Unitarian Universalist General Assembly: Moving from “Just Us” to Justice in Phoenix

I wasn’t in Phoenix for the UUA General Assembly this week, but what I have seen and heard from it has given me a renewed sense of hope for Unitarian Universalism. And hope, as Red told Andy is a good thing, maybe the best of things.

The protest at the Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City helped restore a sense of hope, as did the fact that our brothers and sisters of the United Church of Christ joined us in the witness. For a UU who often feels too Christian to be in a UU congregation and too UU to be in a Christian congregation, closer workings with the UCC are something that gladdens my soul.

Here’s this morning’s Washington Post report on the demonstration, with a nice slideshow of photos.

Washington Post Coverage of Tent City protest.

And here is Peter Bowden’s UU World video of the event:

Arriving at Tent City from UU World on Vimeo.

I was also encouraged by statements like this from Rev. John T. Crestwell at the Sunday morning worship service this morning:

“I am a first and seventh principle preacher, which means that even though I detest board games, my faith calls me to this fight. You see, this  struggle is too important and too many lives are at stake. When I think about the worth and dignity of all and the interdependent web of existence that we are all a part of I cannot “See another woe and not be in sorrow too. I can’t see another grief and not seek for kind relief. I cannot see a falling tear and not feel my sorrows share. No no never can it be, never never will it be.” I cannot see my faith as just for the privileged. I don’t want to see my church as a mono-cultural experience. I cannot see my immigrant brothers and sisters dying in the desert and not get ‘pissed off’! I can’t and I won’t. I cannot look at our principles or our historic legacy of being with the down-trodden and then do nothing. That is a counterfeit faith—a kind of paltry piety to me. Justice is love in action! Justice is not just in what you say it’s in what you are willing to do!”

I have been preaching an evangelical, missional Unitarian Universalism for quite a while.  I tell people that the Greek word behind evangelize – euangelion – means “world transforming message.”  I am thrilled to see such a gospel, such a world transforming message, proclaimed in Phoenix.  It recalls for me these words by Archbishop Oscar Romero:

“A church that doesn’t provoke any crisis, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed – what gospel is that?”

I could not attend the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly in Phoenix, AZ this week.  I also have to admit that could I have afforded the trip (both financially and in terms of time off from my job), I probably would not have gone.  I have been feeling that for all Unitarian Universalism’s claim to be a liberal religion, it has sunk or even shrunk away from a revolutionary gospel, a good news that provokes crisis and unsettles even our own people with the demands of faith.  The truth is I have sadly become rather skeptical or maybe even cynical about such gatherings. Thinking of it now, I wonder if I had begun to lose hope in the promise of Unitarian Universalism. I think one of the biggest, or maybe even the biggest problem facing liberal religion is a decided lack of mission.  Many if not most members of liberal congregations join our churches to hang out with a group of like minded people.  This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, but it really doesn’t accomplish much in the world other than making attendees feel better.   I worry that national church conferences have become another example of this problem.  What does a national church conference, held at various places around the country, for the better part of week actually accomplish? Is such an assembly basically an opportunity for middle and upper middle class white people to get together with other like minded people from around the country?  I attended the UU General Assembly for a couple of years and heard wonderful things talked about and resolutions passed, but once I returned home to my own congregation, I barely heard anything more about these issues, plans and resolutions.

Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote this about the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, a gathering of the United Church of Christ that is analogous to what I experienced at UU General Assemblies:

“We used to be a group of revolutionaries. Now we’re a group of resolutionaries.” (my italics) Operating by the distinctly non-biblical Robert’s Rules of Order, she says, the convention has devolved into a gathering of persons who read resolutions that are then voted on and promptly ignored or forgotten. The resolutions range from those for gay marriage to those against gay marriage, from a call to study the imprisonment of native Hawaiians to “saving Social Security from privatization.” The resolutions pile up; then they’re read, seconded, discussed, voted on, and filed.

This resonates with me.  This is basically what I saw happening at UU General Assembly.  It began to seem like an expensive trip to accomplish little in the long run.  This is why I was skeptical at best and cynical at worst about UU General Assembly this year in Phoenix.

For all the focus put on immigration issues leading up to this year’s gathering in Phoenix, it seemed to me that if congregations were preparing for it all, they were reading a book or having a guest speaker.  I noticed little involvement on the part of the local congregations in my area to connect deeply and meaningfully to the local immigrant community, align with immigrant rights activists locally, or even to learn Spanish.

I kept checking in on General Assembly in Phoenix via UUA website and Facebook.  I have to be honest and confess that I was prepared to be thoroughly underwhelmed.  I am happy that those people I know who attended thought well of the gathering.  My heart was encouraged most however by the large protest march on Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s Tent City, where immigrant detainees are kept outside in the blazing Arizona sun.

These reports from the event from people who were there and sources such as The Washington Post have renewed my hope that Unitarian Universalists will become revolutionaries once again and that the denomination as a whole will begin to find a mission, find what our hearts break for as Unitarian Universalists. The association asks your heart to break for little.  For years, or even decades now, the UUA’s collective heart has broken for the LGBT community and although the struggle for LGBTQ equality has a ways to go, I wonder if this particular mission has seen its day.  Many other religions are now struggling with and/or improving their position on these issues, ordination is slowly opening up to LGBTQ people in many Christian denominations, and perhaps most importantly, there are many LGBTQ people who find that Unitarian Universalism is not the only place to go for a religious or spiritual life.  If this is no longer a driving mission – and it certainly isn’t the reason most people come to UU congregations, then what is the mission – beyond being a place for like-minded people of a general liberal political and cultural bent to hang out with each other?

Perhaps it is civil rights on bigger scale, beyond just the LGBTQ community and even communities fighting the injustices of current immigration policies.   Perhaps we can start to envision a greater mission, a mission to free the prisoners, set the captives free and bring health and healing to everyone in our community. Perhaps our mission is creating the Commonwealth of God or the Beloved Community.  That would be grand, it would be risky and it is certainly something we can fail at, which is a requirement for mission – it has to be something where success isn’t guaranteed.

As I finish writing this, the vote comes in from a plenary session to expand the definition of a “congregation.”  A congregation now is not limited to a brick and motar buildings.  This is more revolutionary than even those voting for it can understand. This could help Unitarian Universalists return to being part of “the church” instead of “a church.”  House meetings, gatherings in third places such as bars and coffee shops, community centers and online ministries now become congregations.  This will help Unitarian Universalists focus on why we come together in religious community and help us stop our idolatry of how we do church and governance. Perhaps resolutions can be revolutionary once again.

I am more encouraged about the possibility of Unitarian Universalism finding its mission than I was before Justice GA in Phoenix and for that reason alone GA in Phoenix was a success for me, even though I wasn’t there.

4 thoughts on “Unitarian Universalist General Assembly: Moving from “Just Us” to Justice in Phoenix

  1. I’m glad to read this. The faith needs missional voices to help it transform. I need those voices. And your voice helps steer me right.

  2. I’ve been feeling a lot of the same things, both before and since the “Justice GA”. i did not have high hopes, expecting little more than a publicity stunt. I am encouraged that so many actually put themselves in discomfort to show their opposition to tent city. I can’t help but feel skeptical about how it will shape our movement in the next year, much less beyond that.

    We need a mission. We need a message. Too often, we are seen as a “come as you are” group. That’s a fine start, but we need to make sure that we aren’t just leaving people as they are, or we aren’t doing anything for them.

    There are too many people who don’t see the inherent worth, not just in others but also in themselves. I would love to see Justice Reform take a front seat in our message. People can make bad choices one day, one year, one decade, and still retain their inherent worth and dignity. They can turn their life around and become functional, even valuable members of society again. Places like Tent City dehumanize, and do nothing to help people change their lives. It scares them, certainly, but what skills do they learn? What do we offer them to allow them to change the direction of their lives?

    You are right: We need a mission and a more active message. I really want to believe that this is a step towards finding it. I can’t help but worry that we make a lot of grand gestures, though, and that 50 years in, we still haven’t figured out what we are truly offering to the world.

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