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Plenary I

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General Assembly 2004 Event 2004

(Long Beach, June 25, 2004) Acting Moderator Gini Courter called to order the forty-third General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), welcoming delegates from all fifty United States and the District of Columbia, Canada and Mexico, and honored international guests.

The first order of business, said Courter, was to thank those people who have worked so hard to bring this General Assembly into being—the Planning Committee. Courter then introduced two valuable members of the team that makes the Plenary sessions go smoothly-the UUA's legal counsel, Ned Leibensperger, who has served in this capacity for more than ten years; and the parliamentarian, retired District Court Judge Gordon Martin, who has served in this capacity since the 1969 General Assembly.

After passing the rules of procedure, the Rev. Wayne Arnason, Secretary of the UUA, gave the preliminary credentials report. As of Friday morning, there were 4,518 people registered for GA, with 1,605 of these being delegates. The delegate total included 1291 lay people, 287 ministers, 3 delegates from Associate Organizations, and the 24 members of the UUA Board of Trustees. With these numbers, Courter declared that a quorum had been present since the beginning of the meeting.

Financial Reports

Larry Ladd, the UUA's Financial Advisor, presented his annual report (PDF) to the Assembly. He observed that he takes as his mandate this advice from the late Rev. Peter Raible: "What we need is a person who strives mightily to give us an independent and critical view-the best assurance available that we are being responsible."

Ladd then broke his report into three areas: growth and congregational resources, financial results, and new standards of financial accountability and responsibility. Over the past year, the Association has gained just under one percent more adult population, while the religious education enrollment has fallen by just under 2%. The growth in adult members is good, but could be better, Ladd said, and there is little conversation about what the drop in religious education numbers means. We are keeping up with our "share" of the population, he said, but we have done no better than that.

Ladd observed that congregational resources have shown remarkable results. Over the past twenty years, congregations have doubled their resources, reporting a collective spending of $182.6 million in 2003. Since the number of congregations has remained relatively constant, the average congregational budget has grown to over $150,000. Actual financial results show that fiscal year 2003 budget was balanced, and that the current year (fiscal year 2004) is projected to end in balance as well. Beacon Press is ahead of their financial plan for the second year in a row.

Ladd introduced Lucia Santini-Field, chair of the Investment Committee. Santini-Field reported that there have been good results since the change of managers and approach to the general investment fund over the past few years. Results are good, and are above projections and objectives, though she cautioned that past performance is no guarantee of future outcomes.

Ladd reported that for the first time since fiscal year 2002, the income for general support of the Association and its operations increased. Congregational giving has consistently increased each year, even through the downturn in the economy. And although the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 does not apply to not for profit organizations, the UUA is already moving to implement many of its suggestions into accounting practice, including the creation of an Audit Committee, a whistle-blower policy, and conflict of interest policies.

Lyn Conley, Chair of the UUA Finance Committee and Trustee from the Mid-South District, presented the 2005 fiscal year budget. Rather than wading line by line through the 47 page long budget document, Conley elected to report on income and expenditures by percentages. Income comes from specific endowments, the Veatch Grants of the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock, members and friends, and from the Annual Program Fund contributions of congregations. She also paid honor to those persons who so generously gave to the UUA through bequests during the past year.

Barb Brown, a member of the Annual Program Fund Committee from the Central Midwest District, introduced the members of the Committee as she also thanked congregations for their annual contributions to the UUA through the Annual Program Fund (APF). She reported that this year's budget target for contributions is over $5.9 million, and that to date the APF is less than $160,000 from reaching this goal.

The Reverend Roberta Nelson joined Conley on stage to help present the award for the Annual Program Fund/UU Ministers Association Sermon on giving. This year's award winner is seminarian Bonnie McClish Dlott.

Conley reviewed the expenses of the Association, which total $12,184,305 for fiscal year 2005. The largest share of the expenses, 61%, goes directly to programs for congregations. This includes the district staff, ministry and professional leadership, publishing, identity-based ministries, lifespan faith development, advocacy and witness, and congregational services. She also reported that when the Fair Share amount was last raised by $2, half of that was earmarked for growth.

The UUA's Work In and Connections To the Larger World

Sue Stukey, Trustee from the Central Midwest District, reported on the Board's conversations about the UUA's international connections. Over the past 200 years, the UUA and its predecessors worked to create the International Association of Religious Freedom, Religions for Peace , the Partner Church Council, and the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists. The UU United Nations Office, the UU Service Committee and the Holdeen Trust are also all involved in work in the international field.

The Board has the overall responsibility for the Association's international policies, and they are currently evaluating the UUA's support and connections, asking whether these relationships truly reflect the purposes of the UUA and what more might be done to use our resources more effectively. The Board is finalizing an International Vision Statement that will provide the focus for the UUA's work and relationships, and the Board invites input on the statement.

Draft International Vision Statement

The work of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is to serve member congregations and to support UU institutions bearing witness to our liberal religious faith, bringing our principles to life.

Mindful of both the brokenness and the potential for reconciliation in the world, the Board of the UUA commits to strengthening and energizing UUA member congregations by facilitating their connection to the transforming power of international engagement and partnership.

In support of this commitment, we urge the UUA administration and member congregations to foster institutional partnerships that:

  1. Model friendship and right relations, economic fairness and responsible stewardship of resources among partners;
  2. Promote human rights, religious freedom, international peace and justice; and
  3. Increase the visibility of Unitarian Universalism as an active positive religious presence in the world.

The Board of the UUA commits to practicing and to modeling generosity as we expand financial resources to support international engagement and partnership.

Stukey introduced the Rev. Nichiko Niwano, President of the Rissho Kosei-kai (RKK), the UUA's sister religious organization in Japan. President Niwano offered his greetings, reflecting upon the long association of the RKK with the UUA. From the first connections made by the two religious groups, in 1968, to the work the two groups did to found the World Conference on Religions and Peace, President Niwano celebrated the changes that religions, working together, can bring in the world.

All existence is interrelated, said President Niwano, and when we realize this we know that we are all "life's children." Awareness of the preciousness of our own lives leads to respecting the lives of others. He said, "This common sympathy is the invaluable spirit of living in a world of co-existence. By living out the implications of these principles, in individual families, we are on the way to building peace. We are all one family living in one world," he concluded, and pledged the support of the RKK to help "bring peace to the world."

Following enthusiastic applause for President Niwano's remarks, the Rev. Olivia Holmes, Director of the UUA Office of International Relations, introduced the international guests to the assembly:

Rev. Holmes also introduced Kathy Sreedhar, Director of the Holdeen India Fund. Twenty years ago, when Jonathan Holdeen left money to the UUA for work in India (despite the fact that he was not a UU and had never been in India), the UUA Board launched the Holdeen India Program to build an effort that could change the lives of exploited, excluded and enslaved persons. This program works by finding leaders of India most vulnerable people and supporting their efforts to build movements strong enough to demand their rights and win.

One such partner is SEWA, the Self-Employed Women's Association.They have opened a union and cooperative bank, the first of its kind in India to work for women's rights and development. Member women lead and manage and control organizations which provide banking services, education, health care, child care and employment opportunities. SEWA now has more than 750,000 members in India and other countries, with another being the work of Martin Macwan, a Dalit (untouchable) whose efforts to better the lives of India's most downtrodden class has been funded through Holdeen support.

Awards: Not Just on Sunday Any More

The Rev. Doris Hunter and former UUA Moderator Natalie Gulbrandsen presented the annual award of the US Chapter of the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) to the Reverend Koichi Barrish of the Tsubaki Grand Shrine in Grand Falls, Washington. Barrish thanked the Assembly, and expressed warmest greetings to the UUA and the members of the IARF American Chapter from the Reverend Yukiyasu Yamamoto, the 97th High Priest of the Grand Shrine.

Barbara Beech, president of the UU Partner Church Council (PCC), presented the Lewis Cornish Living the Mission Award. The Cornish Award is given annually to honor those who have worked tirelessly to develop and sustain mutually beneficial congregational partnerships between UU congregations around the world. The 2004 award was presented posthumously to the Rev. Peter Raible and was accepted by his daughter, the Reverend Deborah Raible.

Volunteer Service to the Association

The Rev. Calvin Dame, Chair of the Committee on Committees, and Young Kim, Chair of the Nominating Committee, spoke to delegates about how people can become involved in volunteer service to the Association. Nominees are selected with an eye to several different components: their life and work skills, and trying to assume (where possible) a balance of gender, ableness, geographic representation, theological understanding, culture, race and other attributes. Information on how to volunteer can be found at the UUA website.

Pat Marr, a member of the Long Beach congregation, introduced the 2004 GA service project. The Long Beach congregation, in conjunction with other religious communities in the area, helped form the Interfaith Community Organization (ICO). ICO has decided to secure a permanent shelter in Long Beach for those in need of housing. This year delegates can add a shingle to that project by helping gain the seed money to assist ICO in making this dream come true.

Review of Study Action Issues Process

Courter then introduced the Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, a member of the task force that has been studying the UUA's study action issue, statement of conscience and actions of immediate witness process. Peebles reported that after a year and a half of study, and after gaining input from delegates at last year's General Assembly, the task force has come up with a set of recommendations (PDF) on how this important work can be done better. The goal of the review is to make it possible for statements that are voted on at GA to be really helpful and clear, and come from a felt need of the congregation. She stated that throughout the plenary sessions, reports will be made on how the proposed recommendations, if accepted, would change the process.

The Rev. Bob Hill, District Executive for the Southwest District Conference, reported that at this year's GA, covenant groups are meeting. This form of small group ministry is a chance for attendees to develop closer connections to others attending, and have a place to reflect deeply on their GA experience.

More Awards!

The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, Director of Congregational Services, presented the O. Eugene Pickett award to White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church, Mahtomedi, Minnesota, for their work and contributions to growth. They have grown numerically, organizationally, maturationally and incarnationally, doubling their attendance in two years with plans to double the size of their current facility.

The Rev. Meg Riley, Director of Advocacy and Witness, presented the Wilton Peace Prize Award to Amy Goodman, the host and executive producer of Democracy Now. Goodman was honored for her deep commitment to presenting the dissenting voice and her willingness to "follow silence all over the globe, giving voice to those who would dare dissent in their own nations."

The Language of Reverence: Deepening the Conversation

Following a hymn break led by Kevin Tarsa, minister of music of the Traverse City, Michigan, UU congregation, UUA President Bill Sinkford spoke of the time that was set aside at the 2003 GA for people to reflect on our religious language. This year, he said, "we wanted to deepen the conversation." Sinkford said that to do this, he had enlisted the assistance of Meadville/Lombard Theological School to pose some questions for reflection. Sinkford then called upon the Rev. Lee Barker, President of Meadville/Lombard (M/L), to open the conversation.

Barker observed that M/L has "been at this conversational table a long time, and recently has published a book of essays and sermons on the language of reverence." He planned to offer two components to this year's conversation, one historical and the other theological. "But as you are listening," he continued, "ponder two questions: first, how are you personally deepened by your experience of Unitarian Universalism, and second, what key words did you use to answer the first question?"

Barker continued, "There are times when it appears that the religious language we use appears to change almost overnight." Barker said that this was the case for him, and he was afraid that when he changed language, his congregation might not understand. It was a risk, and yet the seemingly overnight change really had grown out of a process of years of trying to respond to the death of his infant niece. He reminded us that in every era there is a tussle with language, as people struggle to articulate that which is closest to them.

Dr. Dean Grodzins, Assistant Professor of History at Meadville, spoke about the history of language discussions with Unitarianism, Universalism and Unitarian Universalism. The Universalists, when creating their Winchester Profession of Faith, tried not to create a new creed, but instead three broadly worded statements, along with an "escape" clause that exempted any congregation that so decided from adherence to the confession. After several decades, the escape clause was dropped, and one minister was removed from fellowship for refusing to abide by the Profession. But again several years later, they repented, and reinstated the escape clause along with a reassurance that there would be no precise form of words required for ministerial fellowship. The Unitarians had similar debates about language, including with the rise of the Transcendentalist movement. Now this language is hailed as heroic, but there were times when it could not be uttered from our pulpits.

The fights, Grodzins stated, all resolved in time in favor of inclusion and they left a legacy of great sensitivity in the use of religious language, a recognition that religion and theology are distinct, and the understanding that no words can fully express what religion is. What is driving the current debate, he suggested, is fear that we are not living up to our potential as a movement, that we are not retaining our youth, we do not have a high enough profile, that we are not attracting enough visitors. It is sometimes assumed that by using a language of reverence, all of these issues might be resolved. The solution, Grodzins said, is to focus less about how we talk about religion, and more on how we do religion. "I am not," he said, "suggesting that the problem of language is not important-we must learn to speak together. But the first step is to realize that religion is something you do. If religion is not theology or the form of words, we can then realize that salvation comes not through what is said, but through what we do."

The Reverend Dr. Thandeka, Associate Professor of Theology and Culture, followed Grodzins, reflecting on the theological understanding of a language of reverence. "We are," she said, "in pain, alone, lost and loved. It is love that sustains us in the midst of the pain, aloneness and lostness."

Quoting musician John Cage, theologian Schleiermacher, and Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, Thandeka spoke about how we are all connected, interconnected, and come into being-we "inter-be; we cannot," she said, "be a self by yourself alone." Or, Thandeka said, "it is like the recipe for chocolate cake. The recipe includes flour, sugar, butter and milk, but there is no 'chocolate cake' in chocolate cake. It is the interbeing of all these things that creates chocolate cake, just like it is the interbeing of life that creates human beings."

What is crucial, and constant, is the feeling of being held with affirming passion, compassion, and experience of the incarnational moment of the universe. "It is the melody of our inner life that is our soul-rhythm, pause, movement, sound, silence, space, interval and measure make the music of our lives that is the spirit of life. Our reference for life exists in love and created community, and we can heal in these relationships. The good news gospel of our tradition is this interbeing, and this is why we are talking about a language of reverence-to seek new words to remind us of what we already know. This power that sustains can help us heal and transform the world."

Barker then reiterated the original questions, saying that the answer to how we've personally been deepened, and the words that we use come in no single answer, and in as many answers as there are individuals. The common ground of this dialogue, he concluded, is a language of reverence.

“Language of Reverence”

Presented by Meadville Lombard Theological School

Lee Barker, President and Professor of Ministry

Meadville Lombard Theological School is especially pleased to serve as one of the principals in Unitarian Universalism’s discussion about vocabularies of reverence and I am equally delighted to share this time with two of our School’s professors, Dr. Thandeka and Dr. Dean Grodzins, each of whom will be introduced more fully in a few moments.

Meadville Lombard has been at this conversational table for a while. As President Sinkford has noted, it was a lecture by our own professor David Bumbaugh that helped him to articulate his first thinking on the subject back in 2001. Tomorrow on Sunday, professor Bumbaugh will offer a workshop titled “Language of Reverence Revisited”, in which he will assess all that happened in our movement around this topic since that original paper was written. I should also add that Meadville Lombard has now published a book of essays and sermons titled, A Language of Reverence, that it is available in the UUA bookstore.

It is Meadville’s intention to add to the clarity and structure of this denominational conversation this morning, as well. At the conclusion of our oral presentation, I am going to ask the assembly to reflect on two questions that are central to this conversation. First, “How are you deepened by your experience of Unitarian Universalism?” Second, I will ask you to be an objective observer, to take a step back and take note of the key words you used to answer that question.

These were issues that presented themselves to me back in 1987 when I pulled what could be considered a “fast one” on the congregation I was serving in Montclair, New Jersey. After using strictly philosophical language in the first several years of my ministry there, I began to use words that I had until then, ceded to more traditional believers.

My words changed almost over night, but it was the not so immediate unfolding of my life that led to the change. In the years I had been with that congregation I’d been through the ups and downs of love and discovered something deep inside that I could rely on even in that uncertainty. I’d found new ways I could move on with my life even after I had missed the mark of living up to my best self and hurt others I loved. I found that I received profound gifts and pleasures in this life that had been wholly underserved by me. And I had become acquainted with the hard knock of death. One particular death was my straw. In 1987 my niece Hannah, six months old, was found dead in her crib.

As terrible as that was for me I had no trouble recognizing that it was infinitely more terrible for my sister and brother-in-law. As I watched them pick up and put their lives back together again, and saw so closely the business of restoration and renewal and the survivability of love, I knew it was time for me to begin to use some new words.

Gulp! I didn’t want to do it. I loved that congregation in New Jersey. I didn’t want to disappoint them. I didn’t want to risk losing their favor.

But I had no real choice in the matter. I was brought up in a Universalist home and I was taught that one must be true to one’s religious convictions and my convictions were leading me to employ what we now call a language of reverence.

I underestimated that congregation. They took my shift in stride and I was able to serve them for many more years of productive ministry. I have since come to understand why. First, they had a good sense of Unitarian Universalist history. They knew, over the years, we have tussled over language in so many ways. That is an element of the process we use to define who we are as a religious movement, a movement that claims something greater than creed to hold us in religious community. They weren’t threatened by the conversation because they understood its place and its value. And second, they had a good sense of theology. They understood that religious growth is not dependent upon agreement with a minister over matters of theology or language. The hope for religious growth comes in the ability to seek understanding from another, in the ability to remain open to another. That is how we tie in religious community. That is how we grow in religious community.

So today, Meadville Lombard advances the conversation around the language of reverence through two presentations, one historical, one theological. First, I introduce to you Meadville Lombard professor Dean Grodzins, who will explore for us some of the historical foundations of this conversation. Dean is the editor of the book I referred to earlier, A Language of Reverence. He is also the author of the book, American Heretic: Theodore Parker and Transcendentalism.

Dean Grodzins

UUs are grappling with the problem of religious language, but this is nothing new. The Unitarian and Universalist traditions have been grappling with this problem, in one form or another, for over two hundred years. The UU traditions have always struggled with how a creedless faith, one that is liberally welcoming, can also have a meaningful vocabulary, one that reinforces bonds of fellowship and meets the spiritual needs of individuals and communities. UUs have struggled continually to find religious language that is specific and vibrant enough to be useful to the faithful, and yet broad and general enough to prevent exclusion.

In 1803, the Universalists, at their general convention in Winchester, New Hampshire, wrote a famous Profession of Faith. They tried hard to avoid creating anything resembling the exclusive creeds they knew. The Calvinists’ Westminister Confession had 33 detailed chapters, but the Winchester Profession had only three broadly worded statements, declaring belief in the Bible as a revelation, in God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and universal salvation, and in the value of upright behavior; the Winchester delegates even added an “escape clause,” which allowed churches and associations to add their own doctrines. Nonetheless, one delegate worried that although this Profession seemed “harmless” enough, like a calf whose “horns have not yet made their appearance,” it would “soon grow older—its horns will grow, and then it will begin to hook.”

This delegate was right to worry. Eventually, Universalists came along who began to question what the Winchester delegates took for granted, that the Bible was a miraculous revelation. To thwart these innovators, the denomination, in 1870, dropped their “escape clause,” and two years later dis-fellowshipped a Universalist minister from Minnesota, Herman Bisbee, because he denied that the biblical miracles had actually happened. Yet the Universalists came to repent having created a verbal bull, with horns that hooked. In 1899, the denomination removed the horns by reinstating the escape clause, and also asserting that no “precise form of words, is required as a condition of fellowship.” 
The Unitarians, meanwhile, emerged as a denomination in the early 19th century in a fight with Calvinists, who denied them fellowship because the liberals rejected doctrines the Calvinist considered vital, such as original sin and the Trinity. In response, Unitarians made a point to distinguish between religion and theology. Fellowship, the Unitarians argued, should be based on people’s religion, not on their theological speculations.

The distinction between religion and theology seemed clear enough, yet soon Unitarians realized that they disagreed where to draw the line. Eventually Unitarians came along, Transcendentalists like Theodore Parker, who denied what the first generation of Unitarians took for granted, that belief in the miracles, in the Bible as a guide to faith and practice, in Jesus as a mediator, were essential to being religious. Most Unitarians of the 1840s and ’50s disagreed with the Transcendentalists; they denounced Parker as an infidel and unofficially denied him fellowship. Unitarians came to repent their treatment of Parker. They now hail him as a hero of the free pulpit.

I could point to many other examples of Unitarians and Universalist fighting over religious language. In the late 19th century, they fought over the acceptability of “Free Religionists,” who rejected even Christian symbols. In the early 20th century, they fought over the acceptability of Humanists, some of whom rejected God talk altogether. These fights were all, in the end, resolved in favor of inclusion, and they left to Unitarian Universalism a legacy of great sensitivity—some would say excessive caution and circumspection—in using religious language. They also left a legacy, which I think is a very valuable one, of recognition that religion and theology are distinct, and that “no form of words” can fully express what religion is.

Today, Unitarian Universalists are grappling with the problem of the “language of reverence.” Driving this debate is a widespread sense that UUism is not living up to its potential as a religious movement—that UUs do not retain enough of their youth, do not attract enough newcomers, do not have a high enough profile in matters of public witness. People wonder whether these problems would be eased or solved if only UUs would talk differently about religion—if they would use more theistic language, for example, or more poetic language. This discussion makes some UUs uneasy, because they fear that certain forms of words exclude them, as they once excluded Herman Bisbee and Theodore Parker. In this way, the current debate seems to resemble the old debates I have just mentioned.

I believe that UUism can transcend the old debates, and perhaps also live up to its potential as a religious movement, if UUs focus less on how they talk about religion, and more on how they do religion. I am not suggesting that the problem of religious language is unimportant—far from it. Religious language must always be adapted or invented to meet the current needs of each religious community. Moreover, those who use different religious vocabularies—Christian vocabularies, for example, or Humanist, or Pagan—must learn to speak together, which is the central challenge of religious pluralism, and an important protection against religious exclusion. But the first step to ensuring that the needs of the current UU community are met, and that these different religious vocabularies can be made cognate, is to realize that religion is above all something that you do. UUs, I have observed, often fail to realize this.
UUs tend to recognize and celebrate only a certain aspect of their faith: that which is rational and concerned with transcendent things. This aspect of UUism involves principally what UUs say. UUs often fail to recognize and celebrate another aspect of their faith: that which is ritualistic, emotive, and embodied. This other aspect of UUism involves principally what UUs do.

I am talking about UU religious practice. UUs have only recognized and celebrated one form of religious practice: social justice work. They are certainly right to recognize and celebrate this. Yet social justice work is only one part of a universe of activities encompassed by the concept of “religious practice.” 

UU religious practice includes communion services, total immersion baptisms, and chalice lightings; spiritualist séances, Christmas tree parties, Pagan solstice dances, and potluck dinners. It includes practicing homeopathy and phrenology. It includes organizing book clubs, sewing circles, singing groups, and sports teams. It includes observing annual days of feasting and fasting. It includes the building of church kitchens.

Each of these practices has been, at least for a time, common among Unitarians, Universalists, or UUs; some of the most controversial of these practices (spiritualist séances, for example) have been adopted not just by marginal figures, but by the great heroes of the UU tradition. Yet when UUs write accounts of their own movement, particularly histories, these practices are almost always slighted, or altogether ignored. They are nearly invisible. The history of Unitarian Universalist religious practice has not been written. Yet the vital element of any religion—the one thing that makes it a lived experience—is its practice. Through practices, more even than words, people deal with joy and suffering, with the great transitions of their lives, and with the struggles of community. Practice, I believe, is the vital if under-recognized element in Unitarian Universalism.

If it were truly recognized and celebrated, then UUs could more easily see that the hopes they have for a new, more effective religious language could only be realized if that language were grounded in religious practice. The different UU vocabularies of faith—Christian, for example, or Humanist, or Pagan—could then more easily be seen as having common referents in human experience, and a pluralist dialogue could more easily be opened between them. If the great intellectual heritage of UUism is right—if religion is not theology, nor a form of words—then the salvation of UUism cannot be found in what UUs say. It can only be found in what UUs do.

President's Report

Courter then introduced President Sinkford to give his report. Sinkford reminded delegates that when he was elected three years ago, the desire was for a promise of greater visibility and voice for our faith. Quoting from jazz musician Miles Davis, Sinkford said that a musician has to use imagination, be more innovative, and "play above what he knows." This has happened this past year with the celebration of legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts.

Sinkford said that it was a privilege for him to officiate at the wedding of Julie and Hillary Goodridge, lead plaintiffs in the historic Massachusetts Freedom to Marry case, and that it was "a blessing for our faith. What happened, though, was not just a matter of opportunity, but the result of thirty-five years of intentional work. Because we have worked with these issues, we were able to move ahead when other religious traditions are still divided. Our work today is grounded in what we have done, and the fit with our resources could not have been better."

Sinkford continued, "we are not doing this work to make ourselves feel better, nor to attract new members. Rather, our objective is to help change the culture, and help the universe bend toward justice. This requires discipline about our message that we have not had to have before. Based on advice form Evan Wolfson, head of Freedom to Marry, Sinkford used his unique position as an African American religious leaders to counter the voices of those Black clergy who are supported by and, in his opinion, being used by the religious right. He has been one of the few Black religious leaders to join secular leaders like Coretta Scott King and Julian bond in support of marriage equity. The issue, he said, is far from settled. Now the work shifts to defeating the Federal marriage Amendment, convincing legislators not to enshrine discrimination in our Constitution, as well as in other states. Unitarian Universalism, Sinkford said, "will stand on the side of love for as long as it takes."

Same-sex marriage is not, of course, the only issue or the only opportunity there was to raise our voices. On April 25th he was joined by thousands of UUs in Washington, DC, for the March for Women's Lives. Sinkford noted that that hundreds of congregations have responded to his call to reclaim democracy, busying themselves in voter registration efforts.

Sinkford discussed growth of the denomination, saying, "We have grown consistently, but very slowly, for the last twenty years. The unchurched are the largest religious groups in the US. Last year's test of the Uncommon Denomination advertising materials in Kansas City proved that there are many families out there looking for a religious home. "The Kansas City congregations grew by 15% last year, they had a good time doing it, and they learned a great deal."

There are, he said, thousands of folks "down in the valley, trying to get home," as the Reverend Barbara Pescan said in the Service of the Living Tradition two years ago. We need to cultivate radical hospitality if we are to grow. Over the next year, the Houston area congregations will use the next generation of Uncommon Denomination advertising materials, and conversations are underway in Orange County and San Diego, Philadelphia, Washington, DC, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, and Dallas-Fort Worth. Thanks to the generosity of two dedicated UU families, the Association is adding a consultant for marketing outreach to the staff, Valerie Horton. Sinkford has also convened a Growth Team to hold out a vision for growing our faith.

In 1992, the Calgary Resolution called upon us to transform Unitarian Universalism into a diverse and multi-cultural faith. Our national leadership has become and remains committed to the goal. Training and education have helped shape the engagement with this work. Youth and young adults are doing their part, and it has been difficult work, requiring complicated leadership.

Sinkford then presented the President's Volunteer Service Award to Dr. Norma Poinsett, thanking her for her many years of service and fidelity to the UUA.

In conclusion, Sinkford said, "We have accomplished much, but our vision of an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multi-cultural faith has not been realized. We got stuck. Too many of us were in denial, and as we've been at the conversation, the world has changed. It is no longer Black and White. Our nation is now the most racially, culturally and religiously pluralistic society the world has ever known. It is as if, once we finally got comfortable talking about black and white, the world now offers us the rainbow."

In the face of this changing environment, new anti-racism consultancy and anti-racist multi-cultural Welcoming Congregation programs are in development. Jubilee World I and II trainings will continue, and more Spanish language resources will be offered. "The work is changing," Sinkford said. Energy will shift to focus first on providing resources, inspiration and support for transforming our congregations, and second, on providing support for people of color, Latina/o and Hispanic persons who are UUs.

"There are signs of hope," said Sinkford. "Ten years ago, only 23 fellowshipped ministers were persons of color, today that stands at 44. Three more will be added at the Service of the Living Tradition. More persons of color are sitting in the pews, many of them in committed same-sex relationships. Church school classrooms are looking far more like our world than do our pews. Our work is not finished, and our imagination is far from complete. But, he said, our commitment to transform this faith is solid."

Sinkford then announced the completion of the Campaign for Unitarian Universalism, begun by UUA President John Buehrens, with cash and planned gifts now totalling more than $32 million.

As we look to the future, what vision calls us? Sinkford said that he hears the harmony of three melodies:

  • growing our congregations with radical hospitality, claiming the good news of this liberal religious faith we love, and turning our congregations into truly welcoming sanctuaries for the stranger;
  • inspiring the larger community with our liberating public witness, helping to bend the universe toward justice, raising voices with a liberal religious clarity that values the power of our pluralism and the possibilities of a genuine religious journey; and
  • strengthening our faith with challenging and deepening spiritual growth that calls us beyond our comfortable prejudices to a purposeful appreciation of religious diversity and depth, embracing both reverential language and scientific rationality.

Sinkford ended by saying that the long of liberating hope and justice making love "is a song that I believe we can learn to sing."

President's Report

As I begin, let me introduce to you three people who make my ministry as your President possible. My daughter Danielle, whom some heard speak at the Quebec GA. My son Billy, now back from the Army, who helped the UUA Board understand that a youth voice was needed at that table. And my partner Maria Hadley, who affirms my ministry, forgives my absences and reminds me that our work can be simply understood as making space for the presence of love in our lives.

This is the end of my third year as your President. Three years ago in Cleveland, you voted for the promise of greater visibility and voice for our faith. You chose a future in which Unitarian Universalism would move from the margins toward the center of the conversation in the public square. My election signaled our commitment to a future in which Unitarian Universalism would re-claim its rightful place as a leading liberal religious voice in this nation.

That vision required change.

The great jazz musician Miles Davis wrote:

“If you put a musician in a place where he has to do something different from what he does all the time, then… he's got to think differently…. He has to use his imagination, be more …innovative; he's got to take more risk.

“He's got to play above what he knows—far above it…

“I've always told the musicians in my band to play what they know and then play above that. Because that's where great art and music happen.”

This year, we've been playing above what we know, and great liberal religion is happening. Take a look with me. (PAUSE for video clip) What a privilege it was for me to officiate at the wedding of Julie and Hillary Goodridge, and what a blessing it was for our faith. Our religious witness in support of Freedom to Marry has resulted in more press coverage of Unitarian Universalism than…well, anything in the history of the Association. Our support for recognizing love and commitment between two people regardless of gender has raised the profile of our faith almost beyond our imagining.

The Supreme Judicial Court decision in Massachusetts, and political decisions in San Francisco and Oregon provided the opportunity. The religious right's attempt to use this as a “wedge” issue helped, as did the reality that so many traditionally liberal Protestant denominations are immobilized by deep divisions over gay marriage. But our effectiveness is not merely the result of an extraordinary opportunity. It is rather the culmination of 35 years of intentional work, and the building of capacity to seize such a moment.

Our support for equal rights for BGLT persons (including the right to marry) is deeply grounded, both in our theology (the inherent worth and dignity of every soul) and in our lived congregational experience. More than 400 of our communities are formal “Welcoming Congregations.” We have supported comprehensive sexuality education for decades. Our clergy have performed religious ceremonies of union since the 1960's. Our GA has passed resolutions in support of BGLT persons since 1970, specifically calling for the legalization of Same Sex Marriage in 1996. We've done the work.

The fit with our resources could not have been better: An Office of BGLT Concerns, Interweave, on-going media training for our ministers, an expanded Washington Office for Advocacy, and a Public Witness office which functions like a staff twice its size.

Grounding, fit, and opportunity made our effectiveness possible; and the experience, and our success, have been extraordinary. We are playing above what we know.

Images from the Goodridge wedding made the front pages of major papers from Boston to Borneo and from Chicago to China. Every major network carried stories of loving, committed same-sex couples being married by Unitarian Universalist ministers. All of the seven couples who were the named plaintiffs in the Massachusetts case were married on May 17, four of them by Unitarian Universalist ministers.We got coverage in periodicals, like People, that most of us don't admit to reading.

Let me be very clear. We are not raising our voice to make ourselves feel better, nor to attract new members—though I believe deep in my heart that thousands of persons and families want a faith community which stands on the side of love.

Our objective is to help change the culture. Our goal is to help the universe bend toward justice.

This requires a discipline about our message which we have never before had to exercise. It requires strategic thinking that we have never needed to do. It requires operating in partnership with others with a consistency that has never before been required of us.

I took my Public Witness Team to NYC to meet with Evan Wolfson, head of Freedom to Marry, the most prominent advocacy group for marriage equality. Evan laid out the strategy: get as many loving, committed couples legally married as possible, keep the focus on the couples, avoid legal actions which have high probability of negative outcome, use my unique position as an African American religious leader to counter the voices of those Black clergy, who are supported by and, in my judgment, being used by, the religious right. We are following his advice.

I have been one of the few Black religious leaders to join secular leaders like Coretta Scott King and Julian Bond in support of marriage equality. If anyone here doubts that oppressions are linked, that racism and homophobia are separable…think again.

This issue is far from settled. Now the work shifts to defeating the Federal Marriage Amendment: to convincing our legislators not to enshrine discrimination in our Constitution. And then our attention must turn to other states, as cases percolate through the courts and legislatures take action. The work of the UU Legislative Ministry in California, which we are supporting with a grant from the Freedom to Marry Fund, is an example of how we can focus our resources effectively. Contributions to that fund are still needed.

Unitarian Universalism will stand on the side of love…for as long as it takes.

Same-Sex Marriage is not, of course, our only issue, nor the only opportunity we have had to raise our voice.

On April 25, our Moderator and I joined thousands of Unitarian Universalists in Washington, DC for the March for Women's Lives. Let me ask those of you who were there to stand. Our presence was powerful. We gathered, the night before, at All Souls church, which is reclaiming its place as the voice of our faith in our nation's capital. Late that night, UU's gathered in prayer at the foot of the Capitol. I called for us to march, not as political activists, but as Unitarian Universalists, as religious people. While others chanted slogans, we sang hymns.

When we gathered at the Reflecting Pool, our UU contingent was as large as the groups of all other faith communities combined. We also had the best T-shirts.

Our witness in Washington would have been far less effective without the presence of Kiersten Homblette, our first ever Clara Barton UUWF Intern for Women's Issues in our Washington Office. Let me express my personal thanks to the Women's Federation for their vision and commitment to our longstanding voice for gender justice.

Unitarian Univeralism is a growing presence beyond our walls.

Hundreds of UU congregations have responded to my call to reclaim our democracy, working on major voter mobilization efforts that have registered thousands of new voters.

The Association has been active as well. Rob Keithan, Director of our Washington Office for Advocacy, has played a lead role in organizing Faithful Democracy, a coalition dedicated to promoting religious values, civic participation, and community partnerships. Faithful Democracy has sponsored the Campaign for Communities, a new and historic coalition bringing together low-income communities and various communities of color with the NAACP, the Earth Day Network, the Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project and Project Vote. The UUA and the UUSC have been working together to provide maximum support for congregations without duplicating our efforts. The UUA has a full-time voting campaign consultant based in our Washington office, and I encourage you, if you haven't already done so, to contact her for assistance or to report on what your congregation has been doing.

We are a growing presence. I am the first UUA President invited to participate in the NAACP Religious Leadership Summit. Our work with the Interfaith Alliance, especially on voter participation, continues.

We are at the table with other denominations committed to congregationally based community organizing, as we begin a conversation about a national justice agenda. Tomorrow, many of us will put on our T-shirts once again, and march for affordable housing with the Long Beach Interfaith Community Organization. I will be gathering UU participants on the Terrace Theatre Plaza before the march to the 3 pm meeting at First Congregational Church.

The Democratic National Convention comes to Boston next month. We hope to host a prayer breakfast at 25 Beacon Street for Unitarian Universalist delegates to help them center their voice and their votes in our shared faith. In August, I plan to offer the same opportunity to delegates of the RNC in NYC, though it will probably be a smaller group.

Internationally, we are deepening our partnership with the RKK. Thank you, President Niwano for your words this morning and your faithful witness for peace. We continue to support Religions for Peace, an organization which we helped found, helping to create inter-religious councils from Indonesia to Iraq.

We are playing above what we know. Five years ago we, frankly, could not have imagined such effectiveness for our public witness, nor such extensive engagement and leadership in the interfaith world.

We are playing above what we know. But we have further to go. As Miles Davis said: “A [musician's] got to play above what he knows—far above it—and what that might lead to might take him … to the next place he's going and even above that.”

Take growth. We've been playing what we know for some time now. Growing consistently, but very slowly, for the last twenty years. 1% a year or a bit less. Enough to make most of our close cousins in the Protestant world envious, but frankly, not nearly enough.

Why is growth important? We are not a missionary faith. Are we? Do we really want to convert others to Unitarian Universalism?

The unchurched are the largest religious group in the United States. Last year's test of the Uncommon Denomination advertising materials in Kansas City proved what many of us have long suspected: There are people and families out there who yearn for the religious home we have already found. “I never thought I'd find a church like this,” commented visitor after visitor to our Kansas City congregations.

And we no longer have to guess whether real growth is possible. Our Kansas City congregations grew by 15% last year. They had a good time doing it. And they learned a great deal that can help us all. They learned that even a friendly congregation has a lot to learn about hospitality. They learned that keeping track of numbers helps. They learned that a call to a first-time visitor by a lay person (not the minister) within a few days of that first visit makes a world of difference. They learned that the most important question to ask a visitor is not how that person might serve the congregation, but how the congregation might serve that person.

As Rev. Barbara Pescan preached in the SLT two years ago in Quebec City, there are thousands of folks “down in the valley, trying to get home.” We need to shine our liberal religious light so that they can find their way to the nurture and the challenge of this liberal faith.

Many congregations are using the Uncommon Denomination materials already. They are available online at UUA.org, organized in three tiers depending on the commitment a congregation is willing to make to grow.

But we will need to cultivate a radical hospitality in our congregational life if we are to turn visitors into members. We need to organize our congregations as true welcoming communities. We are trying to model that here in Long Beach .

Some of you have seen our Uncommon Denomination billboards here in Long Beach , or heard our radio ads. We're inviting members of the community to join us for worship on Sunday. For years, General Assembly has been for “us”—and for only those of us who could afford the time and the expense to attend, at that. This General Assembly will also be for some of those folks down in the valley here in Long Beach who need what we have to offer.

Other communities are seriously planning for growth. Our Houston area congregations will probably use the next generation of the Uncommon Denomination materials in a major effort next year. Conversations are under way in Orange County and San Diego here in California, in the Philadelphia area, in Washington, DC, in Minneapolis, in Milwaukee, and in Dallas-Fort Worth.

Thanks to the generosity of two dedicated UU families, the Association is adding a consultant for marketing outreach to our staff. The most important part of her job will be to support congregational and cluster group marketing efforts. Let me ask Valerie Holton to stand. Many of you should be thinking about getting to know her and the skills she brings to us in the months and years ahead.

Advertising alone will not be our salvation, nor is it the only resource we are working to provide. I've convened a Growth Team, modeled on our very effective Public Witness team, to hold out a vision for growing our faith and to seek out those leverage points where modest changes can open us to large possibilities. Many of our leadership groups will hear that team's initial vision here at this GA.

Playing above what we know means change. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in our anti-racism and anti-oppression work. So much has been accomplished since the 1992 Calgary Resolution, which called us all to transform Unitarian Universalism into a diverse and multi-cultural faith. Our national leadership has become and remains committed to this goal. Training and education have helped shape our engagement with this work. Youth and young adults are doing their part. It has been difficult work, requiring complicated leadership.

One of the great privileges of my position is the responsibility to thank those who commit their energy and their souls to move Unitarian Universalism ahead. Once each year I have the opportunity to name such a person as the recipient of the President's Volunteer Service Award.

Norma, Dr. Norma Poinsett, will you please join me at the podium.

Let me read the citation.

Dr. Norma Miller Poinsett has served the Unitarian Universalist Association for over 35 years. A long-time member of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, Il, Norma was identified early for her leadership skills. She served on the Commission of Appraisal, was active in curriculum development, and from 1995-2003 served as an At-Large Trustee on the UUA Board. She was a founding member of the Black Concerns Working Group, and later the Jubilee Working Group. In that role, Norma engaged with dozens of our congregations, bringing to her work both a prophetic voice for justice and a personal, pastoral presence that opened many hearts and minds.

These formal gifts of service alone would qualify her as a distinguished recipient of this award. But Norma has always brought more to the table. Faithfulness: Following what we call the “Black Empowerment Controversy”, when so many African Americans, including myself, left our faith, Norma stayed and worked tirelessly for a change of understanding and of heart. Integrity: She has spoken truth to power and used the power of her positions to serve the truth. Accountability: Norma has held this faith's feet to the fire not just on issues of race, but across the board as we have struggled to live up to the principles we affirm.

Norma Poinsett has been and remains a friend and mentor to hundreds of Unitarian Universalists. Educator, activist and visionary, her presence and her voice have served as an inspiration and catalyst for racial justice and for change.

Norma Poinsett's life exemplifies service and commitment to Unitarian Universalism at the highest level.

Norma, on behalf of Unitarian Universalism, let me offer my thanks to you, for staying the course, for your willingness both to stay engaged and stay honest. Your presence is a blessing.

We've accomplished much. But our vision of an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multi-cultural faith has not been realized. Frankly, we got stuck. Too few of our congregations were engaged. Too many of us wanted a simple solution. There was reactivity to our training approach. Too many of us were in denial.

As we have wrestled with race, our world has changed. It is no longer Black and White. Our nation is now the most racially, culturally and religiously pluralistic society the world has ever known. It's as if, once we finally got comfortable talking about black and white, the world now offers us the rainbow.

Our world and our faith require change.

A new Anti-racism consultancy program will be piloted this year. It will meet congregations where they are, honor the work they have done and provide tailored assistance as they take their next steps. A new Anti-Racist Multi-Cultural Welcoming Congregation program is in development. We will continue our successful Jubilee I and II trainings. Add new Spanish language resources. Offer training for more of ourl volunteer leadership.

Our work is changing. From a focus on our national leadership, our energy will shift to focus first on providing resources, inspiration and support for transforming our congregations. And, second, on providing support for persons of color, Latina/o and Hispanic persons who are Unitarian Universalist.

There are signs of hope. Ten years ago, only 23 fellowshipped ministers in our faith were persons of color. Today there are 44. Three new ministers of color will be recognized tonight at the SLT. More persons of color are sitting in our pews, many of them in committed same-sex relationships. And our church school classrooms, thanks to blended families and adoption, look far more like our world than do our pews. These are promising buds of change, which we can nurture.

Our work is not finished and our imagination is far from complete. But our commitment to transform this faith is solid.

Unitarian Universalism is vital and vibrant today. There are so many signs of hope. But none is more important than our stewardship. When I was elected, I inherited a $32 million capital campaign, The Campaign for Unitarian Universalism. I accepted the tin cup, with thanks to my predecessor, John Buehrens, for what he had already raised.

We have worked hard, none harder or more effectively than Rev. Terry Sweetser, whom I have just named Vice President for Stewardship and Development.

And today I declare victory. Cash and planned gifts now total more than $32 million dollars. Given the financial climate of the last three years, this is a stunning achievement, testimony to the commitment of more than a thousand major donors, and a sign of the vitality of our faith. Let me invite all those who have made a contribution to CFUU, through individual gifts, through Mind the Gap Sunday, through support of the development of our new RE curriculum, to stand and be recognized by this Assembly.

We have learned a great deal in the course of this campaign. We've learned that the passions of major donors must be honored. We've learned that we need to ask for contributions more broadly. We've learned that accepting a gift to our faith can be an act of ministry.

But I also issue a warning. More than two thirds of these gifts are planned gifts. Only, $9,000,000 or so of the 32 are cash. And we've been using that cash as it has come in. So we will continue to ask our members to support specific initiatives in the coming months.

As we look to the future, what vision calls us? What notes will we sing? What will it sound like to play above what we know?

I hear the harmony of three melodies.

First, the bass notes. Growing our congregations with radical hospitality. I hear us claiming the Good News of this liberal religious faith we love, turning our houses of worship into truly welcoming sanctuaries for the stranger. Sanctuaries where the spirit of life is welcomed, celebrated and honored. We need to be what we want to see.

Second, inspiring the larger community with our liberating public witness. I hear us not only joining, but sometimes leading, a chorus of progressive voices working to help the universe bend toward justice. I hear our voices raised not with a secular political lyric, but with a liberal religious clarity that values the power of our pluralism and the possibilities of a genuine religious journey.

And, finally, as we play above what we know, I hear us strengthening our faith with challenging and deepening spiritual growth. We can go beyond our comfortable prejudices to a purposeful appreciation of religious diversity and depth, embracing both reverential language and scientific rationality.

What notes will we sound?

I believe our future is to grow a faith strong enough, deep enough, secure enough to offer our wounded world the experience of liberating hope and the message of justice-making love that is the heart of liberal religion.

Liberating hope and justice-making love.

It is a song that I believe we can learn to sing.

Thank you for the privilege of serving as your President. It is both a challenge and a blessing in my life.

2004 UUA President's Award for Volunteer Service: Dr. Norma Miller Poinsette

Dr. Norma Miller Poinsett has served the Unitarian Universalist Association for over 35 years. A long long-time member of the First Unitarian Church of Chicago, Il., Norma was early identified early for her leadership skills. She served on the Commission of Appraisal, was active in curriculum development, and from 1995-2003 served as an At-Large Trustee on the UUA Board. She was a founding member of the Black Concerns Working Group, and later the Jubilee Working Group. In that role, Norma engaged with dozens of our congregations, bringing to her work both a prophetic voice for justice and a personal, pastoral presence that opened many hearts and minds.

These formal gifts of service alone would qualify her as a distinguished recipient of this award. But Norma has always brought more to the table. Faithfulness: Following what we call the “Black Empowerment Controversy”, when so many African Americans, including myself, left our faith, Norma stayed and worked tirelessly for a change of understanding and of heart. Integrity: She has told spoken truth to power and used the power of her positions to serve the truth. Accountability: Norma has held this faith's feet to the fire not just on issues of race, but far more broadly across the board as we have struggled to live up to the principles we affirm.

Norma Pointsett has been and remains a friend and mentor to hundreds of Unitarian Universalists. An Educator, activist and visionary, her presence and her voice have served as an inspiration and catalyst for racial justice and for change.

Norma Pointsett's life exemplifies service and commitment to Unitarian Universalism at the highest level.

The plenary session closed with process observations by Trustee-at-Large Tamara Payne-Alex, who chairs of the Board's Anti-Racism Anti-Oppression Assessment and Monitoring Team. She, along with her cohorts, will reflect to the assembly this week on three questions: Which agenda items addressed issues of racism and oppression? What evidence was there of accountability to oppressed groups? What actions were taken that moved the UUA closer to being anti-racist/anti-oppressive institution? The answers to these questions help us gauge our progress on the road to being anti-racist/anti-oppressive institution.

Reported by Lisa Presley; edited by Deborah Weiner.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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