What is the Heart of Unitarian/Universalism? What is at the core of our varied theologies and diverse cultural contexts that brings Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists together as a single faith? What does this faith call us to be and to do, today?
These were the central questions posed by the 2018 Conference of the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists (ICUU). For five days February 12-15, we gathered in Kathmandu, Nepal in the Yellow Pagoda Hotel, a short walk from the lively Thamel district and the serene Garden of Dreams. This setting brought Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists (U/Us) to wrestle with their hearts, minds, and spirits, probing difficult questions about life, truth, love, God, and so much more.
The conference officially began with an opening ceremony hosted by representatives of the Unitarian Union of North East India. ICUU had hoped to hold the 2018 conference in the UUNEI’s home city of Shillong, Meghalaya, but circumstances relating to the Indian government’s granting of conference visas made it impossible. It was a great loss to many who had hoped to visit this important Unitarian pilgrimage site, and for none more so than the Unitarians in NE India who had already gotten planning underway to host U/Us from around the world. Happily, some were able to make it to Kathmandu and they welcomed the conference attendees with a beautiful opening ceremony. They shared some of their culture through stories and music – including a traditional Khasi plate dance performed by Mrs. Riana Nongbri.
Participants had arrived in Kathmandu from all corners of the globe – twenty countries to be precise – and many had even longer journeys with planes rerouted, canceled, and delayed, thanks in part to the lovely Kathmandu smog preventing flights from landing much of Monday. All were thankful to celebrate one another’s company after dinner that first day, and during the “Cultural Evening” participants had an opportunity to share a bit of their culture with one another. One highlight included Unitarian Universalist Association President Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray teaching the group how to dance the Hokey Pokey! Rev. Aryanto Nugroho and Elisabeth Vasthee from the Unitarian Christian Church of Indonesia also taught those gathered an energetic Indonesian dance. By the end, everyone had awoken from the jetlag snooze just in time to go to bed.
The theme of the “Heart of Unitarian/Universalism” was felt throughout the conference. As we explored between and within ourselves what the heart of U/Uism is, we also discovered the thing itself: the joy and love of being together, of being human, of being open with one another and ready to inquire, listen, and even heal. Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray led a moving worship service on Tuesday morning during which she shared a powerful story about the beauty of a heart that is open, vulnerable, and willing to share and take risks.
The keynote speakers, Rev. Norbert Rácz, Rupaia Lamarr, and Rev. Diane Rollert, launched the collective inquiry into this question of Unitarian/Universalism, what it looks like around the world, and what unites all the many strands of spirituality that form U/Uism. The inquiry continued throughout the conference in many forms with many groupings of people. In Chalice Circles, participants returned to the same small group each day to process the conference and delve deeper into religious and spiritual questions. In World Café programs, participants took part in rotating group conversations, speaking with new people about new questions at each turn while drawing upon what commonalities and differences are found amongst the group. The most surprisingly valuable piece for me was the paired learning activity in which two people took time to closely look at a piece of text together and glean meaning from it. I was amazed that I was able to spend such a meaningful half hour speaking in depth about a single sentence, and leave the conversation ready for more.
One idea that kept popping up throughout all the conversations I had was the idea of freedom. There cannot be one single truth – as Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists know, there are always many possible answers to a question – but one of the many truths about the Heart of U/Uism is the insistence upon freedom of conscience and belief. Unitarian/Universalists are questioners, and as such, we strive to embody the idea that all people are free to determine what they believe to be true and meaningful in life.
This idea of course calls us back 450 years ago to the Edict of Torda where Unitarianism and religious freedom intersect. That Edict signed by Unitarian King John Sigismund in the year 1568 was one of the world’s first statements of religious tolerance. It centers on the idea, whose power continues to this day, that faith or belief cannot be forced upon a person but they must be free to follow their own truth. The 2018 ICUU conference hosted the first of a year-long series of theological dialogues associated with this anniversary, referred to as Torda450. The five global theologians, Rev. Norbert Rácz from Transylvania, Ellen Nugroho from Indonesia, Rupaia Lamarr from NE India, Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana from Burundi, and Dr. Stephanie Mitchem from the United States, spoke in a panel discussion Wednesday evening about how theology informs U/U identity. This year of theological reflection is an opportunity for U/Us around the world to engage with these topics, not just by listening to the theologians’ discussions but by taking part in discussion modules with groups from their own congregations. All U/Us can have a taste of what it’s like to attend an ICUU conference – all year long!
Out of about one hundred participants, the ICUU conference included twenty young adults between ages 18-35, many of whose participation was made possible through the generosity of Faithify donors and the UU Partner Church Council. The Young Adult-led worship service brought many threads of the conference together on Thursday morning. To highlight the international nature of this gathering, the February ICUU Global Chalice Lighting was read in three non-English languages, and an excerpt of the Edict of Torda, symbolizing one historical element of the Heart of U/Uism, was read in many more. Eva Kortekaas preached about the power of hearts that beat together, strengthening one another (drawn from Klingon theology, but who’s complaining – do we not draw wisdom from all the world’s (universe’s?) religions?). Those congregated sat together in silence and in song, reflecting upon the incredible religious community we are a part of through the ICUU that will remain forever a part of our identities.
We gathered in Kathmandu to understand one another through religious and spiritual dialogue. As we parted at the end of the conference, our hearts were full, our brains were tired, and our spirits were enriched. I am already impatient for the next conference in Montreal in 2020, but in the meantime will cherish the relationships that were formed and continue marveling at the beauty of this diverse and vibrant faith that calls us to love one another, to act for a just world, to work towards a hopeful future, and to freely welcome uncertainty.