The Unitarian Universalist Association elects a president focused on helping congregations adapt to a changing society.
The General Assembly in Salt Lake City decisively elected the Rev. Peter Morales as the next president of the UUA, endorsing his platform of adapting Unitarian Universalism to an increasingly multicultural society. Morales, 62, who was senior minister of Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, won 59 percent of the vote over the Rev. Dr. Laurel Hallman, former senior minister of First Unitarian Church of Dallas.
As voters left the polling place on June 27, they told UU World that they were attracted to Morales for his business experience outside Unitarian Universalism, his experience working on the UUA staff, and his enthusiasm for multiculturalism and for improving the way our congregations welcome visitors. (Before going to seminary in 1996 and being ordained in 1999, Morales was a newspaper editor and publisher and, before that, a regional manager in California state government. He was the UUA director of district services from 2002 to 2004.)
“I think he’s the person to help us become more multicultural. He doesn’t just talk multicultural, he’s lived it,” said Harriette Porter of Channing UU Church in Edmond, Oklahoma. Morales grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Texas and has also lived and worked in Peru and Spain. He is the UUA’s first Latino president.
Morales received 2,061 votes to 1,481 for Hallman. He received 55 percent (1,020) of the absentee votes and 61 percent (1,041) of the votes cast at GA itself. After the election results were announced, Hallman addressed GA: “I will be happy to put [the campaign] behind me now,” she said, “to regather our liberal religious movement together from two hard-working campaigns back into one free faith, one association of free congregations, all of us united by our love for Unitarian Universalism.”
Shortly after his win, Morales told UU World, “The breadth of our message is very appealing, but we need to become more culturally diverse in our forms of expression in order to reach the millions of people who share our theology and values.” He added, “I so want to see our faith become much more multicultural and open to other ways of expressing the same fundamental values.”
The General Assembly offered several chances to experience Unitarian Universalism in different languages and cultural styles: In one worship service, people sang “Spirit of Life” in four languages (Spanish, Hungarian, the Indian language Khasi, and English). Delegates also had several opportunities to sing from a new Spanish-language UUA hymn supplement, Las Voces del Camino, which includes 75 songs in Spanish, including many translated from Singing the Living Tradition. [Update: After the Fall issue of UU World was mailed, the UUA discovered serious errors in Las Voces del Camino and withdrew it. A corrected edition is planned.]
At the Sunday morning worship service, the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, who grew up in India and is now minister of the Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, Florida, called on UUs to embrace the pluralism of a “world of strangers” and to welcome people like himself who have a “multi-hyphenated identity.”
“The center of Unitarian Universalism lies outside of itself, in the stranger, in difference rather than in similarity,” Janamanchi said. “In our faith, the margins hold the center.”
At GA, the UUA also stepped up its advocacy of immigration reform and unveiled its new public advocacy campaign, “Standing on the Side of Love” (SSL), which promotes the inherent dignity and worth of every person. Amid “Standing on the Side of Love” signs and banners, the UUA hosted an interfaith rally for the rights of immigrant families in downtown Salt Lake City on June 26. At the rally, Larry Love, a leader in a local Spanish-speaking Mormon congregation, spoke about the financial and emotional toll that immigration policies take on families. His wife, from Guatemala, is awaiting deportation; her three children are U.S. citizens.
UUA President William G. Sinkford, speaking at his last public witness event as president, called for an immediate end to raids by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and for “just and comprehensive immigration reform.” SSL volunteers in bright yellow T-shirts handed out postcards inviting people to pledge to stand on the side of immigrant families.
At the General Assembly convention center, a 70-foot “Standing on the Side of Love” banner hung over the main entrance, but a thunderstorm ripped it off the glass tower after the downtown rally, shattering several panes of glass. No one was hurt. The next night, SSL volunteers and handed out pieces of the banner as mementos as delegates arrived for the Ware Lecture, the GA’s keynote address.
The Ware Lecturer, UU Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African American studies at Princeton University, said that Unitarian Universalists are uniquely positioned to make a difference in our multicultural society. Unlike other religions, she said, we don’t claim to be a special people or to have a single special book or set of laws. “We stand here together today to make the most ridiculous, unlikely, and powerful faith claim of all—that we can join together to make a world that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every single human being and that we can make that world using the power of love.”
Delegates to the 48th General Assembly, which met June 24-28, considered a variety of proposals for transforming the UUA. Former UUA Moderator Denise Davidoff introduced the work of the Board-appointed “Fifth Principle Task Force,” which will propose sweeping changes to the General Assembly itself next year. She said the current system is not truly democratic, with self-funded and often self-selected delegates who may not hold leadership roles in their congregations. “We should get serious about governing ourselves democratically,” Davidoff said, “or I will move in 2010 that we rescind the Fifth Principle until we can prove we are democratically represented.”
Among the changes under consideration: a biennial GA with fewer delegates (no more than four per congregation) who are fully funded and who are authorized to speak on behalf of their congregations; moving GA from June to August; providing childcare and communal meals; and setting up non-business conferences during alternate years. The task force will present its final report to the Board of Trustees in April 2010, and delegates at next year’s GA in Minneapolis will vote on the changes.
The Board of Trustees is also proposing changes to the way the UUA elects its president and moderator. If the 2010 GA approves the board’s proposal, an elected presidential nominating committee would select two candidates to run for a single six-year term as president; the board would nominate a candidate for a six-year term as moderator. Candidates currently seek both offices without a nominating committee and can serve two four-year terms. The board placed the necessary bylaw amendments in the 2009 Business Agenda so delegates could discuss them, but the proposals won’t come up for a vote until next year.
Delegates resisted some of the changes that did come up for a vote this year, however. The Commission on Appraisal’s proposal to revise Article II of the UUA Bylaws (the “Principles and Purposes”) failed by only thirteen votes. The commission had drafted a new version of Article II after a three-year review that generated more than 3,000 comments about the merits and weaknesses of the current Principles and Purposes. Its new version would have to have been approved by two consecutive General Assemblies for adoption.
Several organizations—the Youth Caucus, the Young Adult Caucus, and UU Ministry for Earth—endorsed the new language, and the Board of Trustees urged delegates to vote for it in order to get congregations talking about the proposed revision before a final vote next year. Several speakers also praised the proposal’s new section on “Inclusion,” which they said expressed the Association’s commitments to antiracism and multiculturalism more fully than the current “Anti-Discrimination” section.
At a miniassembly the night before the vote, opponents of the revision significantly outnumbered supporters. Most objected to the replacement of the “Six Sources” section of the current bylaws with three new paragraphs. The Rev. Roger Brewin, minister of First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, said, “What bothers me most is what’s missing—the poetry.”
Michael Hart, a delegate from First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, said the loss of specific language about “earth-centered traditions” in the Sixth Source hurt him: “As a UU pagan, it’s a blow in the solar plexus, a punch in the gut.”
Several speakers noted that many UU resources, including religious education curricula and the Singing the Living Tradition hymnal, are organized using the language of the Six Sources. The Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley, a minister at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden, Colorado, referred to the performance at the 2008 General Assembly of the Rev. Jason Shelton’s “Sources” cantata. “No one would ever have written a cantata” using the new text, Woodliff-Stanley said.
During the plenary debate Saturday morning, June 27, a steady stream of delegates approached the procedural microphone to express confusion about the bylaws’ ban on any amendments to the proposed text. UUA Moderator Gini Courter explained several times that Article XV forbids any amendments at GA to a revision of Article II—including attempts to vote on individual portions of the proposal—and said that a new revision cannot be brought before the General Assembly for two years if this revision failed. She also confirmed that the Commission on Appraisal has finished its work on revising Article II and won’t pursue further revisions at this time.
The initial vote was too close to call, so Courter called for a count. The motion to adopt was defeated 573 to 586.
After the Article II revision failed, delegates adopted several responsive resolutions during the final business session on June 29 in an effort to resolve what had happened. One resolution asked the Board of Trustees to review Article XV, the section that forbids delegates from amending proposed revisions to Article II. Another invited congregations to embrace the proposed “Inclusion” section by working to replace barriers for persons and groups with particular identities, ages, abilities, and histories, and to report on their actions before next GA. Another asked the board to place the “Inclusion” section on the agenda of a future GA. And still another asked the board to consider facilitating an ongoing discussion about the proposed changes until a new revision comes up for a vote.
The Rev. Barbara Child, who chaired the review process for the Commission on Appraisal, said she wasn’t especially surprised that delegates declined to approve the changes. “As an interim minister, I’ve seen lots of reluctance to change,” she said, but added, “The longer Article II goes without change, the more likely it is to be treated as a creed.”
On the last day of GA, UUA Moderator Gini Courter, who was elected to a second four-year term, told GA participants they should prepare for making “increasingly complex decisions” in the years ahead. “The folks who gather here should be leaders . . . because the kinds of things that will be voted on in the next few years are going to change the basis on which we gather, change the basis on which we elect officers, change the size of your representative board. This is some of the biggest business . . . since the consolidation of Unitarians and Universalists. In fact, some of it is the business they were afraid to do forty-eight years ago.”
The economic recession tempered GA somewhat, with the UUA sending fewer staff and offering fewer workshops, but 3,349 people registered this year, including 145 youth and 1,928 delegates from 571 of the UUA’s 1,050 congregations. Jan Sneegas, director of General Assembly and conference services, estimated that the economy hurt attendance by 600 to 700 people.
For the first time since its launch in 2006, a program called “UU University” for congregational leaders was incorporated into GA rather than held as a miniconference beforehand. This year, every GA participant was asked to sign up for one of six UU University “tracks”—stewardship, multigenerational ministry, creating multicultural communities, governance, justice, and theology. No other programming was offered during the nine hours dedicated to UU University sessions over two days.
The Rev. Harlan Limpert, UUA director for congregational life, said the new format did not work as well as expected and will be changed next year. “Nine hours turned out to be just too intense for many people,” he said. A bright spot was the theology track, led by the Rev. Dr. Galen Guengerich, senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls, New York City. “We had nearly 1,000 people sign up for it, and at the end of nine hours people still seemed enthralled,” said Limpert.
The General Assembly raised money for several important causes. A collection for the Living Tradition Fund, which supports ministerial students, reduces student debt for new clergy, and provides aid to ministers in need, raised $69,886 during the Friday evening Service of the Living Tradition. The collection during the Sunday morning worship service raised more than $30,000 for the Utah Pride Center, which serves gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth and adults with a variety of programs.
Two other collections raised money to support initiatives championed by departing President William G. Sinkford, whose second term ended with Morales’s election on June 27. More than $18,000 was raised for the newly created President William G. Sinkford Fund, a scholarship fund for seminarians and ministers of color or those who are Latino/Latina. And almost $19,000 was donated to the President’s Freedom to Marry Fund, which supports same-sex marriage advocacy.
GA was a weeklong goodbye to Sinkford. The farewells began on the opening night, when Sinkford gave his final report as president. Among his accomplishments, he cited a new vision of ministry for youth and young adults, the increased racial diversity of UU ministers, a highly visible public witness effort, especially on marriage equality, and the successful completion of a $50 million capital campaign with contributions from 24,000 people. He gave thanks to the many people who helped make his presidency successful. “There are no solo acts in ministry,” he said. This fall Sinkford will become senior minister and advisor to the UU Urban Ministry in Boston.
At a reception for UUA donors, the Grammy-winning a capella group The Persuasions performed as a thank-you to Sinkford, who called them his favorite group. Donors made special contributions to bring the group to GA.
The 2009 General Assembly was the UUA’s second visit to Salt Lake City in ten years. Some UUs expressed dismay about holding GA in the capital city of Mormonism after the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints came out forcefully in favor of California’s Proposition 8, the successful ballot initiative that ended same-sex marriage there. The Rev. Lindi Ramsden, executive director of the UU Legislative Ministry of California, which led the UU campaign against Proposition 8, thanked GA participants for their help in opposing the measure. After others noted that LDS members had given unstintingly of their time and money to block same-sex marriage, Ramsden said, “I invite UUs to be more like Mormons. We’re at a tipping point where we need all of us who care deeply about this issue to step forward.”
Despite their differences over same-sex marriage, Mormons and Unitarian Universalists are finding some ways to work together. On June 25, President Sinkford, the Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of First Unitarian Church of Salt Lake City, and John Hurley, UUA director of communications, met with Elder M. Russell Ballard of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
Goldsmith said the meeting was “very harmonious.” “Certainly we talked about Proposition 8,” he said. “Elder Ballard assured us they have no acrimony toward the GLBT community. They are concerned about same-sex marriage infringing on individual religious freedom.”
Although UUs and Mormons are unlikely to find much common ground on same-sex marriage, Goldsmith added, “The meeting was helpful to our local congregations. I believe that because of it there will be more of an inclination for us to work together on some issues such as immigrant rights and the well-being, especially, of children of GLBT families.”
Goldsmith said that GA “energized my congregation. For many members it was the first opportunity to feel connected to the larger movement.”
The General Assembly also helped UUs feel more connected to Utah’s history. During the opening ceremony, Sinkford described the little-known history of Unitarian involvement with the Ute Indians. He explained that, after the Civil War, when tribes had been moved onto reservations, U.S. President Ulysses Grant asked various religious groups to take responsibility for particular tribes. The American Unitarian Association accepted responsibility for the Northern Ute people, then living in Colorado.
The results were tragic, Sinkford said. Although the Unitarian ministers assigned to the Ute people attempted to protect them “and did somewhat less damage” than some other denominations, Sinkford said, they still had a hand in the ultimate loss of Ute lands as the tribe was forced to move to the territory that became Utah.
Sinkford asked two Ute representatives, Forrest Cuch and Clifford Duncan, for forgiveness. Cuch said, “I thank you for that and I join with you in this reconciliation on behalf of all of our people.”
The UUA’s shared history with the Utes was uncovered as the result of a responsive resolution passed at GA two years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Resolution, which called on the UUA and congregations to uncover and acknowledge historical wrongs they have done to African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and other groups, and to work toward reconciliation with those groups.
GA ended on June 28 with the installation of President Morales and other elected leaders, who ran in uncontested races. During the ceremony, Sinkford shared advice with Morales from each of the living former presidents and placed his stole around his successor’s neck. He then sat beside Morales as the new president’s family, the Board of Trustees, ministers, and lay leaders gathered around him to place their hands on him for a blessing.
The Rev. Victoria Safford then led the General Assembly in prayer, saying, “May our Association thrive through Peter’s tenure, our movement grow deeper, stronger, broader in spirit. Our calling, one by one and as a gathered people, is to grow our souls and serve the world.”
President Morales delivered the benediction. “We are one people united by what we love,” he said: “We love compassion, we love life, we love freedom, we love justice, and we love one another. That love endures. Candidates, resolutions, and General Assemblies come and go. Love endures. And love will guide us.”
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Donald E. Skinner was the founding editor of the InterConnections newsletter for congregational leaders and a senior editor of UU World from 1998 until his retirement in 2014. He is a member of the Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church in Lenexa, Kansas.
Christopher L. Walton is editor of UU World. He holds degrees from Harvard Divinity School and the University of Utah and is a member of the Church of the Larger Fellowship.