Each June Unitarian Universalists from across the country—and to some degree from around the world—gather for what is called our General Assembly. The General Assembly is the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association. Attendees are lay delegates and alternates from UU congregations, as well as clergy, and other interested participants. I’m not sure on my numbers here, but as I recall, something over 3,000 people attended last year’s General Assembly in Charlotte, North Carolina. For most delegates, especially those who come from areas of the country where UUs are few and far between, it is a thrill to be amongst so many fellow travelers.
This past June’s General Assembly was our 50th, dating back to 1961 when the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America joined to form the Unitarian Universalist Association. The comparable meetings on the Unitarian side were called the May Meetings and date back to 1825. On the Universalist side, the name was the General Convention of Universalists; the first such meeting was in 1783. So for all these many years, Unitarian and Universalists and now Unitarian Universalists have met to do the business of the Association as well as to learn, to worship, to sing, to share with each other.
What happens at a GA? The stated purpose is to conduct the official business of the Association. This business has to do with policies, procedures, the administration and structure of the UUA. The General Assembly also addresses matters of public policy, and at each GA, social justice resolutions come before the delegates. The delegates debate and vote upon the issues presented; these votes set the policies and the priorities of the Association. But that’s just part of it.
Other things go on at GA too. The ministers meet on the days immediately preceding GA in what are called Professional Days. During the GA itself, business meetings alternate with programs, workshops, speakers. There’s a great vendors area where we stock up on the latest things, UU—from Flaming Chalice jewelry to books and pamphlets to posters and bumper stickers and information about organizations and initiatives in which UUs are involved. There’s a choir made up delegates. There are opportunities to meet people, share views and ideas. GA is several days of UU total immersion.
The first General Assembly I attended was in 1973, New York City. I had recently graduated from theological school and had just been called to my first church. Between then and now, I have not I have not attended all the General Assemblies but I’ve been to a lot of them, enough to recognize that each GA has its own feeling, its own personality. Some have been divisive, driven by passion. Some have been mellow, everybody seems calm and happy. Sometimes a particular issue will dominate, others are more diffuse. And at least one GA has been struck by lightening: Salt Lake City, three years ago. Posted outside the Salt Lake City convention center street was a big banner with the slogan and logo that we are use to identify several of our social justice campaigns, “Standing on the Side of Love.” This “Standing on the Side of Love” banner was quite big, displayed high above street level, and held in place by metal poles. A storm rolled in from the mountains and lightning struck down that banner, tearing it into shreds. There are different interpretations of what that might have meant. (Mine is that if you hang a banner from metal poles and hoist it high in the sky, you’re asking for trouble, even if God is on your side.)
Each of us in this service today attended last June’s General Assembly in Charlotte. We would like to share something of that experience with you, each of us from our own perspective. One of our aims is to give a wider view of what is happening in the UUA beyond Davies. Another is to encourage you to think about attending, either as an official delegate or as a participant.
I’ve represented our congregation as a delegate at 16 of the past 18 General Assemblies. As a delegate, I attend all the plenary sessions where we debate and vote on proposed amendments to the Association’s By-Laws, rules changes and other business resolutions as well as on important social justice issues.
There were seven plenary sessions last year, but I still had lots of time to do other things.
When asked what I like about General Assembly, the answer is easy. I like everything about it.
Each June I look forward:
• to being with thousands of UUs from all over the country
• to reconnecting with old friends and making new ones
• and to hearing wonderful music and experiencing worship services led by our
best UU ministers
Each General Assembly provides a unique experience.
Today I will talk about two events which I particularly enjoyed during the most recent General Assembly in Charlotte, N.C.
One of those events was a worship service, and the other was the Ware Lecture.
Church of the Larger Fellowship Worship Service
There are many opportunities for worship at GA. Each day begins with spiritual practice from 7 to 7:30 AM, and a number of other worship services are held during the four day conference. The one which I routinely put on my schedule is the Church of the Larger Fellowship’s worship service which always features excellent speakers and beautiful music.
This year’s service was especially meaningful to me because of the participants, some of whom I have known for a long time. It was the occasion for the installation of the Rev. Meg Riley as senior minister. I have known Meg since the 1990s when she headed the UUA Washington Office of Faith in Action. I sometimes went down to that office to help out with social justice projects when Meg was there.
Another participant, was the Rev. Kendyl Rauen Gibbons who wrote the beautiful words to the Musical Meditation ,Life Calls Us On, which was performed during the service. Kendyl was an active RE participant here at Davies from her kindergarten days through high school, and was ordained here in May 1980.
I look forward to reconnecting with her at General Assembly each year.
The Church of the Larger Fellowship is a unique congregation that only meets in person once a year – at General Assembly.
It is the largest and most far-reaching congregation in the UU world, with more than 3,500 members, which includes more than 400 members who are in prison, and another 250 members who live outside the United States.
It has a rich heritage. What began in the 1800’s with the Post Office Mission,– or Church By Mail has now become the Church On-Line, providing a ministry to isolated religious liberals.
There are now weekly sermons via Livestream TV … as well as an online class for those who would like to learn more about Unitarian Universalism.
In his homily, the Rev. Nate Walker said that “It’s not about gadgets. It’s about connection, the human connection. It’s about being a religion of our time for the people of our time.”
This reminded me of something UUA President Peter Morales wrote in his recent essay — Congregations and Beyond.
He said he is realizing in a profound way that congregations cannot be the only way we connect with people. He proposes that we need to think of ourselves as a religious movement, rather than an association of congregations.
And he said the CLF provides an excellent model for new ways of connecting as we move toward thinking of Unitarian Universalism in new ways.
The other experience I want to share is the Ware Lecture.
The UUA President, in consultation with the General Assembly Planning Committee invites a distinguished guest each year to address the Assembly as the Ware Lecturer. Karen Armstrong, one of the world’s leading commentators on religious affairs and a best-selling author was this year’s lecturer.
I was especially pleased to learn that Karen would be speaking, as I had read a number of her books, including The History of God.
She was introduced President Morales who noted that her career path had some surprising twists and turns. At age 19 she entered a convent in England where she stayed for the next seven years.
Her Religious Orders then sent her to Oxford University where she began questioning her faith in God. Ultimately she left the convent, finding work first as an educator, and then as an independent writer.
It was when she went to Israel to do some reporting on the biblical figure Paul, that she was struck by the interconnectedness of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
She subsequently wrote her 1993 book, A History of God: The 4,000-year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam which became an international bestseller.
Since then she has written 12 more books on religion, including her short history of Islam which she revised and updated after 9/11.
Karen said she was pleased and honored to be the Ware Lecturer, as she had often been told that Unitarianism should be her spiritual home.
Her lecture addressed “The Challenge of Compassion.”
She argued that compassion and the Golden Rule have been central to all the major faiths.
Each one of the major faiths has at its core the ethic of compassion. Every single one of them has developed its own version of the Golden Rule, never to treat others as you would not like to be treated yourself,
and has said that this is the test of spirituality;
that it is this which takes us beyond the prism of ego and selfishness and greed, and enables us to enter into our best selves.
And yet, so often you don’t hear about it.
Often when religious leaders come together they talk about a particular sexual ethic or an abstruse doctrine,
as though this, rather than compassion, was the test of a spiritual life.
(The current contretemps about contraception illustrates her point.)
She said unless we now learn to implement the Golden Rule globally so that we treat all peoples, all nations, as we would wish to be treated ourselves, we’re not going to have a viable world.
An ideology that does not restore compassion to the center of the spiritual, religious and ethical life fails the test of our time she concluded.
This was my 13th General Assembly. At every GA there is so much to do. I was a delegate, representing this congregation, which is not my preferred activity at GA but I’m almost always glad that it compels me to attend the plenary sessions where I am inspired and learn so much.
I also like to attend workshops. I followed the multicultural track for the most part this last year, but there were several things that I couldn’t attend due to daily choir rehearsals. We had a great day of singing on the last day of the conference. The hymns we’re singing today come from some of the songs we sang that day.
I don’t have the best memory, but I always take notes and try to share what I learned. I’ve blogged about GA for the past several years, so an outline of my experiences along with photos are available online.
During the Synergy Bridging Ceremony, where we recognize our youth who were graduating, popular UU musician, Nick Page, led us and the youth in singing. We sang an African American spiritual with the words “let the life I do speak for me”, which was a great message to the youth and all of us. Nick Page also presented a new song he wrote about altruism – This is a Promise I Will Keep. I placed it on the Davies Church (dmuuc) YouTube account’s UU music playlist since the song was available there.
The thing that I remember most from this last year’s GA is the March for Standing on the Side of Love to protest laws against protecting the rights of people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Mike and I marched there together wearing our Standing on the Side of Love T-shirts. Bruce and Liz were also there somewhere in the crowd. We marched several blocks to a park where there were many outstanding speakers.
On my way home in the pouring rain, I spent a few minutes alone walking with Rev. Mark Kiyimba from Uganda, briefly sharing my umbrella with him. He was tall to my short stature, which I mention this next thing because there are other people, like me who feel they have little power: I helped him hail a cab that might not have stopped for a tall black man – I could be wrong – the cab that passed him may have had a good reason & he may have gotten one without me, but I’ve heard so many stories & seen studies that cab drivers will often not stop for black men. Also, this was a great man in my mind & I felt so privileged to be in his presence as he is an important leader who stopped the bill to imprison & execute people who are homosexual & he is still working to keep people in Uganda from being beaten to death for their sexuality or even appearing effeminate. These attitudes & that awful bill in Uganda was encouraged by some religiously conservative Americans. He was humble, not taking credit for the results of his work, but by crediting UUs & our collective work with him to stop the bill.
It’s an extraordinary feeling to be part of a movement that can do that – we made a difference in stopping people from being executed. We are a small religious organization, but we are leaders in the fight to end this kind of oppression and abuse and Unitarian Universalists are leaders in many other ways. I may do only one or two small things, but collectively we make a difference. When I’m at GA, I can see those who are part of this great movement and have small but powerful encounters like the one I had with Rev. Mark Kiyimba. It makes me, a decidedly introverted person, feel more empowered to act in more extroverted ways like getting up here to share my experiences with you.
Mike talked about how he goes to GA because he enjoys it even though he has never been a delegate. He told a personal story about his Greek heritage and how he relates the pilgrimage his family went on to what we do when we go to GA. (Photo of Mike at rally on blog)
Then he talked about going to Phoenix next year and how we’ve had discussions about the book, “The Death of Josseline” which is a very touching story about the history of migration and what’s happening in Arizona.
I have been to enough General Assemblies to recognize themes, that is, areas of interest or concern that are unique to specific GA’s.
This past year’s was our history GA as we reflected about these past 50 years. For example, I attended one workshop that featured speakers addressing four areas of social justice concerns that have claimed our attention during that time. One had to do with efforts to combat racial discrimination, another was concerned with human rights for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual people, a third was concerned with women’s rights, and a forth focused on economic justice. Each of the speakers reflected about what we have done and what we haven’t, what we have achieved and what challenges still lie ahead.
I note three major themes that came up in different contexts throughout this GA. My sense is that these not only represented issues for those attending General Assembly but they represent concerns found throughout our congregations.
The first: our future. What will the next 50 years, 20 years, 10 years hold for Unitarian Universalism?
The second: theology. There was more interest in theology at this GA than I have seen for awhile.
The third: justice, particularly with regard to immigration issues.
I’ll say a little about each.
Our future was a natural topic as we were considering the past 50 years. We remembered the hopes that were present at the founding of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We celebrated our accomplishments, we noted those areas in which we have come up short. And we thought about what might lie ahead.
There are worries about our future. Our numbers have held about even in recent decades, which is better than many religious organizations have done. The so-called mainline Protestant denominations have lost 1/4, even 1/3 of their membership during the same time frame. But before we congratulate ourselves too much, we need to recognize that holding even isn’t really holding even. For as the US population grows, staying the same in membership means that our percentage of the population is shrinking.
We live in a time when participation in organized religion is declining, across the board. When people are asked their religious preference, the fastest growing category is, “none.” “The rise of the nones,” is what Time Magazine called it, marking this as a significant trend. When participation in religious organizations is declining as a whole, we too will be affected. We wonder what will be available for our children, for our children’s children, for the next generations.
This led to the second theme: theology. Theology defined as the systematic study of meaning and our relationship to what we consider to be sacred or holy or our highest values. Participation in organized religion may be declining, but that’s mean we’ve lost interest in meaning, in the sacred, in seeking to live authentically. What’s diminishing is the confidence that one can find meaning and purpose and satisfaction within religious institutions. A key to our own survival and renewal, then, is theology. Having a theology that helps us in this quest, that brings us hope and courage. There have been some years in which we have been too busy with other things—like, for example, saving the world—to be very concerned about theology. That has changed. Two of the best attended programs at GA—with people filling all the chairs, sitting on the floor, listening from outside the doors—were concerned with directions in UU theology.
The third theme to this GA was justice, specifically justice for immigrants. This one has a history. Location cities for General Assembly are chosen years in advance. So we already know the location for 2013: Louisville, Kentucky 2014: Providence, Rhode Island: and 2015: Portland, Oregon. Several years ago when Phoenix, Arizona was chosen to be the site for the 2012 GA, nobody knew that Arizona would pass one of the most restrictive anti-immigrant laws in the nation. When that did occur, there were calls for us to boycott, to move our General Assembly to a friendlier place.
But organizations with whom we partner on immigrant rights issues had a better idea. They said, “Come to Phoenix, come to Phoenix anyway. Show your opposition to this repressive legislation. Live your first principle—affirming human worth and dignity—in the context of how we are treating undocumented immigrants.”
So this coming June’s General Assembly will be in Phoenix, but it will be different from previous GA’s. The organizers have promised that there will be minimal business so that GA attendees can learn about the struggle for immigrant rights and to register their protest against Arizona laws that are being touted by some as a model for the nation. It will give us an inside view of this particular struggle for justice. The name given to this coming General Assembly: “The Justice GA.”
Hence the themes I found in last year’s GA: (1) Our future, (2) Theology and its role in helping create a vital future, and (3) Justice, specifically applying our first principle of honoring human worth and dignity to our immigrants.
If you are tempted to attend General Assembly this year, there is room and there is time. Davies can send three delegates, who are selected by the congregation. But you don’t have to be a delegate—you can still attend. You can still be part of GA. Talk to any of us about it. Even if you only attend once, General Assembly is an experience worth having.