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3090 Plenary IV: Prime Time Live!

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Reported for UUA.org by Lisa Presley, reporter; Deb Weiner, editor.

Call to Order

UUA Moderator Gini Courter called the Plenary session to order at 6:50 p.m. and introduced UUA Trustee Lyn Conley to introduce the Steering Committee of Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU).

Young Religious Unitarian Universalists (YRUU)

A representative from the YRUU Steering Committee asked: "What would we look like or feel like if we had a thriving youth group in every UU congregation? What would we look like if our congregations were intentionally safe and secure for all youth, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, race, culture, whose language was not English? Can you imagine," she said, "that safe inclusive space? I challenge the delegates at this General Assembly to create that vision for UU youth ministry within our movement."

Statement of Conscience—Where we go from here

Courter reminded delegates that she had committed to present a determination by this Plenary about how to best handle the Statement of Conscience business left over from the former Plenary. She said that up to an hour of additional time will be added to the Plenary on Sunday afternoon. Additionally, the workshop that was to focus on how to implement the Statement of Conscience (planned for Saturday) would now, instead, be a moderated conversation about the Statement of Conscience which is designed to help move the process when the Statement comes back to the Plenary on Sunday. The First Vice Moderator of the UUA Board, the Rev. Ned Wight, will moderate that discussion.

Board of Trustees Report

Courter then introduced Wight, who informed the delegates that the Bylaws require the Board to report to the General Assembly every year. They do this, Wight said, both with written and oral reports. This year the Board has spent significant energy reviewing their roles, responsibilities and accountability. Those Trustees who represent Districts may have roles that vary a bit, but most report back to those Districts in one way or another. The At-Large Trustees, though, do not have as direct a link to our Association members. The Board felt it would be appropriate for the At-Large Trustees to report to General Assembly, the body that elected them, and three of them presented their thoughts.

Charlie King told delegates he sought the At-Large board position after some years of continent-wide UU work, having come to feel deeply the importance of UU faith in the world. One of the things that has impressed him during his first year in office is the hard work that has gone into achieving a better governance process and structure for the board. It is difficult to separate board work form staff work, he said, and the board has spent hours analyzing and defining these and other issues. They are seeking, always, the best way to go forward. Quoting Robert Browning, King said "Our reach should exceed our grasp," or what is heaven for?

Julian Sharp told delegates that he is the second-ever youth trustee at large for the UUA. The implementation of this position is something we can all take pride in, he said. "It is an example of empowering youth and young adults to serve, and something that should be replicated on congregational and district boards. This will also help connect our congregations and movement."

Sharp reported that in 2004 the now-called Consultation on Ministry to and with Youth was launched in order to sort out how best we can reach out to, include, and minister with and to the youth in our movement. Ninety percent of our youth leave the faith, and from the recent survey the Consultation carried out, forty-seven percent of youth who responded did not feel their congregations were their spiritual homes. This, he said, "is a call to action and the Consultation offers an opportunity of a lifetime to re-energize our faith, and advance our anti-racism, anti-oppression and multicultural mission. We cannot leave this work," he said, to the "usual suspects. We need the help of all the members and everyone who has not worked with youth before." Failure, Sharp said, is not an option.

Tamara Payne-Alex told delegates she has served on the board for six years, and that being a voice for justice is something UUs are called to. She said the board has a history of advocating for those who are marginalized, misunderstood, and under-represented. She recalled when the Board ended their meeting and went to Selma during the Civil Rights era, and that these memories stirs in us a sense of pride.

Payne-Alex said this year the board had several opportunities to consider what is appropriate in times of crisis. The morning following last year's General Assembly they became aware of an incident involving youth of color, ushers and other people in the complex dynamics of race, age, and power. In response, the board alerted groups and organizations as to ways to support and/or adjudicate the situation. They made it clear that this was something the entire faith community needed to own, and that it was not just interpersonal experience. A commission was formed to make recommendations. This, Payne-Alex stated, is important work because it gave the board the opportunity to reflect on the complexity of our association and the multi-layered, multi-faceted nature of our being. It is also deeply spiritual work. There is history in every incident, and issues like this do not occur in isolation.

The ravages of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita also called for responses we had not offered before. We experienced helplessness, frustration, self-doubt: did we do enough, did we do the right things, did we help are the questions the board asks of itself. The Board keeps congregations and their hopes and trust at the heart of its considerations. We must look, she said, at stewardship and policy issues—what policies would it have been helpful to have in place at times of crises and disaster, and where have we fallen short; what stewardship and accountability principles transcend the urgency of the moment? The answers to these questions should and must be made by your elected representatives on the board.

Payne-Alex said the board also looked at how best to be in relationship with the fifty plus organizations that are in either affiliate or associate status. Many of these organizations add vitality to congregational life, but the way we are currently in relationship is more like vendor/consumer rather than in right relationship and responsibility. These organizations also bypass congregations as the locus of our association, while they also connect people to us. Relating the story of the woman who cut the ham before cooking it, finally realizing that her grandmother did this only because the pan was too small, Payne-Alex suggested that we as an Association often continue doing things mostly because they were always done that way, rather than it being the thing we need to do now. The board has restructured its process to meet our present day needs, she said.

The board has also considered large issues such as health insurance, religious education credentialing, and youth ministry. The reality of these situations is that often the board voting on these issues has a different composition than the board than those who began the process. The board's job, Payne-Alex said, is to tend the flame of Unitarian Universalism beyond our own time, keeping it bright, focused and resilient so our congregations can carry out good work in the world. She urged delegates to read the board's written report and to visit the board's packets on the Web. Speaking on behalf of all the board members, Payne-Alex said that it is a privilege to serve our congregations in this way.

President's Award for Volunteer Service

UUA President William Sinkford said that one of his honors is to present the President's Award for Volunteer Service. Usually this is given to one individual but, Sinkford said, that he "is pushing the limit this year, and presenting a 'two-fer.'" The 2006 award was given to Janice Marie Johnson and the Rev. Hope Johnson.

A simple list of all that these identical twin sisters have done for Unitarian Universalism, he said, "would overfill our time here," but that he presented a sample of their support of this faith. Janice Marie Johnson has served on the Ministerial Fellowship Committee Board of Review, as a trustee of The Mountain Retreat and Learning Center, as a trustee in our UU United Nations Office, on the Commission on Appraisal, and as president of DRUUMM (Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries). The Rev. Hope Johnson has served on the UUA Nominating Committee, the Anti-Racism Anti-Oppression Multicultural Committee of the UU Ministers Association, on the Family Matters Task Force, as a Jubilee World trainer, and as an adult at-large member of the YRUU Council. But beyond this, Sinkford said, what he values most is "the faithfulness with which they both hold the vision of the beloved community that inspires this community wherever they are present."

Sinkford explained that Nelson Mandela personally gave the word Masakane to Janice Johnson, which means "let us build together," and that Janice uses this as salutation and prayer, and as the way in which she lives her life. Hope's name, he said, is an affirmation of her presence and the gifts she gives us all. "She is Reverend Hope, and that says it all."

Sinkford also informed the delegates that past recipients have usually been presented with the gift of an inscribed crystal bowl. But this year, both sisters asked to forgo these gifts and instead donate the cost of the gifts to supporting the ongoing transformational work of DRUUMM.

Distinguished Service to Unitarian Universalism Award

Courter called on UUA Trustee at Large José Ballester, chair of the Award Committee, to present the award for distinguished service.

Ballester said that the identity of this year's award recipients "has been one of the worst kept secrets," and then went on to say that two things he has accomplished are "making Jerry Davidoff laugh uncontrollably, and making Denny Davidoff cry uncontrollably." He then went on to describe and laud Jerry and Denny Davidoff, recipients of this year's award, the highest conferred in Unitarian Universalism.

Ballester, in sharing the citation on the award, said:

"Recognizing the delegate standing at the "Con" microphone, the Moderator demanded, 'Are you there to help or just to make trouble?' The delegate replied, 'You and I have been trying to answer that question for forty-three years!'

It was but one encounter in the lives of Denny and Jerry Davidoff, who have worked and led in our UU movement for half a century. Ballester said, "Their lives testify to Margaret Mead's truth that a small group (in this case, a group of two) thoughtful and committed people can change the world. Together, they have changed ours."

He continued: "Jerry: lawyer, wit, raconteur, searcher of hidden meanings, confidant of ministers." Jerry Davidoff has served on the Commission on Appraisal and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee. He is known as a "rules maven, canny advocate of excellence, cheerleader, mentor and truth-teller to ministers." Ballester said Davidoff's enthusiasm for ministers extends to wearing red socks on Sundays since this is the color of the academic hood for divinity degrees. Beyond the UUA, Jerry Davidoff has served as trustee and secretary of the Alban Institute, has been a long-time member of his local Westport, CT, Board of Education (as chair for two years), and founder and original board member of the Connecticut Women's Educational and Legal Fund. He has served as board chair of the Westchester Institution for Training in Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Davidoff also turned his law practice away from adversarial struggle toward the arts of reconciliation so as to better serve justice. Ballester said, "The inventory of Jerry Davidoff's achievements could easily be extended, yet nothing on that list could rival the one accomplishment that dwarfs all others: he married well."

Turning to Denny Davidoff, Ballester said, "For over three decades she has taught us what we must be about; taught us with wit and insight, sympathy and understanding; and even on those occasions when lesser mortals succumb to exasperation and despair, she could go to her well of good humor, teaching and guiding us while we were almost too busy laughing to notice." He recounted her professional career in advertising and marketing, and then said that "in 1973 she was elected to the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation (UUWF) board and never looked back." In addition to her work for the UUWF, she has served on the General Assembly Planning Committee, and is best known as UUA Moderator from 1993 to 2001. Ballester said her fingerprints are on every substantive UU organization. "One week's agenda may include her chairing the Partner Church Council's task force on economic fairness in New York; chairing the Board meeting of the Church of the Larger Fellowship in Boston; attending the trustees meeting of Meadville/Lombard Theological School in Chicago." She is also co-founder of The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and a trustee of the World Conference on Religion and Peace.

Ballester concluded, "Denny and Jerry, you are ever ready to help us with our problems and, when we shrink from that responsibility, you give us trouble. You hold us to your high standard, requiring of us no less than what you require of yourselves: that the liberal religious vision of truth, justice and love be incarnated in our deeds and in our lives." With that, they were presented with the 2006 Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism.

In response, Jerry Davidoff told delegates that when Denny was elected Moderator of the UUA, he quipped that he knew precisely what his job would be: to walk four paces behind. He said, in forty-some odd years of marriage, he had seldom gotten that close! He also shared his gratitude with the Unitarian Universalist community for offering one of the greatest gifts that anyone can be given: the opportunity to love.

Denny Davidoff began by saying that she, too, married well. She then recounted the beginning of her involvement in UU leadership. It began in 1971 when she arrived in Washington, D.C., for General Assembly. She was then, she said, "Mrs. Jerry Davidoff." But upon the urging of Mary Lou Thompson, the Deputy Director of the UU Women's Federation, she stepped up to "notice" that the leadership on the stage at that General Assembly were all men. She said that with this act, "a GA career was begun."

"I tell you this tonight," said Davidoff, "to acknowledge the mentoring role of Mary Lou Thompson and to do it publicly. And to let you know that someone—many someones—helped me be who I am." She and Jerry would not have gone to their first GA without Ed Lane, their minister, encouraging them, she said. "All along the way, I have been guided, formed, educated, encouraged, loved into power. We all need help. We all need each other. And I have tried to reciprocate: to lend support, to lend a hand, to guide and to love others into power. We are stronger and more effective when we are in right relationships. We are all in this enterprise together." She ended by quoting the covenant that is said every week in her home congregation, and as the delegates joined in, these words were heard: "Love is the spirit of this church and service its law. This is our great covenant. To dwell together in peace. To seek the truth in love. And to help one another."

The plenary erupted in thunderous applause and a standing ovation in recognition of the huge impact Denny and Jerry Davidoff have made on Unitarian Universalism and the UUA.

Volunteer Service in the UUA

UUA Board Trustee Sue Stukey, chair of the UUA Board's Committee on Committees, and Dr. Helen Bishop, chair of the UUA Nominating Committee, both named the members of their respective committees, and outlined the various ways that UUs can be involved in leadership and volunteer work in the UUA. Deadlines for nomination are mid-summer, and attendees were urged to learn more.

UUA and UU Service Committee Social Justice Report

Moderator Courter introduced UUA President William Sinkford and UU Service Committee President Charlie Clements.

Clements discussed the naming of the late Martha and Waitstill Sharp as Righteous Among the Nations in Israel and lifted up the connection of the Sharps and their work to the founding of the Unitarian Service Committee.

When, in the late 1930s the Nazis consolidated power and began eliminating people, the American Unitarian Association (AUA) urged eighteen ministers to accept a six-month assignment in Prague. Seventeen of them said no, but Waitsill Sharp and his wife Martha, a social worker, agreed to go, leaving behind their six-year-old son and their two-year-old daughter. There, they began their work to help Jews escape from countries falling under the Nazi's control. In 1940, Samuel May Eliot, president of the AUA, asked the Sharps to return to Europe a second time, and they made this trip under the auspices of the newly-formed Unitarian Service Committee (USC).

The Sharps burned most of their case files to keep them out of the hands of the Gestapo, creatively prepared fake passports, exchanged money on the black market, and assisted at least two thousand men, women, and children in finding safety. This year, the Sharps became only the second and third Americans named as "Righteous Among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust Memorial.

Clements said that the Sharps knew then, and Yad Vashem knew now, that the Sharps were there as representatives of their faith. They were funded by Unitarians, secretaries traveled to assist them, and others helped make possible the work that they did.

Clements introduced the Sharps' grandson, Artemis Joukowsky III. It was Joukowsky who did the research to demonstrate what his grandparents had accomplished. Joukowsky told the delegates that his grandparents also knew that their work in Europe was only made possible with the help of others, and that they were representing their faith movement. "My grandparents would be proud to see the work [of the UU Service Committee today]," Joukowsky said, and he added that he, as a Unitarian Universalist himself, "sees their vision of themselves as ordinary people living ordinary lives doing what needed to be done" which fuels his own work for justice.

Clements said that while we can't all go to war-torn Europe or refugee camps, we can all help by supporting those who do go. The Sharps' work was not just rescuing hundreds of lives, but also involved the creation of the UU Service Committee. Delegates then viewed a few moments of the recognition of the Sharps at Yad Vashem. The Sharps' daughter, Martha Sharp Joukowsky, said that her parents did not refer to themselves as heroes. Her mother was trained at Hull House, and her father was a Sunday school teacher inspired to become a minister and lawyer. "They would be embarrassed by this recognition. They would have expected everyone to act as they had done, and they never viewed what they did as extraordinary. This medal reflects their dedication and courage, and a much wider circle that made that work possible," she said.

Sinkford began his piece of this report by asking, "who today are the righteous among the nations?" There is, he said, another genocide taking place—this one in Darfur.

Last November, Sinkford said, he traveled to Chad, in Central Africa, to visit the refugee camps where over 200,000 citizens of Darfur live in exile. Accompanying him were Charlie Clements, Sinkford's daughter Danielle acting as photographer and reporter, and Atema Eclai, Program Director for the UUSC.

"The stories of the refugees were chilling," Sinkford reported. They included attacks on villages by aircraft of the Sudanese government, napalm dropped from the skies, villages surrounded by the Janjaweed militia armed by the Sudanese government. Children were beaten and raped, many people killed. The story is not simple, Sinkford said. There are several rebel groups, and there is ethnic dimension as well—Arab northerners versus the African southerners, though all are Muslim and all dark skinned Africans. The truth, said Sinkford, is that a government sponsored and supported genocide has been taking place in Darfur for the past three years.

Eclai recently traveled to Darfur in May, and shared her experience. She saw people in despair, she said, "who have endured and are still enduring many human rights violations. As night approaches, the slight security of daylight disappears, and people are even more in danger. But yet there are small pockets of hope—the people wake up every morning hopeful that one day peace, justice, and freedom will come to their land."

Sinkford then continued by outlining what UUs have been doing to try to end this killing. The UUA is an important member of the Save Darfur Coalition, the largest and most effective of the organized groups working to bring peace and safety. This effort, "A Million Voices for Darfur," is having success, and the U.S. government is beginning to take action. Sinkford said that New York Times columnist, Nick Kristof, wrote a few weeks ago:

Frankly, I'm not optimistic about the peace agreement, but at least there's a ray of hope now. We can see a path out of this mess in Darfur, even if we don't think it'll be taken.

And that path is a tribute to the Save Darfur Coalition. Without you folks, there wouldn't even be a ray of hope.... If there is a path out of here, you folks surveyed it.

Sinkford told delegates that the pressure needs to continue. Postcards can be sent through the Save Darfur website. After showing a video clip of his participation in an interfaith prayer rally in front of the capital he asked again, "Who are the Righteous Among Nations today? Let us continue to raise our voices, so that we can count ourselves in that number."

Unitarian Universalists and the Gulf Coast

Many Unitarian Universalists were affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita last August and September. Several UUs from that region participated in a reader's theatre-style presentation that, through words of columnists, UUs and others, reflected on life on the Gulf Coast since last summer. A highlight of the piece was the presentation by the Rev. Tyrone Edwards, a lifelong reside of Plaquemine's Parish, Louisiana, who shared his experiences and the help that he has received through the UUA-UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund.

Delegates were urged, at the conclusion of the presentation, to continue their support of the Gulf Coast region, and invited to partner with congregations through the UUA and UUSC.

There being no further business to come before this plenary, the meeting recessed until Saturday, and the UUA's annual Bridging Ceremony began.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Thursday, September 8, 2011.

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