Environment and diversity themes of General Assembly

Report on the Unitarian Universalist Association's 2007 annual meeting.


The forty-sixth annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist As­sociation of Congregations attracted the second largest GA crowd ever to Portland, Oregon, June 20–24. The 5,697 attendees included 2,428 delegates representing 643 member congregations. Several thousand people attended major presentations, including a forum on the UUA’s role in the publication of the Pentagon Papers in 1971 and Sunday afternoon’s closing worship service featuring singer Ysaye M. Barnwell, best known for her work with Sweet Honey in the Rock.

The unexpectedly large turnout filled many workshop rooms to overflowing. When more than 1,200 turned up for a lecture by the Rev. Robert Fulghum, the best-selling author who described himself as a UU “stealth missionary,” many were turned away. The GA Planning Committee provided free recordings of some overcrowded events to people who requested them by July 25.

The Assembly commemorated Beacon Press’s publication of the Pentagon Papers with speeches by three of the men who brought the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War to the public. Daniel Ellsberg, the former military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers to Sen. Mike Gravel and the New York Times, joined Gravel and former UUA President Robert N. West to discuss the significance of their decision today.

“Thank God for a democracy that leaks like a sieve,” said Gravel, who is a Democratic candidate for U.S. president. “We need more leaks.” In 1971 Gravel read the documents he received from Ellsberg into the Congressional Record. The New York Times and other newspapers published selections until the Justice Department filed an injunction stopping them. Beacon Press was the only publisher who took the risk of publishing the entire collection.

West, UUA president from 1969 to 1977, recalled that “the Justice Department investigated our entire denomination’s financial affairs and threatened our Association staff members,” he said, “because one of our departments, Beacon Press, published one book that was controversial—a text that was already in the public domain.” He said he sees parallels in the government’s secrecy and the “misuse” of the power of the Justice Department today.

Ellsberg said that he hopes someone with access to documents about U.S. plans for war with Iran will come forward. “By taking that risk,” he said, “they’d have a high chance of averting a catastrophe that would lead to the deaths of tens, hundreds of thousands of people and disastrously reduce our security.” As for the occupation of Iraq, Ellsberg drew sustained applause when he said, “The Congress has the power to stop the war. They’re not doing it.”

Portland was sunny and dry during GA, and many UUs took breaks to roam through its parks and neighborhoods. Six hundred gathered outside the convention center for a “Witness to Earth Community,” where local environmental activists joined UUA President William G. Sinkford and other UU leaders to promote environmental justice. At the rally, the Rev. Marilyn Sewell, minister of First Unitarian Church in Portland, called the threat of global climate change “apocalyptic” and urged UUs to “become citizen activists” for the environment.

The environment was not GA’s only prominent justice theme. During the Opening Ceremony, Sinkford and UUA Moderator Gini Courter celebrated past GA resolutions that committed the Association to confront sexism, discrimination against people with disabilities, and racism. Each resolution represented “a desire to work toward the goal of beloved community where all are worthy and all are welcomed,” said Sinkford.

“There are other spiritual issues around race we must address,” Sinkford said during his annual report. “Should we collectively acknowledge that some of the beautiful white clapboard Unitarian churches on the New England coast were built with profits from the slave trade?” Recalling the UUA’s “black empowerment controversy” in the 1960s and ’70s, when the General Assembly promised $1 million for black community projects, he said, “Only half of the promised money was ever paid. Doesn’t our moral balance sheet still carry that unpaid debt?”

During the final plenary, delegates adopted a responsive resolution that asked congregations to report back to future General Assemblies about their historical “complicity with the genocide of native people, with slavery and the slave-based economy, and with all types of racial, ethnic, and cultural oppression past and present, toward the goal of accountability through acknowledgment, apology, repair, and reconciliation.” The resolution asked for updates at the next two Assemblies.

Complaints about insensitive behavior at recent GAs led to the creation this year of a Right Relationship Team. The team listened to people’s concerns and reported back during each plenary session about difficulties people were encountering. Courter praised the team for helping to “reweave the fabric of community.”

During his annual report, President Sinkford announced a comprehensive fundraising campaign called “Now Is the Time.” The campaign’s goal is to raise $20 million in cash and $30 million in planned gifts. More than $14 million in cash and $19 million in legacy commitments has already been raised, Sinkford said. All Unitarian Universalists will be offered an opportunity to contribute through “Association Sunday” collections in their congregations this fall. Sinkford said the collections will fund a national advertising campaign, support the successful settlement of ministers of color, and allow the Association to offer grants for promising new growth efforts.

Courter said the advertising campaign will bring more visitors to congregations. She challenged congregations to make sure that they are ready to welcome them: “How are we caring today for the many people who dare to get out of bed on a Sunday morning and risk meeting us in hopes we’ll provide the religious community they want?”

Financial Advisor Dan Brody reported that the UUA is in good financial shape, having ended fiscal year 2006 with a $3 million surplus and expecting a surplus as fiscal year 2007 comes to a close. (He also reported that Beacon Press finished its fifth year with a surplus, and now has a $2 million reserve.) The UUA’s investment fund earned 5.8 percent, ending fiscal year 2006 with a total value of $115 million, including $26 million invested by congregations and other UU organizations.

Brody said that the UUA’s new health insurance plan, launched in January to provide insurance to employees of UU congregations, now covers 592 employees. “The long-term success of the plan is far from certain,” Brody said. “The plan is most likely to succeed in the long term if 1,000 or more employees, including some who now have health insurance from other sources, enroll in the plan.”

The business agenda included votes on a Statement of Conscience on “moral values in a pluralistic society” and a dozen additional resolutions that enlivened the plenary sessions on the final day of GA.

The Statement of Conscience, which emerged from a two-year “study/action” process in congregations, called for Unitarian Universalists “to assert and defend . . . the right of all human beings to follow a life of their choosing, as long as others are not harmed,” and “the basic principle of inherent equal dignity of all human beings.”

Delegates approved six social justice resolutions or “Actions of Immediate Witness” on torture, immigration raids, international women’s rights, sexuality education, gay rights in the U.S. military, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.

As the final plenary session was coming to a close, delegates came forward with six “responsive resolutions,” including the resolution asking congregations to study their historical complicity with slavery and other forms of racism. All six were approved with little or no debate. The UUA bylaws permit delegate-initiated resolutions in response to reports by UUA officers and committees.

One responsive resolution reaffirmed the General Assembly’s opposition to the war in Iraq and urged delegates to take “all necessary action to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.” Other resolutions asked congregations to report next year about their engagement with communities of color regarding their voting experiences; encouraged congregations to raise funds to provide health insurance for uninsured church employees; and asked the GA Planning Committee to discuss ways to help attendees “engage in compassionate response and witness.”

Another responsive resolution affirmed “the commitment to the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, including transgender individuals” and urged that “this spiritual value” be expressed through “employment practices, educational efforts, congregational life, and public witness.” The resolution notes that no prior General Assembly statement specifically addresses the UUA’s views on transgender identity.

Last year’s GA voted on only one responsive resolution; this year the number equaled the number of Actions of Immediate Witness, which undergo a process of proposal, petition, amendment, and floor debate. No such process exists for responsive resolutions, although approval requires a two-thirds vote. Courter said she would be discussing the responsive resolution process with the UUA’s parliamentarian and legal counsel before next year’s Assembly.

In other business, delegates elected an uncontested slate of candidates to boards and committees, approved two relatively minor bylaw changes without debate, and voted on 30 mission-oriented statements that grew out of “Open Space” conversations about the mission of Unitarian Universalism. (See page 42.) The Association also welcomed two new member congregations: the UU Peace Fellowship in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the UU Church of Hot Springs, Arkansas.

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