In this service, Laura Gossman reflected on her experience at the recent 2021 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly, and shared what’s happening across the larger UU neighborhood, including the 2020 Widening the Circle of Concern Report, the Article 2 Study Commission’s project to holistically examine the UU Principles and Sources, the proposed 8th Principle, and the loving efforts by UUs across the UU world to build the anti-racist, multicultural, and anti-oppression faith movement our UU Principles call us to be.
I am excited to share with you my experience at the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly last month, and update you on what’s happening in the larger UU neighborhood. I’m hoping we’ll have many opportunities over the next year to explore and study and have discussions about the future of Unitarian Universalism. Things, they are a-changing, and to sit still is to be left out and behind.
General Assembly (or GA) is the UUA’s annual gathering held in June over 5 days and has been solely online the last two years. The only previous GA I have attended was in 2019 in Spokane. The UUA is not an association of people, it is an association of congregations. Each congregation is allotted a number of delegates based on their size, with a minimum of two. Plus ministers and religious education professionals are also allowed to be delegates. Each congregation gets to pick its delegates any way it wants and gets to decide if and how to direct them to vote. The Board of Trustees appointed me as a delegate, and as in all past years the Board did not direct me as a delegate to vote in any certain way. I prepared by studying the agenda and related documents and proposals, attending a candidate forum, and studied some UU history, specifically the history of our UU principles.
Over 4200 people registered for GA, of whom 2,025 were delegates. 622 congregations (about 60% of all UU congregations) were represented from 49 states and DC, 3 Canada provinces, Mexico, and the Philippines. GA is a combination of business sessions, usually five, and so much else, like tons of workshops, mini-business sessions to learn about the matters delegates will be voting on, worship services, programs for UU youth, young adults, and people of color and other groups, entertainment, and even a Pride Drag Show. There is so much going and many events running simultaneously. Fortunately, everything is recorded so I am continuing to watch and learn. Many events are already publicly available for viewing, and I understand that the remainder of the workshop videos will be available to the public in September. I encourage you to explore these resources (links are also in the newsletter and on the website).
2021 virtual General Assembly was “Circle ‘Round for Justice – Healing – Courage. Select worship services, business sessions, and other General Assembly events are available for public viewing: UUA General Assembly Public Events
Proposed 8th Principle, which has already been independently adopted by more than 100 UU congregations: 8thprincipleuu.org/
Widening the Circle of Concern Report: uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/cic/widening
Article 2 Study Commission: uua.org/uuagovernance/committees/article-ii-study-commission
Summary of 2021 GA business, including election results, bylaws amendments, and approved Actions of Immediate Witness, Responsive Resolutions, and Statement of Conscience: https://www.uua.org/ga/program/business-agenda
These resources provide a peek into the heart and the future of Unitarian Universalism. There were also lots of networking and discussion opportunities through an app called “Whova” which hosted “community forums” where anyone could start a chat conversation about virtually anything – there were I swear at least a hundred of these forums ranging from topics like “gluten-free UUs” to knitting, to democracy, to climate change, to poetry writers, music, to racism, to covenant and the principles. Compared to 2019, I felt much more involved in the conversations of GA this time.
I want to share the business matters addressed at GA and how I voted.
For the UUA Board election, only one of the positions was contested, and I voted to elect Sam Trumbore, a minister with the UU church in Albany. After attending a candidate forum and additional study I felt he was the most qualified candidate. Trumbore won with 87% of the vote against his opponent Jay Kiskel.
I voted in favor of all of the following matters, except one Responsive Resolution, which I’ll explain when I get to it. Again, there are links to these and other resources in the e-newsletter and on today’s service webpage at uucasper.org.
Bylaws amendments! Yay. To expand participation in the democratic process at UUA, bylaws amendments were passed to make campaigns for UUA president and moderator shorter, more affordable, and therefore broaden the playing field. And another amendment eliminated the bylaws requirement that voting delegates pay the same fee to GA as non-delegates.
Three Actions of Immediate Witness were passed. An Action of Immediate Witness is initiated by a delegate or groups of delegates and moves through its entire creation and adoption process during one GA. It does not carry the full authority of the (UUA); rather, it expresses the conscience and carries the authority of the delegates at that GA. This process allows UUs to respond quickly to urgent social issues, and approved Actions of Immediate Witness are used by congregations in local efforts and empower the UUA’s to take and recommend actions on the issue. The three that were passed were:
- Defend and Advocate with Transgender, Nonbinary, and Intersex Communities 99% for
- Stop Voter Suppression and Partner for Voting Rights and a Multiracial Democracy 99%
- The COVID-19 Pandemic. Justice. Healing. Courage – 77% for, 12% opposed, 12% abstain
I encourage you to read them in full, and I hope we can talk about them over the next few months.
Two Responsive Resolutions were passed. These are resolutions by the delegates made in response to a substantive issue in a report by an officer or committee reporting to GA. It is a form of providing feedback to leadership. A responsive resolution reflects the sentiment of the general assembly delegates. It does not make policy, nor is it binding or enforceable.
The first Responsive Resolution came in response to the UUA’S Article II study commission’s request for feedback. The Commission is performing a holistic review of UUA Bylaws Article II which contains our Principles and sources, (I WILL TALK MORE ABOUT THIS LATER), and had asked the delegates for feedback about what they though should be included in the Commission’s recommendations for revising Article II. In response 91% of the delegates voted for a Responsive Resolution telling the Commission that wording about anti-racism and anti-oppression should be included, making it clear that Unitarian Universalism is an anti-racist faith.
The last order of business was a proposed Statement of Conscience. These are a big deal and cannot be adopted until after a 3 to 4 year period of study and action and discernment on the issue as a Congregational Study/Action Issue. So back in 2017 the GA delegates approved a Congregational Study/Action Issue addressing systemic racism, and this year, after four years of study and work, the 2021 GA delegates approved by a 93% vote the Statement of Conscience titled “Undoing Systemic White Supremacy: A Call to Prophetic Action.” Again, I’m hoping we will have opportunities to discuss all of these matters in depth in the coming months.
The second Responsive Resolution was proposed by a group of almost 100 young adult UUs and passed by an 80% vote. It calls for the UUA and the UUA Endowment Fund to immediately divest certain holdings in companies invested in oil and gas pipelines. I felt that there were some valid financial and business reasons to vote against the Resolution, which I did. I guess I had my accountant’s hat on for this vote. It was thrilling, though, to see the involvement of so many young adult UUs – after all, they have a much larger stake in what happens in the future of our faith and our world than “we oldies” do. Speaking only for myself, of course.
So what did I learn at GA? I learned that UUs can and do argue about anything. Like, how to pronounce the name of the community forum app: Whova. Hova? Hoova? Woahva? Woova. Complete with conspiracy theories… Jeeshhhh.
I learned that our UU GA delegates and many UU congregations are deeply and lovingly committed to building an anti-racist, multicultural, anti-oppression faith movement, and this is not a new thing! Efforts that began in the 1960s after James Reeb’s death in Selma and have started and stopped, stopped and started, again and again, with sometimes broken promises, sometimes progress, sometimes heartbreak. It was clear that the delegates felt there is much more work to be done, and that progress toward more inclusion is a key foundation of the future of Unitarian Universalism.
I learned that if you’re looking for perfection, you won’t find it at the UUA – co-moderator Meg. Riley stated that very bluntly. There’s no arrogance there that I can sense, only earnestness. Mistakes have and will continue to be made. But there is overwhelming dedication to learning and trying.
I learned a lot about how the Principles came to be, which I’ll talk more later.
And I learned about loving our neighbors. At the root of every action, statement, report and proposal, even during difficult debates, I felt the love my UU neighbors have for each other, and for our neighbors across the globe.
I’d like to talk now about some UU “hot topics” that I suggest that we, individually and as a congregation, might want to explore, study, and discuss over the next year or so. Maybe we could do a common read, or view and discuss some of the wonderful videos and other resources available at uua.org and other websites on these topics.
1st idea: Covenant: Central to UU theology, covenant is the super glue that holds the UU neighborhood together and makes us accountable to each other. It’s the HOW of us, and is rooted in love – how we journey and work together, how we treat each other, what we promise to each other, and how we come back to each other. Covenant links and provides balance between individual autonomy and the interdependent community of us all. This report “Unlocking the Power of Covenant,” from the UUA Commission on Appraisal might be a great resource for us to study and learn more about covenant.
2nd idea: The Principles and the UUA Article II Study Commission project: As I mentioned earlier, this Commission is holistically reviewing Article II, which is the section in the UUA bylaws that contains the seven principles and the six sources. It also contains an inclusion provision and a freedom of religion provision. The UUA bylaws call for such an over-all review of Article II every 15 years, and the current principles have not been changed since the 1980s (last review in the 90s). Additionally, there have been proposals over the last several years for possible changes to the first, fifth, and seventh principles as well as a proposed 8th principle, so it’s time. The UUA’s Article II Study Commission will be gathering input from as many UUs as possible and recommending changes that reflect the values of today’s UUs and lay a foundation for the future of our faith.
The Commission is to submit their recommendations to the UUA Board by January 2023, with a first vote possible at the 2023 GA, and a final vote possible at the 2024 GA. There is already lots of discussion and resources at uua.org on the Article II Study Commission. Go there and explore. And you can sign up for their email list to receive updates.
Speaking of the Principles, as you all know, they are not divinely inspired, handed down from on high. As you might not know, they are created by the democratic process, full of tough negotiations and messy politics, all in a valiant but imperfect attempt to put the true values of our UU faith in writing. The Principles and Sources were first conceived and adopted to form the foundation for the consolidation of the Unitarians and the Universalists back in the 60s. Then in the 80’s UU feminists demanded that male-centered gendered language be removed from the Principles. The principles are and have always been meant to be alive, meant to change as our understanding of ourselves, each other, and our world changes and evolves.
It’s interesting that when UUs are asked to define our faith, we often say that we follow seven principles but when asked to name them… it’s a challenge, and I know I can’t do that! We usually get the first one (inherent worth and dignity of every person), and the seventh, but maybe only a few key words like democracy and search for truth and meaning. What does it mean that many (most?) UUs are unable to recite them? Are we taking the principles seriously? And what about balance among the principles? Those that seem to promote individual autonomy and agency (like the first and fifth principle), can maybe be seen as clashing with those with more collective goals, like the sixth principle’s goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Do we pick and choose from among them sometimes based on what better suits our purposes? And the Principles are subject to interpretation: many UUs see the seventh principle as just being about the environment, while others see it as also about human interdependence and multiculturalism. And… Does the 5th principle guarantee our personal right of conscience, or it is more a call for us to respect and protect the right of conscience of others, including those who may not agree with us? And let me ask this question: where in the principles is the word love?
3rd idea: And maybe this one could be done in conjunction with our study of the principles and the Article II study commission, maybe we could study and discuss the work across the UU world and across our country toward anti-racism, multiculturalism, and anti-oppression. And looking back into the history of anti-racism work in Unitarian Universalism would provide important context for understanding where we are now. The 2020 report from the UUA Commission on Institutional Change titled “Widening the Circle of Concern” would be one great resource for this study, and we could take a closer look also at the proposed 8th principle, the intent of which – according to Paula Cole Jones who drafted it back in 2013 – is to center inclusion into what Unitarian Universalism is and will be, rather than treating inclusion efforts as just something a congregation’s Social Justice Committee does. This could be compared to our faith’s efforts to be more inclusive of our LGBTQ members, which have led to much progress, including the Welcoming Congregation program. The proposed 8th principle has become a grass roots movement, with almost 100 UU congregations so far voting to adopt it for themselves.
Speaking of inclusion, although we have much to study and learn and discuss, UU Casper has already made a little bit of progress in this area. Article III of our Bylaws, titled Inclusivity and Diversity, was adopted by our members in 2018 and reads:
ARTICLE III INCLUSIVITY AND DIVERSITY
UU Casper strives to foster a climate of purposeful inclusion of all people, and values the diversity of racial and cultural identity and background, nationality, sexual and affectional orientation, gender identity and its expression, religious background and belief, marital status, family structure, age, mental and physical health and ability, political perspective, and educational and class status. These values apply to all UU Casper activities, and inform all decisions of the church.
In my view, it is clear to me that our institutions can have built in processes and structures established over time that have the effect of excluding people, especially those people from marginalized groups. And many of these processes and structures we don’t even recognize, until something happens, something changes and we start paying attention and start learning, and start looking inward. I want to personally thank Rev. Kee and Athne Machdane for helping us begin to recognize these structures and processes at UU Casper.
What does it really mean to be inclusive? Muna Abdi, an education and racial equity consultant, said “It is not inclusion if you invite people into a space you are unwilling to change.”
So what has change looked like so far? Things like:
- Renewing our Welcoming Congregation designation to clearly state that our LGBTQ siblings belong here.
- Clearly marked gender neutral bathrooms
- Planning for inclusion in all events and programs, for example
- Meeting times
- Accessible locations for activities and gatherings
- Working on using more inclusive language in our services and materials
- Not requiring direct financial support as a condition of membership: UU Casper members contribute in many ways, all of which are valued and important.
- Made changes to make it easier for members to pay for expenditures on behalf of committees
- Casper Pride and Martin Luther King Day sponsorships
- And now: making the commitment to continue online access to meetings and services even after we are back in our building. This is no small thing, let me tell you!
There is still so much to do, and we will do it imperfectly, and we will make mistakes. What could change look like in the future? That is a really great question! Let’s talk about it!
The principles, inclusion, anti-racism, covenant – these are all important and deserve our attention, time, study, discussion, and reflection. And we can be good UU neighbors by entering this time of learning from a place of love. How do we practice love??? Maybe…
- By listening more than we speak
- By recognizing the complexity of the issues and avoid trying to simplify them using false binary yes/no, wrong/right thinking
- By valuing the search for truth over our need to be certain and right
- By replacing defensiveness with curiosity, and replacing judgment with empathy and humility
- By elevating spirit over ego
- By being willing to be uncomfortable and uncertain for a time.
- By evaluating the sources and credibility of the information we are receiving
- By remembering the children, the future generations of UUs. This work is for them.
And lastly love calls us to keep our minds and hearts open, just like our sign says. We are after all, and above all, a religious organization, a faith movement. The term “movement” has great meaning here, because a primary purpose of religion is transformation – of ourselves, of the world. When our minds and hearts close, the opportunity for transformation is lost, and our search for truth ends.
So that’s GA in a nutshell. I am so thankful I was able to attend and serve as your delegate. I learned so much, and I look forward to continuing to learn with you all here at UU Casper.