Tuesday, July 17, 2007

July 8: SMUUCh Members Reflect on General Assembly

[Our Worship Service on July 8th featured reflections by three members of the congregation as well as me. Each of us shared our experiences and reflections from attending the UUA General Assembly in Portland Oregon.]

Reflection by Jim Crist

“If you ever have the chance to attend a UUA General Assembly,” people told me, “do it. You won’t be sorry. It will be a life-changing experience.”

Schedules being what they are, I’ve never had the opportunity to go to GA, until this year. This year, however, the scheduling gods smiled upon me, so I seized the moment and registered.

The theme of the 2007 General Assembly was “Choices that Matter,” and the first choices that mattered to me were which of the over 300 workshops, meetings, and events I should try to attend. I downloaded the convention program and spent the better part of a week laying out my schedule for each day from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. This detailed schedule eventually ended up in the wastebasket—a common experience for first time GA attendees, I’m told.

I did attend plenty of meetings and workshops and events. I took lots of notes, and maybe one day I’ll be able to decipher them.

The meetings and the workshops and the events were outstanding, but what I’d like to share with you is how the GA experience actually did change me. Even though the convention organizers chose “Choices that Matter,” as the theme, for me, a different theme emerged: “Making the Connection.” As a result of attending GA, I feel a deep connection now with UU brothers and sisters across the country. I feel a new connection with the larger UU denomination. I also feel a stronger connection with my own church.

Here in our church, at the edge of the prairie, it sometimes feels as if our collective voice is small, that we are sometimes shouting into the wind, that we sometimes go unheard. But after spending time in the presence of more than 5,000 other Unitarians, singing with them, cheering with them, worshiping with them, I know that we have a larger voice than I ever imagined, and that our voice is heard. We are not alone. We are not even isolated. We are everywhere. The progressive voice for freedom, equality, peace, and justice is everywhere, and it will be heard.

It was an honor for me to carry the SMUUCh banner in the opening ceremony banner parade. I carried the banner and Michele Gaston walked beside me. Prior to the parade, while waiting in the banner staging area along with hundreds of other banner bearers, we had a chance to talk to people from all over the country.

Our banner has two sides. One side shows a panel celebrating our 40th anniversary. The other shows a dinosaur, and this side raised some eyebrows.

“Shawnee Mission, Kansas,” one man said. I replied, “Yep, Kansas.”

After the obligatory “What’s the Matter with Kansas” comment, his face took on a somewhat puzzled look and he said, “Kansas…hmm…I get the sunflowers, but I don’t get the dinosaur. Are there dinosaurs in Kansas?”

“Well,” I said, “we had a few on the state board of education last year, but they’re extinct, or at least in hibernation for the time being.” Then I bragged about how our church sponsored public classes on the science of evolution last year. He has a new understanding of Kansas.

Carrying the banner through the convention hall, and later singing hymns with 5,000 other UUs really gave me a spiritual lift and made me feel connected to a great whole.

The following day, during the Service of the Living Tradition, I was witness to the final fellowship ceremony for new ministers. Among the new ministers participating in the ceremony were our own Thom Belote and Paige Getty. Paige was serving as interim minister here at SMUUCh when I started coming, so to see her receive final fellowship the same night Thom did, well, there’s a certain symmetry there.

As an official delegate for our congregation, I was entitled to vote during the business sessions. I actually attended most of the business sessions, and I can tell you that the Unitarian Universalist Association takes this democracy stuff seriously. Everything seemed open for discussion. Provision was made for both sides of any issue to have a voice in the proceedings. To keep a meeting with several thousand participants organized, on track, on time, and productive is a Herculean task. After participating in the business sessions, I have a whole new respect as well as a sense of pride for our denomination.

A highlight of my GA experience was singing in the 170-member choir. I’m not a great singer, but I can blend pretty well, so when I found out after the 2nd rehearsal that many of the choir members around me were music directors from their church, I felt somewhat intimidated. No, I felt very intimidated. I stuck it out, however, went to all the rehearsals, and boy, am I glad I did. If you have ever sung in a group, you know what an uplifting, almost transcendent experience it can be to make a joyful, harmonizing sound with other people. Multiply that by 2 and you have my GA choir experience.

I can’t say that going to General Assembly exceeded my expectations. Never having gone, I had no expectations. I was pretty much ready for anything. I went, not knowing what to expect. I came back a much richer person. Richer in spirit, richer in experience, richer in knowledge, richer in friendship, and with enough new books and reading material to keep me busy for the next 2 years.

So, I guess what it boils down to is this: If you ever have the chance to attend a UUA General Assembly, do it. You won’t be sorry. It will be a life-changing experience.

Reflection by Connie Strand

Although this was my very first General Assembly, I feel like I have attended the past 10 years or so vicariously through my husband Don (who attends every year as part of his job and who will share his thoughts with you in a few minutes). Every June he would come back with one story or another that piqued my interest, and I always thought: “Next year in Long Beach!” or “Next year in Cleveland!” But one thing or another always got in the way.

I must confess that “This year in PORTLAND” was simply too good to pass up, so I found myself packing my bags alongside Don and heading west.

Although Don has different things to say about GA each year, there are two things he never fails to mention:
1) “If you ever go, you simply can’t miss the Opening Banner Ceremony” and
2) “It’s so fun to play ‘Spot the UUs in the Airport’ coming and going.”

Thanks to United Airlines, we made it to the Opening Ceremony with only 10 minutes to spare, despite an original flight schedule that had us landing 8 hours earlier. They also chose to route us through the Dallas airport, where it was certainly much easier to spot a UU than in the granola-friendly Portland terminal. Who knew that you could find big, gaudy, shiny chalice earrings to match your big hair?

Fortunately we did make it to the Banner Ceremony on time, and Don was right – it is an amazing experience. Absolutely Amazing. There really is nothing quite like singing “Spirit of Life” with 5,000 or so of your closest friends. It is downright joyous to watch the banner-carriers parade their colors throughout the auditorium -- especially Jim and Michele Gaston with our 40th anniversary sunflower banner!

For me, the Opening Ceremony was probably the peak “feel-good” moment of GA. But I was fortunate to have many other such moments, including:
* Hearing Daniel Ellsberg, on the 35th anniversary of the publishing of the Pentagon Papers, earnestly pleading for somebody in government today to take whatever risk necessary to keep us out of going to war in Iran – a risk he said he wishes he would have taken two years earlier than he did in the Vietnam era.
* Taking communion with several hundred other UUs at a UU Christian Fellowship service.
* Listening to the marvelous GA choir (including our board president on tenor)
* Just walking around and seeing the smiling faces of people who share my faith. It is good to be with your own in such number from time to time.

But GA is about more than Feel-Good moments, which come and go quickly. What will stick with me over the long haul is the series of workshops I attended based on a book by David Korten called “The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community.”

I cannot do justice to what I took from those workshops in the few short minutes I have this morning. Boiled down, The Great Turning gives us a framework in which to put the future of our world. Will we continue with the Empire-building we have seen for thousands of years, or can we turn to an Earth Community that will sustain us in the future? How do we move from relationships based on domination to relationships based on partnership? Can we stop our suicidal competition for the earth’s remaining resources and learn how to cooperatively share them, instead?

The Great Turning brings together many ideas that resonate with us as UUs under one umbrella, whether it is living in a way that ensures a healthy environment, or working in a way that ensures a healthy community. And it does it in a way that gives me hope that we can actually make this work.

My next step from these workshops will be to offer an Adult RE class on the book, using a discussion guide and other methods we explored in one of the workshops I attended. If you’d like to learn more about The Great Turning, please consider signing up for the class later this year.

On a final note, I want to thank everybody in this congregation for the role you played in my GA experience. Just like any other convention, GA attendees wear plastic name badges festooned with various ribbons and gee-gaws. My badge sported three ribbons, and they were all based on the work of this congregation – First there is the ribbon on top that identifies me as being a member of a Welcoming Congregation; then there is this green ribbon, which signifies that we are committed to fair compensation for our professional staff; and finally, this purple ribbon that says we are an “honor” congregation in our support of the UUA. Clearly these are as much your ribbons as they are mine -- Thank you for all you have done here that allowed me to proudly wear this badge!

Reflection by Don Skinner

It’s true. I have attended the past ten General Assemblies. I have the good fortune to work for our Association of Congregations from right here in Johnson County. I write a newsletter for lay leaders about ways to do church better. And I write for the denominational magazine, UU World, which many of you receive. After 20-some years of working for newspapers, this is the best journalism job I’ve ever had. And I’m grateful to this congregation for its support of the UUA and for making my job possible. My yellow ribbon indicates that I am a UUA staff member.

General Assembly speaks to me about the rich possibilities of congregational life. GA is first and foremost a gathering place for congregational leaders and a place where congregations can show how they have turned their dreams into reality. It’s a place that inspires through words and deeds, through workshops and worship services. It is about our best selves—what can happen if we put conflict and self-interest behind us and focus on our UU principles. It is truly inspirational to listen to how congregations have overcome obstacles to achieve great results in church growth, social justice, worship, and other areas.

And there’s the other side of it. Listening at GA to the problems that some other congregations have, sometimes I have to be simply grateful that my congregation has moved past many of those problems. And so let us not forget the value of General Assembly as a source of gratitude. It teaches me to be grateful for what we have here at Shawnee Mission and the way we are with each other.

A large part of General Assembly is about social justice, about growing beyond our local congregations to help create a better world. It’s about anti-racism, about working for climate change and other environmental initiatives. And, it’s about economic justice, helping us find ways to use our privilege to lift up people who have no voice.

GA is also a place of inclusion. It is, for example, one of the too few places in this world where gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people can feel free to be who they are without having to hide parts of their identity. It is a place where they feel supported and where they know that others understand and accept them. A place just like their own church homes. GA reminds me of the value of our own congregations in being open to GLBT people. We never know when someone will come to our door seeking respite from a hurtful world and needing our unconditional welcome. We never know when we will make a difference in someone’s life.

There are several hundred workshops each year at GA. Running from one to the other can wear a person out. As a break from that -- and everyone needs a break from that -- I attend some of the 30 or so worship events at each GA. They are all different, they are all inspirational, and they all create possibilities as to what we might incorporate “back home.” I suspect that some people attend GA primarily for the worship experiences. Some of these services are led by youth and young adults, some are participatory, and some are contemplative. These services add the crowning touch for me and they are a big part of the reason why GA does not get old for me. It just gets better.

Reflection by Thom Belote

This morning I bring not only my own reflections about the General Assembly. I also bring thoughts by way of Michele Gaston – the fifth member of our church’s delegation to Portland. Michele couldn’t be here this morning because she is on vacation.

There are people in the world who find the idea of spending a week in constant interaction with some six-thousand strangers the closest thing to heaven. And then there are people who consider it a cause for panic. Michele is wouldn’t describer herself as a big “crowd” person, but she writes that she has come to find the people at General Assembly inspirational – inspirational in their diversity of spiritualities, backgrounds, colors, genders, and passions.

This year was my ninth general assembly. (Don, you got me beat by one!) But instead of a four-and-a half-day assembly, I’m expected to arrive an extra four days early for meetings, trainings, and continuing education events designed specifically for ministers. This gives me a different perspective: instead of attending the opening ceremony, I am participating in an orientation for new members of the Ministers Association Executive Committee. Instead of attending a workshop session, I am meeting with members of the UUA board as they negotiate with the minister’s association to seek our input on an issue such as a change in the funding for our seminaries. This is not to boast of conversations in swanky suites – only to say that my experience there is almost a parallel universe. It is so much off the map.

When asked, the thing I always say I most look forward to what is often my once a year chance to see that classmate of mine from seminary – the one who now lives in San Diego, or perhaps the one in New Jersey, or my mentor from Texas or friend from Colorado. This touches me deeply and helps to renew me.

But there are always other things that stir my passion. Three days before General Assembly started, I spent a day at a training for ministers who hope to become internship supervisors. Our is hopeful that we will be able to have an Intern Minister (a student preparing for ministry who spends a year in hands on learning with us) in Fall 2008. I think our church is particularly well-suited to care for and prepare and cultivate and develop and imprint a person training for the ministry. Done well, it is transformational to the intern, to the mentor (myself), and to the congregation who shares in the joy of helping to shape the future of the movement.

So, that is one thing I come away passionate about. The other thing I come away passionate about is actually a whole lot less concrete. One thing I picked up on – at workshops, in conversations, on blogs dissecting the General Assembly weeks later, in worship, everywhere – was such a hunger and a thirst for our faith to be a source of profound transformation in the lives of people in the world. It was in the air. It was exciting.

And so, like church, what I get from General Assembly is not merely confirmation, reassurance, reminders of my own (our own) rightness and righteousness. It get challenged to become, awaken, and be transformed in my own life and to be an aid, a balm, a coaxing and supporting force in the world’s transformation.

I want to close with a quote that Michele sent to me. (Honestly, I know not to whom to attribute it.) It sums up what Jim said about connecting, what Connie said about belonging, what Don said about inclusion, and what I have said just said about transformation. The quote goes like this:

“As I come to know you, I come to know myself better. And together through our intention and connection, we can bring the influence of compassion, diversity, and purpose to a world in need of healing.”