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GA 2000 - September/October 2000

To Nashville, with Class
By David Reich

Record turnout, high-tech presentations mark the 39th assembly

The issue of class flavored this GA, in forums, in President Buehrens's report to the delegates, in a ringing sermon, in debate on resolution

From June 22 to June 26, a record 4,070 UUs, including 2,173 delegates, converged on Nashville, Tennessee, for a low-key UUA General Assembly whose crowning moment, according to several attendees, was a social justice sermon that urged UUs to enlist in the class struggle.

The Winds
If this 39th GA had an unusual feature apart from its size and its preoccupation with the class system, it was the Friday plenary session, a multimedia event in which the UUA staff, board of directors, president, and moderator promised to throw caution to the winds, according to the GA program book. What they did was answer questions about the UUA submitted by UUs from all over and ranging from the whimsical ("Why does the UUA Board of Trustees exist?") to the pragmatic ("How will the 2001 UUA elections be covered on the Web?").

At odd times throughout the morning, a juggler would appear behind whichever speaker occupied the lectern, presumably to illustrate the juggling act involved in religious leadership, a metaphor deployed by several speakers. Other media that came into play included music (several hymns were sung en masse, a chorus sang a piece called "Holy Breath," and minister/pianist the Rev. John Corrado offered an expert jazz rendition of "Don't Fence Me In") and video (a cat food commercial on the convention center's floor-to-ceiling video screens helped illustrate a favorite saying of UUA President the Rev. John Buehrens--that trying to lead Unitarian Universalists is similar to herding cats).

Beyond the Q & A format, the program made one other nod to interactivity when Moderator Denise Davidoff invited comments from the floor about the UUA's Journey toward Wholeness antiracism initiative. Attendees who accepted the invitation gave the initiative mixed reviews. Speaking favorably, the Rev. Barbro Hansson, extension minister of the Plattsburgh, New York, fellowship, said, "The work of antiracism and the Journey toward Wholeness is the most important work I have been involved in as a lay leader and minister," while delegate Gladys McNatt of Greensboro, North Carolina, said, "It's a hard program, and I don't see the end, but we need to be there working on these issues. We have to stick with it." More critically, Corrado, the piano-playing minister, who hails from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, expressed relief that the antiracism program had "been modified to eliminate name-calling, harassment, and disrespect" of trainees, and Finley C. Campbell of Chicago disputed what he called the program's "white skin privilege theory of racism," explaining, "I can't see that any white brother or sister on welfare has privilege." Finally, a delegate from Massachusetts asked the Journey toward Wholeness leadership on behalf of her congregation "to address the elephant in the middle of the living room, and that is the issue of class. We never talk about it."

Penultimate Buehrens
It was as if the Massachusetts delegate had turned on a spigot, for after her remarks "the issue of class" was talked about repeatedly during this GA, briefly and at length, in forums ranging from a reading by the author of a hot new book to Buehrens's report to the delegates--the second-to-last of his second four-year term. Buehrens, suggesting that the GA might do well to hold over this year's statement of conscience, titled Economic Injustice, Poverty, and Racism, for another year, said that his travels among UU congregations "do not give me much evidence that we UUs have found . . . even the words to talk about class."

His report also touched on numerous other topics, praising UU work on behalf of "unjustly marginalized" people; scolding some members and congregations for "self-marginalization" and "in-group behavior," respectively; citing growth statistics (five times as many UU high school youth as in 1992, six times as many UU college groups, a 60 percent rise in per capita giving to congregational operating funds); and announcing the launch of a new campaign of ads and public witness. He also announced a capital fund drive, the Campaign for Unitarian Universalism, which aims to raise an unprecedented $32 million for youth and young adult programs, congregational growth, and training and education for lay leaders and religious professionals. In its first six months, reported Buehrens, the campaign has raised more than $15 million, "signed or verbally committed by just the first 25 donors."

Class Goes to School
If Buehrens briefly touched on class in his wide-ranging report, Meadville/Lombard Theological School Professor the Rev. David Bumbaugh put it at the center of remarks he made as part of a panel of Meadville/Lombard faculty. From its origins in Eastern Europe and later in Joseph Priestley's England and 19th century America, Unitarianism was always a faith of "merchants and scholars," Bumbaugh said. He also disputed what he referred to as "the myth that ... Universalism was a lower-class faith," calling Universalists "the champions of middle-class virtue in small-town America." And since "this class definition of UUism is . . . not likely to change very much," he said, UUs must work "from within to address the comfortable, the self-satisfied, the self-congratulatory. . . . We are the people called to remind them that their well-being rests on the misery of a global underclass."

Another member of the Meadville/Lombard panel, Associate Professor the Rev. Thandeka, gave a short talk on "cultural theology" that presented a radically different view of the status of the middle class. Describing cultural theology as "liberal theology with an attitude," she said the discipline "affirms, with Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, ... that the so-called privilege of survival in hostile circumstances can bankrupt the human soul." From there, she argued that for middle-class UUs and others "the appearance of privilege" obscures their domination by a system of getting and spending that "substitutes the objects and signs of affluence for the real thing. ... Consumer equality," she concluded, "conceals the absence of real equality for the vast majority of America's citizens, black, white, pink, or purple."

The Bottom-Up View
Later in the GA, a reading by antiviolence activist and Beacon Press author Michael Patrick MacDonald, whose All Souls: A Family Story from Southie tells MacDonald's story of growing up poor in white, working-class South Boston, offered a bottom-up view of the class system. Interspersing comments with his readings from the book, MacDonald recounted how one of his brothers died as an infant after a hospital refused to admit him, having already filled its quota of charity cases for the night, and how three other brothers died violently in the crime- and drug-plagued neighborhood, which residents nonetheless persisted in calling "the best place in the world." Decrying the "silence on class issues in the media, in the neighborhood," he nonetheless admitted, "Even in my teenage years I learned never to tell people I was from South Boston because they would assume you were white trash or a racist."

Toward the end of the session, an exchange between MacDonald and an audience member seemed to illustrate the point. MacDonald's interlocutor, an older African American man, told the author, "I am an activist. I fight you people all the way. I know you people. When I wanted to build my home in [an upper middle-class Boston suburb], the Irish were the most adamant against me." By contrast, another African American audience member emphasized the common plight of poor people of different ethnicities, saying, "The story you told about Southie, if you change the names, could have been told about almost any inner-city neighborhood. There's the same self-hatred, the same self-destructive forces." For his part, MacDonald lamented Irish American South Boston's longtime failure to form alliances with Boston's poor and working-class African Americans and Latinos. South Boston "had an opportunity to be a model ... not only because we had such a high concentration of poverty," he said, "but because the Irish were white people who had been colonized."

Sunday Morning Class Struggle
Even the sermon at Sunday morning's Service of the Living Tradition--in most years a paean to ministry--took on the US class system. The Rev. Marilyn Sewell, senior minister of the First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, opened by describing the "restlessness and uneasiness" she feels when reading newspaper reports on social and economic indicators and seeing "flesh-and-blood examples" ranging from castaway teenagers "sleeping in the very doorways of our church" to downsizing, mergers, the lengthening workday, and growing workplace anxiety. Sewell said religious people are called to root out the underlying cause of these phenomena--"economic inequity, or in theological terms, greed"--but that "we can't do justice work in a vacuum." Thus, she urged middle-class UUs to meet and learn from "people who live on the edge"--poor people, transgendered people, homeless children, migrant workers--and to work in coalitions "with Catholics on the death penalty, with the trade unions for a living wage, with people of color to effect racial justice. What do all these issues have in common? Class struggle," Sewell said.

But political work alone won't bring fundamental change, she added, asserting that "we must begin to speak to one another and listen--and then to imagine" a new and better world.

"The scripture doesn't say, . . . 'Without a political agenda the people perish,'" Sewell quipped. "It says, 'Without a vision the people perish.'"

Officialdom Bucked
Despite coming late in the General Assembly, Sewell's sermon functioned as a sort of keynote address. Most significantly, several delegates used her words during a later plenary session debate to argue for moving forward with a statement of conscience titled Economic Injustice, Poverty, and Racism. (Statements of conscience articulate UUA social witness positions and culminate a three-year "study-action" process.) Though Buehrens had suggested--in his report, and before that in a World column he co-authored with Moderator Davidoff--holding over the statement for another year for further study by congregations, the statement passed overwhelmingly. 
In an interview after GA, the Rev. Richard Nugent, interim minister of Fourth Universalist Church of New York, New York, who had spoken on the floor for immediate passage of the statement, said, "There wouldn't have been the needed 2/3 support had the vote been taken Friday. I suspect Marilyn's sermon focused people's attention and spoke to their hearts and consciences."

Delegates also bucked officialdom in another vote, rejecting by a narrow margin a UUA Board-endorsed proposal to reduce the maximum number of actions of immediate witness from six to four per year.

List of actions on GA business items

GA Briefs

  • GA attendees came from all 50 US states, the District of Columbia, six Canadian provinces, the Virgin Islands, and Mexico.
  • This year, for the first time, plenary sessions ended with a "process observation," with a designated observer taking to the podium to offer a review of the session's proceedings as seen through what was described as "an antiracist, anti-oppression, pro-Canada lens."
  • The Empty Shelves project, whereby GA attendees donate money to buy books for a public school library in the host city, yielded 1,500 books for Nashville's Fall Hamilton Elementary School.
  • For the third year in a row, the collection at the Service of the Living Tradition netted a record amount for the Living Tradition Fund, which benefits ministers, retired ministers, and candidates for the ministry. This year's collection totaled $117,913, almost a 50% increase over last year's collection.
  • A more spontaneous act of giving caught the attention of Nashville media, including the daily Tennessean, when two Unitarian Universalist youth, after seeing an injured homeless man lying on the sidewalk near their hotel, raised over $300 from UU youth to buy groceries for the Nashville Union Mission, which serves homeless people. The next day, they came to a plenary session and raised $2,700 more for local charities. Four hundred eighteen youth attended GA this year.
  • The Ware Lecture at GA 2001, in Cleveland, will be delivered by the Rev. James Forbes, minister of Riverside Church in New York City. The Rev. Richard Gilbert, minister of the First Unitarian Church of Rochester, New York, will preach the sermon at the Service of the Living Tradition.
At the GA Awards Breakfast on Sunday the following awards were presented:
  • The UUA President's Award for Volunteer Service to the Association was presented to Leon Spencer, who during more than a decade served as a UUA trustee, district leader, committee member, volunteer trainer and counselor, and cochair of what's now the Journey toward Wholeness antiracism initiative.
  • The Annual Program Fund/UU Ministers Association Sermon Award encouraging ministers to explore and promote financial support of UUism was presented to the Rev. Gary Kowalski of the First UU Society of Burlington, Vermont, for his sermon "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
  • The Angus H. MacLean Award was presented by the UUA Department of Religious Education to the Rev. Jeannellen Ryan for her outstanding leadership in religious education.
  • The Young Adult/Campus Ministry Award to honor UUs furthering the cause of ministry to young adults, ages 18 to 35, was presented to Sharon Hwang Colligan for her creative and cutting-edge work in her congregation, the Pacific Central District, and across the continent.
  • The UUA Board of Trustees presented the UUA's highest award, the Award for Distinguished Service to the Cause of Unitarian Universalism, to the Rev. Carl Scovel for a lifetime of service to the movement.
  • The International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) Award was presented by the IARF US Chapter to the Rev. Richard Kellaway for his work promoting international and interfaith dialogue and cooperation.
  • The UUA Department of Religious Education Youth Office presented its Youth Advisor of the Year Award to Rick Bibby.
  • The Social Action Leadership Award was presented by the UU Service Committee Board of Directors to William L. Brach of the Unitarian Church of Montclair, New Jersey. Brach, founder of the New Jersey Promise the Children State Network, was recognized for his outstanding leadership in mobilizing activists in his state on behalf of children locally and statewide.
  • The Clarence R. Skinner Award given by the UUA Faith in Action Department for the sermon best expressing UU social values was presented to Ginger Luke for her sermon "Why No Living Wage?"
  • The Holmes-Weatherly Award honoring those whose social justice work best exemplifies the spirit of the founders of the Unitarian Fellowship of Social Justice was presented by the UUA Faith in Action Department to Helen Henry for her work on behalf of Native Americans through the UU Network on Indigenous Affairs.
  • The UUA Office of Congregational, District, and Extension Services presented the O. Eugene Pickett Award to the First UU Church of Nashville for its outstanding contribution to the growth of Unitarian Universalism. The congregation's adult membership has increased by 30% in the last four years, and it has added a second service and broadened its outreach programs.
  • The Mark DeWolfe Award honoring long-term, exemplary contributions to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender community was presented by Interweave to Al Usack, a member of the Paint Branch UU Church in Adelphi, Maryland.
  • The Unsung Unitarian Universalist Award honoring those whose inspirational actions aren't sufficiently recognized was presented to Coral Dudek of the Bellingham UU Fellowship in Washington.
  • The Unsung Unitarian Universalist Youth Award honoring a youth whose actions inspire support was presented to Paul Dechichio of First Church and Parish in Dedham, Massachusetts.
  • The Living the Mission Award was presented by the Partner Church Council to the Rev. Denes Farkas for his commitment to strengthening connections with the Romanian Unitarians.
  • The Schweitzer Award given by UUs for Ethical Treatment of Animals for the sermon best exemplifying Albert Schweitzer's teaching of reverence for life was presented to the Rev. Ron Sala for his sermon "Mind Your Own Business."
  • The Clayton Raymond Bowen Prize for Biblical Scholarship was presented to Ron Robinson for his paper "Rhetoric and the Disclosure of Power in Luke."
  • The James Bennett Award for exemplary social justice work by a congregation was presented to two Seattle churches, the University Unitarian Church and the Rainier Valley UU Congregation, for representing the UU view of social justice at the World Trade Organization meeting last November in Seattle.
  • The Unitarian Sunday School Society Board presented its Sermon Award to the Rev. David Weissbard of the Rockford UU Church in Illinois for "Sex Education and Religious Liberty," and its Intergenerational Service Award to the youth group of the Northwoods UU Fellowship in Manitowish Waters, Wisconsin, for "Making Meaning in Music."
  • The UU Women's Federation (UUWF) Ministry to Women Award was presented to the UUWF administrative boards that served from 1973 through 1977, which founded the Ministry to Women Award.
  • The Mary-Ella Holst Youth Activist Award honoring those who advance human rights and social justice through activism and leadership was presented to the UU youth who participated in the July 1999 work camp in Yakima, Washington, working with migrant farm workers. The award winners' names are Alex Bacon, Benjamin Berres, Alex Freeburg, Travis Taylor, Amelia Vader, Caitlin Holt, Laura Johnson, Derek Newberry, Lisa Juvinall, Paula Nett, Rachel Long, and David Taylor. After the two-week camp, the youth wrote a 20-page report on the living and working conditions of migrant farm worker families, submitted it to Washington state officials, and returned home to share their experience in churches and communities throughout the Pacific Northwest District.

Economic Injustice, Poverty, and Racism: We Can Make a Difference

The 2000 UUA General Assembly approved numerous minor bylaw amendments and this Statement of Conscience:

We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, hereby rededicate ourselves to the pursuit of economic justice, an end to racism, and an end to poverty. We recognize that racism is a major contributor toward economic injustice. We pledge ourselves to strive to understand how racism and classism perpetuate poverty and to work for the systemic changes needed to promote a more just economy and compassionate society.Together, we can make a difference.

Economic injustice persists in spite of the longest period of economic prosperity in our history. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. Tens of millions, particularly children, women, and the elderly live in poverty, a disproportionate share of whom are ethnic and racial minorities.

Working for a just society is central to our Unitarian Universalist faith. An economically just society is one in which 1) government and private institutions promote the common economic good and are held accountable; 2) all people have equal opportunity to care for themselves and their families; and 3) individuals take responsibility for the effects of their actions on their own and others' lives. Conversely, racism encourages people to perpetuate a system of privileges and economic rewards that opens the door of opportunity much wider for some than for others. This should not be tolerated.

We must look both inward and outward as we organize ourselves for action within our congregations and beyond. Looking inward, the 1997 General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association urged Unitarian Universalists to examine carefully our own conscious and unconscious racism and to work toward our transformation to an anti-racist, multi-cultural institution. The Unitarian Universalist community has only begun its soul-searching toward the goal of becoming more inclusive and affirming. We acknowledge the lack of racial and economic diversity within most of our congregations. However, having diverse congregations is not the only way to understand injustice in our society. Looking outward, our 1997 General Assembly also called upon Unitarian Universalists to work for a more just economic community. We can learn much and accomplish much by joining and creating community organizations in which diverse groups of people work together on economic justice issues, hold community leaders accountable, and monitor those leaders' efforts toward achieving systemic improvements. Our work for economic justice must include support for

  • fair wages and benefits;
  • access to adequate housing, social services, child care, adult daycare, education, health care, legal services, financial services, and transportation;
  • the removal of environmental and occupational hazards that disproportionately affect low-income people;
  • respect for treaty rights of First Nations and Native American Tribes;
  • government and corporate policies that promote economic investment in the urban core and rural communities;
  • a more equitable criminal justice system;
  • tax systems that prevent affluent individuals and corporations from sheltering assets and income at the expense of those less privileged; and
  • campaign reforms that ensure equal access to the electoral process regardless of wealth.
As Unitarian Universalists, we have a religious and moral obligation to challenge complacency in ourselves and in our communities. We commit to fighting injustice wherever we find it. We acknowledge that this may disturb our own comfort and require us to broaden our interest to include the greater good of an economically just and compassionate community. We will learn much as we do this work.

Historically, Unitarians and Universalists have often been in the forefront of social reform. Our history teaches that social change does not come easily and is not without risk. Nevertheless, at the beginning of this new century, let us recommit to justice, equity, and compassion in human relations. Let us embrace our responsibility to help create a more just world. Let us continue to reflect and organize for action within our congregations and beyond our doors. Let us not concede that economic injustice, poverty, and racism are tolerable.

Also approved were a Study Action Issue titled An Alternative to the "War on Drugs" and Actions of Immediate Witness titled Support Tibet and the Dalai Lama, Protest against Racial Profiling, Handgun Legislation, End the Death Penalty, Campaign Finance Reform, and National Missile Defense System.

GA Bon Mot
Author, Baptist minister, and civil rights hero the Rev. Will D. Campbell of Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, appearing on a panel called "Being Good Religious Neighbors in the Bible Belt":

"If we're going to talk about being good religious neighbors, I have to tell you that the term Bible Belt, like the term redneck, infers that [southerners] are a bunch of cretins who run around lynching evolutionists from telephone poles. The only way to be good neighbors is to laugh at ourselves. If we do that, we can usually, not always, laugh at the other fellow."

GA Bon Mot
The Rev. John Shelby Spong, retired Episcopal bishop of Newark and author of 18 books, including The Hebrew Lord and Why Christianity Must Change or Die:

While I was being raised, in my fundamentalist background in the South, I was taught that Jesus lived out the [Jewish] prophetic texts as a sign of his divinity. The reality is 180 degrees around from that. The story of Jesus was preached and written in order to make it conform to the prophetic texts and the Torah. . . . Even the story of Jesus' passion is shaped by Jewish tradition. . . . If you and I can recover our Jewish tradition, overcome our anti-Semitism, and learn to read the Bible with Jewish eyes, we'll recover the greatest gift it has to give."

GA Bon Mot
Ware Lecturer Morris Dees, cofounder and chief trial counsel of the Southern Poverty Law Center:

"The FBI says there were 9,000 hate crimes in the United States last year. Not all of them are murders. Many are smaller but make people sick with fear and anger--the slashing of an interracial couple's tire, graffiti on a gay person's door . . . Whose version of America will prevail? There are people who feel very strongly about their version of America. Look at Timothy McVeigh. When he felt that explosion, it may come as a surprise to you, he felt himself to be a good American."

David Reich is editor of UU World. World staffer Angela Clarke wrote the Awards section of this story.

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