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Fired up

General Assembly energized Unitarian Universalists with new models of ministry and outreach.
By Elaine McArdle
Fall 2014 8.15.14

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From the sight of rivers lit by bonfires to the sound of an arena filled with boisterous Unitarian Universalists to the thrill of rappelling down the side of a convention center, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2014 General Assembly was a high-energy five days focused on the theme “Love Reaches Out.”

“I loved it!” said Morgan Day of High Plains UU Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a member of the Youth Caucus staff. “All these UUs—it was breathtaking!”

The UUA’s fifty-third General Assembly drew 4,573 people, including 316 youth, to the Rhode Island Convention Center in downtown Providence. With many fewer hours of business sessions than in the recent past, this year’s GA allowed for more workshops and more opportunities to celebrate and connect. A festive mood infused the gathering, from the opening ceremony, when Officer Tony Lepore, the locally famous “Dancing Cop” of Providence, served as GA’s first-ever grand marshal of the congregational banner parade.

Featuring 156 workshops—all framed as ways for UUs to reach out in love—on everything from the minimum wage to making congregations multicultural, GA culminated Saturday night in a high-octane worship service and a procession of thousands of UUs through the city as the UUA sponsored one night of the public arts festival, WaterFire Providence. UUs in Standing on the Side of Love shirts mingled with tens of thousands of local residents to watch over eighty bonfires in waterborne braziers in the three rivers that pass through downtown Providence.

Many UUs cited Sister Simone Campbell’s Ware Lecture, GA’s keynote address, as particularly inspiring. Campbell, a Roman Catholic social activist best known for organizing the “Nuns on the Bus” tour, urged UUs to “walk toward trouble.”

During Sunday’s worship service, the Rev. Mark Stringer, minister of First Unitarian Church of Des Moines, Iowa, urged UUs to foster strong interfaith alliances and to join alliances with people they disagree with on important matters. Describing the surprising support and solace he has found working with conservative religious clergy on social justice issues, he said, to loud cheers from the audience, “We can’t be difference-makers if we are only talking to ourselves.”

Coming on the fifth anniversary of the UUA’s Standing on the Side of Love campaign, GA’s “Love Reaches Out” theme struck a chord with many.

“This was my first GA, and I really didn’t have any idea how powerful an experience it would be,” said James Perrin, who attended with his partner, the Rev. Kent McKusick, minister of the UU Fellowship of Ames, Iowa. “Spending this much time with such a huge number of UUs made me feel more of a UU than before, that we’re not just a tiny movement, that there’s more of an ‘us’ now.”

Worship that reaches out

For the first time, all fifty states were represented at GA, with a total of 1,920 delegates from 579 UU congregations. In keeping with President Morales’s emphasis on growing Unitarian Universalism by reaching out to the many religiously unaffiliated people who share UU values, this year’s GA highlighted innovative ministries and models of worship designed to reach new audiences.

The Rev. Erik Martínez Resly described the group he founded, The Sanctuaries in Washington, D.C., as a “diverse arts community with soul.” The Rev. John T. Crestwell Jr. and a team of gospel musicians introduced the rousing worship style they use at Awake Ministries, an alternative worship community at the UU Church of Annapolis, Maryland. The Sanctuary Boston, a worship group affiliated with First Church Boston and First Parish in Cambridge, brought rock-concert energy to Saturday evening’s worship service, held prior to WaterFire. The service was “transformative,” said a smiling Liz Rover Bailey, a youth from First Parish in Needham, Massachusetts. “I’ve never really before opened myself to the joy of worship. That intensity was something completely unexpected and different.”

Some of the new models of worship didn’t resonate with everyone—not even with all members of the generations they are designed to attract. Benji Janapol, the new Youth Observer to the UUA Board of Trustees, found the Sanctuary Boston-led service “kind of contrived.” She said, “I felt that the power was coming from the stage instead of from the congregation.”

Social witness and UUA business

GA 2014 wasn’t exclusively about celebration. In March the UUA, to protest labor conditions at the Renaissance Hotel in Providence, cancelled 850 rooms it had reserved there. On the first full day of GA, the UUA, the UU Service Committee, and local community groups sponsored a rally demanding fair wages for workers at the Procaccianti Group, which operates the Renaissance Hotel and is the lowest-paying hotel company in the city.

GA delegates voted overwhelmingly to divest from fossil fuels. They also chose a new Congregational Study/Action Issue, “Escalating Inequality,” and passed three social witness statements: one supported a faith summit on stopping deportations, one affirmed congregational efforts to prevent gun violence, and one supported a “new underground railroad” for LGBT people from Uganda. (See page 38 for more on GA business.)

One of the more serious GA moments came during Friday morning’s general session, when Moderator Jim Key extended a formal apology to victims and survivors of clergy misconduct. Key, who met with survivors on several occasions in his first year as moderator, pledged to hold the UUA “accountable to the values that are at our core.” He applauded the “courage of those of you who have had this experience but remain faithful to Unitarian Universalism.” The board and administration vowed in April to revise processes for handling complaints about clergy misconduct (see page 41).

And, at the board meeting the day before GA began, President Morales took responsibility for a $1.35 million deficit in the 2014 fiscal year. He told the board he should not have been caught by surprise by the shortfall, the result of two major gifts that did not materialize (see page 39). In his annual report, Financial Advisor Larry Ladd told delegates that better procedures are being put in place to avoid future problems. The Rev. Sarah Stewart, chair of the board’s Finance Committee, said the board would receive a revised budget for the 2015 fiscal year on August 1. (See our news coverage of the revised budget, 8.25.14.)

Leadership and generosity

“GA in Providence was exciting and wonderful,” said President Morales, who was among eighty-three adventurous UUs who rappelled down the side of the convention center during the “Brave Souls: UUs Pledge over the Edge” fundraiser. “It was the largest GA in years, and the energy of so many UUs together was energizing. I loved the way our theme, ‘Love Reaches Out,’ was developed and amplified in worship and in our WaterFire public witness.”

The rappellers raised close to $500,000 in pledges in honor of the Rev. Terry Sweetser, who stepped down this summer after ten years as UUA vice president for Stewardship and Development. GA collections raised $24,000 for Standing on the Side of Love; $71,000 for the Living Tradition Fund, which aids ministers and seminarians in need; and $50,000 for two Providence organizations that focus on the problems of homelessness—Housing First Rhode Island and McAuley House.

GA also saw the debut of a new form of UU fundraising—the social platform Faithify.org. The website enables UUs to solicit and make pledges to a wide range of innovative ministries and projects. (See page 38.)

The UUA honored the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Torquil MacLean with the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism. Ordained in 1960, MacLean served congregations in Massachusetts, Tennessee, Maryland, and California. The Rev. Marlin Lavanhar, who read the citation, highlighted MacLean’s work in strengthening support systems for ministers and his work building international partnerships, including organizing the founding meeting of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists.

The Rev. Dr. Nita Penfold received the UUA’s Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education. Penfold developed the Montessori-based Spirit Play curriculum and has served as director of religious education for UU churches in Milton, Lexington, and now Melrose, Massachusetts.

President Morales presented the President’s Award for Volunteer Service to Kathy Burek, a former president of the Prairie Star District and of the District Presidents Association, who led the transition team that created the MidAmerica Region.

Moderator Key told the assembly, “I’m committed at my core to finding those people like me who were seekers, but [who are] having trouble finding us.” In his thirty years with IBM, he said, he and his family had lived in seven different states and Japan, “always joining the most liberal and progressive congregation we could find.” But “we never encountered a Unitarian Universalist,” he said, until a Presbyterian minister in Beaufort, South Carolina, told him, “You need to be over there with those people!”

Next year’s GA will be in Portland, Oregon. Nearly 5,700 people attended GA 2007 in Portland, and organizers expect even higher attendance there next year, said Ed McClaren, a member of First Unitarian Church of Portland and administrative assistant for GA 2015.

In the meantime, delegates and others from GA 2014 were on a high. “I thought it was great,” said David Keppel of the UU Church of Bloomington, Indiana, who was attending his seventh GA. “The spirit of it was so positive, and you go out with more energy to do justice work.”

Christopher L. Walton contributed reporting to this article, which appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of UU World (pages 28–32). Photograph (above): UUA moderator Jim Key and UUA president Peter Morales lead the way to the Saturday evening WaterFire event (Nancy Pierce/UUA). See sidebar for links to related resources.

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