Closing Celebration, General Assembly 2008
General Assembly 2008 Event 5029
"Come, come, my community of faith," said Scott McNeil, convener of the Right Relationship Team for this General Assembly. "Come in person or remote, come to this place of worship. We gather one last time in worship before heading back to our homes, to our friends and family, and to our congregations."
As Garner Takahashi-Morris lit the flame of the chalice, McNeil continued, "Now, we call upon the spirit and we use the kindling of our own hearts and minds. The spirit does not need [government-issued] I.D. to enter this place. We light this chalice, and as we see this flame, we recall the past which brought us here... and the fire of the future which calls us home. Come, let us worship."
The 96-member General Assembly Choir gave a choral response to the lighting of the chalice, singing a flowing lyrical song by Sufi composer William Allaudin Mathieu.
"We gathered five days ago, some 3000 strong," said Rev. William Sinkford, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). Sinkford said that each person who attends General Assembly has a unique experience, yet at the same time everyone shares in a common experience as well. Eventually, a common narrative of General Assembly emerges.
"What will we say about the 42nd General Assembly?" Sinkford asked. "Will we say that the worship life here nourished our spirits?" Members of the audience replied, saying, "Yes!"
"Will we say that we missed those who were unable to attend," he asked, either because their conscience or their immigration status did not allow them to attend a gathering held behind a security perimeter. Again, members of the congregation replied, "Yes!"
"Will we say that our youth and young adults contribute so much to our faith?" Sinkford asked. The congregation replied with cheers, and cries of "Yes!"
He asked the congregation if they will say that they learned more about their faith, learned new songs and hymns to take home to their congregation, and the congregation replied that they would. "Will we say that our public witness brought new partners together?" he asked. The congregation replied with cheers. "Yes!"
"It is in these various stories, it is out of them that the story of this General Assembly will be told," said Sinkford. "Such is the nature of religious community: it is always a building." He concluded his remarks by saying, "May the story of this General Assembly be one of deepened commitment to and affection for this faith."
" 'General Assemblies shall make overall policy for carrying out the purposes of the Association and shall direct and control its affairs'," said Gini Courter, moderator of the UUA, reading from Section C4.2 of the UUA bylaws. She asserted that General Assembly is a crucial component of Unitarian Universalist polity. She said, according to historian of religion Conrat Wright, Unitarian Universalist polity "is not a matter of casual social arrangement, but goes to the very heart of our theology."
"We have chosen congregational polity over all other possible polities," Courter said. Congregational polity "requires that we meet, that we assemble." To not have General Assembly would be to risk slipping into a hierarchical type of polity. "Our congregational polity must be exercised or it will die," she asserted. "As we heard in the Ware lecture, we must learn how to govern. I suggest that this is a fine place to practice."
Given that, Courter said that delegates and others attending General Assembly must do one more thing once they return back home: "We must take the decisions we make here... back to our congregations for discussion and affirmation." She exhorted the congregation, "Take this General Assembly home, but most especially take home the decisions we have made here in Plenary... take them home, it is our theology."
After a choral anthem, Sinkford and Courter presented a homily in dialogue titled, "Into the World and Back to Our Congregations."
Sinkford began by noting that the first General Assembly he attended was in 1966, in Hollywood, Florida, just south of Fort Lauderdale. Sinkford attended that General Assembly as the president of Liberal Religious Youth, then the Unitarian Universalist youth organization. "The language of 'youth empowerment' had just come into vogue," Sinkford said, and the General Assembly struggled with how to minister effectively with young people, just as the current General Assembly has struggled. Sinkford noted that in 1966, "Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered the Ware lecture and warned us not to sleep through the revolution," which sounded not unlike Van Jones's words in this year's Ware lecture. "It's amazing how some things come around again," he said.
Courter said the first General Assembly she attended was in 1985. "I was an active lay person, and a full-time college student," she said. She expected that General Assembly to be like her own congregation, except a little larger. But she found it to be so much more than that, and she was especially impressed by the feeling of singing with more than a thousand other people. "I discovered you can be baptized by music and text," she said, and that happened for her again this year. "It's good how some things come around again."
Both Courter and Sinkford said they have worked hard to place congregations at the center of General Assembly. They felt this was helping to move Unitarian Universalist away from too much emphasis on individualism. "It's as if we're starting to act like a faith community," Sinkford said. "We're beginning to develop a kind of respect for each of our individual spiritual journeys, even if they're different from our own spiritual journeys."
Sinkford and Courter offered their hopes for the kinds of things those attending General Assembly might bring back to their local congregations and out into the wider world. Courter said she hoped that those at General Assembly would take back a curiosity about the wider world of Unitarian Universalism, "a curiosity that leads them to journey, if only to the nearest Unitarian Universalist congregation." She also hoped they would take back "a passion-filled, empowering ministery for youth."
Sinkford said that he hoped "each and every one of these good folks takes back home a kind of confidence that they didn't have before, a confidence in who we are, and a confidence in who we can become."
"As this General Assembly comes to a close," said Sinkford, offering words of benediction to end the closing worship service of the 2008 General Assembly. "May we leave with our spirits nurtured, and may our commitment to heal the world be strong and solid. May we say with the prophet of old: Here we are; send us."
Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley