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…)

"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.

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…)

UUU Theology: Day 1

I had expected the Theology Track of UU University (led by Galen Guengerich) to be a survey of UU thought, or perhaps a how-to workshop along the lines of Building Your Own Theology. Instead it is more of a proof-of-concept, an example of how one UU theologian answers the hard questions. Organized this way, it gains in depth what it loses in breadth, and combats by example the widespread belief that theological questions are unanswerable.

In theology, however, I find the questions are almost always more interesting than the answers, and sometimes the frame is more interesting than the picture it surrounds. When my congregation’s Coming-of-Age class reads its credos to us each year, I always try to listen “between the words” to hear what questions our teens thought they needed to answer. Those implicit questions often tell me more about their thinking than their explicit statements of belief.

I found myself taking the same approach to this session. What set of problems does Rev. Guengerich believe a UU theology needs to address? (more…)

Race and culture

Every year, GA is preceded by Ministry Days, an event put on by the UU Ministers Association. Ministry Days concludes with the annual Berry Street Essay, a lecture series that goes back to William Ellery Channing’s “How Far is Reason to be Used in Explaining Revelation?” in 1820.

I’m not a UUMA member or even a minister, but no one was checking badges at the door, so I slipped in to hear Paul Rasor present this year’s essay. Meaning no disrespect to Paul, who is one of our best theologians and spoke well about our UU struggle to be more multi-racial and multi-cultural, the quote that stuck in my mind is from the response by Rosemary Bray McNatt. (Traditionally, another minister “responds” to the lecture. The response isn’t adversarial, but is more of a commentary on the ideas the speaker has presented.)

After humorously noting a few of the quirky (and often negative) tastes widely shared by UUs (rejecting all mass media other than PBS and NPR, refusing to be caught dead shopping in WalMart, distaste for rap music, and so on) she said:

Race and ethnicity have stood in during our conversations for something more ineffable, more complex and edgy than we have been willing to discuss. We have been talking about culture, a Unitiarian Universalist culture that many of us have refused to acknowledge. We have been unable to address these issues because we have been confused about the conversation that we have been having, and we cannot escape the boxes to which we are likely to be assigned if we start talking about it. …

For people who are as blessed as we are by this gift of relgious community, we are also cursed with a nasty little Calvinist streak that we would do well to examine. We would rather be angry and judgmental with ourselves and with each other than be tender and merciful in simple recognition of how hard it is to do what we must do in our congregations.

We must admit that we have a specific, often alienating culture, and we must change it. And we must grieve the loss of the familiar, and gain some measure of courage to embrace the new.

The full list of Berry Street essays, with links to the text and sometimes audio, is a great online resource for anyone who wants to know the history of Unitarian (and eventually UU) thinking.

Seen in the Exhibit Hall …

When the Exhibit Hall opened at 3 this afternoon, I cruised through looking for good buttons and t-shirts.

A t-shirt at the Latin American Committee booth says: “God is not a boy’s name.”

A fridge magnet at Northern Sun shows a chimp in a beret and the slogan: “Viva la evolucion.” They also have a button: “Can we vote on your marriage too?”

A t-shirt at Earth Wisdom has the seal of an organization that I hope really exists: “Guild of Radical Militant Librarians”.


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?