Over 3,000 Unitarian Universalists danced, clapped, and engaged in moments of remembrance at the opening celebration of the 2017 UUA General Assembly Wednesday night in New Orleans.
Dancers—including New Orleanian and GA host Jolanda Walter—and a local six-person band led hundreds of UUs carrying their congregations’ banners through the aisles. Interim Co-President Sofía Betancourt was among those enthusiastically waving and dancing as the banner-carriers moved by. A dance circle broke out near the end of the banner parade that included black UUs Walter, Mtangulizi Sanyika, and Elandria Williams, as well as other participants of all ages and many racial identities.
The high energy banner celebration came after Acting Moderator Denise Rimes officially called the General Assembly to order. Rimes spoke briefly before asking Interim Co-Presidents Betancourt, William G. Sinkford, and Leon Spencer to come forward. Before the trio could speak, the assembly burst into applause, with thousands rising to their feet and others raising arms in appreciation of the interim leaders’ ministry.
The co-presidents, along with Rimes, honored the memory of former Moderator Jim Key, who died June 2 of cancer. “We hold Jim’s wife Liz and their whole family in this time,” Sinkford said.
The co-presidents also acknowledged the Rev. Peter Morales and his presidency, which ended abruptly after Morales resigned April 1 as controversy escalated over the UUA’s hiring practices and statements he made in response to charges that those policies reflect and perpetuate white supremacy in the Unitarian Universalist faith.
“We respect Peter’s decision, though we wish he had remained,” Spencer said. “Our faith insists that there are no surplus people, and that we can discard none of us without diminishing all of us,” Spencer concluded, to applause from the assembly.
Other speakers, including Right Relationship Team Co-Chair Steve Ballesteros, also alluded to the denomination's ongoing conversations around white supremacy, as well as to the national political climate, as challenges the General Assembly will face together.
Honoring ancestors played a large role in the opening ceremony. Trustees Sarah Dan Jones and Elandria Williams led a ritual of remembrance in which the assembly affirmed the life and worth of those who have died. Among those Jones and Williams named were Minnesotan Philando Castile and Seattle resident Charleena Lyles, both of whom were black people killed by police.
The Rev. Paul Beedle, a white man and minister at First UU Church of New Orleans, provided attendees with context about the lasting effects Hurricane Katrina, and what he and many New Orleanians call the “federal flood,” on the city, particularly for black residents. Ruth Idakula and the Rev. Deanna Vandiver, co-directors of the city’s Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR), also spoke during the worship and celebration. The CELSJR is housed inside First UU, and the organization has long helped Unitarian Universalists and others volunteer in New Orleans.
Beedle told the assembly, “Even today, it is not unusual for a survivor to share a storm story with a total stranger. Often, these last four years, that stranger has been me. This week, that stranger might be you.”
Melissa Monforti, a guitarist and vocalist, and a member of First Unitarian Society of Denver, led the hall in her song “Hand in Hand.” In addition to Monforti and the jazz band that played throughout the banner parade, musicians led UU favorites, including “Spirit of Life” and “There’s a River Flowin’ in My Soul.”
Ms. Terry Cummings spoke of her journey of faith and identity. Cummings said, to appreciative applause, “I am proud to be a trans woman. I am happy in my skin. . . . Using a public restroom is one example for me of an act of faith that the god of my understanding loves me.”
The Rev. Marisol Caballero provided reflections on courage and on white supremacy that resonated with many in the hall and on social media. “Courage recognizes that growth insists on a willingness to be utterly transformed,” Caballero said. “Courage does not ask us to stop trembling, it asks us to find ways to incorporate our trembles into our dance.”
The interim co-presidents closed the ceremony by lighting the chalice. “We are living the truth that resistance is what love looks like in the face of hate,” Spencer said.