General Assembly 2008 Event 5003
The morning opened with Sarah Dan Jones, music director at Northwest Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church in metro Atlanta, leading three songs, "Come Sing a Song With Me" (by Carolyn McDade), "Gathered Here in the Mystery of the Hour" (by Philip A. Porter), and "Gather the Spirit" (by Jim Scott, who was among the members of the morning’s choir). Rev. Marta I. Valentín then coached those assembled in the Spanish words to "Spirit of Live/Fuente de Amor."
Rev. William Sinkford welcomed a crowd including delegates, others attending the 2008 General Assembly, and people from local Unitarian Universalist churches and from the Fort Lauderdale area attending just for the morning’s worship. The prelude, "To the Holy Spirit," featured Beth Norton as soloist. Sinkford then shared an invocation from words by Rev. David Pohl, while Valentín lit the chalice. Mimi Bornstein introduced Woody Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land" for the congregation to sing.
Sinkford, Valentín, Bornstein, and Rev. Marlin Lavanhar participated in a "ritual of reflection," reciting Langston Hughes’ poem, "Let America Be America Again" while Valentín added to a mirror such symbolic items as a heart, liberty crown, feather, poncho, and chain, and finally a flag with the assistance of two young men who carried it from the floor. Bornstein then led a musical response of "My Country, ‘Tis of Thee," followed by a prayer led by Valentín and silence for meditation. The congregational response was "Spirit of Life/Fuente de Amor" with Ervin Barrios’ Spanish words.
Valentín then read from 1 Corinthians 13:12-13, and the congregation sang the traditional African American hymn, "There Is More Love Somewhere."
Rev. Marlin Lavanhar’s sermon (PDF) began with a statement of love—for those present, for "this faith and this soulful journey we are on." Then he told a personal story of sudden death and the support of others "at the time of my deepest despair."
"At our best, we are not an activist organization, we are not a social club, we are a religious community in the greatest sense of the word," he said. Lavanhar spoke of broken hearts: "A true religious community shows us how to take our heartbreak and transform it into a sacred fire for change."
He spoke of living in "a time of conflict and terror," of "growing extremisms of all kinds that are dividing the human family," of the danger to the environment—and the need for "passionate, free-thinking people and institutions willing to take stands that will give birth to a new era." He spoke of his own childhood, and the illusions of America as the "land of freedom for all and equal opportunity," and the discovery that the history and religion we’ve been taught "are what they’ve been portrayed to be."
He spoke of the way that we, as a collective people, were told after 9/11 to "go back to normal" just at a time when our hearts were broken open—but rather than our "grief and anger" being "transfigured into something sacred or life-affirming," it was "channeled into two wars, and thousands of deaths and countless distractions."
Lavanhar talked of our country as a land of the walking dead and of his temptation to reply, when someone asks what he does for a living, to answer as a colleague does: "I’m in the business of resurrecting the dead." Not the apocalyptic vision of some religion—though, he said, the word apocalypse means "lifting the veil" and so many events have "lifted the veil" in another way, from voting irregularities in Ohio and Florida to Hurricane Katrina, the Enron scandal, the subprime mortgage scandal, the Catholic Church scandal. A veil has been lifted on so many major institutions.
He pointed out the number of UUs who have stood for freedom, and suggested imagining religious liberty replacing religious literalism. As an example, he offered: "If we keep thinking of Jerusalem as a literal place, the world may never know peace. With a mythic and poetic understanding of scripture we can see Jerusalem as a reference to the ideal of human community with justice." And, he went on, perhaps America can be such an archetype, too.
He recalled many times when a tiny band of people made a big difference, and suggested that people "put their time and energy into areas where they actually have influence." He told of the difference made when his congregation in Tulsa started giving away its Sunday offering, and imagined what effect it might have if all UU congregations did so, and congregations in other denominations as well. He spoke of the 32 microcredit banks the Tulsa church has started, and imagined if all congregations sponsored just one bank a year.
He spoke of what we stand for—what the Unitarian Universalist faith stands for—"knowing that this faith will stand by you even in the worst of times. It cannot prevent your heart from breaking, but it can help you transform your pain into a passion for faith, hope and love." He closed by saying "I love you!"
The choir, with soloist Sarah Dan Jones, sang Ysaye Barnwell’s "Hope," and an offering was taken to benefit Hispanic Unity of Florida. Josie Bacallao, president and CEO of Hispanic Unity, described the building that would be possible with this funding, and encouraged local UUs to come in October to volunteer. As the offering was taken, the choir—joined by the congregation—sang "Keep on Moving Forward," by Pat Humphries.
Sinkford and Valentín joined in a benediction and extinguished the chalice, and the service closed with a lively and participative musical call to action, "Come and Go With Me," arranged by Kenny Smith.
Reported by Jone Johnson Lewis, edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley