Entering a new era

phone showing twitter hashtag reporting for the UU General Assembly 2013
Report from the 2013 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
twitter hashtag reporting for General Assembly 2013
Image: © Nancy Pierce/UUA


Signs that the Unitarian Universalist Association is entering a new era were unmistakable this summer at its fifty-second General Assembly in Louisville, Kentucky.

For starters, there was the departure of UUA Moderator Gini Courter after ten years at the podium. Her successor, Jim Key of Beaufort, South Carolina, was elected with a slim forty-vote margin and is the first man to serve as moderator since 1977. Key can serve only six years, due to election reforms that took effect this year.

Then there was the downsizing of the UUA Board of Trustees and the creation of the first-ever UUA region, more consequences of governance reforms Courter helped initiate. There were also schematic drawings on display of the UUA’s future headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District. It could not be missed that the UUA is changing in some dramatic ways.

One workshop was presented entirely in Spanish: “Comunidades sin Fronteras: Español en el Unitario Universalismo” [Communities without Borders: Spanish in Unitarian Universalism], which encouraged congregations to think about ways to welcome and involve Spanish-speaking people.

For the first time, restrooms near the plenary hall were gender-neutral, so any person could use any restroom. Janiece Sneegas, director of General Assembly and Conference Services, said she received grateful emails about the restrooms after GA. “They thanked the Planning Committee for taking a bold stand to be inclusive. I’d say the response at GA itself was very positive as well. We had only one negative comment.”

This was also Twitter’s year at General Assembly. At Courter’s direction, delegates broke into small groups on Friday afternoon and used the social media tool to communicate changes they’d like to see at GA. More than 1,400 tweets with the hashtag “#newuuga” were posted in two hours, answering three questions: “1) If you could not attend General Assembly, describe the person from your congregation who ought to attend. Why? 2) What do you love best about General Assembly? 3) For the future of our faith, what is the one thing General Assembly should stop doing?” In an earlier time, responses might have been collected on flip charts and then manually transcribed, but the tweets all went online and will be compiled into a report for the UUA board.

Held June 19 to 23 at the Kentucky International Convention Center, GA drew 3,426 people. The Rev. Dr. Terasa Cooley, the UUA’s new program and strategy officer, said the GA theme, “From Promise to Commitment,” grew out of last year’s Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, which focused almost exclusively on public witness on immigration issues.

“This GA was about covenant,” Cooley said. “A covenant has mostly been thought of as something that members make with their own congregations when they join, a way of being in relationship with each other. Covenant is also an agreement that we make with our larger faith. So after Phoenix, which was this huge experience for everyone, it felt like we needed a reengagement with the larger meaning of covenant as it relates to our having a mission in the world rather than just among ourselves.”

At Sunday’s worship service, the Rev. Dr. William F. Schulz, president of the UU Service Committee, preached about our “ covenant with creation.” After showing a video that soared away from Earth until the entire cosmos was visible, Schulz asked, “Can anyone truly understand the tiny speck of the universe we human beings occupy and not see in an instant that everything that keeps us isolated from one another, every ideology that divides us, every faith that preaches its superiority over others, every intentional cruelty, is stupidity on a literally cosmic scale?

“Our fragility—as human beings, as a human race, and as a planet,” Schulz said. “That is the connection between those starry heavens above and Kant’s moral law within.”

The planet’s fragility was the central focus of GA’s public witness event. More than 2,000 people, including members of local environmental groups and faith communities, gathered on a plaza overlooking the Ohio River to rally for clean energy Thursday evening. Speakers urged participants to engage their public officials on issues including mountaintop removal, hydraulic fracturing, and other harmful methods of extracting coal, gas, and oil. Tim Darst, executive director of Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light, said the event was the largest environmental rally in Kentucky history.

Kentucky author and farmer Wendell Berry spoke at that event, along with environmental activist Tim DeChristopher, a UU from Salt Lake City who spent twenty-one months in prison for shutting down a federal oil and gas land lease auction. Mark Steiner, outreach and project director at Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light, told the crowd at the rally, “It matters little where we live. Dirty energy is everywhere.” DeChristopher, who grew up in West Virginia, spoke last. “It does not end here,” he said. “We need to make our voices louder than those of the fossil fuel industries.” (See "Four UU congregations pull investments from fossil fuel companies" for more.)

The rally ended with a reverse Water Commu­nion. Volunteers passed out sealed vials of water from the Ohio River for people to take home. Members of the UU Congregation of Owensboro, Kentucky, had purified and bottled the water.

The rally has already had repercussions. Before GA was over, two of the local activists who shared their stories about being affected by mountaintop removal and poor air quality got calls from the Environmental Protection Agency wanting to learn more, according to the Rev. Dawn Cooley, minister of First Unitarian Church of Louisville and a leading organizer of the event.

GA workshops went deeper, with programs on Appalachian culture, the true cost of coal, and the link between climate change and civil rights. As one workshop leader put it, “Environmental crises hit [the] poor and people of color first.”

On Sunday, delegates approved an Action of Im­mediate Witness calling for a denomination-wide conversation about divesting from the fossil fuel in­dustry. They also contributed $33,958 to Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light in a collection during Sunday morning’s worship service.

Jim Key was elected moderator, 945 to 905, in a contest with Tamara Payne-Alex of San Jose, California. Key, a former president of the Southeast District and of the District Presidents Association, leads a firm that provides consulting services to corporations on governance, risk management, and compliance. “The future is ours,” Key said in an interview at GA. “There are more and more people who are amenable to our message. The things I look forward to immediately are building relationships with the administration [and] the new board, and laying out how we’re going to move forward and reach more people.” (See “New board takes up antiracism, relationship building,” 7.1.13.)

The race for moderator was the only contested election. UUA President Peter Morales was elected to a second four-year term. Ed Merck was elected financial advisor, succeeding Dan Brody, but Merck resigned for personal reasons two weeks later; the board will appoint an interim financial advisor to serve until a new election is held in 2014. Delegates elected five new members and two returning members of the Board of Trustees, as well as members of other denominational committees and boards.

With the election, GA ushered in a simplified governance structure. Delegates last year approved bylaw changes that cut the number of trustees almost in half. At its meeting the day before GA, the board had twenty-five elected members. The board that met the day after GA had fourteen. All are now elected by the General Assembly rather than by districts.

Courter, of Traverse City, Michigan, had been appointed moderator in 2003 when her predecessor resigned for personal reasons. In 2004 Courter was elected to fill out the term and was then elected to successive four-year terms in 2005 and 2009. Throughout her tenure she won the admiration of delegates for conducting General Assembly business with equal parts parliamentary prowess, humor, and grace. (See an interview with Courter about the governance changes she introduced.) There were many opportunities at GA for participants to celebrate Courter and say farewell. A fund named Faithful Risk was created in her honor to provide grants for experimental ministry projects.

Courter delivered her last moderator’s report near the end of the final plenary, telling delegates, “You hold the power of this Association in your hearts and hands. And when you forget, things get broken.” She warned delegates against relying on their elected leaders to set a vision for the UUA. “Vision comes from the people,” she said.

During his annual report, President Peter Morales put on a hardhat and showed delegates architectural sketches of the new UUA headquarters at 24 Farnsworth Street in Boston’s Seaport District, to which the UUA will be moving in 2014. The new headquarters will feature open office spaces that will foster collaboration, he said.

Morales told delegates the UUA has an opportunity to take risks in response to demographic trends that favor Unitarian Universalism. “Here we are . . . in a time of unprecedented change in our culture,” Morales said. “Nobody aligns with the values of the emerging generation the way we do. Absolutely nobody. People are hungry for a religion that I call multi: multicultural, multiracial, multigenerational, multifaith, multinational. We’re in the midst of a transformation, but we have to move quickly.”

The Rev. Vanessa Rush Southern, parish minister of the Unitarian Church in Summit, New Jersey, expanded on that challenge in her sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition, which honors religious professionals. A religious revolution is headed our way, she said, as increasing numbers of people reject conventional religions. “They are tired of religion getting in the way rather than paving it. . . . What is in, is communities alive to spirit, people gathered to question, doubt, struggle, live with ambiguity, serve directly, who are ecologically-minded and affirming of the pluralism across all real and supposed differences.” That’s us, she said. But being open to those new seekers will require our taking chances, being “crazy generous,” and being experimental with worship. “This requires us to change. And it just might be fun.”

Eboo Patel, this year’s Ware lecturer, spoke about the value of interfaith work. Patel, the author of Beacon Press’s Sacred Ground: Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America and founder of Interfaith Youth Core, told his UU audience, “Interfaith leadership is about building relationships with people who are not only different than you in ways you like, but also in ways you don’t.”

Delegates overwhelmingly approved a Statement of Conscience that declares, “Our Uni­tarian Universalist Principles and Sources compel us to affirm that all immigrants, regardless of legal status, should be treated justly and humanely.” It outlines criteria for a “moral immigration policy.” In addition to the Action of Immediate Witness on fossil fuel investments, delegates adopted two other AIWs. One condemns mistreatment of young people of color by police; the other calls on UUs to work to amend the U.S. Con­stitution to revoke the legal “personhood” of corporations.

The Assembly also amended the UUA bylaws to acknowledge the creation of the new MidAmerica Region by three districts—Prairie Star, Heartland, and Central Midwest—which voted this spring to merge into a new, larger regional body (see "Three districts vote to become MidAmerica Region"). In other business, delegates approved amendments to bylaws and rules clarifying when special elections must be held to fill vacancies, changing the procedure for determining the winners of certain elections, and changing the terms and qualifications of members of standing committees. They amended the bylaws to allow electronic voting in UUA elections. And they began the process of moving the UUA’s “Anti-Discrimination” clause from Article II of the bylaws to a section of the Rules where it can more easily be updated.

At the end of the final plenary, delegates endorsed a responsive resolution introduced by a coalition of people of color calling on the administration, board, and the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee to strengthen support for antioppressive, multicultural programs and resources.

The General Assembly also raised $17,025 for the UU congregations in New Orleans still struggling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and gave $62,115 to a fund that assists ministers and seminarians in need.

This article appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of UU World (pages 31-35). Photograph (above): Invited to imagine General Assembly’s future, delegates posted more than 1,400 comments to Twitter in a two-hour “#newuuga tweetchat” (Nancy Pierce/UUA). Additional reporting by Peter Bowden, Sonja L. Cohen, Michelle Bates Deakin, and Christopher L. Walton.

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