UUA: Actions of Immediate Witness Albatross

The 50th General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalist Association is now over. It was by and large a successful event with a tad bit of anxiety towards the planning of next year’s historic Justice General Assembly in Phoenix coupled with the association’s move towards policy governance.  This anxiety was most evident and most felt in the plenary session where the assembly debated the possible ending of Actions of Immediate Witness.   According to the by-laws,  “A General Assembly Action of Immediate Witness is one concerned  with a significant action, event or development the timing or specificity of which makes it inappropriate to be addressed by a UUA Statement of Conscience pursuant to the Study/Action process.”

In order for the UUA to sponsor a Justice GA where we are not doing business as usual means limiting the number of items that we have in our plenary sessions. In what ever fashion Justice GA is to take shape, there needs to be increased time in order for our presence in Phoenix to accomplish the most good.  We cannot simply suspend by-laws but we can change our by-laws to enable and empower our association to use this meeting as an action of justice. So there were two possible proposals in which to do this.

The first proposal proposed by the board would have eliminated Actions of Immediate Witness (AIW) altogether.  There were many reasons for advocating this possible outcome.  AIWs are no longer immediate.  A statement is made, debated sometimes with intense emotions hurled at opposing views. There is the false expectation that delegates will take these AIWs home to their congregations and implement them.   The statement is passed, the assembly present cheers, and the statement is promptly forgotten in the archives of the particular general assembly.

The strongest reason for this proposal was never stated at the assembly.  A question arose as to what impact would eliminating AIWs have on staff’s actions in social witness ministries.   The response was that AIWs have to date been a means to authorize staff to act on certain actions, for example, the staff did not feel authorized to speak up on stem cell research until there was an AIW presented. If an AIW on stem cell research never surfaced that year or any year for that matter, the UUA staff would allegedly not address the issue as part of their actions in Washington. It was a weak response.

The UUA board is in the process of transitioning into a policy governance board with a series of end statements that are developed through the board’s linkages with the congregations.  It is the ends that are to  drive the actions of the staff and not the whimsical fancy of any given assembly’s AIWs, regardless of how sincere those fancies may be.

The board was correct in its recommendation to eliminate the AIWs.  The staff’s response was only correct in that this was the pre-policy governance method of actions. The staff, once policy governance is fully operational, would have greater flexibility to act on justice issues than the current AIW actions of a program based board.  The Ends are what authorizes the staff to act for justice.  Specifically it is this end:

“Congregations that move toward sustainability, wholeness and reconciliation.

  1. Our congregations answer the call to ministry and justice work:
    1. Grounded in the communities in which they live
    2. Nationally and internationally
    3. With interfaith partners and alliances
  2. The public engages in meaningful dialogue and takes action informed by our prophetic voice and public witness.”

The question that Peter Morales as President and CEO of the UUA and his administration need to be asking is: Does the area of  concern further or hinder these ends?  And as an accountability measure: Are there congregations already pursuing this particular area of justice?

In regards to stem cell research, the example given at the assembly, the staff felt unable to respond nationally until the  AIW was passed in 2004. However, a quick Google search reveals that congregations were engaged in this subject at least as far back as 2001.  So if the UUA was a policy governance board back in 2001, the staff pursuing the ends as stated could have been engaged in this topic at least three years earlier instead of waiting for an AIW to come along.

Why should we hold our UUA staff back from pursuing the advocacy work necessary by making them wait for the possibility, the mere random chance of an AIW?

This Assembly showed the growing pains of an organization transitioning into policy governance.  Delegates and apparently UUA staff are still not fully informed as to what policy governance means for their association. There still remains an ignorance in how policy governance can and will create a more responsive UUA. There is further need to educate that AIWs are increasingly an ineffective mode of doing justice in these current harsh and repressive legislative times.

UUA staff cannot and should not have to wait a full year before a mere possibility that someone will introduce an AIW.  And when that AIW is not introduced, the staff should not feel that they are held hostage to the General Assembly in-actions in order to live out our faith in the national and international arena.    Staff do not need an AIW to empower their justice actions on the ground, the Ends statements provide that empowerment for them.

This proposal while it received a majority vote failed to receive the necessary 2/3rds majority in order to pass this assembly.

The second proposal was a compromise proposal from the Commission on Social Witness. It eliminated AIWs for one year, 2012,  and then reinstated a maximum of three AIWs beginning in 2013.  While this proposal allows the freedom for Justice GA to be a very different kind of General Assembly, it will hinder  the UUA board in functioning fully in their role  as a policy governance board for two more years, perhaps longer.  This is because AIWs are seen by Delegates and the staff as driving their justice actions instead of the Ends Statements. This is the proposal that passed.

However, the elimination or at the very least a reconfiguration of the AIWs function needs to occur.   Change is sometimes hard to swallow but in order for our national board and UUA staff to be as responsive as possible in these times, this change of eliminating AIWs is vital to our movement.

Alabama’s HB 56 becomes law: Where is Justice?

This morning at 8:30 AM, Alabama Governor Bentley signed the controversial and harshest to date anti-immigration bill into law.  One portion of the law goes into effect immediately and that is the hiring of additional personnel to help enforce the law with Homeland Security.  The remainder of the law goes into effect September 1st.

After the Governor’s intent to sign the bill into law was announced late yesterday afternoon, I have been thinking about justice.  Where is Justice?  How does Justice come about?

It occurred to me that justice does not occur by simply speaking truth to power such as the many testimonies given at public hearings  and the letter writing campaigns. Though this could be a part of the development of justice.  Justice does not occur by marching through the streets  waving banners and yelling catchy slogans.  Though this, too, could be a part of the development of justice. And Justice does not occur by signing multiple petitions on this or that issue, though even this could be a part of the development of justice.

None of these by themselves brings about justice.  At best they are fragments of a larger whole but they themselves are not the underpinnings of justice. These were the activities that I and many others were involved in these past many months as we sought the defeat HB56 and these activities have not resulted in Justice.

The underpinnings of justice is in the relationships that are on equal footing.  Justice is ultimately reducing the suffering of others through personal, communal, institutional, and governmental relationships.

I can bring one level of justice to another person by being present in their pain, validating their injury as real. When I spent time with the immigrants in Laurel, MS after the ICE raid on Howard Industries, I listened to their stories. My presence as local clergy brought a sense of  justice to them.   I symbolized something greater than myself in my willingness to stand with them in their pain as they sought to receive their final paychecks.  This was personal.  It was a very real presence in time of help as the psalmist wrote.

When members of my congregation suffered loss in the Tornado of April 27 and then faced the degrading responses from the bureaucracy, I was able to stand with them.  Hearing their pain, hearing their frustration with a system that was meant to help, and encourage to plug away even when despair sought to engulf them whole.  Justice was in our relationship.  I sought to reduce their suffering. I listened.  Our denomination sought to reduce their suffering.  The denomination’s representatives listened to their stories and in listening, the seeds of justice were sprouting. This was justice unfolding in the personal and in the communal contexts. This was happening to our people.

I remember my home town of Danbury, CT following the tragedy of September 11, 2001.  It was the Jewish community that stood vigil and alert outside of the local mosque to ensure their neighbors safety as they worshiped. It was the Jewish community that escorted the Muslim women to the shops to ensure their safety from those whose anger might be misguided against them.  The Jews of this community knew what it was to be targeted and harassed for simply being identified as a Jew.  And they wanted to ensure that their Muslim neighbors would be safe in the land of liberty and justice for all.

From this relational action, justice was served and the larger community as the result of witnessing this act of solidarity did not respond with hatred as other communities did during the days following September 11th or even in the past recent months.  The community was reminded of its humanity in the prophetic witness of solidarity with a targeted minority.

They sought to ensure justice for people by recognizing that this Muslim community’s experience resonated with a similar experience their community experienced in another context of history.  In the process they developed new friendships and new relationships with people whose culture, whose religion,  whose history is very different from their own.  But they were saying even louder; our community reaches out to protect our people from violence.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Martin Luther King stated,” you’ve got to change the heart and you can’t change the heart through legislation. You can’t legislate morals. The job must be done through education and religion. Well, there’s half-truth involved here. Certainly, if the problem is to be solved then in the final sense, hearts must be changed. Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart.  (Taken from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s address at Western Michigan University, December 18, 1963,)

To change the hearts of people in power, we need to share our stories.  We need to continue to share our stories over and over again.  We need to establish relationships with our allies in the state house and senate so that these stories can be shared with ease because these are personal and intimate stories.  These are stories of great pain.  These are stories of great injustices.

But the injustice is not one-sided. There is a grave injustice that has occurred to the people who believe this law is just.  The injustice is the false belief that there is not enough to go around.  The injustice is the false belief that they must be ever vigilant in protecting what is theirs. The injustice is the false belief that if they protect the wealthiest that one day they will be welcomed to that elite club of the top 1% in the nation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”  This is never more true than in the injustice that has been committed against the people who believe HB56 is the right tact to take in protecting America. Because an injustice  has been committed against them that another injustice is created against the immigrants.  And they are blind to see how these injustices have hardened their hearts against one another.

The preamble of our Constitution reads as follows:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence,promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

Ultimately, the laws that we pass in this country, the behaviors we bestow upon our neighbors, the morals that we use as our guides in living our lives ought to reflect back to this covenant in which we established our Constitution.   And where HB 56 is concerned; how does it establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, and promote the general Welfare within the state of Alabama?

It does not.  Legislation needs to benefit our people, all of our people who claim Alabama as home.  And I ask again, where is Justice?



The Fallacy of Original Goodness

Rev. Marilyn Sewell recently wrote a wonderful summary entitled the Theology of Unitarian Universalism. I would agree with most of what she wrote.  There are two areas that I think need further discussion I begin with addressing the first area.  I will write about the second area in another post.

She mentions briefly the following: “We must begin with the assertion that Unitarian Universalism has always emphasized freedom as a core value. It follows that human beings have a choice. We are not predestined by God before our births, to be saved or unsaved. We are not mired in original sin by the very fact of our birth and therefore have to go through a ceremony called baptism, even as babies, to cleanse ourselves of that sin. We do not have to have someone sacrifice himself by dying on a cross to save us from hell. Yes, human beings have a propensity to do evil, but we also have the propensity to do great good. We have a choice. Unitarian Universalists prefer to think of ourselves as being born into “original blessing,” as theologian Matthew Fox likes to put it.”

And then in her summary of Unitarian Universalist Theology she states the following: “We believe in original goodness, with the understanding that sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.”

I would argue that this is not a universal theology of Unitarian Universalists and further I would state that this belief in Original Goodness is in fact a falsehood.

Let’s look at the definitions of terms. Original Sin defined in the Catholic Encyclopedia is as follows: “Original sin may be taken to mean: (1) the sin that Adam committed; (2) a consequence of this first sin, the hereditary stain with which we are born on account of our origin or descent from Adam.” Rev. Sewell is using the term Original Sin in the second meaning. Original Sin is this stain that is passed down through the ages by virtue of our birth.

This concept of Original Sin is rejected by most Unitarian Universalists. We would concur with the New Testament writer who wrote that nothing can separate us from the love of God. There is no condition that we are born into that would separate us from Universal love from the moment of our first breath to the breathing of our last.

Original Blessing as theologian Matthew Fox uses the term means that we are born into love. He writes, “We can say blessing preceded creation, too, for blessing was its purpose. Thus there is no doubt that original blessing is the basis of all trust and of all faith. Original blessing underlies all being, all creation, all time, all space, all unfolding and evolving of what is. As Rabbi Heschel puts it, ‘Just to be is a blessing; just to live is holy.’”

He defines blessing as relational. “[O]ne does not bless without investing something of oneself into the receiver of one’s blessing. And one does not receive blessing oblivious of its gracious giver. A blessing spirituality is a relating spirituality.” This concept of Original Blessing is very different from the concept that Rev. Sewell later calls Original Goodness.

Original Goodness implies that something is good in and of itself.  This is not possible.  There is no original goodness or virtue. Theologian James Luther Adams states, “There is no such thing as goodness as such; except in a limited sense, there is no such thing as a good person as such. There is the good husband, the good wife, the good worker, the good employer, the good layperson, the good citizen. The decisive forms of goodness in society are institutional forms.”

The quality of being good does not exist in a vacuum. It does not exist without form. Goodness does not exist in and of itself. What makes a person good is the social construct that it embodies. A good birth means that there were no complications.  The good baby sleeps through the night. The good child is obedient to her parents.  The good husband or good wife helps with the household chores. These are actions that our society has determined to be good.  So to declare that there is an original goodness that humanity is born into is a falsehood. An infant is not born good or evil. An infant simply is.

Whereas, an infant can be born into original blessing because the relationship of blessing is already present in the child’s birth. The relationship of blessing, the covenant of relationship of parent to child is created at the very moment of birth resulting in blessing. But original goodness does not exist.

Rev. Sewell states that “sin is sometimes chosen, often because of pain or ignorance.” Goodness and Evil are actions that are chosen, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by default but chosen nonetheless. So if Rev. Sewell wrote that Unitarian Universalists tend to believe in Original Blessing, recognizing that sin is sometimes chosen often because of pain and ignorance, then I would agree with her statement. However, she uses the term Original Goodness which is not the same as Original Blessing, they are two very different concepts.


Quotations are from the following:

1) The Theology of Unitarian Universalists by Rev. Marilyn Sewell

2) Catholic Encyclopedia

3) Original Blessing by Matthew Fox

4)  Five Smooth Stones of Liberal Religion by James Luther Adams

UU Alabama Ministers send Gov. Bentley Message on HB56

Late last night, Alabama sent substitute bill HB56 to Governor Bentley to be signed. This morning, the following letter signed by the Alabama Ministers was sent to Governor Bentley urging him to veto this bill.

3 June 2011

State Capitol
600 Dexter Avenue
Montgomery, Alabama 36130

Dear Governor Bentley:

When the Legislature presents its substitute bill for HB56, I hope you will veto it. There are many reasons why this bill needs to be vetoed this year. But the major reason is it is simply not good for Alabama.

Governor Bentley, you recently sent back to the Legislature the proposed budget because there were bills that have not yet been passed that would place the budget out of balance and therefore make the budget unconstitutional. This bill will also make the budget unconstitutional in Alabama. Sections 22 and 23 require an increase in the state budget but because this bill falls under Amendment 621, a cost analysis is not needed to be established. But there is a cost that will be added to the state budget; and since Alabama is struggling to balance the budget in these dire economic times, this unknown cost will place the budget out of balance.

The act of criminalizing a whole group of people has costs associated to it that the state legislature has refused to seriously acknowledge. The arguments against these increased costs are based on assumed cost savings that are speculative and not based on real numbers of undocumented immigrants. We do not know how many immigrants are undocumented in the state but the Legislature is assuming that all Spanish speaking citizens are undocumented. This bill, therefore, targets anyone whose first language is Spanish and who looks like they come from south of the border.

Despite all arguments that racial profiling will not be permitted, human nature will dictate the occurrence of racial profiling. Our law enforcement personnel will not be able to be adequately trained to determine reasonable suspicion when language and ethnicity are part of the mix. But even if they were adequately trained, this bill also requires schools to determine if students were born in this country. Federal law requires that all children be given a public education regardless of national origin. This bill increases racial profiling in the schools.

This bill states the presumption that undocumented immigrants are causing economic hardship and an increase in lawlessness. There is no proof that this is the case. The legislature has come up with spurious anecdotes but nothing is found in the documentation. There is documentation that immigrants (undocumented and documented) have increased the state’s revenue in taxes and increased economic development in their respective communities. In fact, the state has had a decrease in violent crimes over the last decade even while the immigrant population has increased. This presumption is therefore a biased statement.

Governor, I urge you to veto this bill when it comes across your desk. It has components that in Arizona have cost that state millions of dollars in litigation. It has components that are blatantly prejudiced and demonize a hard-working segment of our population. This is not a job creation bill unless Alabama is seeking to increase the private for-profit prison industry in the state by criminalizing a whole population. Is this the Alabama you want to create as a legacy of your administration?


Rev. Fred L Hammond, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Rev. Diana Allende, Minister, Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

Rev. Lone Jensen Broussard, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Birmingham

Rev. Paul Britner, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Montgomery

Rev. Alice Syltie, Minister, Unitarian Universalist Church of Huntsville

Modes of Communication in a Disaster

When the tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa on April 27, 2011 all sorts of communication lines became useless.  I needed to find a way in which to find out the welfare of my congregants, where they were, and what their immediate needs were.

Within minutes after the tornado ripped a one mile wide six mile long swath of destruction, I began trying to find out the status of the congregation.  What I discovered was that the congregation was terribly ill prepared for this kind of emergency.  We simply did not have the information on how to reach people to assess what was happening.

Internet was down so emailing was out. This meant that our Yahoo group or Google group that we use to send out a bulk email was not going to work.  Land lines were down so calling people’s homes was out.  Face book, Twitter were only options for folks who could access them on mobile phones but that required the ability to charge the phones. These relatively new forms of social networking became important to get information out to the community at large but only for those who had access to them. For those folks who had no available means to re-charge their phones, there was needed another way to get through. We found that only a few people in our congregation have a Twitter address. Therefore, texting became the mode of communication because it took less signal strength / less battery charge than logging on to the internet or in making mobile calls.  But even this method was not fool proof in getting vital information to and from people.  Texting was sometimes delayed by several hours.

We had families who had cell phones on different plans and this became important because some carriers were working better than others depending on what carriers cell towers were damaged or destroyed.  Who would have thought that any particular cell phone family plan offer would not be the best option in an emergency situation of this magnitude?

So I spent the first few days after the tornado literally going door to door trying to find people and assessing damage and immediate needs.  In many cases I had to park my car one to two miles away in order to walk into these neighborhoods that were obliterated. One of the homes was central in location to several of the others in our congregation and that became a place where messages could be left with people to be passed on to others.

What I learned from this experience is that our congregation needs to have a directory with all possible routes of communication available.  We need to have landline numbers, cell phone numbers of each family member; twitter, facebook, and email addresses.  We also need to have a complete listing of contact information of next of kin.

The church became the conduit for concerned family members in other parts of the country who were unable to reach their kin and vice versa. The Sunday after the tornado we had several laptops set up to access our wi-fi so that members who were unable to connect with family members could do so.  For many this was the first time they were able to post to Facebook or contact others beyond Tuscaloosa via email.

Now I know that multi-generational congregations like ours do not have all of their members on all of these social network tools.  And we have folks that for everyday non-crisis mode communications have preferences regarding how to communicate with them. Yet, when we need to connect with everyone for that emergency situation in the future; we will have to have on hand all of the possible ways to connect with folks. Even if the methods used are not the preferred methods.  When disaster strikes of such a magnitude such as it did on April 27th any and all communication links that work need to be accessed.  Blessings,