On the second morning of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, celebration pushed the agenda aside when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its groundbreaking decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide. Delegates cheered and wept with joy. UUA Moderator Jim Key altered the planned programming to call couples onto the main stage of the Oregon Convention Center to celebrate together.
Yet the 2015 GA opened June 24 just one week after a white man massacred a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “The murder of nine black people in Charleston last week weighs heavily upon us,” said UUA President Peter Morales during the opening ceremony. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, began his sermon at GA’s Service of the Living Tradition by observing that the church year “stretched from Ferguson to Charleston.” Lena K. Gardner and the Rev. Danny Givens Jr.—Black Lives Matter activists from Minnesota and staff members of the UUA’s Church of the Larger Fellowship—led the prayer during Sunday’s worship service, GA’s largest event. They spoke the names of the nine Charleston victims and acknowledged five African American churches that had burned in the ten days since.
Urgent calls for racial justice pervaded GA. Guest speakers included the Rev. Osagyefo Sekou and Rasheen Aldridge, black activists from Ferguson, Missouri. Ten workshops and three GA Talks in the plenary hall focused on antiracism work and Black Lives Matter organizing. The UU Service Committee honored U.S. Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights movement veteran, at its 75th anniversary gala. And in an electrifying speech, Beacon Press author Cornel West urged UUs to respond to moral, economic, and environmental catastrophe by becoming “blues people.” “You’re not saviors and messiahs,” he told the crowd, “but I have a feeling . . . that we have got folk in this room who are willing to go down swinging like Ella Fitzgerald and Muhammad Ali.”
On its final afternoon, June 28, the General Assembly passed an Action of Immediate Witness (AIW) pledging support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “The fight for civil rights and equality is as real today as it was decades ago,” the AIW declares; it urges congregations to join the fight “for racial justice against the harsh racist practices to which many black people are exposed.”
Before they raised their voting cards in an overwhelming show of support for the AIW, delegates spent nearly two hours in a frustrating parliamentary process that left many feeling hurt. The debate aimed at clarifying the meaning of “prison abolition” in the draft AIW, which the Youth Caucus had written. Ultimately, delegates voted to suspend the rules long enough to allow an amendment that defined the term, even as some people of color and members of the Youth Caucus were talking about withdrawing support or leaving the hall. As passed, the AIW urges UUs “to work towards police reform and prison abolition, which seeks to replace the current prison system with a system that is more just and equitable.” After the final vote, delegates chanted, “Black lives matter! Black lives matter!”
A short time later, 200 people left the plenary hall for an unauthorized rally and die-in with local activists that briefly shut down a traffic intersection outside the convention center.
Throughout the week, temperatures soared into the high 90s, unusually hot for Portland in June—underscoring the urgency of climate justice, another major theme. GA’s climate justice focus culminated in a public witness event of speeches, music, and ritual organized by the UU coalition Commit2Respond with the Lummi Nation and other First Peoples from the Pacific Northwest. Delegates passed an AIW urging UU support for climate justice campaigns, including the Lummi Nation’s opposition to the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal, a coal export facility bordering its lands in Washington State.
The Rev. Cecilia Kingman, minister for families and faith development at the Edmonds, Washington, UU Church, acknowledged the emotional complexity of the week during her closing ceremony sermon. “We have rejoiced together, mourned together, struggled together,” she said. “At moments we have disagreed or perhaps even hurt one another. This has been a difficult GA for many of us, particularly for our people of color,” she said. “Help us remember we are all whole and broken, just as every human institution is whole and broken.”
GA 2015 “was a great experience,” said David Clopton, who attended with twenty-three fellow members of the Boise, Idaho, UU Fellowship. “I felt inundated with moving services and great people.”
Debbie Johnson, also from the Boise fellowship, said that celebrating the historic Supreme Court decision with other UUs, who have worked so long for marriage equality, felt like a “renewed awakening of the work we’ve done and what still needs doing.” This GA’s overriding themes, for her, were “our faith’s love and acceptance.”
With 4,508 in attendance, including more than 300 youth, this year’s GA drew a smaller crowd than the last time the UUA gathered in Portland, in 2007. But organizers aren’t complaining: it was still the third largest gathering of UUs in the past ten years. Together, they cheered the annual parade of congregational banners, sang thousands-strong with the GA band, and donated more than $157,000 in three collections. They gave $71,560 to the UUA’s Living Tradition Fund, which aids ministers in financial need; $66,933 to the Reentry Transition Center in Portland, which assists people after their release from prison; and $18,860 to establish a scholarship fund to help UUs from traditionally marginalized groups attend GA as delegates.
And GA celebrated the addition of five new congregations, more than in any other year since 2008. The new congregations are All Souls in Miami, Florida; Iowa Lakes UU Fellowship in Okoboji, Iowa; Open Door UU Fellowship in Owensboro, Kentucky; St. Croix UU Fellowship in St. Croix Falls, Wisconsin; and the UU Bay de Noc Fellowship in Escanaba, Michigan. Trustee James Snell reported that a dozen other groups are moving into an “intentional relationship” with the UUA as “covenanting communities,” a new category for affinity groups that want to affiliate with the UUA without becoming member congregations.
There was power in numbers, whether the mood was ecstatic or somber. Before attending a quickly assembled lunchtime rally celebrating the Supreme Court marriage equality decision, many UUs gathered around televisions in the convention center lobby to watch President Obama’s eulogy for the Hon. Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a South Carolina state senator and senior pastor of Emanuel AME Church, who was murdered with eight of his parishioners. When the president concluded his blunt address by singing “Amazing Grace,” scores of UUs joined in, filling the halls of the convention center with their voices.
Many GA workshops had already been planned around the theme of racial justice, but current events pushed the theme to the front of other events, too. The Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, had planned to speak about the multireligious reality of today’s Unitarian Universalism in a school-sponsored workshop. Instead, she changed her focus in the wake of the Charleston murders. “Are you ready to face the ugly voice that is planted in your head and maybe your heart,” she challenged her audience, “and repent, turn away from the white supremacist culture you were taught not to notice, and turn toward the new way that we could build together?” Starr King’s exhibit hall booth offered black “Black Lives Matter” kerchiefs; the UUSC passed out hundreds of white wristbands bearing the motto “Black Lives Matter to Unitarian Universalists.”
Chris Crass, a white antiracism activist and author from Tennessee, told a packed ballroom, “The question for us as Unitarian Universalists is not how many people of color we can get in our pews. It’s how much damage can we do to white supremacy?”
The Black Lives Matter panels “brought the issue home for me,” said Debbie Johnson from Boise. “It seems like we are in a civil rights movement, phase two.”
For Alice Mandt, a black UU young adult from Madison, Wisconsin, conversations about ending white supremacy and a “focus on direct action” struck her as particularly prominent themes during GA. “It’s part of our faith to focus more on putting values into action and exploring what that will look like,” she said.
In addition to the Black Lives Matter and climate justice AIWs, delegates also approved a UUA Statement of Conscience on reproductive justice, voicing support for a broad framework that “espouses the human right to have children, not to have children, to parent the children one has in healthy environments, and to safeguard bodily autonomy and to express one’s sexuality freely.” The statement, the result of three years of congregational study and action, explicitly acknowledges that “reproductive justice” is a concept developed by women of color. And delegates passed a third AIW calling for the closure of Immigration and Customs Enforcement family detention centers.
Delegates also amended UUA bylaws to allow districts and regions flexibility in determining their governance structures, and placed new campaign spending limits on UUA presidential elections. (The next UUA president will be elected in 2017.) But delegates rejected a proposed bylaw amendment that would have made the Commission on Appraisal a smaller appointed committee of the Board of Trustees rather than an independent body elected by GA. Current bylaws charge the COA with reviewing any function of the Association that it believes would benefit from an independent review. Even though the current members of the COA and the board supported the change, a majority voted against it after delegates expressed concerns that the commission would lose its historical role as an independent voice within Unitarian Universalism.
One bit of bad luck provided a recurring comic motif throughout GA. A pallet of supplies from Boston—including delegate ribbons, choir stoles, committee T-shirts, collection baskets, and some staff iPads—never made it to Portland. Many speakers alluded to the lost pallet, while commending the GA staff and planning committee for nimbly improvising. “This is a good week to practice our theology,” said Moderator Jim Key, as he alerted the crowd to the missing pallet during the opening ceremony. “We are more than our ribbons!” UUA staff purchased colored bandanas to replace missing T-shirts for GA volunteers and borrowed pillowcases from the Doubletree Hotel where they were staying to use in place of the lost collection baskets.
The preacher at Sunday’s worship service, the Rev. Alison Miller, senior minister of the Morristown, New Jersey, Unitarian Fellowship, shared the story of how she survived an experimental treatment for a rare and deadly form of cancer that ravaged her arm when she was 16. “I was held by our religion without easy answers,” she said, “and this reflected real life.” Her youth group, from All Souls Church in New York City, sometimes met in the pediatric oncology ward; 150 people from the congregation donated blood in her name.
Years later, Miller said, she instinctively reached out to people “with my ‘good’ arm” when she was a hospital chaplain, never with the arm that bears scars from her treatment. One day, she met a patient with the same cancer who asked her to pray for her. “For the first time it felt right to reach out with my left arm. I opened the fingers as far as I am able, and placed them on her shoulder. I knew in an instant that I had the story wrong. This is my strong arm,” she said, raising her arm, “the one that knows something about withstanding pain and loss. . . . I never thought of it as my ‘bad’ arm again.
“Together, your strength and my weakness, my strength and your weakness, can make a way through turbulent waters,” Miller concluded. “Let us learn to tell a new story!”
The UUA honored the Rev. Clark Olsen, one of Miller’s predecessors at the Morristown fellowship, with the 2015 Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. Olsen has had a long and varied career but is perhaps best known for having survived the 1965 attack in Selma, Alabama, that killed the Rev. James Reeb. Reading from the award citation, the Rev. Mark Ward told Olsen, “In this fiftieth anniversary year of the events in Selma, we have been proud to see you lifted up as an exemplar of our faith, one who followed the call to justice, who showed up, and despite injury and intimidation remained a generous and compassionate leader in the cause of freedom and justice.”
Olsen said, “I feel awed and grateful that, made as we are from the stardust of Creation, inherent in all of us is the desire to love others and to embrace efforts to bring more justice into this world.”
President Morales honored another civil rights veteran, the Rev. Gordon D. Gibson, with the annual President’s Award for Volunteer Service. Gibson is one of the founders of the Living Legacy Project, which leads civil rights pilgrimage tours through the Southeast. Its “Marching in the Arc of Justice” conference this spring drew 500 Unitarian Universalists to Birmingham and Selma, Alabama, to mark the anniversary of the Selma campaign.
The UUA also honored the Rev. Ginger Luke, minister emerita at River Road UU Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, with the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education. Luke is known to several generations of UUs for the affirmation, “We are Unitarian Universalists, with minds that think, hearts that love, and hands that are ready to serve.”
But who are we ready to serve? In the Berry Street Address to the UU Ministers Association just before GA opened, the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison described a conversation with a clergy friend. “I had to leave the ministry because I could no longer serve the over-served,” his friend told him. The comment has challenged Dennison ever since.
We UUs have “inherited a tradition and a culture that have been aligned with the over-served, the privileged, the powerful,” said Dennison, minister of Tree of Life UU Congregation in McHenry, Illinois. “While privilege confers power and status and opportunity, it proscribes certain kinds of awareness and relationships . . . The system is insidious and persistent; it tells us to continually rank and judge people . . . This system has taught us that our value comes from our proximity to perfection.”
Driven by perfectionism, and fearing failure, we embrace safety, Dennison said. “I long for us to be claimed by a mission that is bold and huge and daring,” he said, by a mission “so audacious that it demands we lay aside our culture of caution, our desire to prove our efficacy, and our fear of failure.” He mused: “Maybe our mission could be: Unitarian Universalists show up.”
After the rally and die-in on GA’s final afternoon, protesters marched back into the convention center chanting “Black lives matter!” The closing ceremony was already underway. Elandria Williams, GA coordinator for druumm (Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries) from Knoxville, Tennessee, helped quiet the crowd outside the plenary hall: “We can chant this all day, but what really matters is that we take this energy home with us and are willing to do this work in our churches and schools and our own cities.”
Additional reporting by Sonja L. Cohen, Kenneth Sutton, and Kenny Wiley. See uuworld.org/ga for expanded coverage and flickr.com/uuworld for additional photos.