The Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly – Reflections of a Canadian Participant

The Unitarian Universalist Association’s (UUA) annual General Assembly (GA) was held in steamy New Orleans this year. Between June 21 – 25, over 4,000 Unitarian Universalists gathered at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Centre.

This was a challenging gathering for American UUs. Following the resignation of former president, Rev. Peter Morales, and multiple resignations of senior staff in leadership positions, and the death of Moderator Jim Key just weeks before GA, the UUA team grappled with the issues of race, inclusion and equity that had precipitated the resignations. The three interim co-presidents who had been appointed by the UUA Board of Trustees to fill in the 11 week vacancy before the election of the new UUA president, addressed the issues in a straightforward manner.

Co-president William G. Sinkford stressed that the challenging time was “a moment of opportunity….. we don’t want anybody to leave because we refused to do the work.” Co-president Sofia Betancourt added, “The risks of failing to engage these issues are enormous for this faith. Change must come if our faith is to thrive.”

UUs of Colour had many opportunities to engage together. Some sessions were specifically for UUs of Colour, in order to create a safe space, and others were open. Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) and Religious Professionals of Colour hosted these sessions.

Susan Frederick-Gray was elected as the first woman president of the UUA, and installed in a moving ceremony on June 25. Speaking to the assembly, Frederick-Gray stated, “This is a defining moment, and the stakes are very high. We have deep work to do within our association and our tradition, and critical work to do beyond the association.” She also took time to speak with Vyda Ng, CUC Executive Director, at an international reception to discuss the relationship between the CUC and UUA.

Rev. Diane Rollert of the Unitarian Church of Montreal coordinated the International Worship during GA with Rev. Tet Gallardo of the Philippines. After GA, Rev. Rollert reflected:

I’ve just gotten back from the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly. I’ve been going to GA since 1997, and I have to say this was the most powerful one I’ve attended.

I am encouraged by the significant number of young leaders of colour who said graciously but firmly that they are not leaving, that this faith matters to them and they are stepping into the circle rather than retreating to the margins. I was touched by the open, caring conversations I experienced with a wide range of people who are in this for the long haul. I didn’t get to attend half the workshops I wanted to, but what I did attend profoundly shifted my thinking.

We were all leaning into the discomfort around issues of whiteness and racism but we were also leaning toward each other with love. There is much work to be done and no overnight solutions or simple checklists to complete. This is lifetime work and that’s what I’m signing up to do.

At the business meetings, delegates “overwhelmingly voted” to approve language to amend the UUA Bylaws’ Article II Section C-2.1 line 26-28, effectively shifting Unitarian Universalism’s Second Source to no longer read “Words and deeds of prophetic women and men,” but to instead read “Words and deeds of prophetic people.”

In addition, the UUA Board of Trustees will appoint a commission to review Article II of the UUA’s bylaws, which deals with the Principles and Purposes. This is in response to an expressed desire by UUs to have a deeper conversation about the Principles, and to a proposed 8th principle. The commission is to be appointed by the Board’s October 2017 meeting.

The voice of Canadian UUs was also heard. CUC Executive Director Vyda Ng participated in the International Worship and presented as part of a workshop on “Voices of Refugees: Finding Sanctuary,” and took part in international gatherings and meetings. And as is tradition at GA, Canadian UUs and friends gathered for a social evening at the World of Beers!

There were uplifting moments. Of the 4,069 participants at GA, 318 of those were youth. A high energy Synergy Bridging Service welcomed sixty Unitarian Universalist high school youth into young adulthood. Bart Frost, UUA Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries said, “some of the best church I’ve witnessed lately. Synergy is unique to our faith, honoring these youth like this.”

Rev. Cheryl Walker at the Service of the Living Tradition, held to honour ministerial transitions, talked eloquently about making a difference. She challenged the audience to ask themselves, “Am I trying to make a name or make a difference? Do I just want to make a change, or make a difference?”

The Service of the Living Tradition recognized ministers in preliminary and final fellowship, as well as ministers who have passed away in the last year. In our Canadian context, the following were recognized:

  •       Rev. Rebecca C. “Beckett” Coppola – preliminary fellowship. Rev. Coppola has been called as the new minister at the Kingston Unitarian Fellowship in Kingston, ON
  •       Rev. Meaghann Robern – preliminary fellowship. Rev. Robern has been called as the new minister for the UU Church of Winnipeg in Manitoba
  •       Rev. Norman Horofker – final fellowship, Minister at the UU Church of Halifax
  •       Rev. Samaya Oakley – final fellowship, Minister at South Fraser Unitarian Congregation

Sadly, we said goodbye to Rev. Julie Denny-Hughes and Rev. J. McRee “Mac” Elrod.

The Ware Lecture is a highlight of GA. Each year, a distinguished guest is invited to address the assembly. 2017’s Ware Lecturer, Bryan Stevenson, invigorated the thousands in attendance. Mr. Stevenson is the founder and Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) in Montgomery, Alabama, and has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned. He said, “The opposite of poverty isn’t wealth—it is justice. He went on to outline the four things we must do to create a more just and equal world: Get proximate to the poor, the excluded, neglected, and abused; change the narratives that underlie racism and other inequalities; stay hopeful about creating justice; and be willing to do uncomfortable things.

The 2017 Ware Lecture is not available for on-demand viewing.

For more news of GA, visit UUWorld on-line at GA Coverage.