‘We have all been charged’

UUs marched in a “second line” parade through New Orleans at General Assembly, June 23 2017.

At the General Assembly in New Orleans, Unitarian Universalists find hopeful signs in a time of surprising change.

Image: UUs marched in a “second line” parade through New Orleans on June 23 (© 2017 Nancy Pierce).

© 2017 Nancy Pierce


There was the noise—there’s no word more precise—made by thousands as the Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs announced on June 24 that the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray had just been elected president of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Gasps, cheers, and some audible disappointment from the supporters of the two other candidates mingled in the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans, where over 4,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered for the UUA General Assembly, June 21–25. As the cheers continued, Frederick-Gray placed her right hand over her heart and gazed solemnly out at the crowd before turning to look appreciatively at the youth and young adults gathered for their bridging ceremony on the stage behind her.

There was the heat bearing down on, and emanating from, a parade of hundreds—mostly UUs—who followed the Young & Talented Brass Band and the Original Big 7 Social Aid and Pleasure Club through city streets in a traditional “second line” procession, carrying parasols and “Love Resists” signs. Jolanda Walter, the local site coordinator for GA, who described herself as “fully black, fully UU,” joyously danced at the front of the march through the city that’s been her home for two decades.

There was the laughter that filled the air so many times throughout GA: at a raucous Saturday night gathering of black UUs; at the Service of the Living Tradition, as the Rev. Cheryl M. Walker read her colleagues’ responses to a Facebook query, “Badly Describe Your Job” (the sermon starts at 1:15:10 in the video); and in the hallways as friends young and old, GA veterans and newcomers alike, shared stories.

There was the fear that something unpleasant or even terrible would happen, that Unitarian Universalism’s profoundly unusual 2017—with the April resignations of President Peter Morales and two other top UUA leaders following allegations of white supremacy in hiring practices, followed by the May resignation and June death of Moderator Jim Key—would spill over to GA, and that all-out conflict would erupt. Instead, many found the overall feeling one of hope and optimism for a different future. “I was worried about coming, but this was the best GA in decades,” said the Rev. Gail Seavey, lead minister of First UU Church of Nashville, Tennessee.

There were both pain and prayers: pain as two UUA staff, Tim Byrne and James Curran, were violently robbed June 24 near the French Quarter, and prayers during GA’s Sunday morning service for their healing. In the weeks following GA, Frederick-Gray prayed, too, for the healing of the four perpetrators of the attack.

On eight-hour caravans from Austin and Nashville, on trains and planes from every state, UUs traveled to New Orleans carrying anxieties, curiosity, frustrations, hopes, and more. Ongoing conversations about white supremacy culture, a UUA presidential election, and concerns about the expected heat, rain, and humidity had some wondering nervously what “GA Week” would bring to Unitarian Universalism this year.

From the packed Sunday morning worship to small, informal gatherings, and from the more than 400 workshops to Bryan Stevenson’s deeply moving Ware Lecture, GA 2017 was infused, perhaps surprisingly, with an upbeat Zeitgeist during a time of transformation for Unitarian Universalism.

“I tell you what. It feels good to know white people are willing to take responsibility for what they know and don’t know, and as a black woman, I can begin to open trust,” said Nicole Ogundare, ministry and life events coordinator at All Souls Unitarian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In an unprecedented model of collaborative leadership in the UUA presidency, three interim co-presidents served together for eleven weeks between Morales’s resignation and the election of Frederick-Gray. Interim Co-Presidents Sofía Betancourt, William G. Sinkford, and Leon Spencer received long standing ovations when they took the stage to open GA on Wednesday night, June 21, and again the next day when they participated in a moderated discussion about their presidency and hopes for the faith movement.

There was also shared leadership, for the first time, in the moderator position, as three UUA trustees—Gregory Boyd, Kathy Burek, and Elandria Williams—presided over discussions and debates in general session, a co-leadership model that many delegates said was very successful. Denise Rimes, who was named as acting moderator after Key resigned for health reasons on May 13, presided over GA celebrations with humor and warmth. (Read Jim Key’s obituary and coverage of a GA memorial service for him.)

This GA was the first in forty years to feature a three-way race for UUA president, the first to use electronic voting, and, most notably, the first ever with only women candidates. Frederick-Gray became the first woman elected president of the UUA when she defeated the Rev. Jeanne Pupke and the Rev. Alison Miller.

Frederick-Gray was formally installed as president late Sunday afternoon, GA’s final day. Sinkford charged her—and all UUs—to “not let this opportunity slip away.” Betancourt offered a prayer during a “laying on of hands” ceremony, a common ritual in UU ordinations and ministerial installations. Frederick-Gray’s family and colleagues—and, gradually, everyone in the hall—came forward to lay hands upon someone near them, creating a web of people sending good energy to the new president. The Rev. Joan Javier-Duval tweeted from the back of the Great Hall that the installation was “one of the most powerful moments of my history as a UU. We have all been charged.”

‘Resist and Rejoice!” was the official title of this year’s GA, and a focus on racial justice and a commitment to dismantling white supremacy were pervasive.

To encourage more UUs of color to attend GA, the Board of Trustees authorized using $180,000 from the General Assembly reserve for financial assistance to approximately 200 applicants. The UUA invited the 4,092 people who registered for GA to complete a survey about their racial and ethnic identity, and of the 2,660 who responded, 2,188 (82 percent) identified as white (non-Hispanic or -Latinx). Of the 488 respondents (18 percent) who identified as people of color, 223 identified as black.

In airport terminals nationwide in the days leading up to GA, some UUs played the game “Find the UU,” in which people try to spot middle-aged or older white people donning stereotypically “UU” apparel—say, fanny packs and Birkenstocks with pro-diversity T-shirts. In a GA workshop on anti-blackness, one black participant in a small group wondered aloud, “What if more and more people of color came to our faith and went to GA, and you couldn’t play that game as easily anymore?”

The subtext of that question—who among us operates at the center of Unitarian Universalism, and who, demographically, culturally, and racially, is at its margins?—erupted into controversy in March of this year, when religious educator Aisha Hauser, joined later by UUA trustee Christina Rivera and a host of others, questioned Morales on UUA hiring policies that seemed to favor white, cisgender, male, ordained UU ministers over others for key positions.

That’s where, to many UUs, the story began. In the interim co-presidents’ report June 23, however, Betancourt suggested a different narrative:

The charges of racism in hiring shocked our community. Many white UUs asked, “How this could be?” But most UU people of color were not surprised—only surprised that it had been called out. And that difference in reaction was itself a shock and challenge to our community that we want to call Beloved.

Perhaps it is more accurate, then, to say that Unitarian Universalists have found themselves not at the beginning of a “white supremacy controversy,” but in the middle of a long struggle.

“In the Middle” was the theme of Saturday evening’s “Synergy” worship service, which recognized sixty-one graduating high school seniors for their transition to young adulthood. Marissa A. Gutiérrez-Vicario, executive director of Art and Resistance Through Education and one of the young-adult speakers, reflected on the U.S. presidential election and the resistance movement. “While the results of the election were devastating for me, they were not the end of the world, nor the beginning of a resistance movement,” Gutiérrez-Vicario said. “We are actually in the middle of a resistance movement—one that undocumented immigrants, trans folks, women of color, and incarcerated folks have been in the middle of for a long time.”

In the keynote address, Ware Lecturer Bryan Stevenson, a public interest lawyer and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, told a rapt audience, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth—it is justice.” He recounted episodes from his career helping the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned as he described the work that must be done to create a more just world. That work requires fully accepting our history as a racist society, he said.

“I’m not interested in punishing America for this history—I want to liberate America,” said Stevenson, a black man, because on the other side of confession comes freedom. We must do four essential things to create a more just and equal world, said Stevenson, whose book Just Mercy was the UUA “Common Read” for 2015–16: Get proximate to the poor, the excluded, neglected, and abused; change the narratives that underlie racism and other inequalities; stay hopeful about creating justice; and be willing to do uncomfortable things.

Cassie Montenegro, a member of the UU Congregation of Miami, arrived in New Orleans five days before GA started. She came to New Orleans for the “Thrive” cohort of the Grow Racial Justice program, a four-day training for young adults focused on racial and ethnic identity development, worship, and community antiracism organizing.

A Cuban-American woman in her early thirties who grew up “thinking of myself as, essentially, white,” Montenegro spent more than two days with seventeen other young adults of color before merging with the all-white “Shift” cohort. She said that the people-of-color group “created great community really quickly,” finding similarities in their experiences in the predominantly white UU faith.

“Being in the Thrive space was so liberating. I felt humbled and comfortable enough to be uncomfortable,” Montenegro said. “This is one of the most important spaces I’ve ever been a part of—it was really that powerful.”

Thrive young adult coordinator Vanessa Birchell, who attends Buckman Bridge UU Church in Jacksonville, Florida, described a lunch a few days later attended by more than thirty UU young adults of color: “There were several times when I looked around and seeing all that melanin popping brought tears of joy and hope to my eyes.”

Birchell’s job—to work with young adults of color at GA—was created as part of a concerted effort by the UUA’s Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministries, GA Planning Committee, and others not only to get more people of color to attend GA, but to minister to, and with, them more effectively.

This year’s public witness event had a distinctly New Orleans flavor: hot, humid, joyous, full of music and dancing. As the temperature hovered at a balmy 90 degrees Friday afternoon, over 1,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered in front of the convention center for “Love Resists: Rejoicing for Sanctuary and Solidarity.” Jolanda Walter led a spirited chant of “Love resists!” before the “second line” procession, waving handkerchiefs and brandishing parasols, high-stepped through the streets to the sound of New Orleans jazz. “I love it. It’s in my DNA to move like this,” said Ogundare, of All Souls in Tulsa.

The procession ended with a rally for social justice sponsored by the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, a UU social justice organization in New Orleans that was the local host organization for GA.

Lena K. Gardner, executive director of Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism (BLUU), introduced Mtangulizi Sanyika​ as an elder in the movement for black lives during Friday morning’s general session. Sanyika, who was known as Hayward Henry when he chaired the Black UU Caucus in the late 1960s, was one of those who “led an exodus,” in his words, out of the 1969 General Assembly, when the UUA failed to meet demands from black power advocates. “The torch has been passed to a new generation,” Sanyika said of BLUU.

Erin Walter, a white UU minister based in Austin, Texas, called Sanyika’s speech one of the highlights of her GA. “[The speech] acknowledged the pain, potential, and places we have fallen so short in the support of black power and people of color.”

BLUU received the President’s Award for Volunteer Service during Sunday’s general session, where Interim Co-President Leon Spencer said that “BLUU has challenged us and supported us to look at the white supremacy within.”

At a packed memorial service for former moderator Jim Key on Saturday, UUs who knew and worked with him during the twenty years he gave in volunteer service to the faith spoke with deep emotion about his leadership and love for others. Spencer said Key “pulled us uphill as an association, uphill toward racial justice, and he never stopped.”

In Sunday morning’s worship, the Rev. Mara Dowdall, senior minister of First UU Society of Burlington, Vermont, stressed that UUs are now focused on the work of “dismantling centuries-old systems and structures of white supremacy.” She observed, “The only way we will keep this world is to share it.”

‘Tri-moderators” Boyd, Burek, and Williams—serious about shifting norms—routinely called for songs and meditations during general sessions, and asked attendees to split into small groups to discuss agenda items before opening the microphones for debate.

Delegates passed a business resolution to amend the UUA’s Second Source—in Article II of the bylaws—so that it celebrates “words and deeds of prophetic people” rather than “words and deeds of prophetic women and men.” The change, which proponents said would “include and affirm a multitude of genders,” passed overwhelmingly. Delegates also voted to bypass a study commission for this change. Because the resolution amends Article II, it will require a second vote in 2018. Organizer Jami Yandle expects it will pass.

A separate business resolution to change the First Principle’s affirmation of “the inherent worth and dignity of every person” to “the inherent worth and dignity of every being” was effectively tabled, but the Board of Trustees vowed to launch a new study commission to review Article II. That commission could propose changes to any part of the Principles and Purposes, and delegates passed a responsive resolution urging the commission to consider adding an explicitly antiracist “Eighth Principle.” The last time a commission proposed changes to Article II, in 2009, delegates narrowly rejected them.

GA adopted a Statement of Conscience, “Escalating Economic Inequality,” that proclaims “challenging extreme inequity locally and globally is a moral imperative.” It outlines individual, congregational, and denominational ways to respond. The statement grew out of a Congregational Study/Action Issue launched in 2014.

And GA passed a responsive resolution urging the leaders of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love public witness campaign to consider a name change because “use of the word ‘standing’ as default justice language places a high value on the justice work and commitments of able-bodied people, while it makes invisible and excludes the justice work of people with a wide range of disabilities and autistic people.”

(The texts of the approved resolutions are currently only available in the draft minutes of the General Assembly.)

GA raised $235,565 in offerings for the Living Tradition Fund (which supports ministers and their families in need), the Katie Tyson Fund (which supports youth and young adult ministries), Standing on the Side of Love, and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. Registrants also donated $17,374 toward youth scholarships.

With additional reporting by Sonja L. Cohen, Kenneth Sutton, and Christopher L. Walton.


View the photographs by Nancy Pierce that accompany the print version of this story.

General Assembly 2017 Highlights

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