President's Report, General Assembly 2022

By Susan Frederick-Gray

Transcript

Hello, everyone. Oh my goodness, it is wonderful to see your beautiful faces and to feel the spirit of folks gathered in the room and around our association. I gotta confess something. Although I gotta confess something, I thought there was going to be lively music and I wasn't done dancing from last night. I'm grateful for those of you who came and danced with me because dancing is a part of my spiritual practice. It gives me joy. And we need joy. So, yeah, that's right. I want to start by just inviting joy, to be present to you. Maybe just call to mind something that's already happened at this GA that brought you joy. Maybe it was a powerful speaker, a beautiful image, seeing a friend online and chatting with them, seeing someone in the room and embracing them. For in this world of tumult and pain. The world needs our joy. Joy is life saving and alongside our faith, our courage, our truth telling, our moral witness and our good old UU earnestness. Oh, I see you out there with your earnestness. We must remember that there is something liberating and powerful in joy. Joy feels like love, and it moves like freedom. We need joy like we need oxygen. It reminds us what we are struggling for. And what a moment we are in. We are, and you have heard me say this before, we are in a liminal time between what has been and what is not yet. This is my penultimate president's report to the General Assembly. My next to last one. I made a longer report available online that short that shares more of the details of all the good work of the UUA. But in this brief time, it feels more important to speak to the texture of our collective and interdependent lives. We are in the churn of change. Systems and practices that we've relied on are breaking down and shifting. While what is needed is being imagined but not yet here. In times of change and loss and uncertainty, there is a risk that fear will dominate and cause us to cling to the status quo and systems that no longer serve us just for a feeling of the certainty they give and the fear of moving into the liminal more fully. But let us remember that we are not a people of fear. We are a people of faith. We are religious people of imagination and possibility. We are a living tradition. We know that revelation is not sealed. We are a tradition that in the words of the hymn tranquil streams which was written for the merger 61 years ago that created the Unitarian Universalist Association.

A faith that reveres the past. But trust the dawning future more. Prophetic Church, the future awaits your liberating ministry, go forward in the power of love and proclaim a truth that makes us free. That was our charge at merger 61 years ago. This is some powerful magic in our tradition, rooted in love, committed to prophetic ministry and which welcomes the future not with fear. But as the breaking of a new day where we all have possibility and power to create that new day. We need to remember this spirit, this power, this magic, because in liminal times questions arise. How will we meet this moment? Who will we be? The world we knew is passing. All things grow strange. These words written by Unitarian Universalist Minister A Powell Davies, who served the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington DC in the 1940s and 50s. That to was an in between time with the world experiencing the collective trauma and inhumanity of the Holocaust, and the US's use of atomic weapons. There were also powerful movements for liberation and civil rights that would gain ground over the next decades. For that time, A Powell Davies wrote, The world we knew was passing, all Things grow strange. For us, there is no haven or refuge. For us there is wilderness, wild and trackless, where we shall build a road and sing a song, our gift to those who follow us. Along the road, we build, singing our song. These words have echoed in my heart, as I've read through our own days. Witnessing the crumbling, the failures in the midst of a global pandemic, and an endemic, endemic crisis of violence, racism, poverty, climate change, and rising authoritarianism. These fissures reflect society, and a global community of colonization that has put profit and power over people's lives, over the resources of the Earth. And I could list all the egregious rolling back of fundamental rights happening now, all the evidence of how systems are doubling down, clinging to greed, exploitation, and a growing police state. But you know, these realities, you see them every day. And I know that not everyone experiences these realities the same way. I know some of you know them far too well. Instead of listing all of those I want to ask, given this context, who will we be? And more importantly, who are we called to be? From the earliest days of my presidency, I have said two things are clear. Number one, this is no time for a casual faith. And number two, this is no time to go it alone. These words have only become more apparent and urgent. And everywhere I see you. I see Unitarian Universalists living into these commitments. For here, before me, virtually and in person. I witnessed leaders who responded so quickly to the pandemic that they literally saved lives.

Leaders who continue to center the most vulnerable in their decisions embodying inclusion and mutual care. Religious professionals who innovated and pivoted and pivoted and pivoted again to respond to the ever changing reality of the pandemic of the ongoing pandemic. And congregational leaders who used their buildings during the pandemic to save lives, who organized food banks, sheltered people, offered hospitality, sanctuary and medical support to freedom fighters in the streets. Leaders from the over 215 congregations and counting that have passed the eighth principle, a grassroots movement among you all to endorse our shared commitment to beloved community and anti racism as a part of our core principles. Veterans, I see veterans of UU the Vote 2020, who built relationship with frontline defenders of democracy and contacted over 3 million voters. We did that, you did that. And leaders and volunteers in the room right now and online, who are going to do it again, in UU the Vote 2022 We are going all in for voting rights, all in to defend Black Lives, defend trans kids, defend the right to abortion, to demand climate action and to protect our kids, our communities and our educators from the censorship of the anti critical race theory movement, and the politicians who refuse to take action on gun regulation.

Here before me, and online, I witness you. I witnessed a UUA, all of us, and for our work at the UUA staff, wave your hands UUA staff, I love you. I'm so grateful to get to work with you each and every day. A UUA that has been intentional in our institutional change work and has cultivated the most diverse staff at the UUA with an executive leadership team that is over 60% people of color and a senior management team that is 40% people of color and an overall UUA staff that is 32% people of color.

A UUA that has been able to respond effectively to both the pandemic and the threats to democracy because of our diversity and because of our commitment to center those most directly impacted by systemic injustice. UU values are shaping the wider culture through Beacon Press, which is publishing the authors needed in these cultural conversations and, and the voices needed to understand the histories of how we got here. Congregations, you all, congregations that are mobilized to help women obtain abortions. That's right, providing financial resources, spiritual care and accompaniment. Congregations, ministers and religious educators supporting and protecting trans kids in their communities and their families. Knowing unequivocally that trans lives are sacred, precious and loved. Here we are people who have stretched and stretched and stretched and provided ministry and leadership through the most heart wrenching and difficult times. And still we show up again and again. I love this faith. Love bless us in this faith. And I know this hasn't been the whole story. I know so many have been broken and hurt in deep ways. I have been broken in deep ways. So many of us are tired and unsure if we can keep going. Like so many helping professionals like our nurses and our teachers, ministers and religious professionals are leaving the work, taking prolonged or extended time off because it has been all too much. At the UUA we recognize a shortage, particularly for interim ministers and we are doing our best to support and equip our congregations through this time. But there are larger dynamics at play that we all, including you all as congregational leaders, have to wrestle with. We have to care for our staff, as we together care for our mission. We need communities that can be vital sources of dynamic life giving ministry and we need to learn our way into new patterns that meet this moment. For we are in a time of dramatic shift, and I don't have all the answers. And it's not easy. I'm not here to tell you that but we have to be in the work. It's also true that there is conflict and division in our society, much of it related to the fact that we are becoming an increasingly diverse and multiracial country. Yes, amen. Not so the conflict, though. That's rooted in racism. When there is conflict in society, we often experience it in our congregations. There's nothing new about that. It's part of being a tradition that's not rooted in the past, but in the here and now. One of the things I am most proud of as your president is our anti racism work. It is powerful, beautiful and liberating. It is a part of the joy that gives me life.

And while we recognize that culture change is difficult and uncomfortable, it is how we grow spiritually as human beings. This work is the deepest expression of our values. And we have a generational opportunity to be the kind of just an anti oppressive faith community that we imagine and that we talk about. And there are those who folk who oppose, there are those who oppose our focus on anti racism work and dismantling white supremacy culture within and beyond our religious community. This is not new. Historically, this work has always been met with resistance. As much as we claim the history of abolitionists and anti-racist it isn't the whole story. Yes, we are the tradition of US Senator Charles Sumner, a fierce and dedicated anti racist who was beaten viciously on the floor of Congress for daring to name explicitly the depraved abuse of his slave owning colleagues. But we are also the tradition of pro slavery Senator John C. Calhoun. Yes, we are the tradition of Francis Ellen Watkins Harper, an African American poet, abolitionist, and suffragette. And we were the faith community of US President Millard Fillmore, who signed the Fugitive Slave Act. We are the face of Waitstill and Martha Sharpe who resisted the Nazis and provided safe passage for refugees. And we are the tradition of Charles William Elliot, president of Harvard, who among other Unitarians were supporters and funders of the eugenics movement. We are the faith of James Reeb and Viola Liuzzo, who we honor as martyrs in the civil rights movement. And we were also a General Assembly who in 1963, defeated a bylaw change that would have required you, you congregations to admit people to membership regardless of race, color, or national origin. We know we defeated it in 1963. We defeated it, said it was a violation of congregational polity.

We struggle with our understanding of freedom.

Somehow, freedom to segregate was more important than the freedom of black people, black Americans to walk into any who, come into any one of our congregations and be welcomed and to say that we believe that as a practice for our whole faith. Yes, this is, this is who we are. This is who we've been. I mean, this is it's all here. This history tells the story of Unitarian Universalists, willing to risk, risk their lives for a future of justice, equity and freedom for all and it tells the history of UUs who resisted change and defended and protected the status quo and moments when the times called for courage and boldness. The facts of this complicated history are important to know and to grapple with as uncomfortable truths. And the arc of where we have come honors the courage of those who came before. The stories from this history, particularly the ones we tell again and again, reflect the paths that Liuzzo and Reeb and Harper, and Sumner built. They reflect the songs they sang that we have chosen to keep following. I believe that something has shifted in us. It's been building for some time. It is evident in the resolution toward an anti racist UUA passed 25 years ago at the 1997 General Assembly, which resulted in the creation of the Journey Towards Wholeness Transformation Committee. And while there was lots of resistance in response to that resolution, the embrace of this work has only continued to grow. It was apparent in 2019, just a few years ago, when a survey of the General Assembly led by the Commission on Institutional Change found that nearly 91% of respondents ranked anti racism work as a primary importance, with nearly 60% ranking it as the highest priority. Clap for that. And we witnessed it again. Last year, when our General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted the statement of conscience undoing systemic white supremacy, there has emerged and grown over these last 25 years of powerful consensus across our movement. For the centrality of this work, we have built the grassroots momentum to sustain our anti racism work in an ongoing way, perhaps for the first time.

Now this doesn't mean that the work is easy, or that there's only one way to do it. Dismantling systemic racism and white supremacy is long haul work that requires an ability to embody a learning community way of being a both and approach that can hold multiple experiences that can nurture the kind of trust that allows for truth telling, and practices that foster repair and forgiveness. It means centering the voices and investing in leaders from communities that have been marginalized in our tradition, it requires being a living tradition that trust the dawn in future more. So how do we make this moment? Who are we called to be? How is love calling us? Let me say it plainly. We are called to anti racist work. We are called to it. We cannot be the people that we say we are. We cannot love the values that we say we love. The values of human dignity, justice, compassion, democracy, truth, peace, if we do not commit ourselves to dismantling systems of oppression within ourselves, and our society.

And this commitment is rooted in our theology. It is our theology that is the foundation of this calling and this work. A theology which affirms the truth that no one is outside the circle of love. And that liberation is only possible when everyone is free. Liminal times need moral and faithful communities to provide a clarion call for what is next, we have to fight and boldly proclaim what is next. A faith, a prophetic faith that proclaims the truth that makes us free. And when I hear those words, a truth that makes us free. I remember Universalist forefather Hosea Ballou who understood that God's love was universal and that salvation is for everyone. And he believed that God's desire for your, for humanity was happiness and joy. Ballou knew the reality of human suffering and knew the causes of it were as much rooted in humanity and our selfishness, as is our capacity for compassion and care. He argued that theologies that imagined God as vengeful and punishing, reinforced those ideas in our society, and that they separated us from God's love and from one another and from the goodness and joy that is possible and is an inherent gift. When I think about that truth that sets us free, I imagine Ballou's spiritual imagination. I also remember my own story of Unitarian Universalism. And the religious education teachers at the UU congregation where I grew up who literally changed my life. At a time of turmoil, they created an environment of such joy, such love and care that it made me understand that something more was possible beyond my present realities. It gave me hope and showed me the life saving power of joyful loving community. And I know that I am not alone, in having a story of how a UU congregation saved my life. I know so many young people are already committed, the ways that are already community that our curriculum like OWL or OWL, Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality curriculum, our coming of age programs, our youth conferences, the knowledge, affirmation and community that these provide are life saving. So if you were raised in this tradition, and you have an experience like this, I want you to say I am, say I was saved by this faith, write that in the chat. Are you saved by this faith. And if you're a parent, a caregiver who knows that your congregation or your congregation's RE program made a difference in your children's lives, or the life of your family, or in your own parenting, I want you to say I am. I want you to write it in the chat. I am. I am part of that life saving community, I was saved by this faith. My family was supported by this faith. Religious Education is central to our communities. It is one of our greatest strengths. Our justice work is so well known. But our religious education work is one of our greatest strengths. I want to thank our religious educators and our RE teachers.

I want to thank our ministers who are dedicated to religious education, to all of our leaders who fund help strong vital religious education. You know, it's not accidental that RE is such a strength. As UUs, we've always been committed to education, to learning, to cultivating truth and meaning in our lives and helping our young people do the same. In a liminal time when so much is unknown, I believe it is important to focus on what we do know. Right now there is an urgent need among children and families. They continue to experience some of the worst impacts of this pandemic. We have a mental health crisis among our children. Children, youth and families need support and love and care now more than ever, and this includes our leaders, our lay leaders and our professionals, our religious professionals who are also parents and caregivers. Our religious education ministries needs support to lead the way in building inclusive communities of belonging for children of every identity, race, ability and disability, gender identity, sexual orientation, neurodiversity and economic background. Because, because it is in religious education that we so often remember that real change, deeply transformative change begins in small ways, in small ways through relationships of care, attention and learning. This is core mission work. Our congregations are here for a reason, for life saving life affirming religious community and justice making ministry in the world. And mission is about bringing our values, our theology and our care to the world's need. Now is the time to lean into mission and into what we know saves and affirms life. At the UUA our core mission work is to equip our congregations for vital ministry, to train and support our leaders both lay and professional, and to advance our UU values in the world. And this is core to everything we do. And this is why we are making crucial investments in work that we know is needed for the future. This includes increasing our investment in children, youth and family ministry. It includes beginning work on a digital music resource for a multi platform era. It includes developing a mosaic hub, a central platform for multigenerational age appropriate resources for dismantling racism and oppression in our communities. It includes growing opportunities for lay leadership, development and connection across our congregations because we know our lay leaders need support and community and connection across congregations. It means increasing scholarships for those aspiring to UU ministry and religion or religious professional leadership so that we have the diverse leaders that we need to serve the diversity and fullness of our communities. And yes, it means investing in UU the Vote 2022, strengthening our prophetic justice, organizing, defending people's lives and pushing back against fascism and authoritarianism. And we are able to say yes to this because you all say yes to your communities and to our larger faith. The annual program fund, the gifts that our congregations give, the financial support to the UUA. That is how we embody a covenant that creates a UUA that helps support all of our congregations and their times of need, in their times of growth, in their times of loss. We are here for each other as a covenant of religious communities. And you all have strengthened your giving to the UUA over the last few years and it has allowed us to say yes to being stronger partners to you, in this pandemic, and in what comes next. And I thank you for your generosity. And I remind you that the most important way that you can make a difference in your community is by supporting your local congregation as generously as you are able.

The future is uncertain and the challenges are many. This pandemic is not done with us and the climate disasters are impacting every community across the globe. The rise of authoritarianism, fascism and white Christian ethno nationalism is a reality in our country, and elsewhere. Unitarian Universalists have always been positioned to play crucial roles in the struggle for expanding freedom, equity and democracy. And in those moments, when we have claimed the path of justice, of liberation, of solidarity, we have experienced the world shift. As Cornel West says we punch above our fighting weight.

So I'll end where I began. We are in a liminal time, letting go of what has been, in that middle space in between, as we reach for what is next and create it together. Who will we be? How are we called? How is love calling us? What I witnessed in the midst of struggle and uncertainty is a fiery flame of vitality. This courage growing in us, this spiritual renewal in depth growing from our theological foundations. This practice of leaning into partnership and interdependence like never before. We are building a road together and singing songs, songs that are both new but echo the songs of those who came before us, leaving a road for us to follow. For five years now I have said it is no time for a casual faith and it is no time to go it alone. Now is the time to realize that we were made for this moment, that we are the people we have been waiting for. Now is the time to take more seriously the life saving ministry of our religious communities and our religious education ministry. To invest boldly and generously in our own congregations as a strong foundation for people to heal, to grow and to resist. To lean into covenant and collaboration across our congregations, to help all of our congregations thrive. To practice deeper solidarity and partnership with directly impacted communities for liberation and to create more joy, to create more joy and celebration, knowing that this is a source of power, of resilience and of the imagination that we all need, that our world needs. We were meant for joy. We were meant for joy and joy feels like love and in moves like freedom. We were made for this moment. We are the people we have been waiting for. May we be, may we be the people that we are called to be.

Transcribed by Otter.

About the Author

Susan Frederick-Gray

The Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray began her six-year term as president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) in June 2017. As president of the Association, she is responsible for administering staff and programs that serve its more than 1,000 member congregations. She also acts as...

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