General Assembly: GA Presentations: Presenter views and opinions do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the UUA.

Opening Celebration, General Assembly 2004

General Assembly 2004 Event 1026

"Welcome to the 43rd annual General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA)," said Rev. Marguerite D. Lovett, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach, as she lit a flaming chalice, the well-known symbol of the UUA.

Thousands of Unitarian Universalists began to gather for the opening ceremony of General Assembly in the main hall of the Long Beach Convention Center on Thursday evening, June 24, well before Lovett's words of welcome. Long-time friends greeted each other while photographs of Unitarian Universalists from across North America flashed on the two big screens at the front of the hall. Jai Salsa, a band led by Unitarian Universalist musician Scott Roewe, played uptempo music with a Latin accent.

Promptly at 7:30, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles took the stage to sing "Spring Spell" by Francisco X. Alarcon, with lyrics in both Spanish and English. The Chorus sang, "We speak in all the tongues of the world, our flag waves the colors of the rainbow."

After lighting the chalice, Lovett introduced Mark Acuna, a member of the Monte Vista Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Montclair, California, and an elder-teacher of the Gabrielo-Tongva Band of Mission Indians in acknowledgement of the first nations of North America. "We recommit ourselves today to solidarity [with Native Americans] and the struggle for justice," Lovett said.

"I am here as a representative of this indigenous land we call Tongva," said Acuna. "I welcome you, my friends, to all Indians, to all non-Indians, to you Unitarian Universalists." He asked those present to honor the memory of Ben Pease, who was both a Unitarian Universalist Christian an a member of the Crow Nation, and who attended General Assembly many times in the past. After bearing greetings from the elders of his people, Acuna announced, "The festival begins, the festival opens."

Matthew McHale, also of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach, added to Lovett's and Acuna's welcome, as did Joanne Smith, president of the Pacific Southwest District of Unitarian Universalist Congregations, who declared, "Let the banner parade begin!" People from across the United States and from the international Unitarian and Universalist communities processed through the audience carrying colorful banners representing their Unitarian Universalist congregation, district, or related group, as Jai Salsa played in the background.

The first banner was that of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Long Beach followed by banners from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska, Honolulu, New Orleans, and Derby Line, Vermont. There were banners from congregations as old as First and Second Church in Boston, gathered in 1630, and as new as the Seward (Alaska) Unitarian Universalists, who joined the UUA this year. Affiliated groups carrying banners included the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus of Diverse and Revolutionary Unitarian Universalist Multicultural Ministries, and the Latina/o Unitarian Universalist Networking Association (LUUNA).

As the mood grew increasingly festive, the bright colors of the banners merged into a sense of the overall vibrancy of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Donna Fisher, the Children's Choir Director of Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, led the audience in the hymn "Des Colores." She introduced the hymn as she noted, "It's the official song of the United Farm Workers, founded right here in California."

Rev. Margot Gross and Rev. John Marsh, co-ministers of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco, spoke on the topic "A Home for Justice." Speaking of same-sex marriage, Gross said, "We have seen justice beginning to honor all families, all committed families," and then quoting Theodore Parker she added: "The universe is bending towards justice."

Marsh told a story of receiving a telephone call this past winter from a couple of women from Utah. They told him they had heard they could get married in San Francisco. The news had just gone out that Gavin Newsome, mayor of San Francisco, had decided to issue legal marriage licenses to same sex couples, but Marsh had not yet heard the news.

He explained to the couple on the telephone that he would be happy to perform a service of union for them, that in fact Rev. Harry Scholefield had performed such services in the San Francisco church as early as 1958. After a moment of humorous and poignant confusion, Marsh realized that same sex marriage was actually going to become legal in his city. With excitement, he realized, "it was real, it was happening," and he arranged to perform a legal marriage for the couple in the city of San Francisco.

On Valentine's Day, 2004, Marsh became, as far as he knows, the first Unitarian Universalist minister to officiate at a legal same sex wedding and then to sign the marriage license duly authorized by a county clerk of the United States. Emotional applause followed Marsh's story.

Gross said that some years ago she decided to refuse to sign marriage licenses until same sex couples could legally marry. She said her stand was supported by her congregation, by Marsh, and by Rev. David Pettee, then a community minister affiliated with the San Francisco church. In addition, Gross said that nearly all the couples at whose marriages she officiated applauded her decision, and many asked her to reflect on the issue of same sex marriage during their wedding services. But with San Francisco issuing legal marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Gross signed a marriage license on February 15 of this year for the first time in seven years.

The Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles returned to the stage to sing "What Matters," a work of music commissioned to memorialize Matthew Shepherd, a sweet and lyrical ballad written by Randi Driscoll. "Here I am standing strong/ and I am free/ and didn't we share the same sunrise," the chorus sang, "so who cares whose arms I'm all wrapped up in,... who cares who I love." The audience responded with a standing ovation.

In an unusual turn of events, Rev. Wayne Arnason, an at-large trustee of the UUA Board of Trustees and the secretary of the UUA, introduced Gini Courter, the acting moderator of the UUA. While the moderator is not usually introduced to the General Assembly during the Opening Ceremony, Courter replaced Diane Olson as moderator in October, 2003, when Olson resigned. Arnason offered thanks and gratitude to Diane Olson for her service to the UUA and observed, "Diane's resignation came at a time of year when our bylaws require the Board to elect a replacement." Arnason noted that Courter was the only person to step forward as candidate and because the election was not contested, the Assembly will wait until Saturday afternoon to place their votes on Courter.

In introducing Courter, Arnason noted that she had recently chaired the UUA Board's Finance Committee, and is known at General Assembly for making her finance reports entertaining and informative. Raised as a United Methodist, Courter left that church at age 14, and then spent 13 years moving in and out of a variety of traditions before become a Unitarian Universalist. "She approaches every task she takes on with integrity and passion," said Arnason, "fueled by a deep love for Unitarian Universalism."

"I will be honored to be at this podium tomorrow morning, with this gavel in my hand," said Courter. "I will continue to take very good care of this office."

Ned White, vice-moderator of the UUA, then welcomed new congregations into the Association. The congregations are located in Santa Clarita Valley, California; Petaluma, California; Seward Alaska; Florence. Oregon; Boulder, Colorado (Open Circle Unitarian Universalists); Ashland, Wisconsin; Findley, Ohio; and Aiken, South Carolina.

"It is always to be good to be among the faithful," said the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the UUA. His appearance was greeted with enthusiastic applause. "It will be a rewarding and even thrilling experience," said Sinkford, to spend time with "almost five thousand Unitarian Universalists." He welcomed the newcomers who were present. He also greeted "old-timers" at General Assembly, telling them that at this General Assembly, much will be the same, but "you will also notice much that is new."

Among the changes, Sinkford noted the addition of covenant groups, intentional small groups for spiritual growth, to the programming of this General Assembly. Sinkford also noted "two major all-assembly worship services," including a Sunday morning service that will be advertised as open to everyone in the Long Beach community. He welcomed the approximately three hundred presidents of local congregations are expected to be present at this General Assembly and encouraged them "to help with a denomination-wide discernment process that will shape the UUA" for the next few years.

In another change, Sinkford noted that awards will be given during plenary sessions this year, instead of at a closed awards banquet, and invited the Rev. Jane Dwinell to step forward to present the Mark Mosher DeWolfe/Interweave Award to seven people "who stuck their necks out on behalf of human rights, the seven Unitarian Universalist plaintiffs in the same sex marriage case (Goodridge vs. Dept. of Public Health) in the state of Massachusetts." An extended standing ovation greeted this announcement.

Dwinell named the seven Unitarian Unviersalists who were a part of the historic case in Massachusetts: Robert Compton, David Wilson, Richard Linnell, Gary Chalmers, Gloria Bailey, Linda Davies, and Hillary Goodridge. Goodridge, the director of the Unitarian Universalist Funding Program, receiving the award for the seven and said, "The other day my marriage certificate arrived in the mail. It looked totally official, and what makes it really special is that it was signed by the Rev William Sinkford." Sinkford, like Rev. Marsh and Gross, refused to sign marriage licenses until same sex marriage was legalized. Goodridge added, "As Mark DeWolfe said, 'the loving community is still being born.' "

Sinkford went on to mention the ongoing fighting in Iraq. Quoting from an open letter that he sent the Iraqi religious leaders he met last May in Amman, Jordan, Sinkford said, "The Unitarian Universalist Association, along with many other religious groups, strongly opposed the invasion of [Iraq]. While we welcome the fall of tyranny, and celebrate it with you, we also lament the current violence that continues to claim so many Iraqi and American lives." Sinkford expressed "particular concern about the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib."

"I am sorry and angry at what happened," said Sinkford still reading from his open letter of last week. "I have condemned the use of torture, and called on our national leadership to respect the human rights of all people. We hope that the June 30th transfer of power will be a new beginning for us all. I am encouraged by the passage of UN Security Council Resolution #1546, which lays out a plan for a sovereign, democratic government in Iraq. I promise that Unitarian Universalists, together with other people of faith and goodwill in the United States, will work to hold our government accountable to the provision of resolution 1546. I will pray and work for a United States that respects human rights and international cooperation."

Sinkford went on to say, "Let us add our prayers for peace in that land to those of millions of others."

Turning back to Unitarian Universalism, Sinkford addressed the relationships between congregations, and the relationship of local congregations to the national association. "The power and the potential of this faith we love lies in our coming together as a community of congregations bound in covenant."

Smiling, Sinkford added, "Believe it or not, some have accused 'Boston' [the national headquarters of the UUA] of forcing programs on the local congregations." Then Sinkford promised a spirit of greater cooperation based on covenant, "to help us fulfill the promise of our polity." He concluded his remarks by saying, "May our time here prove to us that we can imagine a communion as compelling as our autonomy, a gathered 'we' as compelling as our affirmation of 'I'."

Turning Sinkford's vision outward to include a commitment to justice in the local community, Matthew McHale returned to the stage to say, "This week is a weaving together.... May we take that spirit and use it to make a more welcoming world." As Donna Fisher led the final hymn, "We'll Build a Land," with the words, "We'll build a land where we bind up the broken....", the delegates and attendees headed out into the warm California night, and another GA had begun.

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Deborah Weiner.