“Love Reaches Out” is the theme of the 2014 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association, which will be held June 25-29 in Providence, R.I. The theme refers to the UUA’s new initiative, announced in February, inviting congregations to reach out beyond their walls and to engage in new ways of sharing faith.
There will be at least four workshops at GA exploring this new approach. The Rev. Renee Ruchotzke, who is helping create some of these workshops, said that the sessions will help congregational leaders explore questions such as, "How might congregations reach out to people who say they are 'spiritual but not religious' or those who don't want to be identified with a specific denomination?" and "How might congregations communicate the message of liberal religion so it is heard and seen in today's changing media environment without losing its depth?"
Ruchotzke, a UUA leadership development consultant for the Central East Regional Group, added, "By participating in the various workshops, congregational leaders can develop their own creative outreach strategies as part of the UUA's initiative."
The UUA's new logo, also unveiled in February, will be on prominent display at GA as well.
Jan Sneegas, the UUA's director of General Assembly and Conference Services, estimates that around 5,000 people will attend this GA, compared to 3,400 last year in Louisville, Ky., and 3,700 a year earlier in Phoenix. GAs held in the Northeast, where there are higher concentrations of UUs, are generally larger than those held in other parts of the country. The largest GA was in Boston in 2003, when 7,515 registered for the convention.
Hotel room shortage
There is one cloud on the horizon of this GA: a hotel room shortage. Last fall the UUA cancelled its contract for a reduced rate on a large block of rooms with the Providence Renaissance hotel because of an ongoing labor dispute. Then in late February the UUA cancelled a second hotel, the Providence Hilton, when it was bought by the company that owns the Renaissance.
The loss of these two hotels, both near the convention center, means that 1,600 room nights that the UUA was counting on simply disappeared, said Sneegas. The UUA had initially contracted with five hotels: the Omni, Courtyard Downtown, Biltmore, Renaissance, and Hilton. The remaining three were near capacity for the week of GA soon after registration opened March 3.
Sneegas encourages people to continue checking the GA housing site, because people with reservations will change their plans and move or cancel reservations right up until GA.
The shortage of hotel rooms, however, does not mean there are no housing options. In an effort to hold down costs of attending GA, this year large blocks of nearby college dormitory rooms were reserved at the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University. "What this means is that we actually still have plenty of rooms; they're dorm rooms, not hotel rooms," said Sneegas. "They are very affordable options."
Home hospitality is another option. In the wake of the loss of hotel rooms, UUs around Providence are opening their homes to attendees. Information is at uua.org/ga/travel.
Beyond that, Sneegas said people looking for rooms might want to start with their favorite travel website. "Ordinarily we don't encourage people to book rooms outside the blocks we have reserved, but this is a special situation. We do want people to come to GA, so they'll have to see what they can find. But again, I'd encourage them to take a close look at the dorm rooms. The majority are very close to the convention center."
Another option would be for people to stay in Boston and ride the train to Providence daily, about a one-hour trip each way. Sneegas noted that nothing is stopping people from booking rooms in the labor-disputed hotels on their own—except their consciences. "Crossing picket lines is not in line with UU values."
GA general sessions—called "plenaries" in past years—will be held in the Dunkin' Donuts Center, also known as "The Dunk," while workshops and other sessions will be held in the adjoining Rhode Island Convention Center.
Work will continue at this GA around making the annual gathering more productive for those who attend. There will only be 12 hours of general session at this GA. That's down from 23 hours of plenary last year. This is in response to delegate surveys and to the fact that there are fewer bylaw changes to consider.
The general sessions will be presided over by a new UUA moderator, Jim Key, who was elected at the 2013 GA to replace Gini Courter, who served almost ten years. Key and the UUA Board of Trustees have been working on ways to make GA more meaningful, including "focusing more of our time together on the issues and questions that have the most impact for our association and our faith going forward," as Key wrote recently in a letter to people who will be making presentations at GA. Presenters are encouraged to be concise this year, with reports limited to 250 words.
Featured speakers at GA will include Sister Simone Campbell and Marge Piercy.
Campbell, a Roman Catholic nun, attorney, and poet, will present the Ware Lecture. She is the executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobbying group that focuses on peace-building, immigration reform, health care, and economic justice.
In 2010 Campbell helped organize support that was considered critical in passing the federal Affordable Care Act. In 2012 she organized the first Nuns on the Bus tour to oppose the "Ryan Budget," which would have decimated programs meant to help people in need. In 2013 she helped organize a second bus tour, focusing on immigration reform.
Piercy is a novelist and poet who has been active in progressive causes, including opposition to the wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
The UUA board will decide at its April meeting exactly what issues it wants to address with delegates in June. "We hope that this GA will be the beginning of a process to engage the delegates in conversations about how to make GA more representative, and with more delegates selected by their congregation for perhaps longer periods of time," Key wrote.
GA delegates will choose a new four-year Congregational Study/Action Issue in June. Those up for consideration focus on age discrimination, ending the war on terror, ending inequality, gun violence, and protecting democracy against voter suppression and erosion of civil liberties.
Worship and public witness
A "worship arts" team, led by the Rev. Carolyn Patierno of All Souls UU Congregation in New London, Conn., will coordinate all worship services at GA. "Each one will offer a different perspective on the 'Love Reaches Out' theme," said Patierno. David M. Glasgow, music director for UUs of the Cumberland Valley in Boiling Springs, Pa., is this year's music coordinator.
The Rev. Rebekah Ann Montgomery will preach at the Service of the Living Tradition, which honors professional religious leaders. Montgomery is an Army National Guard chaplain and affiliate minister at River Road UU Congregation, Bethesda, Md. She served one tour of duty in Afghanistan and was named Military Chaplain of the Year in 2009.
The Rev. Mark Stringer, minister of First Unitarian Church in Des Moines, Iowa, will preach at the Sunday morning service.
At many general assemblies participants have engaged in a mass public witness event related to a particular social justice issue. Two years ago, more than 2,500 UUs took part in a candlelight vigil at the Tent City jail in Phoenix. This year, rather than a protest, the public witness event will be a festival—an integrated part of Providence's WaterFire festival.
WaterFire is a signature Providence art event involving lighting scores of large wood-fired braziers in the Providence River through downtown and then holding events alongside the river such as concerts, plays, or campaigns for causes such as breast cancer awareness. Tens of thousands of people come to the riverfront on these occasions for the festive atmosphere. "These events often have a spiritual feeling to them," said Sneegas.
The UUA will be a cosponsor of WaterFire for the Saturday night during GA. Alex Kapitan, the UUA's Congregational Advocacy and Witness Program coordinator, explains it this way: "Rather than witness on behalf of a particular social justice issue, this year UUs will witness on behalf of our faith—co-creating a festival of love and showcasing the many ways that we believe in 'love reaching out' in the public square, and having fun while we're at it! It's going to be a public witness unlike anything we've ever done before."
There will also be a GA service project designed to address hunger and homelessness in Rhode Island, said Beth McGregor, district coordinator for this GA. An "Empty Bowls" project will raise money for two organizations, Housing First Rhode Island and McAuley House. Both have UUs in leadership positions. Housing First serves the chronically homeless, including mentally ill people. McAuley House provides meals and other emergency assistance to people who are struggling to get by.
Before GA local potters and other artisans will make small bowls that will be available for donations in the exhibition hall at GA. McGregor said other amateur and professional craftspeople who are coming to GA are also invited to make and bring bowls to donate.
The registration fee is $335 for adults before April 30. Youth registration is $80 to $195. There are reduced rates for people who wish to attend only part of GA. Congregational presidents are eligible for a $100 rebate on registration. Registration opened March 3 online.
People who agree to volunteer for 24 hours of work at GA, typically in four six-hour shifts, can get their registration fees paid. Volunteer applications are available online.
As in previous years, there are also provisions for offsite delegates, who can watch GA, speak during debate, and vote, all from their home, office, or congregation location.
Sneegas said people coming to GA can either fly into Providence's T.F. Green Airport and take a train into downtown or fly into Boston and take an Amtrak or Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority train to Providence.
This promises to be a green GA as well. "We were able to get the convention center to switch out polystyrene cups for paper ones," said Sneegas. "That's big. In addition, the hotels are providing recycling options either in the rooms or on each floor."
Clarification 3.10.14: This story has been modified to clarify that registration is paid for volunteers who complete 24 hours of work at GA.