My wife and I are both appreciative to the parish for the opportunity to attend the UUA General Assembly in Phoenix, Arizona last June. Not only did it afford us the chance to get away together for a ten day period, but to see a part of the country that we had never seen before. We were warned that it is plenty hot in Southern Arizona in late June, but that one consolation was that it is dry heat. They weren't kidding. Most afternoons it was 110 deg. in the sun and it was very dry heat. Which means that you sweat in an outdoor sauna rather than a steam bath. The story goes that it is so hot and dry in Arizona that the dairy cows give powdered milk. The daily UUA news sheet was appropriately called the Phoenix Dry Heat.
This was the first GA I have ever attended where the delegates were issued a water bottle along with their program agenda and were urged to carry the bottles with them during the day. It was advice well taken. We were good little doobies and did what we were told and were glad to have the water with us. Phoenix, after all, was built in the middle of a desert, and when you're in the middle of a desert the sun sucks the moisture right out of your system. So you need to replenish your body with water or you could do your self harm. Phoenix, by the way, has the distinction of being one of the most polluted cities in the region in terms of air quality second only to Las Vegas, Nevada. When we were flying in we could see the haze hugging the perimeter of the city. This was definitely not the place for anyone with allergies to dust, chemical particles or fumes.
We were pleased to have the opportunity do a little touring of the area both before and after the General Assembly. On the day before GA officially began we took a guided tour of the main sights in Phoenix, Scottsdale and Tempe including the Pueblo Grande and Heard Museums with many Native American Indian artifacts. They had an incredible collection of native kachina dolls like the one portrayed on your order of service. To the native tribes of the areas the kachina were guardian spirits who watched over the affairs of the tribe. Many of them were believed to be former ancestors who became kachina guardians after their death. I bought a relatively inexpensive one as a memento. I keep it in the Parsonage for a protective spirit. Some of the bigger more ornamental ones go for hundreds of dollars. I like my little one and think it does good work for less cost.
We learned a lot about the desert and the various cacti that grow there. You are told not to venture into the desert on your own. Not only is there the danger of snakes and heat prostration, but you can get a fistful or fanny full of cactus quills as well. Be especially cautious of the friendly looking cactus that looks like a soft cuddly bear. You get within a few feet of it and it shoots its quills through the air into your waiting flesh. Not a good experience.
The first tour also included a drive up Camelback Mountain, on the outskirts of Phoenix, past the Wrigley Mansion and other wealthy celebrities' homes. Sen. Barry Goldwater's former home was high on a hill overlooking the valley and the city. His home was not that far from the First UU Church of Phoenix and he used take occasional walks down to the church Memorial Garden to meditate by the famous sculpture by John Waddell. The sculpture was of four black women figures created as a memorial to the four innocent little girls who were killed in the Birmingham church bombing in 1963. They are bronze nude figures on pedestals, each facing outward in the the four directions. The title of his sculpture is "That Which Might Have Been." I did not get a chance to see the sculpture, but Ellie did on another day, and she said it was very poignant and moving. The artist, John Waddell was there and told about how he happened to create the memorial. He reported that when he first heard the news of that terrible bombing back in 1963 he had a flash vision of the statues in his mind and he knew that he would someday give them form. A year later they were completed and placed at the First UU Church where they have received national and international acclaim. Waddell has a second set of the statues at his home which he hopes someday to give as a gift to the City of Birmingham. It had originally been proposed to place the second set near the Convention Center for the UUA General Assembly, but unfortunately some members of the Planning Committee felt that the statues might be offensive to some people. Taken out of context they could be construed as reminders of native black Americans on the slave auction block. So it was decided not to place them there and to instead give guided tours to delegates who wanted to come out to the church to see originals, and to meet the artist. Perhaps it was better that way.
When General Assembly was over we were able to take another three days for a guided bus tour of Northern Arizona. The highlight of the tour was seeing Sedona and the Grand Canyon. Sedona is especially regarded for its gorgeous red rocks and hills. Some of the rocks are noted for their unusual shapes--one is called coffee pot rock because that's what it looks like. Another is called Snoopy rock because it looks like Snoopy lying on his back with the bird, Woodstock, perched on his nose and Lucy standing above them looking down in disdain. It took me the longest time to see their shapes, but once seen, the likeness is unmistakable. Sedona is at a much higher elevation than Phoenix, has more natural vegetation and trees and is considerably cooler. Sedona was originally going to be called Schneblyville after its founder, but the postoffice refused to accept the long name for its postmark, and so Mr. Schnebly named the town after his wife, Sedona, instead. Thank Heaven for small blessings. I've heard it said many a time that the beauty and majesty of the Grand Canyon takes your breath away. I can tell you that's no mere metaphor. It really does. No picture can do it justice, but second best is to see the omnimax film on the Grand Canyon at the Museum of Science which played there this summer. I have a book about the Grand Canyon about a man who descended into its depths and then went down the Colorado River. The book is called THE MAN WHO WALKED THROUGH TIME. When you're looking into the Grand Canyon you are literally looking into time as well as space. You are seeing a lattice work of canyons created over eons of time by the erosion of wind and rain and water and the ceaseless flowing of the Colorado River which carved and descended its way into the earth thousands of feet below. The process began long before human life ever existed and will no doubt continue for eons to come whether human beings are still here to see it or not. It puts the human venture in perspective and reminds us that the power of nature and its creative and destructive forces both precedes us and transcends us.
The theme of last June's General Assembly was "Building Interfaith Cooperation" and it was clearly evident from the opening ceremony to the variety of workshops and special guests and speakers from many religious traditions. The opening ceremony began with an Apache blessing by Delmar Boni. He beat his drum and invited the delegates to join him in a Native American chant: "Nauda, Nauda, Yea, Ha...Nauda, Nauda, Yea Ha." After the opening Hymn from an African American source, "Lift Every Voice and Sing", UUA President John Buehrens, introduced Laszlo Tokes, the Bishop of the Hungarian Reformed Church in Romania, (comparable to the Presbyterian Church) who offered a traditional Christian blessing in the name of God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. Laszlo Tokes, if you will remember, was the courageous Reformed minister from Timisoara who challenged both the bishops of his own church and the government dictatorship in Bucharest when they tried to dismiss him and remove him from his church. He refused to go and soon hundreds of people, from many religious traditions, began to gather round his church and to fill the streets in protest. The army was sent to break up the protest and disperse the crowd, but when they got there they began to refuse to drag the people away. Many of them joined in the protest. It was this event that led to Ceausescu's downfall. Tokes became a hero and was eventually elevated to rank of Bishop, the very office that had tried to suppress his call for religious freedom. Tokes told the delegates that without the interfaith cooperation he had found in Romania, including the Unitarians, none of this would have come about. It proved to him that ecumenical interfaith cooperation can work for the benefit of all people. Interfaith cooperation had literally created a revolution of justice and freedom in his native land. It was quite a testimony. Bishop Tokes was the keynote speaker for the Partner Church Council program at GA the next day and I had the personal privilege of introducing him. He spoke excellent English.
There were numerous speakers and workshop leaders throughout the week that continued the Interfaith Cooperation theme. Rabbi Michael Lerner spoke on "The Politics of Meaning"; the Rev. Barbara Harris, the first ever African American female Bishop in the Episcopal Church, engaged UUA President, John Bueherns, in a dialogue about the struggle against racism; the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches talked about interfaith cooperation as essential to life and survival in the modern age as the interdependence of the biosphere; Arizona Sen. John McCain, an Episcopalian and a Republican, asked the delegates to support his bipartisan efforts to bring about campaign finance reform; Margo Adler, a contemporary pagan and a UU, talked about her most recent book, A HERETIC'S HEART, and her recollections of growing up in the 1960s as a political and social radical; Professor Houston Smith, a Methodist, talked about the 400 year struggle between science and religion and suggested that science should at least admit that evolution might not just be the result of pure accident, but could be the product of a hidden divine purpose.
The Rev. Jeremy Taylor, UU minister, and author of two books on dreams, and who teaches with former Catholic priest, Matthew Fox, at the Creation Spirituality Institute in California, was the Psi Symposium speaker at GA. He spoke about dreams and spirituality and the role of the unconscious in liberal religion. Quoting the psychoanalyst Ferenzi, he stated his belief that "dreams are the workshop of evolution", that our pre-hominid ancestors probably dreamed the possibility of speech and language before the capacity actually evolved, and that our dreams contain our deepest spiritual intuitions and creative energy. More than 300 people were jammed in a room meant for half that number. They were sitting and standing in the aisles and sitting in the halls by the open doors to hear Jeremy Taylor talk about the importance of dreams. It was a dynamic presentation. No one slept through that lecture, except perchance to dream.
I think the high point of the General Assembly in Phoenix for me was being present at the UU Women's Fellowship Ministry to Women Award which was presented to UU activist and song writer, Carolyn McDade. Carolyn's hymn, "Spirit of Life", is probably the best known and most beloved song in the new UUA hymnal. But she has written many other songs that are equally moving. She gave us a concert of her songs. She lifted the spirits of all of us, women and men alike, and made us feel that each of us is important in the struggle for human liberation, compassion and justice. It was an unforgettable performance.
The theme of Interfaith cooperation is something that Unitarian Universalists not only need to learn and practice in relation to faith traditions outside ourselves in the larger culture, but also, and especially within our own churches and denomination which has such a diversity of religious beliefs and practices. Just look at the number of affiliate UU groups that exist to promote a particular religious, spiritual, ethical or social-political orientation--and most of them have a program or two to choose from at any General Assembly. We have: the UU Christian Fellowship; the Fellowship of Religious Humanists; the UU Buddhist Fellowship; UUs for Jewish Awareness; CUUPS or the Covenant of UU Pagans; UU Psi Symposium (for those interested in mystical and psychic experience and holistic health and healing); UU Process Theology Network (for those who believe that God or the divine is best understood in terms of process, growth, change and evolution rather than eternal and unchanging categories); UFETA or UUs For Ethical Treatment of Animals; UUs for a Just Economic Community; Conservative Forum for UUs (yes, you can be both religiously liberal and politically conservative); UU Women's Caucus; UU Men's Network; Interweave (an organization of UUs for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns); IARF or International Association for Religious Freedom which brings together liberal religious representatives from many traditions and regions--including liberal Christians, UUs, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Shintos, tribal communities and even some liberal individual Roman Catholic members. What they share in common is a vision of religious freedom and practice in a liberal religious context.
I could name more, but I think you get the picture. It is indeed a challenge to be a Unitarian Universalist and to choose a religious and spiritual orientation or a plurality of orientations and still remain in respectful dialogue with those who may think and believe and practice their faith differently than you do, and yet still choose to call themselves Unitarian Universalists. Theologically we used to divide roughly in three areas--Christian, Theist or Humanist. As you can see the choices are much more diverse and complex than the old simple three track program. Unitarian Universalism is in many respects a University of Religious Faiths under one umbrella. It is an experiment in spiritual and ethical community. We don't always succeed. Some churches have experienced division and conflict between one group or another or even a minister, trying to impose their point of view on others, from the pulpit or in the R.E. program. What we have to find again and again, is balance, tolerance, mutual respect, and a willingness to forgive and to remain in conversation and communion with one another.
Every time I attend a UUA General Assembly I am reminded of the challenge of our religious covenant which is an interfaith and interreligious covenant both within ourselves and our churches, and between ourselves and those of other faith traditions. If the human community is going to survive with any semblance of civilized discourse in the next millennia then we have to begin to learn the art of interfaith cooperation and dialogue. Unitarian Universalism is a small experiment in interfaith living that can show the world that such a religious community can indeed succeed and be a blessing to those who choose to make themselves part of it. To succeed we must ever keep before us the sage advice of that great 19th Century Universalist preacher, Hosea Ballou, who said:
Let brotherly/sisterly love continue. If we agree in love, there is no disagreement that can do us any injury; but if we do not, no other agreement can do us any good. Let us endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bonds of peace.