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Opening Worship, General Assembly 2009

General Assembly 2009 Event 1011

Script (PDF, 17 pages), including “We Ask You to Believe,” a homily by Angela Herrera

The opening worship service followed immediately after the first Plenary session. As a transition between plenary and worship, Rev. Eric Cherry, director of International Resources at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), spoke about his recent trip to Africa.

"From November 4 to 24, 2008, UUA President Sinkford, Paula Cole Jones, Maria Sinkford, and I visited six African countries: South Africa, Uganda, Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, and Nigeria," Cherry said. As he spoke, slides from the trip were projected on the screens on either side of him. Cherry then introduced Rev. Mark Kiyamba, the founder of Unitarian Universalism in Uganda. Kiyamba brought greetings from the Ugandan Unitarian Universalists.

Slides of African Unitarian Universalist congregations continued to be shown while Ysaye Maria Barnwell, a Unitarian Universalist singer and composer, sang a medley of African and other songs and chants.

At the conclusion of the slide show and music, Olufemi Matimoju, the general secretary of First Unitarian Church in Nigeria, brought greetings from Unitarians in his country. "Unitarians have existed in Lagos, Nigeria since 1917," Matimoju said, "when Bishop Adeniran Adedeji Isola's liberal religious outlook led to his break with the Anglican Church of Nigeria and to the founding of what would become the Unitarian Brotherhood Church, or Ijo Isokan Gbogbo Eda, on Lagos Island."

Following this transition, the opening worship service began.

"May we as religious liberals invoke that which we call sacred," said Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, as he gave the opening words.

"In our worship tonight, it is vitally important for us to invoke the honest memory of history and build a healing bridge between the past and present," he said. "We must acknowledge the uneasy task of coming to terms with what has been." He called on the spirit of responsibility and restoration, and the spirit of human understanding, and concluded by saying, "So may we learn to walk together with all the people of this world with humility and love."

John Hubert invited the congregation to join in singing the first hymn, the well known "Spirit of Life," by Carolyn McDade, in four languages. Rev. Lilia Cuervo, initiator of the process that has led to a Spanish Unitarian Universalist hymnal, led the congregation in singing the hymn in Spanish, call-and-response style. Next, Rev. Endre Nagy, minister at the Gyergy'szentmikl's fellowship and the Cs'kszereda church in Transylvania, led the hymn in Hungarian. The hymn was led in Khasi by Rev. Helpme Mohrmen, minister of the Unitarian Church of Puriang in Khasi Hills, India. Finally, the congregation joined in singing it in English.

Janice Marie Johnson and Rev. Josh Pawelek then led a prayer. "It is ancient wisdom that says 'Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, with all your strength,'" said Pawelek. "It is ancient wisdom that says 'Love your neighbor as yourself,'" said Johnson. While these words are easy to say, Johnson and Pawelek went on, they are hard to live.

Continuing with a prayer inclusive of different theologies, Johnson and Pawelek prayed that Unitarian Universalists will continue to struggle with "the invitation to love what is holy and to love our neighbors as ourselves. . . the invitation is eternal." Pawelek said, "May our bonds remain strong even when we let each other down," to which Johnson added, "May our hearts remain open, even when we fail."

Rev. William Sinkford spoke about the relationship between Unitarian Universalists and the Utes, a Native American people living in Utah. "Here is the short version of the story," Sinkford said.

After the Civil War, the Union army was deployed to take lands from the native peoples living on the Great Plains. These native peoples were herded onto reservations administered by government agencies. But in 1870, President U.S. Grant asked Protestant denominations to take over administration of the various Indian reservations. The American Unitarian Association accepted responsibility for the Northern Ute people.

The denominations were supposed to "civilize" the Utes. "Today we would call this 'cultural imperialism,'" said Sinkford; the act of forcing the Utes to give up their culture and take on a new culture. "The results were tragic," he continued, saying the effort brought "wretchedness and destitution" to the Utes.

"Our [Unitarian] ministers did defend the Indians," said Sinkford, "and urged the government not to allow whites to make war on them." But, in general, the Unitarians did not have a positive effect on the Utes.

"I am still learning about this part of our history and I am painfully aware that only white voices are represented here," Sinkford said. "Based on what I've learned, the Unitarian agents do not seem to have been very effective. Perhaps, as a result, they did less damage than some of the more 'successful' denominations." He said the Utes are now writing their own history and a display of that history was on view in the exhibit hall in the convention center.

"Consider these thoughts as a work in process, because I don't claim to have this completely figured out," he said. "What I believe is that reconciliation begins with truth-telling, with knowing and telling the stories. Reconciliation begins with confession on both sides."

Sinkford offered an apology to the Ute people, saying, "And so, to the Ute people, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations offers our heartfelt apology. We participated, however ineptly, in a process that stole your land and forced a foreign way of life on you.... We ask for your forgiveness and we promise to stand with you as you chart your way forward."

Forrest Cuch, a member of the Ute nation, rose to respond to Sinkford's remarks. He began by saying he spoke as an individual, not for the Ute nation, then said, "I accept your apology."

He went on to offer words of hospitality to those attending General Assembly. "I want to welcome you to our beautiful valley," he said, adding that five Indian nations lived in the area.

"I don't think the Unitarians should feel too bad," Cuch said, pointing out that other denominations have had similar struggles with their history. He said the Utes recently worked with a local Public Broadcasting System (PBS) station to produce a educational documentary about the five tribes in the area. "There is still prejudice" against Utes, he said, and education is necessary to get beyond that prejudice.

"Your forgiveness is not going to solve everything, but at least it's a start," Cuch said. "Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and enjoy yourselves while you are here."

Cuch then introduced Clifford Duncan, "an esteemed elder of our people."

"You've all heard the saying, 'Kill the Indian and save the man,'" said Duncan. "I'm here today to offer a prayer and say a few words to you." Referring to the arrival of Christopher Columbus in the New World, Duncan said, "There must have been about a thousand Indian tribes at that time in the Western hemisphere. All of these tribes have a story about what happened from that time on."

"My people, they talk about: 'You must always remember the past, where you came from, and what direction you're going, and who you're going to have to answer to,'" he said. "I appreciate all of you being here together and pray that we all walk together in the same direction."

He then offered words and a song in the language of his people as a prayer. Upon concluding this prayer, Duncan explained, "In my prayer is my ancestors: yesterday, today, and those that's yet to come. I thank you."

Angela Herrara, a ministerial candidate and student at Harvard Divinity School, rose next to give a homily.

"When I was a child, growing up Unitarian Universalist in a small town in Oregon," she said, "I remember thinking that what set my faith apart was that you could believe whatever you want." She told her childhood friends that Unitarian Universalists "don't have to believe anything."

Because Unitarian Universalists have no creed, that was in some sense true. "But as I grew up, my faith grew up, too," she said. "It would take a test of faith for me to really understand what Unitarian Universalists believe in."

Her family drifted away from church, she said, and she wound up drifting into the margins of a local gang. She became pregnant at age 18 and worked as a caregiver for psychiatric patients. "It was somewhere in this milieu of living with and caring for the marginalized, knowing I had disappointed someone's God, and feeling unexpectedly hopeful," she said, "that my call to love and empowerment took root."

"We [Unitarian Universalists] are not preaching the gospel of disbelief," Herrara said. "We ask you to believe that you are already holy."

"To believe that you are already holy takes courage," she said. "You have to subvert traditional expectations and seek something higher."

"We see in the story of the Ute nation and the Unitarians that our own denomination has been sin-sick," she said, and added that it continues to be so in spite of our best intentions. "Because we believe each person is holy, is a child of God, a child of the universe," she continued, "we are called to persist in building the beloved community even when it is difficult."

Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, minister of the South Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Salt Lake City, offered the benediction. "We create the path with each step we take together," he said. "May we walk towards justice, towards change, towards right relationship, towards compassion, and towards a world in which every person matters.... May we walk together in the spirit of love."

Reported by Dan Harper; edited by Dana Dwinell-Yardley.

From the General Assembly Live-Bloggers

Audio version

Opening ceremony; Spirit of Life singer.

Singing "Spirit of Life"

Utes at Opening ceremony.

Forrest Cuch, Clifford Duncan