General Assembly needs good social action, but in our diverse faith it needs other things, too.
The doors closed and we pulled away from the Phoenix Convention Center. We were on our way to tell Sheriff Joe Arpaio that Unitarian Universalists stand on the side of love. Rather than waste fifteen minutes and arrive unfocused, the chaplain led us in songs and exercises. “Turn to the person next to you,” he said, “and tell them what energizes you to do this work.”
That’s when I got a sinking feeling.
My seatmate went first and had no trouble coming up with an answer. But I was a bad listener—I don’t remember what she said—because I was facing a dilemma I run into frequently: Do I say something appropriate or something truthful?
The truth is, being on a school bus with 60 strangers—even UU strangers—does bring up feelings for me. So does the prospect of being part of a crowd of thousands. But none of those feelings fit the description “energized.”
That’s how it is for an introvert.
A decade or two ago, the Myers-Briggs typology was all the rage among Unitarian Universalist congregations. It offered four different ways to split the population in two, producing 16 personality types in all. The underlying message was that it takes all kinds; none of the 16 types is normal or abnormal.
Three of the splits have never meant much to me, but introvert/extrovert does: Extroverts are energized by interacting with people, while introverts are drained.
But that doesn’t mean we hide in our closets. I was, after all, on the bus. In the course of the evening, I would cheer and chant and wave my desert-safe electric candle as well as anybody else. I’m not exactly an activist, but I do occasionally put my body in the path of History.
It also doesn’t mean that we dislike people or can’t deal with them. I like to think I’m a halfway decent public speaker. Though I’m not a minister, I preach several times a year, and congregations who hear me have been known to invite me back.
Preaching has led me to my own introvert/extrovert test, which I believe is more reliable than the Myers-Briggs version: Preach a sermon to a roomful of people. If your hands are warm afterwards, you’re an extrovert. If they’re cold, you’re an introvert.
Mine are usually freezing. Holding a sufficiently hot cup of coffee will mask the effect during post-service discussions, but only hours of solitude will really restore me.
On the bus, I opted for truthful and admitted that I wasn’t energized. My seatmate seemed disappointed but understanding, and I felt as if I had been absolved of a venial sin.
The rest of the evening presented the usual challenges of crowds, but nothing I couldn’t handle. In the milling around to get back on the buses, I found an old friend to sit with. Carefully maneuvering the conversation, I heard a fascinating 15-minute chunk of his life story and didn’t have to talk about myself at all.
The dark of my hotel room felt as secure and welcoming as a chipmunk’s hole. By morning, I was more-or-less myself again.
When I went to my first GA in the 1990s, I didn’t expect to love it the way I do. I love it even though it can be a tough environment for me, full of 20-second how’ve-you-been conversations that are hard to turn into the deeper discussions I enjoy. And the plenary assemblies, like all large business meetings, can be please-shoot-me dull.
But GA also can combine the virtues of an all-star game and a county fair.
At its best, GA showcases our brightest minds on our biggest stage. I will never forget Thandeka introducing me to affect theology—from which I have since stolen many ideas—in Boston in 2003, or Mark Morrison-Reed (Salt Lake City, 2009) telling us that we were an ethnic faith whether we knew it or not, or Daniel Ellsberg, Mike Gravel, and Robert West (Portland, 2007) recalling Beacon Press’s role in the Pentagon Papers.
And I will never, ever forget Forrest Church (Fort Lauderdale, 2008) calmly describing how he was facing his imminent death.
I could make that list much longer. Most frequent GA attendees have their own lists, many totally different from mine. That’s one small way in which we are a diverse faith.
At a GA worship service, where hymns are sung by thousands and led by an all-star choir, it’s possible to imagine a world where UUs are not a tiny minority. The vision that we could be so much more than we are stays with you after you go home.
Even the tiny workshops led by people I’ve never heard of can be an inspiring outpouring of energy—kind of like the tent at the county fair where people show off their prize eggplants or chrysanthemums.
Sometimes it seems like every one of the 1,000+ UU congregations is applying its creativity to problems not all that different from the ones my congregation faces. And just like me, individual UUs by the thousands are striving to express their spirituality without relapsing into dogmatism or fundamentalism. Many are doing things I wouldn’t imitate in a million years. But they’re trying, and a few come up with ideas and practices I can take home and use.
I have heard the same story from many, many people: General Assembly is where they first got excited about being a Unitarian Universalist. It’s where UUism started to mean more than just nestling into a comfortable community with a compatible minister. GA is where they became part of a movement with a history and a mission.
A big chunk of that mission is social justice. Social action events are always a challenge at GA, because they have to navigate between a Scylla and Charybdis of dysfunctional UU tendencies: Some of us are more comfortable talking about justice than doing anything to bring it about, while others can go off half-cocked. So it’s easy to end up debating a carefully worded resolution that no one will ever read afterwards, and equally easy to sweep into town with a lot of earnest good intentions and launch a poorly-conceived action that leaves the locals scratching their heads. In either case, the only real accomplishment is that we feel better about ourselves.
For a variety of reasons related to Arizona’s draconian immigration law and debated at the 2010 GA, the Phoenix GA was streamlined to focus on social justice, and in particular on immigration. This new format was christened as a “Justice General Assembly.”
From my ant-level view, the organizers appeared to steer their course well. They took direction from their local allies, and we learned from local activists rather than gracing them with our exalted wisdom. (One of my peak experiences from this GA was hearing Tupac Enrique Acosta break the standard frame of the “illegal immigrant” issue by saying: “Indigenous peoples are not immigrants.”)
I was proud to see that our protest vigil had drawn national attention.
An exercise at the closing plenary gave me another minor crisis of authenticity: We were asked to find a partner and take turns talking about how we have been “transformed” by the Justice General Assembly.
Transformed. That’s another word like energized.
Spiritually, I am a cud-chewing animal. Some experiences are indeed the fuel of transformation, but only after I digest them in long rumination. The whole idea of transforming quickly, in front of thousands of people, makes me think of the Hulk in Manhattan. Transformation is an unpredictable and sometimes dangerous business. Best, I think, to keep the innocent bystanders to a minimum.
So after I return home, meditate, journal, and have a few one-on-one discussions with trusted friends, then, maybe, I will be transformed. Or not.
Like my seatmate on the bus, my plenary discussion-partner went first and had no trouble describing his transformation. Again, I opted for honesty and was rewarded with patient forgiveness of my disability.
After the exercise, the moderator speculated that General Assembly itself has been transformed, and that (rather than a one-off format brought on by special circumstances) perhaps all future GAs will be Justice GAs.
Perhaps. But if so, I hope the transformation will be made with care, after much rumination.
Done right, GA’s social actions can be like its worship services: In addition to their immediate effect on the world, they can send us home with an inspiring vision of what Unitarian Universalism could be and some pointers on what we can do to get there.
To do it right, though, the people who were energized and transformed in Phoenix need to think about how to bring the rest of us along. There’s got to be a way to do big and meaningful social actions without normalizing one way of being a UU and abnormalizing everyone else.
The issue goes deeper than just personality types. In our diverse faith, there’s got to be a time to march in the streets and a time to meditate, a time for the political and a time for the personal, a time to unite behind a slogan and a time to rethink your individual philosophy, a time to fix the world and a time to fix your congregation’s RE program.
And we’re not all on the same clock.
This is what worries me about the Phoenix GA as a model for the future: It was a good social action, but it wasn’t a particularly good all-star game or county fair.
I look at my peak-experience list and wonder how many of those events could have happened at a Justice GA. The Pentagon Papers retrospective might fit, but would a Justice GA have made room for a UU all-star like Forrest Church to talk about something as intensely personal as his own death?
And where the Phoenix program was streamlined and focused, a county fair needs lots of tents. It needs big vegetables and prize steers. Somebody’s strawberry jam should win a blue ribbon, and somebody else should get a gigantic stuffed animal for knocking down the milk bottles. A tilt-a-whirl ride would be nice, some snow cones, and an arena big enough for a crowd to watch the tractor pull or the talent show.
Not all of it will appeal to everybody, but that’s OK.
It takes all kinds.
Photo of participants on the bus to the Tent City protest vigil by Sonja L. Cohen/UUA.lt;/em>
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Doug Muder is a contributing editor and columnist for UU World. His articles have also appeared in Religious Humanism, The Humanist, and Public Eye. He blogs at The Weekly Sift and Free and Responsible Search, and is a member of First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts.
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