Catching My Breath

As I write this column I am still catching my breath after spending a week in New Orleans for Ministry Days (MD), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA), and General Assembly (GA), the annual meeting of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations (UUA). At the beginning of the week in the Big Easy, the Crescent City, Birthplace of Jazz, Mardi Gras City, we had heavy winds and rain, even a tornado warning one morning. But then the sun came out and the rest of the week had short rains interspersed with sun. It was kind of a metaphor for what was happening in those gatherings.

We had gathered in New Orleans with some concern about how people of strong opinion and people who had been hurt in the fraught and tumultuous events in our denomination in recent months would find themselves together, face to face after many discussions at a distance. I am pleased to be able to say that the organizers of the complex of events comprising MD and GA took great pains not to avoid the difficult topics and the many emotions and positions around those topics. We knew we wouldn’t solve every problem, but if we could face realities together, we would do well. And the sun came out.

There were frank but covenantally safe discussions. There were chances to honor the complexity of striving for justice in a denomination that does not require or expect uniformity.

At the end of a multi-year process, the delegates of our congregations voted to accept a statement of conscience on the growing income inequality in the US. Like all such documents, it provides an analysis of the problem and then provides lists of actions that individuals, congregations, and the denomination can do to work to make a difference in this area. It is not binding on congregations or on the UUA, but is a resource to guide us toward meaningful action. Like all such documents, it cannot say and do everything. And there will be things that emerge next month, even, that make this document begin to seem dated. And that is how it must be. Our documents ground us, but they quickly become less all-encompassing than we imagined. They are starting places for further growth and work.

Two changes to UUA bylaws were considered. One sought to change the word “person” in the first UU principle (“The inherent dignity and worth of every person”) to “being.” The intent was to make explicit a commitment to expand our sense of worth beyond the boundaries of humanity. For reasons simultaneously silly, aggrieved, just, and sublime, this change was not approved. The other change, the one that did pass, was to the second source of our tradition listed in the Association’s bylaws: “Words and deeds of prophetic men and women…” The wording, when first framed to name women, was intended to frame maximum inclusion where human history had often elided the voices and contributions of women. But we have grown to understand that even those words can also exclude. We are growing in understanding around transgender, agender, and non-binary gender identity. And we realize that it is not just adults who can speak and act prophetically, promoting justice in the world. So, the delegates voted to change “men and women” in this source to “people.” This also encourages congregations to revisit our own documents to uncover wordings that were intended, in good faith, to expand inclusion but that, with the advance in understanding the variations in our human experience, can be made yet more inclusive. Perhaps we will look at our own documents with this in mind.

On a couple of days, I sat for a few hours at the booth of Unitarian Universalists for Jewish Awareness. Some people stopped by with a dismissive attitude: Why is this group needed? Some came to argue. Some people stopped by to talk about how their congregations were supportive of their identity and practices as Jewish UUs. Others stopped by to tell someone who would listen about the kinds of microaggressions and anti-Semitic reactions and lack of support they encounter even in their own congregations. There was a lot of pain that people needed to have a place to share.

And there were transgender, agender, and non-binary persons who felt erased by a speaker whose admittedly good-faith use of the phrase “brothers and sisters” – without even occasionally using wording that was more inclusive of the broader human variation – just felt too narrow. The speaker could have chosen from a wider array of naming those with whom one feels a closeness of community. Friends! Siblings and cousins! And indeed, there were many speakers who were making use of such broadly inclusive language.

The leadership of people of color and indigenous people (POCI) led to presentations and discussions that were probably more inclusive of POCI than before at these meetings. And, on the final day of GA, in a responsive resolution, the gathered delegates voted to ask the UUA to lead the process to add an eighth principle to the seven we currently cherish, a principle calling us to anti-racist, anti-oppressive commitments as a baseline that UU congregations covenant to affirm and promote. The requested process will unfold over time.

We didn’t solve all the world’s problems. We didn’t even solve all our problems as UUs. But we had open, frank discussions on the foundation of our covenants with each other. It was an amazing and wonderful experience. It was good to be together.

And now I am home, happy to be back to begin planning for the fall and being here to greet with you the visitors who come throughout the summer, looking for a congregation to participate in come fall. Let’s have a great year!

Peace and Blessings,
Rev. Paul

Minister’s Column, July-August 2017