Meeting in Cleveland, presidents of two denominations discuss combining progressive voices in public arena.
The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the UUA, traveled to the UCC headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio, along with several senior staff members to meet with the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, president and general minister of the UCC, and several of its senior staff.
Although a one-on-one meeting between the two presidents is not without precedent, it was the first time the two presidents met along with senior staff members to discuss specifics about how the two associations might work together, according to Black.
(In 2006, UUA President William G. Sinkford and the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president of the UCC, met at a forum to mark the bicentennial of the “Unitarian controversy,” which in the early 1800s divided the oldest congregations in Massachusetts into two traditions now represented by the UUA and the UCC.)
“It was a very important meeting,” said Black in a phone interview after the meeting. “It was pretty clear that we have a lot in common. A lot of common interests and a lot of potential for mutual sharing and work for the greater good.”
Morales agreed. “It was a delightful meeting, and we’re anxious to do it again,” he said. “Progressive people of faith need to be better about combining our voices in the public arena.”
The UCC serves 5,600 congregations with 1.2 million members, according to its website. The UUA serves 1,046 congregations with 162,796 members.
Though no specific plans emerged from the four-hour meeting, much discussion surrounded having UCC members attend public witness events in Phoenix, Ariz., at the UUA’s General Assembly in June 2012. In addition, both presidents hope to continue the conversation at a meeting at the UUA headquarters in Boston in the fall of 2012.
Members of both faith traditions have been active in immigration justice, and UCC staff were interested to learn about the 2012 GA’s focus on immigration and social justice. Black said that UCC staff would be looking into how they could coordinate having UCC members attend public witness events at GA. One event being considered by the GA Planning Committee is a vigil at Tent City, an outdoor jail maintained by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which has been criticized as inhumane and unconstitutional. “That would be a natural for a multifaith event,” Morales said.
Both presidents imagined what a combined rally would look like—with Unitarian Universalists wearing yellow Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts and UCC members wearing their red “God is Still Speaking” shirts. “What you are doing already is a powerful statement,” said Black, adding that it could be even more powerful if UCC members joined in.
The most prominent past collaboration between the two associations was the development of the Our Whole Lives (OWL) sexuality education curricula, which they developed together from 1992 to 2000.
The two associations often overlap in their social justice work, advocating for similar causes, such as marriage equality, and signing on to the same public statements. Last week, for example, both the UUA and the UCC came out in support of the Jan. 20 announcement by the United States Department of Health and Human Services that contraceptive services must be covered by most insurance policies without deductibles or co-pays, and that only purely sectarian organizations should be exempt.
The presidents’ conversation was several years in the works. Morales first reached out to set up a meeting with Black in 2009, after both had been elected president of their respective associations. Both presidents’ full schedules precluded a meeting. Black said he was reminded to respond to Morales’s invitation after Black met with the Rev. Debra Haffner, a UU minister and executive director of the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization that advocates for sexual health, education, and justice in faith communities and society.
Morales and Black found they have much common ground, both in terms of public outreach and institutional issues. “Some of the issues we face are very similar, so we really could empathize with each other around some of the challenges,” said Black. “We both have a polity where there is a very strong congregational base. It was interesting that we both spoke the same language.”
“They share our values, and we share a lot of history together,” said Morales. “We’re cousins, if you will. Maybe even brothers and sisters.”
Among the groups’ common interests discussed at the Tuesday meeting, Morales said, were ministerial credentialing issues and ensuring the success of minority ministers in congregations. Morales also shared the UUA’s recent Congregations and Beyond conversations about involving people outside of UUA congregations in the denomination, and said UCC staff were intrigued by it.
“I’m hoping that we can find creative and dynamic ways to come together and strengthen our voice in the public square,” said Black. “Quite often these days, the voice of progressive and liberal Christianity is drowned out.”
Morales stressed the importance of collaboration. “I want us to consistently ask ourselves the question: ‘Where are the opportunities for collaboration?’ I know from experience that when you pause and ask yourself that question, you start seeing opportunities.” He noted that of all the religious groups the UUA might collaborate with, the UCC is one of the easiest to begin with. “We can be a more powerful force for compassionate understanding in the world,” he said.
Morales was joined in Cleveland by three UUA colleagues: Taquiena Boston, director of Multicultural Growth and Witness; John Hurley, director of Communications; and the Rev. Keith Kron, transitions director of Ministries and Faith Development.
Representatives from the UCC included the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, and the Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries, both member of the UCC’s Collegium of Officers. Also included were the Rev. Holly MillerShank, team leader for Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization Ministry; Ann Hanson, minister for Sexuality Education and Justice; Derek Duncan, program associate for Global Advocacy and Education; the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations; and the Rev. Dr. Kimberly Whitney, minister for Community Life and assistant to the Collegium.
see below for links to related resources, including UCC coverage of the meeting.
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Michelle Bates Deakin, a member of First Parish Unitarian Universalist of Arlington, Massachusetts, was a UU World contributing editor from 2006 to 2011 and a UU World senior editor from 2011 to 2014. She is the author of Social Action Heroes: Unitarian Universalists Who Are Changing the World (Skinner House, 2011) and Gay Marriage, Real Life: 10 Stories of Love and Family (Skinner House, 2006).
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