Final impressions of GA 2009

Standing on the Side of Love banner hanging on the Salt Palace
Standing on the Side of Love @ the Salt Palace

I’m about to go to bed, because I have to get up at three in the morning (heaven help me) to catch my train back east. Before I do, though, here are a few impressions of General Assembly 2009:

— The weather was just about perfect: dry, warm but not too hot, and a couple of thunderstorms to keep it from getting boring. I have a theory that when the weather is perfect, there are fewer major conflicts at General Assembly — and indeed, this year I have heard of no erupting conflicts.

— The schedule was grueling. I had noticed that I was feeling particularly tired, but I hadn’t thought about why until someone pointed out that the GA schedule had no consistency. Plenary happened at odd times, workshop slots got thrown in when you didn’t expect them, UU University required an exhausting commitment of six hours Thursday afternoon and four hours Friday morning. I found the lack of regularity draining.

— The election for the next UUA president seemed to dominate everything else. I didn’t hear many people talking about their workshops, but everyone seemed to have something to say about the election.

— UU University (UUU) got mixed reviews this year. Some people liked their UU University track, some people thought it a waste of time (Doug Muder says much the same thing). Two years ago, I heard nothing but glowing reviews of UUU; maybe it didn’t scale up very well? It will be interesting to read summaries of the evaluations of UUU.

So ends another GA. Now off to bed.

What we've been talking about

Sunday morning everyone seemed to be talking about the presidential race. That Peter Morales won was not a huge surprise, but his margin was. From the enthusiasm of the campaigns, the cheers at the candidate forums, and the number of campaign buttons and t-shirts delegates wore, no one could have guessed that either candidate would get 59% of the vote.

I’ve been keeping my ear to the ground to hear reactions to UU University, which was a new part of the GA program this year. Early on I thought I was hearing a pattern in the scuttlebutt, but I’m glad I didn’t blog about it, because the pattern didn’t hold. I don’t know how future GA planners are going to evaluate this, and I don’t think I can help them. Some people liked it. Some people didn’t. Some of the people who liked it thought it took up too much time. Others didn’t. (This kind of analysis is why they don’t pay me the big bucks.) If UUU had been awful, attendance would have significantly fallen off on the second day, but I don’t think it did.

Salt Lake City has been a big topic of discussion. The local economy is a paradox, because there’s lots of construction, but hardly anybody on the sidewalks — even at noon on a weekday. And the city doesn’t fit its stereotypes at all. For example, there are at least two excellent brewpubs within walking distance of the Salt Palace: Squatters and Red Rock. And it rains. We had quite a thunderstorm Friday, with a beautful double rainbow.

Confessions of a Virgin Delegate

As I said in my first post, this was the first year I came to GA as a delegate. Don’t tell my congregation, but I have not been a very good delegate. Over-committed as usual, I let some of the plenaries slide. And during the ones I attended I usually had a computer on my lap as I tried to write up one of the talks I had covered for the GA web site. I’d poke my head up now and then to see whether I needed to vote on anything, and then duck back down for fear one of the other bloggers would see me and try to hand off the live-blogging duties.

I did manage to cast my presidential ballot. The lines were long, but the guy in front of me had been a poll-watcher in Chicago; he assured me that this was a very orderly process by comparison. To pass the time, the guy behind me struck up a conversation about the revised list of UU Sources in the proposed bylaw changes; he was against them. Eventually the lines sorted out alphabetically by state, and I found myself in the Maryland-Massachusetts line behind Jack Mendelsohn.

Young campaigners at the Salt Palace
Young campaigners at the Salt Palace

The Campaign. The buttons and t-shirts and people handing out leaflets have been everywhere the last few days, but on another level the presidential campaign has been strangely easy to ignore. As I wandered through the chattering crowds in the common areas, I don’t think I ever picked up the words “Morales” or “Hallman” — other than from identifiable campaigners. The people I hang out with have been eager to talk about some workshop or their UU University track or Salt Lake City, not the presidential campaign.

By-Laws. The other vote I cast was against the by-law changes, which failed by such a small margin that I practically decided the issue myself. And that is a scary thought, I guess, because I am what the pros call a “single-issue, low-information voter”. Like the guy in the voting line, I had read the revised UU Sources and I didn’t like them. (more…)

Liveblogging the Ware Lecture

Bringing it home now — back to the image of the beach and the crab. The moment of transcendant glory is past; now the hard work of faith begins. This isn’t a time to lose faith. Quoting the UU hymn:

“Praise song for trouble, praise song for day, praise song for every hand-lettered sign…” (Sorry: the teleprompter typist is faster than I am.)

Melissa Harris-Lacewell giving the Ware Lecture

What we need now is love. “Beware the crabs in the sand, but keep your eyes on the horizon. With reason and faith, let us walk forward into that light.”


It’s easy to write off faith talk as inherently divisive — but if we do that, we cede faith, and lose the use of it as a tool for the struggle for self, community, and justice. (Amen!)

(Your blogger is loving this part: I argue it often with my progressive blogging friends, most of whom are secular and don’t believe in the power of faith to create change.)

Faith is an exercise in intellectual humility, a habit that makes us recognize our own limitations, helps us come to terms with what we don’t know and can’t do.

“We come here together to day to make the most incredible faith claim of all: that we can establish a world that recognizes the inherent dignity of every single human being — and that we can make that world using the power of love.”

(Wild cheering!!) (more…)

Liveblogging the Celebration of the UUA Presidential Candidates

8:35 p.m. MDT

Peter Morales has just released a statement on his Web site. Go here to read it.

8:30 p.m. MDT

That’s it. Final result: all uncontested candidates were elected. Peter Morales was elected the next UUA president with 59% of the vote.

8:28 p.m. MDT

The Rev. Tracy Robinson-Harris is leading us in the congregation in a responsive reading. I can feel myself calming down as more than two thousand people read together. Now John Hubert is leading us in the closing song, “For All That Is Our Life.”

Guess this means that neither Peter Morales nor Laurel Hallman will be speaking to us.

8:25 p.m. MDT

Heard around me: “I love this sermon, even though I’m not really listening.”

It’s a great sermon by Carley, but I know I’m too excited thinking of the election results to pay proper attention. But oh, he really is a good preacher. (more…)

"What's wrong with a Pentecostal Unitarian or Universalist?"

Last night I was covering the “Guess Who’s Coming to Worship?” talk.

You can read my news report here, but the short version is that Pentecostal megachurch minister Carlton Pearson had a John-Murray-style Universalist conversion experience a few years ago, and the remnant of his congregation has recently joined All Souls in Tulsa. Tulsa’s second service now has the same intellectual content as its first service, but it also has some of the look-and-feel of a Pentecostal service.

If I had to sum up the attitude projected by Tulsa minister Marlin Lavanhar last night, it would be: Why not? Somebody explain to me why we can’t do this and still be UUs.

And Pearson asked the $64,000 question: “What’s wrong with a Pentecostal Unitarian or Universalist?”

One Pearson quote didn’t fit neatly into my news article, but does match a theme I’ve been developing on this blog. When he started coming to All Souls Unitarian in Tulsa, Pearson discovered some people we didn’t know were there.

“There are people in [All Souls] church who are ORU [Oral Roberts University in Tulsa] graduates, who are from the Baptist church and the Pentecostal church. Some of them still speak in tongues — quietly.” After a burst of laughter, Pearson said something very interesting: “I found that this church was quietly more inclusive than they knew.”

UPDATE: I happened to run into Marlin Lavanhar later and asked him how many people we were talking about. He said about 35 people from Pearson’s New Dimensions congregation had joined All Souls, but that as many as 100 were participating in one way or another.

Liveblogging Service of the Living Tradition

10:13 p.m. MDT

One of my favorite parts of a worship service is sitting and listening to the postlude after the worship service. I like hearing good music (tonight we’re getting something from Handel’s Water Music), while all the people around me are talking about the service, talking among themselves, talking about their families, heading out of the worship service and back to normal life.

10:11 p.m. MDT

The last of the professional religious leaders being recognized head off the stage. “Give ’em a last round of applause,” says Beth Miller. The congregation erupts in applause.

10:07 p.m. MDT

The recessional hymn is one of my favorites, “For All the Saints,” with music by Ralph Vaughan Williams. (I still say he’s the best writer of hymn tunes of the 20th century.) Another hymn that sounds particularly good when two thousand people sing it.

9:59 p.m. MDT

Mary Harrington’s voice is very soothing. Her voice is creating an almost meditative state in the congregation here — very much in line with part of what she’s saying in her sermon, which is that we all need to take time for quiet and reflection and awareness. (more…)

God Speaks to the UUs

Kate Clinton

Something like this was bound to happen. You put several thousand UUs in the middle of the Mormon Jerusalem, just half a block from Temple Square — and you gotta know you’re just asking for a major, major smiting.

Tonight, we got our divine retribution, such at it was.

I was covering comedian Kate Clinton‘s performance “I Told You So” in the Grand Ballroom when our cosmic comeuppance was finally delivered. In fact, I blame her. She was holding forth on California’s Proposition 8, which overrode a court order legalizing gay marriage in that state. Based on some bad polling interpretation, a lot of people came to believe that proposition lost because of the black churches. But Clinton was setting us, ahem, straight:

“It wasn’t the black churches. It was the white churches. It was the Catholic archbishops, who’ve never been married, pouring money into the campaign. And it was the Mormons, who know so much about marriage,” she announced, dropping her voice to a whisper when she said the M-word. “And by the way…that’s Mormon, with two Ms.” (more…)

Liveblogging Plenary 3

5:10 p.m. MDT

And everyone heads off to the rally for immigrant rights….

5:05 p.m. MDT

There’s another motion to refer this motion back to the Commission on Social Witness. It needs a two-thirds vote. Gini Courter says the motion carries on a visual vote. “By a whisker,” says someone near me.

So the peacemaking SOC goes back to the Commission on Social Witness for additional study….

4:58 p.m. MDT

We’re getting into convoluted parliamentary procedures. Gini Courter says, “Now I’ve even confused our general counsel.” She explains, tries to call for a vote, but now the parliamentarian consults with her. The vote is on calling the question. The delegates vote to call the question. The vote to refeer the question failed to get two-thirds vote. Back to the amendment microphone.

Some people still look confused (I’m one of them). But here we are, back where we were ten minutes ago….

4:53 p.m. MDT

A motion is been made to refer this whole motion back to the Commission on Social Witness. A few groans audible from the delegates. The motion to refer has to get a two-thirds vote…. (more…)

Rethinking our approach to diversity

Whenever I hear something I haven’t heard before, and then hear something very similar again from a different speaker the next day, I start to wonder if maybe there’s a trend developing. Wednesday I drew your attention to a quote from Rosemary Bray McNatt, the African-American minister of the Fourth Universalist Society in New York City, in which said that race was often standing in for issues of culture, and that flagellating ourselves and each other over racial issues is making the cultural issue more difficult.

Thursday morning I went to the “Perversity of Diversity” talk by another African-American UU minister, Mark Morrison-Reed. He kept saying “We are an ethnic faith” until eventually he got the room to repeat it back to him. Like McNatt, he was referring to the primacy of culture, not race, in determining who fits in and feels at home in UU congregations.

Culture prevails. Diversity advanced more quickly when the primary barrier to inclusivity wasn’t culture, but gender or sexual orientation. And indeed the people of color who become UUs are always those who have operated within our current norms. People like me. Raised middle-class, lifelong UU, trained at Meadville-Lombard — I’m pretty assimilated.

The #1 predictor of UUism being education, Morrison-Reed observed that the number of African-American UU ministers increased as the number of African-Americans with bachelors degrees increased — independent of what the UUA policy might have been at the time.

What has happened over the last 70 years is that the make-up of the groups that our congregations draw from has changed. … Rather than leading, we are simply reaping the reward of a changing and evolving society.

And that gives us a self-image problem. We want to think of ourselves as social leaders, not social followers. (more…)