East Shore congregants will highlight the noteworthy parts of this year’s General Assembly where attendees will explore the power, possibility, purpose, struggle, and joy of finding the path forward together as Unitarian Universalists. General Assembly is a longstanding annual conference hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Association. It’s a deliberative assembly of delegates and attendees made up of more than 1,000 congregations around the world.
Rooted, Inspired, and Ready! Unitarian Universalists Gather
Good Morning! I am Stephen Furrer, Minister of this church… and it is my pleasure to welcome you here this beautiful and balmy Independence Day weekend. Our church is 70 years old. Unitarians and Universalists were both established at about the same time as the United States—in the late 1700s and early 1800s. They were kind of denominational cousins until the late 1940s when their Youth Groups merged, foreshadowing an actual merger of the churches in 1961. And ever since delegates from Unitarian Universalist congregations from across the planet have been meeting every June for an annual get-together. General Assembly (often abbreviated “G.A.”) is a lot of things:
- A deliberative assembly of delegates;
- A global celebration of shared values;
- An opportunity for UUs from across the world to keep abreast with one another; and
- A collective rite of passage marking another year of shared, high aspiration.
About eight or ten years ago denominational authorities began making General Assembly available online for people who couldn’t otherwise attend. A few folks began attending electronically—but only a few. Until 2020. This year, the entire event was virtual. I went mainly to find out what it would be like. I definitely missed the informal get-togethers with colleagues and former congregants. But the events and presentations were as meaningful as ever. Through the course of this morning’s worship, other attendees will share aspects of G.A. that they found particularly satisfying.
My favorite: Howard Bryant, a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN the Magazine and author of Shut Out!, book I read fifteen years ago about systemic racism in baseball, especially within the Boston Red Sox. And now he has written another book, Full Dissidence, which he spoke about. Very powerful stuff.
Next year the General Assembly will resume meeting physically—in Milwaukee—as well as virtually. Perhaps some of you worshipping with us this morning will become inspired by what you hear today and start thinking of attending General Assembly in June of 2021. I hope so. But for now, welcome! And good morning!
The 4th Principle
Hi, I am Mike Radow – he/his prounouns – also a member of the board this was my first ever general assembly. I will definitely go, again. Here’s the first strand of today’s service that we will let you braid together For me, the assembly was largely about questioning certainty, knowing I can’t just sit on what I want to believe is knowledge. Since the pandemic I’ve been forced to re-think a lot of things and have tried to accept and even welcome change as a natural constant companion. Our Fourth Unitarian principle “The free and responsible SEARCH for meaning says it requires an active search.”
I will retell two stories I heard from Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz, author of Indigenous people’s history of the united states. She burst some bubbles, helped me challenge what I thought I knew.
First Hamilton the musical, that’s been all the rage. there’s a song YORKTOWN: In it, alexander Hamilton and the Marquis de Lafayette sing “Immigrants, we get the job done,” but it’s just not true Hamilton was a British citixen Lafayette, an aristocratic Frenchman in American on a military adventure. So why change history? Immigrants we get the job done takes on new meaning I don’t think of these fake immigrants. but rather Mexican agricultural workers called essential but still working in conditions we prefer not to think about so our food can be cheap .
In Hamilton, even though black and brown actors play the parts of white men, the play itself has no natives, zero they are made invisible What’s going on here?
Here’s another story. In 1960 the new president JFK burst on the scene announcing that we were a nation of immigrants. He was young, the first catholic president and he builds unity by saying that what, our ancestors all came from somewhere else, once again, indigenous peoples are forgotten?
How easy to ignore what we are taught not to see. And easier to forget what we have long ignored. The notion of a nation of immigrants does further harm, by lumping a lot of very different conditions into one mass.
The starving Irish refugees in the 1840s,
Were my Lithuanian jewish ancestors
The Mexican farm workers mentioned before
Enslaved people brought over in chains.
and the enslaver people.
Are they all just immigrants equally: who am I letting fool me> Just makes me wonder.
And that’s the point, it is good to wonder. confronting ideas counter to my assumptions. IS the responsible search for truth and meaning. And it’s not just good for my brain, It gets me more used to adapting, readying me for bigger changes when they come. BY stopping, and intentionally tried to see experiences as someone else might see them , softened my certainties opened me to who knows what it might just tear down some of the barriers in my own heart. And that’s the start of practicing love. Thank you general assembly.
Why We Need to Ruin Some Stories
We all know the story of America’s Declaration of Independence. Britain taxed it’s peopl, they got tired of not having a say in this. Thomas Jefferson wrote the document that began, We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.
At the time of the declaration of independence all thirteen colonies allowed slave ownership.
When it became evident that more soldiers would be needed for the fight slave owners were allowed to send slaves to fight in their place. Many slaves were promised their freedom if they fought. This meant that able bodied young men had a chance at freedom.
Seeing this, Britain offered any slave that left his master freedom, men, women, and children.
In the Massachusetts colony one woman listened to the words that all men are created equal. She challenged this law in court and won her freedom. Massachusetts also became the first state to outlaw slavery.
Elizabeth Freeman won her freedom but it would take almost a hundred years before all slaves were freed.
Frederick Douglas, an African American Champion for justice wrote to Thomas Jefferson challenging him on what he meant by his words in the declaration of independence. Frederick Douglas said
What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?…What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim”
We tell the story of Elizabeth Freeman and read the words of Frederick Douglas to tell everyone of the contributions people of color had in securing the freedom that we take for granted today.
I participate in General Assembly whenever I can, because I always find an amazing amount of inspiration and vision showing possible ways forward for me and for East Shore to grow. This year was no exception. I’ll mention a couple of the most inspiring ideas that could help East Shore grow.
The first was a structured and comprehensive adult education program called Faith Forward, developed by the UU church in Dallas, Texas, that can help members learn in depth about our faith, giving them a solid grounding and the confidence to talk with their non-UU friends about our faith, and giving them the commitment and desire to participate and lead. For East Shore, offering regular more in depth adult education classes could provide a way to integrate new members and develop future leaders, so I think it has a lot of potential.
Secondly, I now feel like I really understand the concept of centering marginalized groups, whether they are people of color, people with disabilities, LGBTQ folks, young adults, or others. Inviting and welcoming marginalized people and groups into the development of services and ministries, rather than building programs we think they will want, could help us welcome and integrate more diverse people into our church. This is a time of huge change in society, and if we want to stay relevant, we need to learn to innovate, experiment, fail and keep trying, until we find what works best. I hope you will all support the incoming board and welcome their attempts to try doing some things differently, even if they do fail on occasion.
An image was invoked at GA’s Sunday morning service called “Beyond the Water’s Edge”, of approaching a river. Revs. Joan Javier-Duval and Mykal Slack talked of making our way to the edge of a riverbank. The terrain may be slippery and uneven. It may be hard to move on the unsteady ground underneath but we go any way because of what we may find at the river’s edge uncertainty, surprise, joy, death. I began to think of what I had been absorbing at GA in terms of a river of change with equity, inclusion, and diversity for all on the other side. We are experiencing turbulent times that, like a river, are challenging to move toward, be in and get through. We need to cross the river.
One of many things that got my attention for getting us to equity, inclusion, and diversity for all is looking to our theology as a source of joy. Creatively and faithfully engaging in our theology while examining our spiritual commitment to hospitality, community, covenant, humility, and reparations, would allow us to center anti-oppression and liberation, creating conditions we can all thrive in.
UU The Vote
Transactions and Transformations
I want to focus on two speakers that moved me. Howard Bryant and Naomi Klein.
First, Mr. Bryant, a sportswriter for ESPN and a contributor to NPR, talked about how Black and Brown people show up in the streets asking for Black Lives to Matter. He went on to talk about white people with guns storming the capitals of Minnesota demanding the right to not have to quarantine and wear masks. He felt this was indicative of each groups status as renters and owners. The renters ask and the owners demand.
Howard Bryant talked about our policemen having been elevated to “hero” status through a very cynical expenditure of tax dollars. The show I grew up on edifying the FBI in “The FBI” starring Ephrem Zymbalist, Jr. was funded by the FBI. Dragnet was funded by the city of Los Angeles. Ever wonder why most of our tv offerings were about police? How about the ever popular “Cops” featuring patient policemen and those “bad” people of color. Studies have shown that quite a few people base their world view on what we are fed through the TV. That short circuits our ability to get all of the information needed to think for ourselves.
Naomi Klein says we are living in the “age of consequences. Ours is a world built on the abuse and extraction from the natural world and from Black and Brown bodies. Will we do the hard work to make reparations, or will we put it off? These transformational times are huge and we don’t have to do it alone.”
“We need to be honest, but the numbers acknowledging the needs are swelling. We are many. Those in power are few.” However, she felt, the collective consciousness of the Green New Deal is waning. Biden has not endorsed it. The objections, among many she named, were “Why health care for all” and “Can’t we solve climate change first and then we’ll deal with racial justice?’ and “How will we pay for all of this.”
“The pandemic has thrust the entire globe into a radical change. There have been radical drops in pollution. This has put the lie to how we can’t mobilize our economy to a common purpose. We are living in a time that makes the impossible possible. ‘It’s all too much’ was always a lie. When societies treat an emergency like an emergency, we can overcome anything.”
She continued with “The call from the streets…is not for reforming the police or tech improvements like body cameras- it is a call to do away with the police and start over. Rule by fear and cohersion is no longer necessary.” In reference to climate change she said, “Unlike cap and trade we don’t have to wait our turn. The Green New Deal gets it all at once.” And disaster response has to be “intersectional” or it will fail.
“The virus has shown a light on the traumatization of Black and Brown bodies. It shows us further trauma in our prisons, long term care facilities and meat packing plants.” She talked An example: virtual meetings that are national and international are here to stay. “But we need to take these changes all the way to the top.” Since our government can pay for us to shelter in place, why can’t it pay for Green jobs? 70% of those surveyed approve of the Green New Deal including 49% of Republicans. During this virus time we have seen land grabs, we have seen tanks in our streets. While we have focused on the virus and racism, the Trump administration has been rapidly cutting EPA restrictions.
She wrapped up talking about how the world is changing “What we do with it is up to us”, she said. She continued: Do we continue with the standard narrative fed to us by our White Supremacist Culture, or do we write a future that is only bound by what we can imagine. “We are living in a science fiction novel that we are writing ourselves.” We are at a threshold forced on us by the Covid19 virus. Do we progress bringing all of that Madison Avenue baggage with us, or do we create something that we can look back on with pride as a new beginning; a new hopeful culture that leaves the nonsense and promotes compassion.
Instead of continuing a trend 400 years in the making where we exploit the natural world and exploit Black and Brown bodies, how about giving the Green New Deal a look? She cited a town in Siberia a ways north of the Arctic Circle that has recently recorded 100 degree days.
She further talked about how in the age of Covid there are lots fewer cars on the road and airlines were sending flights that were close to empty. She said that UU principle are “visionary”. “The world is catching up”. These formerly unpopular ideas are popular enough to win. People get that the system is broken. The demand is “transformational”. She went on to say that if the movement sticks to its principles it can’t be co-opted.
“There need to be reparations and Unitarians need to show the spiritual benefit of that. There is a softness in this moment that shows our interdependence. Even though capitalism tells the story of the rugged individual going it alone, we find ourselves in a web of interdependence. We need to make the most of these days and months.” Then Ms. Klien talked about how we need to ‘leap’. Small steps won’t cut it as we are on the edge of a precipice. “Since we created our human systems, we can change them. Not so much the natural world.”
I reflected on how can we survive as the permafrost melts and the incredible amount of gases that the permafrost contains are unleashed into the atmosphere. How many more floating whirlpools of garbage in our oceans do we need to create? How much more plastic do you need to add to your body (yes, YOUR body) before we call a halt on plastic use and production. The technology is there. We can do it. The only thing standing in our way is those few in power- meaning those with the money invested to make more money.
I was impressed with both of these speakers. I found their talks transformational for me.
How Can Guilt Be Good?
I was most moved by the discussion on “How to Have Tough Conversations With White People”. Through generations of lies and a culture of dominance that places white America at a distinct advantage over Blacks, Indigenous and People of Color, we have a chance at an awakening.
The big takeaway for me was this: Let’s be willing to learn together and make mistakes together. Particularly in the context of growing toward antiracism. If we hope to be a welcoming church toward all people and really mean it, we’ll have to be comfortable enough with each other to be vulnerable by letting go of our assumptions about each other and newcomers.
In doing so we may make mistakes along the way and this may expose us to some scary feelings of shame or guilt. Being able to navigate between the two could be very useful.
June Price Tangney, Ph.D. writes’ “A shame prone individual who is reprimanded for not including someone in something because of the color of their skin or casting a microaggression with or without mal-intent might think, “I’m such a loser”, “I just can’t get it together,” whereas a guilt-prone individual would more likely think, “I feel bad for doing ‘x’. I can tell my actions really hurt that person. What can I do to make it better? Feelings of shame can be painful and debilitating, affecting one’s core sense of self and may invoke a self-defeating cycle of negative affect. In comparison, feelings of guilt, though painful, are less disabling than shame and are likely to motivate us in a positive direction toward reparation or change.
In other words, guilt is ‘I did a bad thing’ shame is ‘I am a bad person’
I cannot speak for anyone else but know that my promise to you is that I am learning. I will keep learning. I will make mistakes. And when I do I will learn and do better.
Thank you to Mike Radow, Maury Edwards, Grace Colton, Amanda Strombom, LeAnne Struble, and Donna Duncan for sharing your experiences with us from General Assembly. The varied perspectives you bring to the table help us see the world from a broader lens than our own little bubble and bring us ever closer to a place of greater understanding, hope and courage to act to create systemic changes that better all people’s lives even in the face of failure.
For years I had heard about the amazing music, the wonderful bonding experiences, and the challenging and thought-provoking seminars. It was on our list for so long but it wasn’t actually UNTIL it went virtual that it became more feasible for us as a young family to attend. The experience was everything people said it was with the bonus of not missing anything because I can go back and watch it all summer long! The seminars were rich and varied. It was a wholly transformative experience that I encourage anyone to go to if they have the opportunity.