The election of Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), to overwhelming acclaim and a standing ovation, marked the high point of a momentous General Assembly 2023 that was both a joyous celebration of UU values and a call to action for the work ahead.
More than 4,100 Unitarian Universalists gathered for the multiplatform GA June 21–25, with 1,768 online registrants and 2,380 in-person registrants in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Onsite participants soaked in stunning views of the Allegheny River and picturesque downtown architecture from the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, while many online participants expressed gratitude for the ability to participate from the comfort of their homes or hotel rooms.
Rev. Dr. Betancourt, who served as interim co-president of the UUA in the spring of 2017, is the first woman of color and first out queer person elected as the Association’s president. She assumes the presidency from Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray, the first woman elected as UUA president. Nominated by the UUA’s Presidential Search Committee, Rev. Dr. Betancourt, who holds a Ph.D. in Religious Ethics and African American Studies from Yale University and an M.Div. from Starr King School for the Ministry, ran as the sole nominee and was elected with 2,320 yes votes (95.5 percent) and 110 no votes (4.5 percent). The child of immigrants from Panamá and Chile, and the grandchild of a seventh-generation Unitarian, Rev. Dr. Betancourt begins her six-year tenure on July 10.
"When I say that love is the center of our faith, that means I am committing to loving each one of you every day . . . for the next six years and beyond." –Rev. Dr. Sofía Betancourt
During a presidential forum before the election, Rev. Dr. Betancourt addressed a wide range of topics, including forging and strengthening UU connections, supporting congregational leaders, and the proposed revisions to Article II of the UUA bylaws. “I have heard from so many of you, in so many ways, that what you most want from me is an invitation into the Unitarian Universalism you’re dreaming of, into building that world and that work together,” she said. “And I’m going to hold you to that. When I say that love is the center of our faith, that means I am committing to loving each one of you every day . . . for the next six years and beyond.”
In addition to electing a new president, delegates voted to move forward with a process to discuss further proposed changes to Article II of the UUA bylaws, the section that includes the Principles, Purposes, and Sources, with 1,816 (86.3 percent) votes in favor and 289 (13.7 percent) against. Several amendments to the proposal package were approved during GA, including adding language of mystery and wonder, while others, including adding back in the current Six Sources, did not pass. A final vote on the proposed changes requires a two-thirds vote to pass next year at GA 2024.
A business resolution, “ Complete Divestment from the Fossil Fuel Industry and Subsequent Reparations,” proposed by UU Young Adults for Divestment, was not adopted, with 1,412 votes (68.3 percent) against and 654 (31.7 percent) in favor. In a moving demonstration of young UUs living their values, a group in favor of the business resolution held signs and chanted at the end of a discussion during general session. UUA leaders, including Rev. Dr. Betancourt, expressed an ongoing commitment to pursue climate justice and vowed to remain in conversation with the young adults, recognizing that their voices are integral to these complex and difficult issues; this critical work will include discussions about divestment and the devastating harm of climate change, as well as on shaping the way forward on reparations.
All three proposed Actions of Immediate Witness passed easily: “Rise Up to Stop Copy City” (83.8 percent in favor); “Organizing for Health Equity” (85.8 percent); and “Protect the Dreamers, the Recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) with a Pathway to Permanent Residence” (98.1 percent). No responsive resolutions or budget motions made it onto the final agenda.
In the only contested election, for four open positions on the UUA Nominating Committee, delegates elected Rev. Viola Abbitt (2,166 votes), Ben Gabel (1,855), Carrie Stewart (2,098) and Rev. Zackrie Vinczen (2,002). Dick Burkhart, who was not elected, received 607 votes.
"We have been very pleased with delegate participation in voting this year." —UUA Secretary Bill Young
GA 2023 included 2,593 credentialed delegates representing 715 congregations in fifty states; Washington, D.C.; Canada; Mexico; and the Philippines. Of those delegates, 1,317 were onsite, 827 were online, and 447 were business only delegates. A total of 2,109 credentialed delegates (81 percent) participated in the final round of votes, more than twice the engagement with voting from GA 2022, according to Larry Stritof, the UUA’s director of Information Technology Services. “We have been very pleased with delegate participation in voting this year,” said UUA Secretary Bill Young.
But business wasn’t the only thing that happened at GA. There were numerous workshops, opportunities for building community and connection, and worship, including the always popular Sunday worship, with Rev. Manish Mishra-Marzetti preaching on the theme “Ever Willing: Becoming the People Our World Needs,” as well as a Friday service presented by the Church of the Larger Fellowship, entitled “Liberation, Incarceration, and our Faith” and the Synergy Bridging Service, which celebrates youth entering emerging adulthood.
Beacon author Imani Perry, the Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies at Princeton University, who this summer will join the faculty at Harvard University as a Radcliffe Professor, was this year’s Ware Lecturer. She is the author of seven books, most recently South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation, which received the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Perry discussed a number of “UU ancestors,” including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and abolitionist and suffragist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a noted Black intellectual, poet, and novelist. “The anti-intellectualism of the day is of course predicated on a desire to keep people from being moved deeply,” said Perry, who received a standing ovation. “I do believe that this moment requires both an extraordinary amount of courage and humility of us.”
On Thursday, a packed room welcomed featured speaker Brian Broome, award-winning author of the memoir Punch Me Up to the Gods, who shared his experiences and insight as a Black gay man and was joined in conversation by Rev. Michael J. Crumpler, LGBTQ and Multicultural Programs director for the UUA. “Everyone should write a memoir, or at least tell your story. Because they want you to not,” Broome said, adding, to applause, “Our stories are weapons in the war against fascism.”
Frederick-Gray presented the Commission on Institutional Change with this year’s President’s Award for Volunteer Service, which recognizes a person or group that has given extraordinary and vital service to the UUA as a volunteer. The Commission, established in 2017, was charged by the UUA Board to analyze structural racism and white supremacy culture within the UUA. In 2020, the group published the groundbreaking report, Widening the Circle of Concern, which makes recommendations to advance long-term change within the faith. Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt received the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, one of the UUA’s most prestigious awards, and Rev. Dr. Randolph “Randy” Becker received the Angus H. MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education.
On Friday, Side With Love, the UUA’s organizing initiative, sponsored an uplifting hour of chants, songs, and stories from the front lines of action during “Resist, Respond, Reimagine: A Side With Love Rally.” During the event, which featured an opening meditation in the spirit of prayer and connection by Rev. Dr. Betancourt, and closing meditation from Frederick-Gray, Rev. Ashley Horan, UUA Organizing Strategy director, who leads the Side With Love Team, introduced the program of UUs around the country who have been working “in deep relationship, where they are, with what they have, to do what they can.”
During a dance party and other planned events and spontaneous moments, UUs celebrated Frederick-Gray, who during her six years leading the UUA established a voice for progressive people of faith, strengthened the UUA’s Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) practices, led the Association through the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic, and launched the UU the Vote initiative to defend and expand democracy and democratic participation, among other accomplishments.
"I’ve never felt so much hope and opportunity for our faith than in this moment." —Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray
An emotional Frederick-Gray delivered her final President’s Report on Thursday to cheers and several standing ovations. She expressed gratitude for work done across the UUA and in congregations and celebrated the new leadership of Rev. Dr. Betancourt. Discussing the work of dismantling white supremacy culture and patriarchy, she said, “This culture change work happening across Unitarian Universalism is absolutely essential for the growth and relevance of our tradition today and for the generations to come. It is essential for nurturing the just and equitable multicultural world we imagine, a world where everyone truly belongs and all can thrive. It is exciting, and life-giving, and I’ve never felt so much hope and opportunity for our faith than in this moment.”
In a final moment of goodbye during General Session on Sunday, attendees viewed a commemorative video recognizing Frederick-Gray's unprecedented leadership:
Next year’s General Assembly will be fully online, while GA 2025 will be multiplatform, with the option of attending online or in person in Baltimore, Maryland.
Additional reporting by Kristen Cox Roby and Sonja L. Cohen.
Slideshow: Photos of General Assembly 2023
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Displaying 1 - 1 of 22