Witness and worship on tap at Justice GA

Witness and worship on tap at Justice GA

3,800 people prepare to gather in Phoenix, Ariz., for 2012 UUA General Assembly.
Donald E. Skinner


General Assembly 2012, the long-awaited “Justice GA,” is here. Unitarian Universalists will converge in Phoenix, Ariz., June 20 for five days of social justice education, witnessing, and worship.

Expect a different GA than others you’ve been to. This one will be light on business sessions and heavy on social justice work. Virtually every GA event will be focused in some way on immigration or issues related to immigration, including racial and economic justice.

GA 2012 grew out of the state of Arizona’s adoption in 2010 of SB 1070, a strict anti-immigrant law. Phoenix had been selected as the GA 2012 site before the passage of SB 1070. After extensive debate at GA 2010 whether to meet in Arizona in 2012 or boycott the state because of SB 1070, delegates approved a resolution to go to Phoenix and make GA 2012 a “Justice GA” dedicated to “witnessing on immigration, racial, and economic justice.” The resolution further specified that business at the 2012 GA would be “limited to the minimum required by our bylaws.”

GA will begin in the usual manner, with an opening worship and a parade of banners of participating congregations on Wednesday June 20. The worship will focus on the Doctrine of Discovery, the premise that European Christian explorers who “discovered” other lands had the authority to claim those lands and subdue, even enslave, peoples of those lands simply because they were not Christian. Groups that the UUA is working with in Arizona have said that understanding the doctrine is necessary to truly understand the issue of migration. GA delegates will be asked to vote on a Responsive Resolution to repudiate the doctrine.

There will be around 100 workshops and other presentations focused on racism, immigration, and economic justice. Even the GA exhibit hall will be different. Most exhibitors will have a connection to racial and economic justice. A complete list of exhibitors is here.

Most days, there will be two to three worship services at GA. The Service of the Living Tradition, honoring ministers and religious educators, will be Friday night. National Public Radio broadcast journalist Maria Hinojosa will present the Ware Lecture Saturday night. The sermon at the Sunday morning worship, the largest annual gathering of UUs in worship, will be presented by the Rev. John T. Crestwell Jr., associate minister at the UU Church of Annapolis, Md. The closing ceremony will be Sunday night.

Minimal business

There will be around seven hours of plenary time this year, half that of GA 2011. As a result, less business will be conducted at this GA. Among the business to be voted on will be repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery and choosing one of five proposed Congregational Study Action Issues. They are Climate Action; Families, Population, and the Environment; Reproductive Justice; Exploring Class Barriers; and Ending Slavery.

Delegates will consider three bylaw changes: to broaden the definition of the word “congregation;” change Ministerial Fellowship Committee rules; and change bylaws governing the process used to amend UUA bylaws. The proposed changes can be found here.

More youth expected

Jan Sneegas, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s director of General Assembly and Conference Services, said around 3,800 people are expected to come to Phoenix. That’s slightly larger than the average GA, she said.

This will be a younger GA. Two hundred seventy-two youth have registered, about twice the normal number. “Justice work really resonates with youth, and with youth advisors and directors of religious education,” said Sneegas.

Sneegas noted there will be significantly more worship at this GA because people will be engaging in more social justice work and will need ways to recharge. “We’ve never done this number and magnitude of witness events. As a result, there will be more worship than we have ever had before.” There will also be daily “reflection groups” to talk about what being at this GA is like.

The justice work itself will include a citizenship fair which will be held off-site all day Saturday. Its purpose is to help Arizonans who primarily need help in finishing up citizenship applications. The fair will also include voter registration. More than 500 people have signed up to help with the citizenship fair. No more applicants will be accepted for that event, said Sneegas.

In the convention center there will be an opportunity to stuff 130 backpacks for children from low-income households who will attend a day camp later in the summer.

Sneegas noted that a large part of GA will be focused on training participants how to do immigration justice work at home, after GA. “We don’t want our actions to stop in Phoenix. There is a need for this work everywhere,” she said.

A candlelight vigil is being planned Saturday night outside the Maricopa County sheriff’s Tent City—a massive confinement facility in southwest Phoenix, six miles from the convention center. There will be other public witness events throughout the week. Details are here.

There are no plans for anyone to risk arrest at GA, Sneegas added.

She said the Arizona Immigration Ministry (AZIM) deserves much of the credit for organizing this GA. AZIM was formed a year ago to connect UU congregations in Arizona with immigrant rights groups there and with the GA Planning Committee. It is headed by the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix. “She and Sandra Weir have done amazing work with the UUA’s local partners to identify meaningful service and witness events,” said Sneegas. “I can’t overstate how significant their work has been. It’s not something that people outside of Arizona could have done.”

Preparing for the heat

Phoenix will be the hottest place GA has been held since, well, the last time it was in Phoenix, in 1997. The average high temperature in June is 102˚. “Heat will be a real part of this GA,” said Sneegas. “People need to drink plenty of water and wear hats and sunscreen and light-colored clothing.” She also recommends lip balm and a neck cooler—a fabric scarf with gel crystals that retain water. “Consider it a fashion accessory,” she said. Other tips: “Seek shade whenever possible. Don’t wear rubberized flip-flops. They will melt. If you have a service dog, bring booties for their feet.” The UUA website has more information about coping with heat.

Every major GA hotel is within three or four blocks of the convention center, Sneegas said. “We are very compact this year.” Phoenix also has light rail.

This convention will be as green as any in recent years, she noted. There will be recycling, locally grown food, and food composting. “We’re getting really good participation from the convention center as well as our hotels,” she said.

Carolyn Saunders, district coordinator for GA, said, “What makes this GA different is the increased number of witness events and having more than one hands-on service project. But more than that, it’s the true interconnection with the local community that will make this Justice GA a unique moment in our history,” Saunders said. “Working with our partner organizations to make our vision of justice match the partners’ vision gives this GA a very different perspective.”

Sandra Weir, an organizer with the Arizona Immigration Ministry and a member of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, added, “What I want people to remember is that people of faith have power in matters of justice. The people in Arizona who need our help have very few allies who stand publicly with them day in and day out. Unitarian Universalists are a large part of that ally group. What we will be doing in Phoenix, and when we return home, matters a great deal.”

More off-site delegates

At General Assembly a year ago, 49 people participated as delegates from off-site—listening to and speaking during debates using a phone from wherever they lived and then voting via their computers on issues that came before the delegate body in Charlotte, N.C.

The process worked so well it’s going to be repeated this year in virtually the same way, said Mark Steinwinter, the UUA’s director of Information Technology Services. “We don’t anticipate many changes,” he said.

He said he expected 50 to 60 people to sign up as off-site delegates. The deadline for this year’s signup was June 8. Steinwinter noted there will be fewer issues requiring voting this year, to allow more time for Justice GA programming.

This year off-site delegates have been asked to provide a photo of their congregation’s banner. “We’ll make a PowerPoint, and we plan to have a virtual banner procession for those congregations not represented by onsite delegates and with no physical banner present in the convention center,” said Steinwinter.

This year several congregations are planning to gather their off-site delegates at one site to watch GA and participate. Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Md., is organizing a weekend event at the church. “We’re seeing more of that than last year. That’s a much happier model for us than just individual UUs sitting at home in their pajamas,” said Steinwinter. “It’s easier to stay focused if you’re with a group of people who are there for the same purpose.”

There will also be an online chat room for off-site delegates. “Last year it was really active, and we expect the same thing this year. Last year the delegates created their own virtual community.” Find out more about off-site participation online. Technical support is also available there for off-site participants.

In 2011, off-site delegate votes were tallied and reported but did not count in GA decisions. The 2011 General Assembly amended the bylaws to allow off-site delegates to vote on GA business; in 2012, votes cast by off-site delegates in plenaries will be counted and included in all official tallies.

Follow along from home

Around fifteen events of General Assembly will be live-streamed—made available for viewing by Unitarian Universalists at home as each event happens. These will include opening and closing ceremonies, worship and business sessions, the Ware Lecture, and a forum for candidates for UUA moderator.

Congregations across the country are invited to gather to watch GA coverage as it happens, including worship. Last year several congregations watched––and participated in—the GA Sunday worship in place of locally organized worship. Find out how to participate here.

Viewers can watch events live or after the event at uua.org. The full video of a GA event will be posted online anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours after an event.

For ongoing, comprehensive coverage of GA, follow UU World’s daily GA blog.

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