With the financial support of UUCWC, I was able to attend this year’s General Assembly (GA) in New Orleans. For those who don’t know or who are new to the faith, GA is the annual meeting of our Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). The gathering includes opportunities for worship, learning, discussion and voting on denomination policy, and connecting with other UUs from all over the United States. This year’s theme was “Resist and Rejoice,” which the UUA described as “awakening and deepening UUs’ commitment to working in solidarity with people on the margins.”
The year’s GA was also full of firsts. It was the first time it was held in New Orleans, and delegates chose the first elected female president of the UUA, Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray (many emphasized that the first female president was Rev. Sofia Betancourt, who served as co-president until this election). It was also my first time attending a GA after converting to Unitarian Universalism about four years ago when I joined my first congregation in Des Moines, Iowa. Because I hadn’t been to a GA before, I can’t say how this one compared, but many said this GA felt different. Executive Director of Black Lives of UU (BLUU) Lena Gardner said, “Something is changing in our denomination. This GA was so very different from the feeling of General Assembly even just a year ago.”
One highlight for me was hearing Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika talk about his experiences prior to leaving Unitarian Universalism – along with many other people of color – in the late 1960s. In brief, many UU ministers and laypeople were active in the Civil Rights movement, particularly after one UU minister was killed in Selma, AL. This active support by a relatively new denomination led many Black Americans to join UU congregations that year, to the point where a third of delegates at GA in the late 1960s were Black (by comparison, around 500 of the 4,000 attendees this year were people of color). A group of Black UUs formed a group called the Black UU Caucus (BUUC) and asked for and received the promise of funding for their self-directed group. However, in the following years, after some financial overextension by the UUA board was exposed, the UUA did not fulfill its promise of support, financial or otherwise, and hundreds of Black UUs – including Dr. Sanyika – left the faith in frustration.
There was an air of naming past wrongs and attempting to do better at this year’s GA with that history in mind. There was a lot of discussion about how Unitarian Universalism failed its Black community at that time, and how the denomination is still very white compared to other mainstream denominations. Unitarian Universalism remains steeped in a culture of white supremacy, which isn’t necessarily inviting to people on the margins. These conversations resonated with me but also felt very draining and sometimes uncomfortable. Moreover, I felt a bit odd being a delegate for UUCWC given that I only joined the church this past February and started attending last August. While I feel embraced and accepted within UUCWC, I am aware that I am not a typical member, as a relatively young, brown, queer mom of a young child. I appreciated, however, that I felt encouraged and fully empowered to follow my conscience while representing our church.
My coming to Unitarian Universalism four years ago in our last home was not without discomfort as well. I had visited UU congregations before in my 20s and found it too hard a transition after growing up in Spanish-speaking Pentecostal churches. The worship in the UU churches was unrecognizable to me, even though the UU principles and values rang true. It wasn’t until I married a white person who had been raised UU that I felt like I could join a UU church, after 15 years of searching for a faith home. This history of searching and discomfort made it particularly meaningful at GA when I experienced a worship service that de-centered whiteness and didn’t follow the traditional Euro-centric model. I was moved to experience elements of my old faith tradition – which included singing, laying on of hands, and traditional prayer – and it helped make Unitarian Universalism feel more like home again.
The other highlight was witnessing the Ware lecture, which featured lawyer Bryan Stevenson, author of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption and director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an organization committed to defending those in poverty, incarcerated, or on Death Row. His speech was phenomenal. What I took out of the lecture was that many white Americans want to act like slavery and the terrorism that accompanied and followed it (lynching and senseless killing of Black men, women, and children) was something that happened and was over a long time ago, that because some progress has been made, we have overcome our history of slavery and systematic oppression of people of color in this country. But how can we overcome something we haven’t owned up to and reconciled as a people? A line he shared during his lecture that stuck with me about this was, “I’m not interested in punishing America for this history; I want to liberate us from it.”
I took two big ideas away from my time at GA. Even though the experience was at times overwhelming and will require weeks to process, it has strengthened my own UU identity, both within UUCWC and in the broader faith. I highly recommend everyone go to GA to experience the range of opportunities to learn and connect with other UUs. I also came to a different understanding about our shared responsibility to create beloved community, within UUCWC and Unitarian Universalism more generally. For me as a person of color, I’ve at times been frustrated that white people haven’t come further in their ability to de-center themselves and create a society that is truly equal and accessible for all. However, I’ve come to recognize that my attitude has been somewhat dismissive. I am profoundly moved by activist Lilla Watson’s words, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Our liberation – UUCWC members and friends, and Unitarian Universalists across the country – is bound up together, and we must work together to create the world we envision. May it be so.