Monday evening, I was a stranger in a strange land. Things worked out surprisingly well. Or at least I was surprised. Maybe I shouldn’t have been.

On the plane to Utah Monday afternoon, I started reading Beyond Tolerance by Gustav Niebuhr.  I’m supposed to cover Niebuhr’s talk on Saturday — he’s getting the 2008 Melcher Book Award for making “a significant contribution to religious liberalism” — so I thought I’d better do my homework.

It’s always risky to summarize a book you haven’t finished — I’ll write something better grounded on Saturday — but so far Niebuhr has made two major points:

  • Compared to the rhetoric of intolerance, holy war, crusade, and religious oppression, our talk of “tolerance” is very weak. Tolerance is at best a middling position, a (perhaps grudging) willingness to let other people be. We have precious little terminology for talking about a more positive appreciation of religious difference, and (perhaps as a result) our news media often misses stories in which religious people put themselves out to make those of another faith feel safe and welcome.
  • Person-to-person experience is the best — and perhaps the only — way to defuse negative stereotypes. Niebuhr talks at length about interfaith cooperation projects and the mutual appreciation they can nurture.

It’s easy for a UU to feel good while reading this book, and I did. We’re mentioned unusually often for a group our size. And even when we’re not named, Niebuhr is lauding the kinds of things we do: participating in interfaith worship services, contributing to interfaith community projects, inviting practitioners of frequently demonized religions (like Islam) to come educate us, and so on. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but in general I think religious liberals look better in Beyond Tolerance than religious conservatives do. “I’m one of the good guys,” I thought.

Then I landed in Salt Lake City and came right up against my own preconceptions and prejudices.

The one time I’ve been in northern Utah before, I was driving to California and I only stopped for gas. So until yesterday my image of Salt Lake City and of its most prominent religious group, the Mormons, had not been contaminated by any of that person-to-person experience Niebuhr recommends. Even my second-hand knowledge of Mormonism mostly comes from people who grew up in that faith and converted to something else.

So my head is full of second- and third-hand stereotypes of Mormons and of Utah in general, and they regularly get reinforced by people who probably don’t know any more than I do. Just last week, when I told a non-UU friend that our annual convention was going to be here, he responded, “Where’s it going to be next year? Mecca?”

I never thought this through in so many words, but as I packed for GA, emotionally I had been steeling myself for a trip behind enemy lines.

And then I got here and needed help. It was nothing life-threatening, but during the flight my wife started developing symptoms of an eye infection. As soon as we got to our hotel, we had to start relying on strangers who live here and have local knowledge: people at the hotel desk, cab drivers, emergency room clerks and nurses and doctors.

No one was anything less than warm and compassionate. No one tried to take advantage of the needy out-of-towners. No one was even just coldly efficient. One and all, they treated us … probably better than I treat a lot of people. On the cab ride back from the emergency room, our driver helped us figure out what to do when the only drug store we knew turned out to be closed. She stopped the meter, made phone calls, estimated how much it would cost to drive to the only 24-hour pharmacy she could find, and supported our decision to save money by going back to the hotel and filling our prescriptions in the morning.

Would I have done that?

None of the people we met last night mentioned religion, so I have no idea how many were Mormons. Just statistically, probably several. Or maybe all. Or none. Who knows?

The point is, it didn’t matter. We were strangers who needed help, and strangers put themselves out for us to the best of their ability. And in spite of all I’ve ever heard or read or thought, right now that’s all the truly first-hand knowledge I have of Salt Lake City.

Anticipation: Voting and UU University

In my head I’ve been at General Assembly for almost a week. It started last Tuesday when my church’s delegation (from Bedford, MA) had a lunch meeting to scan the GA program. Our first priority was to find a common hole in our schedules that we could fill with a meal or drink together, but the conversation quickly shifted to the same two topics I’ll bet all the other GA-bound folks are talking about: the UUA presidential election and UU University.

This is the first year I’ve been a delegate and I’ve never paid much attention to the plenaries before, so I expect to be fascinated in a process-geek sort of way. (The policy of this blog — which I support — prohibits any electioneering. So even as I cover the process, I intend to leave you guessing about how I’ll vote.)

Our delegation is split, but we had the kind of conversation you’d hope UUs would have. Everyone seemed to appreciate the arguments of both sides, and no one pinned unrealistic hopes on one candidate or suggested that the other’s supporters need therapy. Several of us had changed our minds in the last few months, some more than once. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of us change again before the vote.

For the non-delegate, the big difference in this year’s GA is that UU University is now part of the regular program. In previous years you had to arrive early and spring for another couple nights at a hotel.

I never did, but I’ve talked to people who are very enthusiastic about UUU. Its six tracks are each nine hours long — five on Thursday afternoon and four on Friday morning. Done right, a UUU track has a chance to go deeper and be more transformative than the typical 75-minute GA workshop. I’m told that people came out of previous UUUs wishing that the experience could be made available to everybody who comes to GA. This year it is.

But there’s a price: Nothing is programmed to compete with UUU, so the amount of workshop-hopping you can do is considerably diminished. The 2007 schedule (I misplaced my 2008 program) had 12 event periods. This year’s non-UUU programming is down to seven periods.

If you don’t know much about UUU — none of my fellow Bedfordites seemed to — you feel the loss as soon as you pick up your program. But the gain won’t be apparent until UUU starts on Thursday. In the meantime, we’re all just trying to keep a leash on our characteristic UU skepticism.

So as GA goes on, I’ll have my ears open for hints of the overall mood: Are people missing the 12-period smorgasbord of past GAs? Or are they enjoying the more focused opportunities that UUU offers? Or both?