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Plenary III

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General Assembly 2007 Event 3004

Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Moderator Gini Courter called the third Plenary of the 47th General Assembly to order in the Oregon Convention Center at 8:33 a.m. on Friday, June 22, 2007.

Beacon Press

Courter invited Helene Atwan, Director of Beacon Press, to deliver her report to the delegates.

Beacon, Atwan said, "is having another fine year—the fifth year in a row when the Press has ended with a financial surplus." She shared highlights of the Press' activities with the delegates. She began with mentioning the publication, 35 years ago, of The Pentagon Papers in defiance of the U.S. government, and noted that this year Daniel Ellsberg, former Senator Mike Gravel, former UUA President Robert West, and broadcaster Amy Goodman will join UUA President William G. Sinkford in a presentation on the Pentagon Papers and current issues in government.

Beacon Press' publications include:

  • Big-Box Swindle by Stacy Mitchell, which addresses the struggle of small, independent businesses against "big box" businesses
  • They Take Our Jobs! by Aviva Chomsky, which addresses the immigration issue's realities and how to make a positive difference
  • On The Courthouse Lawn, by Sherrilyn Ifill, which details the legacy of slavery and the work of reparations
  • Can We Talk About Race? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, who also inaugurated a Beacon lecture series on the subject of race and education last year
  • The Queer Action Series, a selection of paperback original books designed to provide tools to the bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender communities.
  • When the Rivers Run Dry and With Speed and Violence, by Fred Pearce which address issues around global climate change
  • Resurrecting Empire and The Iron Cage, by Rashid Khalidi, which explain why the U.S. is in trouble in Iraq and the Middle East

Khalidi is this year's Ware Lecturer, and his books have been among the best selling books in recent years, as well as being among our most respected and best reviewed. His historical perspective helps people be better informed and more responsible citizens.

Atwan thanked the delegates for their extraordinary support for all these years, and also thanked the UUA and the UU Veatch Program at Shelter Rock for their constant support of the Press.

Financial Advisor's Report

Courter introduced Dan Brody, the UUA's Financial Advisor. Brody reported (PDF, 13 pages) on his second year as Financial Advisor by telling delegates that for fiscal year 2006, the UUA had a small surplus and a clean audit report, and that the current year is also expected to end with a surplus. He confirmed that Beacon Press had an operating surplus for the past four years, and that it is also expected to run a surplus this year. Beacon has also accumulated $2 million in reserves to cushion against future losses. Brody stated that in his judgment, the UUA is in an excellent financial position. He reported that the Association's new Treasurer Tim Brennan has done an outstanding job, bringing new energy and purpose to his position.

Brody discussed the first months of the new UUA-sponsored health plan for religious professionals. There are currently more than 400 ministers and other employees in more than 220 congregations enrolled in the UUA's self funded plan who now have excellent medical coverage. In order for the plan to be viable, it was recommended that the minimum number of people enrolled should be 500. The Board of Trustee's decision to enroll the UUA's 167 staff members made the plan viable at substantial cost to the UUA and at personal cost to the employees. He further stated that the UUA cannot mandate participation in the health plan, but offered his opinion that congregations have a moral responsibility to provide health insurance for their ministers and other employees.

The Health Care plan is being overseen by a separate board, comprised of individuals with health care experience. An independent evaluation of the plan will be undertaken. We know, Brody stated, "that it is an initial success, but the long term is uncertain. If there are years with substantial claims or if medical costs go up too quickly, we could be adversely affected. This can be guarded against by working together for universal health care."

Brody addressed the Association's endowments and investments. The UUA has both an Investment Committee and a Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, and they are working together to ensure that the endowments of the UUA, congregations, and districts that are invested through the UUA's General Investment Fund (GIF) strive to fulfill three goals: a high return, stability of principal, and investment in accord with UU social values. This has been accomplished, and Brody said that "over a period of many years it will be difficult, if not impossible, for any UU organization with an endowment of less than tens of millions of dollars to match the safety, return and UU-specific social screening offered by the GIF." He urged use of the GIF for congregational and district investment.

Brody next addressed how we fund our faith. The UUA Annual Program Fund (APF) receives contributions from congregations to support the Association's work. It now receives over $7 million a year, and is the largest single source of UUA income. Brody asked delegates to imagine a chart that shows that congregational giving to the UUA over the past 20 years has remained steady at about 3% of congregational resources. This is the result of the hard work of the APF Committee members and recognizes commitment to our collective work. Brody asked people to imagine another chart that showed the average spending by congregations on a per-member basis. Twenty years ago it was approximately $700 (adjusted to today's dollars), and now the average is more than $1200. We have, he said, "increased the support that each of us provides to our congregations by an average of 72%, plus the increase needed to keep up with inflation." He stated we should be proud of this accomplishment.

Brody introduced the Rev. Sydney A. Morris, chair of the Committee on Socially Responsible Investing. Through song invoking delegates to "Call out a blessing," Morris and UUA Treasurer Tim Brennan welcomed to the stage those who have worked in shareholder activism on behalf of the UUA. Craig Scholl, chair of the UUA Investment Committee, reported that we have made substantial progress toward deliberate and rational process of stock selection according to the moral criteria defined by the congregations. Our investment philosophy, he reported, is conservative, sound and grounded.

Vanessa Lowe reported on the Committee on Socially Responsible Investing's role in community-based projects. One percent of the UUA's $135 million fund is earmarked for community investment. Projects include affordable housing, environmental development projects, fair trade in several countries, Gulf Coast recovery efforts, microfinance, small businesses, and with other projects around the world.

Right Relationship Team Report

Courter reintroduced Petra Aldrich, chair of the Right Relationship Team. Aldrich reported that the team has been busy, and they will report on issues as they are resolved. She mentioned that many people may have seen the gentleman picketing at the Convention Center whose signs stated that General Assembly was not accessible to those with mental health concerns. Aldrich reported that members of the team, the GA chaplain, and a psychologist on call had worked with this gentleman, and the final recommendation is that for his health, and the health of those attending General Assembly, he should return home. Aldrich also reminded delegates that guide dogs are working dogs, and asked delegates not to pet them or step over them, and to treat them with respect in their travels through the GA site.

Breakthrough Congregations

Courter asked UUA Growth Team members Kathy Keith and Peter Luton to introduce the first of four Breakthrough Congregation presentations. Keith and Luton identified the members of the Growth Team: Harlan Limpert, Ken Brown, Tracey Robinson-Harris, Judith Frediani, Tandi Rogers Koerger, and Bill Sinkford. The four Breakthrough Congregations for 2007 are:

  • Davies Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church, Camp Springs, Maryland
  • All Souls Unitarian Church, Kansas City, Missouri
  • First Unitarian Church, Portland, Oregon
  • Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship, Carbondale, Illinois

Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship

Rev. Bill Sasso, minister of the Carbondale Unitarian Fellowship, introduced congregational members present and encouraged GA attendees to contact them if they have any questions. The congregation's video highlighted church life, and recognized the ‘angels' from outside the congregation who have helped them grow and mature. In ten years, they have accomplished:

  • Three strategic plans
  • Made a commitment to growth
  • Added a part-time religious education director
  • Added their first minister through the Extension Ministry program
  • Became a Welcoming Congregation
  • Became physically accessible
  • Sought financial aid for their new $1.7 million building with an organ and piano and their capital campaign
  • Expanded and improved lifespan religious education
  • Grew their membership by 90%
  • Created two new neighboring fellowships

They don't have all the answers, members acknowledged, and they have been helped by many inside and outside their congregation, from the UUA and district and their own members. They have learned to look outside their doors and have been engaged in social justice work locally and globally. Projects include partnership with the Hospice of Southern Illinois and work with a Zambian day-care program for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. They have helped with economic development in Zambia with those widowed by HIV/AIDS. They have also begun a prison ministry in which they help support the children of the prisoners. One of their members bought a church building in neighboring Mount Vernon and so now there is a new UU congregation in Rush Limbaugh's home town.

The congregation's leaders said there were seven values that sustained and guided them: we value everyone's voice; it's okay to ask for help; we value the advice we receive; we value the generosity of angels; we value the growth of liberal religion; we value social justice; and we value fun.

The O. Eugene Pickett Award

UUA Moderator Gini Courter then called on Rev. Tracey Robinson-Harris, Director of the Congregational Services Staff Group, to present the O. Eugene Pickett Award.

Robinson-Harris noted that this award is given annually to the congregation that has made an outstanding contribution to growth. The award is accompanied by a $500 gift. This year the award is presented to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Central Nassau in Garden City, New York. Their congregational health has allowed them to call a full-time minister; they have done outreach to support their partner congregation, First Unitarian Church in New Orleans; they have reached out to the UU congregation in Rock Tavern, New York, to help them rebuild after a fire; they are a Welcoming Congregation; they developed a radical hospitality team and have deepened their commitment to the wider world, including raising awareness of the genocide in Darfur. They have intention and passion and have never lost their focus or energy, said Robinson-Harris. Micki Krantz, worship arts chair, and their minister, Rev. Hope Johnson, accepted the award on behalf of the congregation.

President's Award for Volunteer Service to the Association

UUA President William G. Sinkford reminded delegates that the work of the Association is done by volunteers, and so many deserve recognition. But each year, the President has the right to name one volunteer to be specially honored for extraordinary service to our faith. This year, he said, he was "once again pushing the limit by not honoring an individual, but an organization." He then invited the members of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry to come forward.

Read the citation presented to the Trauma Response Ministry.

Sinkford concluded by stating that the UUA always offers a gift to the recipients of the award, typically a crystal bowl with a lovely inscription. "It is emblematic," he said, "of the dedication of the members of the UUTRM that they have asked to forgo such a gift and asked me to donate its cost toward the ongoing healing work of their ministry. So shall it be done."

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Gini Courter introduced Charlie Clements, President of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) to deliver his report. Clements began by thanking the delegates for making the work of the UUSC possible. "Our mission is to advance human rights and social justice," he said. He then shared some of the work of UUSC during the past year: working to clear our national conscience caused by torture in Abu Ghraib, unlawful detentions in Guantanamo, and unlawful incursions on civil liberties, all in the name of the "war on terror." He stated that we can promote social justice by not staying the course in Iraq. He mentioned that the Adin Ballou Peace Award would be given to Camilo Mejia, the first Iraqi veteran to declare himself a conscientious objector. He suggested inviting in a Veteran for Peace, and Iraqi Vet Against the War, or a soldier on active duty who has signed the Appeal for Redress, into congregations to provide their views on the war. People can also contact Wayne Smith (wsmith @ uusc.org), the leaders of the UUSC's Civil Liberties program.

Clements thanked those involved in the campaigns to raise the minimum wage for their activism, and encouraged those interested in working on living wage campaigns to be in touch with Johanna Chao Rittenburg (jrittenburg @ uusc.org), their Economic Justice program manager.

Clements also thanked those who have been involved in the Drumbeat for Darfur campaign, mentioning that Fidelity Investments has recently sold 91% of its share in the Chinese oil companies who support the leaders in Darfur. He thanked UUA President Bill Sinkford for his activism in this regard, and thanked those involved in the UUA's retirement program for switching their investments away from Darfur-based investments. He quoted Frances Moore Lappé: "Hope is not what we seek in evidence, it is what we become in action." He urged delegates to check UUSC's website to keep informed on how they are keeping pressure on the Chinese government in anticipation of the upcoming Olympic Games—the Chinese government can exert pressure to end the genocide in Darfur, but only with continued urging.

"This year," Clements said, "people are waking up to the global water crisis. The U.S. News and World Report recently devoted most of an issue to the crisis. The human right to water is linked to human dignity. UUSC is working in Tanzania, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Guatemala as well as various NGOs to defend communities' access to affordable, clean and sufficient water." Patricia Jones leads the UUSC's Environmental Justice program.

UUSC provides two kinds of experiential education programs: an international program called JustJourneys, and domestic program, called JustWorks Camps. Encounters through these bodies transform lives through activities such as the Civil Rights Journey or Alternative Spring Break. Kim McDonald and Nguyen Weeks lead these efforts. Clements said, "Offering life-transforming opportunities is one of the reasons the UUA and UUSC will continue placing volunteers in the Gulf Coast for the next 18 months."

Clements stated that some of the most courageous and determined partners UUSC has had confronting unjust power structures and mobilizing volunteers to change oppressive policies are two Gulf Coast partners. "No two individuals better exemplify courageous and committed action than Mary Fontenot (Director, New Orleans ACT—All Congregations Together) and Tyronne Edwards (Founder, Zion Travelers Cooperative, Plaquemines Parish)," said Clements. "Their struggles have become our shared struggles."

UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund

Moderator Gini Courter, beginning a section of the plenary in which delegates' contributions to aid the recovery in the Gulf were invited, talked about how she heard a report on National Public Radio (NPR) that suggested that in many ways, Hurricane Katrina was an equal opportunity disaster, in that Trent Lott is one of the persons who is suing insurance companies because his claim had been unfairly rejected. Courter said she rarely disagrees with something she hears on NPR, but that using Katrina and "equal opportunity" in the same sentence is unreal. "There are children in St. Bernard Parish living in rubble where toxic water has invaded. There are others waiting to move into FEMA trailers just as they are being withdrawn." She cited the example of one woman, Patty, who would use up her cell phone minutes the first days of every month as she struggled to coordinate living from family to family and trying to return home. Many people assume, she said, that things have gotten better, but many are still living on the margins. "I am sometimes ashamed that I can have a first-class standard of living while Patty is living in third world conditions. [Hurricane Katrina] was not an equal opportunity offender—it was and still is focused against marginalized groups.

"Racism is a factor," Courter said. "This was big news for five days—an entire community had gone missing, and it disappeared from the headlines in less time than it took to return to remove the plywood off of windows and weep.

"Our UU response has been noteworthy, and it is only the beginning. Individuals and teams from congregations have gone to the region—the number is growing, and it is not too late to go for the first time, right now, tomorrow, and this fall. It is not," she stressed, "a tourist adventure, even though the hotels are open."

Unitarian Universalists gave over $3.5 million to congregations and community organizations in the Gulf Coast through the UUA-UUSC Fund, and there is much more that came through direct partnerships and through other organizations. Two million dollars of our fund were granted directly to local groups led by people of color.

"Yet there is more to be done. They need our time, attention and help. A collection will now be taken to support these continuing partnerships." She asked delegates to "dig down as deep as you can imagine to help UUs follow up on that $2 million. Help us show up in a way that will make a statement about who we know we are in the world." Ushers passed collection baskets through the Plenary Hall as images of the destruction in the Gulf, and those aiding the recovery effort, showed on the screens.

Report on Responsive Resolution on Race and Class, 2006 General Assembly

As the collection was being taken, UUA Secretary Paul Rickter told delegates that over 100 congregations reported on their response to the Responsive Resolution passed at last year's General Assembly that asked congregations to hold at least one activity to learn more about race or class. "This is ten percent of our congregations," he said, but Rickter also noted, "it is clear that at least half of our congregations have held an activity, program, or event," inspired by the resolution.

He reported on the variety of activities undertaken, including discussions on videos and books, worship services, discussion groups, assisting homeless and those recently released from prison, providing services to immigrants and refugees, working with Native American tribes. Stories of some of these congregations were shared by delegates, including a collaborative project by six Chicago area congregations that worked with middle school youth and introduced them to their various communities and the needs of the city and suburbs. Other activities included:

  • Massachusetts: three congregations created a multi-session, multigenerational education program that will be repeated next year
  • Fairfax County, Virginia: responding to the 140+ languages spoken by the school children, they have begun an intentional long term program to educate their religious professionals and congregational members through using a UUA Juust Change consultant and other educational methods.
  • Santa Rosa, California: created a series of events for worship, meditation, films, dance, to help the congregation become more inclusive. These events served an unduplicated 125 members of their 270 member congregation, and people are hungry for more similar events.
  • Louisville, Kentucky: invited in speakers and held community forums and participated in the city's NAACP conference.
  • Albuquerque, New Mexico: created a multi-racial extended family group in their congregations and for others in the community.
  • Devon, Pennsylvania: invited biracial families to come together and tell their stories.
  • Freemont, California: congregation has less than 50% white members after establishing a task force on racial awareness and diversity.

Rickter encouraged congregations to continue telling him of what they have done (responsiveresolution06 @ uua.org) to further this resolution.

Breakthrough Congregation

All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church

Courter introduced the Rev. Jim Eller, Lead Minister, of All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in Kansas City, Missouri, the second of our Breakthrough Congregations. Eller said that twenty-seven members of the congregation are present at this General Assembly, and that the congregation strives to be a diverse multigenerational beacon of positive social change.

The congregation's video told the story of this 140 year old congregation. Forty years ago, they had a membership of between 300 and 400 members, they wanted to grow bigger, and they were stuck. But now, they have over 520 members and are still growing.

Every church loses 8% of its membership every year through death, moving and other transitions. In 1983, the average age at All Souls was 45; by 1993 it was 55, and they were a graying congregation. Also in 1993, they were in the midst of renovations, and disagreements and conflict along with animosity and backbiting were frequent. They sat on folding metal chairs, and from other indications like peeling paint in the sanctuary, it was clear they didn't invest in their space. Visitors were often taken aback. The members of the congregation were so busy fighting each other that they were unable to fight for justice.

They realized they needed help, and in 1994 they took a bold move. They engaged a team of behavioral consultants to work with them (Prairie Star District Executive Nancy Heege and then-Central Midwest District Executive Helen Bishop). Heege and Bishop visited three times, and reported to the congregation what they found: the trip wires, how they used emotional blackmail, and other negative behavior. Though they didn't like to hear it, the congregation members knew they had been accurately described. This "searing" report started the change process and was helpful. The consultants didn't offer answers—that was up to the congregation to determine.

One thing that was done was the posting of paper for people to write down the "taboo" subjects at the church. After one day they had a full sheet that included words such as God, spiritual, worship, prayer, humanism. Following up on this, they learned that different perspectives were all right and that they could be in a community and disagree—it's not a confrontation, but a quest for understanding.

Eller said that when he arrived, the congregation was hungry for an increased sense of community. They began involving lay members in serving each other, and created a caring connection. They put their weekly covenant, "Service is the law of this church," into practice. In 2000 they formed a task force on growth that looked not only at numbers, but also at the organic, maturational and incarnational aspects of growth.

They were also fortunate to be the first area for the UUA's targeted marketing program to be field tested—and it was only when the large inflow of visitors came that they realized they didn't know how to deal with them, and how inadequate their membership integration process was. Now they have a better greeting process, informing and integrating new members into the congregation. They have discovered that 80% of those who attend new member classes and orientations stay integrated, while only 20% of those who are not involved in the intentional classes stay.

The church learned that recognizing the diversity in their midst allows for more meaningful and vibrant worship. The age of the staff makes a difference, too, and they have intentionally brought younger people onto the staff. Intern ministers are taking on areas around their passion, and this has included young adult ministry and ministry to bisexual, gay, lesbian, and transgender persons.

The leaders of All Souls Church report that they are "in the process of outgrowing their building," and they have catalyzed growth in communities around them. They realize that they are not just responsible to their own congregation, but to serving the broader movement. Their differences make them stronger, and their "unity is emphasized every week as we recite the covenant together that others have been saying since the 1890s."

Following the screening of the congregation's video and announcements, the Plenary stood in recess.

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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