Opening worship, ©Nancy Pierce/UUA. All rights reserved.
With the colorful congregational banner parade led by Officer Tony Lepore, the famous dancing traffic cop of Providence, R.I., the 53rd General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association kicked off Wednesday night to a joyous crowd of several thousand at the Rhode Island Convention Center.
With a musical tribute by Emma’s Revolution to beloved UU, human rights activist, and folk singer Pete Seeger, featuring some of his best-loved songs including “If I Had a Hammer,” representatives from 659 congregations at this year’s GA joyously danced, marched, and waved their banners, as a white-gloved Lepore, an anti-bullying activist and the first-ever GA Grand Marshal, blew his whistle and hit the floor for break-dance moves.
More than 4,600 people are registered to attend this year’s GA, which features the theme, “Love Reaches Out.” UUA Moderator Jim Key welcomed the crowd to embrace the theme, which will be reflected throughout the four-day conference. In Wednesday night’s celebration, Love Reaches Out was highlighted through a number of musical celebrations, with people of many cultures sharing the word love in a number of languages, and with a creative use of light, including having the audience hold their lighted cell phones or lanterns up in the air as dramatic music filled the air.
UUA President Peter Morales and Key offered inspirational words to the crowd. “We are assembled as one body to grow our religion across the borders of our imagination and reach out in love,” said Key, who encouraged delegates and observers to share their GA experiences through Twitter and other social media.
This year marks Key’s first as Moderator, and, after welcoming newcomers, he gave a special shout out to a couple attending their 30th GA, who were seated at the rear of the convention center. “Thirty GA’s—and that’s the best seat you could get?” Key joked, to widespread laughter.
In response to feedback from delegates at previous GAs, this year’s will have 11 fewer hours of plenary sessions than last year, Key noted, to cheers from the audience. “That allows us to offer 48 more workshops than last year,” he said, for a total of 156 workshops to “inspire and challenge you.” He added, “You’ll have a great four days.”
Along with Morales and Key, Vice Moderator Donna Harrison formally welcomed the UUA’s newest congregation, Original Blessing, a 40-member community in Brooklyn, N.Y., whose mission is “to transform the lives of 400,000 people in North Brooklyn and Western Queens.” Original Blessing, led by the Rev. Ian White Maher, is the first new congregation in nearly 20 years in the Metro New York District, said Mia Morse, district president, who called Maher “a true visionary” in creating an appealing model for attracting new members. Its addition brings to 1,048 the number of congregations in the UUA, said Harrison.
The ceremony concluded with the audience on its feet, clapping and dancing to songs both new and familiar.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.