Live your Unitarian Universalist values out loud. Make your year-end gift today!

Search Our Site

Page Navigation

Section Banner

Plenary II

Play Video

General Assembly 2004 Event 3004

(Long Beach, CA, June 26, 2004) Acting Moderator Gini Courter called to order the second plenary session of the General Assembly (GA) by announcing that it was President's Day at GA, and offered appreciation for the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Web Staff, a group of volunteers and staff persons who are providing access to this GA through streaming of and reporting on events through web coverage. Courter then introduced Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery to give her report.

Report of the Executive Vice President

Montgomery began her report by focusing on publishing efforts at the UUA. UU&Me, the magazine for children, will appear in each issue of UU World beginning in the fall, bringing to fruition the idea of making UU World a true family magazine. For those with visual challenges, two hundred copies of UU World have been requested thus far, free of charge, and several Beacon Press and other books are also available on tape. The UU Pocket Guide is now available in a new edition, as well as in a Spanish language edition. There is also a new fold-out child friendly version of the UU Principles, all of which are available from the UUA Bookstore.

Small congregations are receiving services in new ways. The Northeast and New Hampshire/Vermont districts' small congregation consultant, the Rev. Jane Dwinell, produces a monthly newsletter with important information, while five other districts have trained people for small congregation work. Additionally, the UUA has been informed of a bequest of $2.1 million dollars that will be designated for support of small congregations.

Montgomery also announced that the UUA is encouraging umbrella contributions—gifts that individuals can make to various UU organizations through the UUA—without any fees or costs for the service. In the first eight months of this new program, UUA staff have raised $3.5 million for congregations, seminaries, the UU Service Committee and other organizations.

Montgomery then introduced the Rev. Judith Frediani, Director of Lifespan Faith Development. Frediani stated that religious education has never been more important in the life of the Association. The recent major developments are:

  • 13 district program consultants are now working to provide resources and training for faith development work that fosters congregational growth, depth and vitality;
  • A new on-line settlement system can help congregations and directors of religious education find each other;
  • Lay religious educator credentialing now provides a clear path, and clear compensation guidelines can aid congregations in knowing what is fair compensation;
  • The Youth Office is expanding its series of training opportunities to foster youth empowerment and leadership skills, through the work of Nan Moore, offering one hundred hours of training in eight areas.

Frediani said other "big questions" are being considered. Given our diversity of theology, who we are, and who we would be, what curricula do we want and need to offer UUs present and future? Frediani said that these answers seem clear. We seek:

  • programs that nurture safe, affirming, welcoming religious homes with a sense of belonging;
  • spiritual life with a sense of wonder at the holy, and an acknowledgement that we are part of something larger than ourselves;
  • strong values;
  • a sense of moral agency for justice and compassion;
  • life skills and opportunities to experience hope, joy, personal transformation and healing;
  • UU identity, living one's own religion, not just studying other religions.

The new curricula will draw on all six sources, but whichever are used, all content will be evaluated on how well it nurtures us spiritually and ethically, deepens the faith, strengthens religious community, and creates UU identity. The curriculum also needs to help us keep our own children, as well as attract others.

The first resource of the new curriculum addresses this latter need. Meanwhile, the Association has also published resources to meet immediate needs, including Full Circle: 15 Ways to Grow Lifelong UUs and A Lamp In Every Corner, a UU storybook. In the fall, a book for families of special needs children will be available. The work on the new curricula has also begun, and the good news, said Frediani, is that the new curricula will be published electronically and will be free for congregations to take, adapt, and make their own at no cost.

Montgomery continued her report by stating that Frediani is one of about 200 people who work for the UUA. She said, "They are some of the best people on the planet, and they work hard and smart on our behalf." She asked the delegates to express their appreciation for the staff and their work.

Concluding with a story about courageous stances taken in congregations and by their leaders in the face of difficult situations, Montgomery said, "Amazing things happen in the wake of courage," and thanked delegates for their work on behalf of their faith.

Kay Montgomery

It is my privilege and my pleasure to report to you on the work of the UUA staff, to try, in a few minutes, to give you a sense of what the staff does on your behalf and to lift up a few things that may help you in your work of making your congregation strong and vital. So I'm going to give you some small snapshots and then share some of the time allotted to me with one of our senior staff for news of religious education.

Here are some things I think you'd like to know:

UU&Me, the excellent Church of the Larger Fellowship magazine for children, will, beginning in September, appear in each issue of the UU World as a four-page supplement, bringing to fruition a long-time dream of making the World a family magazine.

And, while on the topic of the UU World, I'm pleased to report that there are now about 200 subscribers to UU World on Tape. Staff, including Bill Sinkford who reads his own column, volunteer to read chunks of it for each issue. If you have visual needs that would make this the best way for you to get the World, please go to the Identity-Based Ministries booth in the display area where you can sign up for it, free of charge, and find information about many Beacon Press and other books that are also available on tape.

The Unitarian Universalist Pocket Guide, our perennial bestseller, is out in a new edition. But more importantly, it is also, for the first time, available in a Spanish-language version.

Now I admit that I'm not much given to saying things like "aaaaaw," but here's something that makes even me respond that way. A little fold-out, child-friendly version of our seven Principles: 1: each person is important; 2: be kind in all you do; 3: we're free to learn together; 4: and search for what is true; 5: all people need a voice; 6: build a fair and peaceful world; 7: we care for earth's lifeboat. Works for me! Available in the Bookstore, it's really, well, cute!

Small congregations are getting a lot of attention. Two of our districts, Northeast and New Hampshire-Vermont have collaborated with the Association in hiring Jane Dwinnell as a Small Congregations Consultant, the first time ever, I think, we have had such a position. Jane publishes a monthly newsletter, Small Talk, filled with information important to small congregations and you can subscribe. Or join the smalltalk email discussion list for the leadership of small congregations all over the UUA, begun by Andrea Lerner in the Metro New York District. Five other of our districts, in May, trained Small Congregation Consultants for work in their districts. And here's something pretty thrilling: This year we received news of a bequest for $2,100,000 which, when it comes to fruition, will be designated for support for small congregations.

And, while I'm at it, another thing to be said about the Association and giving: because our donors asked, and because, frankly, it's just the right thing to do, the UUA, through our Stewardship and Development staff, is helping generous Unitarian Universalists support all the UU organizations they care about. Called "umbrella giving," this program allows anyone to make a gift or bequest through the UUA that will ultimately benefit the Association, their congregation, UUSC, Meadville-Lombard, Starr King, or any other UU organization. Here's the kicker, the radical part: there are no fees or costs associated with umbrella giving; we just raise the money and pass it along. It simply makes sense that the Association should do whatever it can to encourage a generous spirit of abundance among us. In the first eight months of this program, more than $3.5 million has been raised by UUA staff for congregations, seminaries, and the Service Committee.

I want to ask you a question: how many of you became a Unitarian Universalist because you wanted liberal religious education for your children? And how many of you joined one of our churches as a result of taking an adult ed class? And finally, how many of you are a religious educator or have ever taught a religious education class-for any age group? Attended a religious education class? Well, for all of you (and the rest of you too), there is good news. And to deliver it to you is Judith Frediani, Director of our Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group, dear friend and colleague of mine, and one of the most important reasons that, as Makanah Morriss, President of LREDA, says, "This is a good time for UU religious educators."

Judith Frediani

We are a free faith. And because of our theological freedom, our congregational polity, our diversity of backgrounds and beliefs, some eyebrows were raised when the Religious Education Department became the Lifespan Faith Development Staff Group, some thinking religious education abandoned and the word "faith" suspect. Other UUs applauded the change, understanding that our "faith of the free" has never meant dogma or proscribed creed, but the very human activity of seeking meaning and purpose, values and identity, relationship and belonging, truth and transcendence.

"Faith," wrote religious historian William Cantwell Smith, "Faith at its best has taken the form of a quiet confidence and joy which enable one to feel at home in the universe."

As someone who has devoted the last 25 years of my life to Unitarian Universalist religious education, I want to say that RE has never been more important in the life of our Association. I'd like to highlight some major developments in religious education services that nurture the gift of faith for all ages in our congregations.

District Program Consultants. These specialists represent the largest number of new UUA staff in recent years. While individual titles and portfolios vary, our thirteen district program consultants all offer consultation, resources, and training to congregations and religious educators for faith development work that fosters congregational growth, depth, and vitality, They serve as an important link between headquarters and congregations, bringing information in, as well as bringing information out. So strong is their linkage role that one program consultant, Laurel Amabile, keeps a papier mache spider on her desk to symbolize her role in weaving webs of connection: linking theology and daily life, theory and practice, people and information, visions and their realization.

Religious Education Leadership Development. The Liberal Religious Educators Association partnered with the UUA to create a new Religious Education Credentialing program located in the Ministry and Professional Leadership staff group. This program, under the direction of Beth Williams and the newly appointed Religious Education Credentialing Committee, strengthens congregational life through the continued development and professionalization of lay religious educators. It offers a clear and effective system of standards and recognition so that congregations can identify the religious educator who has the skills and experience they need. In addition, a new online settlement system is up and running to make it possible for congregations and directors of religious education to find each other.

Compensation. The Compensation, Benefits, and Pension Committee of the UUA Board has developed a new, comprehensive salary format for lay religious educators, a format linked to the Religious Education Credentialing process. Congregations with religious educators on the credentialing path now have clear guidelines for their compensation. This is not just about fairness to religious educators, although that is certainly a worthy end in itself. We expect these recommendations to result in a larger pool of skilled, professionals for congregations to draw from, as we increase our ability to attract and retain excellent educators.

Youth Leadership Development. The Youth Office is launching an expanded series of training programs for youth, and adults who work with youth, to foster youth empowerment and develop leadership skills. This program, developed by youth advisor extraordinaire, Nan Moore of Chatham, Mass., is called Chrysalis, the last pod stage before the cocoon becomes a butterfly. Similar in concept to the Renaissance program, this program will offer 120 hours of training in eight areas that include spirituality development, leadership development, advisor training, chaplaincy, and anti-racism training.

New Curricula. In addition to excellence in leadership we are creating new faith development programming for all ages, embarking on a new era in UU religious education.

The questions we began with were big ones: What curricula do we want and need to offer Unitarian Universalists present and future? With the diversity that comes with our theological freedom, what will speak for both who we are, and who we would be? We asked UUs through surveys and focus groups and received, not surprisingly, a variety of responses. Not surprising, too, were the common themes that clearly emerged.

UUs want programs that will nurture:

  • A safe, affirming, welcoming religious home, and a sense of belonging;
  • A spiritual life, and a sense of wonder, of the holy, of being part of something beyond ourselves;
  • Strong values, and a sense of moral agency to act in the service of justice and compassion;
  • An appreciation of diversity and an ability to participate in ever-widening circles of human community;
  • Life skills to address life's challenges, and opportunities to experience hope, joy, healing and personal transformation;
  • And finally, a Unitarian Universalist identity, a living religion of one's own, not just a study of other religions.

The new curricula will draw on all six of our Sources, but whether scientific or Biblical, prophetic or ancient, all content will be evaluated in terms of how it nurtures us spiritually and ethically; how it deepens our faith, strengthens our faith communities and nurtures a Unitarian Universalist identity.

I love those church bulletin bloopers I receive periodically through e-mail. One reads, "For those of you who have children and don't know it, we have a nursery downstairs." We know we have children. Unfortunately, we also know we don't retain most of them as lifelong UUs. To grow and thrive as a movement, we need to attract new folks and retain more of our own.

The first resources of this curriculum era address this need. Full Circle: Fifteen Ways to Grow Lifelong Unitarian Universalists by religious educator Kate Erslev is in the UUA Bookstore now, along with a new UU identity storybook, A Lamp in Every Corner by Janeen Grohsmeyer. Sally Patton's resource for including children and youth with special needs will be available in September.

These resources help us do religious education—faith development—better.

But work on the new curricula themselves has also begun. And here's the best news. The new core curricula for children, youth and adults will be published in electronic form and will be available free of charge to our congregations, to take, adapt, and make their own.

Religious education is moving outside any boxes that would limit the growth and vitality of Unitarian Universalism. Let us embrace our future with a quiet confidence and joy in the free and transforming faith we offer the world. Let us teach our children—and ourselves—to feel at home in the universe.

Kay Montgomery

Thank you, Judith. Judith is one of about 200 people who work for the Association, some in Boston but a lot scattered around the country. They are some of the best people on the planet. They care passionately about Unitarian Universalism. They work both hard and smart. They have my unending appreciation. And I hope yours. Will you help me thank them?

And now I want to tell you a story. You may know Bedford, Mass., about fifteen miles in from the Boston Harbor. It is, by coincidence, Judith's home church. Here's something that happened in Bedford this past year, at our congregation there. A bit more than a year ago, prior to the Iraq war, there was a long and agonizing discussion in that church about whether they were going to hang a sign outside that said "Speak Out For Peace." Ultimately they did hang the banner. And, predictably, there were repercussions. A group of people in Bedford were upset. Exceedingly upset. Angry. Outraged. There were good people on both sides, people who love our country and the world. The issue went to the town council; there was yelling and blaming but finally the banner stayed though the whole event was hard for everyone.

Time passed. The war came and went. Well, kind of. A few months ago the minister in the Bedford church, Rev. John Gibbons, announced to his congregation that he had been called that morning and told that the parents of a young Bedford man had been told even earlier that morning that their son had died in Iraq. Their twenty year old son. The people in the Bedford church spent a moment in painful silence. What a tragedy.

The next day John got a call at home. I don't know if you'll remember me, the voice said. I'm one of the people who was so upset when you put that banner up last year. John definitely did remember him. The voice cracked. My son died in Iraq two days ago, the man said. I'd like you to do his memorial service. So the Unitarian Universalist minister, the minister of the church with the controversial banner, did the memorial service for the dead soldier and then, a few days later, went with the family to Arlington Cemetery for the burial. Go figure. Life is complicated. Amazing things happen in the wake of courage.

I tell you this story by way of thanking you for your own work for our faith. In almost all of our congregations there are moments like that: maybe not that dramatic. But still, moments when lives are changed. Times when children know for sure that they are valued by an entire community. When love is affirmed in public. When courage and faith carry the day. When we are stretched to be a little more generous and a little more loving, a little wiser, than we started out to be. So, for all the times when you and your congregation have created one of those moments, on behalf of the staff of the Association, the 200 people who work for you, thank you.

Courter then welcomed the Rev. Burton Carley, UUA Trustee from the Southwest District, who asked people to reflect on their participation in lifespan religious education, either as a parent, participant, or teacher. He said that our need now is to create a new generation of educational materials for the 21st century. That need is for an integrated curriculum from pre-school to adult focused on ethical, spiritual and faith development, and religious identity. The mission is to enrich our faith, the vision is this new curriculum, and the ministry is to fund this so that the work may continue. Delegates were asked for contributions that would be matched dollar-for-dollar up to $250,000 by a single donor. The good news, Carley reiterated, is that once the curriculum is complete, it will be available free to every congregation.

Awards for Religious Education and Service

Frediani returned to present the 33rd Annual Angus McLean Award. This award is presented by St. Lawrence Theological School Alumni to a person who has provided outstanding service in the area of religious education. The award was given to Betty Jo Middleton, who has ministered to an untold number of children, youth, adults, and colleagues with a generous spirit and dry sense of wit.

The Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, Director of Congregational Services, presented the Unsung UU Award to Linda Horton from Rochester, Minnesota. Among her other volunteer work, Horton is the current Vice President and incoming President of the National Braille Association. She has helped teach Wisconsin inmates Braille so they can produce Braille children's books, and transcribed our hymn book Singing the Living Tradition into Braille for the UUA. She is also a proud member of the Rochester Diversity Council, and has been of service to Prairie Star District. In receiving the award, Horton said that enabling the independence of individuals, growth of churches, districts and the Association is one of the greatest privileges and one of the greatest things we can do.

Jessica Halperin, from Pittsburgh, Pa., was presented with the Unsung UU Youth Award. She has shared her leadership skills with her local congregation, the Ohio Meadville district, and continental YRUU.

Michael Tino, Young Adult and Campus Ministry Director, presented the Donna DiSciullo Award for Young Adult and Campus Ministry to Natalie Brewster Nguyen of Chicago, an outstanding advocate, organizer, educator, and justice-seeker.

Betty Jeanne Rueters-Ward, the new YRUU Programs Specialist in the Youth Office, presented the Youth Advisor of the Year award to John Weiss from White Bear UU Church in Mahtomedi, Minn. Weiss said that it is an honor to receive the award, but more of an honor to be part of worship, touch groups, planning meetings, and all-nighters with the youth.

The Rev. Earl Holt, Chair of the Commission on Appraisal (COA), introduced the Commission members, and reminded delegates that the COA is elected by the delegates to study, review, and report at least every four years on issues of importance in the Association. Holt said that next year at GA 2005 in Ft. Worth they will be releasing the results of their current study concerning "the unity in our theological diversity: what it is that holds us together."

Debate on Study Action Issues

The Rev. Meg Riley, Director of Advocacy and Witness, reported on how Study Action Issues (SAI's) work. The purpose of GA social witness statements, she reminded delegates, is to provide vehicles for congregations to rally around, but they don't set staff priorities. The staff offers resources for congregations and individuals to take action, but each issue is complex, nuanced, and demands involvement with coalition partners-work that takes time to be built and that cannot be shifted each year with every new SAI.

Riley said that the UUA's Public Witness Team suggests three criteria in social justice work: grounding, fit and opportunity:

  • Grounding: Does the theology practiced in your congregation resonate with the issue historically, ethically, and spiritually?
  • Fit: Would this issue compel you to use your resources of people, money and time to focus on this, and would it make a difference to your whole congregation?
  • Opportunity: Is there a likelihood that you could become respected participants in public dialog?

If so, said Riley, the particular issue could be the spark which ignites small, concrete, choreographed actions for congregations.

The Rev. Richard Nugent, Chair of the Commission on Social Witness (CSW), outlined the process that a SAI goes through for presentation to the GA. He also advised delegates on the process for presenting Actions of Immediate Witness.

Acting Moderator Courter then invited delegates to turn their attention to the four proposed SAIs in the GA Agenda (PDF, 56 pages), which were:

  • S1 Civil Marriage Equality
  • S2 Oppression of Women World Wide
  • S3 Stopping Mass Extinction
  • S4 Threat of Global Warming

The Rev. Gary Kowalski, main sponsor of S3 Stopping Mass Extinction, asked delegates not to vote or speak on this SAI, but rather to join together with those working on S4Threat of Global Warming as they issues of concern are similar and can be covered by the latter SAI.

Supporters of S1 Civil Marriage Equality cited the following reasons for supporting the proposed action:

  • Legal marriages from Massachusetts still will not be recognized in other states;
  • The threat of an amendment to the Constitution barring same-sex marriages is immanent;
  • It is a pivotal moment, one where grounding, fit and opportunity are plain to see;
  • A backlash is increasing against same-sex couples in the wake of the legalization of weddings in Massachusetts
  • There is momentum and a real possibility to make a difference.

Supporters of S2 Oppression of Women World Wide advocated for support for the following reasons:

  • This furthers of our long-time commitment to women's rights;
  • Oppression is real for women in other cultures where they are treated worse than we treat our pets, and where our voice will make a difference;
  • Women's rights are fundamental to the interdependent web of life, and by strengthening the fabric in this place we will also impact the life of children;
  • Strengthening women's rights helps provide improved health care, literacy, and education.

Supporters of S4 Threat of Global Warning stated:

  • Greenhouse gasses are warming the planet, greatly affecting the planet;
  • Climate change is not an "equal opportunity" disaster, but something that will disproportionately effects the poor and disenfranchised as they do not have the resources to escape the effects;
  • The proposal is tied in strongly with our Seventh Principle;
  • If we don't begin to take notice now, we might continue in denial that this is a serious issue;
  • The "theft" of the environment is a theft from our children and grandchildren;
  • There is a compelling need for a theological understanding of the effects of global warming, and in the discovery of solutions.

Delegates submitted their choice for the next SAI by paper ballot. Later during the Plenary, it was reported that no one SAI received a majority of the votes cast: S1 (Civil Marriage Equality) received 522, S2 (Oppression of Women World Wide) 166, and S4 (Threat of Global Warming) 425. A run-off was held, with Threat of Global Warming receiving the majority of 540 votes with Civil Marriage receiving 456.

Proposed Changes to Study Action Issue Process

The Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull, member of the Commission on Social Witness and the Task Force reviewing the Study Action Issue process, reported on the proposed changes to the Study Action Issue process, and how the process, if it had been entered into in this Plenary, would have been different.

The first difference would be to spread the process over a four year period, rather than the current three year period.

  • GA1 would choose the issue
  • GA2 would focus on study and skill building
  • GA3 would consider the SAI in Statement of Conscience form
  • GA3 would also select the next issue (Currently a new issue is selected in GA2)
  • GA4 would home in on implementation

The task force would also recommend expanding the list of those who can propose SAIs to include, in addition to congregations and districts, associate member organizations, sponsored organizations, independent affiliates, and UUA staff. As well, the task force suggests reducing the number of issues appearing in the Congregational Directives from ten to seven, thus allowing for greater focus. They recommend that this Directive be renamed the Congregational Poll and that there would be a reduced number of SAIs from that poll that would reach the ballot, dropping it from a maximum of five to three. The changes would also require that at least 25% of our congregations participate in the poll. As Carlsson-Bull put it, "No quorum, no new issue."

The Commission on Social Witness would also encourage delegates to consider grounding, fit, and opportunity when selecting the issues to study. More details of this plan can be found in the Final Report of the Social Witness Process Review Panel (PDF).

Skinner Sermon Award

The Rev. Rebecca Cohen then presented the Skinner Sermon Award to the Rev. Joshua Pawelek of the Unitarian Universalist Society, East, of Manchester, Conn.

Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee

Kim Varney, Chair of the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee (JTWTC), and Sofia Betancourt Craethnenn spoke about the work of this team. Varney said that the JTWTC has monitored the transition of the UUA toward being an anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural (ARAOMC) organization. They have surveyed the UUA staff on issues such as: what are your goals; how do you define your measures of success and progress so far; what financial resources were used, what challenges were encountered, and focusing on the ways in which people of color, bisexual, gay, lesbian, transgender, disabled, and other underserved groups engaged in this work.

Craethnenn reported that JTWTC has deep appreciation for the ongoing commitment and dedication of the staff to bear witness to the holistic integration across all areas of administration. The preliminary analysis showed that there is an ever-deepening commitment to the work. The work of the outgoing Committee members (Kurt Kuhwald, Susan Suchoki-Brown, Leon Spencer, James Hobart, and Emily Rickett) was appreciated, and the new members of the Committee were welcomed. The Committee has been renamed the "Transformation for Wholeness and Justice Committee" in order to distinguish the committee from the process.

Voting and Democracy

Denny Davidoff, former Moderator of the UUA, introduced G. Welton Gaddy, Executive Director of The Interfaith Alliance (TIA). Gaddy, the author of over 20 books including Faith and Politics, and is the former Board Chair of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Gaddy said that he knows Unitarian Universalists well:"You are among the best friends of TIA, and you care about religion and politics, religion in politics, and politics in religion. We write letters, march, adopt platforms, and labor incessantly to live up to our potential. We must continue, and we must do more-this is our moment, the nation needs our voice."

Gaddy said, "Why schedule a presentation on voter registration?" and then replied, "I'm so glad you asked!" He reminded delegates of what is at stake this year: the fate of every issue of social, moral, ethical and politically important issue to religious people including civil rights, fair housing, taxation, foreign relations, economic justice, poverty, health care, the nation's children, and more. "While we don't all agree on the specifics of these issues and how they are addressed," he said, "people of faith and good will care about them, want them addressed responsibly and helpfully. This underscores the importance of voting."

Urging the delegates to participate in democracy by registering to vote and then registering others, Gaddy was followed on the podium by the Rev. Meg Riley, who talked about how past Statements of Conscience (SOC) have been implemented. She cited examples of town hall meetings, forums, socially responsible investing, voter registration, and other activities that congregations have taken on. For the 2003 SAI on criminal justice and prison reform, handouts and other materials are available at the Washington Office website.

C. Welton Gaddy, President of The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation

Good morning Unitarian Universalists. I know you; I know you well. I appreciate you. You are among the very best friends of The Interfaith Alliance. You care about religion and politics and religion in politics and politics in religion—you care and you show it. You write letters, march in protests, advocate legislative initiatives, question candidates, give money to organizations like ours, and labor incessantly to make this nation live up to the promises of its formative documents. I know you. This is your moment. The nation needs your voice. The electoral process can benefit from your involvement. I come to encourage you to be who you are, to live out your identity. I know you.

I know how to thank you for what you do, especially for your support of The Interfaith Alliance. Frankly, though, I am not sure that I know what to say to you regarding voter registration. Your great leader and my dear friend, Bill Sinkford has been hard at work on plans for a massive voter registration campaign since long before the advent of this election year. Many of you are already involved daily in registering voters. Through the staff of your Washington office, you are exercising great cooperative leadership in the Faithful Democracy Project. So, the question is a legitimate one: Why schedule a presentation on voter registration in a plenary session of the General Assembly? Why all of this fuss about voter registration?

I am glad that you asked those questions. Let me first state the obvious.

At stake in this year's elections is the fate of virtually every issue of social-moral-political significance to religious communities—civil rights, foreign policy, fair housing, taxation, issues at the heart of the LBGT [lesbian, bisexual, gay, and transgender] community, a healthy environment, religious liberty, economic justice, education, poverty, health care, and the future for our nation's children. To be sure, I know that all people of faith and goodwill do not agree on the specifics of how these issues should be addressed by the government. But, I also know that all people of faith and goodwill care about these issues and want to see them addressed responsibly and helpfully. The urgency of that interest alone underscores the importance of voting, a civil act that legally cannot take place apart from registering to vote. You need to be registered to vote and you need to be busy seeing to it that your friends are registered to vote.

For me to talk about the importance of voting may strike you as simplistic rhetoric akin to myopic affirmations of "motherhood and apple pie," but let me tell you straight up that I view talk about the importance of voting as rhetoric about a mandate that pulsates in the heart of our interest in issues of war and peace, balancing national security and fundamental civil rights, and developing a nation that appreciates religious pluralism and refuses to allow diversity to be labeled a curse instead of a blessing. Voting is important! In our system of government the ballot is a great equalizer. Not all of us have direct access to the power of a governmental platform or to the reach of public media in our nation. But, on Election Day, our votes—your vote and my vote—are as powerful—quantitatively and qualitatively—as the votes of Bill O'Reilly or Pat Robertson or Tim Russert or Ted Kennedy. We have no more powerful tool for saying "no" to politicians with whom we disagree than voting against them. We have no more effective way of affording service to a politician whom we value than voting for her election to public office. Voting is important. That makes voter registration important.

Please do not take voter registration for granted. I have been stunned by learning the percentage of unregistered voters in the memberships of multiple progressive national organizations. Many of the people who have been registered as new voters by Unitarian Universalists this year have been previously un-registered Unitarian Universalists. Ask about registration—you are not shy; and when people tell you that they are not registered to vote assist them in registering—you are not passive.

How important is it—registering people to vote? It was important enough to make a white male dominated government refuse to give women the right to vote until we were over 150 years into this national experience. Voter registration was important enough to cause Medgar Evers to give his life on the driveway of his house in Mississippi that African-Americans might file into polling places on Election Days and allow their voices to be heard through the ballots that they checked. Listen, friends, politicians don't place the full force of government behind ensuring the denial of a basic right that ought to belong to everybody unless the people in that government fear that a broader exercise of that right could mess up their political play pens and rob them of positions of power.

How important is registering to vote? Look at and listen to our history. Susan B. Anthony spoke passionately about "the power . . . (of) the ballot, the symbol of freedom and equality, without which no citizen is sure of keeping (even what you have, much less getting what you do not have)." In a moment before passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, when there were more African Americans in jail than registered to vote, Martin Luther King, Jr. roared, "Let us march on ballot boxes . . . until race baiters disappear from the political arena. . . . Let us march on ballot boxes until we send to our city councils, state legislatures and the United States Congress men (and women) who do not fear to do justice, love, mercy and walk humbly with God. . . . The battle is in our hands . . . all over the United States."

Kim Baldwin, Election Year Coordinator for The Interfaith Alliance worked on voter registration as a part of Governor Mel Carnahan's campaign team in Missouri in 2000. I have listened to her words and felt her deep emotions as she talked about trying to register voters in the Bootheel of Missouri—a rural area populated mostly by African Americans and dominated by poverty. For an AME church in that area to register new voters, lawyers had to be brought in who could successfully get voter registration cards accepted by the Board of Elections from which they were typically returned because of "errors" of one kind or another. A 90 year-old African American woman, using a pejorative term for the people of her race told Kim, "Those white folks don't want us black folks to vote."

Recently, after a speech in Kansas, an immigrant Muslim leader asked me the somber question, "Why does this nation make voting so difficult?" Do leaders not want people to vote?

Nobody—nobody!—should ever come to that conclusion about voting in this nation. We should make voting easier, not more difficult. We should be encouraging people to vote and assisting them in the process of voter registration, not discouraging them and leaving them with the impression that we would rather that they not vote.

Let me be clear. Though voting is the sine qua non of civic participation and voter registration an essential prerequisite to that exercise, I know what voter registration is not.

  • Voter registration is not a substitute for voting but a prerequisite to voting and a foundation from which to work in mobilizing voters.
  • Voter registration is not a work that makes unnecessary year-around political activity, but a primal act on the civic agenda for every election year.
  • Voter registration is not an assurance of civil rights guarantees for all people but a powerful declaration that we will not tolerate the tenure of candidates who deny civil rights even if in the name of protecting national security or guaranteeing institutional religion.
  • Voter registration is not a guarantee that every registered voter will have immediate or easy access to a polling place, but it is the first step in guaranteeing the possibility of a vote that moves quickly to monitor polling places to protect against abuse in the electoral system; it is a signal that we intend to work to see that everybody gets to vote.
  • Voter registration is not the beginning and the end of preparation for an election, but a clear statement of intention to take an election seriously, to study the candidates involved conscientiously and to vote intelligently.
  • Voter registration is not a prophylactic against the misuse of religion in campaigns but it is a way of saying to those who manipulate religion for their own partisan purposes, "Enough is enough! Go home; we do not want you in an elected office."
  • Voter registration is not a sacrament or a religious ritual any more than is voting, but both are indicative of the integrity of religion-privately held priorities that inevitably find public expression through political action.

I know what voter registration is not, but I also know what it is. You do too. But let me say aloud what voter registration is so that we can affirm it again together. If you believe the following affirmations about voter registration to be true, together say "yes" after each one of them:

Voter registration is an effort to mobilize the public to express its will on Election Day.

  • Voter registration is an expression of conviction—political conviction about the importance of vibrancy in our democracy, religious conviction about the responsibility of people of faith and goodwill to participate in the shaping of this society.
  • Voter registration like voting itself is an act of national patriotism. The ballot box is a far better place than the bumper of a car to give life to the old aphorism from Carl Schurz—My country right or wrong, when right to keep it right, when wrong to make it right.
  • The vote of a registered voter is a profound act of affirmation of the kind of people whom we want to lead our nation and a powerful act of protest against leaders who would take our nation where we do not want it to go.

Yes! Yes! Yes!

Occasionally someone questions whether or not religious organizations can legally engage in voter registration drives. The answer is incontrovertibly "Yes." Indeed, historically, one of the great gifts made to this nation by the religious community is that of conscientious civic participation and social action. In an election year in which some campaign strategists seem to want us to believe that we are electing "the holy man of the year" rather than the president of the United States, it is more appropriate than ever for religious organizations to be sure that their members are registered to vote.

Already Unitarian Universalists have registered thousands of people to vote. Similarly the staff of The Interfaith Alliance, in addition to writing, distributing, and monitoring a national voter registration initiative, has also been registering voters-on street corners, by subway stations, in houses of worship, at assembly sites for marches, alongside jazz festivals, in local alliances gatherings.

"But, what if you register the wrong people to vote?" someone asked me recently. "There are none," I answered, "We want democracy to work; registering people to vote is not about excluding anybody—we have had enough of that—it's about including everybody." We are registering voters to see that people of faith and goodwill function as an important part of the electorate-not first and foremost as Republicans, Democrats, Greens or Independents, but as people of faith and goodwill who care about the nation and will a strong democracy. 

To be sure, voter registration cannot be separated from voter mobilization. Voter registration is more important than voter mobilization until a voter is registered, then mobilization is the issue. Please get voters to the polls on November 2nd. In the 2000 elections, a whopping 41% of the population (76 million voters) did not vote. We must do better. 

I hear a lot of complaints about the present administration in Washington. Recently Congressman Barney Frank helped me place these complaints in proper perspective. We have not had a coup, he said, a take-over of the government. Whether you like the present leadership of government or not, remember that these are the people who were elected by that part of the public that registered to vote and then participated in the electoral process embraced by our nation. This is the way our democracy works. If you like the present administration of this government, you best vote on Election Day to preserve its leadership. If you dislike the present administration of this government, you best vote on Election Day to change it. The decision about the future leadership of this nation resides, where it belongs, in the hands of the public—those who register to vote and those who vote.

"You are right, of course," some of you are saying to me, "But you must know that you are preaching to the choir!" I do know that. And, I am saying to the choir what I heard a minister friend of mine say to another choir. Yes, I am preaching to the choir and what I am saying to the choir is, "Get off your butts and sing!"

Friends, I know you. Let's do this thing right. With the enthusiasm with which you sing, with the seriousness with which you light the flame, with the durability with which you do business at the GA, work your neighborhoods, your friends, your congregations, and your families to register voters. With the persistence with which you defend a grand idea, with the persuasiveness with which you talk about the value of diversity, with the relentlessness with which you support liberty, mobilize people to vote on November 2nd.

May I remind you that this electoral work to which I call you is a matter of good government and it is a matter of good religion. 

Statements of Conscience

Acting Moderator Courter then moved the delegates on to considering the Statement of Conscience on Civil Liberties, and invited Richard Nugent, chair of the Committee on Social Witness, to explain the process of arriving at the final text being presented to the delegates. Nugent reported that the CSW held a three-hour mini assembly where 40 amendments were considered. Many of them are incorporated into the text presented, and the others are listed for consideration by delegates if anyone so moves. Delegates voted to allow 12 minutes for debate on the main motion before allowing for the presentation of amendments. However, only one person rose to speak against the motion, and no amendments were offered, so delegates moved quickly to the vote where the SOC was accepted. Courter commended the CSW for their new more inclusive process.

UUA Secretary Wayne Arnason returned to speak about the proposed changes to the SOC process. If the proposed changes are adopted, one important change would have happened before this GA. The Congregational Poll would have included the SOC's proposed text, and in order to be on the agenda, it would need to be approved by a two-thirds vote in that poll, with quorum of at least 25% of certified member congregations. If approved by the poll, we would now be at the third GA where the issue involved was under study. Amendment work would still be possible, but it would have occurred at GA only in working groups. The text of SOCs might be more compact. The fourth GA would be devoted to implementation of the SOC.

If the SOC had failed to attract two-thirds of the delegates' votes, but had more than 50%, a motion to recommit the draft text to the CSW would be in order, to be brought back to the delegates the next year. Arnason said that if people wish to provide thoughts or conversation on this changing process, they should contact Linda Olsen Peebles at lpeebles @ uua.org.

Helene Atwan, Director of Beacon Press, reminded delegates that Beacon Press is doing well and is ahead of their plan. But, she said, rather than focusing on this aspect of the Press, she is focusing on how Beacon Press supports the work of congregations. Atwan named the concerns of the congregations and their members:

  • Who gets to marry?
  • Who gets to vote?
  • Civil liberties and human rights
  • Peace, not power
  • Separation of church and state
  • Sustainable futures and valuing our environment
  • Who controls the media
  • Fair housing
  • Who has a voice
  • Who has all the wealth
  • Early childhood education and public education

In all these areas, Beacon Press publishes books to help people understand the issues, and think critically about how to make decisions on these complex matters. To keep Beacon Press strong, and help maintain this record, Atwan encouraged delegates to buy Beacon books. (Beacon books are available through the UUA Bookstore.)

Acting Moderator Courter said introduced the Rev. William F. Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International, USA, (AI) to speak about the issue of human rights. Courter said, "Today around the globe it is the United Nations International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. Within the last year," Courter continued, "President Bush said that he is against torture, and that the United States is leading by example. For us, Schulz is leading by a better example."

Schulz said that in the past ten years he has become all too familiar with the matter of torture. He observed, "I am not just speaking as the Executive Director of AI, but also as a person of faith, a person of our faith, a person who carries inside his heart your faces, your values, your hopes, wherever I go and whatever I do."

He then asked: "How have we arrived at this place that young Americans, no different from my children or yours, could inflict such humiliation, such suffering and, in thirty-seven cases, such death upon human beings confided to their care?"

It is too simple, Schulz said, to blame one party, or one system. He stated that Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and renown civil libertarian, did more in the months following September 11th to make torture respectable than any other commentator in America. Schulz's remarks continued, with him observing that none of this is new. When the U.S. occupied the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century, our soldiers carried out torture then. But, he asked, "Couldn't we have learned anything in 100 years?"

Our consciences have been raised, Schulz said, and now it is time for us to raise the consciences of others. He encouraged Unitarian Universalists to send a letter to the President demanding the appointment of a Special Prosecutor, independent of the Justice Department, to bring all those responsible to justice.

We owe this not just to the victims themselves, Schulz stated, but to every innocent Afghan or Iraqi who has died in these two wars, and also to every American service man or woman who has died in Afghanistan or Iraq. We owe it to every citizen of the world who has ever looked to America as the embodiment of what is good. And, he said, we owe it to every American who wants to be proud again, or at least not embarrassed, proud again to be an American. We need the same boundaries of treatment for every person who walks this earth.

Schulz said, "We are engaged in a great struggle between those who see enemies in the face of every stranger, and those who make it easier for strangers to be friends. The heart of the struggle is whether or not we will care for every murdered child, raped woman, tortured prisoner. That is what human rights is about, and what America, at its best, is all about."

The Reverend William Schulz, Executive Director, Amnesty International USA

I'm very grateful to Bill Sinkford and Gini Courter for inviting me to speak to you for just a few minutes about a topic with which I have, unfortunately, become all too familiar in the past ten years—and that is the matter of torture. I speak today not just as Executive Director of Amnesty International but as a person of faith, a person of our faith, a person who carries inside his heart your faces, your values, your hopes, wherever I go and whatever I do.

How have we arrived at this place that young Americans, no different in many respects from my children or yours, could inflict such humiliation, such suffering and, in thirty-seven cases, such death upon human beings confided to their care?

How have we gotten to this juncture that our top leaders could countenance, even encourage, such barbarity? And then to try to hide it from the Red Cross?

How have we come to a point in our national journey that America, once loved, once heralded, is now to so many around the world an outcast, a symbol of all things cruel and dirty?

Partly it is because since 9/11 we have seen the most systemic erosion of human rights protections since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed in 1948. But it is too simple to blame one party or one President. "The dividing line between good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being," said Solzhenitsyn, "and who is willing to destroy his own heart?" Alan Dershowitz, after all, the Harvard law professor and renowned civil libertarian, did more in the months following 9/11 to make torture respectable, with his advocacy of "clean torture" carried out pursuant to "torture warrants" issued by a court, than any other commentator in America.

Nor is any of this new. When the United States occupied the Philippines at the turn of the twentieth century, our soldiers thought nothing of inflicting the "water cure" upon their prisoners—a bamboo shoot inserted in the mouth and filthy water poured into the stomach until it could hold no more.

But couldn't we have learned something in the last one hundred years? Couldn't we have learned the simple lesson that to deprive another of her dignity is to make adversaries of the undecided and fanatics of the adversary?

The good news is that many of us have. The good news is that this scandal has shocked the conscience of a nation. But consciences are ephemeral things and they require constant pricking.

My Unitarian Universalist sisters and brothers, I'm asking you today to be a bunch of pricks. That's a phrase that occasionally sprang to my mind when I was President of the UUA, but never my lips!

On your way out of the auditorium this morning, you will be handed a sample letter to the President demanding the appointment of a Special Prosecutor independent of a Justice Department whose legal counsel has tried to rationalize the use of torture, a Special Prosecutor to bring all those responsible to justice. The UUSC [Unitarian Universalist Service Committee], on whose Board I sit, has also launched a campaign to stop torture permanently.

We owe all this not just to the victims of abuse themselves. We owe it to every innocent Afghan or Iraqi who has died in these two wars. We owe it to every American service man or woman who has died in Afghanistan or Iraq. We owe it to every citizen of the world who has ever looked to America as the embodiment of what is good. And we owe it to every American who wants to be proud again-or at least not embarrassed—proud again to be an American.

Human rights emerge out of the common misery of humankind, the suffering that comes to every one of us simply for having been born a human being. We can't stop that suffering altogether but we can set limits to its reach, the same limits, the same boundaries for everyone, friend or foe alike, who walks upon this earth.

Remember what Stephen Spender wrote? A fierce partisan of the opponents of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, Spender reflected later on his conduct: "During the war," he said, "whenever I saw photographs of children murdered by Franco's Fascists, I felt furious pity. But when the supporters of Franco talked about atrocities we on our side had committed, I merely felt indignant that people could tell such lies. In the first case I saw corpses, in the second only words. Gradually I acquired a certain horror at the way my own mind worked. It was clear to me that unless I cared about every murdered child impartially, I did not care about children being murdered at all."

We are engaged in a great struggle today between those who see enemies in the face of every stranger and those who would make it easier for strangers to be friends; between those who turn first to force and those who would couple force, when it is required, with justice; between those who cherish the values of the international community, built up painstakingly since the days of the Magna Carta, and those who would shred them in an instant.

And at the heart of this struggle is a contest as to whether or not Stephen Spender's sentiment will prevail. For that vision of common dignity-to care for every murdered child, raped woman, tortured prisoner—impartially is what human rights are all about. It is what Unitarian Universalism is all about. And it is what America, at her best, is all about as well. Join me, join Amnesty International, join the UU Service Committee. Join all of us in reminding our leaders of that which they so foolishly and so tragically forgot.

Moderator's Election

Acting Moderator Courter then yielded the chair to the First Vice Moderator, the Rev. Ned Wight. Wight called on the Rev. Wayne Arnason, Secretary of the UUA, to provide background on events leading up to the election of a Moderator for a one-year term. Arnason said that with the resignation of the previous moderator, we would ordinarily have had an election at this year's General Assembly to elect someone to complete the remaining one year of the previous Moderator's term. Since there were no candidates other than Gini Courter, it seemed economically wise not to prepare paper ballots. Nevertheless, Arnason said, "the need to affirm and elect your Moderator seemed important. The results need not be preordained: Every delegate has the radical freedom to make a choice in elections." The motion was put forward that the General Assembly elect Gini Courter to fill the one year remaining of the term. The motion passed overwhelmingly, and Courter resumed the chair as the Moderator of the Association.

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.

Sidebar Content, Page Navigation

 

Updated and Popular

Recently Updated

For Newcomers

Learn more about the Beliefs & Principles of Unitarian Universalism, or read our online magazine, UU World, for features on today's Unitarian Universalists. Visit an online UU church, or find a congregation near you.

Page Navigation