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Opening Celebration Kicks Off General Assembly with Remembrance, Rhythm and Ceremony

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General Assembly 1999 Opening Event

Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator Denny Davidoff welcomed the audience to the Ballroom of the Salt Palace in downtown Salt Lake City. She began by quoting Robette Dias, a consultant to the UUA's department of Faith in Action, who wrote in the UUA's "The Jubilee Working Group Resource Manual" about the impact of racism on the United States. "We begin the opening of this General Assembly [GA] in SLC [Salt Lake City] tonight, acknowledging these facts," said Davidoff, "thinking about these facts; internalizing these facts…" Davidoff introduced Forrest Cuch, of the Utah Bureau of Indian Affairs. Cuch offered a brief overview of the life of Native Americans, in Salt Lake City and in Utah.

Ceremony of Native American Acknowledgement

Cuch (left) said, "Welcome to the crossroads in the land of the numic speakers and tribes—the tribes of the Goshute, Shoshone and the Ute, and further south of the Navajo and the Peyote. We welcome you all to this crossroads… The crossroads design is accurate as a reflection of this area. This valley was a buffer between tribes to the south and the west."

Cuch reflected, "If my people were truly savage, the Mormon people would never have entered this valley. My grandmother and many of our elders, not only in our nation, but others, have told us: 'We don't know that this (the North American conquest) is the way things were supposed to be.' It was her way of saying, 'grandson, don't grieve too much what has happened. Try to understand, try to learn, try to make something of yourself, and make a contribution to this country and this land…'" Cuch said to the gathered audience, "When we bring up the conquest, always understand that we know a lot more than you might be aware of…and we have moved on. We still believe that there needs to be a discussion, and a thorough grieving of what took place. And once we forgive each other, we should move on, and share from one another."

Cuch said, "You have a principle, the seventh principle, (concerning) respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part. About two years ago, a letter came to my desk from a Lakota Indian, addressed to the governor. Attached was a pamphlet, explaining the ancient medicine wheel. The letter said to the governor, 'someday soon, this ancient symbol will have significant meaning to your people.' There are many interpretations of the medicine wheel. But it contains four sacred colors, and it is believed that they pertain to the four major colors on earth: to the north, the white race. People blessed with technology and the responsibility to share it in a good way. To the east, the red nations, in the direction of the sun. Our power and responsibility is the connection to the earth. To the south, the yellow nations, people blessed with great spiritual and philosophical traditions. To the west, the black nations. The gift of art, music, rhythm, dance and song. Their responsibility is to share that with us and make us joyful. Each of the four colors represent the four races. But the ultimate principle is that all four races are brought together in the center, where our creator resides, and where our spirit resides. Our spirits are the same, because they all come from the same source. We are all related, we are all brothers and sisters, we are all connected, and I say, welcome, brothers and sisters."

The Banner Parade

The banner parade began with the words to the chant, "gathered here in the mystery of the hour":

Gathered here in the mystery of the hour,
Gathered here, in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit, draw near.

The banners entered from the right side of the hall in a colorful parade and walked down the center aisle, accompanied by music from a quartet of percussionists.

Following the banner parade, Scott Ward, president of the Unitarian Universalist Musician's Network and director of this year's General Assembly choir, led the group in the chant which Davidoff had quoted, "Gathered Here."

The Drum: a Universal Heartbeat, Theme for the Opening Celebration

Dorothy Smith Patterson, a member of the UUA's Fulfilling the Promise Committee, introduced the theme for the opening saying, "The drum is universal…a heartbeat…the enduring sign of life.." Patterson said, "The souls of Africa and America were all but lost…but like the spark from a doused fire, they did not die, and the drums beat on. They are the very pulse of the people who beat them. …yet ultimately the drum is a heartbeat. Its insistent and comforting rhythms come from the chest, and enduring sign of life. We the UU community are engaged …in fulfilling the promise…[this] asks us to reconnect with the promise that we each felt when we became UUs..."

"The Journey Toward Wholeness," said Patterson, "asks us to hear other's heartbeats, to open our spiritual ears to the sounds of others' lives, lived in other ways. We do this so that the silent drums, the heartbeats of those who have been ignored or dispossessed, may be heard… so that we may know, not just declare, the unity in diversity…a seamless garment of lived faith. Together, helping one another, we live moments of faith, take hope from those moments, and move into the future. Together, helping one another, we create a promise of all that is grown from those very moments… when souls meet souls, when we are brought to a more abundant life, than we knew before. This is the hope, the dream, the promise that we seek to fulfill, the heartbeat of our common faith. That is why we are on this journey toward wholeness. It is who we are, and why we are."

A video about the UUA's recovenanting process was shown, beginning with the observation, "it is impossible to be a UU alone, " made by the Rev. Clark Olsen, and showing the ways that Unitarian Universalists share their faith and their journey toward wholeness. Following the video, the audience joined in singing the hymn, "Come, come, whoever you are," during the presentation:

Come, come, whoever you are, wanderer, worshipper,
Lover of leaving.
Ours is no caravan of despair.
Come, yet again come.

—Music: the Rev. Lynn Ungar; words: adapted from Rum

Stories from Two Congregations

The Rev. Stephen Mead Johnson, Minister of the UU Fellowship of Laramie, WY, and the Rev. Joel G. Miller, Minister of the Columbine UU Church of Littleton, CO, shared stories from the congregations they serve, illustrating the Unitarian Universalist call "to help one another." Both congregations were rocketed into the headlines and rocked by crisis when Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, and students were massacred in Littleton, CO. Both congregations answered the call to provide a spiritual home for members of the community through the support received from Unitarian Universalists all over North America.

Rev. Stephen Mead Johnson, Laramie, WY, Shares His Experiences with Faith in Action

"Last October," said Johnson, "following the murder of Matthew Shepard, the Unitarian Universalist fellowship of Laramie established a Matthew Shepard Memorial Fund. In the weeks and months since, individual Unitarian Universalists, UU congregations, and the UUA itself, have contributed more than $33,000 to this fund. The nearly 1,000 individual donations ranged from $2 and $4 and $5, envelopes filled with quarters, to several contributions in excess of $1,000 from congregations in California and Virgina. Many of you contributed, and I want to thank you tonight for your generosity. This response was gratifying, and so too were the expressions of love and support we received from Unitarian Universalists around the content and across the world. Joel Miller was one of the first to offer his thoughts of support...

"In January, we spent $5,000 of this money in an effort to enact hate crime legislation in Wyoming, an effort that failed on a 30-30 vote on the last day of the legislature's session last January. We will be back next January. In April, we sent a request for proposals to individuals and organizations across Wyoming to send us their ideas for new and creative initiatives to celebrate diversity and equal justice. We received nearly fifty requests for funding, and this week, we have announced grants in the amount of $16,000 to 19 of these groups across Wyoming and Northern Colorado… the largest will be used to conduct teaching diversity workshops in Laramie and across the state. You can't imagine the people whose lives and dreams you have touched…"

"You gave Debbie East of Lander, WY, who organized a feast and candlelight march this Sunday night in support of diversity, funding. You have given generously $500 to the Rainbow Chorus in Ft. Collins, CO. "The Director of the Chorus said, 'Now is the time to sing loud and clear messages of inclusiveness and acceptance of all people.' That Director will conduct a concert in Laramie in the fall by a gay composer. You've given others money to support 'equality begins at home' celebrations, which include the native american, hispanic, jewish and african american communities… another grantee wrote, 'thank you for helping us try to change our town.. we have never had the resources to do this before but now we can… God bless you and Unitarian Universalism."

Johnson said, "The support from people in this hall and from UUs around this hall, has been critically important to ninety people on the high windswept plains of Wyoming, and to a minister who began his first ministry two weeks before Matthew Shepard was killed. We hope the people of Wyoming will be in true community, will begin to live the meaning of the motto of Wyoming, 'the equality state.' With your support, Wyoming Unitarian Universalists — all 283 of us and growing - in Cheyenne, in Laramie, in Casper, in Sheridan and Cody and Gillette and Lander and Riverton and soon, in Saratoga — are striving to live out our faith, to affirm in word and deed the inherent worth and dignity of every person. We are trying to be what we want to see. And in the words of that great hymn, 'we'll build a land, Wyoming, where we bind up the broken, where the captives go free, where the oil of gladness dissolves all mourning, we'll build a promised land that can be…where sisters and brothers, annointed by god, can then create peace, where justice can roll down like waters, and peace like an ever-flowing stream." 

Rev. Joel Miller, Littleton, CO, Reflects on the Saving Faith of Unitarian Universalism

Joel Miller, who ministers to the Columbine Unitarian Universalist Church in Littleton, CO, spoke, saying, "From Columbine, I have words of joy and words of sorrow. My sadness is more complicated than you would expect. The eight high school youth from my congregation were not killed. They were shot at… and when we brought them home, it meant a lot to receive your letters, your banners, your prayers, your love, and your contributions—to date $22,000—to help counsel, and to build a memorial.

"You have shown that you are a gentle, loving people. (But) my sadness is complicated, because when I see my African American brothers and sisters, I wonder why we ignored violence when it was in black neighborhoods, when it was in Hispanic neighborhoods. If America had paid attention, then Columbine might not have happened. To my Unitarian Universalist people, I tell you…we cannot live in shame or wallow in despair. There is not time, there are lives at stake. You see, UUism saves lives. I realized this in the weeks following the shooting: I realized that lives were saved by Unitarian Universalist heroes — by our youth group advisors who have sustained our youth programs, and brought hope and meaning where there was none.

"On April 28, you fulfilled the promise…all of our congregations that welcome gays and lesbians, that have youth programs, these programs save lives. Imagine if every town had a Unitarian Universalist congregation…billions of people would journey toward wholeness and dismantle racism. They would grow up with a healthy sexuality, both gay and straight…they would know the good news of compassionate wisdom. We do not have time to indulge ourselves in being a small, self-satisfied religion…there are lives at stake!

"I realize that those of you at GA may be dedicated UUs…but please tell the people at home: 'this faith saves lives…it can change the world.' And if they ask you, 'really?' , tell them that I know… I have seen it already. By taking small step after small step, every day, and giving a few hours a week to advise a youth group, to understand and dismantle racism, by giving a few hours of pay to support this Association, you help us to start new congregations, and give hope in places where there was none. Go back, tell our people, that it matters that this Association is here, it matters that they are here. Tell them that with this faith, they can and they will save lives."

We Are a Gentle, Angry People

The presentations were followed by the singing of "We are a Gentle, Angry People," by Holly Near, and the articulation of a vision: "Heartbeats of life that carry the promise…Heartbeat moments on the journey toward wholeness…Among the first people of this land, the Utes have prayed here for generations:

'Earth teach me stillness as the grasses are still with light.
Earth teach me suffering as old stones suffer with memory.
Earth teach me caring, as parents who secure the young.
Earth teach me caring.
Earth teach me freedom as the eagle that soars in the sky,
and earth teach me resignation as the leaves that die in the fall.
Earth teach me regeneration as the seeds that rise in the spring,
and earth teach me to forget myself as the melted snow forgets its life.
Earth teach me to remember kindness, as dry fields weep with rain.'

Patterson said, "The Ute knew—they still know—the eminence of the sacred, a depth of the sacred…the birds, the trees, the snow and the rain. Nothing in that world is profane, useless; everything matters, but does the world allow us to walk so tenderly, see so deeply, know so thoroughly, while wind and sun and moon and stars go their implacable ways, have we made life into a race for more and faster, new and bigger?

"Time, which once passed as the heartbeat of the universe, slow and sure, now seems bent on racing to the end, and that which seemed durable is plowed under by progress and plans. Is this what must be? Listen: your heart is beating, and that of the person beside you, and that of your loved one on the other side of the content, and the other side of the planet. As sure as the rising sun, and the waxing and the waning of the moon, hearts beat on…this has not changed, and neither have the moments of love and honor. Everyone here has given such moments, and these moments are what we build our faith with…these heartbeats of life carry the promise. These heartbeat moments are why we journey toward wholeness. So let us take the time to hear the heartbeats within us, to hear the rhythm that is the pulse of life, and of faith…listen…remember…dream…"

Plenary Session: Remembering Sandra Mitchell Caron

Moderator Denny Davidoff then called the General Assembly's first Plenary session to order. The Chalice was lit by former Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen, who remembered former UUA Moderator Sandra Mitchell Caron. Caron died in early June following a long illness, and had been a distinguished lay leader within Unitarian Universalism for decades. Davidoff said, "the only two people in the Association who know the anticipatory thrill, the shiver that comes when you are as Moderator about to gavel up a General Assembly, stand here before you tonight. But Natalie and I had, until a short few weeks ago, a third alumna Moderator, Sandra Mitchell Caron, who is with us on this earth no longer. And nobody loved gaveling up the General Assembly more than Sandy Caron, and we miss her tonight, and we mourn her untimely death at the age of 64.

"Sandy was elected Moderator in 1977. She was the first woman to be elected Moderator, she was the first Moderator who had a vision of doing the work all the time, instead of at board meetings and at General Assemblies. She was the first Moderator who had the audacity to demand a travel allowance, and like Joe Fisher before her, she was hilariously funny…I can remember sitting down there where you are, absolutely fascinated, raptly attentive, and thinking, 'could I ever do that?'

"In June of 1993," Davidoff continued, "shortly before I went to Charlotte where I was to be elected Moderator, I had dinner with Sandy in New York City. She had already gone on to being in dialysis three nights a week as well. She was getting used to that and didn't think she could come to General Assembly… She said, 'be yourself, and don't ever forget the congregations.' She never forgot the congregations." Gulbrandsen said, Sandy loved being Moderator. As President of the UU Womens' Federation, I attended all the board meetings. Sandy and I became good friends, and when her term as Moderator was ended, she became Chair of the Clara Barton Camp for Girls with Diabetes.

"There is a bond between Moderators," said Gulbrandsen, "and we knew it. The UUA, Metro New York District, and the two of us (referring to herself and Davidoff), and all of you, have lost a good friend." Davidoff asked for a moment of silent tribute and remembrance for Caron.

Welcoming New Congregations, Adopting Rules of Procedure

Davidoff then called for the adoption of the Rules of Procedure for the General Assembly. The Assembly welcomed ten new congregations into membership with the Association:

  • The UU Congregation of Venice, FL
  • The UU Congregation of Marquette, MI
  • The Comal County UU Society, New Braunfels, TX
  • The UU Fellowship of Winona, MN
  • Lake Tahoe UU Fellowship, South Lake Tahoe, CA
  • The UU Fellowship of Sheridan, WY
  • The UU Congregation of Pagosa Springs, CO
  • Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalists, Oldsmar, FL
  • Prairie Unitarian Universalist Church, Parker, CO
  • Unitarian Universalists of Southern Delaware, Lewes, DE

Bob Martin, Vice Chair of the General Assembly Planning Committee, explained the Rules of Procedure for the General Assembly. Davidoff introduced he Planning and Volunteer Committees who have responsibility for the General Assembly, and the Assembly closed with Carolyn McDade's song, "Come, Sing a Song With Me."

Closing the Plenary

The second plenary session of the General Assembly will be held on Friday, June 25, and will feature action on proposed bylaw amendments and reports from the Annual Program Fund and the Commission on Social Witness.

Reported for the web by Debbie Weiner.

Opening Celebration Script

By W. Frederick Wooden

[Author's note: numbers 1 & 2 (below) are different from the version actually performed at GA. There were also other minor text changes made, but none affecting meaning. —WFW, 6/25/99]

1) Native American Ceremony of Acknowledgement

Native American hosts prepare stage as they require. A group of leaders led by Denny Davidoff, John Buehrens, Diane Olsen, Dorothy Paterson, Marc Lousteau & a local leader will participate in the ceremony with a group of Native Americans from the SLC area. Davidoff will be the spokesperson for the Unitarian Universalist group. The dialogue will be fashioned between she and the Native American group.

Davidoff: "We come to you, the people of this land, to ask your hospitality for us and our people. Pray, allow us to sojourn here; to eat the fruit of this valley and drink the water of these rivers; to rest in the shade of these trees and sleep beneath this sky."

(Response and ceremony to be crafted and directed by the Indigenous People who preside.) Denny then expresses thanks, with possible words such as :

Davidoff: With grateful hearts and reverent steps we enter this place, giving our solemn pledge to remember always your generosity, and to treat this place as your home in which we are honored guests and you are honored hosts."

2) The Banner Parade

A drumbeat begins at the conclusion of the Ceremony of Acknowledgement, followed instantly by words from Davidoff:

Davidoff: Come, friends and comrades, gather here in the mystery of the hour. Gather here in the one strong body. Gather here in the struggle and the power. For the spirits draw near and bid us welcome.

Drumbeats continue throughout the banner parade. They may vary in style and character, but a constant beat or pulse is important.

3) Doxology (#389, Singing the Living Tradition)

Overlaying the drumbeat (if possible) song leader Scott Ward sings through #389 (Gathered Here…). The organ/piano may accompany him or substitute for the voice. The assembly then joins, under the direction of the song leader. Drumbeat continues after song is over, somewhat softer.

4) Introduction of Theme

Drum beat continues as speaker (Dorothy Patterson) says:

Patterson: "The drum is universal. However varied from place to place and time to time, drums are the audible pulse in cultures. So strong are they, that in the struggle between cultures on this continent, they were often silenced. The cadences of Asente and the Senegal, the songs of the Shoshone and the Ute, the souls of Africa and America, were all but lost. But like the spark left from a doused fire, they did not die. Unheard by most, the drums beat on, the very pulse of the people who beat them.

Pulse. Yes, ultimately, the drum is a heartbeat. It's insistent and comforting rhythm comes from the beating of hearts in every chest, the ancient and enduring sign of life.

We, the Unitarian Universalist Community, are engaged by two great labors. But they are ultimately the same thing, to give new and enduring life to our faith. Fulfilling the Promise asks that we reconnect with the promise we each felt when we became Unitarian Universalist. We all have such a moment, even those who grew up with it. We each have a moment, a lived moment, when the promise of Unitarian Universalism was present in our personal lives. If we are to fulfill the promise of our faith it means reconnecting with those moments of living faith, heart beats, if you will, when religion and life and hope and reality were one and the same.

The Journey Toward Wholeness asks us to hear other heartbeats; to open our spiritual ears to the sounds of other lives lived in other ways. We do this so that the silent drums, the silent heartbeats of those who have been ignored and dispossessed, may be heard. We do this so that we may know not just declare the unity in the diversity, that each may become part of a seamless garment of lived faith.

Together, then, helping one another, we live the moments of faith, take hope from those moments, and move into the future. Together, helping one another, we create a promise for all, grown from those moments. Together, helping one another, we find shared moments when soul meets soul; when we are brought to a more abundant life than we knew before.

This is the hope, this is the dream, this is the promise that we seek to fulfill. It is the heartbeat of our common faith that is why we are on this journey toward wholeness. It is who we are and why we are.

Drum continues and fades out before the end of the narrative.

5) Video Presentation

During the video, Song Leader, Scott Ward, comes to the podium. When "Come, Come Whoever You Are" (#188, Singing the Living Tradition) is sung on the tape, the tape stops, and Scott Ward then brings the assembly to song in the same hymn. As song ends, video resumes. Video concludes, lights up on podium

6) Two Congregational Stories

Patterson: These words from last General Assembly are not the only words, either then or since. In the last year over a thousand congregations and over 300,000 people (don't forget the children) have had a year of lived moments, heart beats. One of those heartbeats, for an individual and a congregation, comes from Wyoming.

Response to the Matthew Shepard tragedy as told by the Rev. Stephen Mead Johnson, minister of Laramie, Wyoming Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Following that story Patterson again speaks:

Paterson: Less than a day away, in Colorado, another congregation found its heart breaking in response to the sorrow so recently visited there.

Response to the Littleton murders as told by Joel Miller, minister from Columbine Unitarian Universalist congregation.

7) Community Sing

Song Leader will then lead assembly in song, "We Are a Gentle Angry People," (#170, Singing the Living Tradition). The drumbeat re-enters immediately after the community singing, very low, barely audible.

8) Homily

John Buehrens at podium, drum beat in background

Buehrens: One of the first peoples in this land, the Utes, have prayed here for countless generations. These are their words:

"Earth teach me stillness, as the grasses are stilled with light.

Earth teach me suffering as old stones suffer with memory.

Earth teach me caring, as parents who secure the young.

Earth teach me courage as the tree which stands alone.

Earth teach me freedom as the eagle which soars in the sky.

Earth teach me resignation, as the leave which die in the fall.

Earth teach me regeneration, as the seed which rises in the spring.

Earth teach me to forget myself as melted snow forgets its life.

Earth teach me to remember kindness as dry fields weep with rain."

The Utes knew, they still know, the immanence of the sacred, a depth of being that shines from the grass, the stones, the birds, the trees, the snow and the rain. Nothing in that world is profane, useless, or dross. Everything matters. But does the world allow us to walk so tenderly, see so deeply, to know so thoroughly? While sun and moon and stars go their implacable ways, have we made life into a race for more and faster, newer and bigger? Time, which once passed as the heart beat of the universe, slow and sure, now seems bent on racing to the end. That which was durable seems to be plowed under by progress and plans.

Is this what must be? Listen. Your heart is beating. And that of the person beside you. Those of your loved ones on the other side of the continent, and those on the other side of the planet. As sure as the rising sun, as real as rain and heat, as steady as the waxing and waning moon, hearts beat on. This has not changed.

And neither have the moments of love and honor. Everyone here has received and given such moments. And these heart beat moments are what we build our faith with. These heartbeats of life are what carry the promise. These heart beat moments are why we journey toward wholeness.

So let us take the time to hear the heart beats within us. Listen for the rhythm that is the pulse of life and hope and faith. Listen. Remember. Dream.

Drumbeats rise and continue as the speech ends.

9) Beginning the Plenary

Drums crescendo, become the only sound and activity. Davidoff goes to her place at the podium as the drums continue. Davidoff matches the general beat to the drums and bangs gavel three times. On third time drums cease and Davidoff immediately says,

"I hereby declare this 38th meeting of the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association in session."

Light chalice immediately after Davidoff speaks (no words should be spoken).

10) Plenary follows

11) Concluding Song

Song Leader (Ward) leads assembly in "Come Sing a Song" (#346, Singing the Living Tradition)

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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