Representatives of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations met in Phoenix last week for our annual gathering, called General Assembly (G.A.). Unlike previous years, our gathering this year had a focus on learning about and participating in social justice work (particularly on immigration issues) in partnership with local activist groups. Called “Justice G.A.,” our gathering this year was a grand experiment. Would anybody come? Would anybody like it? Are we as justice-oriented as we like to think we are, or would we rather just gather, drink coffee, and socialize?
I think it was a grand success, and here’s why:
- Our work together felt deeper and less diffuse than usual because we had a shared lens that guided our approach to all aspects of General Assembly. A workshop on religious education focused on how to talk with children in developmentally appropriate ways about immigration, racism, and other unfairnesses in the world. A workshop on building “meaning-full” ministry teams focused on social justice teams. The focus on justice work provided a powerful center to everything we were doing.
- And we still did everything! There were workshops on religious education, music, leadership training, stewardship and fundraising, anti-racism work, new curricula, ethical eating, addiction, storytelling, social media, theology, and poetry. There were workshops on working with youth, young adults, transgender people, people with disabilities. We sang together, worshipped together, danced together, did spiritual practice together. As usual, we had plenary and the Ware Lecture and the Service of the Living Tradition. Justice G.A. didn’t feel like “less” of a G.A.
- We turned outward rather than inward. Our incredible Unitarian Universalist gifts for reflection and analysis can veer into self-absorption, and G.A. can sometimes be the place where that self-absorption is at its height. But here, the emphasis on justice work kept us thinking about hope, transformation, and the world around us.
- We were deeply engaged with our physical location. G.A. often (always?) feels like it could happen anywhere. It doesn’t usually matter if we’re in Minneapolis or Louisville or Portland. This General Assembly would not have unfolded in this way in any other physical location. We could have a Justice G.A. somewhere else, certainly. We could even focus on immigration. But our workshops, worship, and witness activities were shaped and informed by the local organizations we are working with, and this intersection of place and event felt new and meaningful.
- We were worshipful. This is my fourth General Assembly, and far and away the most intentionally spirit-focused. Workshops routinely gave us time for shared reflection with one another. We were asked how we were being touched and transformed. We were given time and space (though not nearly enough of either) for processing together. Many of us felt weepy on Sunday: evidence, I think, of how our hearts had been touched during the preceding days.
- And finally, our social witness events were incredibly well-organized and SMART. My hat’s off to the planners and organizers. Certainly the biggest question going into Justice G.A. had to be how to effectively mobilize several thousand people. A small event (half hour) within walking distance of the convention center got us warmed up (literally) on Wednesday night, while alerting the media to our presence and intentions for a Saturday vigil at Phoenix’s Tent City. A public “community celebration” on Friday night worked similarly, again alerting the media to our plans for Saturday. Our Saturday night vigil deserves its whole own post of praise for organization, thoughtfulness, physical safety, and media savvy. You will certainly hear Unitarian Universalists reminisce about being there (or being together in vigil back at the Convention Center, as many were) for years to come. But most importantly for our social justice work, it received EXTENSIVE MEDIA COVERAGE, picked up by the Associated Press and featured with photos and even video around the country.
I can’t guess what immediate impact the success and power of this event will have on future gatherings. They can’t all be Justice General Assemblies. (Can they?) But for those of us who were there, Justice G.A. has set a new standard of what General Assembly can be, and there will certainly be a clamor for more like it.