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

Plenary IV, General Assembly 2008

General Assembly 2008 Event 4004

Gini Courter, Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), called the fourth plenary session of the 47th General Assembly (GA) to order at 8:36 a.m. at the Broward County Convention Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. She called Rev. Kenn Hurto, District Executive of the Florida District, to the podium to light the chalice.

UUA Board Report

Courter proceeded to the day's business, and asked delegates to welcome the Association's four Trustees-at-Large to provide an update from the Board.

Charlie King told the assembly that the at-large trustees are elected by the General Assembly and report back to the body each year on the work of the UUA Board. The minutes of the Board's meetings are posted on the UUA website. The Board is currently engaged in developing an 'Ends' statement, with input from congregational delegates at last year's 'Open Space' process and the 'Appreciative Inquiry' process being used this year. They hope to draft an Ends statement this October.

Rev. Jose Ballester spoke of the goal of 'Excellence in Ministry,' a concept broader than that which refers to an excellent minister. There is a conversation about excellence in ministry happening in many circles, he said, and the Panel on Theological Education is hosing a conference in December to explore how we can strengthen our ministry. Ballester said this discussion must include a "deep and full discussion on how we minister to youth and young adults," and it must look not only at how we meet the present needs of our own congregations, but also how it prepares us for the world of tomorrow.

Charlie Burke, the Youth Trustee at Large, said the Association must be "flexible and forward thinking" to engage those who are coming of age. Leaders must have a clear and compelling vision and the willingness and courage to prioritize. Burke said good governance is a "vehicle to help us achieve these goals." The Board is looking at its policies and role as distinguished from the role of the staff.

Tamara Payne-Alex said that because of the work on policy-based governance, the Board is finding "the discipline and the time" to tackle some big topics, such as the Association's election process for its top officers, and how we can make that process better serve our movement. She said, "We will be creating means to listen to you at GA and in our districts on this and other issues."

Courter then introduced Pat Solomon, chair of the Committee on Committees of the board, which recruits the members of those bodies. She noted that about forty people have completed service on board committees this year, and delegates watched on large screens as the names and photos of these retiring committee members were shown. Solomon also asked any committee members in the audience to stand to be recognized.

Distinguished Service Award

Courter then called on Roger Comstock, Chair of the Committee for the Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, to introduce the award which will be given to this year's recipient. Comstock explained that the award is the most prestigious one given by the UUA, and he asked UUA President William Sinkford to make the presentation.

Sinkford said, "I am very pleased to announce that the recipient of the 2008 Annual Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism is the Reverend Dr. Forrest Church." Sinkford outlined the history of Church's long service to our religious tradition. Church had first thought to become a religious scholar, but was called by the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York, which then was a mid-sized church, often with fewer than a hundred people attending services. Sinkford said, "It is now not uncommon for more than a thousand people to attend Sunday worship at All Souls."

Church has written more than two dozen books, including his most recent, Love and Death: My Journey Through the Valley of the Shadow, which he wrote in only two weeks after he received the diagnosis of a terminal illness. He has been interviewed by Bill Moyers, has written many op-ed columns, and was a regular columnist for The Chicago Tribune and The New York Post. He has provided leadership in several ways to the UUA and for both Starr King School for the Ministry and Harvard Divinity School. Sinkford said Church is a "contemporary version of 19th-century ministers such as Channing and Parker… All of this has been made possible by his great spirit."

After Sinkford's comments Church took the podium. In his acceptance remarks he admitted that he is proud of the award, and he doesn't "feel particularly sinful for being so." Church made the distinction between pride that brings people together, such as Black pride and Gay pride, as different from the pride that divides us. Sinful pride "lifts ourselves above others, almost certainly on insufficient grounds," he said, and by doing so it makes us "serve as agents of divisiveness." This award brings us together, and "far from being a sin, it is cause for celebration… It sets its recipient not apart from, but as a part of, the great Unitarian Universalist tradition." He then thanked the "thousands and thousands of teachers" he has had, including many in the audience. Church received a long standing ovation both before and after his remarks, with the applause afterward extending for several minutes.

Following the presentation, GA Music Coordinator Sarah Dan Jones led the gathering in song #1009 from Singing the Journey, Meditation on Breathing. The gentle chant, which Jones composed following the September 11th (2001) tragedies, offered sweet and calming harmonies to center the assembly for its ongoing work.

Gini Courter then asked President Sinkford to introduce international guests at the assembly: leaders of Unitarian faith communities from the Philippines, India, Transylvania, the United Kingdom, and Canada, and the international lay Buddhists of the UUA's partner religious organization in Japan, the Rissho Kosei-kai. The assembly gave the guests a warm round of applause.

Sinkford then welcomed the UUA's Executive Vice President, Kay Montgomery, to the podium. He praised her long and steady service (she has just celebrated her 25 th year on the staff of the Association), praise that was seconded by the assembly with a standing ovation. The applause turned into laughter as Montgomery took the microphone and said, "Next year I get to tell you what I think of Bill Sinkford!"

Montgomery then introduced Tim Brennan, Chief Financial Officer of the UUA. Brennan told the assembly that one of the key ways we act together is through the Annual Program Fund (APF), to which yearly per-member congregational contributions are made by each member congregation in the Association. Brennan said, "We are on track to reach our APF goal for this year, and have done so with an astonishingly low cost of two and a half cents per dollar contributed!"

Brennan told delegates that another way we act together is through the UU Common Endowment Fund. (UUCEF). He was pleased to report that in spite of the poor financial markets of recent months, the UUCEF is up 0.9 percent after fees, though the Standard and Poor's 500 Index is down by 5.1 percent.

He also reported, "This year the UUA filed resolutions with twelve companies (in which we have investments) on global warming, non-discrimination on sexual orientation and gender identity, excessive executive compensation, and sub-standard corporate governance." He gave some examples of how these resolutions have made a difference to the policies of some of the companies, especially on the subject of climate change.

Montgomery then returned to the podium to acknowledge the work of the UUA staff. She added her particular thanks to Jesse Jaeger, the departing Youth Programs director, and Nancy Lawrence, her assistant. She said, "We have about 220 staff members. They live all over the country. Their careers are all about helping your congregations and spreading the voice and values of Unitarian Universalism." The assembly responded with warm applause for the staff, about one-third of whom were present in Fort Lauderdale.

Montgomery also spoke about UUs who are not members of any of our congregations. She told a story about one such person. " Ted Sorensen, speechwriter for President Kennedy, was on the Tim Russert show a few weeks ago," Montgomery said. "Russert said that the Kennedy line he remembered most was, 'Let us go forth asking his blessing and his help, but knowing that here on earth, God's work must truly be our own.' Sorensen smiled knowingly and said, 'I hate to tell you this Tim, and I hope Cardinal Cushing, if he's looking down, will forgive me, but that tends to be good Unitarian doctrine.'" Montgomery said, "Ted Sorensen identifies as a Unitarian Universalist (or at least as a Unitarian) but, to the best of my knowledge, he's not a member of one of our congregations. In that, he's joined by well over half a million other people who apparently know perfectly well that they're UUs but just don't go to church!" She said that she hoped that, in the coming years, this reality would shift as more joined our congregations.

As Montgomery's remarks concluded, the Moderator then introduced Helene Atwan, Director of Beacon Press, who gave an update on the state of the Association's publishing house. Atwan showed slides that displayed the covers of many of the new titles from Beacon Press, covering such subjects as the perils to our water supply, the "food gap," genetic engineering of seeds, the legacy of slavery, LGBT issues, separation of church and state, the Supreme Court, and economic justice, student loans, the Middle East, and many other topics and themes. She said that books that focus on some new topics, such as science and society and American history from alternative perspectives, are being planned for future publications.

O. Eugene Pickett Award

Rev. Dr. Tracey Robinson-Harris came to the podium to present the O. Eugene Pickett Award, which is " given annually to the congregation that has made an outstanding contribution to the growth of Unitarian Universalism." This year's recipient is the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church of Portland, Maine. Robinson-Harris noted that this congregation "advertised on the local affiliate of Air America Radio and received a much greater influx of new visitors than they had expected. Within two years the average Sunday attendance went from about 100 to over 250, and the Religious Education program grew even more." In five years, she said, the congregation went from questioning whether they even wanted to grow to wondering whether they could create space fast enough to accommodate existing growth.

Breakthrough Congregation

The assembly was then treated to the video from the third "Breakthrough Congregation," Bull Run Unitarian Universalists (BRUU). Several members, of all ages, offered testimonials about why they felt at home at BRUU. Many slides and clips drew chuckles from the assembly, especially one in which a couple said enthusiastically that attending BRUU was like watching a soap opera: "You keep coming back every week because you want to see what's going to happen next!" Other images showed that the congregation is family oriented and truly welcoming.

After the video, Courter called Scott McNeill, chair of the Right Relations Team, to give his daily report. McNeill asked GA attendees to be careful of using clichès, such as "falling on deaf ears," and to be careful of the assumptions we make in the use of our language.

Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee Report

Courter then called on Rev. Jose Ballester to introduce the members of the Journey Toward Wholeness Transformation Committee (JTWTC). Part of the committee's report was given via DVD from Carolyn Cartland, outgoing co-chair of the committee, who thanked the Association for making accommodations for her significant mobility impairment. Cartland told the delegates that the committee's charge is to monitor and assess the transformation of the UUA into "an authentic anti-oppressive, anti-racist, and multi-cultural association of congregations." During the past year, she said that they continued their work to assess the ministerial preparation process as it relates to the charge of the JTWTC, focusing on the cultural competence of members of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee and its regional subcommittees to assess the cultural competence of aspirants and candidates to the ministry. Cartland added, "This past year we officially added ableism and disability concerns to those issues we assess and monitor."

Ballester spoke of the next area of focus for the JTWTC, the process of leadership development within the UUA. He said, "We realize that with a limited pool of people to draw from, many leaders from traditionally marginalized communities find themselves stretched thin by over-commitment and frustrated by the expectation that they represent all the views and can be the experts for their respective communities." The committee will therefore take two years to assess this subject.

Unitarian Universalist Service Committee

Courter, in introducing the next report, told the assembled delegates that the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) is one of three organizations with the "special status of being designated as an Associate Member organization as noted in the UUA Bylaws and Rules." She called upon Dr. Charlie Clements, President of the UUSC, to give a report on the activities of the group. Clements began his remarks by mentioning the April 4 remembrance of the 40 th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. with a Justice Sunday event called 'The Cost of the Iraq War: Who Pays the Price?' He reminded people that it was when King connected what was happening at home with what was happening in Vietnam that many of his longstanding supporters suddenly turned on him. Clements said, "What he warned us about then is happening again now, as voluntary military service has become a de facto economic draft …" He told of the UUSC's work with some of their program partners to bring the war to a close.

Clements also spoke of the efforts of the UUSC and its partners in South Africa to help win poor black neighborhoods the right to 50 liters of water a day per person, the amount the World Health Organization (WHO) says is needed for human dignity. Another victory was won with UUSC partners in Mexico, he said, when garment workers in the Tehuacan Valley voted to join an independent union, in spite of the "goons (who) stood outside the factory with baseball bats to make sure the workers understood the stakes."

The four program areas of the UUSC are economic justice, environmental justice, civil liberties, and rights in (natural and man-made) humanitarian crises. Clements described the service committee's recent efforts in Kenya during the post-election violence and in Myanmar, where, because of established relationships with partner organizations, they were able to channel aid within days of the recent cyclone. The UUSC's efforts in New Orleans are continuing as well, and Clements encouraged delegates to volunteer this summer and fall in New Orleans and to be generous in the upcoming collection which the Assembly would take to continue support of the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Volunteer Program.

In closing, he took a moment to talk about the history of the symbol of the flaming chalice and the UUSC's new logo. "Most of you know that the flaming chalice was first seen in April 1941 in the internment camps in France as the symbol of the Unitarian Service Committee. It was designed by a Jewish refugee, Hans Deutsch, and commissioned by the Reverend Charles Joy, who believed the refugees we served in the midst of Nazi and Vichy informers needed a signal that they were in safe hands." He explained that the new logo retains the chalice, but now it is framed by joined, open hands, "universal symbols of welcome and fellowship."

The GA volunteer tellers then became "church service ushers" for a while, passing baskets up and down the rows to collect donations from delegates to help the Gulf Coast volunteer center and the three UU congregations in New Orleans. Music, provided by GA keyboardist Annease Hastings, accompanied the collection.

Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation

Courter then introduced Linda Lu Burciaga to give the report from another Associate Member organization, the Unitarian Universalist Women's Federation (UUWF), of which she is the president. Burciaga asked delegates to raise their hands if they were members of the UUWF. A few lifted hands were scattered throughout the hall.

The big screens in the Plenary Hall showed images of the activities of the Federation while Burciaga told them about their work to advance equity and justice for women and girls. The UUWF Grants Program helps women who are incarcerated, recent immigrants, victims of domestic violence, and women in the Philippines, Central and South America, and Zambia. The UUWF's Margaret Fuller Grants Program funds projects exploring "theological issues of concern to UU women." Grants have been used to develop the curriculum Unravelling the Gender Knot; a compendia of May Sarton's works; rituals for women with breast cancer; and Sources: A Unitarian Universalist Cantata, performed during this GA's Opening Ceremony.

Burciaga thanked the Veatch Program of the UU Congregation at Shelter Rock for a grant to develop "UUWF in a Box," a practical, portable kit for volunteers to use at congregational, district, and other regional meetings to educate people about the work of the Federation. She mentioned that the UUWF is a founding and currently active member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice and a co-sponsor of the international Convocation of UU Women which will take place in February in Houston. Burciaga closed by thanking the UUWF's volunteers and said, " I'll see you all next year in Salt Lake City, and I'm warning you in advance: I'm going to ask for another show of hands from members. And I fully expect to see many, many more of them raised!"

General Assembly Service Project

Courter told the assembly about when, " In 1996, Carol Glass, a member of our congregation in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, asked "When we leave General Assembly, couldn't we also leave the community a slightly better place for our having been there?" The Planning Committee agreed, and supported the Empty Bowls project. Courter said, "And we have done a service project every year since." This year, Courter said, "We are working with Hispanic Unity of Florida." Courter introduced the organization's President, Josie Bacallao, who spoke about the work the organization does. For 26 years, they have been primarily serving new immigrants to empower them to become productive and self-sufficient, helping all members of a client family. They have 50 employees, carry out 23 programs, and served 22,000 people last year. They are affiliated with the National Council of La Raza. A three minute video showed interviews with some of the organization's clients, whose lives have clearly been transformed with the help of Hispanic Unity, now the largest human services agency in Broward County.

Breakthrough Congregation

The fourth and last breakthrough congregation to be honored at this GA was Unity Temple Unitarian Universalist. This congregation has grown from 250 to 500 members and its budget has grown from $144,000 to $740,000 in the last ten years. The excellently-produced video about the church showed some of the many reasons why.

Recognition of Green Sanctuaries

Rev. Katherine Jesch, Director of Environmental Ministry for the UU Ministry for Earth (UUME), Barbara Ford, Chair of UUME and Rev. Bill Sinkford, UUA President were called to the podium to share news about the future of the Green Sanctuary program with delegates.

Jesch spoke first and told the assembly about the fourteen congregations who have completed all the requirements to become Green Sanctuaries this year. This brings the number of congregations so recognized since 2002 to seventy-three. The Green Sanctuary program is a designation awarded by the UUME after a congregation has worked "…usually for a couple of years, to carry out a dozen or more activities that will transform their personal and congregational lives..." Jesch continued, "By seeking formal recognition as a Green Sanctuary, these congregations make a commitment to continuing their efforts in the future, recognizing that the job is not done yet! Ultimately, impact on the Earth will become a bottom line question for every decision they make, and every action they take." She asked the assembly to hold their applause until the leaders of all fourteen congregations had received their award.

Ford then told delegates about how the Ministry for Earth began. She quoted Margaret Meade's famous line, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only thing that ever has." She said that a small group of dedicated UUs is proving Meade's point. Ford confessed, "Frankly, with all the many social justice issues needing attention, there wasn't much support at first." The group's perseverance in developing the Green Sanctuary certification program and, one congregation at a time, enlisting small groups in congregations around to country, has changed the way the UUA does business.

Sinkford expressed his happiness and that of the association staff to take on the responsibility for administering the Green Sanctuary program. He noted that the program has "developed such tremendous 'traction,' with almost 100 congregations in (the) process" of becoming Green Sanctuaries. He offered deep and abiding thanks to Ford and her committee, saying "Ministry for Earth has been carrying the water for all of us on issues of environmentalism for many years…your success is a gift to this faith community. But we both know that we've only started."

Courter asked the hall to welcome John Hubert, Director of Music for First Universalist Church of Denver, whom Courter introduced as next year's GA Music Coordinator. Hubert said that he and Sarah Dan Jones had selected the song Rising Green, #1068 in Singing the Journey, in recognition of the Green Sanctuary movement. The composer is Carolyn McDade, who wrote Spirit of Life, a long time favorite in many UU congregations.

Congregational Study Action Issue Process

Following the song break, the Moderator called on Rev. Jan Carlsson-Bull to describe the Congregational Study Action Issue (CSAI) process, and the mood in the hall shifted from one of appreciation and connection to anticipation. Carlsson-Bull outlined the CSAI process for the delegates, saying that a CSAI "merits two full years of study and action before we begin to distill our experience into a draft Statement of Conscience (SOC)." This assembly will select one of two issues to refer to the congregations to begin that process. The resulting SOC will be voted on by the delegates to the General Assembly of 2011, three GAs from now. Workshops and mini assemblies will be organized for the next several GAs on the selected issue. The year after the adoption of an SOC is a fifth year, an additional year for implementation and follow-up.

The Commission on Social Witness (CSW) is the UUA committee elected at General Assembly that does the planning of all stages of this process. Carlsson-Bull explained that the commission makes the decisions in their selection of the proposals brought to the assembly based upon how well the issue is grounded in our traditions and values, whether it fits our congregations' resources and ability to take meaningful action, and other measures of its suitability for the four year process. Our current CSAI is Peacemaking, chosen at the 2006 GA in St. Louis. It is the subject of a workshop at this assembly, as it was at GA 2007. Inputs from these workshops will inform the CSW in its initial draft of a Statement of Conscience on the issue to be presented to General Assembly 2009 in Salt Lake City.

After Carlsson-Bull's final statement, "Now it is time—our time—to listen hard and choose well," Courter officially began the 2008 CSAI selection process by saying "Pursuant to Rule 11 of the Rules of Procedure, 'the sponsor of the issue will have two minutes to speak in favor of the issue.' " She asked that a member of the CSW introduce the sponsors of the two proposed CSAIs.

The proposed CSAIs were Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice, and Nuclear Disarmament. Rev. Robert Murphy, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Falmouth, Massachusetts, sponsored the first of the two proposals; Dr. John Seeley, past President of the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, Michigan, sponsored the second. Each spoke for two minutes and moved that their proposal be adopted as the 2008 CSAI

Courter called for up to four additional statements of support for each issue, and asked supporters of the Ethical Eating and Nuclear Disarmament statements to move to different microphones.

Delegates who spoke in favor of the proposal on Ethical Eating emphasized the connection between the images of starving people around the world and the fact that most of them are people of color. One said, "This is the essence of a racist, capitalist system, Millions die from starvation each year because it's not profitable to feed them." Another recognized that this is a divisive issue in congregations, including his own, and expressed the hope that by studying the issue it would "help us grow in compassion to ourselves, the environment, animals, and the marginalized." One predicted that if this issue is chosen, "participation in our congregation will set record levels," since, the speaker pointed out, "everyone has to eat." Yet another speaker made the connection between our food choices and support of local farmers: "Too many have gone out of business because of changes to the market for food. There is a lack of knowledge and information and truth, so that we are not able to have the options, let alone care, of those who are really hurting on the economic scale.

The delegates who spoke in favor of the proposal on Nuclear Disarmament told the delegates that "Three times in the past seven years the administration and the state department have proposed new nuclear weapons… the issues connected with the nuclear danger are soluble. However they will not solve themselves. They require serious and sustainable attention." Another made the point that "Our problem is that our country has not yet kept its word and pledge to other countries. The whole point of the nuclear proliferation treaty was to end nuclear weapons." Another speaker expressed the opinion that "This administration is backsliding on these commitments and we must speak out. We are in a fix," the speaker said, and quoting Molly Ivins' piece of practical advice concluded, "When you are in a hole, stop digging." The strong sentiment of the speakers was that we need to make a sustained effort to help stop nuclear proliferation.

In response to a delegate at the procedural microphone, Courter agreed to have "neither issue" as a choice in the voting. The importance of attending mini-assemblies was reiterated by Courter, who had made clear in the first Plenary of this Assembly that, in accordance with Rule 5, it is only at the mini-assemblies that amendments can be proposed. Courter then asked for a show of voting cards for those who wanted to refer the issue on Ethical Eating to the congregations, then those in favor of referring Nuclear Disarmament, and then those who wanted to send neither proposal on. A very few voted for this last option; a respectable minority voted for Nuclear Disarmament, but a significant majority raised their cards in support of referring Ethical Eating: Food and Environmental Justice to begin the study action process.

Admitting Actions of Immediate Witness to the Agenda

Courter asked Rob Keithan, Director of the UUA's Washington Office for Advocacy, to describe to the delegates how the Association uses Actions of Immediate Witness (AIWs). Courter explained that the votes to be held today were simply on whether or not to admit each of the six AIWs to the agenda of the last two plenary sessions to be held the next day. The proposed AIWs put before the delegate body were on wide-ranging topics, including single-payer health care; opposition to waging war on Iran; ending present day slavery in the fields; raising the federal minimum wage; renewal of tax credits for solar energy home improvements; and opposition to the ballot initiatives in several states to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

All six proposed AIWs were voted onto the final agenda. Courter invited anyone interested in discussing the AIW proposals to come to the mini-assemblies to be held that afternoon, and reminded them that the mini-assemblies are the only place where amendments can be proposed.

Reported by Pat Emery; edited by Deborah Weiner.