Liveblogging Candidates' Forum II

1:25 p.m. MDT

I just got up and walked around the hall. It’s less than half full, but there’s a steady stream of people coming into the hall. I stopped to talk with some people I know. “We didn’t hurry our lunch,” they admitted, knowing that all the candidates speaking today were running in uncontested elections. But they came.

And as I walked around, I saw that nearly everyone was really paying attention. I didn’t even see anyone knitting. Democracy at work: people paying attention even during the less-than-exciting bits.

1:11 p.m. MDT

The candidates are making funny and brief statements. But as I look around, half of the delegates I see are reading their program books.

1:02 p.m. MDT

The hall is still more than half empty. There wasn’t much time for delegates to have lunch today… or maybe people just aren’t interested in the non-contested elections for UUA committees and Board slots.

UU Geography

I go to a lot of conferences — maybe half a dozen a year — as part of my job. There are a couple of things about GA that are absolutely unique.

The first is the sheer openness of people. You can just plop down anywhere — in the sessions, in the halls, in the restaurants, elevators, bathrooms (which can be disconcerting, yes) — and people will just start talking. And the first question is usually: Where are you from?

Which brings us to the second part, which is the playing of a game I think of as “UU Geography.” It’s always striking how many of these conversations end up very quickly locating people and places you and your new acquaintance have in common.  A couple of examples:

At the first night’s opening worship, my friend and I (the only two delegates from our church, and perhaps the only two from Canada) found ourselves sitting directly behind folks from First UU in Dallas — where our recently-called minister interned just three years ago. Of course they knew him — and gave us a note to take home to him.

Last night, I hopped into the hot tub at the Marriott, and struck up a conversation with a guy who was already there. He’s from New Jersey. I’m (originally) from a tiny town in eastern California that’s so remote that most of the rest of the state (including the state government) doesn’t even know we exist. So I was pretty surprised to learn that not only did he know where it was — he’d been there just last week.

Life at GA can be seen as sort of skittering through the day like this, discovering the vast universe of connections that bind together all these strangers. Which means we’re not really strangers. Which is why it feels like home.

Standing on the Side of Love, Part 2,874

Dr. Sinkford just got up (we’re at the start of the Friday afternoon plenary) and recognized members of the Westside Unitarian Universalist Church for their strength in the face of last year’s shooting at the Tennessee Valley UU Church. (TVUAA had been recognized in an earlier plenary.)

And he told a story that shows the best of who we are.

The WUUC members drove here from Nashville. On the way, they stopped off at the Reformed Lutheran Church in Wichita, KS — the church in which Dr. George Tiller was assassinated in late May. They dropped off a quilt, made by the members of Westside UUC, that included all of their handprints — a statement of solidarity and compassion from one congregation to another that had faced the same kind of violent attack.

A lovely thing.

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…)

Local flavor from Salt Lake City

Yesterday I found myself in Sam Weller’s, the oldest independent bookstore in Salt Lake City. It’s as good a bookstore as Powell’s in Portland, Oregon, which reveals something about the intellectual life of Salt Lake City. There was a television crew there conducting interviews, because Sam Weller, the owner of the store, had died that day. I overheard the interviewer asking a girl of about ten years old, “So what does Sam Weller’s mean to you?” Very eloquently, she told how important books were for her, and how much she likes to go to that bookstore. She sounded like a budding intellectual, with all that entails.

Later that evening, Rev. Tom Goldsmith, minister of First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, welcomed delegates to the first session of Plenary. Among other things, he said that some state leaders look askance at Salt Lake City, because of the intellectual ferment of the city. “They call it ‘Sin City’,” he said.

If you think of Salt Lake City as a dour theocracy, you’ve gotten a wrong impression of the city. In the neighborhood of the convention center, I have found not just Sam Weller’s, but also art galleries, a film center, ethnic restaurants, and more. After experiencing a little bit of Salt Lake City, my only surprise is that there are only two Unitarian Universalist congregations in the city.

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”.

Opening worship

9:55 p.m. MDT

After a powerful homily by Angela Herrara, Ysaye Maria Barnwell is bringing to yet a deeper level of contemplation us with her song “We Are.” A few people are singing along quietly, but most of the people around me are simply moving to the music, letting this worship service sink in.

9:37 p.m. MDT

Clifford Duncan, an elder in the Ute nation, just offered a prayer in the Ute language. “In my prayer was my ancestors of yesterday, today, and those that’s yet to come,” he says upon concluding. People behind me are rapt, some leaning forward to hear.

9:24 p.m. MDT

Bill Sinkford is telling how the American Unitarian Association was given charge of the Northern Utes by the Grant administration in 1870. If you’re not watching live video of this, go now and listen to his talk. This is big stuff….

9:14 p.m.

We’re singing a song, and near me a couple of boys, about 7 and 9 years old, are dancing with a woman who might be their mother.

9:11 p.m. MDT

Eric Cherry introduces the “passing of the peace” as something that was done during Bill Sinkford’s trip to Africa, to meet the Unitarian Unviersalist congregations there. And now everyone in the congregation gets up to greet those around them, saying everything from “Peace be with you,” to “Hi, how are you?” to nothing at all. I’m seeing people hug, shake hands, or just talk to each other.

8:55 p.m. MDT

We’re singing the hymn “Spirit of Life” in four different languages: Spanish first, then Hungarian, then Khasi (a language of northeast India). I’m surrounded by people singing a little out of tune, and with a great variety of pronunciations of Spanish, but it’s still a profoundly moving experience.

Now a representative of the Unitarian church in Transylvania is singing “Spirit of Life” in Hungarian — and believe it or not, there are quite a few people singing along. I can hear what seems to be dozens of people singing along. When the representative from the Khasi Hills Unitarians of India sings, not so many people try to sing along.

8:35 p.m.

Lots of people leaving the hall, maybe for a bathroom break. Which is too bad, because Rev. Eric Cherry, director of International Relations at the UUA is introducing Rev. Mark Kiyimba, the leader of the Uganda Unitarian Universalists. Kiyimba is greeted with cheers, whistles, and applause.

Plenary I

8:32 p.m.

I turn to the person next to me. “That was a moving talk,” I say.

She says, “I’m an emotional dishrag.”

8:27 p.m.

Bill Sinkford is thanking all the people with whom he’s worked over the past eight years as the UUA president. “No solo acts,” he says, recognizing UUA staff, lay leaders, and others. He recognizes and thanks his wife and children as well. The audience is particularly quiet and attentive — except when they applaud. “This has been a journey of faith,” he says, referring to his term as president — and the crowd stands up and gives sustained applause, a few people waving to Sinkford.

“Thank you Mr. President,” says Gini Courter, “I think we love you.” I think most of those here in this crowd would agree with statement, after such a moving President’s report.

7:46 p.m.

There are two local reporters sitting a few seats away from me. They are listening intently as Bill Sinkford talks about how the UUA supports same sex marriage. “How many of you are from Iowa?” asks Bill Sinkford, “Raise your hands!” — and then he asks how many of those assemlbed are from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, all the states where same-sex marriage is legal. Bill Sinkford promises that the UUA will fight until same-sex marriage is legal in all states, a remark that is greeted by applause — and both reporters applaud, too. It will be interesting to read the local news coverage of General Assembly.

7:39 p.m. MDT

“Here for his eighth and final report to the General Assembly,” says Gini Courter, “the Rev. William G. Sinkford. Bill Sinkford comes to the microphone, and there’s a standing ovation for him, and in honor of his service.

7:24 p.m. MDT

Gini Courter is announcing that the only item of business for this first plenary session is to adopt rules of procedures. She goes over the various rules and procedures for conducting business. She shows where the pro and con microphones are, the amendment microphone, etc. etc. Boring stuff, but somehow Gini manages to make it entertaining, and actually gets some laughs out of the assembled delegates.

Gini introduces Gordon Martin, the General Assembly parliamentarian, who has been serving in that role for 40 years. He gets a round of aplause, and a few people actually stand up to applaud him. Where else would a parliamentarian get this kind of applause?

The delegates adopt the rule of procedure, and Gini says, “Yes, now celebrate your first vote.” Another laugh, and a few cheers.

Banner Parade

I’m sitting in the front row of the plenary hall. The band from the Salt Lake City church’s jazz vespers is playing some cool jazz, and the banner parade has begun.

People from all over the United States carrying banners from their Unitarian Universalist congregations — from Utah, from Colorado, from Devon, Pennsylvania, from Long Beach, California….

The people behind me are cheering the churches they know, shouting: “Yay Maryland! All Souls! Wooo!”

Now there are some people carrying a big white banner, with big bold red and blue letters, which reads: “IOWA: Where I Can Marry the One I Love.” This banner, recognizing that same-sex marriage is now legal in Iowa, brings lots of cheers from the crowd.

And the banner parade ends with UUA Moderator Gini Courter announcing, “I now call to order the 48th annual General Assembly….”