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General Assembly 2006

Environmental issues dominate the annual gathering of Unitarian Universalist leaders.
By Tom Stites
Fall 2006 8.15.06

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Congregational presidents at GA

Congregational presidents share ideas at this year's General Assembly. (Nancy Pierce)

This was the year of the environment at General Assembly:

  • The delegates to the Forty–fifth General Assembly, held in St. Louis from June 21 to 25, overwhelmingly approved a strongly worded Statement of Conscience calling for widespread changes to limit the impact of global warming.
  • For the first time, attendees were offered the opportunity to donate $6 to neutralize the pollution generated by travel and the event itself, and 990 attendees—or 22.5 percent—took the option. The donations support renewable energy and reforestation projects that reduce carbon dioxide, a major global warming cause.
  • Also for the first time, “Green Sanctuary” congregations were honored in a plenary session. Nineteen received certification from the Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Earth for completing its rigorous program of “living out commitment to the Earth by creating a sustainable lifestyle,” bringing the number of certified congregations to fifty.
  • The Green GA campaign took a major step forward in its second year, negotiating green practices for the first time at St. Louis’s convention center and hotels. GA environmental consultant Amy Spatrisano said it was “a very good year. The UUA left a legacy in St. Louis.”

This year’s Assembly was the third largest ever, drawing 4,398 Unitarian Universalists including 2,210 delegates from 623 congregations. They worshipped, gave generously, attended small workshops and joined standing–room–only crowds to hear riveting speakers, listened in rapt silence as Ware Lecturer Mary Oliver read from her poems, and conducted the business of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations.

Delegates approved significant changes to the denomination’s social witness process, selected a new study/action issue that will inaugurate it, approved five Actions of Immediate Witness, and heard reports from the Association’s board, president, moderator, financial advisor, and executive vice president, among many others.

The General Assembly’s theme, “Toward Right Relations,” threaded its way through the proceedings from delegate ingathering meetings to the closing ceremony. And delegates dealt with real–time challenges in this area, as some youth of color reported finding themselves treated less favorably than whites at GA events. Their representatives addressed a Sunday afternoon plenary session, and UUA Moderator Gini Courter departed from her prepared report to address their concerns and broader UU concerns about racial justice.

Congregational focus

This year set a new high–water mark for a rising tide of congregational engagement in General Assembly, with 280 presidents, up from 253 last year and 260 in 2004, the first year that a special invitation was extended to presidents and dedicated programming was provided for them.

“In more and more of our congregations, going to General Assembly has become understood to be part of the job of the highest–ranking lay person, the president or chair of the governing board,” UUA President William G. Sinkford said later. “Gini Courter and I fervently hope that this becomes the case in all our congeregations. After all, this is an association of congregations, not just of whatever delegates can find the time and resources to attend.”

Adding to the congregational focus was UU University, a new day–and–a–half pre–GA program of workshops for lay leaders on membership, leadership, and financial topics. It drew 403 registrants and such a positive response that it will be repeated next year. “Sounds like you all hit a home run in your first at–bat,” Joe Sullivan, president of the Southwestern UU Conference, said in an email after hearing from delegates who had taken part.

For the second year, leaders of four Breakthrough Congregations of different sizes presented video profiles of their churches in plenary sessions, then conducted workshops for attendees curious about adapting the breakthrough practices for use in their own congregations. This year the four, chosen by the UUA’s Growth Team because of their vitality and excellence in governance and programming, were the UU Fellowship of the Eastern Slopes in Tamworth, New Hampshire (78 members); the UU Fellowship San Luis Obispo County, California (230 members); the UU Church of Annapolis, Maryland (560 members), and the First Unitarian Society of Madison, Wisconsin (1,396 members).

And, as the final plenary session was ending, delegates approved a resolution from the floor urging congregations to engage in at least one program addressing racism or classism before next year’s General Assembly, June 20 to 24 in Portland, Oregon.

Gulf Coast resurrection

The Rev. Tyrone Edwards stole the show in Friday evening’s “prime time” plenary session about Hurricane Katrina and UU responses to it. He joined Courter, Sinkford, Charlie Clements, president of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, and ten others in a presentation about the hurricane’s destruction, the inequities and moral challenges it brought into clear view, and the work of Unitarian Universalist volunteers and donors to the joint UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund, which has raised more than $3.5 million to help Katrina’s victims.

Edwards is founder of a cooperative affiliated with Zion Travelers Baptist Church in Phoenix, a rural Louisiana community flattened by Katrina. The government did not help, he said, but the community came together to rebuild.

“And then we met a young lady,” he said, “who was to us the Mother Teresa of the Unitarian Universalists. Her name is Martha Thompson [of the UUSC]. She came to our community, and she met with me and talked about our problem and she understood. And a month later $81,000 came our way.” Edwards thanked the Assembly and explained that the grant had been used to buy lumber and other materials to restore the homes of ten families.

“And I didn’t know what a Unitarian Universalist was,” Edwards said, to much amusement. “Some of my Baptist brothers told me, ‘You better not mess with those people!’ But I reminded them of a story in the Bible—a man was blind and Jesus healed. And they began to attack Jesus, and that man told them, ‘I don’t know what you know about him, but I was blind but now I see.’

“So now I know what a Unitarian Universalist is—matter of fact, I stand here today as an honorary Baptist Unitarian Universalist!”

Sinkford and Clements thanked UUs for their generosity, and the presentation ended with a call for volunteers to help rebuild. “What happened on the Gulf Coast will take years of dedication on the part of all of us to rebuild,” Sinkford said, “and together we can turn the tide.”

On Saturday morning, the ministers of the two UU congregations in New Orleans, the Rev. Marta Valentín of First Unitarian Universalist Church and the Rev. Jim VanderWeele of Community Church, led worship. Their theme: resurrection.

Global warming

The global warming Statement of Conscience was the Assembly’s dominant issue. Shaping its language was long and arduous but it passed with only a smattering of negative votes.

“We declare by this Statement of Conscience,” it reads, “that we will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We as Unitarian Universalists are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses.”

Delegates had selected global warming as a study/action issue at the 2004 General Assembly. After a two–year process of congregational discussion and suggestions for wording, the UUA’s Commission on Social Witness drafted a statement reflecting congregational input and brought it to this year’s Assembly—just as Al Gore’s documentary on the topic, An Inconvenient Truth, arrived in theaters, further stoking interest in an already hot issue.

A coalition of environmental advocates and scientists led by UU Ministry for Earth, an affiliate organization, called for much stronger language than the draft offered. A “miniassembly,” a meeting to consider amendments, drew a standing–room–only crowd in a room that seats 250. More than fifty amendments were put forth. The plenary time allotted for debate did not resolve the amendments—one delegate likened the draft to tapioca and said, “We need language as hot as chili peppers!”

A second, informal miniassembly and more plenary time were scheduled. “The problem,” Courter observed to applause during the debate, “is that only 10 percent of our congregations gave us feedback on this statement over two years. So, in a rush, we’re trying to do in plenary what should have been done in the congregations. . . . [W]e’re trying to do two years of work in two days.”

Later, in her moderator’s report, Courter drew a laugh when she characterized the process as a “wild ride through Robert’s Rules of Order.” When her report was done, delegates unanimously approved a resolution from the floor thanking Courter for her skillful handling of the complex debate.

Delegates also approved significant changes to the bylaws governing how study/action issues progress to become Statements of Conscience.

The changes extend the study/action process from two years to four, limit introduction of a new study/ action issue to once every two years, and mandate that no Statement of Conscience can be considered unless 25 percent of the congregations have taken part. The change gives congregations more time to organize educational and advocacy efforts at the local, regional, and denominational level.

Only one new study/action issue, “Peacemaking,” qualified for consideration and was adopted without discussion. It asks congregations to study the question, “Should the Unitarian Universalist Association reject the use of any and all kinds of violence and war to resolve disputes between peoples and nations and adopt a principle of seeking just peace through nonviolent means?”

The delegates also adopted five Actions of Immediate Witness, which are social witness resolutions presented to the Assembly by petition. The actions call for an end to mountaintop–removal coal mining; endorse the “Declaration of Peace” campaign; call for Congress to pass HR 410, the “Stem Cell Enhancement Act”; express support for the United Nations Human Rights Council; and declare the General Assembly’s support for immigrant rights and oppose “attempts at all levels of government to further criminalize or demonize immigrants and undocumented individuals and the people who give them humanitarian aid.”

Delegates rejected a sixth resolution, which would have called for the creation of a U.S. Department of Peace.

Many delegates and supporters of the UU Service Committee were surprised when two proposed Actions of Immediate Witness related to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were not presented to the delegates. Commission on Social Witness members said that they believed the resolutions had inadequate support in a straw poll. Advocates fashioned a single responsive resolution calling for a just rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, and it passed easily.

Relations, right and less so

Attendees were immersed in the Assembly’s theme, “Toward Right Relations,” from the opening ceremony to the closing ceremony, in workshops and plenary sessions.

Since 1998, the General Assembly opening ceremonies have included a greeting from Native Americans representing the tribe whose lands had been taken to make way for the host city. The greeting was intended as a gesture of respect and an acknowledgement of multiculturalism. But this year tribal representatives offered a lesson instead of a welcome.

The Osage people, who once inhabited 200 million acres that included St. Louis, were long ago removed to a reservation in Oklahoma and none could be found in the St. Louis area. Linda Friedman, chair of the General Assembly Planning Committee, told the crowd at the opening ceremony that when Osage members in Kansas City were invited, they responded, “Why should we drive four hours to come to St. Louis to speak to your Assembly for two minutes so you can feel good about yourselves? We have our own issues in our own communities that we need to deal with. We are not going to carry your water for you. This is your work, you need to do it.”

Applause rippled through the huge hall, and the opening ceremony went on to explore right relations in depth. The Rev. Burton D. Carley, UUA trustee from the Southwestern Conference, explained that it requires humility, awe, and faithfulness—and a willingness to remain teachable. Several speakers described their own experiences of disrespect. Attendees also heard about events during and leading up to last year’s Assembly in Fort Worth that had been painful for UU youth of color. In response, a Special Review Commission, appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees, issued a report in April. One recommendation from the commission, a rule that no one be admitted to GA events without a nametag, was implemented this year.

The nametag rule did not bring right relations by itself. Youth and young adults were dismayed that some white people still got into events without nametags, but that a young woman of color was barred. In the final plenary on Sunday, Courter gave over part of the time reserved for the moderator’s report so the young people could be heard. A large contingent filed onto the stage, and two young delegates, Hannah Eller–Isaacs of St. Paul, Minnesota, and Zarinah Ali of Chicago, presented lists of issues and events the youth and young adults wanted the delegates to hear.

Both lists included the observation that the problem was not nametags but a matter of disrespect for young people and for antiracism efforts.

“I’m in the information technology business,” Courter said after the young people had left the stage, “and there’s a saying in IT that the way to build good systems is to put the pain in the right place. I suggest that for too long it hasn’t hurt some of us very much, but the pain has still been here.” She continued:

Our children are in pain, and we have not taught them as well as we had wished how to be together. And our adults of color are in pain, and we have not learned as much as they had wished how to build the better and different community together.

I heartily recommend that if you want to change your spiritual life you give some consideration to doing some significant reading and conversation in your congregation around race and racism, age and ageism, accessibility and ableism. Part of setting the welcome table and making it real is knowing the concerns of those who might wish to sit down with us.

And if you’re feeling like we’ve spent way too much time at this General Assembly on issues of race and racism, of how we’re going to be in a community together, I ask you to get in touch with the part of you that feels this way and figure out why that is. I think doing so might help save your soul.

As the final plenary was ending, Courter recognized a delegate at a microphone. She introduced herself as Debra Boyd of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio. As a response to the presentations by Courter and the young people, Boyd offered a resolution that the delegates be “charged to work with their congregations to hold at least one program over the next year to address racism or classism and to report on that program at next year’s General Assembly.”

“I believe it is imperative for our congregations to address these issues,” Boyd said. Delegates immediately concurred.

“Well,” Courter said, “we’re taking our work home, folks.”

Our public voice

President Sinkford’s annual address to the Assembly was repeatedly interrupted by applause as he recounted his year of witnessing for justice, the Association’s lobbying in Washington, and staff efforts to bring UU values into the public debate.

He cited calling for an end to torture in U.S. military and intelligence operations, for economic justice including an increase in the federal minimum wage, for an end to genocide in Darfur, for comprehensive sexuality education initiatives, and for opposing approval of Samuel A. Alito Jr. as a Supreme Court Justice. “We now have the capacity to advance multiple public witness issues,” he said.

When Sinkford described the UUA’s leadership in the fight for marriage equality, including speaking out against “the discriminatory, un–Christian, mean–spirited federal marriage amendment,” there was a crescendo of applause and cheers.

“Marriage equality is the most sustained public witness effort in our movement’s history,” Sinkford said. “From the very start, the very start, ours has been the leading liberal religious voice in this cause, and our prominence is the standard to which we should aspire in all of our public witness work.”

Among other points in the president’s address:

  • The UUA’s new nationwide insurance program for congregational employees is a justice issue, Sinkford said, in that hundreds are now uninsured and many face exorbitant costs. The plan will take effect January 1 if at least 500 people have signed up by October 15.
  • The Starr King School for the Ministry and Meadville/Lombard Theological School, the two UUA–affiliated seminaries, are exploring consolidation. Sinkford said it was too early to predict an outcome but added, “I have become convinced that merger offers the best hope of building on the strengths of our two schools and insuring vibrant and effective theological preparation for the next generation and beyond.” [Update 8.14.06: After the magazine went to press, Lee Barker, the president of Meadville/Lombard, and David Sammons, acting president of Starr King, announced that Starr King “does not believe that it is in its best interest at this time to enter into a formal process of negotiations aimed at merger or consolidation.”]
  • A new UUA capital campaign is in the planning stages and will be formally announced next year.

Sinkford, in recounting his travels, reported going to Israel with Charlie Clements of the UUSC for a ceremony to induct Unitarians Martha Sharp and the Rev. Waitstill Sharp, among the founders of the Unitarian Service Committee, as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for their efforts to save Jews and others in Europe during World War II. Earlier, Sinkford had invited Clements and Artemis Joukowsky III, the Sharps’ grandson, to the plenary stage. He compared the Sharps’ heroism to current efforts to stop genocide in Darfur.

“We cannot rest in our pride,” Sinkford said. “The question for us is who are the Righteous Among Nations today, because there is another genocide among us today.”

Dan Brody, who was elected as the Association’s financial advisor last year, gave his first annual report: In fiscal year 2004–2005 the UUA recorded a surplus in its $20 million–plus operating budget, another was expected for 2005–2006, and net assets had grown due to favorable investment results. “In my judgment,” he said, “the UUA is in sound financial condition.” Brody also reported that Beacon Press, the UUA–owned trade book publishing house, had gained financial strength with net assets exceeding $2 million.

In her annual report, Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery thanked retiring UUA treasurer Jerry Gabert for his ten years of service and bid farewell to the Rev. David Hubner, who retired as director of the Association’s Ministry and Professional Leadership staff group in June. Montgomery introduced the Rev. Beth Miller, who will succeed Hubner, and Tim Brennan, who has been appointed the UUA’s new treasurer and vice president of finance.

A service project is part of every General Assembly. This year the Sunday worship collection raised $31,866 for Lift For Life Gym, a program for inner–city youth. A collection during Thursday night’s Service of the Living Tradition raised $65,017 to help ministers in need.

Luminous moments

With a change in lighting, the huge hall where the Assembly’s business was conducted hushed itself into a church, and people gathered for the largest Unitarian Universalist worship services of the year. Worship leaders included the Rev. Dr. Judith E. Meyer of the UU Community Church of Santa Monica, California, who preached at the Service of the Living Tradition, and the Rev. Joshua M. Pawelek of the UU Society: East in Manchester, Connecticut.

And in the biggest service of them all, on Sunday morning, the Rev. Gail R. Geisenhainer of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach, Florida, preached about her first visit to a Unitarian Universalist church in the mid–1980s, where she fully expected to be turned away for being an out lesbian. She described the way members reached out to her and kept her coming back, and called on Unitarian Universalists to be bold enough to invite people to come to church with them. “It is time to get the salvific message of our Unitarian Universalist faith out of our congregations,” she proclaimed, “out of our isolated hearts, out past our hesitations, limitations, frustrations, complacency, and consternations.” [Read the sermon or watch the service online. See note at right.]

The huge hall was hushed again Saturday night when Sinkford introduced Mary Oliver as the Ware Lecturer, calling her “one of our most important liturgists.” In a quiet and clear voice she read her beloved “Wild Geese” and several poems from her new book, Thirst, which is to be published in October by Beacon Press. But the biggest response was to three short and playful poems starring a dog named Percy.

“Our new dog, named for the beloved poet,” one poem began, “ate a book.” Laughter broke out in the giant hall. “Fortunately, it was The Bhagavad Gita.” The second laugh was louder, and at the end of the next line, the crowd laughed again. Then, when they figured out that the poem had ended, they laughed more heartily and broke into applause.

See sidebar for links to reports and related resources from this year's General Assembly. Christopher L. Walton contributed to this article.

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