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Closing Celebration, General Assembly 2004

General Assembly 2004 Event 5060

(Long Beach, CA, June 28, 2004) The high point of the Closing Celebration of the 43rd annual General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) was the installation of Gini Courter as the new moderator of the UUA. Courter's installation was supported by a musical celebration, drawn from the rich variety of traditions of southern California.

The Closing Celebration began with a prelude, a smooth rocking number with a funky feel, played by Ray Egan on piano, Tony Moore on drums, and Mike Valerio on electric bass. Egan, Moore and Valerio, all well established professional musicians in the greater Los Angeles area, had the crowd rocking as Moore laid down a steady rock beat, which Valerio supplemented with a hip bass line. Egan's piano danced over the rhythm section. In the audience, heads swayed in time to the beat, fingers snapped and hands clapped, and some people were up and dancing. The prelude came to an end with loud applause and cries of "yes!" from the audience.

"When we began Long Beach became for us a temporary home of sorts," said Gaia Brown in words of welcome. "This week we have been 4,500 strong." Manish Mishra added, "Together we have made decisions that will affect the future of our movement.... We leave inspired to share the hope of our liberal faith." Brown was recognized in the Service of the Living Tradition at this General Assembly as one of the first Credentialed Religious Educators, Masters Level. Mishra is a seminarian at Harvard Divinity School and Director of Religious Education in Marblehead, MA.

Brown concluded the words of welcome by saying, "Tonight we celebrate in one of the most musically diverse cities in the United States." The music of the Closing Celebration, played by local musicians, proved her words true, and included music from a wide variety of traditions.

Clabe Hangan and Bill McClellan, members of the Monte Vista Unitarian Universalist Congregation In Montclair, California, came on stage to lead the audience in the song "Do You Hear" by Emily Thorn. Hangan and McClellan sang in a folk style,

"Do you hear in the hush of your soul, of your soul.
Hear the heart's call to will,... in your soul, in your soul."

Mishra delivered the invocation. "Loving spirit of life, may all who here gather feel welcome and peace.... May the spirit who has moved among us in this time and place be with us as we gather tonight."

Amy Leynberger and Howard McMahon, both residents of the greater Fort Worth area, where the 2005 GA will be held, came out to kindle the flaming chalice, as Mishra said, "Together we kindle this flame." McClellan and Hangan returned to lead the audience in a song for the lighting of the chalice, co-written with the Rev. Beth Johnson, called "Singing the Light."

"I bring the light to the chalice, it brings light to me,
It pours down the mountain and it flows to the sea,
The light is singing and so are we,
I bring light to the chalice, it brings light to me."

Hangan played a finger style guitar and McClellan a finger-picked mandolin in a light accompaniment to the song reminiscent of 1930's depression-era ballads.

Two musical selections followed the lighting of the chalice. "Alleluia in a Gregorian Style" was arranged and conducted by this year's GA Choir Conductor, Dr. William Belan. Belan is Director of Music at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Los Angeles and Professor of Music at the Roger Wagner Center for Choral Studies at California State University in Los Angeles. The piece was a contemporary arrangement of a traditional Gregorian chant. The General Assembly Choir presented the theme, a soft and contemplative plainsong melody sung over a drone on the tonic note played on the organ. Six variations followed, moving through six more modes, and getting progressively darker in tone.

Next was "Va Pensiero" by Giuseppe Verdi, a lush 19th C. choral piece in the high Western classical tradition, with piano accompaniment by Egan. The piece was beautifully sung by the General Assembly Choir, who were over a hundred strong, and conducted by Belan.

At last came the moment to install the new Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association. The Rev. Wayne Arnason, Secretary of the UUA, conducted the installation. "Guided by love for this tradition," said Arnason, "this General Assembly marked a new chapter for leadership with the election of Gini Courter as Moderator." His statement was greeted with enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Arnason asked all those present to join together in the words of covenant. All those who had gathered said to Courter, "May our Unitarian Universalist faith and heritage inform your work and deeds. As you serve as a liaison between leadership, congregation, and staff, may your approach inspire good will among all." Courter responded with seriousness and her usual elan, saying, "I covenant to affirm and promote justice, equity, and compassion in human relations."

Those gathered then said, "May you deal forthrightly and honestly with us, keeping foremost in your heart the health and well being of our movement, speaking your truth without fear of repercussion and encouraging others to do the same." Courter replied, "I covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and use of the democratic process."

All those gathered, representing Unitarian Universalists across the United States, then promised, "We covenant to encourage and support you as you serve our movement. May your trust carry you through both difficulty and triumph. In gratitude, we thank you for your willingness to serve." Courter replied, "With gratitude, I acknowledge and accept the trust you have placed in me." Arnason ended by saying, "So concludes our covenant. So begins our great task."

The reading of the covenant was followed by another musical selection, "The Blue Green Hills of Earth," composed by Kim Oler as part of the "Missa Gaia" ("Earth Mass") and arranged by Belan. Pianist Egan played a jazz-styled introduction of the familiar melody. Then the General Assembly Choir sang the words, while Moore carried the beat, and Valerio played bass. The Choir sang the last verse unaccompanied.

The main message of the Closing Celebration came first in poetry. Mishra returned to the stage to read the poem "Ithaka" by C. P. Cavafy. Cavafy was a Greek poet who lived from 1863 to 1933. "The poet lived and wrote in Greece long ago," said Mishra, "yet the journey he imagined is timeless." Calling on the wisdom of the past "as we proceed with new leadership," Mishra said, "May we hold this wisdom in a new way."

Mishra then read the poem, which begins:

"As you set out for Ithaka,
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery."

"The joy we generate in our congregations will inspire a world free of violence and oppression," said Mishra after he had read the poem. "We will walk side by side, sometimes stumbling, sometimes walking with righteous confidence."

Next the message of the closing celebration was presented in music. "An Exceptional Case" was a work composed by Ray Egan, and commissioned for the evening's program thanks to the generosity of William Belan. Egan, Moore, and Valerio played an electric jazz accompaniment, while the General Assembly Choir sang in a straight eighth groove:

"We don't believe in miracles,
We belong to 21st century worlds,
Free from myth and fantasy,
We live in full reality,
'mid the wonders of our technology,
Surely, surely creation's apogee."

Soprano Aladrian Elmore ad libbed a solo part over the other musicians, singing in a rich gospel style. The second movement of the piece had Elmore singing a flowing and radiant line over Egan's legato playing. This movement had more of a flavor of the contemporary Western concert tradition, the singing slightly atonal and very lyrical. Then the Choir and the bass joined in, with light sounds coming from the cymbals.

The third movement returned to the feel of the first movement, with Elmore singing a gospel solo over the other musicians. The Choir sang:

"But now the miracle surely depends
on whether we inside it can comprehend.
So that the cosmos, glistening, mysterious,
Her secrets demurely kept from the curious,
O can't see, it's glistening, mysterious...."

A heavier beat began to predominate as the volume increased. Then a diminuendo followed and the theme was picked up by the tenors. The whole choir joined in again, singing "Our home where our part of the story takes place," while the soloist sang swooping, swinging passages over them.

Hushed comments came from the audience throughout this third movement, with members of the audience saying things like, "That was unbelievable!"

Gaia Brown next presented the message of the Closing in a children's story, "Come by Chance" with words and pictures by Madeline Winch. Brown read the story while the illustrations flashed on the screens at the front of the hall. Egan played a light jazz background for Brown on the piano.

"Come by Chance" is a story about a woman named Bertha who moved into a house that had been abandoned. Bertha is sitting by a fire when a storm begins to rage. "The wind whistled and roared, and the windows rattled and shook," Brown read. Animals began to come to the door of her house seeking shelter, and Bertha welcomed them in. No one is left out in the cold.

The animals begin to feel at home, and they spend the winter with Bertha. Nights are filled with music and dancing. But when spring comes, and the hills turn green, the animals decide to leave. "Come again next winter," Bertha calls to the animals as her friends leave. But when winter comes again, she knows the animals will return and her house will again be filled with music and laughter.

Brown said what happened in the story was similar to what happens each year at General Assembly. "We strive to achieve a sense that all are welcome for this short while," she said. In another year, Unitarian Universalists will again gather for General Assembly, returning "to a place that's different but familiar because of the values we share."

El Son del Pueblo took the stage to play "traditional and evolutionary music from the Mexican state of Veracruz." El Son del Pueblo consisted of John Robles playing the arpa jarocha, the traditional folk harp of Veracruz, and Jorge Mijangos who played jarana jarocha, a traditional guitar-like instrument with eight strings in four courses. Robles is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Santa Paula, California, where he celebrated his service of union with his partner eight years ago.

Robles and Mijangos played two traditional songs, "La Iguana" and "El Siquisiri." They sang in light tenor voices over their instruments with complex syncopated rhythms, with the choir joining them on the chorus. Mijangos played the rhythm while Robles carried the melody on his harp. At the end of the first song, they were greeted with enthusiastic applause, and Robles said, "That's what coming from a heavily Latin town does for you." In the second song, Robles played an extended solo, which so energized the audience that they responded with occasional light applause during the solo, and more applause and cheering at its end.

Rev. William Sinkford, president of the UUA, gave the benediction. He said, "To offer a benediction is 'to speak well of,' and we have much to speak well of the community we have created here, the spirit we have shared, the worship, the workshops, the witness. But most of all, as we prepare to return to our congregations and our communities, let us speak well of this faith.

"Let us hold in our hearts the sense of religious identity we have known here. Let us speak well of this faith.
Let us hold in our hearts the power and the possibilities we have found here. Let us speak well of this faith.
Let us hold in our hearts the love we have shared, and the promise, the circle of that love each day which we are given.
As we prepare to leave this place, let us speak well of this faith."

Sinkford's words were greeted with sustained applause.

Hangan and McClellan led the audience in a final song, "One More Step." "This is a waltz," said Hangan. "What a perfect way to end this conference! Make sure your last step is a dance step."

The postlude by El Son del Pueblo had the audience clapping, dancing, and cheering. At the end of the postlude, the audience responded with a standing ovation, cheers, and whistling for all the musicians and exited the Long Beach Convention Center for a final time, into the warm, breezy evening.

Written by Dan Harper; edited by Deborah Weiner.