Thanks to James and Renee Hills for their help with this blog post.
The First UU Asia Pacific Regional Conference has just finished. It ran from October 23-27, 2019 in Dumaguete City, Negros Island, Philippines, hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines (UUCP) and attended by about 75 participants, with the theme "Ancient Diverse Wonders." It was co-organized by Dr. Rica Lamar for the Unitarian Union of North East India, Rev. Tet Gallardo for the Philippines, and James and Renee Hills who represented the Australia New Zealand UU Association (ANZUUA) member communities.
It came in a year of bittersweet developments in the region. Indian Unitarians had just celebrated their 132nd year of foundation, Rev. Tet Gallardo has been elected the first lesbian president of the UUCP, Taiwan had just had its first LGBTQ weddings, Hong Kong is undergoing an upheaval, Indonesia has for the first time provided Southeast Asian representation in the Executive Committee of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU), and ANZUUA is experiencing membership shifts as well.
There is a strong interest in building an AsiaPacific U*U community and identity, since many international UU events are North-America-centric. This caucus allows us to experience real conversations from a diverse set of U*U voices across the Asia Pacific region. "It is natural for us to meet," said Rev. Tet. "The region has, since ancient times, been cross-pollinating with each other in open migrations and trade before colonizers put up borders." It seemed important to rediscover our ancient and surviving humane tolerant and open sensibilities, “because sensibilities inform and form our theologies.”
The organizers were faced with challenges due to the tight timeframes that had to be set to accommodate the meeting in 2019, so that it can continue every two years, alternating with years the ICUU meets, "because it seems we Asians want to meet every year," said Rev. Tet. We discovered that there are a couple of U*U identifying groups in Singapore, one of them organized as a book club, studying U*U material, wanting to be taught about the faith. In Hong Kong there is a group of migrant Americans ("expats") whomeetrarely for worship and more often for experiential gatherings like museums and exhibits. In Japan, there are migrant Americans and Europeans who meet in fellowship, and there are also members of Rissho Kosei-kai who have been involved with Unitarianism; Kenji Horiuchi wanted to come but had an emergency meeting at Sri Lanka. In Indonesia there are Christian Unitarians, and India has two groups of Unitarians—one "on the mainland" in Chennai, who are Christian Unitarians, and one in North East India, in the states of Meghalaya and Assam, who are Unitarians and are the largest matrilineal society in the world. Some other U*Us in Taiwan appear unorganized.
For Rev. Tet, UU principles are common with local indigenous values. "I have never met a Filipino who said they were made a better person by being called Unitarian, because their values have always embodied UU principles. We are Unitarians for hoping that people who identify as such meet us in community."
Rev. Darihun Khriam, the highest official from the Unitarian Union of NE India national office, delivered the opening and closing words for Indians, affirming the success of the endeavor and their determination to get the ball rolling. With Philippine visa requirements strict for Indian nationals, they had to apply for Singapore visas first and then make a stopover in Singapore. Eighteen of the 19 Indian participants came through the Singapore stopover route, so you can imagine the enthusiasm when everyone arrived safely at the first meeting!
All four major churches of the Unitarian Union of NE India were represented: Rev. Sowat Laloo, Unitarian Church of Jowai in Jaintia Hills (Mother Church); Rev. Darihun Khriam, Unitarian Church of Smit of Khasi Hills; Alldrina Nonglamin, Unitarian Nongtalang Church of Jaintia Hills, on the border of Bangladesh; and Mrs Battinora Rani, Unitarian Church of Nongkrem at Khyrim State.
The opening ceremony with the theme "Whose are we? Where do we come from?" was marked by two rituals: First was throwing three balls of yarn of different colors to form interconnected webs while reciting words from Robert T Weston's "The Web of Life". Second was the ritual commemorating ancestors: People wrote on the board with colored chalks the names of their particular ancestor and lit a tea candle for each name.
The different sessions of the Conference enhanced and affirmed the Asian values of being together by cultural exchange, through original songs, ethnic dances, and spoken word, as well as through speeches, talks, and prayers. Kiki Pakma from India provided introductory yoga for 4 days. The conference also provided a session for beach sports where participants played football, frisbee, and volleyball on the beach as the sun set over the water. Sports is a common vehicle for church building in India and the Philippines, the two largest Unitarian groups in the region. The senior women from India learned to play frisbee while dressed in their traditional attire, saying, "Our children would probably say, ‘Whatever happened to mommy in the Philippines!'"
People in the region have made U*Uism more than the religion of the intellect, including also the heart and the community. In this region we constantly talk about the word "peacebuilding," a word rapidly being erased from Western discourse, if not already missing from it.
A guest speaker, Prof. Moner Bajunaid, a national figure in the Philippines and the secretary-general of the National Ulama Conference of the Philippines (the intellectual centre of the Philippine Muslim society), presented the challenges and promises of peace in the Muslim-dominant region of the Philippines.
A number of pilgrims from the U.S. also attended the Conference. This was the first Fall Pilgrimage of its kind, organically organized by Filipinos. Two pilgrims from White Bear UU in Minneapolis and two pilgrims from UU San Francisco, all members of the LGBTIQA community made the trip, plus one pilgrim who is a retired American living in the Philippines. One pilgrim was unable to join after signing up as a leader in Elizabeth Warren's campaign; nevertheless, he sent his regards. Three of the five pilgrims had Asian ancestry. Also, the Hawaiian backgrounds of pilgrim Lori Lai and Rev. Joseph Santos-Lyons (who led a session on ARAOMC: antiracism, anti-oppression, and multiculturalism) came into play in finding familial bonds with co-travelers and islanders.
One of the highlights of the event was storytelling by Renee Hills, who had recently published her children's picture book Turtle Love. Attendees resonated so much with the theme of environmental protection, especially as the visitors were given a chance to go to Apo Island to swim with huge turtles in the wild. Environmental concerns and climate change cast a shadow on the whole conference. During the conference week, there was a mini-heat wave—a week-long spike. October is supposed to be the start of cold weather but it was extremely hot, reaching 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Attendees lauded the lack of plastic materials used in the conference and the efficiency of not having to use transport to get to the venue, very conscious of our carbon footprint.
The visitors also went on a trip to Siapo Congregation to see the native trees and taste some native fruits while experiencing a typical UU church in the Philippines, and talk to members who walk up to five miles to attend church.
One of the UUCP trainee ministers and a recent university graduate had to walk two hours to school from their mountain community for ten years, starting at 4:30am every day, and walk home for two hours after school at 5pm. The stories told at meal times of people's struggles, their strength and desire to improve their children's opportunities, and their tenacity over many years, was truly inspiring.
Since the Conference was scheduled on the "Festival of Festivals" known as Buglasan, there were many opportunities to see Philippine handicrafts and produce. One of the festival highlights was a fireworks competition on the coast or the "Boulevard," the bay in Dumaguete.
The Diverse Revolutionary UU Multicultural Ministries (DRUUMM) provided 23% of the funding for the Conference, and about the same came from the proceeds of the pilgrimage. The rest was raised organically. Rev. Arman Pedro, UUCP Church Administrator, provided strong staff support to the needs of the Conference.
At the end of the conference, a peace pole was erected, an initiative of Rev. Arman Pedro and the craftsmanship of Rev. Henry Legaje, which included the words "May Peace Prevail on Earth" in the Khasi language, Braille, Cebuano (Philippines), English, and languages that honor the multicultural history of ancient Philippines—Arabic, Sanskrit, Indonesian, and Chinese.
The next AsiaPacific UU conference is scheduled in June or July of 2021, either in India or Singapore, depending on consensus in the region. The goal of getting back to ourselves and rediscovering our stories and our Asian fellowship and U*U community is vital.