Plenary I, General Assembly 2006
General Assembly 2006 Event 1030
Sponsor: General Assembly Planning Committee
On Wednesday evening, June 21, thousands of people of all ages and many different ethnicities, from across the United States and abroad, streamed into Hall 3 of the America's Center in St. Louis, MO, for the opening celebration of the 45th annual General Assembly (GA) of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Fifteen minutes before the opening celebration was scheduled to begin, the Jazz Edge Orchestra of St. Louis began playing jazz standards. Thomas Moore led the big band in jazz standards like "Sweet Georgia Brown" and "It Had To Be You." The well-disciplined band had a few people up and dancing in the aisles before eight o'clock.
Promptly at 8:00 p.m., Patsy Sherrill Madden, the district coordinator for this year's GA Planning Committee, began the opening celebration. "Greetings and welcome to my home, St. Louis, Missouri," she said in her soft Missouri accent. "Now smile, and smile again! We are proud to welcome you here and hope you have a fabulous time.... Consider yourself family." She introduced her city, noting that it is home to the oldest Unitarian Universalist congregation west of the Mississippi River. She also noted that early Unitarian Universalists were instrumental in founding such civic and cultural institutions in the city as Washington University.
The Rev. Emily Gage, president of the Central Midwest District which includes St. Louis, talked a little about the famous Unitarian Universalists from this region, including people like Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect; Olympia Brown, one of the earliest women ordained as a minister in the United States; and William Greenleaf Eliot, the founder of Washington University. She talked about the importance of Unitarian Universalist congregations in people's lives today, saying, "I see over and over again the incredible joy and relief that people feel when they find our church[es] and know that they are home."
Orvin Kimbrough, executive director of the St. Louis Interfaith Partnership, brought greetings from that organization, saying, "Our universal mandate is to love one another."
Dr. James McLeod, Vice Chancellor and Dean of Washington University, brought greetings from the university. "I'm here today because Dr. [William Greenleaf] Eliot was one of the founders of Washington University," he said. "We're proud of our tradition and our roots with you [Unitarian Universalists]."
The Rev. Suzanne Meyer explained her interpretation of the symbolism of the flaming chalice, which has become the most widespread symbol of Unitarian Universalism. As Patsy Sherrill Madden lit the flame, Meyer added, "During our time together may we create a model a true community of freedom, reason, equality, and compassion."
Welcoming the gathered congregation on behalf of the GA Planning Committee, the Rev. Dr. Walt gave a historical overview of the various peoples who have lived in the region around the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, from the Clovis peoples of 12,000 years ago to the most recent immigrants to the area in the 21st century. Dr. Leon Burke III read Langston Hughes's poem "I've Known Rivers." Burke then led the congregation in singing the hymn "Shall We Gather at the River?" from the new hymnal supplement which was introduced at last year's GA.
"A standing tradition of the Opening Celebration is the Banner Parade," Dr. Burke continued. He was interrupted by cheers and applause, and it was clear that the parade would be the highlight of the evening for many present. "The Banner Parade, where representatives of the congregations present march with their banners," continued Dr. Burke. "Let the parade begin!"
Most of the crowd got to their feet as the Jazz Edge Orchestra broke into a funky uptempo version of " Soul Man. " Soon the banner parade reached the front of the hall, with banners carried by or accompanied by people of all ages, from babes in arms to elders. Banners came from as far away as Fairbanks, Alaska, and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. Banners represented congregations as old as First Parish in Wayland, Massachusetts, founded in 1640, and as new as Open Circle Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, newly accepted as an affiliated congregation at this General Assembly.
Many of the banners were beautiful, and exquisitely made, like the quilted depiction of a mountain sunset that made up the banner of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of the Eastern Slopes from the White Mountains of New Hampshire. One banner got an appreciative laugh. The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ellsworth, Maine, sewed a message onto their banner saying "Interim Needed!" referring to the shortage of interim ministers this year.
Whether by design or by accident, the Jazz Edge Orchestra struck up with "When the Saints Go Marching In" just as the banner of First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans got to the front of the hall. Cheers greeted this banner, recognizing the struggles of the church and the city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and those carrying the banner greeted this expression of support with big smiles.
When the Banner Parade ended, Dr. Linda Friedman, chair of the GA Planning Committee, explained that, contrary to custom, there would be no greetings from local Native Americans at this General Assembly. The Osage people were native to this area, but were driven to Oklahoma in the 19th century. When approached by someone with ties to their tribe, they responded firmly, "Why should we drive four hours to come to St. Louis to speak to your Assembly for two minutes so you all can feel better about yourselves? We have our own issues in our own communities that we need to deal with. We are not going to carry your water for you. This is your work, and you need to do it."
"As Unitarian Universalists, we seek the truth," said Friedman. "Here is the truth we found in this year's seeking.... Today, Native Americans suffer high rates of poverty, poor educational achievement, substandard housing, and high rates of disease and illness."
The Rev. Burton D. Carley spoke on "The Spirit of This Faith," saying, "Keeping right relationships in our institutions and with each other takes on added significance because of the peculiar spirit of our faith. It bears all the weight of who we are as a people gathered in covenant." He laid out what constitutes right relationships, emphasizing the importance of covenants grounded in love and trust.
Carley then led the congregation is saying together a familar covenant written by James Vila Blake: "Love is the spirit of this faith, and service is its law. This is our great covenant: to dwell together in peace, to seek the truth in love, and to help one another."
Gini Courter, moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, and the Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Association, addressed the theme of right relationships, directly addressing an incident of racial tension that occured at the end of last year's GA. "Last year, at the Fort Worth GA," said Sinkford, "we fell short of our vision" of being a beloved community characterized by right relationships. Most of those in attendance were not aware, but part of our community, youth and young adults of color, left Fort Worth wondering if Unitarian Universalism wanted their presence." He noted that a report of the incident has been posted on the Association's website.
"This year, we wanted to begin early on by pointing to our vision of the beloved community and some of the many ways that we have work to do to make it real," added Courter. She then introduced a number of Unitarian Universalists to speak about struggles they have had "in feeling fully a part of this community, which is their religious home."
Sean Capaloff-Jones spoke of his struggles as a "youth leader of color" who kept getting asked to fill leadership roles. "I accepted these opportunities for leadership out of a sense of duty mixed with honor at being asked," said Capaloff-Jones, but eventually he become "burned out, discouraged, crushed, and pessimistic," and his personal spiritual life suffered.
Carolyn Cartland, speaking from her wheelchair because the lectern was too high, said, "I represent Unitarian Universalist values but Unitarian Universalism does not always represent me. Not when members of my community of people with disabilities cannot always participate in all aspects of congregational life."
The Rev. Josh Pawalek, then Tamara Lebek with Jill Webb, also spoke of their personal experiences.
Courter thanked these people for their stories, saying "We have work to do to build the beloved community, to build this faith." Noting that "we will fall short," Sinkford pointed out the importance of forgiveness.
Courter and Sinkford's presentation was more serious than the usual Opening Celebration, but the gathered congregation was attentive and seemed appreciative of their straightforward talk. Courter and Sinkford concluded by saying in unison, "We are Unitarian Universalists and we are in this together."
After the congregation sang the classic hymn, "Here We Have Gathered," Courter stepped forward and called to order the first session of the Plenary session, the business meeting of the General Assembly.
After the first Plenary session ended, Courter turned over the microphone to Sinkford, who gave the benediction to end the Opening Celebration. "May our coming together be a blessing: a blessing to us, a blessing to our congregations, and a blessing to the world," he said.
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.