powerful about race we ended with an impasse that even today haunts our work together. . . . And so, yes, some of us leaders who were well aware of our history, well aware of our legacy, we worked hard to make sure that there was a compromise achieved rather than have a positional fight to the death in this hall.”
Courter said a “Justice GA” in 2012 would be “witness-heavy” and might be uncomfortable for some. “This may not be a GA of great creature comfort,” yet it is important to go, she added. “We are the best hope for democracy and inclusion in this country. I would say not just that we can; I would say, my friends, that we must.”
When she asked, “How many will help us make General Assembly 2012 one of the biggest General Assemblies in our history?” raised hands and loud chants of “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!) filled the hall.
The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, said she was gratified by the vote. “This decision affirms what the Arizona congregations feel is called for in this moment. We need a real engagement with comprehensive immigration reform, and we need to witness to the power of love as we as a nation confront dangerous attitudes that are based in fear.”
Frederick-Gray said there are opportunities immediately in every state to work with immigrant rights groups and she urged congregations to not wait until 2012 to get involved.
She added, “We want people to come to Phoenix in 2012 not in an attitude of conventioneering, but with a commitment to service and to learning.” She said the GA program could include voter registration, trips to the border, and meetings with residents and immigrants in their own communities.
During the final plenary session on June 27 delegates affirmed a Responsive Resolution about GA 2012 offered by the Youth Caucus. The resolution asked those who are planning the event to work to make it nonviolent, focused on public witness, and accessible to as many people as possible, with special efforts to include youth and young adults. They further asked that planners make efforts to “recognize the voices of delegates who choose not to attend for reasons of safety or personal ethics.”
In response, the Rev. Roger Brewin, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, and the Berrien Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in St. Joseph, Michigan, who had been collecting pledges to pay the costs to the UUA of a boycott, withdrew that effort. He said the youth’s vision, specifically their call to include voices of those who would not attend for reasons of safety or personal conscience, gave him a way to endorse the 2012 GA.
Delegates were confronted with other significant issues at this forty-ninth General Assembly, for which 3,880 people registered. Foundations were laid for dramatic changes in the Association’s governance over the next few years.
Those changes could include a smaller UUA Board of Trustees, a new system of regions, a change in how frequently GA is held, and maybe even a change that will enable delegates who cannot come to GA to participate in the business of the Association from their homes.
Delegates approved reforms to the election process for UUA president and moderator. A new seven-person Nominating Committee (five elected by GA, two appointed by the board) will select two candidates to run for UUA president seventeen months before the election. Candidates can also run by petition. The board will nominate at least one candidate for moderator, the UUA’s chief governance officer, who chairs the board and presides over General Assembly. The terms of office for both president and moderator will change from two four-year terms to a single six-year term, effective in 2013 for moderator and 2017 for president.
Changes in the UUA’s governance structure have been underway for several years, in part because the UUA Board of Trustees has adopted the Policy Governance model. That—combined with a weak economy that has required a $4 million reduction in the UUA’s budget and with the board’s and President Morales’s desire to be as supportive as possible of congregations—has led to a number of initiatives to shrink the size of the UUA’s governing structure. Delegates discussed many of those initiatives at GA.
Courter, Morales, and members of the Board of Trustees met at GA with members of the boards of the UUA’s nineteen districts to begin a conversation about replacing the districts with five regions. In February, the board vowed to reduce its own size, but nineteen of its twenty-four members are elected by districts, so any change to the size of the board will require some changes at the district level. Meanwhile, several districts have already started to share their staffs.
Trustee-at-large Nick Allen told GA delegates that the board, at its present size, is “costly, cumbersome, and ill-equipped to serve congregations and a movement.” He said that the board would be asking next year’s General Assembly to pass bylaw changes that would reduce its size.
The General Assembly itself is another aspect of governance under review. Under the current system, Allen said, delegates are not accountable to their congregations for their votes. GA is also expensive. “Despite hard-fought efforts to improve access [to GA] . . . it continues to be inequitable, convoluted, and by and large unaccountable to the statements we painstakingly craft together,” he said. “We must do better.”
There were also discussions about holding GA every other year, with the possibility of smaller regional events in the alternate years. There was also an experiment this year with offsite participation, which allowed a few delegates in five locations to attend GA electronically.
Most of the governance changes envisioned by the board will require approval by GA delegates.
In addition to immigration resolutions, delegates adopted a Statement of Conscience on “Creating Peace” after four years of congregational study; approved two Actions of Immediate Witness and a business resolution on environmental justice; and passed responsive resolutions supporting the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, reaffirming a commitment to youth and young adult ministry, and calling for a “covenant of right relationships.” (Click here for links to the resolutions.)
GA also approved several bylaw changes. One adds a provision for removing trustees and committee members for “good cause.” Another removes the word “continental” from several bylaws concerning the social witness process, and another gives the board responsibility for preparing and approving the GA agenda. Other changes allow the UUA to send candidate information and notification about draft Statements of Conscience electronically.
Social witness wasn’t confined to the plenary hall, however. An estimated 1,500 UUs, many in yellow Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts, walked a half-mile from the convention center to Loring Park June 26 for a marriage equality rally. The event coincided with the annual Twin Cities Pride Festival, also held at the park.
Morales told the crowd, “The religious point of view has too often been ceded to those who use religion to shut people out, but American history would not have progressed on any social issues without people of faith who struggled for justice and who continue to do so. The time has come for incremental steps towards equality to grow into giant strides.”
For the first time in at least a decade, several public officials greeted the Assembly. Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, a member of First Universalist Church in Minneapolis, welcomed delegates. U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison, of Minnesota, the first Muslim elected to Congress, gave a rousing speech (click here or see page 20). And Senator Al Franken, who spoke on the final day of GA, said, “I want to thank you for being the kind of church that embraces all different kinds of beliefs and for being a church that believes in social justice. You’re my favorite kind of church.” (Watch Franken’s speech in two parts: Part 1, Part 2.)
More than fifty people donated time to this year’s GA service project, painting and helping with landscaping at Hope Community, a downtown neighborhood that has been revived for many low-income families. GA-goers gave more than $41,000 for Hope.
The General Assembly also raised $61,029 for the Living Tradition Fund—which provides seminary scholarships, aid to new ministers, and emergency assistance grants to ministers—and $23,432 in the memory of Katie Tyson, a young woman who died in an accident on the way home from GA in 2009. The Katie Tyson fund will be used to support youth and young adult ministries.
Winona LaDuke, the Native American activist, environmentalist, and writer who was the vice-presidential candidate for the Green Party in 1996 and 2000, presented the Ware Lecture this year. She urged UUs to keep up the fight against environmental degradation. “This is our land and there is no place else for us to go,” she said.
GA was greener than ever. All food waste was composted, recycling containers were everywhere, and programs for worship services were printed in the GA program book rather than handed out individually. The conference was also wind powered. Jan Sneegas, director of the UUA’s General Assembly and Conference Services Office, said the UUA had asked the convention center to purchase 15 percent of its power from renewable sources, but it actually bought 100 percent.
The GA schedule was organized differently, too. All workshops were on weekdays, reserving the weekends for most of the business sessions, in an effort to accommodate congregational leaders who might only be able to come for the weekend. McGregor said GA organizers won’t know until August, after the deadline for submitting feedback, how people liked the new arrangement.
Nancy Pajewski, a delegate from First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, was attending her first GA. She was inspired by the stories from other congregations. “I want to go home and be more of an intentional leader. When I start doubting my own ideas I will remember what I learned here.”
Pajewski attended one of the miniassemblies about Phoenix and said she was inspired by how people interacted. “I was very impressed by the way that process was done. It amazed me.”
Jim Graham was also attending his first GA. The delegate from Valley UU Church in Chandler, Arizona, said, “I really came so that I could experience 3,000 UUs in one place.” But he acknowledged his interest in the Arizona debate. “I was very pleased with that process. I expected a fierce and contentious debate. Instead, what I saw speaks very highly to our democratic process and our ability to stay in faith with each other.” He said the atmosphere in the miniassembly he attended was “charged, but cordial.”
He said he planned to go home and get involved with plans for the 2012 GA. “I hope we can have a transformative experience.” Overall, he said, GA was a “huge catalyst” for him. “The love and respect I see in action here tells me I chose the right faith.”
GA was good for Graham in another way. At the end of the final plenary session, he proposed to another delegate from his congregation, Carolina Krawarik, at the Procedure microphone. She accepted. Moderator Courter got into the spirit. “Sometimes you get to help with something cool, you know?” she told the assembly.
For a complete guide to General Assembly business, video of major events, and extended coverage, visit UU World’s GA blog.
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
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