Opening Celebration and Plenary I
General Assembly 2005 Event 1029
The 44th Annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association began just after 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, June 23, in the Arena of the Fort Worth Convention Center. About four thousand Unitarian Universalists streamed into the large, bowl-shaped arena for the opening celebration and the first items on the business agenda of this General Assembly. Although there was some business to be conducted, the overall feel was that of a worship service.
Opening music was provided by Dallas-based country band The Lucky Pierres. Michele Pittenger, the lead singer of The Lucky Pierres, is a member of First Unitarian Church of Dallas. The band played twenty minutes of upbeat country music with a bluegrass feel.
Promptly at 7:30 p.m., the Rev. Bill Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), and Gini Courter, moderator of the UUA, walked onstage to welcome everyone to General Assembly.
"This is the 44th meeting of the congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association," said Courter. "We will worship together, learn together, sing together.... Being with all these four thousand Unitarian Universalists is an inspiring experience."
Courter pointed out that a central theme for this General Assembly is promoting family values. "Government is trying to limit the power of love," said Courter, referring to recent legislation across the country attempting to limit same-sex marriage. "There's a welcoming place at the Unitarian Universalist table for all families."
Courter said that Unitarian Universalists accept the reality that love can make a family, that all families can be welcomed, adding, "As Unitarian Universalists, we stand for reality-based family values." Her remarks were greeted by loud applause.
"We come together as a people of long tradition and as a people of deep faith," said Rev. Sinkford. "This religious community can mean even more in our lives, and can mean even more to the lives of the community in which our congregations minister. We have faith that the universe can bend towards justice."
"It is always good to be among the faithful," Rev. Sinkford concluded, to applause and calls of "amen."
Diane Nixon then lit the flaming chalice, the typical opening for Unitarian Universalist worship services. She was accompanied by her daughter, Caroline Nixon-Garcia, and her grandson Isaac. "My parents Kathleen and George Reed were members of First Church in Houston." That meant that Isaac, who helped light the chalice, is a fourth-generation Texas Unitarian Universalist.
"Let us be mindful to our commitment to families in this world," said Caroline Nixon-Garcia as the chalice was lit.
Gabrielle West and her daughter brought the acknowledgement of the native peoples of the Fort Worth area. They are members of the Oak Cliff Unitarian Universalist Church in Dallas. "I am half White Mountain Apache and Cree, and half black, a quarter Caucasian and Philippine," said West. "My grandmother spent as much time as she could teaching me the native ways."
She and her daughter played a song on native flutes, and then West sang a song she had composed in honor of her grandmother. "Remember, my sad and lonely people, do not be a slave to your past," she sang, "Hear the cry of the red man's soul from deep in the mountain's loins." Her song was greeted by sustained applause.
The Rev. Craig Roshaven, minister of First Jefferson Unitarian Universalist Church of Fort Worth, brought greetings from the city of Fort Worth. He mentioned the combination of sense of history, pride, and humor that is characteristic of Fort Worth. "We are proud to be known as Cowtown," he said. "Welcome to Fort Worth, where the west begins."
After The Lucky Pierres played "Deep in the Heart of Texas," the parade of congregational banners began. Delegates from congregations across the United States, and even from overseas, carried colorful banners proclaiming the identity of their congregational or Unitarian Universalist organization. Texas congregations led off the banner parade this year, including Westside Unitarian Universalist Church from Fort Worth and congregations from Dallas, Austin, Houston, Corpus Christi, and many others.
Eva and Csaba Todor accompanied the banner of the Partner Church Council. Csaba Todor is the minister of the Unitarian congregation in Homorodszentpal, Romania. There were banners representing congregations as old as First and Second Church of Boston, Massachusetts, founded in 1630, and as new as the Wildflower Unitarian Universalist Church, which officially affiliates with the Unitarian Universalist Association at this General Assembly. Congregations from Alabama to Wyoming were represented in the parade of banners. Banners from congregations like the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, made this an international event.
Rev. Sinkford returned to the stage after the banner parade to say that "Unitarian Universalism is alive and well here in Texas." That statement brought a cheer. "Somehow I thought I'd get a cheer for that," Rev. Sinkford said. Speaking of an advertising campaign in the Houston area, he stated, "Our message has been strengthened, is more welcoming, and speaks more from the heart than from the head."
"We are glad to be here in Texas," said Rev. Sinkford, even though the state is dominated by conservative and even fundamentalist religion. "It would be easy for Unitarian Universalists to hunker down in this apparently hostile environment," he said, "but that is not what Texas Unitarian Universalists have done.... They have given voice to our values, and rolled up their sleeves to make those values live in this world."
The New Hymn Task Force then came forward to sing songs from the new hymnal supplement, "Singing the Journey." The Rev. Dennis Hamilton, minister at Horizon Unitarian Universalist Church in Carrollton, Texas, and a member of the task force, said the new hymnal supplement reflects the continuing evolution of Unitarian Universalism, a religious tradition "united by faith and not divided by beliefs." The task force then sang "May Your Life Be as a Song." They also sang "Woyaya," originally written by the African group Osibisa and widely sung in Unitarian Universalist circles, inviting everyone present to join them as they sang.
Folksinger and songwriter Geoff Kaufmann then introduced Pete Seeger. Seeger is well known for his early work with Woodie Guthrie and the folksinging group The Weavers, as well as for his later singing and activism in the civil rights movement and the environmental movement. Kaufmann pointed out that Seeger's activism led him to the Unitarian Universalist Community Church of New York City, where Seeger became a member.
Seeger came onstage with his familiar banjo, and told how, years ago, he tried to come up with a new lullaby. "My kids were at the age where they realize that a lullaby is a propaganda song," said Seeger. "No, we want a story, they said." That's how Seeger came up with one of his best-known songs, the song and story of "Abiyoyo."
Seeger then told the story of "Abiyoyo," which tells of a destructive giant who was conquered by the power of singing. Seeger, in his mid-eighties, is still a consummate storyteller, getting the whole audience involved, laughing and singing along with his story. Seeger also gave a quick sequel to the story. "Abiyoyo's helping to plant new trees now," said Seeger, "and singing at the same time."
The Family Matters Task Force introduced the overall theme for this General Assembly. Task Force member the Rev. Keith Kron said, "Our families provide care, hope and love."
The Rev. Hope Johnson, also a member of the task force, spoke about some of the stresses families face today, saying, "We are faced with a war that has placed great demands on our Unitarian Universalist families who have a family member serving in our armed forces." Rev. Johnson said Unitarian Universalists may have differing views on the war, "but we are united in our support for our soldiers -- they deserve our support and our ministry."
The task force then presented the stories of several Unitarian Universalist families, and how they were supported by their church. One family had a daughter who was born with Down syndrome. Another family had a child who needed intensive intervention twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Their church provided many hours of support as they cared for their child. In another story, two gay men adopted a child, and their Unitarian Universalist church gave them a great deal of support. One of the men, Steve Kreuger, said, "Parenting is not easy, but it sure helps if you have a church community. And where but at a Unitarian Universalist church would you find such a welcoming environment [for all families]?"
The New Hymn Task Force returned to lead those present in the song "Lean On Me," one of the songs in the new hymnal supplement. Stan Strickland provided solos on soprano sax and vocals. By the end of the song, many of the three thousand people present were singing, standing with arms around each other, swaying in time to the song.
Gini Courter, in her role as moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, opened the first plenary, or business, session. "We have only two agenda items tonight," said Courter, which brought cheers. "First we have to adopt the rules of procedure—lest we be unruly." The rules were adopted on a vote without discussion.
The second order of business was to outline the new procedures for social witness statements. The Rev. Richard Nugent, chair of the Commission on Social Witness, offered a detailed overview of the new procedures, emphasizing deadlines that must be met over the next three days of General Assembly. Courter then declared the plenary session to be in recess until 2:45 p.m. on Friday.
Nine new congregations were then officially welcomed into the Unitarian Universalist Association, including the following new congregations: Adirondack Unitarian Universalist Community of Saranac Lake, New York; Unitarian Universalists of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; Ginger Hill Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Slippery Rock, Harrisville, Pennsylvania; Northeast Iowa Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, Decorah, Iowa; Unitarian Universalist Community Church, Norman, Oklahoma; Unitarian Universalists of the Big Bend, Alpine, Texas; and Wildflower Church, Austin, Texas. All Souls Free Religious Fellowship of Chicago and the Unitarian Church of Hubbardston, Massachusetts, affiliated with the UUA.
Pete Seeger then came back onstage to lead all those present in one of his best-loved songs, "Turn, Turn, Turn." "I don't have much voice any more," said Seeger with his usual modesty, "but if you sing it, this is going to sound good." After the first verse, Seeger added, "I see a few of you with your mouths closed, keeping your academic objectivity...." Everyone laughed, got the point, and more people joined in singing the remaining verses. Seeger received a standing ovation for this song.
The Rev. Burton Carley offered the benediction to end the opening ceremony. "Let us turn towards the truth that makes us free," he said, "towards the love that casts out fear. Turn towards that love that never dies—until the dayspring breaks and the shadows flee away."
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.