Contents: UU World September/October 2002
September/October 2002

General Assembly Report

Delegates take a global view in Québec

by Christopher L. Walton

Unitarian Universalists converged on Québec City, the only walled city in North America and the capital of Canada's French-speaking province, for the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in June. It was an ideal place to deliberate the religious and ethical significance of economic globalization.

All but 190 of the 4,059 people who registered for the Assembly were visiting a foreign country — and a famously hospitable city. As many of us struggled to recall snippets of high school French, grateful that waiters and hotel staff were fluent in our language even as we stumbled over bonjour, Québec offered plenty of opportunities to reflect on the realities of multiculturalism in our increasingly interconnected world.

In a well-attended conversation with President William G. Sinkford, delegates asked about the UUA's new congregational growth campaign, which Sinkford announced earlier in the General Assembly. The marketing effort, which he said the UUA planned to test in a metropolitan area this year, will introduce Unitarian Universalism using media including radio and, where appropriate, billboards. He said there are many people who would welcome our message if given the chance. "We tend to see ourselves as cutting edge, or too specialized," Sinkford said. "But the majority of people hold the values we hold." To welcome them, he said, we need "a theology of hospitality."

Click here for more GA snapshots. Photograph by Nancy Pierce.

This was where, fourteen months earlier, the Third Summit of the Americas met — in the same hall that hosted our Assembly — to discuss the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas. As leaders from thirty-four nations met in the Centre des congrès de Québec, pledging to support free trade, extend the benefits of globalization, and strengthen democracy, thousands of anti-globalization protesters faced off against police in riot gear outside.

It was a mellower scene as delegates from 627 UUA member congregations met to conduct the Association's business, attend workshops, network, and party. The Assembly marked the first year of the administration of President William G. Sinkford and Moderator Diane Olson by applauding the UUA's heightened visibility in the public square, and delegates passed a Statement of Conscience proposing bold alternatives to U.S. drug policies. Ironically, the Assembly met in Québec as Canadian congregations said farewell to their membership in UUA districts and as the Association embraced the Canadian Unitarian Council as its new international partner — giving delegates new reasons to celebrate a global faith and its many local varieties.

Globalization is high on the Unitarian Universalist agenda. UU congregations are halfway through a two-year process their delegates initiated last year in Cleveland, when the General Assembly selected economic globalization as a Study/Action Issue. Delegates then charged their congregations to ask how Unitarian Universalists can respond to "the unprecedented opportunities and potentially dangerous environmental, political, and quality-of-life challenges accompanying economic globalization." At this year's Assembly, dozens of programs helped delegates make sense of the issue.

UUs for a Just Economic Community (UUJEC), an independent affiliate organization, sponsored a four-day "globalization teach-in" at GA. Maude Barlow, chair of the 100,000-member Council of Canadians, told several hundred UUs that "we're in a monumental struggle in our time." Her lecture, the keynote address of the UUJEC teach-in, described the challenge of globalization. "The last time I was in Québec City, I was tear-gassed," she said. "Corporate leaders were inside the perimeter" surrounded by a four-mile security fence and armed police, "and absolutely everyone else was outside. . . Those leaders have abandoned you and me. We have more in common with people in other countries than with our own leaders."

Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis delivered the chief address of the Assembly, Sunday night's Ware Lecture. Lewis, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, contrasted two models of globalism, each embodied in a conference this past January. He characterized the first, the World Economic Forum in New York City, as "fundamentally an exercise in triumphalism . . . for the market economy, for liberalized trade, for the private sector, [and] for multinational corporations." The second conference, the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, brought together "tens of thousands of protesters . . . to say to the world that something is out of whack." He said that the world had yet to find adequate ways of responding to poverty, conflict, disease, environmental problems, and the rise of global terrorism — but "globalization doesn't seem to deal with [these] global problems." Lewis called American Unitarian Universalists to press their government to take a more responsible role in the community of nations.

Congregations can join the effort to shape a UUA response to globalization for next year's Assembly in Boston. Visit to learn how.

Global Faith and National Context

Unlike some recent General Assembly venues, Québec City was so full of charm that one could find UUs scattered throughout the city at all hours, enjoying three-hour dinners at the restaurants along le boulevard Grande-Allée, watching street musicians perform, or snapping photographs of Le Château Frontenac, the city's famous landmark, from atop the ancient battlements that surround Vieux Québec. Québec's walls, unique in North America, fortified the French outpost established in 1608 against Algonquin Indians and the British, who failed several times to conquer the city before succeeding at last in 1759. To this day, Québec embraces its French cultural legacy, sometimes to the exclusion of its Canadian national identity — but the soldiers who enact the daily changing-of-the-guard in Québec's Citadelle now wear distinctively British red coats and black busbies.

Surrounded by signs of Québécois pride, many at the Assembly started to recognize the Unitarian Universalist Association as a distinctively American branch of the global Unitarian Universalist movement. All but 53 of the UUA's 1,000-plus member congregations are in the United States — and 44 of the 53 are Canadian. At last year's General Assembly, representatives of the Canadian Unitarian Council (CUC) and the UUA signed an agreement that transferred responsibility for delivering most services to Canadian congregations to the CUC this July 1. Kim Turner of Halifax, Nova Scotia, told the Assembly that the new arrangement "will help Canadian congregations to thrive in Canada."

Some Unitarian Universalists enjoyed the proceedings without so much as leaving their homes. For the first time, Unitarian Universalists were able to watch key events as they happened from anywhere in the world. Deborah Weiner, the UUA's director of electronic communications, said that Sunday's Service of the Living Tradition, plenary session, and Ware Lecture were broadcast over the Internet to more than a thousand viewers. Extensive reporting on this year's General Assembly, including photographs and video of many events, is available on-line.

Delegates Rally Around Beacon Press

Web Exclusive

For more about Beacon Press, see coverage of the Friday plenary session and the Sunday plenary session.

Perhaps the most animated discussions at the Assembly involved Beacon Press, the UUA-owned book publishing house. The highly regarded press is one of the last remaining independent book publishers in the U.S. but has turned a profit only once in the last seven years. In an hour-long presentation in Friday's plenary session, President Sinkford told delegates that Beacon's losses have been covered in recent years by reserves generated primarily by sales of Singing the Living Tradition, the UUA hymnal Beacon published in 1993, but those reserves have been exhausted. "From now on, the Beacon losses will have to be covered by reductions in other parts of the Association's life," Sinkford said. "We must grapple with the question of how central Beacon is to the mission of the Association."

Beacon only publishes books that address the Association's principles, said Beacon Director Helene Atwan; last year, it published sixty-seven. She told delegates the press is raising prices, cutting staff and nonessential expenses, and developing new marketing approaches to meet goals set with the UUA Board earlier this year to keep deficits under $200,000 for the next three years.

Former UUA Financial Advisor Robert T. Lavender, who has studied the situation as a member of two UUA task forces on Beacon Press, told the Assembly, "It is time to stop thinking of Beacon as a profit-making entity and realize that it is another program of the Association. Those programs cost money." Larry Ladd, the UUA's current financial advisor, praised Beacon for publishing books that change lives, but he also offered a blunt assessment in his annual report: "Our human and financial resources would be more productively allocated toward more direct growth and public witness strategies and through communication through more modern technologies such as the Internet."

Delegates reacted with dismay. During Sunday's plenary session they applauded a proposal made by former moderator Denny Davidoff — now a delegate from the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut — that each Unitarian Universalist vow to buy at least two Beacon books each year. Many went directly to the exhibition hall to make good on their commitment, and Beacon's booth sold $38,000 worth of books — a GA record.

Beacon's predicament comes at an uncomfortable time for the Association because other revenues have fallen, too. Financial Advisor Ladd reported that drops in the stock market hurt the UUA's endowment (which provides about a quarter of the UUA's income). He said lower-than-expected revenues from bequests and UUA Bookstore sales also affected the 2001 budget, leaving the UUA with an operating loss for the first time in six years. Mid-year spending cuts kept the 2002 budget balanced, and the UUA has budgeted about $850,000 less for 2003.

Although Beacon Press's deficits and the ailing stock market are creating financial challenges for the Association, Ladd reported that many other vital signs are good. Annual Program Fund contributions from the UUA's member congregations were up, and the UUA's capital campaign has received commitments totaling $27.5 million; the goal is $32 million. Ladd praised congregations for committing to fair compensation practices, and said congregational expenditures reached a record $165.8 million in 2001.

But unless the UUA adopts new growth strategies, Ladd said, our small but steady rate of growth may slow. Religious education enrollment was down slightly in 2001, the first decrease in nineteen years, and adult membership rose by less than 1 percent.

Diversity and Accountability

Do we Unitarian Universalists represent many theological movements marching under the same banner, or do we share a common vision despite our differences? This question was raised by the Commission on Appraisal, elected by the General Assembly to examine and report on any aspect of the Association's life that would benefit from extended study. In January the Commission chose to examine the "theological fragmentation of the Unitarian Universalist movement." Delegates packed a Friday-afternoon workshop to respond to the Commission's provocative topic, "Where is the unity in our diversity?"

But as the commissioners were introducing their new topic in a brief skit at Friday's plenary session, they inadvertently dramatized an old conflict that quickly moved to the top of the Commission's agenda. Here is what the delegates saw: The chair of the Commission, Dr. Janis Sabin Elliot of Portland, Oregon, introduced the Commission and described its mandate. She then turned the podium over to Janice Marie Johnson, director of religious education at the Community Church of New York City. Johnson, who is a young black Caribbean woman, spoke about the Commission's last report. The large video screens to the left and right of the stage were showing a close-up of her face — she had just started to say, "And members of the Commission are available for autographs" — when Mark Hamilton, a tall young white man from Toronto, broke in. "Moving on to our next topic," he said, and nudged Johnson away from the microphone.

The next day, Moderator Olson opened the plenary session by telling delegates that a number of people of color had been alarmed by the sight of a white man pushing a black woman. She invited people with concerns to meet with the members of the Commission on Sunday evening. At least thirty people attended. Several said that the incident was one in an ongoing series of offenses that diminish the experience of people of color in the Association. Robette Dias of Sonoma, California, told the Commission: "What I experienced was a woman of color being pushed aside."

Janice Johnson responded that she had raised a concern about the skit's original script, in which the Rev. Earl Holt, minister of King's Chapel in Boston, would have been the interrupted speaker. "My comment to Janis [Eliot] was, 'Are you aware that a commissioner of color is not speaking?'" Eliot asked Johnson to take the role; Johnson agreed, but said she was uncomfortable because it depended on hamming up a punch line. "What I saw on paper was an interruption, but what I experienced was a push," she said. "Mark [Hamilton] is one of my closest friends. But I felt it, and I was taken aback."

At the end of the Assembly's final plenary session, four youth delegates from the Community Church of New York told the Assembly they had been dismayed to see their director of religious education pushed. Then Paula Cole Jones, president-elect of DRUUMM (Diverse Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries, an independent affiliate organization of people of color) and the Rev. Susan Suchocki Brown, chair of the Board-appointed Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee, told the Assembly the Commission should have apologized. "We believe the Commission on Appraisal needs to enter into a serious process of accountability and develop a relationship with the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee [which monitors the UUA's anti-racism initiative] and DRUUMM," Suchocki Brown said.

In July, the Commission issued a statement apologizing "for the hurt and distress caused by our presentation" and vowed to apply "anti-racist, anti-oppressive, and anti-bias lenses to all our work" and to develop "structures of accountability and awareness." "A presentation to the plenary should always represent our best work," the commissioners wrote. "Sad to say, our presentation was hastily written, carelessly reviewed, and unrehearsed. We regret that the skit . . . did not reflect the principles to which we are committed."

Another Take on the War on Drugs

Delegates representing the UUA's member congregations adopted a Statement of Conscience during Saturday's plenary session that condemned the United States' so-called war on drugs. The statement, drafted by the UUA's elected Commission on Social Witness to guide the UUA's social justice advocacy work after a two-year process of congregational review, calls for making all drugs legally available by prescription and for establishing a "legal, regulated, and taxed market for marijuana." U.S. drug policies, the statement says, have "consumed tens of billions of dollars and wrecked countless lives," disproportionately poor people and people of color.

Delegates also selected a new Study/Action Issue for consideration by congregations: "What can Unitarian Universalists do to protect civil liberties against governmental violation in the name of 'homeland security' and in the wars against terrorism and drugs?" The UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy is preparing a study guide to mail to congregations in October.

On Monday delegates passed five Actions of Immediate Witness. The most controversial addressed the conflict in the Middle East, calling for the suspension of military aid to Israel "until Israel is clearly in compliance with the terms for arms transfers as expressed in United States law and bilateral agreements." It also condemns "expressions and acts of anti-Semitism and acts of terror against Jews, Palestinians, or Arabs."

Other Actions of Immediate Witness endorsed the International Criminal Court; congratulated the Assemblée nationale du Québec for passing a union civile law in June that provides the full legal rights of marriage to "couples of the opposite or the same sex"; endorsed the "Earth Charter," an international statement of "fundamental principles for sustainable development"; and encouraged the creation of a U.S. "Department of Peace."

'All the Stirrings of Compassion'

Every year, GA opens with a festive parade as delegates march through the plenary hall carrying the banners of their congregations and affiliate organizations. People cheer as friends and their congregations' banners go by, many of which are works of art. This year's parade featured 374 banners — a record — but it was nearly tragic as well.

As the marchers were mustering, Kenneth Tharp of the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins, Colorado, collapsed. Witnesses reported that the crowd quickly moved back and a woman rushed to perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Officers rushed in with a defibrillator, then an emergency team arrived with oxygen.

"In spite of all this Ken did not respond," said Sam Berliner III of the Muttontown, New York, Unitarian Fellowship, who was joking with Tharp when he fell. "Things were very grim, and someone started us singing 'Spirit of Life,'" Berliner continued. "This occasioned a flood of tears and some rather choked singing."

Tharp had suffered arrhythmic heart arrest, but when he was carried to the ambulance all the banner carriers knew was that he hadn't come to. Someone grabbed his banner and was swept to the front to lead the parade.

In July, Tharp's wife Marty reported that he had spent a month in a Québec hospital before being flown home.

Helio Fred Garcia, banner bearer for the Community Unitarian Church at White Plains, New York, recalled how moved he was when the horrified banner carriers began to sing "Spirit of Life."

"We all just started singing," he said. "The first time through we sang it at full volume, the second time we sang it softly, and the third time we just hummed it. No one was conducting. It was just spontaneous."

Christopher L. Walton is senior editor of UU World.

General Assembly Snapshots

Canadian diplomat Stephen Lewis, the UN secretary-general's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa and former assistant secretary general of UNICEF, delivered this year's Ware Lecture to an enthusiastic audience. He lamented the United Nations' failure to stop genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and in Bosnia a year later, which he blamed largely on the U.S. and French governments, but praised the work of international criminal tribunals now prosecuting related crimes. He described the tragedy of AIDS among young women in Africa. "There's no reason for it," he said. "We know everything we need to do to halt the pandemic. . . . There is something really wrong with the international community." [Click here to watch a RealVideo broadcast of Lewis's address, or here to read more about the Ware Lecture.]

The Rev. Barbara Pescan, who serves the Unitarian Church of Evanston, Illinois, with her partner, the Rev. Ann Tyndall, preached at Sunday's Service of the Living Tradition, which honors ordained ministers. Pescan said that religious leaders fail "when we mistake the tradition, the word, for the living presence within it. We succeed when we embody the presence that shines from one to another . . . when persons encounter each other from a place of deep recognition and respect. . . . Remember that even on your worst day, your most forgetful, apathetic, cynical, mean-spirited day, someone will see beyond your small self into the holy spark that shines from you and they will be saved from despair." [Click here to read Pescan's sermon, or here to watch a ReadVideo broadcast of the Service of the Living Tradition.]

Eighty-four children were registered for children's programs during the Assembly — a record high. A day camp for younger children and the overnight Young Fun program for eight- to fourteen-year-olds included several events with adults, including Saturday's intergenerational lunch where clowns, street musicians, and balloon sculptors from Québec entertained UUs of all ages. Children painted buttons for an art project sponsored by the UUA's Family Matters Task Force, which sold them to raise money for the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada's Bangladesh Education Program. The program raised $1,200 to support educational programs for girls in Bangladesh and Nepal, according to the program coordinator, Pat Lane of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

 Natalie Gulbrandsen The UUA honored Natalie Gulbrandsen with the Distinguished Service Award, the Association's highest honor, during Sunday's plenary session. Gulbrandsen, a member of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Wellesley Hills, Massachusetts, served as moderator of the Association from 1985 to 1993. She also served as treasurer and president of the UU Women's Federation and president of the International Association for Religious Freedom. President Sinkford praised her commitment to international issues, highlighting her early advocacy of the Partner Church movement and her hospitality to foreign exchange students. "Natalie Gulbrandsen has always modeled the virtues of a global citizen," he said. "I have never wavered from the UU faith. It is the bulwark of strength in my life," she told the Assembly in response. "Thank you for your faith in me."

Click here for additional coverage of the 2002 General Assembly. Photographs by Nancy Pierce.

 Contents: UU World September/October 2002
UU World XVI:5 (September/October 2002): 34-40

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