Highlights from General Assembly

The Unitarian Universalist Association convened our 58th General Assembly of congregations in Spokane, Washington—a five-day event running from Wednesday, June 19, to Sunday, June 23. Nearly 2,600 people attended from 541 congregations. Attending from All Souls Church were Jamie Gibson and Marty Shaw, serving as delegates empowered to vote on the UUA’s annual business, and Catie G. Berg, serving as a member of ASC’s Board of Trustees.

This year’s theme was “The Power of We”—including our possibilities, struggles, and joys. And what power We have! Over and over—in worship, lectures, workshops, and conversations—we learned how the power of diverse identities and points of view serve to broaden the Beloved Community that espouses our Seven Principles and our passionate work for social justice.

Significant emphasis occurred throughout the assembly on the urgent need for the UUA’s dominant culture of white power and privilege to “center those in the margins”—to bring marginalized people to the center of our congregations—so they are recognized and empowered within their faith-community. It’s not a matter of welcoming those from the margins, since they are already within our congregations and are invested in our faith. It’s a matter of humbling the dominant culture so that all minority identities—whether young, old, ethnic, racial, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, non-binary, economic, etc.—know that they belong in the Beloved Community of Unitarian Universalism.

The UUA’s Call for Public Witness occurred as an outpouring of UUs at an hour-long demonstration to “Demand Smart Justice for Spokane!” The event condemned the injustice of 87% of those in Spokane County Jail having been incarcerated for non-violent offenses.  The UUA’s summons to Side with Love, explains that, “Communities of color, those living in poverty, and our neighbors with mental illness, addiction, and disabilities are hardest hit by the criminal justice system…dividing our families and stifling economic opportunity and growth…We say: jobs not jails, mental health services not sentences, and racial equity, not racial profiling.”

Each year, the GA proclaims a Statement of Conscience that confronts injustice and calls for reform. This year’s statement focuses on “Our Democracy Uncorrupted.” The goal is to dismantle unjust practices from a culture of white supremacy begun in colonial times—that gave white men the most power and that took indigenous people’s land and enslaved black people—and to replace injustice with democracy for all. An opening theme of the Statement asserts, “As people of faith committed to ‘the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large,’ we must strive toward uncorrupted democracy. As a means to an end, democracy organizes decision-making among diverse people and preserves stability while balancing competing interests. But democracy is not merely a means. It is an end in itself, an ethical ideal, a moral and spiritual way of relating to one another.”

The Sofia Fahs Lecture is named for the formative religious educator from the “Unitarian renaissance of the 1940s.” The lecture shares valuable insights from a current educator in faith formation. This year’s lecturer, Paula Cole Jones, is a member of the Liberal Religious Educators’ Association. Ms. Jones tells us that as UU ideals work for social justice and the dismantling of white power and privilege, “…we could use an identity update…” that “…challenges who we think we are. Seeing ourselves as a Community of Communities changes our future and it is key to the Beloved Community.” As UUs shift from a paradigm of dominant culture to many cultures, we benefit from changing the metaphor of family to the concept of community of communities. Families have a “pecking order”—built on authority—telling us whom we can bring home and whom we can’t. A community of communities, however, starts with a frame we are familiar with—the committee. Ms. Jones likens a committee to a small community. The small community is likely where someone outside the dominant culture begins to find a place and a voice. The inclusive multicultural congregation—having committees where each person can build a voice and meaning—becomes a community of communities where all congregants have value and are heard. Ms. Jones sees this inclusivity as the future of Unitarian Universalism. 

The Ware Lecture is named for the Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., a renowned Unitarian sermonizer in 19th-Century Boston. The UUA chooses a creative and distinguished champion of UU values to present the annual Ware Lecture. This year, Richard Blanco—President Obama’s Inaugural Poet—spoke eloquently about immigration and country. Blanco came to the U.S.A. as a young Latino immigrant, whose family had fled Cuba for Spain. Growing up poor in Miami, the Cuban values of community, family, culture, and hard work nevertheless provided a rich life. Now Blanco is an acclaimed writer, poet, and teacher. In his poems and writings, Blanco conveys the importance of multiculturalism to provide creativity, energy, and insight for America’s prosperity. As a commentary on the inhumane practices of our current president, Blanco’s recent book of poems, How to Love a Country, highlights the people, places and institutions that kindle deep affection for our country, despite its current racist, undemocratic and destructive leadership. Blanco’s book is published by the UUA’s Beacon Press.

Sunday’s Worship Service, “In This Delicate Turning,” filled us with the themes and hopes of the previous four days. Songs and poetry, presented in Spanish, reminded us of el poder de nosotros—the Power of We. The UUA chose an organization—that is self-creating its dream for racial empowerment—as the recipient of the offering. The Carl Maxey Center of Spokane is a vibrant “community center for African Americans to focus attention and efforts on combating racial disparities in education, criminal justice, health, housing and employment.” The Rev. Marta I. Valentín shared a powerful Meditation, “It Is Time Now,” about waiting too long for the dominant culture to hear and respond to calls from oppressed minorities for justice, equity, and inclusion. She said, “I love you. I need you.”  And for “the power of We,” we need each other. 

As usual, GA offered many forums and workshops that develop lay leadership. We three attendees participated in various workshops—about Religious Exploration, Finance, Stewardship, and Congregational Life. We hope to share what we’ve learned with our fellow congregants.

Next year will be much easier to access the power of GA, since Providence, Rhode Island, will be the host city. Mark your calendars now for this important opportunity: June 24 to June 28, 2020.

—by Catie G. Berg