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A People So Bold: Justice and Congregational Mission (I)

General Assembly 2009 Event 2039
UU University Justice Track, Part I

The worship service for this Unitarian Universalist (UU) University session had a theme of Building Bridges. It was led by the Rev. John Gibb Millspaugh, Co-Minister, Winchester Unitarian Society, Winchester, MA; and the Rev. Louise Green, Minister of Social Justice, All Souls Church, Washington, DC. The music was led by Lenard Starks, Associate Music Director, All Souls Church, Washington, DC; and Sarah Dan Jones, very active member of the UU Musicians Network.

Millspaugh’s challenge in his homily was to be courageous enough to rise up to the challenges of this age. He used the analogy of bridges in his homily. We can stand looking at deteriorating bridges, counting them or fixing the holes in them. Some of us might even not show up at worship on Sunday morning to go repair bridges. His meditation was different, because he asked us to keep our eyes open and to observe our hands. They are what do the social justice work, by emailing, writing letters or actual hands-on work. The worship ended with these words “The service has ended, the service will begin.”

Meg Riley, Director, Advocacy & Witness in the Washington office of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), briefly talked about UU University (UUU) and how it differs from General Assembly. Meg is Dean of the Justice track of UUU. She said that other General Assembly workshops are like a traditional Old Country Buffet, in that it is a smorgasbord: 75 workshops and you choose which one to attend. UUU is a like a gourmet restaurant with really fine ingredients. The Justice track is a sushi bar, really good sushi. Down the street is an Italian restaurant and around the corner is an Indian restaurant. She cautioned that some will figure out a way to gorge themselves by going from track to track. Riley said “Don’t blame me if you feel ‘sick’ later in the day when you have mixed up those flavors, or tried to attend all the UUU tracks.” As packed as this session was for content, it would have been difficult to attend another track.

The feeling in the Salt Palace conference center was different this afternoon from that of other General Assemblies because of the tracks around UUU. There was intense concentration as we all dealt with the issues being raised in the different tracks of UUU. At ours, it was a really good long meal of sushi with great conversation.

During the UUU Justice track, we were told, we will be unpacking “prophetic congregation” and then over the next 2 days we will be reconstructing what we unpacked, for our own purposes back in our home congregations.

This Justice UUU session is not being videotaped, like the rest of the UUU Tracks, since later in 2009, a book and DVD will be published called A People So Bold. To briefly summarize the history of the book and project: in January 2009 a group of people got together in a social justice convocation to talk about how social justice work grounds them in faith work. The book and this convocation were a partnership between the UUA and All Soul’s in Washington, DC, and engaged 4 UU congregations. Some of the snippets from the DVD were displayed during UUU, to frame the next keynotes, the dyads and the group discussions.

The first keynote was Paul Rasor, Director of the Center for the Study of Religious Freedom at Virginia Wesleyan College. He presented in depth the theological principle of ecclesiology which he defined as the doctrine of the church. We often use “covenant” to describe this and we do throw this word around a lot. He challenged the participants to really think about what this word means, “covenant.” Covenant is based on mutual obligation, and is a fancy word for contract. When it is taken to sacred, holy and really profound levels, it defines group identity. He then teased the group to think about 4 other theological principles as a starter set:

  • Fundamental unity and interdependence of all existence
  • Transforming power of love, dynamic transformational power, sustains our social justice work: create relationships of love; every one is our neighbor
  • Human freedom, the first principle: moral agents who make choices for which we are accountable
  • Justice as a theological idea: concerned with right ordering of social relationships; unjust institutions signal the breakdown

Sharon Welch, Provost at Meadville-Lombard Theological School, spoke about the non-dualism of good and evil. They are not black and white concepts, and she talked about a few examples of reframing evil, even looking at the evil within us, or sympathizing with someone whom we label as evil. Looking at the influence and power of good and/or evil helps reframe how we view them. Her challenge was to get the participants to think about good and evil in a very different way. She talked about her different experiences with student: when she moved to the University of Missouri, the students reacted very differently from the Harvard Divinity students. The same things which worked in Boston did not work in the heartland. Assumptions that students were resistant to learning and unable to imagine fundamental social change were flawed. It might be something else. She found the problem was in us, imposing on them a social critique with a different way of forming questions. The group definitely thought about good and evil and its dualism after Sharon spoke.

Paula Cole Jones, Lead Consultant of Just Change, started her keynote by holding up a camera. She said “Think about a camera and your congregation and realize each person is holding a camera and framing UUism through their lens.” She said we are trapped unless we reframe our congregations to look at church, and all we do in church, through a multi-cultural lens. If we transform our work we will transform congregations, our movement and the entire society. Right now what exists in how we do church is a dominant cultural ecology or paradigm. When you show up Sunday morning, right now we do it in dominant cultural frame. She challenged us to take a leap in a multi-cultural frame. It is a small perceptual shift. Refocus, reframe, expand, redirect and then establish a multi-cultural frame. She then talked about a prophetic congregation which does the difficult work of truth and reconciliation.

Meg Riley spoke again, giving three criteria for prophetic congregations. They are:

  • Deeply committed to understanding and grappling with meaning. It matters what we believe. We are not looking to heaven and there is no promised time. We are committed to building it. What we do on this earth is our faith. Our only real possessions are our actions. What we do is our faith, no matter how imperfect.
  • Places of radical caring. This includes covenant groups, parent groups. If people at church are not driving you crazy, then you are not in community with one another. You need to have a covenant to do this. You will need to struggle through difficult conversations. Our faith understands multiple metaphors.
  • Find hope. This must be offered through concrete opportunities to take action. Hope is an antidote. Optimism is not the same thing as hope. The tiny edge of hope is found in action.

Groups worked in teams of six, talking about how to apply this to their own congregations and social justice. A worship service completed this session of the Justice UUU for today.

To be continued in Part II of the Justice UUU track on Friday morning.

UUA Social Justice Resources >

Reported by Sally Russell; edited by: Jone Johnson Lewis.

Part II >