Saturday, July 14, 2012

Democracy and GA: reply to Kinsi

Here are outtakes from Matt Kinsi's thoughtful comments and my replies. Look for my new post on opportunities in a few days. (Matt Kinsi's blog is

Kinsi: There’s about 1-2 percent of Unitarian Universalists who went to GA. How will such a small percentage manage to change congregations’ institutional inertia?

We only ever have 1-2 percent of UUs who do much of anything at the same time except read the UU World. Less than one third of one percent of UUs went to Arizona in 2010 to protest SB 1070. What percentage of GLBT folks ever go to a pride parade, or work actively for marriage equality? What percenage of folks who identify as straight from your congregation? And yet…
It’s something more than numbers, or percentage: it’s about purpose.
If Justice GA is all there is, then you’re right, it won’t change Unitarian Universalism, it will only have changed a small percentage of Unitarian Universalists. But we UUs invest huge resources of time and money every year in our congregations, districts, and Association. What if, at every level, we were willing to spend a higher percentage following our hearts and a lower percentage maintaining the status quo? What if that 1-2% of people whose hearts were moved at Justice GA are purposeful and organized, and if there’s some institutional support for that organized passion? I rarely question our congregations' ability to change themselves and the world.  

Kinsi: I’m also wondering if those who went to Justice GA be inclusive or be a clique? Will those of us who couldn’t go this year hear “remember that time at Justice GA when x, y, or z happened?”

There are events that I am always reminded I missed, not because the folks who went are being exclusive or cliquey, but because something happened that was transformative that they cannot fully describe to me. They were there and I was not. It doesn’t take thousands of people for this to be true. Witness the hundreds of youth and young adults who imagined YRUU into being and were forever changed, or the hundreds of UU clergy who answered King’s call to Selma. Some events cross time and space: think of the thousands of UUs who went to help rebuild the Gulf in groups of 5 or 20 or 50. Some of us are still going, some for the first time. The Rev. Nancy Schaffer wrote:

When you heard that voice and knew finally it called for you and what it was saying - where were you?
Were you in the shower, wet and soapy, or chopping cabbage late for dinner?
Were you planting radish seeds or seeking one lost sock? …
Where were you when you heard that ancient voice, and did Yes get born right then and did you weep?
Had it called you since before you even were, and when you knew that, did your joy escape all holding?
Where were you when you heard that calling voice, and how, in that moment, did you mark it?
How, ever after, are you changed?

I think of this two years culminating at Justice GA as a time when Unitarian Universalism was called to the desert. Although we don’t yet know how this call and our response will transform our faith, it was transformational for many UUs on a personal level. And to follow your point, if we allow the story of our desert times to remain at the personal level --  who protested, who was arrested, who went to GA and who didn't -- we will miss the opportunity for institutional transformation.

Kinsi: I hear you in the post where you’re worried that the Justice GA community will be disempowered, but I’m worried that the reverse might be more likely to happen, especially at future GAs and national gatherings.

Sorry I wasn't clear. I’m not worried that the Justice GA community will be disempowered. That community only existed for one GA, and that GA is over. Based on our history, I worry for the General Assembly as a whole -- not because of GA 2012 alone, but because of GA 2010 and 2012 together.

Kinsi: Is social justice the ends or the means?
Social justice work is a means to an end. The end is a more just world where all people are treated with worth and dignity – it’s what our congregations declared in our purposes and principles. And working for justice is not the only end (outcome) for Unitarian Universalism. The UUA Board's ends statement, based on our purposes and principles, provides direction for the activities of the UUA Administration and staff. The statement was written in 2008-2009 and will be reviewed and revised this October by your UUA Board in collaboration with the President.

I love where the ends statement starts: Congregations unlocking the power that transforms lives because in our congregations, people deepen their spiritual lives. People develop a personal spiritual practice, participate in meaningful worship, learn and practice empowered leadership and generosity, and find their ministry in the world.

Kinsi: Some UUs out there see social justice as THE reason that they’re a UU. Some people see social justice as the means to which their personal spirituality is deepened. I’m worried that we’ll march towards social justice being the ends of our religion, and, as a result, it becomes the end of our religion.

There are many great social justice organizations that do work in line with our values: for example, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, No Mas Muerte, Doctors without Borders and the Human Rights Campaign. The Unitarian Universalist Association, however, is not one of them. We are a religion, not a social justice organization.

In my visits with congregations I often hear about (and sometimes meet) the members or friends whose only connection is social justice. They don't come to worship with other members. They don't teach religious education or serve coffee or take food to homebound members. As a result, they have a limited understanding of who and what we are.

And it's not just social justice. I also meet UUs whose only connection is the choir, or a mediation group, or a particular committee or program. I believe social justice or meditation or a music program is a fine way to locate us. We all find a congregation because we have some specific need. This initial specific connection works -- as long as we don’t then need to shrink the church to meet our more limited definition, and remain aware that the focus or program that caught our attention is only a part of that congregation and Unitarian Universalism.
Kinsi: If this is a deepening of our democracy, but future ga’s choose democratically to never do something like it again, is it truly disempowerment or the democratic process at it’s finest?
If our congregations, exercising their democratic power, never decide to do something like this again, then arguably that’s as good as the GA democracy we had for our first 48 years (wink). If, however, our congregations were to decide to outsource their ability to make momentous decisions to others, that’s not democracy, it’s abdication. And if our congregations were to change the rules to prevent future General Assemblies from making similar risky decisions that’s not democracy, it's hubris.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

This is what democracy looks like

The morning after we adjourned our 51st General Assembly (our first Justice GA), the United States Supreme Court delivered a mixed ruling on Arizona SB 1070. While the UUA Board was moving quickly through its meeting, members of the GA Right Relations Team were maintaining a peaceful presence at the morning press conference held by our partners.  After the board meeting a number of trustees were able to answer Puente’s request for volunteers to help mobilize the community. We made phone calls and sent emails in Spanish and English.

We helped load water on the trucks then joined the convoy to the ICE office protest, to stand with Puente and other local groups to call attention to the portion of SB 1070 that the court did not strike down: the poisonous “show me your papers” provisions.

At the protest, organizers warmed up the community with a familiar call and response chant:
Show me what the people look like
This is what the people look like
Show me what community looks like
This is what community looks like
Show me what democracy looks like
This is what democracy looks like

Oh yeah. Justice GA. This is what community looks like. This is what commitment looks like. Most of all, this is what democracy looks like.
I think it’s a good sign whenever we begin chanting in plenary. Two years ago when the delegates were asked “Will you come to Arizona and help create the Justice GA you voted for?” a couple of thousand Unitarian Universalists chanted ¡Si, se puede! until the hall echoed with their conviction. Si se puede is often translated as “Yes, we can”, but the literal translation of this rallying cry of the United Farm Workers is “Yes, it can be” or “Yes, it can be done” -- not “Look at us – we’re doing this” or “Yes, we can do this right now” but “With faithful attention, this, too can be accomplished.”
Unlike some of my colleagues, I was not surprised that thousands of Unitarian Universalists came to Phoenix last month. I knew that despite the heat and the cost of travel, despite the uncertainty about almost every detail, you would be in Phoenix because this was your Justice General Assembly and you committed to be there and to bring others from your congregation. I believe that years from now, Justice GA will be seen as a turning point for Unitarian Universalism – but the direction of our turning is not yet clear. What or what are we turning from? Who are what are we turning toward?

Flashback to April 2010. The UUA Board has just finished its final meeting before the Minneapolis General Assembly. The GA Agenda has been finished and proofed and is ready to print when the governor of Arizona signs SB 1070. The UUA Bylaws give the Board sole authority to select sites for General Assemblies, and we have already approved the recommendation to meet in Arizona in 2012, but La Raza and other groups are calling for a boycott.
As Moderator, I call an emergency meeting of the UUA Board to discuss our commitments for the GA that is only two years away. The Board could have simply voted to follow the boycott and move GA elsewhere, but instead they make an interesting and empowering choice: they put the issue on the agenda of the GA (just ten weeks away) so that those responsible for setting the direction for our Association – our congregations – could be in the driver’s seat.  
So what happened then? The GA lists and UU blogs lit up. There were sides: Boycott, Don’t Boycott, “Why do always have GA where it’s hot?”, and others. There was so much nuance that it deserves a separate blog post some time later this summer. Then things got really complicated. During the next few weeks, Unitarian Universalists in the hundreds answered Rev. Susan Frederick Gray’s call to come to Phoenix to protest SB 1070. Puente leader Sal Reza invited Unitarian Universalists to come to Arizona in 2012 to hold a human rights gathering rather than a General Assembly, a “convergence in cooperation with us and that together we design the best ways that UUs can witness, learn from, take action, and serve the movement here.”  UUA President Peter Morales urged delegates to vote down the board’s boycott resolution. Going into GA 2010, the outcome was not clear.  

Every business item that is debated and voted in a plenary (business) session is first discussed and amended, if necessary, in a smaller mini-assembly business session. Delegates at the first mini-assembly to discuss the GA 2012 resolution approved two different and contradictory statements and the mini-assembly moderator encouraged representatives of those opposing groups to meet and return with something different. After many hours of meetings, a consensus resolution emerged and was brought to the second mini-assembly. The resolution described a new type of annual meeting: a Justice General Assembly. And that was just the start. 

The 2010 GA called for a 2012 General Assembly that was both radical and accountable then directed the Board, GA Planning Committee, and Administration to make it happen. You resolved that the 2012 GA would include a broader group of voices in planning and oversight, voices that are often marginalized within our faith community. You directed the UUA Administration to set up an immigration ministry in Arizona to build and strengthen relationships with partners. You cautioned all UU leaders to keep the boycott in our hearts and try to direct our local spending toward partners and away from our partners’ oppressors. And on a Sunday afternoon late in General Assembly, when you were asked “But will you come?” you said “Yes we meant it….Yes we’ll come….Si se puede.”
The resolution passed in 2010 is a values-based and lengthy statement of our congregations’ expectations for Justice GA, and I initially questioned the specificity of the resolution. But those many details, lovingly hammered out in hard conversations, in mini-assemblies and on the floor of plenary were exactly what was needed. How did you know? Following GA 2010, months passed with little activity toward Justice GA. At the January 2011 UUA Board meeting held in Phoenix, Arizona, and at a pre-meeting border visit with our Tucson congregation, board members heard questions and concerns voiced by local clergy and lay leaders about the lack of Justice GA preparation. I cannot speak for the whole board, but I was personally uncomfortable with the answers our local leaders were given, and I did not have better answers.

It was the clear direction provided in your 2010 resolution that forced the Board to ask uncomfortable questions and press for answers then pass appropriate motions and policies to move Justice GA forward including:
  • requiring start-up funding for the Arizona Immigration Ministry in 2010-2011;
  • clarifying the Accountability Group’s role as the key internal advisory partner for the Board, GA Planning Committee, and Administration;
  • allowing a loss for GA 2012  (if necessary) equivalent to the loss that would have been sustained if we had boycotted; and
  • convening the Design Meeting for Justice GA in the fall of 2011 – the first meeting with representatives of all the groups working to implement your Justice GA resolution: the GA Planning Committee and GA Office staff, Administration, Arizona Immigration Ministry, Accountability Group, Board and others.    
For the past two years, whenever anyone asserted that the GA 2010 delegates didn’t know what they were doing, someone would remind them to watch the videos of the Saturday and Sunday 2010 plenary sessions. And when any of us were uncertain what was required or how inclusive we were charged to be, we read your 2010 resolution once again.

Thank you for your clarity. Thank you for daring to imagine the possibility of a more inclusive, more loving, more justice-seeking Unitarian Universalist gathering. Thank you for using your power to direct your leaders to make it so. Si, se puede.
Justice General Assembly was an amazing, transformational, spirit-filled, faith-driven, experiential, multi-generational, multi-cultural convergence for human rights. (As a perfectly imperfect community we also fell short of the accountability and inclusivity called for in the 2010 resolution, including some areas where we are annual offenders. I’ll write about this in another post.) Justice GA was also unpredictable and inconvenient and strained traditional lines of authority. Justice GA planning crossed borders even self-proclaimed border-crossers have found useful to maintain. Justice GA required Unitarian Universalists to articulate new accountabilities that we should have articulated long ago.

Our own history tells us that when the General Assembly does something amazing, the next chapter will likely be an institutional response designed to insure that this will never happen again. Next step: deconstruct this powerfully marvelous but powerfully inconvenient mechanism for change we call our democracy. We will work to make sure that future General Assemblies will never again have the power and a platform to take our faith this far out of the box.
Perhaps in this moment, we can easily be welcomed into an inappropriate fiesta of self-congratulation. In that space we may tolerate or even applaud a flurry of activity designed to leverage the Justice GA experience for more limited, less noble purpose. But how would this happen? Well, we might change the bylaws – as we did after the Black Empowerment Controversy – to limit the powers of the delegates to set priorities. We might reduce or redesign plenary so there won’t be space for deep business to emerge and mature. Or we’ll fail to schedule the business withheld from the 2012 agenda including topics like the 5th Principle Task Force’s reimagining of General Assembly. Perhaps we will decide that we’ve done enough work on immigration and that something else merits our full attention. Our past disempowerment has taken many different forms.

Disempowerment, if it comes, will likely be marketed as preserving “the best” of Justice GA because the goal is not to remove the power of Justice GA, but to reassign it, to reuse it. But if congregational direction is removed, all that will remain will be a sanitized, pasteurized, homogenized General Assembly. This more predictable GA may even be focused on a specific topic like justice or compassion, but focus is a poor substitute for purpose. The bait and switch will be based on an easy-to-understand story of who UUs are today and what Justice GA was all about. The story will, of necessity, highlight individual leaders and disregard the power that called Justice GA into being and rode it all the way to Tent City: the power of the people.
I saw that challenging power in the eyes of the young adults from Valley UU in Chandler (AZ): Rob, Carolina, Ryan, Jim, and their colleagues wore matching t-shirts to plenary -- a different shirt with custom slogan each day. They moved in a purposeful pack, passionate about protesting SB 1070, certain that if other Unitarian Universalists came to witness in the summer of 2010 and to GA in 2012 it would make a huge difference to their community and their state. They were willing to engage with anyone who wanted an authentic conversation.  
I saw that same galvanizing power shining calmly but firmly in the eyes of Tiffany and Geraldine Mendez when they testified in plenary this year about how the immigration policies in our country are shredding their family -- and if you were there I know you not only saw it, you felt it. It burned in Daniel's eyes as TIffany voiced her concerns about their future, their family. (If you missed this part of plenary, you can watch it online or read Don Skinner's article.)    
Our religious history is replete with episodes of clarity and communal action followed by disempowerment of the community. This is our history, but it need not be our next chapter in this moment. We can choose to follow this historic Justice GA with a non-historic response: we can continue to deepen and broaden our democracy. We can encourage Unitarian Universalists to make communal choices of meaning everywhere they gather and especially at General Assembly. We can have a powerful, broadly owned, less knowable, more audacious future -- a future worthy of our commitment and passion. I trust us to find the spiritual depth to go boldly into that future as members of a strong faith answering fear with love, able to say with conviction "With faithful attention this, too, can be accomplished."  
Justice GA wasn’t imagined into being by a policy of the UUA Board. Justice GA was not a new program of the UUA President or the staff. Justice GA wasn’t a new outreach of the GA Planning Committee. Justice GA was something none of your leaders had imagined, something that only the power of our congregations -- your power -- could call into being.  
Justice GA was the result of a deep engagement with the theology that underpins our fifth principle: using the democratic process opens a space for the intimate, the sacred, the formerly impossible.

On one remarkable Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis two years ago “we the people” summoned courage to match our compassion and used our collective power to place our faith boldly on the side of a more humane, more loving future. Our Association of Congregations and the world are better for our having done so.  This is what democracy looks like -- and can look like, over and over again. Si, se puede!

Next post: An abundance of possibilities

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Justice GA 2012 Design Meeting Report

This is an historic moment.
Be part of the story.

General Assembly 2012 will be a gathering with multiple ways of engaging in justice work for people of all ages. Joining with the people of Arizona, we will worship, witness, learn and work together. We will leave General Assembly grounded in our faith, energized for justice and with resources to bring this work home to our congregations.

Service and WitnessWe will partner with communities in Arizona to bring attention to the injustices and human rights abuses they face. Our service will allow all participants to witness in ways that reflect our commitment to justice, equity and compassion for all. We will also do hands-on work with our community partners. Projects will take place in a variety of settings, and include multigenerational teams and accessible venues. Whether you choose to witness for one hour, make signs for people to carry, or spend a day at a project, there will be opportunities for everyone.

Programs and WorkshopsWe will learn how to build stronger relationships, community partnerships, and movements for justice. We will go in-depth on important justice issues such as colonization, border issues and advocacy. We encourage teams to attend General Assembly in order to share experiences and learn how to continue this work at home.

The Work of JusticeOur business will be grounded in our faith tradition's commitment to justice. Plenary sessions will be limited to matters essential to the governance of our Association and items that further our justice-making efforts. The exhibit hall will offer justice resources and opportunities to connect with local communities.

Spirit and CommunityFilled with joy and boldness, we will sing, we will worship, and we will celebrate together. We will have spiritual support and reflection as we build a just world. Together, we will create a beloved community without borders.

About the GA 2012 Design Meeting

Representatives of the General Assembly Planning Committee, Arizona Immigration Ministry, UUA Staff and Administration, Accountability Group and the UUA Board met in Boston for two days in September, 2011. With respect and grace, we made significant progress addressing outstanding questions with regard to our upcoming Justice General Assembly. Together, we created a preliminary schedule for GA 2012, clarified roles and responsibilities, and built strong working relationships.

From Gini:

The GA Planning Committee members are still meeting hard in Boston and will be publishing the GA Grid (schedule) after the conclusion of their meeting.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Faith Around the Margins - a Mother's Day Sermon

Thanks to Jason Cook for reminding me to post this sermon that I committed on Mother's Day earlier this year.

Faith Around the Margins:
A Mother’s Day 2011 Sermon for Orange Coast Unitarian Universalist Church

Sermon Reading from Rev. Carter Heyward:

Love, like truth and beauty, is concrete. Love is not fundamentally a sweet feeling; not, at heart, a matter of sentiment, attachment, or being "drawn toward." Love is active, effective, a matter of making reciprocal and mutually beneficial relation with one's friends and enemies.

Love creates righteousness, or justice, here on earth. To make love is to make justice. As advocates and activists for justice know, loving involves struggle, resistance, risk. People working today on behalf of women, blacks, lesbians and gay men, the aging, the poor in this country and elsewhere know that making justice is not a warm, fuzzy experience. I think also that sexual lovers and good friends know that the most compelling relationships demand hard work, patience, and a willingness to endure tensions and anxiety in creating mutually empowering bonds.

For this reason loving involves commitment. We are not automatic lovers of self, others, world, or God. Love does not just happen. We are not love machines, puppets on the strings of a deity called "love." Love is a choice -- not simply, or necessarily, a rational choice, but rather a willingness to be present to others without pretense or guile. Love is a conversion to humanity -- a willingness to participate with others in the healing of a broken world and broken lives. Love is the choice to experience life as a member of the human family, a partner in the dance of life, rather than as an alien in the world or as a deity above the world, aloof and apart from human flesh.
And the sermon begins:

Good morning. I'd like to thank Rev. Karen Stoyanoff for graciously loaning me this fine pulpit today. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I would preach here this morning. What I ended up writing surprised even me.

In 1975 a good friend of mine was hired as the Executive Director of the Tenn-Ark-Miss Girl Scout Council. A few months later, the Council's board of directors announced that the previously all white Girl Scout Camp, Camp Kiwani, would be integrated the following summer. With only one exception, the entire camp staff tendered their resignations rather than work with black children or black staff members. I was one of five white counselors recruited to work the following summer, the first polychromatic summer at Camp Kiwani.

I'd never spent much time with African-Americans before that summer. My family had participated in the "white flight" to suburbia about the time I was born. I had friends who were Chinese-American, friends where German was spoken in the home. I had friends who were deaf, a friend in a wheelchair, friends whose parents came to Michigan from Mexico and Czechoslovakia, but no black friends. And while my family wasn't affluent, I had never seen real poverty until that summer. I had never met teenagers who had never been to school because their skin was the wrong color. Public high schools in Selby County were closed following the Brown v. Board of Education decision, and only reopened in the fall of 1976. For almost 20 years, there were no public schools, and all white children went to private, primarily parochial schools. I met african-american children who lived in cardboard boxes with tin roofs, children who lived without running water, whose parents cooked dinner outside over a three-pound coffee can "wood stove", and it was not their choice to live this way. For one short summer, these were my children.

Five years ago my children's children were housed in the Houston Astrodome, sleeping on bridges in New Orleans and Gulfport – perhaps not their biological children, but their children nonetheless, children of racism, children of oppression, children who were robbed of their childhoods as surely as my campers were robbed of theirs.

I was haunted by the faces of hurricane survivors from Louisiana and Mississippi for I know these children, these parents, these grandparents. I continue to be angered and saddened at our national inability to directly deal with poverty choosing instead to blame the victims of oppression, by our willingness to redirect resources from the poorest Americans and squander those resources on unneeded bridges, unnecessary tax cuts, and our wars to oppress other people of color on others continent to keep gas prices down and oil profits up. We live in what Laura Flanders calls a "sink or swim" society, with grossly unequal access to healthcare, housing, and government relief efforts. The Census Bureau’s statistics tell it for the umpteenth time. For the ninth straight year, only the top 5 percent of Americans have been thriving; incomes and resources for the other 95 percent have been flat or on the decline.

There are Americans living on the margins, living a marginal existence. I am ashamed that it is possible, actually very easy for me to have a first class standard of living even though you and I live in what is for others a third world country, that poor people are too easily "out of sight, out of mind", and that poverty is not an equal opportunity employer, but continues to favor historically marginalized groups. Katrina didn't turn the gulf into a third world country – racism and our ability to live in a racist system, turned Louisiana and Mississippi into a third world country. In 2004 Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards was derided for speaking of the two Americas. But there are at least two kinds of Americans: those who can get themselves out of harms way, and those who cannot; those our government rushes to help, and those they do not; those who are expendable, and those who are not. Here in our one (and only one) America, 12% of white Americans surveyed but 60% of black Americans surveyed in late 2005 believed that racism was a factor in the lack of response to Katrina. This was big news for about five days, on our screens for less time than it took to notice an entire nursing home gone missing, less time than it took to return home and remove the plywood from the windows.

A few days after Katrina made landfall, Tim Wise wrote a column for MSN online entitled A God with Whom I Am Not Familiar. It begins:
This is an open letter to the man sitting behind me at La Paz today, in Nashville, at lunchtime, with the Brooks Brothers shirt:

You don't know me. But I know you. I watched you as you held hands with your tablemates at the restaurant where we both ate this afternoon. I listened as you prayed, and thanked God for the food you were about to eat, and for your own safety, several hundred miles away from the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans. You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then proceeded to spend the better part of your meal morally scolding the people of that devastated city,
heaping scorn on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster

When you asked, rhetorically, why it was that people were so much more decent amid the tragedy of 9-11, as compared to the aftermath of Katrina, one of your friends offered her response, but only after apologizing for what she admitted was going to sound harsh.

"Well," Buffy explained. "It's probably because in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people, and you know, they just don't have the same regard." She then added that police should shoot the looters, and should have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should be shot. Praise the Lord. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.

Your God is one who you sincerely believe cares about your lunch. Your God is one who you seem to believe watches over you and blesses you, and brings good tidings your way, while simultaneously letting thousands of people watch their homes be destroyed, and perhaps ten thousand or more die, many of them in the streets for lack of water or food. Did you ever stop to think just what a rancid ass such a God
would have to be, such that he would take care of the likes of you, while letting babies die in their mother's arms, and old people in wheelchairs, at the foot of Canal Street? Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.…

God doesn't care who wins the Super Bowl. God doesn't help anyone win an Academy
Award. God didn't get you your last raise, or your SUV.

If you want to believe that the poor of New Orleans are immoral and greedy, and unworthy of support at a time like this--or somehow more in need of your scolding than whatever donation you might make to a relief fund--so be it. But let's leave God
out of it, shall we? All of it. Your God is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to keep it that way.
In 2005 I was visiting Spindletop, our congregation in Beaumont, Texas -- a victim of Hurricane Katrina’s younger sister Rita. When we spoke of New Orleans after the service, one couple talked about hoping and praying that hurricanes would miss them and hit elsewhere, then feeling totally guilt-ridden when their prayers were answered. They asked me if I thought they were bad people. I suggested that the God who would answer their prayer probably doesn’t listen to Unitarian Universalists. A god with whom we are not familiar, probably isn't terribly familiar with us, either.

Four months ago your UUA Board held its quarterly meeting in Phoenix. Prior to the meeting about half of the Board traveled to Tucson and Nogales to see what’s going on at our border, to learn what is being done there by the government with our tax dollars and in our name. I can’t tell you everything I learned – there is not time. I would like to tell you about two things that happen there every single day, two things that you’re not likely to read in the newspaper or see on television because they are being done to those who have been deemed expendable. I tell you these things on Mother’s Day because I truly believe that anyone who has ever been a parent, anyone who has ever loved a child, would be bothered by these things:

1. Automated, unmanned towers in the Arizona desert, machine guns and lots of technology to detect and with no thought involved, shoot anything that walks upright.

2. Lateral repatriation: a federal policy that intentionally breaks up families under the assumption that if you can't even locate your kids or your parents, you are less likely to try to cross a border. In case you're not familiar, here's how this lateral repatriation works: If you and your undocumented family is caught in the United States, we might repatriate (return) you to Tijuana, your spouse to Nogales, and each of your children to yet other cities -- and all this after your cell phones and any address books have been taken from you so you cannot find each other. There is a relatively new but thriving child sex trade just south of our border.

The UUA Board members met families and pieces of families in Nogales – a woman with her twelve year old daughter, both lamenting their inability to be at home with her two younger siblings; three young brothers; a man and his son; a couple who looked like the young newlyweds I see at Niagara Falls. All their faces are also with me. Our government implements policies that shred the fabric of family life, policies that have horrific outcomes that are so obvious that it’s a lie to call these outcomes accidental or unintentional.

The wet heat of a hurricane, the dry heat of the Arizona desert. What do these stories have in common? The circumstances differ, of course. Hurricanes abandon people in the convention center and Superbowl; failed economic policies abandon people at a bus garage in Nogales. Here is what is common: a decision that some of us do not matter at all, are unworthy of our notice or our care save for one fact: we can build an industry on their misery. The fastest growing industry in Arizona is the prison industry, and there are many ties between elected officials in Arizona and the corporations building and managing those prisons. Halliburton, with close ties to the Bush White House, made billions in the Gulf and paid almost no taxes – including payroll taxes – on the proceeds because they processed the payrolls in the Grand Caymans. Why should we care that money is made from misery? Because we have allowed huge institutional systems built solely to maximize profit. Once there’s a profit, the suffering doesn’t matter. …

Whenever I bump up against the evil of which we humans are capable, I feel guilty, and saddened and angry and tired. You, too? I'd like to suggest that we can choose how to be with any of these emotions. Franz Kafka wrote:

“You can hold back from
suffering of the world,
you have permission to do so,
and it is in accordance
with your nature,
but perhaps this very holding back
is the one suffering
you could have avoided"

What will we choose? We can choose to be mindful, to be vigilant. As Unitarian Universalists, we are uniquely suited to pay attention to the margins, to be aware that margins are often intentional, that the margins provide a buffer, serve a purpose. We're thoughtful folks, willing to work long and hard to improve the world when others less grounded give up, when others are ignoring this life to focus on the afterlife. As sophisticated people of faith, we know how to stay on the task, to be tenacious about building a better world.

We have a powerful message – a message not just for the white middle and upper class citizens of the United States, but for the dispossessed in New Orleans, the homeless in Hattiesburg, the undocumented in California and Texas and Arizona, the beaten and broken on our border with Mexico:

Because we affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person:
We will open our eyes and see your suffering. We will not forget what we saw. We will not pretend you deserved or somehow earned the injustices that were heaped upon you. We will ask that our tax dollars be spent in keeping with our values and basic humanity.

Because we affirm justice, equity and compassion in human relations:
We will focus our resources on those who are least likely to receive justice, equity, or compassion from the government or other organizations, and on those who are being systematically targeted for unjust and non-compassionate treatment.

Because we affirm acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations:
We are committed to supporting vital ministries in New Orleans and Tucson and Phoenix and Clearwater Florida and Lawrence Massachusetts and Orange California and a thousand other places so that Unitarian Universalists can continue to work with local leaders to create fair, just communities.

Because we affirm the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all:
We will become knowledgeable about global relationships. We will understand how the U.S. standard of living – our standard of living -- depends on a lower standard of living for many, including our neighbors in Mexico and know that those who suffer as a result of U.S. economic policies suffer on our behalf. We will work to address the gap between the obscenely rich and obscenely poor countries, and the obscenely rich and obscenely poor within in this country. We will continue to stridently oppose the use of war to support the American economy and American business.

Because we respect the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part:
We will not disconnect ourselves from those who suffer now, or in the future. We are called to minister on the margins. We will not close our eyes and stop up our ears to shut out this call, even when we're angry, or uncertain, or just plain tired.

We are the stewards of a powerful Universalist faith that gains energy and authenticity on the margins, whose message is most cleanly lived and preached in accountability with those most marginalized. Grounded in our tradition, empowered by our principles, and connected by the spirit of life and love, a god of many names with whom we are familiar, may we pray:

Let silence be placed around us,
like a mantle,
Let us enter into it,
As through a small, secret door;
to emerge into an acre of peace,
where stillness reigns,
and the voice of God
is ever present.

The voice of God
in the startled cry
of a refugee child,
waking in
unfamiliar surroundings.
The voice of God
in the mother
fleeing with
her treasure
in her arms who says
"I am here."

The voice of God
in the father
who points to the stars
and says:
"there is our signpost, there is our lantern.
Be of good courage."

O God, may all we see and all we know
become a cloak of understanding
to warm our hearts in prayer, focus our minds on justice, and move our hands to action.


prayer by Kate McIlhagga from "Women Pray"

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Doing the Business of the Association

Almost annually the UUA Moderator is asked to do some kind of a "wrap up" in the General Assembly closing. It usually has a specific theme or topic. Here are reflections I offered in June 2008, when the assigned topic was "Doing the Business of the Association". They provide a deeper dive into the topics of polity and theology than I could provide last month in the 2011 Moderator's Report. I'll be circling back to that topic later this week.

Doing the Business of the Association: Why We Meet, How We Do This Religiously
Closing Worship, 2008 General Assembly: A Meeting of Congrgations
Gini Courter, UUA Moderator and Chief Governance Officer

In five minutes or less, I am to summarize why we meet and how we do this religiously.

We start with two brief readings -

ARTICLE IV General Assembly
Section C-4.2. Powers and Duties.
General Assemblies shall make overall policy for carrying out the
purposes of the Association and shall direct and control its affairs.

And Conrad Wright, from Congregational Polity:
Polity defines the way in which we believe human beings should be related to each other. It is not a matter of casual social arrangements, but goes very directly to the heart of basic matters of theology.

We meet to make policy, to direct and control the affairs of our Association of Congregations, so that we can say “we’re happy that the folks in the states of New Hampshire and Vermont and Maine want to work together” and bless that relationship. We meet so that we can say Unitarian Universalism is best served by rescinding the categorization of ministries into exactly three types. We meet so we can say “ministry for young Unitarian Universalists is critical, not only for our future but for the present health of our faith” and “ministry for young adult Unitarian Universalists is of paramount importance”. We meet to say that if we knew more about Ethical Eating, we would better live our values in the world, so we should study that, all of us, right now, even while we are still figuring out our role in peacemaking. We meet to say all this and more, and the most important word I have uttered since I began is simple, short: we. Connecting, empowering: we. Not the UUA board, or the UUA president, or the UUA moderator or the professional ministry or the districts, or the UUA staff, but we.

The Unitarians and Universalists on whose shoulders we stand chose congregational polity. This was not a haphazard choice, a “let’s try this polity” choice, an arbitrary choice. There are other choices, other ecclesiastical polities, and by choosing congregational polity, we were not choosing the Episcopalian polity used by many faith communions – Anglican, for sure but also Catholic and Eastern Orthodox – where governance, this sacred thing we have been doing here together, is done by bishops and archbishops and bishops by other names.

In choosing congregational polity, we were not choosing the Presbyterian polity used by many faith communions – Presbyterians and the Reformed traditions among others – where governance, this sacred thing we have been doing here together, is owned by a hierarchy of councils presided over by the clergy from the congregation on up, where decisions of congregational councils can be overturned by higher level councils.

Our choice of congregational polity is based on our understanding of our relationships…our accountability to each other and to the community and to the holy, however we understand the words “community” and “holy”. Our choice of congregational polity reflects our sure knowledge that divine inspiration, human reason, and the prophetic voice that calls us to compassion and action in the service of justice – that prophetic voice resounds from the pews as well as the pulpits. Congregational polity reflects our recognition that the ministry of the congregation is always shared. Our choice of congregational polity requires that we meet, that we assemble, ministers and lay people selected by congregations, to make the decisions that in other polities are made by only the clergy, or by the clergy and the “special few” lay people.

And so we travel to Fort Worth, to St. Louis, to Portland, we come to Fort Lauderdale, we will journey to Salt Lake City, to Minneapolis, to Charlotte…. We come here because we are so much more together than we are alone. Some come for affinity, to find and know that there are other Unitarian Universalists who share parts of our identity. We come here to train and to learn and to share best practices. We gather to celebrate, once again. All these reasons to gather are wonderful, amazing, even true. But we don’t just come here to huddle together for the kind of warmth shared by puppies in a litter, we don’t just gather in all this plurality to find some affirmation of our uniqueness, we don’t just assemble to learn, important as learning is, we don’t just gather to celebrate our possibility and our promise. These reasons alone are not enough.

No…we gather here, free congregations freely assembled, freely choosing to walk together, to stand together, to roll together, to discuss, to debate, to discern together.

Our polity must be exercised. Our congregational polity must be exercised, or it will die. Whether or not we make decisions, decisions will be made. Decisions that direct our faith are made every day. Someone is making them. It is supposed to be we.

When we lay folks don’t care, don’t take part in decision making, leave it to the ministers whether they want it or not, we’ve abandoned our congregational polity for Episcopalian polity, and it will break us.

And when the only lay folks who care about decision making are the special few, the elect, those who can afford to participate, we abandon our congregational polity for the polity of the presbytery, and it will break us.

As we heard in last night’s Ware Lecture [by Van Jones], we need to be prepared to govern. I suggest we start here.

We gather here, free congregations freely assembled, freely choosing to walk together, to stand together, to roll together, even to rock and roll together, to discuss, to debate, to discern, to decide.

And then we must do one thing more. When we separate, when we leave, when we dis-assemble and return to our congregations, we’ll take back inspiration and new skills and new songs and new ways of thinking about pluralism and welcoming the stranger and being in solidarity and religious passion and the language of reverence and… and… and something more.

Since Friday, many congregational leaders have stopped me to ask “how do I get my congregation to support youth ministry? Young adult ministry? How do I engage my congregation in this ethical eating study action issue?” I love talking with you about what’s on your heart, what challenges you as a leader. I am flattered that you would consult with me on important matters. And I’m such a task-based person that I’ve gone right to the task of answering your questions, and in the process I have given you some really bad answers.

Here’s the right answer: We must take the decisions we made here together back to our congregations for discussion and affirmation. Schedule a congregational meeting, and make the agenda for your congregation’s meeting the resolutions from the agenda of this General Assembly. Prepare your congregation for this meeting. Ask your members to bring their heads and their hearts to the conversation, just as you did here. Read or show the statements that the presenters made – the video is already available on Discuss, debate, discern, decide. Trust that the conversation in your congregation, like the conversation here, will be thoughtful and reflect the best thinking of your congregation, statements of passion and thoughtfulness filled with “I care so deeply and am afraid we might fail” and “I trust your thinking” and “We could” and then “We must”, statements expressed in lexicons of meaning, vocabularies of values, every reverential language we can summon forth.

Take this General Assembly home, but most especially the decisions we made here together in plenary, decisions that could change the future of our faith but only if we engage with them fully. Take them home. Take them home. It is our theology. It is our unique and precious Unitarian Universalist way: our polity, our hope and our promise.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

GA 2011: Tending the Flame

After the St. Louis General Assembly the Council on Cross-Cultural Engagement (Unitarian Universalist leaders talking about how we can be more amazingly adept at noticing and courageously crossing borders) brainstormed a list of ways we could use the skills we already have to make General Assembly (GA) a kinder experience more in keeping with our values. The GA Right Relationship Team was formed as a result of this Council conversation, as were the replacement of "energy breaks" with songs, and the notion that we might want to light a chalice (novel idea!) at the beginning of each plenary (business) session.
Part of planning the plenary agenda is selecting chalice lighters for each plenary. The Southeast district was our host for GA 2011, and so I asked the leadership of the Southeast district to light the chalice for our last plenary. They sent board member Nathan Hollister, whose chalice lighting gave me goosebumps. Here's my introduction and Nathan's chalice lighting from the live captioning feed. You can watch it at:

Gini: I now call to order the final plenary session for this 50th General Assembly. It is my pleasure to ask an old friend who has served as a teller, and as a moderator at some of our mini assemblies here.
You know, sometimes Unitarian Universalism is a story about how you meet a new friend and then you realize that you knew them 20 years ago and where have they been? This is one of those kinds of stories. This is Nathan Hollister, and his father, who I only know as “Nathan's dad”. They're here to light the chalice this afternoon.

Nathan Hollister:
About 50 years ago, after helping to found congregations in Texas, Georgia, and Maryland, my grandparents, Fran and Bill Hollister, moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. There in the 60s, my grandparents worked with others to create a liberal religious home for those committed to racial justice, a home that came to be known as Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
In 2006, my wife Robin and I moved to Chapel Hill to spend some time with Fran in her last few years. We began our tenure as youth group advisors on our second Sunday. And because of this, it wasn't until I found myself in a workshop on membership led by Reverend Morales that it occurred to me that although I'd been around for about eight months, I hadn't yet signed the membership book.
For whatever reason, I spoke up about this in the meeting. And to my great surprise and greater embarrassment, my minister, Don Southworth, upon hearing this, jumped out of his chair and took off out of the room. Moments later, he returned with the membership book in tow and asked me, in front of the other 30 or so participants of the workshop, if I would join the fellowship. So of course I said “Yes” and I was hauled up to the front of the room.
So there I stood, in front of my congregational leaders, future [UUA] President Morales, future UUMA Director Southworth, and amid much fanfare, prepared to sign the book. It was at that moment that my grandmother called out, “Wait - that's my grandson.” And everything in the room stopped.
My grandmother made her way slowly from the back of the room to stand next to me at the podium. She put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me, and she said, "I want to be here for this." And I signed the book and I joined the fellowship that my grandparents helped to build for almost 50 years.
Today, as we open the last plenary session of our 50th anniversary, I'm carrying this story in my heart, and it's my wish that 50 years from now, I can stand where my grandmother stood, while future grandchildren make commitments to a vibrant, powerful, and liberating faith.
So in this spirit, here’s my dad, Allan Hollister, who was raised Unitarian Universalist by Fran and Bill, and has finally, finally made it to his first General Assembly ever. I'll ask him to light the chalice.
The warmth of our gathering here kindles a claim whose light can embrace the world.
Its spark lives in all of us and in the loving work that we do here.
This sacred fire ignites our passion for justice and warms our hearts to compassion.
It lights our way not clearly, not with a blinding and unyielding light, but with a flickering, dancing, and varied light. It's a light that warms us when we need it and one that burns us if that's what we need.
May it serve to strengthen our enduring covenants and, if I may say so, may it also serve to set fire to oppression and injustice.
Let us celebrate our past 50 years and the promise of the next 50.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Chaliceblog: The usual UU excuses for listening to Garrison Keillor

At every GA, someone says "Do you know who would be the perfect Ware Lecturer?" About half of the time, the suggestion is Garrison Keillor. I'm just dumbfounded. I point out that he's not laughing with us -- he's laughing at us. Sometimes this is news. Wow. Othertimes, the person knows this and doesn't really care. Apparently some of us just like to hear our faith mentioned on NPR on a regular basis; if we were mice, we'd like mousetraps because we enjoy the cheese part.

I was going to post something about Garrison Keillor's rant (if only to redeem the humorists of the midwest, not all of whom are mean spirited or narrow minded) when I found this post, which is much better than anything I would have written:

The Chaliceblog: The usual UU excuses for listening to Garrison Keillor

I live in a country where I can practice my religion -- and others can practice theirs -- because it was founded by people who espoused and practiced many of the values that my Unitarian Universalist faith affirms. Sadly, that's way too much freedom for some to enjoy.

Happy holidays -- including Christmas