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.

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