With 4,224 registrants from across the United States and world, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s second all-virtual General Assembly, held June 23–27, 2021, was both a joyous celebration and a solemn recognition of the widespread trauma of 2020, including the nearly million people around the world who died during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing murders of Black people and other people of color by police.
The theme for GA 2021 was “Circle ’Round for Justice, Healing, Courage.” The first General Assembly led by the UUA’s new co-moderators, Charles Du Mond and the Rev. Meg Riley, it included 2,278 delegates representing 656 congregations from 49 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines, as well as 37 youth and 329 emerging and/or young adults registrants.
In her annual report to the Assembly, UUA President Susan Frederick-Gray noted the ongoing trauma of recent events, including the January attempt to overthrow the largest voter turnout election in U.S. history, the persistent reality of police violence disproportionately taking the lives of Black Americans, mass shootings, hate crimes, and xenophobic attacks against “anyone perceived as other.” Frederick-Gray emphasized the UUA’s three core priorities: continued support for congregations and leaders in navigating the pandemic and post-pandemic realities; implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Institutional Change for living into the faith’s antiracist, anti-oppressive, multicultural aspirations in the systemic and cultural practices of the Association, congregations, and UU organizations; and strengthening the Association’s justice and organizing capacity by building on the success of UU the Vote. During the 2020 election, UU the Vote had more than 5,000 volunteers from 450 congregations who contacted over 3 million voters, she noted.
With dismantling white supremacy culture and systemic racism a top priority for the Association, there has been a significant increase in the number of people of color hired at the UUA, Frederick-Gray noted. “Two years ago, I reported the senior leadership of the UUA has increased in diversity from 12 percent to 42 percent, with the overall UUA staff growing in diversity from 19 percent to 28 percent people of color,” Frederick-Gray said. “This year, our senior executive advisory team is 66 percent people of color, and our overall staff has grown to 32 percent people of color. We have also created a staff group directors council of senior managers which is 40 percent people of color.”
At the Ware Lecture on Saturday night, guest speakers Stacey Abrams and Desmond Meade addressed the critical importance of protecting the right to vote and of fighting voter suppression, especially today, as many states are passing restrictive voting laws that disproportionately affect people of color.
“Voting has nothing to do with politicians, it has everything to do with policy.”
—Stacey Abrams, Ware Lecturer
“This is not about one name on a ballot; it’s about millions of people casting those ballots . . . . We cannot wait until there is a candidate on the ballot to talk about voting. Voting has nothing to do with politicians, it has everything to do with policy,” said Abrams, who launched Fair Fight Action after the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election to ensure every American has a voice in our election system, Fair Count to ensure accuracy in the 2020 Census, and the Southern Economic Advancement Project, a public policy initiative to broaden economic power and build equity in the South.
“What matters most is that people are registered, that everyone is registered and everyone has an opportunity to participate in our democracy, that everyone has the opportunity to vote, to legitimize their existence and their humanity,” said Meade, a formerly homeless returning citizen who is president of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and the author of Let My People Vote: My Battle to Restore the Rights of Returning Citizens, published by Beacon Press.
Many Florida UU congregations and other UUs, including Frederick-Gray, participated in the successful 2018 effort, led by Meade and others, to overwhelmingly approve Florida’s Amendment 4, which automatically restores the voting rights of people convicted of most felonies after the completion of their sentences. “We are so proud to be in this fight for democracy with you,” Frederick-Gray said, and thanked Abrams and Meade for their leadership for voting rights.
The GA public witness action on Saturday night was a phonebank for a Moral Budget in Milwaukee. In partnership with African-American Round Table, a coalition led by and serving the African-American community in Milwaukee, and with Wisconsin UUs, the phonebank sought support for divestment from police and investment in community safety and care.
By Monday morning, GA had raised a total of $143,797 in support of its four special collections, UUA Stewardship and Development Deputy Director Christopher Hartley reported. This year’s collections benefit: the Living Tradition Fund, the Katie Tyson Fund for Youth and Young Adult Ministries, Side with Love, and the local community beneficiary, MICAH: Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, a multiracial, interfaith organization committed to justice issues of importance to residents of Milwaukee, the originally scheduled host city for GA 2021. June 30 is the last day to give. Donate here.
There were two UUA Awards for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism awarded this year (none were awarded last year). Elandria Williams and the Rev. Mr. Barb Greve, who served as UUA co-moderators from 2017 to 2020, each received the award. A lifelong UU who served in numerous positions in the faith, Elandria Williams died suddenly in September 2020; the posthumous award was accepted on E’s behalf by their mother, Elnora Williams. The Rev. Mr. Barb Greve, also a lifelong UU, has served the faith in many ways including as one of the cofounders of TRUUsT (Transgender Religious Unitarian Universalists Together).
The 2021 President’s Award for Volunteer Service was awarded to the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee to honor everyone who has served on the committee since its creation in 1997 to monitor and assess the work of the Association toward becoming a genuinely antiracist, anti-oppressive, multicultural institution.
Building on feedback gathered after GA 2020, increased focus this year was placed on enhancing the user experience and on increasing opportunities for attendees to interact. A major platform for that was the new Whova GA app, which allowed people to connect more deeply with one another via meetups and in more than 280 user-generated topic groups ranging from BIPOC communities working for climate justice, disability rights, and trans and gender non-binary liberation to hobby talk, writing prompts, and book recommendations.
Over 100 hours of workshops from GA 2021 will continue to be available to attendees in the on-demand library through the summer, as will other highlights including the Service of the Living Tradition, the Synergy worship service, and the Sunday morning service. In September, the on-demand videos will become available to the public on Vimeo.
General Assembly business
In the only contested race at GA 2021, the Rev. Sam Trumbore was elected to UUA Board of Trustees position #8 (3-year term). Trumbore, who was nominated by the UUA Nominating Committee, received 1,922 votes, 87.4 percent of the total votes, while Jay Kiskel, who ran by petition, received 278 votes, 12.6 percent of the total.
Others elected in uncontested races were the Rev. Elizabeth Mount and JeKaren Olaoya to the board of Trustees (3-year terms); Adrian Graham to the Commission on Appraisal (6-year term); Lucia Santini-Field for Financial Advisor (1-year term); Chelsea Surfus to the GA Planning Committee (4-year term); and Tim Atkins, the Rev. Danielle Di Bona, and Cristy Cardinal to the Nominating Committee (2-, 1-, and 3-year terms, respectively).
On Saturday, delegates voted to adopt all three Actions of Immediate Witness under consideration: “Stop Voter Suppression and Partner for Voting Rights and a Multiracial Democracy”; “Defend and Advocate with Transgender, Nonbinary, and Intersex Communities”; and “The COVID-19 Pandemic: Justice, Healing, Courage.”
One Responsive Resolution called on the UUA’s Article II Commission and Board to “ensure proposed changes to Article II include in the Principles a clear and direct statement that accountable systemic anti-racist and anti-oppressive actions to build Beloved Community are part of what it means to be Unitarian Universalist.” It passed with 91 percent in favor.
A second Responsive Resolution asked that the UUA Common Endowment Fund divest from fossil fuels, pipelines, and institutions that invest in them, and requested that young adults be involved in related discussions. It passed with 80 percent in favor.
In Sunday’s General Session, delegates overwhelmingly supported passage of a UUA Statement of Conscience affirming UU commitment to undoing systemic white supremacy. Statements of Conscience are developed from a four-year engagement process with Congregational Study/Action Issues (CSAIs) and congregational feedback to them. The 2018–2021 CSAI, voted on by the 2018 General Assembly in Kansas City, Missouri, was “Undoing Systemic White Supremacy.”
Earlier, the Commission on Social Witness conducted a poll to understand what congregations and groups are already doing to implement the spirit of the draft Statement of Conscience. Of 373 respondents, 221 reported doing some form of advocacy, for example, promoting laws or policy change; 355 were engaging in education within their congregation or group; 110 were engaging in education for the wider community; 94 were incubating new ways of doing things through pilot projects; and 121 were amplifying or advertising wider anti-oppression actions.
Throughout GA, UUA leadership and others emphasized the importance of engaging with the recommendations from the Commission on Institutional Change report, Widening the Circle of Concern on dismantling white supremacy and systemic racism.
Also throughout GA, the Article II Study Commission engaged constituents in its review of the UUA Bylaws Article II, Principles and Purposes, the foundation for all the UUA works, through workshops and virtual exhibits and a presentation and discussion during General Session.
In other business, delegates voted on six proposed bylaw changes:
On Friday, delegates adopted Amendment 1, requested by the Commission on Social Witness, which will allow Actions of Immediate Witness to be submitted via the UUA website and through UUA communications, rather than in-person at GA.
On Saturday, they adopted Amendment 5, which will allow delegates and trustees to register for, speak at, and vote at GA without necessarily needing to pay a registration fee. This allows the UUA to change the registration structure for GA delegates and business sessions as it considers different approaches to GA in future years. Having passed, the board will now adopt a rule defining how registration terms for GA and delegate participation will be set.
Amendment 6, which was also adopted, was requested by the Religious Education Credentialing Committee and will create more flexibility in the terms and levels of religious education credentialing by removing references to the current levels of credentialing.
Delegates voted to adopt two of three proposed bylaw amendments related to UUA elections. Amendment 2 adjusts deadlines and modernizes language to shorten election campaigns for UUA Moderator and President and better reflect the realities of campaigning. And Amendment 4 will allow a newly elected UUA president to take office as many as 45 days after their election, rather than immediately following the election. This time might be used to allow the president-elect to rest after a campaign, move their household, say goodbye to their congregation or employer, or make initial decisions about their administration at the UUA. The Board of Trustees will adopt a rule defining how the Board will set the start date in collaboration with the President-elect.
Proposed Amendment 3, which was not adopted, would have updated language to allow the Presidential Search Committee to nominate a single candidate for UUA president rather than multiple candidates.