With an interfaith theme of Heart Land: Where Faiths Connect and a strong focus on racial justice, General Assembly 2016, the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association, is expected to draw over 3,700 UUs to Columbus, Ohio, June 22–26. UU Worldwill provide ongoing coverage throughout GA at uuworld.org/ga and on Twitter (@uuworld).
Major speakers include public radio host Krista Tippett, Moral Mondays leader the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards, and Black Lives Matter cofounder Alicia Garza. The UUA will also welcome the leaders of the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Islamic Circle of America—the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, and President Naeem Baig—as well as representatives from the UUA’s longtime international faith partners.
“I am especially looking forward to using this GA to further our efforts at interfaith cooperation on all levels,” said UUA President Peter Morales. “ I am convinced that multifaith cooperation is the wave of the future at both the national and local level.”
One of the business resolutions on the agenda may be a flashpoint for interreligious conflict, however. Unitarian Universalists for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME) has submitted a resolution calling on the UUA to divest from five corporations that benefit from Israel’s occupation of Palestine (see pages 99–101 in the Final Agenda PDF). The resolution is similar to resolutions adopted by Protestant denominations that Jewish groups have called anti-Semitic.
As the result of a new human rights screen on its investments, however, the UUA no longer owns stock in three of the companies, and never owned stock in the other two targeted by the resolution. UUJME plans to amend its resolution at a GA miniassembly to direct the UUA not to invest in corporations that benefit from the occupation of Palestine, said Curt Bell, a member of UUJME’s board of directors.
“It is going forward because there has been no public or explicit commitment to the issue of justice for Palestinians in the actions of the UUA,” in contrast to several other major denominations, said Bell, who noted that the resolution has garnered the support of a number of prominent UUs. (The General Assembly adopted an Action of Immediate Witness in 2002 calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel and condemning Palestinian terrorism but voted down an Action of Immediate Witness in 2010 calling for an end to the blockade of Gaza and the expansion of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories.)
In the wake of last year’s difficult AIW process concerning the Black Lives Matter resolution, Moderator Jim Key said he has been looking for more opportunities for GA delegates to have respectful and constructive discernment of important issues before voting on them. As a result, Key has scheduled a panel discussion about the UUJME business resolution for Friday morning, June 24. John Sarrouf of the Public Conversations Project will facilitate the discussion, which will feature Farrell Brody, a UU member of Jewish Voice for Peace of Central Ohio; Dana Ashrawi, a UUJME board member; the Rev. Jay Wolin, treasurer of UUs for Jewish Awareness; and former UUA Moderator Denny Davidoff.
A workshop about the UUJME resolution will take place Friday afternoon, followed by a miniassembly where amendments will be considered. Delegates will debate and vote on the amendment resolution during Saturday’s general session.
“If it works, we’ll make this standard procedure to have a discussion day before a miniassembly” on controversial topics, Key said. He said he hopes people will come away from this GA excited about interfaith partnerships, about reimagining Unitarian Universalism as an association of covenanted communities, and about finding new ways to approach difficult debates with thoughtful periods of discernment.
In other business, delegates will decide whether to suspend voting on AIWs at the 2017 GA in New Orleans to allow more time for justice-focused programming. They will select one of four proposed Congregational Study/Action Issues (“Climate Change and Environmental Justice”; “A National Conversation on Race”; “Ending Gun Violence in America”; and “The Corruption of Our Democracy”). They will vote on a business resolution entitled “Thanksgiving Day Reconsidered.” And they will consider up to five AIWs brought to GA by petition.
Delegates will elect a new financial advisor, four trustees, and three members of the Nominating Committee in uncontested races. They will also have the opportunity to meet candidates running for election as UUA president in 2017.
GA’s most visible event will be an interfaith rally, “State of Emergence: Faith-Filled People Rally for Racial Justice,” on the steps of the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday afternoon, June 23, at 5 p.m. Speakers will include national and local leaders of the movement for black lives along with the presidents of the UUA, the United Church of Christ, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Islamic Circle of America.
With more than 430 workshops, panel discussions, lectures, and worship services, GA programming this year will focus on three primary categories: interfaith work, racial justice, and deepening the capacities and skills of lay leaders. Two parallel workshop tracks, Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism and Racial Justice, will set the stage for GA 2017 in New Orleans, whose theme is racial justice. A third four-session track will focus on congregational fundraising and stewardship.
The Black Lives of UU track, new this year, prioritizes the experiences and voices of UUs who identify as black, according to Leslie MacFadyen, a member of the Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective, which formed last September. At Black Lives of UU workshops, non-black UUs are invited to focus on listening and witnessing rather than speaking. Two workshops in the track will have breakout groups for people to convene based on their racialized identities: black, non-black people of color, and white allies. She said that an explicitly black healing space will be offered throughout GA for black UUs to meet up, connect, and heal.
Saturday’s general session will take a special collection to support Black Lives of UU and to fund financial assistance the UUA offered to encourage more participation at GA by black UUs.
“None of this has been done before,” said MacFadyen. Referring to the painful debate over the Black Lives Matter AIW at the 2015 GA, she said, “a lot of lessons were learned about spaces needed for people to digest things, to come together.” The concept of a black healing space and explicitly black breakout sessions grew out of that.
Regarding the need for explicitly black spaces, “We look to create spaces where genuine conversations can happen,” said MacFadyen, a UU and a community organizer. “Oftentimes the white gaze itself alters the space pretty significantly for folks, so the goal is to allow people who identify similarly to have conversations without being stifled with other people in the room.” Similarly, a breakout affinity group for non-black people of color, and one for white allies, “allows for conversations that don’t feel self-conscious and uncomfortable,” she said. Following the affinity group sessions, all three groups will come back together to share their experiences with each other, she added.
Members of the Black Lives of UU Organizing Collective, who created the Black Lives UU track for GA, will lead the closing ceremony on Sunday, June 26, along with special musical guests the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and his band, the Holy Ghost, featuring Jay-Marie Hill.
Following on last year’s efforts, the UUA this year will again purchase carbon offsets for the environmental impact of delegates and staff traveling to GA. The UUA has purchased $17,500 of offsets from the Carbon Fund, a nonprofit that estimates the carbon cost of travel and uses the funds for projects that fight climate change, according to Jan Sneegas, UUA director of General Assembly and conference services. The Carbon Fund is investing the UUA offsets in the Lifestraw Water for Carbon project in Kenya, which cuts carbon while providing clean water to residents, and the Truck Stop Electrification Project, which reduces tailpipe emissions from freight trucks hauling consumer goods, Sneegas said.
The Greater Columbus Convention Center, where GA will be held, is undergoing a massive renovation project that has required moving some meeting space to the nearby Hyatt Regency Hotel, where many delegates are staying. The renovation project has created accessibility issues that the GA Planning Committee is working to address. “We’re asking for patience and that people understand that there are things beyond our control,” said Sneegas.
Still, Columbus is “a great city with a very vibrant downtown that has lots of restaurants and shops. It has really exploded even since we booked there,” Sneegas said. There is also an excellent public transportation system, including a new airport bus system that will transport people from the airport to downtown hotels for $2.50, and the city’s free “Downtown Circulator,” a no-cost bus system that transports people for free throughout downtown and nearby neighborhoods. “If you want to go to the Statehouse or the Short North, with its restaurants and shops, just jump on the Circulator,” Sneegas said.
The worship services and the business sessions held in the main GA session hall will be livestreamed and available for anyone to watch for free. Registered delegates can participate in off-site voting if they are not able to be on-site in Columbus.
Worship leaders include the Rev. William G. Sinkford, former president of the UUA and senior minister of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon, who will preach at the Service of the Living Tradition, and the Rev. Nancy McDonald Ladd, senior minister of River Road UU Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, who will preach at Sunday morning’s worship service. Musicians will include the 200-member GA choir, conducted by Glen Thomas Rideout, director of music and worship at First UU Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan; the duo Emma’s Revolution; Rev. Sekou and the Holy Ghost; and musicians from the Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C.