Eye on the UUniverse: Stirred By GA

By Rev. Jaco B. ten Hove

There was almost tangible buzz throughout the 2013 UUA General Assembly (June 19-23 in Louisville, KY), anticipating at any moment a US Supreme Court rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). That word finally came a few days after “GA,” but there was still no shortage of stirring moments (and plenty of other words) for the 3,300 UUs gathered with me for five days along the Ohio River in north central Kentucky’s “Possibility City.” (The UU World has good online coverage.)

Over two hundred youth were quite visible among us, as were over 600 UU congregational delegates, at least one from every state. At GA and also in the immediately pre-GA days of focused programming for clergy and other small groups, there were noticeably more younger adults (than previous years) mingling with the always plentiful elders, which was heartening. Perhaps connected to this younger dynamic was the large number of handheld devices in use. The Twitterverse was throbbing.

Also dominant at this GA was the issue of climate disruption, especially as manifested in coal mining and the local scourge of mountain top removal, which is truly heartbreaking. I attended two workshops specifically addressing our practices in the face of impending climate disruption, one of which taught me a new twist on the old commandment: “Thou shalt not kill—even slowly.” The other was an impressive treatment of how the UUA is very effectively using its considerable financial resources (e.g., the UUA Common Endowment Fund) to positively influence companies in which it has investments. See more on this HERE and HERE.

We also marched as a throng to the banks of the Ohio River for an interfaith rally, both to protest environmental injustices caused by coal mining, fracking, mountaintop removal, etc., and to promote more clean energy. There and in the plenary rally before the march, we were graced by the presence and message of local farmer, author and cultural/economic critic Wendell Berry, whose family has direct UU connections. He was quite inspirational, reading his moving poem, “Questionnaire” and making statements such as: “Necessary political changes will only be made in response to changed people.”

The sermonizing and speeches that populate each GA landscape seemed even more rousing than usual, with music to match. The prime lecture of the week was given by noted interfaith activist and author Eboo Patel , an American Ismaili Muslim, who explained how “nurturing positive relations between people with deep disagreements is holy.” And UUA President Peter Morales emphasized in his Report that “Collaboration is the key to our future,” noting many effective ways UUs are doing that across cultural and religious boundaries.

I sang in the ministers’ choir that performed twice during the week and it was powerful medicine. Our pair of directors were from the staff of All Souls Church in Tulsa, OK, and they led us in some really fun gospel-style material. At one point after the recessional that ended the normally rather staid annual Service of the Living Tradition, the upbeat music just wouldn’t stop and a kind of mild mosh pit formed at the foot of the stage, crowded with folks who didn’t want to quit singing and dancing together, to “I’ll Take You There.” Read and/or watch the service, although you might want to skip past much of the first half, which was taken up with the naming of ministers in various life and career stages. My bald head sticks up in the back left of the choir. “Exultant,” the UU World headline called it (the event, that is, not my head).

The preacher at that Saturday evening service, Vanessa Southern, suggested in no uncertain terms that religion could either be in the way or lead the way to a brighter future, and this echoed a theme throughout GA: that UUism is poised to contribute mightily, especially when one considers the numerical rise of the “nones.” These are people who do not declare any religious allegiance, yet have values that align with ours. They probably do not even know that there’s a religion like UUism to join up with and help their lone voice resound more loudly.

The very next morning, I was in the congregation for the Sunday service, in which former UUA president Bill Schulz offered an evocative view of the earth and “our covenant with all being,” featuring stunning video support. He also was unequivocal: “Everything that separates or divides us is stupidity on a cosmic scale.” The two prominent GA services and sermons mentioned above were very different in style and content, yet they complemented each other in a typically diverse yet unified manner. I commend the videos of them to you. Worshipping with thousands of UUs is like nothing else.

I went to other intriguing workshops, numerous plenary sessions, and had a small role in the closing youth and young adult worship service, which featured 100 attendees (at 8 am!) and leadership by a youth from Seattle. I also had precious time with beloved distant colleagues, made some new friends, and enjoyed the quite-warm-but-not-oppressively-hot Loooville environs, including a ministers’ reception at the nearby and very impressive Muhammed Ali Center.

But perhaps my most moving moment came near the end, in that Sunday morning service, when I unexpectedly became the guide for a blind elder colleague who was placed in the seat in front of me and left by himself. I’ve known 87-year-old Rudi Gelsey for decades, although not so much personally, but he’s a very notable character of good will, if a bit lovingly eccentric, and he had an important speaking role as recently as last year. (I will be precisely his current age if I make it to my 50th anniversary of ordination.)

 The service began and the next thing I knew, Rudi was standing to the music and waving his arms enthusiastically, as if conducting, which he did throughout the hour, almost whenever there was music. Early on, though, he stopped and tried to check to make sure he wouldn’t hit anyone nearby, so I leaned forward to let him know he was in the clear. From then on I cued him in, as necessary, about when to stand (or not). And at one point he turned his head toward me and said, in general, “Isn’t this wonderful?!”

 Watching and enjoying his spirit, I got a sudden, tearful flash—that I could be looking at myself in the future, older but still going to GA, and¾although likely physically compromised in one way or another¾still engaged by great energy in the room, perhaps even waving my arms to uplifting music. I realized that I could at least hope to be as present to that future as Rudi was to this moment.

 Afterwards, I gave him my arm and led him through the crowded hallways to his next location, as he eagerly told me of his new book, A Path to Perpetual Peace. I then set about packing to come home, with the sweet aftertaste of a solid, abundant GA experience lingering on my fulfilled palate. Next June we gather again in Providence, Rhode Island, with a theme of “Love Reaches Out,” and in 2015, GA comes back to Portland, OR. I also look forward to the upcoming Pacific NorthWest District Assembly (a kind of mini-GA), in Spokane next March 14-16, with a theme of “Love Beyond Belief.”

When individualists (like most of us UUs) can focus together in large, centered community for days of high intention and art, a marvelous and indescribable door opens in my heart. I am stirred, and maybe even a little shaken.

In the spirit,