Believe it or not, it was the appeal of going to Salt Lake City, Utah, that made me desire to attend my very first General Assembly (G.A.). I get to shoot two birds with one stone I said to folks who asked me “Why Salt Lake City?”, “Why G.A?”. In obscene shorthand, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations General Assembly is the big Pow Wow of all Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregations – I would not call it our Mecca trip, though I almost think it ought to be. Most UU churches send members, called delegates, who gather together each year at different locations throughout the United States for a four day meeting (by the way, this trip is not paid for by the churches, though some assist somewhat, for instance by paying for the registration fees—mostly, though, the members pay for their stay and travel). They usually hold these gatherings in cities that have ample convention centers and where the rent is affordable; such a place was Salt Lake City, hosting G.A. from June 24th to 28th this year, and such a place will be Minneapolis in June 2010.
I admit Salt Lake City was an attraction for its Mormon history, but it was also a place I had not been to. The wise say you ought to visit a new place you’ve never been to each year to enrich yourself, for travel is a better education than any Ph.D. any day, and I don’t really admit any apologies for my overly educated Brahman.
In any case, I found Salt Lake City to be rich. It is a booming town. You can tell because of all its construction cranes. Investors put money in building because they know it’s a good investment. Though, our taxi driver from India, on our way to the airport did tell us that the hotels were empty – blame the economy. The truth is Salt Lake is happening. And I don’t say that just because it has ample nightlife, though don’t go try to go out to a restaurant on a Sunday night – most restaurants close by 7pm that day and 10pm all other days, with some exceptions, but hey, mass transit is free in the very center of the city and the cable cars are very clean as are the sidewalks. The LDS Church will build a business school too. The Mormon complex is something you have to see. It is something to admire. I admire the Mormons. Their evangelical tenacity. Their love for architecture and beautiful things. Their nice-ness. Heather and I took a tour of their grounds at Temple Square. I simply adore their open-ness to show you their way, their system of belief and thought. I felt like they were Unitarian Universalists, with a different theology and dress, more money and much more evangelism.
So…the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations General Assembly (UUA G.A.), what I started writing about:
I had no idea how big we are. I had no practical idea how small we are. It didn’t occur to me how spread we were; we are really all over this mosaic called the United States and Africa too (!). Hearing numbers at your local congregation, ratios, percentages is not the same as seeing them live, as hearing them talk and speak their minds and cause controversy, shake up your upper middle class status.
Our denomination is small and diverse. It is also large and not diverse. It is complex and at a critical time it is the most powerful answer to the changing world we live in. We have great opportunity and we are finding it hard to grasp it. Perhaps we are focusing on the lack. Perhaps this is a good thing, for how boring to find we were on top – a challenge is more welcome.
Our “movement,” which is not a good term, by the way, for movements come and go, but the truth is Unitarian Universalism is here to stay and develop however we want it to be. It is a religion – a lot of us better get used to that if we are to make it big or at all.
I perhaps digress, but the truth is we focused on those issues more than you can imagine. Although I had felt that at All Souls in New York City, which is an anomaly by the way, the congregation I attend religiously, I was not aware of the urgency, to put it mildly.
I guess when you hear the numbers and when you see the evidence, then you might get it too. Here are three interesting statistics I learned at G.A.:
* No more than point three percent of the United States population (0.3%) declares itself as Unitarian Universalist.
* Our congregations have less than 9% of people who consider themselves as people of color.
* Across the board, our percentage of monetary giving is about one to two percent (1-2%) a person. Monetary giving, what is sometimes called “stewardship” – one percent (!). Sad.
Clearly we are missing a ton of vibrancy.
Let me step back a bit on the great things that we have done, for we are a quintessential American faith, and let me be humble as I say truths:
The Universalists, as early as the 1800s, were some of the first supporters of non-sectarian schools, and they also worked on social issues including the separation of church and state, prison reform, capital punishment, the abolition of slavery, and women's rights – this was before it was the acceptable norm to follow. In 1863 the Universalists became the first group in the United States to ordain a woman with full denominational authority.
But let us not forget our Unitarian brethren too: They spoke out on issues such as peace, education reform, prison reform, orphanages, capital punishment, moderation in temperance, ministry to the poor, and the abolition of slavery (also in the 1800s). When both the Unitarians and the Universalists merged, they continued to strive forth in the direction of social justice. We are Jesus embodied. Why do you think I, a former Catholic, feel closer to Jesus of Nazareth now as a UU than when I was being confirmed by a priest – the parallels of UU and Jesus are really striking, when you think that Jesus wasn’t trying to conform people to a religion and how UUs don’t want to convert you and just do the right thing. Well, my friends, the times have changed and I believe the message needs be spreading:
Our newest campaign is Standing on the Side of Love. We do that for immigrants who search for a better life, for gay and lesbians who desire marriage, for atheists who are unaccepted, for Catholics who do not believe in hell, for Jews who also believe in the Goddess, for our Earth plagued with our pollution, for all oppressed people... But we are not some foolish people. We are a religion. Until we realize that, we might always be a margin of .3%.
While at G.A., we stood on the side of Love on Friday, June 26, 2009, as we organized an interfaith rally in support of immigrant families – the Salt Lake City Tribune was happy to report it. In fact, we were supporting the immigrant wife of a US citizen, member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. At our rally of over 1000, he told the crowd of the ploy the police used to get into his house and forcefully arrest her. The police agents used a trick of wanting his wife to identify a woman in a picture, but they arrested her instead, handcuffed and shackled, treated inhumanely. See, there is a law in Utah that authorizes police agents to become Ice agents, which means that the police can arrest and detain people based on suspicion of immigration violations, and the treatment they inflict on these people is sadistic and unkind. To show you that we UUs are really changing our ways, we held this as an interfaith rally, having had speakers from the Catholic and Episcopalian denominations and let us not forget that it was a Mormon family we were supporting. This was UUs in action. This is what we do.
Had I not gone to G.A., I would not have learned about the Standing on the Side of Love campaign. It was proposed by our very own Bill Sinkford, who just ended his term as president of the UUA. I would not have learned about it because our church of All Souls is, I’m afraid, isolated in some ways from the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, the UUA. In my cynical view, I wondered why we were there, for what is it that we really bring back to a congregation who is not as involved in denominational affairs as it should be.
Had I not gone to G.A., I would not have felt a certain power of Love. It definitely is affirming to be with so many UUs and from all over the country. We are not alone. If I were to move outside of New York City, I could easily find a church; granted, I would miss All Souls, but life would go on at another UU church, and for that I am not only proud, but relieved.
I tell you what indeed gave me a rock star feeling: When I held the banner. I know it can be classified as rather cheesy, but I was a rock star! Let me explain. Aside from orientation, the first main event is the Banner Parade. This is the event where each congregation is represented by a banner at the main hall where all the three thousand G.A. attendees have gathered. Of the two members of a church walking together, one carries the congregation’s banner. It is the notorious nature of delegates to assign this job to the newbie. Since this was my first time at G.A., I was the one holding the thing, which is really not heavy at all. It used to be a job not many loved because you would miss most of the service entailing the parade, but the way it’s handled now, as far as I hear and experienced, is that any speeches are held until all banners have marched and there is time for them to sit back down and enjoy the service that comes about when the last of the banner marchers has marched. There’s a certain evangelism that goes along with displaying one’s congregation.
Bill Sinkford was the first minister who taught me about true-evangelism. He said we need to spread our message because it will help people. We cannot be too egotistical in thinking this is a good thing only for us. We need to help others; we cannot simply see this as a quest of numbers.
And Rev. Sinkford was munificent once again as he gave his words on Compassionate Witness titled “Truth and Reconciliation”, but it was the homily of Angela Herrara, a ministerial candidate and student at Harvard Divinity School, whose ministerial poetry remain in my mind. She started with the words from the poet Antonio Machado, “Caminante, no hay camino. Se hace camino al andar.” “Traveler, there is no road. One makes the path by walking.” She made a metaphor of her early life, having been raised as UU child, thinking that “what set her faith apart was that you could believe in whatever you want…that you don’t have to believe anything.” And as she grew up, so did her faith. When it came time to fend for her own and “other’s inherent worth and dignity let me to realize it’s not true that you don’t have to believe anything.” She said, “We’re not preaching the gospel of disbelief. We are a community of believers. And what we ask you to believe is that you are already holy.” But it’s not that easy, as she affirms:
[For] to believe you are already holy takes courage. It raises the bar. To be holy no matter who you are is to subvert traditional expectations—low expectations—and it calls you to something higher, better. This kind of faith wants not just to soothe the troubled spirit; it seeks to restore wholeness to what is continually broken. Relationships—the interdependent web. They are broken by human brokenness. By alienation, fear and systems of oppression so pervasive they can only be called evil. This is hard work. It’s big work for an imperfect, holy people.
She really spoke right on to what I have felt each time some of our members (myself included) say as we invite others to our faith. How dare we tell newcomers that they don’t have to believe in anything should they join our faith? Can we possibly look ourselves in the mirror and say we don’t have to believe anything as UUs? There is no excuse. You bet we accept the free and responsible search for truth and meaning, and for the fourth principle to be achieved as we know it, we must believe. I thank Ms. Herrara for preaching these words.
Let us step into some other magick moments:
G.A. was not just about worship services. There were also official business to take place. Issues of Governance are important. Our faith is most democratic, perhaps the most democratic procedural of all. We govern our congregations pluralistically. And so, to agree on what is to bind us together requires dialogue with ourselves. We conduct these exercises in the Plenaries. I had to look at what plenary meant in the online versions of several dictionaries. The crux of the word means “full” “complete” “what is required” “important” “attended by all qualified members” “pertinent for all to attend”. And it was important to attend and just being UUs is qualified, but you need to be a delegate in order for you to vote and churches are assigned numbers of delegates based on their membership numbers. How pertinent is it to attend these Plenaries? Very! For we decided whether we should change Article II of our bylaws, what language to use, even changing a word in the 7 principles, the stuff that we all UUs stand by. How could it not be pertinent to attend and cast your vote? This faith gives you a firm responsibility: The search and responsible quest of truth and meaning. This is live democracy in your religious faith. Why wasn’t I told about this at All Souls…my pet peeve, as you may have guessed, why aren’t we as a congregation informed enough; my voice repeats, why are we not involved in denominational affairs as we should, for this really impacts us all UUs (?!?).
Ok, but who makes this process fun? The Moderator. And her name is Gini Courter. She is the Lady of the Hour who makes Plenary happen. She stands at the microphone on the center stage of this conference room where at least two thousand people fit. She is there recognizing people at the Pro, the Con, the Procedure microphones. She is there to communicate which item is next to be voted on and debated. And to top it off, she’s entertaining. UUs make the democratic process really fun. T’is no wonder Gini’s a public figure with her own Facebook fan page. Naturally, I invite you to become her fan, and then you can friend me, or friend me first!
G.A. is also a place where music is felt under your skin. One thing we UUs do well is creating music. Because our faith is cosmopolitan, our tunes are so versatile. Yes, I do love Walter Krauss’ classical repertoire at All Souls, but I wholeheartedly say it was refreshing to hear world rhythms from Africa, Spanish songs—that is songs sung in Spanish, Hungarian cantatas, New-World, Folk, Gospel, Rock, you name it music. We need that diversity. I thought, gee, why don’t we have the Teal Hymnal Supplement at All Souls again??? I must speak to Wally. And Galen. But, as Jim Moskin said, firstly to Ann Gorycki, for she knows where the money’s to be found, if that’s the real issue…or is it…? I wonder. I think Music is really the language of diversity and of the soul. Love is its embodiment, no doubt, but if there’s a life after this, Music has got to be in there. I’m thanking John Hubert & Matt Meyer, who introduced such an eclectic and comforting repertoire of musical innovation to our souls at G.A.
Speaking of Diversity, that is G.A.! A diverse-full of folks! They come from all walks of life. But, as you may have heard in the earlier paragraphs of this reflection, our denomination is tiny when it comes to diversity of folks who are not Middle-Class Euro-American Caucasians. That is true. Being in this group, I am an anomaly, but not so at the same time: I, a Latino who passes as White without even trying, because of his seemingly fair and fawn skin, his Master’s Degree, his Caucasian wife, his white collar job, his former immigrant status, now being a privileged citizen of the United States…ah, but I still got an accent, and yet, no one can tell where it’s from, so I’m an exotic and so, there goes me being a representative of what is deemed “people of color”; I’m just a delicacy... I guess I’m a poor example of this. Or am I? I am still Latin American. Some call me Latino or Hispanic. That isn’t terrible; Latino sounds better, later 90s terminology. Hispanic sounds early 90s. But: Don’t you dare call me “Spanish”! O te mato con palabras…
Still, people perceive my diversity and that is good and because the good also has the bad, there are the awkward moments. In fact that is the problem, and I don’t say that for UU circles, but for all the sake of being welcoming in any situation or place; the real issue is awkwardness, not racism, for me, not that I’m denying there is ethnocentrism, racism, culturalism, classism, accentism, many-other-isms, but that with respect to our world (and faith), we are so awkward when it comes to communicating to a person of color. I yearn for a time when I won’t be assumed to be voting for a candidate called Morales because I am Latino (yes, this incident did happen at G.A.). I don’t think people are really racist in the way of wanting to do harm to the “other” at our denomination; we are just awkward and behave that way. In fact, I want to get rid of the anti-oppression jargon that exists in the Multicultural speak. It’s awkwardness that defeats the majority and the minority. Instead of respectfully asking questions that spark our interest for the sake of us understanding differences, we end up making asses of ourselves with assumptive language and our intent is not malicious, but the person of color ends up perceiving it as an awkward mess because it is dumb and awkward. Without blame and with reason, the person of color will think “why go to such a church if they can’t handle that I’m different…” It’s not at all that the upper middle class white UU is really racist or means harm; it’s that some of our brethren act as assumptive, and not all I remind you, it’s some. In this regard, I say to those who have fallen into the awkward trap: It is far better to ask, “What did you think of the candidates?” instead of saying to a Latino/Hispanic/Latin-American, “I assume you voted for Morales, I cannot see you vote for Laurel” Imagine how it would sound had I said that to an African American or White American at the time of the US presidential elections last year – between McCain and Obama, to a White, “oh of course you’re voting for McCain” because he’s white? Think about this. – this is what I’m talking about. Controversy. But it’s 2009 and it happened to me. And why cannot it happen anywhere else in your local congregation or city?
Well, on the second day of G.A. the Reverend Dr. Mark Morrison-Reed gave us most impressive lessons to be learned about how to deal with our diversity problem. His powerful conclusion can be summed up in four parts:
1) “Lecturing and controlling is not the way. Guilt deals cruelly with vision. Trepidation encourages timidity.” Speaks to my awkward reference; don’t blame the majority, but don’t tell people what to do either (from either perspective).
2) Be honest about who we are. “We are an ethnic faith.”
3) "Appreciate the diversity we have achieved.” Women and LGBT people are well represented in our ministry.
4) Accept that we are caught in a conundrum. “We don’t really want to change.” We yearn for stability, so we find comfort. We don’t want too much change. We yearn to be whole, but change equals discomfort. We need to see change as an open and adventuresome undertaking. We need to recapture the excitement of our forebears. And, accept that change is going to come, whether we like it or not.
And change has come to the UUA again:
I alluded to Morales and I was not making him up. His name is Peter Morales and he won the election, becoming the first Latino president of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (why not say it fully; must we always use acronyms? UUA? Be proud of who you are. Great names are supposed to be challenging, mine is Victor Fidel. The name of our faith is Unitarian Universalist; though many a times I could go for Universalist Unitarian…). We voted at G.A. in this historic election.
For this presidential contest, we had two formidable individuals. Laurel Hallman and Peter Morales. For me, it was not hard to choose after hearing their speeches and debates. But I can understand how it was for others. These were fantastic speakers and had visions, and their intent was not different. I mean this was not like McCain versus Obama, nor was it Obama versus Hillary. Both candidates had positions comparable to the values of all us UUs. It had to do with whose vision you supported. Morales was instrumental in communicating clarity and urgency. Laurel had passion of eloquence. Both were fantastic. Morales’ sense of urgency for our faith won. His clarity of aspirations will take us to where our desires exist, if we all work for it so. One thing I appreciate about him is the way he presents himself. At the Candidates Forum, he was not reading a script he wrote: He was reciting it. Yes, I am sure he memorized it and that feels better than somebody reading to you (not that I don’t appreciate the sermons that all my ministers preach to us – they also read them and in ways we don’t think we’re reading them, and as I said, Morales had to have memorized his speech and he was natural at it). He was looking at us as he spoke. But that isn’t everything; it’s pin-pointing the four areas that UUs need to work on that made it most palpable for me to vote for him, and this is my blog, so I can come out and say who I voted for. He said we need to work on:
1) Our low numbers. We must be the moral equivalent of feeding the religious and spiritual hungry.
2) Disciplined management of the UUA. We need to do more with less. Our numbers being low, so is our budget; therefore we need more efficiency.
3) Build on Sinkford’s Public Witness. We need to lift Unitarian Universalism into the public square. Standing on the Side of Love is the start. UU must be a major player on the public stage, a major moral voice.
4) Unitarian Universalism must speak to the new America we face, which is multicultural, multigenerational and complex. This is serious work for us, lacking in diversity.
He really got me convinced that he will work so that Unitarian Universalist will be the religion for our time. He affirmed that religion is more about what we love than think. This may strike some UUs because we are used to being haute thought. We have broad appeal religiously but our relational ties need honing. I welcome his challenge and charge. In addition, I would like to propose what Reverend Abhi Janamanchi told us in the Sunday morning worship, that “we are boldly going where no faith has gone before.”
I think, in order to do those things, we need to look to ourselves and understand our past and present, reconcile our differences. We need to value the past we’ve had. Most of us come from other religions. We need to deal with that before we can engage the in any community outside our own. I got to hear ways on how to do that at G.A.: One of our distinguished members who is deeply involved in the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office, Marilyn Mehr, led a moving address titled “Lessons of a Mormon Childhood – LDS to UU-UNO.” She was raised Mormon in Utah and later in life became a Unitarian Universalist. While she is happy to have found a religious and spiritual home in our faith, she learned many important lessons from her childhood. She said three of them are:
1) “Value being different” – having been Mormon, she had to deal with prejudices from other religions. We UUs should value our differences and be proud to defend them, but love our community in the process.
2) “Importance of Community. We must have commitment to each others existence.” Let us wholly support our interdependent web that binds us together.
3) “Importance of Families.” We ought to not forget our brothers and sisters from other religions and interchange in more dialogue.
I will add my personal 4th lesson to all you UUs: We need Tithing! As I stated earlier, we UUs give about 1 to 2% of our income to church. That is obscenely piddly and simply unacceptable. If we want our faith to grow in different ways and do the justice work we aim to fulfill, we cannot do it on pennies. Maybe 10% is too much: Don’t worry, then you can do 5%. That’ll at least more than double our resources. Don’t tell me that you are young and cannot afford it. Yes you can! Yes we can! The youth, especially, must feed the church, for they shall inherit this great faith. What would they like to see in the future? The future is now. It will be far wiser for us young adults to skip on that occasional Sunday brunch and give that money to the place that nourishes our soul and feeds our spirit, for our churches are of this Earth and have bills to pay – I not only speak for an expensive lot on the most expensive zip code in the world, the Upper East Side of New York City, where All Souls is, but also all over the regional spectrum.
Ah, what else can I say, General Assembly shook me, but it also comforted me. G.A. affirmed my spirituality and religion with inspiration. I am proud to be a Unitarian Universalist, and I am grateful for what it means to be of this faith.