The Power of Love
Long, long ago, in 1996, I went to my first General Assembly, the annual continental gathering of Unitarian Universalists, which that year was held in Indianapolis. I got there via an epic two day road trip with four other seminarians from Harvard Divinity School, and mostly what I remember from the whole experience was this: awe and amazement. (And a lot of Steak’n’Shake, given the seminarian budget.) I had not known—not really—that there were so many Unitarian Universalists in the world until I was sitting (and singing and worshipping and learning) with a few thousand of them in the convention center in Indianapolis. It was wonderful. I will never forget the first time I felt that I-am-part-of-something-big-and-powerful feeling.
I will also never forget that first time I went to the Berry St Lecture, in 1996 given by the Rev. Richard Gilbert. It was entitled: Confessions of a Militant Mystic: Spirituality and Social Action-a Seamless Garment. In it, he said, “life is both our only chance to grow a soul and repair the world.” In other words, we are both called to joy and engagement in the mystery AND to making the world a better place; they are inextricably linked. This message has been woven into how I understand the world and our place in it.
This year, General Assembly in Pittsburgh, was my 21st in person GA, and my first in person since 2018. (I missed a couple years in early parenthood, and some I attended online after that became possible.) And although much of it felt familiar, there was a sense of urgency and calling that I have not felt in this way before. So much in our world is shifting, and our religious movement is part of that. Consider the continuing effects of the pandemic, a deeper understanding and call to dismantle white supremacy culture, rising fascism, climate change, evolving needs of families, etc. And so we ask: how do we, as Unitarian Universalists, respond to all this? How do we shape and be the change we want to see?
Big questions were on the table at General Assembly: Article 2 of the UUA by-laws, our principles and purposes statement, was discussed at length as part of a multi-year engagement to change our core document. Right now the main statement reads (in part): “The Purpose of the Unitarian Universalist Association is to actively engage its members in the transformation of the world through liberating love.” Big changes in leadership were on the table: This General Assembly, the six year term of our first elected woman Unitarian Universalist Association president, the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, ended, and the mantle was passed to the Rev. Sofia Betancourt, the first out queer individual and the first woman of color elected to the position. Betancourt said: “Unitarian Universalism has a vital, liberating message for our time. Our nation and denomination are experiencing challenges in a time of significant division, change and radicalization. But together, I know we can serve one another, organize for justice, widen the circle of concern, collectively imagine new ways forward in community, and grow spiritually. I am looking forward to the continued work of radical inclusion, faithful witness, and the embrace of a wide range of voices and leaders for our faith.” Me too.
This years General Assembly, like my first one, included a Berry St. Lecture that I will never forget; delivered by the Rev. Cecelia Kingman, entitled: My Little Pony was Right: Reflections on Fascism Without and Within. In it, Kingman outlines the tactics of fascism (all of which are readily identifiable in our culture right now—propaganda, anti-intellectualism, mythic past, etc.); one of the most vivid for me being attacks on the most vulnerable (like our trans siblings) to test what the public will bear. It was one of those lectures for me that put words to so much of what we see around us, not just in our culture but even in our congregations. I urge you to watch (or read) the essay which can be found here. Now, more than ever, we Unitarian Universalists need to be fighting fascism.
Even with all this urgency and calling, there was great joy and celebration amongst the people. Which is as it should be. Kingman, and both respondents to the Berry St. Lecture talked about the importance of joy. “Joy is resistance”, the Rev. Elizabeth Stevens noted. “Fascists and hierarchy hate joy”, said CB Beal. And the Rev. Richard Gilbert reminds us: “Life is both our only chance to grow a soul and repair the world.” Let’s join together and transform the world with our liberating love.
More Links for exploration:
Side with Love : Our national organization working against oppression, includes information about a workshop related to the Berry St. Lecture.