President’s Report, General Assembly 2018

Part of General Assembly 2018 Event 303: General Session III

The following final draft script was completed before this event took place; actual words spoken may vary. Unedited live captions of General Session III (TXT) were created during the event, and contain some errors. Captioning is not available for some copyrighted material.

Elandria Williams: It is now time for the President’s Report. Please everyone give it up for the President of the UUA Susan Frederick- Gray! It has been a pleasure to work with her over the last year in the transformative work of our faith.

[Slide #1] Susan Frederick-Gray: Fellow Unitarian Universalists.

What a time this is! A time when we are all being called into a deeper practice of our theology—living into the call at the heart of Unitarian Universalism for beloved community—a community that practices a radically inclusive and compassionate, anti-racist, anti-oppressive, multicultural, multigenerational faith within and acts powerfully in partnership and solidarity for justice and liberation beyond.

This call comes to us in the midst of a time marked by tumult and pain. Last year, in the months leading up to General Assembly, our Association went through a period of major disruption. UUA president Peter Morales and several other senior leaders resigned, and we grieved for the death of our moderator, Jim Key. [Slide #2] Our interim co-Presidents, the Rev. Sofia Betancourt, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, and Dr. Leon Spencer provided a pastoral presence, stabilizing leadership and a call for deeper transformative action—a call to renewal and change—for the UUA and across our congregations and communities.

GA 2017 was a time of truth telling about the past and the present. We wrestled with and named the heartbreak, the mistrust, the broken promises and unfulfilled dreams of our faith. We were also confronted with an increasingly dangerous and dehumanizing political situation in our country and the world.

Last year was not the beginning of these challenges. And wrestling with them has been painful and difficult, but it has also been profoundly faithful. In a culture that loves debate but runs from conflict and discomfort, being faced with our own distance from the beloved community we espouse is an invitation to real and transformative change. And yes, we have many examples of both succeeding and falling short of this.

There is pain in change and growth. There is pain in childbirth, in resetting a bone, in building new muscle. The most painful wounds though, are those that go unattended, unnamed. And so we are called to do the attending that these times necessitate because the stakes are too high if we don’t.

Right now, the liberating achievements generations have won are being rolled back. The extrajudicial killing of black lives by police continue. The assault on the rights of transgender people, repeated attempts to ban Muslims, rolling back reproductive and health care access, the separation and jailing of children at the border affront our senses. [Slide #3] And all of this fueled by a rising nationalist movement that is proud to claim the symbols and ideology of Nazis and the Confederacy. I witnessed this all too clearly in Charlottesville, VA last August—a story I will tell on Sunday morning.

We are also living in a time in this county when mass shootings are becoming normal and our global climate is in chaos. [Slide #4] Last summer was a devastating season of storms and fires that moved us to establish a general disaster relief fund so many of you have donated to knowing climate disruptions will be ongoing.

At the same time, Unitarian Universalists have been examining the ways that a culture of white supremacy [Slide #5] continues to inhibit the fullness of the practice of our theology, each of our liberation, and the ability of people of color to thrive within this faith. We have seen how the burden of this institutional change work does not fall equally on all people. This year, we have seen a record number of religious professionals of color face challenges and conflicts in their ministries. Each instance and context is different, but the overall number is heartbreaking.

It is also important to acknowledge and celebrate that the number of religious professionals of color in our movement has been growing. [Slide #6] There are wonderful stories of success. And this year’s attendance at Finding Our Way Home, the UUA’s annual gathering of religious professionals of color for collegial support and continuing education, was the largest in its history. To Unitarian Universalists of Color, and Unitarian Universalists with identities that have been marginalized, dismissed or ignored in this faith—I want to say first and foremost, I am sorry for the hurt that has been and continues to be done. I know that microaggressions and practices that diminish and discount your leadership, your presence, your dignity and humanity are real. And the work of changing this reality is for all our leaders and congregations to take up. This is your faith.

You know its deep liberating theology and see who and what Unitarian Universalism can be if we live into the fullness of our calling. To each of you, I am committed to being a partner and ally with you so that you see yourself recognized at the center of this faith and it is felt with a clarity that no one can question.

What does it take to really live into bold change? It requires a clarity of direction and values to guide the work. It also requires diverse leadership committed to and knowledgeable about what is needed.

At the UUA, we are committed to institutional change work that we call the work of Inclusion, Equity and Change. [Slide #7] We are approaching this change work on three levels—at the Organization level of the UUA; at the Institutional level across the broader UU landscape; and at the Congregational level.

First—Organizationally and internally at the UUA. Here are some of the first moves we’re making in changing the UUA’s internal workplace culture: This fall, we completed a thorough review of hiring practices to implement the diversity hiring goals set by the interim co-Presidents last Spring. [Slide #8] These changes include putting our theological values in our personnel manual, changing requirements for job openings to allow for a broader range of experience to be considered, and creating diverse hiring teams and training for hiring managers on these practices.

We embraced collaborative leadership models, including co-Directors for the Ministry and Faith Development department (Sarah Lammert and Jessica York) and in the Southern Regional Lead position (Connie Goodbread and Natalie Briscoe). We’ve put diversity of leadership as a foremost priority—including professional diversity, promoting religious educators and lay leaders into top level positions at the Association.

[Slide #9] I invited Taquiena Boston to serve as Special Advisor to the President for Inclusion, Equity and Change, recognizing that in order to live into multicultural religious community, the commitment needs to live not as a department of the UUA, but at its center. Next year, we are putting together a cross-staff institutional change design team to help guide further organizational and culture change.

One lesson that already emerged in this work is a reminder that we can do big change at the UUA. The Justice GA created in response to the boycott in Arizona is one example. The move from 25 Beacon Street to 24 Farnsworth is another. This was a major change and it was guided by the values of collaboration, accessibility, innovation and environmental sustainability. I am grateful for former President Peter Morales leadership in the move. And similar to the work of dismantling a culture of white supremacy, our commitment was not a question of if the change would happen but simply how to make it so.

Now at the larger Association-wide level, here’s how we are engaging and supporting broader institutional change.

First is the UUA’s support for the vital work of the [Slide #10] Commission on Institutional Change which is examining in breadth and depth the culture and practices of Unitarian Universalism, the UUA and congregations—and how there are real differences in outcomes for members, leaders and religious professionals based on identity. The supportive relationship between senior staff and the Commission is essential to guiding the change work at the UUA. To the members of the commission, Leslie Takahashi, Chairperson, DeReau Farrar, Natalie Feinimore, Mary Byron, Elias Ortega-Aponte and Caitlin Breedlove—Thank you! And thank you to the congregations you serve for supporting you in taking on this wider Associational leadership. It is a gift these congregations are giving to the larger Association. Thank you.

The funding of the Board’s $5.3 million commitment to Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism is another bold investment in institutional change and has been a key priority this year. [Slide #11] BLUU is one of the most innovative and exciting ministries in Unitarian Universalism—committed to 1. Providing spiritual care for Black UU’s, 2. Supporting and amplifying the leadership of Black UU’s and 3. Providing UU spiritual sustenance to grassroots justice movements. You’ll hear more specific updates later at GA but we are approaching nearly $3.1 million in gifts and pledges so far.

And over the next few years, we need to be building and investing, right alongside the commitment to BLUU, the resources for the UUA and congregational change work, as well as support for the ministries of DRUUMM and TRUUST and EqUUal Access to make sure we are funding institutional change work across our association.

Okay, congregations! The most important part, yes? This year has been one of a lot of transition at the UUA and we are diving deep into examining and shifting our culture, but the truth is, the work takes deepest root within our congregations—where we live into the fullness of the calling.

So, here is how we are bringing this work to congregations this year—and it’s only the beginning.

[Slide #12] A cross staff team, including the Faith Development Office and Outreach and Public Witness curated resources and skill building tools for congregations on dismantling white supremacy. The Office of Church Staff Finances has put together resources on staffing for diversity in congregations. We’re strengthening our commitment to the annual Finding Our Way Home retreat, support for a TRUUST gathering of transgender religious professionals and THRIVE leadership school for young adults. We are also doing an audit of the UUA’s many scholarships, grants and assistance funds for congregations and leaders through the lens of equity, inclusion and change.

Next year, we will invest in training on cultural competency and race, gender, identity and power dynamics for UUA staff, particularly staff who work directly with congregations so we are skilled partners with congregations in their own change efforts. We also are looking to invest more attention and support for ministerial start ups, particularly for congregations calling or hiring religious professionals of color.

These are just the next steps in the long haul work of nurturing cultural and institutional change.

And the work is not just internal. [Slide #13] One of the most important ways the UUA serves the mission of Unitarian Universalism is by amplifying a national moral voice for our values in the world. This year, we’ve invested in a strategic review of our public witness work and made the intentional decision to center our justice work in solidarity with grassroots organizing that is led by people of color, indigenous people, and folks directly impacted by oppression and injustice.

In collaboration with EqUUal Access, we responded to the call to change the ableist language of Standing on the Side of Love and renewed our justice organizing campaign to be [Slide #14] Side with Love!

The UUA and Unitarian Universalists across the country have been showing up and organizing with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival with Bishop William Barber. [Slide #15] A campaign with a broad moral agenda that addresses poverty, access to healthcare and quality education, climate justice, LGBTQI rights, women’s rights and the fight against criminalization, deportations and expanding militarism.

Last month, I was arrested alongside 19 other UU’s as well as other religious leaders on the first day of 40 days of direct action with more than 100 UU’s taking direct action with the campaign since that first Monday.

The examples go on but a final one: we see this centering in our justice work in the growing response of Unitarian Universalists to the work of expanding sanctuary and through the Love Resists campaign combatting criminalization of immigrants and communities of color.

Through Love Resists, we’re strengthening our work to end the Money Bail system—the highlight of the public witness this year led by Black Lives of Unitarian Universalism. We offer educational resources, coaching, and spiritual sustenance for those engaged in sanctuary policies, community support networks, and accompaniment programs. [Slide #16] Currently, across the country, over 80 UU congregations are part of the UU Sanctuary Movement. 8 UU congregations are currently providing physical sanctuary to individuals or families, more are ready if asked, and more are accompanying immigrants through the court system.

And this Spring, through Side With Love, when the US President threatened a caravan of refugees coming to the U.S. border, many UU’s opened their homes to sponsor refugees and show that as hate tries to close our borders, we will open our hearts and our homes. This is the foundation of our justice work—the call to keep our hearts open in the midst of policies and politics that tell our hearts to be afraid and cut off from one another.

From Love Resists to Side With Love we are showing up again and again for humanity and with a spirit of bold and courageous love.

All of this incredible internal and external work—and the work to come in years ahead—is the work of a tremendously faithful group of people—so many of you in your congregations, and the amazing staff of your UUA.

I want to take a moment to introduce the person that I have the great privilege to work most closely with at the UUA as the newly appointed Executive Vice President—Mr. Carey McDonald!!

Carey’s experience and background in public policy, education, government and economics bring so much to the UUA. His skills in strategic thinking, organizational detail, management and his obvious love for Unitarian Universalism and his commitment to the ways our faith is being called into transformative work—make him an excellent EVP. I am—we are—so fortunate to have Carey serving this role.

I want to turn it over to Carey for a few more thank yous.

Carey McDonald: It is such an honor to be working at the UUA at this moment, especially side by side with the UUA’s first elected woman president. Every day, I am grateful to have such a talented, committed, and courageous group of colleagues. If you see them in the hall, with the staff ribbon on their name tag, feel free to stop them and to say thank you. I’ll ask the UUA staff to rise so that you can show your appreciation for their service to our faith.

Susan Frederick-Gray: And on behalf of both Carey and myself—we are grateful for the leadership of the Board of Trustees and the work that together we are doing to build a collaborative partnership and to invite Unitarian Universalists as a whole into a larger conversation about our purpose, our calling and how we can be organized not only for impact but to live more fully into our values. It is a pleasure to work with each and every one of you.

As UUA President, my priorities for this first year have been to strengthen the relationships across our faith and to put mission at the heart of all we do.

I have had been blessed to show up in witness and in worship with UU’s and UU congregations all across the country. And guess what I am finding? Good news comes when we live into our mission. In the past year congregational giving to the UUA has increased and adult membership across our Association has grown for the first time in years.

[Slide #17] This is the power of mission unleashing the vitality of our communities. The messages of decline in religion are a testament to the ways that religious communities have succumbed to cultural and consumerist values and lost sight of a greater mission to heal the world, to side with the poor, the imprisoned, the oppressed, and offer all people a way of living, liberated from the systems that seek to define and confine us and our relationships. And I want to be clear—as a white person—I am in this work for my own liberation.

The key to growth and health for our congregations is a recommitment not to be conformed to the dehumanization that infects our society, but to transform it in ourselves and organize to liberate our society from its destructive exploitation of life and the planet. In this moment, we are being called to imagine and experiment with new ways of living our faith.

We can be a faith where those who have been marginalized see themselves centered. We have to be a faith where those who have been marginalized now thrive. Indeed, our values call us to this future. We have all been called to this. We are all called to manifest our Unitarian Universalism as deep spiritual compassion and as meaningful resistance. In these times it must become a practice of protecting each other and an inspiration for the world we know is possible—and that is longing to be born.

This is a time to invest in your faith and your values like never before. This is the time for each of us to decide how we will answer this call.

The way ahead, my faithful companions, will not be smooth. The challenges ahead internally and externally are serious. And pain is always a part of growth and change. We will make mistakes and fall short; forgiveness and grace will be needed.

I know, for me, some of answering the call will be on the streets, and in neighborhoods canvassing in Florida and Ohio for ballot initiatives that expand voting rights and democracy. For you, it may be for candidates you are excited for, in direct action resisting criminalization and militarism. It may also be in creating rituals of resilience and sustenance that we need to survive. Music that inspires in us joy, tending the spiritual community that is a sanctuary of both resistance and resilience, a place of both love and justice. Wherever you are, whatever your passion is, listen for the ways your heart, your values are calling you—calling us—to show up in this time.

I want to thank each and every one of you for how you are already doing this. These times may be challenging but I fully believe we are ready for them. I thank you for your commitment, your risks, and your generosity to your faith—to your local congregation and to the UUA, and to how you live your values in large and small ways every day. As your President, it is my great honor and my deep joy to serve with all of you.

About the Author

For more information contact .

UUA General Assembly Off-site Participation: Kansas City, Missouri | 2018