Candidates Forum and Plenary IV
General Assembly 2005 Event 3108
Moderator Gini Courter called the plenary into session, and invited the Rev. Ned Wight, First Vice Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Board, and Tamara Payne-Alex, UUA Trustee at Large, to begin the presentation of the Board's report.
Board of Trustees Report
Wight and Payne-Alex said that the Board members kept asking themselves important questions:
- What passions for this work bring us back to the table?
- What hopes do we have as congregations and a movement for reshaping the world?
- How do we best promote vibrant congregations with hospitality and truth building?
- What has been actually accomplished?
They found three words that encapsulate their answers: vision, mission, and ministry, which coalesce into right relationship.
Vision means that they are open to being renewed by grace, and that they, as leaders, serve the mystery, and that they empower others to find their calling in that mystery to love, do justice, and seek transformation. Their task is to articulate common ends congruent with the mystery toward which the UUA and member congregations can work. Part of this vision is being an anti-racist anti-oppressive multicultural institution.
Their mission is a call to promote growth so that congregations can touch mystery and find their own call. They see themselves as servant leaders within congregations, and that they should model how the many may be and become as one in the creative tension of honoring diversity and affirming our unity. They want to strengthen and transform Unitarian Universalism mindful of our history, tradition, and values. Since we are an association of congregations, congregations are at the heart of the mission, and the Board seeks to strengthen them through their work.
Ministry is an attitude of worship in relationship to the mystery, as well as stewardship of resources. It means to challenge illusions and orthodoxy in many forms. It is embodied in our individual and collective religious lives, and our commitment to the world. It is a ministry of oversight, to review how we allocate our financial and personnel resources to support the purposes of the UUA. Ministry is about taking responsibility for things that belong to the Board, and referring other issues to the appropriate persons.
Right relationship undergirds it all. The Board is in genuine partnership with the administrative staff and congregations, as viewed in renewal and openness to change. This partnership also incorporates humility and a resistance to self-aggrandizement. The Board enters into a covenant for how they intend to treat one another, and they try to honor it, even when tempers flare. When the covenant is violated, and they treat each other thoughtlessly, carelessly, or rudely, this is acknowledged, forgiveness is sought, and they move on. The Board tries to be in right relationship with all groups, to communicate well, and work toward openness in all that the UUA does. Wight and Payne-Alex ended the Board report by saying what an honor it is to serve.
The Plenary then moved on the Candidates' Forum. Every person running in an uncontested election was allowed two minutes to speak, and those in contested elections were allowed four minutes. The order of speaking was determined by draw. Summaries of their statements follow.
Candidates for the Board of Trustees
- Charlie King stated that he was glad to be running with, not against, Tamara Payne-Alex. He promised that he will seriously and sincerely serve this beloved community to the best of his ability.
- Tamara Payne-Alex said that she is a third generation child of our movement. This faith is in my bones, she said, and she hopes always to be young at heart, although she is aging at the same rate as the Association. She stated that we need to see youth and young adults at the leadership table, as they are the eyes of the future of the movement. The three "A's" of anti-racist, anti-oppression, multicultural work are agenda, accountability and action, and she sees herself focusing on our inconsistencies and inappropriateness to move us further ahead.
- Julian Sharp, candidate for the Youth Trustee-At-Large position, said that Sunday school and YRUU ignited his passion, and through OWL and district cons, he found his voice. He trusts this movement to stand on the side of love. We have a power to transform, he said, and he believes that the anti-racist analysis will help lead us forward.
- Sue Stuckey, Chair of the Committee on Committees, then spoke about its work in helping place people into positions where they can use their skills for the good of the movement. Various committees need individuals on them, and an application to serve can be found on UUA.org.
- Young Kim, Chair of the Nominating Committee, introduced the other committee members, and then talked about what he saw on UU web sites. Many, he said, don't reveal any diversity in the congregation. If diversity is what we want, he suggested that leadership is the place where we should belong. This means that congregational nominating committees should not wait until the last moment to realize that there is no diversity in their slates, but should look and plan ahead. He cited the need to be careful about who you choose, too: Jackie Robinson was not the most talented African American ball player of his day, but he was the one with the thickest skin best able to withstand the abuse.
Candidates for the Nominating Committee (Uncontested)
- Kok Heong McNaughton said that perhaps she should take her two minutes teaching people how to pronounce her name, but chose instead to tell the delegates a bit about herself. She is a Chinese American who was born and grew up in Malaysia. She was a UU before she became an American citizen—29 and 20 years ago respectfully. Ten years ago she became the church administrator in Los Alamos and gained a deeper understanding of UUism and fell in love all over again. She is a computer UU evangelist in the electronic age, and she looks forward to six years of service.
- The Rev. Bob Schaibly is now retired, and lives in Portland, OR. He is completing a three year term on the UU Ministers Association Executive Committee, has mentored two seminarians, and serves on the internship committee at his church. Throughout his ministry, he has met people all over the country.
- Megan Selby is a 22 year old from the Midwest, living in the Midwest, and is a penal system change activist. She is excited to be part of a faith organization that recognizes young people as capable leaders. She is part of the YRUU and Young Adult groups, and puts a priority on anti-racist anti-oppression work. She encourages other young people to get involved and remain involved.
Candidate for General Assembly (GA) Planning Committee, Two Year Term (Uncontested)
- Elisabeth McGregor said that General Assembly is like a big sprawling June blooming plant that needs tending all year around. She is looking forward to its cultivation through pruning, tending, nurturing, making it healthy, sound, and doing what it should so that it will continue to bloom well.
Candidates for GA Planning Committee, Four Year Terms (Contested)
- Carol Agate outlined some of the things that have changed about GA, and said that she'd love to be part of future changes that bring more openness to GA. She raised questions about why the message boards are so far away, why the cyber café was open limited hours, and why the hotels ignore their commitments to us. She believes in a process that is more open, and believes her experience as a lawyer will help on the committee.
- Fred Cole said that he is a serious and dedicated UU, and his quest for the position is very real. This is his fourth GA as a full-time volunteer, and that working as a volunteer has been one of the most satisfying parts of GA experience. He is a retired IBM engineer, planner, and businessman. He has participated in 400 meetings, seminars, and gatherings in Denver, and he knows that early planning is important. He's been active in his church home for 35 years, holding every elected office at least once, and has served on his district board.
- Karen Araujo began by telling delegates that this work makes her come alive. She's been working in hotels and restaurants since 14, and quit her best job when they told her to forget that the employees were people. She's spent 14 years as a concierge and meeting planner, and now is working in community labor partnerships organizing people around sustainable rights. Organizing, whether in community or meetings, is like mother's milk to her. She doesn't seek to live in chaos, but likes to visit from time to time.
- Donald Wilson has been a UU leader since age 8, and he is currently a member of both the Church of the Larger Fellowship and Church of the Younger Fellowship. He is a "hunter/gatherer" of ideas, and that's what GA is for. Every year it should be about amplification of the spirit, and should make people come alive. He stated "what you dream, be ours to do."
- Barbara Atlas said that her work with the Planning Committee on two occasions has given her the understanding of the workings of the committee, and a desire to serve. When she co-chaired the local committee in Palm Springs, there were no job descriptions. She began creating them so others wouldn't have to start with nothing. She also helped put in place an accessibility survey for the sites. She believes we can make GA better, less expensive, and more effective. Atlas has been the president of two congregations, has served the district board, and has worked for years on the district assembly planning committee.
- Linda Bluestein said that she started preparing for the GA Planning Committee on July 17, 1955, when she was one of the first 5,000 children at Disneyland on opening day. Over the years, she's watched what Walt Disney did, and how he worked to ensure that radical hospitality is part of his plan. Bluestein said that she learned that while doing the big stuff is important, the magic is when the details sparkle and when everyone is a Guest with a capital "g." She also has worked in VISTA as a community organizer, and has a master's degree in public health.
Report of the Commission on Appraisal
The Rev. Earl Holt, chair of the Commission on Appraisal introduced the members of the Commission: Janice Marie Johnson, Mark Hamilton, Dr. Jim Casebolt, Joyce Gilbert, the Rev. Tom Owen-Towle, the Rev. Orlanda Brugnola, the Rev. Linda Weaver Horton, and Manish Mishra. They began the report (PDF, 12 pages) with a video that reflected the questions people have about our theological center as Unitarian Universalists.
Holt then said that the Rev. Ken Oliff has drawn the conclusion that the most conspicuous element in theology is a principle of union, of common faith or story, and a shared understanding of what we mean. It was a concern about an absence of this in Unitarian Universalism that drew the Commission to this study. The underlying question is "Where is the unity in our theological diversity?" Holt said that there was extraordinary interest in the topic, and the Commissioners are grateful to those who participated in workshops, hearings and focus groups.
Holt stated that what we need are communities of faith that are models of inclusion, but that diversity is an insufficient institutional goal. The more important questions are those focused on common unities and what common theological and religious uniting forces exist within our movement and congregations.
The Commission encountered fear that their work was asking people to create a common creed or its equivalent, and the fear that we would exclude people based on their theology. The challenge is not to do this, but rather to articulate what we hold in common, and affirm openness and a respect for difference. Where the church falls short, though, is in its lack of clarity about explicit theological vision, and through the ambiguity of congregational mission. This, Holt said, is presently our greatest liability and obstacle to achieving fulfillment of our potential as a liberating faith.
Holt continued by saying that the fear that an articulation of our unity threatens us is institutionally disabling, that we need the trust and common sense of a mission. The Principles of the UUA have been adopted as a common expression of common faith in many places. Holt posited that the energy involved in the creation of the Principles may have led to the desire for a religious definition of common statement. The irony, Holt said, is that the Principles are used as a symbol of unity while they are at the same time a statement of inclusiveness and wide diversity. They are, though, theologically neutral and eclectic.
The Principles, though, beg the real questions: What is the substance of our faith? Just what is the faith that is enriched and ennobled by pluralism? How do we deepen our theological understanding? And if, in fact, we mean to say "you belong," what is it we are inviting people to belong to?
Dr. Jim Casebolt continued by saying that the Commission surveyed the worship practices of congregations, and they found that announcements are the most commonly included service element. He advised delegates that a free copy of the printed report is being sent to every congregation.
The Rev. Linda Weaver Horton asked again what is the faith that is enriched and ennobled. We have never had a wider spectrum of belief than now, and people want tools to engage in pluralism. They are seeking a frame work to evoke meaning, and to acknowledge the spiritual disciplines that work for us. Whether we call ourselves pagans, humanists, Christians or whatever, we frame the world similarly--we are all dynamically related, and we are optimistic. Horton said that the diverse strands can be woven together into a strong and supportive cable. It is a dance, rather than a confrontation, as we move toward greater wholeness.
Joyce Gilbert said the question is "Who are we?" The simple answer is that contemporary Unitarian Universalists are from the liberal religious tradition. Two-thirds of those who call themselves Unitarian Universalist do not join congregations, and we are primarily middle class. We believe that we are theologically eclectic, that we have a message the world needs (but we're not sure what it is, exactly), and we tend to be more liberal than the general population. Gilbert continued "we need clarity about the undergirding religious values that inform our actions and beliefs."
Manish Mishra spoke of how UUs have framed the world. We see ourselves as a pluralistic faith open to wisdom from the world's religions, yet that sense of pluralism is frequently inadequate. We have exuberance for some traditions, such as Hindu, Buddhism, and Native Centered, but we shy away from and are occasionally hostile to references from Jewish and Christian traditions. We must question why this is so, and examine more deeply our connections to these traditions. Mishra encouraged ordinary conversations about theological issues. Speak with those with whom we disagree about what we disagree, urged Mishra. Beyond that, we need to create churches as places where we can safely share with each other.
The Rev. Tom Owen-Towle spoke of the report's recommendation. We need, he said, to mobilize a denominational wide effort to articulate deeper understanding of who UUs are as a religious people, specifically around theology and mission. The Rev. Orlanda Brugnola said that we need to make our best practices and information on worship available to each other. Janice Marie Johnson said that we need to challenge youth and young adults to stay with us on the course, and offer their best. Congregations need to engage in a process by which youth and young adults continue to develop their religious understanding and practice. The stakes, she said, are high.
Mark Hamilton recommended that individual UUs and congregations acknowledge and deal with theological diversity, rather than ignore it. Their study showed that this is not now a frequent part of congregational life. We wish to believe that we will avoid conflict by not having the conversations, and that many adults don't like to talk about what they believe for fear of appearing foolish. But, he said, we need to talk together with open and honest sharing and views.
Candidates for Commission on Appraisal (Uncontested)
After hearing the report from the current Commission on Appraisal members, those running for uncontested seats on the Commission addressed the assembly.
- Michael Ohlrogee said that Unitarian Universalism has changed his life. His now more authentic and more just because of the good he has found in our movement. When he was growing up, his UU parents and Director of Religious Education taught him not to hoard, and to share with other people. He wants to look deep into our movement and figure out how we can fulfill our potential. At 19, he will be the youngest member every of the Commission on Appraisal.
- Arthur Morrison stated that he was honored that the Nominating Committee selected him for the Commission. In his "other world," he is a teacher, and he wants to let delegates know that the homework he is assigning them is to read this current Commission report, at least the introduction and the recommendations. He thanked the current Commission for a good report.
- Barbara Child stated that as an interim minister, her job is to help our congregations discover their present identity, and move them toward bold and fulfilling ministry. The Commission on Appraisal reports are invaluable in doing this, and she looks forward to her position.
Candidate for Commission on Social Witness, Two Year Terms (Uncontested)
- Laura Shemick stated that she is looking forward to working for delegates. She is a lawyer and an adult educator with a specialization in small group dynamics. She is looking forward to working with other commissioners.
Candidates for Commission on Social Witness, Four Year Terms (Contested)
- Jan Carlsson-Bull said that it is a messy business serving on the Commission, since what the Commission deals with is the stuff of sin. Sin is not a popular notion, but she is not speaking about the original kind, but the conventional kind: arrogance and runaway power. She said that in her current term on the Commission she has begun asking the question: So what? What boats are we launching that make a difference in the larger world, especially with the challenges that demand far more of us in the past few years? She replied that we must lean on the moral arc of the universe hard enough and long enough, so that we can begin to hear creaks as it bends toward justice. But with every issue the challenge is to mobilize and persevere. She asks not only for votes, but for our passion and perseverance.
- Catherine Blue told delegates that it was nice to be in Fort Worth again as her first General Assembly had been there as a member of the Youth Caucus. There is, Blue said, magic in a room full of thousands of people who share values and principles dear to her heart. As a lifelong UU, she has served the denomination well, and in her professional life she is committed to taking complex issues and creating from them messages that are understandable and compelling to a wider audience. The job of the Commission is to listen to the many voices of our member congregations, research issues, facilitate a learning process, and craft messages that resonate. She wants to be part of that process.
- David May said that we are called upon to affirm and promote our UU Principles, yet to promote them we must go beyond ourselves and work to advance these principles by word and action. Since his background is in environmental issues, he believes that his work as a tenured professor of ecology and as editor of Natural Resources & Environment, a quarterly magazine published by the American Bar Association will help. But he also realizes there is more than just this one issue, and that he is confident that his knowledge of science, law, and writing would help throughout his tenure on the Commission. He is a lifelong UU, has been president of his congregation.
Candidate for UUA Financial Advisor (Uncontested)
- Dan Brody stated that he has attended hundreds of budget meetings for budgets that range from a few thousand dollars to $15 billion and in all those meetings the overriding goals were long term financial stability, balancing the budgets, planning wisely for growth, and delivering reliable information to the shareholders. The major difference with UUA budget meetings is that the participants do the same thing, but in song. That's his kind of budget meeting, he said. Brody has been a member of the First Unitarian Society in Newton, MA, for ten years, and he is delighted to have the chance to use his experience in service to a cause in which he is deeply committed.
Candidates for the Ministerial Fellowship Committee Board of Review (Uncontested)
General Assembly Planning Committee chair Linda Friedman informed delegates that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee Board of Review hears appeals by ministers in final fellowship with the UUA whose fellowship is terminated. The members serve eight year terms.
- Elizabeth (Betsy) Darr is honored to have been nominated to the Board of Review. She said that she hopes to serve with wisdom, knowledge, and an open mind and heart. She is moving to Reno, NV, to be their congregation's director of religious education.
- Janice Marie Johnson is a member of Community Church in New York. She said that she is most forgiving and understanding when mistaken for her twin sister the Rev. Hope Johnson, and less forgiving and understanding when she is confused with her other "sisters" Marjorie, Rosemary, Adele, and Michelle (other African American women in our movement). She brings to the work of the Board of Review her lens of cross cultural literacy, and her anti-racist anti-oppressive multicultural lens. She will bring radical hospitality to all she reviews, and will strive to work collaboratively with authentic listening.
With the candidate portion of the plenary completed, Moderator Gini Courter invited UUA President the Rev. Dr. William G. Sinkford to give his report.
Sinkford began by saying that although the results of the election will not be known until tomorrow evening, he is pretty sure (since he is running uncontested) that "Y'all will have to put up with me for the next four years," to which the delegates responded with cheers and applause.
Sinkford said that he is frequently asked about the state of his spirit, and he said that his energy and commitment have never been greater. There is so much to do, he said, and it is a privilege to serve as President.
Sinkford reported that he has visited 200 congregations, dozens of district and cluster gatherings, and has spent 72 days in the District of Columbia. He has visited our Holdeen India Partners in the Khasi Hills of India, and has been to both Transylvania and Vatican City. He has spoke for peace and justice wherever he has gone, including in all of our districts. He has been in 47 states, including Alaska and Hawaii, and he will be able to use his frequent flyer miles non-stop for life!
Sinkford said that he has accomplished a great deal in the past four years. During the election, he promised that his first priority would be to raise the voice and visibility of Unitarian Universalism. With the events of September 11th, Sinkford reached out to Arabs, Sikhs, and Muslims, supporting clergy and laity alike. The run-up to the Iraq invasion and occupation solidified interfaith connections. He questions our reasons for invasion, the U.S. resistance to be part of the international community, and the absence of an exit strategy. The best way to support our troops, said Sinkford, is to bring them home.
Sinkford said that he also attended the March for Women's Lives, and that in this last fall's election, more than 55,000 new voters were registered by Unitarian Universalist congregations. He got arrested, only once, for protesting the genocide in Sudan.
Throughout the past four years he has been a Black voice that spoke out of liberal religious values. One of the core values for which we stand, Sinkford said, is separation of church and state. We UUs stand for strong church and strong state, but there must be, as the Catholics tell their young people, room for the holy spirit to move between them.
The greater impact, Sinkford said, has been on marriage equality. Last month he was pleased to celebrate the one-year anniversary of equality in Massachusetts. The delegates then watched video of news coverage of the day. It is clear, Sinkford said, that UUs stand on the side of love.
Sinkford said that the publicity was not about him, but that it reflected the unprecedented numbers of ministers who speak with clear and religiously grounded voices. We have become a respected voice for liberal religious values.
Sinkford then outlined some of the other successes of the past year:
- Progress on a new lifespan curriculum project
- Greater recognition of administrators and ministers
- Beacon Press in solid financial position
- Expanded young adult and campus ministry
- Better cooperation, as is seen by the number of congregational presidents meeting here this week
Sinkford also told the delegates that the staff of the UUA is hard-working and dedicated. In particular, he singled out Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery for appreciation. He said that Montgomery knows when he needs to be involved, and when to act on her own. He thanked her from the bottom of his heart.
Calling Maria Sinkford to the stage, Sinkford announced that they had been married on April 23 in Boston.
Sinkford, in quoting from the newly released hymnal supplement, Singing the Journey, said that we "know where we come from," but we will need to discover where we are going. When he asked people for input as to priorities for the next four years, the answers he received were rich and helpful. He invited people to go to the online survey at before July 1st to provide their answers.
The ongoing priorities are supporting our congregations and the movement. The current youth program, Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU) does many things well, including leadership training, but only at the district and continental levels. There are many congregations whose youth are not involved. Right now, Sinkford explained, our youth funding goes to YRUU, and so therefore it only reaches some of our youth. He is beginning a two-year process to study how we should be supporting our youth that will include representation from YRUU and from those youth who are not involved. This fall, when you receive an online survey about this, fill it out. When you receive the invitation to hold a congregational conversation about youth, say yes. Take a day of your time, Sinkford said, to help us all out.
Sinkford continued by stating that no issue continues to trouble the soul of America in communities more than the issue of race. The question that he is asked most frequently is how can we be more racially and culturally diverse. Sinkford responded that the objective of finding more dark faces so that our white faces will feel better about themselves is not spiritually sound, and is not what we should be doing. What we should be doing, he stated, is living out our open-hearted theology and be willing to be an ally in the work for justice. Skinner House Press will release Journey from Calgary, a history of the UUA's movement on its anti-racist anti-oppression work since 1992 when the resolution to do this work was carried. The story of the journey is "filled with confident strides forward" and stumbles as we fail to embed the work in the vast majority of our congregations. We should have come further since then, said Sinkford. We should be further along the path toward wholeness.
There are new resources in this work. JUUST Change consultants will be available to work with congregations to pilot new approaches that avoid guilt. They will help congregations find their next steps forward. As well, Sinkford said that next year a new multi-cultural welcoming congregation program will be released that is based on the similarly titled program to welcome bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender people. So far, 450 congregations are welcoming in this latter sense. The new program should help congregations stretch themselves.
Later this year, Sinkford will accompany Charlie Clements, director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, on a delegation to Africa. Central to that trip, Sinkford said, will be learning more about the Truth and Reconciliation process that began in South Africa. Sinkford said, "If they can do this, then we can find a path toward reconciliation."
Sinkford said that as our ministry becomes more visible, he wonders how welcome the seekers are that enter our congregation. We receive more visitors every year than we have members, and many have checked us out on the Web before they come. He challenged congregations that, if they are not welcoming enough, that it is their responsibility to direct the visitors to neighboring congregations who may be more interested in welcoming the stranger. He's not asking for radical hospitality; he is willing to settle for reasonable hospitality grounded in our theology.
Although we have received a great amount of press over our stand for equal marriage, Sinkford said that we are not a single issue faith. Sinkford said he believes we are called to offer a liberal religious alternative. He is not willing, nor should we be, to cede the moral high ground to religious fundamentalists of any tradition, who have only one path, one scripture, one way to be a family, and one way to lead a good life. There must be a liberal religious alternative, and we are it.
But, Sinkford said, it will require new things of us. To be worthy of the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., and others, we must not sleep through this revolution. We must continue our leadership work in sexuality education. Our Whole Lives (OWL) is used almost universally in our congregations. We must ask, "Have we been effective advocates in the wider world?" Sinkford said, "'Just say no' didn't work in the Garden of Eden, and there is a growing body of evidence that it is doing real harm to real lives in this country and in Africa." There is a crying need, he said, for a liberal religious voice that provides young people with information and skills for joyous, loving, responsible, safe sexual lives. If we don't use our pulpits for this, then what are they for, Sinkford asked. Similarly, no faith community has been more faithful to a woman's right to choose. Yet is there a different starting point? No woman, no family wants an abortion. Perhaps we should be working to reduce the number of abortions that are necessary.
Perhaps, Sinkford said, that George Lakoff will help us reframe our language so that our voice is even more effective. The theology of the right is based on fear and the thought that rules can save us, but this is a false certainty. It builds walls around the holy to keep people out. Liberal theology is a theology of love, that celebrates life. When we ask the question "Who is my neighbor?", it should not lead to dominion over the Earth, but require us to be stewards of the gift of creation. Theology should call us to create the beloved community among us. Religion, at its root, said Sinkford, is about binding together that which has been sundered, and about reconciliation. Let us reject divisiveness, and come together to offer a wounded world the hoe of reconciliation. Let us be, Sinkford concluded, religious people who stand on the side of love.
Rev. William Sinkford, UUA President
The UUA elections this year are not complete, but if I get one vote, it looks like you'll have to put up with me for another four years. Do I have one vote in the house?
More than a few of you have asked me about the state of my spirit as I approach a second term. "How are you holding up?" My energy and my commitment have never been greater. We have so much to do together. And it continues to be a privilege to serve as your President.
It seems incredible that it has been four years since I was elected UUA President in Cleveland. Time has flown by. How to measure it?
Well, I've visited with almost 200 congregations, attended dozens of district and cluster gatherings, spent 72 days in Washington, DC, visited our Holdeen India partners and the Unitarians of the Khasi Hills and Transylvania, represented our faith in Budapest, Prague, in Amman, Jordan, Japan and in Vatican City. I've come to know our major donors across the country and spoken out for peace and justice in community after community. I've been in every district, most several times, and 47 of the 50 United States, including Alaska and Hawaii. Well, truth be told, the Hawaii trip was not such hard duty.
The way I figure it, when I finish the next four years I'll be able to use my frequent flyer miles to travel...non-stop...for life.
But the reality is that we have accomplished a great deal in these four years. I promised, when I was elected, that my first priority would be to raise the visibility and voice of Unitarian Universalism, to make us a respected voice for liberal religious values. From the day of my election, Unitarian Universalism has in fact become more visible and more respected.
The first Black President of a predominantly white denomination was "news". A curiosity perhaps, but also a sign of hope in a nation still struggling to know the truth of our racism and find a path to reconciliation that might point toward the Beloved Community.
September 11th called on us all to live our principles by reaching out to the Muslim, Sikh and Arab communities in this nation. For myself, I found that a significant part of my ministry would be pastoral, offering support to clergy and laity alike as we lived our way into the post-911 world.
Even our internal conversations became news when I called for a language of reverence, here in Fort Worth in 2002.
It was the run-up to the Iraq invasion and occupation which cemented many of our inter-faith relationships. We were central participants in the Win Without War coalition and raised questions, which are still all too relevant, about the reasons for our invasion, about the resistance of our nation to participate as a member of the international community, and about the absence of an exit strategy for our troops. Although this is complex, I, personally, have come to believe that it is time for our nation to announce a withdrawal timetable for this occupation. The best way to support our troops is to bring them home.
We've witnessed for women's rights at the 2004 March for Women's Lives.
In preparation for last fall's national election, Unitarian Universalists registered more than 55,000 new voters, most from traditionally marginalized groups, with never a question asked about party affiliation. And the Faithful Democracy interfaith coalition which we helped to lead, registered hundreds of thousands more. We'll be working just as hard to insure the renewal of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, again in a broad interfaith coalition.
I managed to get arrested...only once...protesting the genocide in the Sudan.
And, throughout these four years, I have been able to be a Black voice which spoke out of liberal religious values. That voice has won me some honors, (visual) and engaged me in some controversy. Here is a short clip of my conversation with the head of Boston 's Black Ministerial Alliance on the PBS show Basic Black. (Video clip from Boston PBS affiliate's program "Basic Black" is shown.)
One of the core values for which we stand is the separation of Church and State. This has shaped our democracy. We Unitarian Universalists stand for a strong church and a strong state, but as our Catholic sisters and brothers tell their young people, there should be room for the Holy Spirit to move between them.
By far, the greatest impact of our voice to date has been on the issue of Marriage Equality. Last month we celebrated the anniversary of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts. Take a look at this. (Video clip from New England Cable News coverage of May 17 equal marriage anniversary is shown.) While the rest of the traditionally liberal religious world has been paralyzed by internal disputes, we have been able to speak with a clear and religiously grounded voice.
From Chicago to China, from Boston to Borneo Unitarian Universalism became known as a religion that stands on the side of love.
But my greatest satisfaction is that all of this publicity rapidly came to be...not about me. Our ministers have been in the press in unprecedented numbers. Our congregations are becoming the "go to" liberal religious voices in community after community.
Our visibility and voice is at an all time high. We are becoming a respected voice for liberal religious values in this nation.
In four years, we have done so much.
We've recognized the importance of religious education in our congregations and begun to support that ministry in new ways...a new credentialing system and, for the first time, a settlement system for religious educators. And perhaps most important, the initiation of a new life span curriculum project which will shape our understanding of ourselves as religious people for the next generation.
The successful completion of the largest capital campaign in our history, signaling the beginning of a shift from scarcity to abundance in our religious lives.
The beginning of recognition of the importance of the musicians and administrators.
Beacon Press in solid financial condition, with improved marketing creativity and financial controls. Though the publishing industry will continue to be volatile, Beacon shines out as a publishing house of values in an industry dominated by, and sadly corrupted by, concentration of control in the hands of a few corporations.
Rapid expansion of our campus and young adult ministry.
And we are learning so much about how to be an Association of congregations. More congregations are working together, no longer isolated and alone. Even the venerable institution of General Assembly is changing, with a focus on congregational life and an intentional effort to get congregational presidents to be present.
We've accomplished so much, matured so much, become even more effective in just four years.
There is a group of people whom I'd like to take a moment to recognize. Although I get much of the credit, and occasionally take the heat, for the work of the Association, it is the dedicated and hard working staff of the Association that really deserves the credit. Many of them live and work in Boston, but today almost 40% of them have their offices in other parts of the country. These folks have been creative in these tough economic times, improving support for the health and vitality of our congregations despite limited resources. It is one of the great pleasures of my ministry to work together with them. Would the members of the UUA staff please stand and receive the thanks of this General Assembly?
I'd like to give special thanks to one staff member, our Executive Vice-President. It is Kay Montgomery 's competent, often brilliant, supervision of the staff that makes my ministry as President possible. Kay, you have an uncanny ability to know when to involve me and such a deft hand at herding the very talented cats that make up our staff. Without your skill, we would not have navigated some of the troubled waters over which we've sailed in the last four years. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please, give it up for Kay Montgomery .
Of course, in my life, these past four years have not been all about work. In Cleveland, four years ago, I was in the early stages of a new personal relationship. Many of you have had the opportunity to meet this extraordinary woman. She's traveled with me often (Maria comes to the podium). In this year of celebrating anniversaries, there is one more to add to the list. On April 23, in the Chapel at 25 Beacon St., Maria and I were married. Let me introduce you to my partner of four years and now my wife, Maria Sinkford. Maria Sinkford...I like that name.
Do you know the story of the traveling evangelist who needed to send a letter back to headquarters? Could it have been 25 Beacon St.? He stopped a boy on the street and asked him where the post office was. After the boy told him, he said: "You should come and hear me preach tonight. I'll tell you how to get to heaven." The boy thought for a moment and then said: "I don't think I'll be there. You don't even know how to get to the post office."
I love so many of the songs in the new hymnbook.
(Bill sings: "Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?")
We know where we're coming from in these last four years. But where are we going? And will we know how to get there?
To chart where we are going, in the May/June issue of WORLD magazine, I asked Unitarian Universalists to tell me what they, what you believed should be our priorities as a faith community for the next four years. Several hundred people responded. Your answers were so rich and so helpful.
I want to hear from more of you. I'd like to invite every person here to go either to the Stewardship and Development booth in the display hall, or the cyber café and fill out, on line, a short questionnaire about our priorities. It takes no more than 10 minutes. I completed it in about 5.
The results of this survey will shape the work of the staff and, I believe, the entire national leadership for the next four years. It will also shape the next UUA capital campaign.
We need the information from the survey, but some things are already clear to me.
We need to find ways to more effectively support the health and vitality of our congregations.
Let me give you just one example. Our current youth ministry, YRUU [Young Religious Unitarian Universalists], does many things well, especially leadership training. But that impacts only the relatively few youth who get involved at the district and continental level. For a variety of reasons far too many of our congregations have avoided YRUU events.
And because so much of the work of the UUA's Youth Office has been organized around support for the YRUU structure, the result is that far too many of our congregations feel that their youth ministry is unsupported or under-supported by the Association.
In recognition of this reality, the UUA Board of Trustees asked Megan Dowdell, youth trustee on the UUA Board and me to convene a process to re-imagine our ministry to and with youth.
We now have that process in place. It will take two years. We want to begin by involving as many of our congregations as possible in this conversation. And so I have a request for you. This fall, when you receive an on-line survey about your congregation's ministry to and with youth...fill it out. And when you get the invitation to hold a congregational conversation about youth ministry...say yes. It will take a day of your time and it can help shape new understandings and perhaps new structures that will support more of our youth and more of our congregational youth programs.
I hope I can count on your support.
No issue continues to trouble the soul of America, both in our communities and in our congregations, more than the issue of race. Only last week, SCOTUS ruled that the state of Texas has continued, illegally, to exclude African American jurors from death penalty cases, despite the fact that more than half the inmates on death row are persons of color.
This year is the 40th anniversary of the 1965 Selma march. 1965 was a time when Unitarian Universalism found its voice and stood with Martin Luther King in the fight for simple justice. At 25 Beacon St. we've erected a monument to the three martyrs of those days, including two Unitarian Universalists. We are proud of our witness in those days.
But it is still the case that the most frequently asked question I receive as I travel the country is how we can become more racially and culturally diverse. My response, always, is that the objective of finding a few more dark faces to make our white members feel better about themselves is not spiritually grounded. Nor will it be successful. Racial and cultural diversity will, I pray, come to Unitarian Universalism. But it will come as we become known as a faith community that strives to live our open hearted theology, and a faith community that is willing to be an ally in the struggle for justice. The color line, although it is far more complex than any of us knew in the 1960's is still a stain on the soul of this nation.
Skinner House Books, our in-house publisher of Unitarian Universalist materials, is at work on a book called "The Journey from Calgary." It was at the Calgary General Assembly, in 1992, that this faith committed itself to becoming an anti-racist, multi-cultural community. The story of Journey from Calgary is filled with confident strides forward, including deep buy-in to this work on the part of our national leadership and our youth and young adult communities. It is also filled with stumbles, as we failed to embed these commitments in the vast majority of our congregations.
And the reality is that we should have come further, be further along the path toward wholeness.
This year we are introducing new resources to help with this work. The JUUST Change consultants will be working with some of our congregations to pilot a new approach. That approach will avoid guilt, it will build on the good work our congregations have already done on other oppressions and will help congregations find their next steps on the path.
Next year, a new Multi-Cultural Welcoming Congregation program will be available, modeled in many ways on the successful Welcoming Congregation program on BGLT issues which more than 450 of our congregations have now completed.
As is the case with youth ministry, our work here centers on support of the health and vitality of our congregations and their ministry.
Next fall, Charlie Clements of the UUSC [UU Service Committee] and I will lead a delegation to Africa. There are many objectives for the trip, but central for me will be learning more about the Truth and Reconciliation process which was created in South Africa and now are being used in other parts of that continent. Surely, if those societies, which long suffered virulent forms of racism and colonial exploitation...surely if those societies can find a path to reconciliation...surely, surely we in this nation can find a way to acknowledge the truth of our history and move toward health and healing.
We need to open the doors of Unitarian Universalism to those persons who yearn for a liberal religious home. The most important lesson we've learned from all of our experiments to stimulate the growth of this faith is that when we are willing to offer ourselves, individuals and families come to stand with us. But as the ministry of our congregations becomes more visible and effective, the real test will be how well we welcome the seekers that enter our sanctuaries. We know that most of our congregations receive more visitors in any given year than they have members. And most of these visitors have checked us out on the web. They know what we stand for and they don't come expecting Bible study...although I wish that more of our congregations offered a liberal religious education about the Bible.
It is not enough that our congregations are friendly, within the communities of folks who have already found our liberal way in religion. We're already friends with each other. But we need to find in our hearts that place which calls us to welcome and embrace the stranger. In our theology, each stranger is another opportunity to meet the divine, to see the face of God. We talk about radical hospitality. I'd be very willing to settle for "reasonable" hospitality, grounded in our theology.
And, finally, we need to become not only a respected voice but an effective voice for liberal religious values. Our witness for Marriage Equality showed us what we can do when we have grounding in both our theology and congregational practice, and when we are willing to commit our resources of energy and, yes, of money. Is Marriage Equality a unique justice issue for us? I say no. Unitarian Universalism is not a one issue faith.
In the face of the well organized and well funded dominance of the fundamentalist religious right in the public square, I believe that we are called to offer a liberal religious alternative. I am not willing, nor should you be, to cede the moral high ground to religious fundamentalists, of any faith tradition, who preach that there is only one way to be religious, only one scripture worthy of being followed, only one way to be a family, only one way to lead a good life.
There must be a liberal religious alternative. And, my friends, we're it.
When I spoke at the Riverside Church this May, on the anniversary of Dr. King's prophetic speech condemning the Viet Nam war, I tried to find a voice for our values that could be heard by all people of good will. (Video clip from worship service at Riverside Church is shown).
No one here would disagree that Unitarian Universalism has been a leader in comprehensive sexuality education. The "About Your Sexuality" program led the way in the 1970's. Now Our Whole Lives is used almost universally in our congregations. But have we been effective advocates in the wider world?
Could we not imagine a way to share our experience, to advocate for reality-based sexuality education to prevent a rigid "abstinence only" approach from being imposed on all of our children. I'm here to tell you that "just say no" didn't work all that well in the Garden of Eden and there is a growing body of evidence that shows that it is doing real harm to real lives, both in this country and especially in Africa. Is there not a crying need for a liberal religious voice that values real lived experience, and provides young people with the information and the skills to lead joyous, loving, responsible and safe lives? I say yes! As Patrick O'Neil said last night, if we don't use our pulpits for this, what are our pulpits for?
No faith community has advocated more faithfully in support of a woman's right to chose. We continue to defend the ramparts as Roe v. Wade comes increasingly under attack. But could we find a different starting point for the conversation. Might we not begin by saying what is true...that no woman, no family, wants an abortion. Might we not focus our witness and our work on reducing the number of abortions that are necessary? And might that approach make our message more available and persuasive to the many Americans in the movable middle? If we don't use our pulpits for this, what are our pulpits for?
We will be joined tomorrow by George Lakoff, the guru of liberal re-framing. I hope that he will help us find ways to express our values so that our voice is even more effective. We need a great deal of help with that.
But the fundamental question is not how to "spin" our point of view. These issues are fundamental. They are theological.
The theology of the fundamentalist right is based on fear and the belief that rules can save us. It is a theology of false certainty that builds walls around the Holy designed to keep people out. It is a theology of divisiveness that separates the saved from the damned. The practice of this theology can lead even to hatred.
Liberal religion offers a theology of love. Liberal theology opens the door to the Holy and celebrates the rich diversity of faith journeys. Our faith takes seriously the Gospel question, "Who is my neighbor" and strives constantly to expand who we mean when we answer that question. Our theology gives us not "dominion" over the earth, but makes us stewards of the gift of creation.
And our theology is not satisfied with a simple personal piety, but calls us to create the Beloved Community among us.
Where are we going? What are we called to do?
The word religion, at its root, means to reconcile. To bind together that which has been sundered . In that word there is hope for us all.
Let us reject and resist theologies of fear, theologies of divisiveness, theologies that lead to hatred.
As liberal religious people, let us offer our wounded world the hope of reconciliation. Let us be a religious people who stand on the side of love.
After the assembly applauded Sinkford's remarks, Moderator Courter called the assembly into recess.
Reported by Rev. Lisa Presley; edited by Margy Levine Young.
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Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.
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