Annual gathering draws 4,398 to St. Louis, donates $31,886 to local youth agency.
Meeting in St. Louis June 21-25, 2,210 delegates from 623 Unitarian Universalist congregations also approved significant changes to the denomination's social witness process. In amending the bylaws governing the General Assembly's social witness resolutions, delegates extended the "study/action" period that generates statements of conscience from two to four years. The change gives congregations more time to organize educational and advocacy efforts at the local, regional, and denominational level. To help maintain focus on the study/action issue, delegates also limited the introduction of a new study/action issue to once every two years.
Susan Smith, a member of the UUA Commission on Social Witness, told delegates that the changes could "release us, and the congregations, from what has turned out to be a social–witness hamster wheel."
Only one new study/action issue qualified for consideration at this year's sessions, and it was adopted without discussion. "Peacemaking"—which asks congregations to study the question, "Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?"—will be the first study/action issue in the new four–year process. No new study/action issues will be entertained until 2008.
The General Assembly drew 4,398 people to America's Center in St. Louis for five days of workshops, lectures, worship services, parties, business meetings, and exhibits. GA–goers contributed $31,886 to the Lift for Life Gym, a social service agency that helps at–risk children in St. Louis, in this year's General Assembly service project.
The two highest–profile events at GA this year were Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Mary Oliver's Ware Lecture and Sunday morning's worship service, with a rousing sermon by the Rev. Gail Geisenhainer.
Oliver, whose poetry is published by the UUA's Beacon Press, read quietly from her work at Saturday night's lecture. In his introduction, UUA President William G. Sinkford said that "no one source is used more frequently or more effectively [in Unitarian Universalist worship services] than the writings of Mary Oliver."
Geisenhainer, who serves as minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Florida, preached about her first visit to a Unitarian Universalist church in the mid–1980s, where she fully expected to be turned away for being an out lesbian. "I carefully arranged my outfit so it would highlight the rock–hard chip I carried on my shoulder," she recalled; "I bundled up every shred of pain and hurt and betrayal I had harbored from every other religious experience in my life, and I lumbered into that tiny meetinghouse on the coast of Maine."
She described the way members of that congregation reached out to her through simple, friendly gestures—and how those gestures kept her coming back even after another member of the congregation said something profoundly hurtful about homosexuals in a worship service. "In the throes of awful moments, in the slap of insult, the breaking through realizations of injustice, disrespect, unkindness, hatred and worse . . .," Geisenhainer said, "all sense of movement stops. Instinctively, some of us begin to hold our breath." In those breath–stopping moments, she continued, we lose sight of other people as people and become antagonists.
She urged UUs to take a deep breath and step back from antagonistic dismissals of others within their own congregations. And she called on Unitarian Universalists to be bold enough to invite people to come to church with them. "It is time to get the salvific message of our Unitarian Universalist faith out of our congregations," she proclaimed, "out of our isolated hearts, out past our hesitations, limitations, frustrations, complacency, and consternations."
Other prominent speakers included NPR correspondent and Wicca practitioner Margot Adler; the Rev. Barry Lynn, head of Americans United for Separation of Church and State; and the Rev. Dr. William Schulz, until recently the executive director of Amnesty International USA and former president of the UUA.
The General Assembly's theme, "Toward Right Relationship," threaded its way through the proceedings from the ingathering meetings for delegates to the closing ceremony, where it was the subject of UUA President William G. Sinkford's remarks. And delegates dealt with real–time challenges in this area, as some youth of color found themselves treated less favorably than whites at GA events. Their representatives addressed a plenary session about their experiences on Sunday afternoon, and UUA Moderator Gini Courter departed from her prepared report to address their concerns and broader UU concerns about racial justice.
As Courter was preparing to gavel the Assembly to a close, a delegate introduced a responsive resolution about her remarks. The Assembly promptly adopted a resolution urging delegates to help their congregations sponsor programs addressing racism or classism before the next General Assembly.
In other business, the General Assembly adopted five Actions of Immediate Witness, which are social witness resolutions presented to the delegates by petition:
Delegates rejected AIW–1, which would have called for the creation of a U.S. Department of Peace. (A similar AIW had passed in 2002.)
Many delegates and supporters of the UU Service Committee were surprised when two proposed Actions of Immediate Witness related to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were not presented to the delegates by the Commission on Social Witness. Members of the CSW said that they believed the resolutions did not have adequate support in a straw poll conducted during Friday's plenary session. One proposed AIW was sponsored by delegates from the partner churches to the UU congregations in New Orleans. The other was sponsored by the UU Service Committee defending workers' rights in Gulf Coast reconstruction.
Advocates were surprised because the UUSC and the UUA raised $3.5 million for Gulf Coast relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina and are providing financial support to many service and advocacy groups in Louisiana and Mississippi. Friday night's plenary session was largely given over to a celebration of UU assistance in the Gulf Coast region.
Frustrated advocates of the two Gulf Coast resolutions worked together on a responsive resolution to the President's Report, which they introduced during Sunday's plenary. Delegates approved the resolution, which calls for a just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast.
Delegates also encouraged congregations to sign up for the UUA's new nationwide insurance program for congregational employees and modified the Association's bylaws to clarify term limits for board and commission members.
The General Assembly thanked retiring UUA treasurer Jerry Gabert for his ten years of service and bid farewell to the Rev. David Hubner, who retired as director of the Association's Department of Ministry and Professional Leadership at the end of GA. Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery introduced the Rev. Beth Miller, who will succeed Hubner, and Tim Brennan, who has been appointed the UUA's new treasurer and vice president of finance.
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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.