Not long ago I found myself planning a memorial service with a widow who had her hands full dealing with the business matters that accompany the death of a loved one. Her husband had been in a nursing home for a couple of years, and as he declined, her sense of connection to him had become entwined in her relationship with his professional caregivers, as often happens; and I could see that this pattern was extending to me and to the funeral home. It quickly became clear to me that this pattern was an instrument of her grieving and was to be respected as such. I was reminded of how my father, the accountant, had initially dealt with grieving my mother by tending to such business. That’s what works best for some people. Please don’t ask me to tend to business when I’m grieving, but for some people it’s what they need.
I also was quickly aware of this woman’s intelligence and ability to focus and concentrate – not easy when you’re grieving – and her efficient attention to the needs of others. When I called her to make our appointment, I told her I’d bring some materials to help us plan the service, but mostly I wanted her to tell me about her husband and to tell me some stories about him. When I arrived she immediately offered and prepared a cup of coffee and a plate of cookies, and then without my having to ask or lead the discussion, she began telling me about her husband. I said very little for an hour and a half as she told me his story as well as things about the family and her concerns about certain tensions between family members and what parts of his story she thought I ought to know about but probably shouldn’t mention in the service. She anticipated my every question. Normally I like to meet with more than one family member, in a group, but I left this meeting with a hunch that it was going to be OK – a hunch borne out by the response of other family members after the service.
At the same time I felt the distance between our perspectives. She was not a Unitarian, but she had selected a reading from our hymnal that she wanted in the service, and she asked me to light a chalice – because her husband’s first wife had been a Unitarian and their children, who were going to be there, had been raised in our churches. She also told me about her own spirituality and beliefs about life after death. That’s where I felt the distance. She holds non-mainstream beliefs of a kind that I know a little about but don’t connect with personally. So when she started talking about all that, I felt like it was interrupting my sense of connection with her. Of course I didn’t say that; I listened attentively and told her I understood, which I believe I did. At any rate I didn’t screw up the service. And I think that’s because I listened with the ear of my heart and let love guide me. Which is to say, I strove in that encounter to live my faith.
We talk a lot about living our faith, but what does that look like? Last year I was very taken with the Sunday morning sermon at the UUA’s General Assembly, delivered by Kaaren Anderson. Her message was that faith finds expression in acts of compassion. Acts of compassion lead to what she called “holy encounters” with others. She said that all religious beliefs are accountable to a higher power: compassion. Or, put another way, God is love. She said this is the center of our faith and the meaning of our tradition. It felt accurate. It felt like what I was trying to do in working with that widow. Better yet, it felt like something one could act upon in any situation.
I watched that sermon at home, live on my computer. It happened that no commitments that week would prevent me from watching all the major events – plenaries and worship services – live via webstream. I posted comments in real time on my Facebook page throughout. One of my good friends who was attending GA wrote to me: “I get it. You’re here. Want to meet for coffee today?” I was amazed how connected I could feel to the event through these technologies.
So this year I watched online again. I couldn’t “be there” live online quite as much as last year, but the major events were posted as video pretty quickly, so I felt I was keeping up. By the way, in addition to some 1700 delegates on site, there were another 2000 or so delegates participating in GA business online. So this technological access to GA is making it possible for churches to “send delegates” without burdening them with the high costs of hotels and airfare and the rest. And it’s now possible for whole congregations to participate in GA events as spectators together and share in the experience.
This year GA was different. It was not business as usual. The minimum plenary business required by the UUA Bylaws was done, and the major events – the banner parade, daily morning worships, the Ware Lecture, the Service of the Living Tradition (that honors newly fellowshipped, retired and deceased clergy), the Bridging Service honoring our new young adults – all were held. But instead of seven plenary sessions there were only five – one each day – that totaled about five hours less time, and except for the last day plenary sessions were about two hours or less, meaning they were easier to endure – often in the past those business sessions have gone more than three hours, which is definitely too long. Nothing productive happens after two hours in any meeting.
And instead of workshops on a wide variety of subjects, every workshop was in some way related to public witness, the immigration issue specifically, or how to do public witness or address immigration issues back home in your congregation. On the first day, these workshops included a 3-hour orientation and training on public witness for all those attending, because the centerpiece of this GA was an action of public witness at the “tent city” temporary jail in Phoenix where undocumented people are being detained, and where conditions violate many many standards of human rights and humane treatment. This public witness was coordinated with the work of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, started by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix over two years ago, to which GA delegates were lending their 1500-plus-strong presence and support to that local ministry. The whole General Assembly was geared toward orienting the delegates to the local church’s ministry and its partners in the community, and educating them on the issues and on how to do safe and effective public witness.
GA was different this year, but that’s only half the story. The other half is how that difference came about.
Two years ago, shortly before General Assembly was to begin in Minneapolis, Arizona enacted the controversial immigration law known as SB1070. The UUA Board, which under the UUA bylaws has sole authority to decide where GA will be held, decided to place the question, of whether or not to boycott Arizona and move GA somewhere else, on the agenda for delegates to discuss and decide. The question was on the agenda with a Board recommendation in favor of a boycott. But delegates rejected that recommendation and fashioned a proposal to go to Arizona with the express purpose of making the kind of powerful public witness we saw in June. A group of delegates – including folks who knew a thing or two about how to do effective public witness – met and wrote not only a proposal to go but a statement of values and guidelines that became a roadmap for planning the event. The Board appointed a committee called “the accountability group” to keep the planning on track with the intentions of the proposal.
That was the outcome of the discussion in Minneapolis, but more important was the process. There was a lot of energy around the idea of a boycott; with a Board recommendation in favor of a boycott, we might well have been absent from Arizona this year, except for one thing: the delegates on the floor listened with the ear of their heart when a few stood up and said, “No, we should not boycott, we should be there. We should stand by our local congregation and its partners in the community who are working hard to change the law.” Hearts were open, minds were changed, and consciences resolved to do the right thing. And so we did. And we did the right thing because in the process of deciding what to do, we let love guide us and strove in that encounter with each other to live our faith.
It is tempting to say that what made the difference was our democratic process. But democratic process also happens in the House of Representatives and just think of the things that have gone on there. Furthermore, we followed our democratic process 50 times before this kind of magic happened at a General Assembly. I do think that democratic process provides a space in which the spirit of mutual love has a fine chance to work among us. But what made the difference in Minneapolis, by all accounts, was not simply democracy, but that an important matter of conscience was brought to the agenda, and deliberated in a spirit of love and trust, and those participating – including those responsible for managing the proceedings – listened with the ear of the heart, and let themselves be guided by love, striving together to live this faith.
And that’s also what made the difference in Phoenix. Some 1500 Unitarian Universalists wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts made public witness to injustices being done to individuals and whole neighborhoods in the name of the law, a public witness visible on the street and in the media. But two years before that, some 200 Unitarian Universalists in Phoenix showed up at a public witness event organized by somebody else, wearing those same yellow t-shirts. And they were noticed. Members of the community organizations in Phoenix who had organized that event saw all those people in yellow t-shirts and didn’t know who they were. They saw the word “love” in large print on the t-shirts, and started calling us “the love people.” And they said to themselves, “we need to talk to those people.” And that’s how our local immigration ministry found its partners for justice work in the community. Again, it was showing up in a spirit of love and trust, listening with the ear of the heart, letting love be their guide, and striving in these ways to live our faith that brought that about.
Those who were there – really there, on site, not via the internet like I was – are talking about how powerful the GA experience was this time, how much they learned, and above all how good it felt to do something together that might help end police-state-style injustices going on in Arizona, injustices that have come about and are sustained because too many voters and political leaders let fear overcome love. It was a witness that might just help those voters and leaders to get back to the place where love overcomes fear.
I have to say that – from an online perspective – it was a powerful experience watching that public witness on my computer, and watching all the preparation that led up to it. If you didn’t see it already, I recommend going to uua.org, to the General Assembly page, and watching some of the video posted there. There’s a five-minute video that summarizes the week, and that’s really good for a quick overview and flavor of what went on. I recommend that you watch the vigil at “tent city” to understand what that looked like and what we did there. And take a look at the Saturday evening worship to see how “the love people” prepared themselves to go to that event. If you want to learn more about immigration issues and what kinds of injustices we were standing in witness to, I recommend a workshop that has “part one” in parentheses after its title – it’s the only one that has that, and I just think “part one” is easier for you to remember than the whole title. (There’s only part one, don’t go looking for part two.) Four panelists who do different kinds of social justice work each gave about a 20-minute presentation, so it runs about an hour and a quarter with a question-and-answer session at the end which you can skip if you want to. I think those four things – the 5-minute summary, the vigil, Saturday evening worship before the vigil, and the “part one” workshop – are what you need to know about how GA was different this year. There’s plenty more video to look at there, if you want to get carried away. But I recommend those four, and I recommend that you start thinking now about how, individually or in groups, you can experience GA next year. Because it’s so easy to do now, and – especially the worship services – it’s so good for your soul.
Justice GA was different because of the magic that happens when we meet in love and trust, listen with the ear of our hearts, let love guide us, and strive to live our faith. That’s how it was conceived of, how it was planned, and how it was lived out in June. We can bring home all kinds of learning from General Assembly – about immigration issues, about how to do effective public witness, and more. What we should always remember to bring to it, and to every gathering here at home, is our love, our trust, the ears of our hearts, and our striving to live our faith with love as our guide. So may it be. Amen.