President's Report, General Assembly 2020

Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray delivers the President's Report to the 2020 General Assembly (delivered during General Session 2).

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This is being provided in a rough-draft format. Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) is provided in order to facilitate communication accessibility and may not be a totally verbatim record of the proceedings.

>> My fellow Unitarian Universalists, I hold each of you in my heart. This is the time of incalculable loss, over 120,000 of our loved ones have died from COVID-19, nearly half a million world-wide.

The horrific murders of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, of Breona Taylor by Louisville police, and of Tony McDade by Tallahassee police.

The subsequent spilling over of rage and pain and grief and the uprisings moving across our country, the violent militarized response of police against our people and communities. The broken ness and grief is overwhelming. There's also power in this moment born of the courage of black leaders and movements who have been building power to shift what is possible in this country.

The layers of trauma and grief, anger and hope, and power. They are all alive in our bodies. And in our spirits and in our communities.

And I want to begin with a prayer and a moment of silence in this time.

Brutality in our country. To hold all of what is present in this moment. I invite you in to a few moments of silence to just be present for all that we hold, for all that we grieve, for all that is before us.

(Silence) spirit of love and justice, give us courage and strength for the weeks and the months and the work ahead.

Hold us fast to that which we hold most dear, to the values of compassion and justice. Hold us in love and remind us of our fundamental inner connection and our responsibility to each other. Hold us in dignity and in courage and strength and in love. Spirit of life, remind us of our power and of our capacity to hold one another, we are with each other even though we are apart. Give us moments of joy, tenderness, to inspire us, and give us renewal and resilience.

May we move in ways that expand what is possible that expand liberation and imaginations for a future where all are free and all can thrive. Amen, blessed be. Anding Ashe.

Friends, my report will be short this year. I want to focus on one thing, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, two, how our institutional change work has been critical to the effectiveness of our response, and number three, to share a reflection on the challenges and the opportunities for our religious movement ahead. First, the impact of the UUA's response to the Coronavirus pandemic. So many UU leaders and religious profession al wrote to us about how helpful the UUA has been in this time. Thank you to everyone who was willing to share your stories with us. Our outreach and public witness team put together a video led by March and assisted by our videographer to capture some of the stories that were shared with us. I'm grateful to share this short video with you all now.

>> In those first weeks, seeing us all practice Unitarian Universalism as it could be gave me so much hope.

>> Right from the beginning, the UUA staff have been front and center and present on-line in e-mail providing resources to religious professionals to both pastorally, and technically.

>> We are extremely grateful for a wonderful grant that we received from UU, the vote, and the UUA organizing strategy team to help in our efforts this spring and summer and even in to fall to inform and register and support voting and elections here in Ohio.

>> Being a UU young adult in these times is definitely difficult. Luckily there's been support from the UUA, from the regional staff, from the adults in my congregation, and the congregation that I visit when I'm in college.

>> Deciding to go virtual is liked how am I going to connect that way. And then we have virtual finding our way home. And the magic was still there. The connection really is more spiritual than it is physical.

>> We're working with all of our volunteers right now to learn how to coach people on registering to vote using phones—old-fashioned phone trees, and media, like Skype or Google Hangouts.

>> One thing that's been helpful to me has been the emerging adult check-in calls that UUA has been putting on the emerging adult associates at the UUA, and he has put together these spaces for emerging adults all over the country, all over the world, to just drop in and have a chance to check in. Doing the whole worship service on Zoom requires learning how to use more of the bells and whistles. It was really helpful to have these webinars available.

>> I think that these are very challenging times. And that is what Unitarian Universalism is here for to get us through the challenging times. Especially for the inability to be in person, the connections that we make one-on-one in our congregations and in the larger faith are so important.

>> This is Unitarian Universalism in its best form. This is what it's about. This idea that none of us have the answer or the right answer, but all of us have a piece of what it could be. It's held in love and care and it's respected and nourished. I can't wait to see how we can continue to live into that.

>> Thank you to all of you who are willing to share your stories with us. This pandemic has touched every department at the UUA, asking our staff to adapt, skill up, and respond in new and agile ways, and I'm so proud of the UUA staff, all who have gone above and beyond to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of congregations and leaders in this time.

And I know it is the same for our congregation and our UU community ministries. This pandemic touches every aspect of our lives. For religious professionals and leaders, it has been an untold amount of work, much that goes unseen. You all carry so much. Thank you for the sacrifices that you make to care and minister to your people and your communities. What is clear to me in this time is that the UUA's ability to respond to this crisis so effectively was a direct result of the years of work, including most importantly the efforts focused on institutional change and dismantling the culture of white supremacy in our organization. Let me be more specific, first, the UUA's response to the COVID-19 pandemic was deeply rooted in our mission to equip congregations for ministry to train and support leaders both way and professional and to advance UU values in the world. Articulating a clear mission for the UUA already helps us move past personality-driven practices, past individualism, and silos, to see all of the UUA's work, connected to a shared mission. Aswan at an explains in her book, Solstice, soul, and spirit, multicultural leadership is not about individual success or any one individual leader, it's about our responsibility to and investment in the well being and development of the whole community and in our case, that is the Unitarian Universalist community.

This pandemic created a context in which all of our congregations were experiencing urgent, parallel challenges. Our focus on mission allowed the whole UUA to work collaboratively to respond to the many congregational needs that arose nearly overnight with the transition to virtual operations. Looking back, this could not have happened without the incredibly important work of regionalization. There is no way UUA could carry out such an aligned system of messaging, recommendations, or resources, where we still operate as 19 separate districts. Budget challenges and apply for the payroll protection program didn't have to be done by 19 different boards and executives. This freed the regional staff to focus on direct support and ministry to congregations, and this is why we must not re-create silos of our region. Silos diminish capacity, collaboration unlocks it.

Second, in the midst of significant uncertainty and conflicting informing and misinformation, congregations ask the UUA for clarity on how to keep their community safe. I have no doubt that our early and strong is strong recommendation for congregations that stop gathering in person on March 12 saved lives. This guidance was absolutely a result of the work that we've been doing to dismantle a culture of white supremacy at the UUA. The desire to continue with business as usual is such a strong pull in our culture. It's also an aspect of white supremacy culture that puts the status quo above responding to the needs of people at the margins. Our institutional change work allowed us to make hard choices that prioritize the health and well being of the most vulnerable people within and beyond our congregation. And this is what it means to make justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion a core priority in our work.

We are discovering doors we didn't realize were closed. And reaching people we never reached before. I witnessed everywhere that congregations that are leaning deeply into mission and responding to the emergent needs of elders, families, children, youth, and young adults, and their wider community, these ministries are thriving. There are powerful lessons in this pandemic. The virus and science reminds us we're fundamentally interconnected and our actions impact the well being of others.

Models of religious life, steeped in individualism, exceptionalism, scarcity, and competition will not meet this moment. As we contemplate a year of virtual gatherings, we have an opportunity to partner across congregations in ways that we've known we've needed and struggled to embrace. I'm excited about southern Arizona and Alabama doing joint service and able to share the ministry in ways that's creating more capacity for larger ministry. There are new opportunities for inclusion and accessibility like never before, new opportunities to minister to families, neighbors, and communities, new opportunities to organize for justice that were not possible before. And we don't know all of the answers or all of the ways that it will take us, but we are innovating and experimenting, and this is so important for the future of our faith. It's why it's so important on the report of commissions is out now and available to purchase here. Because these are the very ways that the commission is is calling Unitarian Universalists to embrace bold new ways of being, to widen the circle and live in the promise of our faith.

At the UUA, our vision to be the UUA where all identities can thrive can shape every aspect of our response to the pandemic. It shapes the distribution of our COVID-19 relief funds directing funds to congregational staff most impacted. And the congregations partnering in their communities for mutual aid. It shapes the recommendations for congregations to retain staff, to create flexible and humane expectations. And the importance of investing in your religious professional leaders that we are doing amazing essential life saving ministry at this time.

It also led to the recommendation that our congregations plan for gathering virtually through next year, through May of 2021. We all have a moral responsibility to do everything we can to reduce risk to those who are already at such high risk.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most significant and life-altering event of my lifetime, perhaps all of our lives. And there's a seductive urge to wish everything could just return to normal. But what has become abundantly clear in this crisis is that we cannot go back to normal. The impacts of COVID-19 have exposed the deep fissures long present in our country and in our world.

As you have heard me say many times, this is no time for a casual faith no time for your values and principles. It's no time to go it alone. The deadly impacts of what was considered normal, what was business as usual is undeniable. Even right now, the crisis is being used to further enrich the wealthy, to threaten and undermine basic services, to justify the brutality of police and silence protests. And to reinforce a narrative of scarcity that treats human beings as expendable.

We have to be honest how frail and corrupt our democracy already is. Our democracy is under attack. It has been for a long time. What this means is that all of us have to be all in for systemic change that puts people first. And sees the disease of poverty, sexism, home phobia, transphobia, voter suppression and climate destruction as one intertwined issue, a disease we must all organize against together. So much is on the line. Is right now many of us are finding ways to support the uprisings in the streets while also navigating the dangers of the pandemic. It's imperative we all find ways to support the movement, in ways that we can.

There's organizing and support and activism that we can offer from home. There are ways that our buildings can support movement leaders and offer community care. Now is the time to invest more of ourselves, our resources, our prophetic voices and our pastoral spirits where a future where all can thrive, where no one is expendable. This is, after all, the vision of the Unitarian Universalism, it's how our faith calls us forward in this time.

And there is hope in this moment, so many things that previously seemed radical, Universal healthcare, vote by mail for everyone, defunding police, deincarcerating people from jails and detention centers are gaining traction in main stream conversations, movement organizers, Black Lives Matter leaders, Unitarian Universalists in these movements have gotten us here. And we can't let up. We've got to be rooted, inspired, and ready, rooted in our core values. Inspired by movement of peoples across the world to push back against this deadly status quo. And ready to give all we have to the movement for democracy, dignity, liberation, and the need to put people and the planet finally and resolutely above profit. To imagine and breathe life into the communities and the world that we need to survive and thrive.

I'm committed to this life-saving moment. I am committed to the life-saving role Unitarian Universalism can play. I invite you to sign up and be a part of this work. UU the vote is our critical priority right now, to defend democracy, to combat voter suppression, to defeat hate, and vote love. Will you join me and sign up for UU the vote. This is no time to go it alone. Let us expand the power of our collective faithful voices, let us be all-in right now for justice, for liberation, for democracy, and for a future free and thriving. May it be so, my friends, may it be so.

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