“Welcome to General Assembly.” With these somberly delivered words, Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales opened the 2016 General Assembly of the UUA. Morales continued with remarks honoring the 49 people killed and 53 wounded at PULSE, an Orlando, Florida LGBTQ nightclub on June 12.
Eight members and staff of the First Unitarian Church of Orlando community came to the front of the stage, holding a banner and wearing purple shirts with multicolored hearts on them and the words “Orlando United.” Vocalists, including Mark David Buckles, sang “Comfort Me,” as attendees wiped away tears.
Among the Orlando group was Regina Knabe, director of religious education. Knabe spoke to UU World after the opening, saying the congregation she serves, just three miles from PULSE, experienced a standing-room-only turnout at Sunday worship on June 19. “A couple came up to me Sunday night at a vigil, seeing my Standing on the Side of Love shirt, and said, ‘We came to your church today. Thank you,’” Knabe said.
Referring to GA opening ceremonies, Knabe said, “We’re very honored to be recognized and have been up there.”
Morales then invited Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union of Reform Judaism, and Rev. John Dorhauer, president of the United Church of Christ, to the stage for remarks. GA’s theme—Heart Land: Where Faiths Connect—urges UUs to collaborate with people of other progressive faith groups.
“Each and every person is an image of God and there are no exceptions,” said Jacobs to extended applause. The gathering tensed after Jacobs urged those in attendance to vote against divestment.
Referencing the “Boycott, Divest, Sanction” (BDS) movement, Jacobs said that “the overwhelming majority of your American Jewish brothers and sisters oppose BDS because it is an effort ultimately to de-legitimize the very existence of the state of Israel.” There was some applause in response, while a handful of folks jeered and others murmured disapproval. Several UUs expressed frustration about Jacobs's remarks on Facebook and Twitter, calling the statement "ill-placed" and "not okay."
Months ago, UUs for Justice in the Middle East (UUJME) submitted a business resolution for GA 2016 seeking divestment from certain companies that are involved in the occupation of Palestine. The resolution received 1,700 signatures in support and was placed on the GA agenda, but in the meantime, the UUA sold any stock it owned in the companies because of a general human rights filter. However, the UUJME will be offering an amendment to the resolution at mini-assembly, seeking to direct the UUA to avoid investing in any such companies in the future.
The banner parade, in which representatives from hundreds of congregations steered woven signs around the hall to upbeat music provided by the GA band, then brought levity to the assembly. Vocalists encouraged the crowd to join in renditions of beloved UU hymns, and a multigenerational dance party broke out in the center section of the main hall.
Youth and young adults (YAs) of color played a large role in the ceremony. Eleven youth and YAs came to the stage immediately following the banner parade and sang, “Where Do We Come From/Where are We Going?” in a raucous round. Alison Butler-Córdova, a graduated high school senior from the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin, described the song as “the anthem” for several UU youth of color, who have come together at UUA-supported programs such as Multicultural Leadership School and Thrive.
Butler-Córdova described the group’s invitation to address the GA hall as “an opportunity to establish our presence, and announce that the work of our faith is combating racism and becoming more intersectional in the social justice work we do.”
Kamila A. Jacob and Aisha Ansano, east coast-based young adult religious professionals of color, closed the opening celebration with multiple charges to those gathered. Jacob and Ansano asked humanists to talk with members of the UU Christian Fellowship, and for theists “struggling with humanism” to attend one of several humanist-based workshops throughout the week. The duo then implored everyone to “experience discomfort and work through it,” whatever form it may take.
The Rev. Dawn Cooley of Louisville, Kentucky, who delivered the sermon for the opening ceremony, gave multiple shout outs to the work of youth and young adults of color. Cooley and others, including Harvard seminarian Sana Saeed, then closed the Wednesday evening celebration with a “together” litany, inviting attendees to live fully this General Assembly and experience community.
“Why do we do all this? Because we are better together.”
The ceremony closed with a raucous rendition of “We’re All in This Together,” a beloved song from the 2006 film High School Musical. Two dozen attendees came on stage and started yet another dance party.