Sponsor: General Assembly Planning Committee
Speakers: Rev. William Sinkford, Gini Courter
Prepared for UUA.org by Dan Harper, Reporter; Jone Johnson Lewis, Editor.
The 45th annual General Assembly ended with a Closing Ceremony filled with powerful music. Both the General Assembly Adult Choir, with over 200 voices, and the Unitarian Universalist Children's Choir, with over 70 voices.
The Closing Ceremony was preceded by fifteen minutes of gathering music, performed by the Closing General Assembly Musicians, including Susan Peck playing piano, Ric Vice on upright bass, Martin Frye playing drums, Matthew Meyer on djembe and percussion, Jim Scott on guitar, and Wendy Bartel on saxophone. One of the numbers was a jazzy version of the hymn "Gather the Spirit," with Jim Scott, the composer, improvising on the melody on his big nylon-string guitar.
The Children's Choir, directed by Dr. Sandra Snow, associate professor at the School of Music in Michigan State University , sang "At the River" for the prelude. The seventy-plus children, who came from across the United States , were selected to sing in the choir on the basis of audition tapes. They sang with extraordinarily good intonation and articulation. The congregation showed their appreciation with applause.
While Clint Blandford lit the flame of the chalice, the Reverend Dr. Daniel O'Connell told a humorous fantasy story. Blandford is the Chair Elect of the Eliot Unitarian Chapel in Kirkwood , Missouri , and O'Connell is the Lead Minister at the same congregation.
"It is said this week that Satan, the devil, found out that we Unitarian Universalists were meeting in St. Louis," began O'Connell. Satan decided to send one of his minions to corrupt the Unitarian Universalists. One of the minions who volunteered said it would corrupt the Unitarians by saying there is no heaven, but Satan said that wouldn't work because Unitarians know "there is a bit of heaven in every human heart." A second minion said it would tell the Universalists that there is no hell, but Satan said, "The Universalists already have that one down." Then a third minion stepped forward, and said, "I will tell the Unitarian Universalists that there is no hurry!"
"And Satan said, 'Go!'" exclaimed O'Connell, to general laughter from the congregation. "And now let us fire up our commitment, let us fire up our ceremony. Say 'Amen!' somebody!" The congregation responded with a chorus of "Amen!"
The Children's Choir sang a beautiful response, a piece of music titled "Chalice Lighting" with music by Stephen Finner and words by Max Landau Moss. After singing a wordless melody, they sang, "Let each of us be a light for one another."
Meyer stepped forward to speak a few words about how the musicians chose the music for the entire General Assembly. The musicians and music directors chose music from around the world, and tried to present that music in a context where it could be appreciated, and its cultural context could be understood. "Our music is inherently related to problems of systemic power," said Meyer, who is white, "the power inherent in who gets to choose" which music is played or sung. He said that the musicians are committed to anti-racism work, and "invite criticism and conversation" about their choices of, and presentation of, music.
The first hymn, "Then May I Learn," had words and music written by Unitarian Universalist Shelley Jackson Dunham. The Children's Choir and the adult choir sang the first verse together: "When I am frightened, will you reassure me?" The congregation was invited to join in on the second and third verses.
"This week, we have come together in community once again, some 4,300 of us, from some 600 congregations," said the Reverend William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). "If you read the UUA Bylaws, the purpose of General Assembly is to do the business of the Association." Reflecting on what the business of the Association involves, Sinkford said that business includes not just the business that takes place in the Plenary sessions. But in addition, because Unitarian Universalism is a relational faith, Sinkford asserted that part of the business of the Association is to tend the relationships of individuals in congregations, and the relationships between congregations.
"Right relationship is about a bedrock respect for others, and at the same a bedrock respect for the community," said Sinkford. "Safety is an issue in creating and sustaining right relationship. As is forgiveness." In closing, Sinkford quoted Mahatma Gandhi, saying, "We strive to become the change we want to see."
The first choral offering was "Canticle of Brother Sun” from the Missa Gaia by Jim Scott and Paul Winter. Under the direction of Mimi Bornstein, the music director of First Universalist Church in Rockland , Maine , the adult choir sounded strong, beautiful, and powerful.
"I have been so refreshed being surrounded by you all," said the Reverend Meg Barnhouse, offering the first in a set of three reflections. "I have seen the spirit move for me in interactions among us all. Just look around you. We are all so dear—and just the tiniest bit irritating." The congregation responded to this remark with raucous laughter. "I have seen the divine this week as I have watched you and myself move into feelings of discomfort as we go to worship services, and to workshops, that are not done the way we would do it—and it's worse when they do it better than we do." More laughter came from the congregation.
"It's a soulful discipline to allow yourself to be present when you're not in control," she said. "I hope we are able to speak our truth with passion and clarity and without arrogance and without the least trace of self-righteousness."
The adult choir sang a setting of text by Wendell Berry that appears as #483 in the hymnal Singing the Living Tradition , "I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water...." The music held everyone rapt, leaving the congregation in a still and calm mood.
Tamara Payne-Alex offered the second reflection on General Assembly. "I was born and raised a Unitarian Universalist," she said. "Each year, General Assembly is a homecoming, a celebration of what it is to be offered hope and love." But, she continued, "as a person of color I have felt my smile grow brittle when it covered hurt" at past General Assemblies.
"This General Assembly has been different," she said. "It has been like a summer blueberry plucked warm from the bush," filling one's mouth with its complex bittersweet flavor. "Perhaps it was the acknowledgment" during the opening celebration that local Native Americans "have better things to do" than offer greetings to General Assembly. "Perhaps it was the heart-piercing images from the Gulf Coast ... perhaps it was having our youth offer not only energy, but truths" about racism within Unitarian Universalism.
"The bittersweet taste has felt full and real, and full of promise," she said. "As a child of this faith movement, I was taught that our Unitarian Universalist faith held not the promise of perfection, but the promise of possibility."
"Bittersweet and tender and raw and precious and full of promise and hope, we have spent these days together in a kaleidoscope of sensation. May we pause to savor the fullness of promise." Payne-Alex's words so affected the congregation, they sat in utter silence, letting her words sink in.
Bornstein then conducted another stunning piece of music, the song "Hope" with words and music by Unitarian Universalist composer Ysaye Maria Barnwell. "If we want hope to survive in this world today, then every day we've got to pray on," sang soloist Sarah Dan Jones in a minor key. Meyer added percussion, and the low voices of the choir joined in. The music kept building to a climax, with the high voices in the choir joining in, and all the musicians adding percussion. The volume built, raising the energy of the worship service, but it was a serious energy.
The Reverend Ken Sawyer offered the third reflection of the evening. He reflected on how everything that happened at General Assembly this year had a religious undercurrent. Not just worship services, but business meetings and workshops were religious. "Even the breaks are religious," he said, "the chance encounter, the coffee or day trips shared with new friends or old ones."
Gini Courter, Moderator of the UUA, joined Sinkford to say a few last words. They reviewed all the different activities and events that had gone on, and they pointed out what people might be taking back to their home congregations: a renewed sense of energy, a deepened sense of commitment, new learnings and new ideas, new connections.
The choir sang a powerful gospel number, "Total Praise," with soloists Jen Hazel and Lia McCoo. The relaxed gospel feel at the beginning culminated in a loud climax, and the congregation exploded in applause.
The Reverend Krista Taves gave the benediction. "Our time together has ended and the harvest is at hand," she said. "As we scatter back to the places where we have come from, may these seeds be planted and nurtured."
The postlude was a stunning climax to the Closing Celebration, and indeed to the entire General Assembly. Bornstein conducted the combined adult and children's choirs in the traditional Senegalese song "Kaki Lambe." As the children's choir did a simple dance step, the adult choir began singing this powerful song. Then the children's choir picked up the melody and responded to the adult choir. The band accompanied them with percussion and the bass only.
Just when it seemed that the choirs had gone as far as they could, Bornstein got them to put even more of their hearts into the music, and the total effect was electrifying. The emotional tension built, bringing members of the congregation to their feet. The music quieted down to the ending, and as soon as it ended, the congregation broke into riotous applause and cheers, with people waving their hands in the air. Bornstein was called back to the podium to take a second bow as the congregation gave her a standing ovation. It was an unbelievably powerful end to the 2007 General Assembly.