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Opening Ceremony and Plenary I, General Assembly 2007
General Assembly 2007 Event 1030
"Welcome to Portland! We've been waiting for you," said Judi McGavin, a resident of Portland, OR, and the District Coordinator for this year's General Assembly (GA) Planning Committee. "Welcome to the city of roses." Thousands of delegates and other attendees heard these words by McGavin, a former member of the Board of Trustees of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), as the 2007 General Assembly of the UUA opened at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, OR, got underway.
Dick Jackie, the Chair of the Pacific Northwest District of Unitarian Universalist congregations, offered his welcome to delegates to the 41st annual GA. Jackie pointed out that UU congregations in the Pacific Northwest District have grown 32%. "I have never been one to promote growth for growth's sake," Jackie said. But he said that UU congregations which provide a "transformative event" for people in a congregation "will not be able to stop growing." Jackie pointed out that GA can provide such a transformative event. "The most important part of GA is what we take home to our congregations," he said. "Participate this week with a watchful eye for things you can take home for your congregation. Have a wonderful GA, and may your congregations prosper — and yes, may they grow!"
Rev. Deborah Raible, President of the UU Ministers Association Chapter in the Pacific Northwest District, also offered a welcome to delegates on behalf of the over 100 ministers who serve the district, many of whom were in attendance. "We [the ministers of the district] have an ethos that we show up." Raible noted that more than 6,000 people had registered for this GA. Linda Friedman, Chair of the GA Planning Committee, then told the crowd that this is the second largest GA in the history of the UUA.
"Let the banner parade begin!" said Friedman enthusiastically, beginning one of the favorite parts of GA for many. The GA House Band, under the direction of Dana Decker, provided music for the parade, beginning with a rock-inflected number, and then moving into a longer song with a reggae beat. As the banner parade began, much of the crowd rose to their feet so they could see the colorful banners carried by representatives from congregations across the United States and around the world. Local congregations, such as the UU Fellowship of Central Oregon in Bend, Oregon, led off the parade. Congregations from far and near were represented in the parade. Representatives from First Universalist Church in Rockland, Maine, brought their banner some 3,000 miles west to participate, and representatives from First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, Hawai'i, brought their banner some 3,000 miles east. The congregation that came the farthest to participate, however, was the UU Church of the Philippines. The First UU Church of New Orleans and Community Church of New Orleans, both seriously affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, each sent representatives to carry their banners in the parade.
Following the banner parade, young people Lucy Dougal of the Kitsap UU Congregation in Bremerton, Washington, and Mariah McCubbin of the Wy'east UU Congregation in Portland lit the flame of a large chalice to open the worship portion of the Opening Celebration. Senior Minister Rev. Marilyn Sewell of First Unitarian Church of Portland offered words for the lighting of the chalice. Sewell said that Portland was the "end of the frontier," as the westward migration of settlers from the United States reached the Pacific Ocean. That westward migration represented expectations of a constantly improving standard of living. She said that now the country has arrived at another frontier.
"That frontier of rising expectations is dead, its time has come and gone, for it is absolutely not sustainable," Sewell stated. "We are going to have to change the way we live, radically change the way we live." Applause greeted that statement. "We're going to have to have a whole new way of seeing ourselves in relationship to other people and the whole earth. We need to be living out of the consciousness of the sacredness of life." The new frontier, according to Sewell, is "not what we have, but what we will become. It is not an economic frontier, but a spiritual one."
Sarah Dan Jones, the GA Music Coordinator, Secretary of the UU Musician's Network, and Director of Music Northwest UU Congregation in Atlanta, Georgia, led the congregation in singing the popular hymn "Spirit of Life" by Carolyn McDade.
Rev. William Sinkford, President of the UUA, and Gini Courter, Moderator of the UUA, then shared in offering a worshipful reflection titled "Choices that Matter." Sinkford and Courter were greeted with applause before they even began speaking.
"Each time this General Assembly gathers, delegates discuss and vote on a variety of business and social justice resolutions," Courter began. "Sometimes you might wonder, is all this discussion and voting worth all the time we spend?" Courter lifted up three important milestones in the history of the UUA, times when business resolutions passed at GA did make a difference. Those three business resolutions were the Women and Religion resolution of 1977, the Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities resolution, also from 1977, and the Toward an Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Association resolution of 1997. "Each of these resolutions placed a stake in the ground," said Sinkford. Each resolution represented "a desire to work toward the goal of beloved community where all are worthy and all are welcomed."
Nancy van Dyke, president of the UU Women's Federation, read excerpts from the 1977 Women and Religion resolution. "Therefore be it resolved: that the 1977 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association calls upon all Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own religious beliefs and the extent to which these beliefs influence sex-role stereotypes within their own families...."
Sinkford and Courter pointed out that the Women and Religion resolution led to dramatic changes, including a new hymnal in 1993 that reflected feminist theology, and the fact that by the late 1990s half of all Unitarian Universalist ministers were women. While the Women and Religion resolution didn't effect all these changes alone, it was critical. "It is important to remember that women's empowerment in our congregations was not achieved without a struggle," said Courter. "There was denial, resistance, and anger on the part of both women and men, as long-standing and deeply-loved practices change."
Sinkford and Courter then considered the Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities resolution, voted on at the same 1977 GA as the Women and Religion resolution. "How easy it is to not recognize that Unitarian Universalists move, learn, communicate, sense, in so many different ways," Sinkford said. Dr. Helen Bishop, Chair of the UUA's Nominating Committee and former Chair of the UUA Accessibility Committee, read from the resolution. "Therefore be it resolved that the General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association undertakes an aggressive plan to address accessibility within the Association for people with disabilities." Dr. Bishop read while seated on a motorized scooter that she uses for greater mobility.
Courter said that this resolution had also led to changes in congregational life, including the availability of a Braille hymnal and building renovations in many local congregations.
Then Sinkford and Courter turned to anti-racism resolutions passed by GA. The first such resolution was passed in 1963, only two years after the Unitarians and Universalists consolidated to form the UUA. In 1997, GA passed the Toward an Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Association resolution. Rev. Mel Hoover, co-minister of the UU Congregation of Charleston, West Virginia and former Director of the UUA Faith in Action Department, read from that 1997 resolution: "Therefore be it resolved that the 1997 General Assembly urges Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully their own conscious and unconscious racism as participants in a racist society, and the effect that racism has on all our lives, regardless of color."
Sinkford and Courter outlined some of the things that have been accomplished in the ten years since that resolution was passed. Direct services to congregations include the JUUST Change consultancy program "to support congregations taking a next step in transformation." Additionally, a conference for congregational leaders, called "Now Is the Time: Leading Congregations into a Multiracial, Multicultural Future," took place in March, 2007, and two more such conferences are scheduled for 2008 and 2009.
"But," Sinkford noted, "despite the many curricula created, despite the myriad programs and trainings offered, despite the unanimous commitment of the GA and strong support from Association national leadership, progress has been agonizingly slow." He acknowledged that "the programs offered initially were not perfect," and additionally "there was no clear vision of what it would look like for a congregation to claim an anti-racist identity." Courter noted that progress was also slow initially for GA resolutions in support of lesbians and gays. Sinkford said, "There are opportunities as well as challenges ahead for [our] faith. It is time for our congregations to re-commit to the vision cast by the 1997 Journey toward Wholeness resolution."
Courter concluded their shared talk by saying, "Three resolutions: Women and Religion, Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities, and Toward an Anti-Racist Unitarian Universalist Association. Sometime in the next few days you might find yourself wondering, 'Is all this discussion and voting worth the time? Does it really make a difference?'" It will make a difference, said Courter, "if we are willing to live our decisions in being in our congregations."
The concluding hymn was "Guide My Feet," accompanied by the GA House Band in a rhythm and blues arrangement by Rev. Jason Shelton. Sinkford offered the benediction to end the worship service, saying, "As we begin this GA, let us begin in love. As we begin this GA, let us begin in hope. As we begin this GA, let us begin in faith. We don't want to run this race in vain," he said, referring to a line from the concluding hymn. "Let us begin together. Because together, we are better than we could ever be alone. And let the congregations say, 'Amen.'"
The thousands of people present replied with "Amen!," laughter, and applause. The GA House Band gave two more choruses of "Guide My Feet" as a transition to the first plenary session of GA.
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Pat Emery.