I attended General Assembly in Louisville last week, and I’m still high off the buzz. (Those who follow me on Twitter or are Facebook friends got quite an eyeful, as I joined many of my fellow attendees live-blogging our experiences.) In a nutshell, it is a transformative experience; I was an offsite delegate two years ago, but nothing beats being in the same space as over 3000 fellow Unitarian Universalists, seeing familiar and unfamiliar faces, hearing amazing lectures and sermons, listening to and singing tremendous music, being inspired by casual interactions and intentional conversations. Oh, and the shopping; there is nothing like walking into the Exhibit Hall the first time – I wanted to buy all the things! (I limited my purchases to a few t-shirts, some books, and a nice pin, but it was difficult at best!) While I am still processing some of the things I experienced and lessons I learned, I do wish to share some of what I gleaned with you (in no particular order):

  • Ellen Cooper-Davis’s workshop called “Occupy Your Faith” was one of the single most inspiring events I attended. In this session, she talked about ways to make our faith real and active and welcoming. Like Occupy, she said, our faith isn’t anarchical; rather, it is immediate and active, not an idea with manifestos and declarations. To help us get out there just DOING our faith, she gave us some great advice, using the acronym EAST(e)R:
    • E – Educate; we should know our history and our theology, and we should be religiously and Biblically literate so that we can talk to others but also within our communities.
    • A – Articulation; we must talk about our faith, but talk about them in the language of the culture we find ourselves in – in other words, we don’t automatically have a universal translator, so we must consider what our common phrases mean to others.
    • S – Service; not just ‘write another check’ service, but on the ground, present service to those around us. Who is next door? How are they hurting, and can we help?
    • T – Transformation; we are a transformative faith, and we cannot continue to be complacent.
    • R – Relocation, Redistribution, Reconciliation; it is actually inconvenient to live out our faith fully. It requires stepping out of our comfort zone, going places that are uncomfortable, living out our faith moment by moment.


  • Friday. Eboo Patel. Inspiring, brilliant, thought-provoking. Just watch.


  • Saturday’s Service of the Living Tradition was amazing; the music was led by the gospel ensemble at All Souls Church in Tulsa, and I can tell you the place was on fire. Add to that Rev. Vanessa Southern’s inspiring sermon. Add to that the experience of sitting in the audience and watching people around me being ‘called forth from the congregation’ in recognition of achieving ministerial fellowship or credentialing as a religious educator or music leader. Three of my friends from Union Theological Seminary walked, as did Schenectady’s Director of Religious Education, Melissa MacKinnon. What joy to see these leaders emerge from our ranks!


  • Sunday’s service was equally amazing; Rev. Dr. Bill Schultz preached an extraordinary sermon. He reminded us that we are fragile, but out of our fragility comes gratitude and trust – and we must thus act morally. I can’t do his words justice (they brought many of us to tears); go and listen. (Also, Meredith Lukow tweeted this:

“Blue Boat Home is like the Freebird of Unitarian Universalism.” – H. Roberts

…which led to a Twitter explosion of “FREEBIRD!” when we sang it during the service (and there is nothing like thousands singing with one voice a beloved song like that).

  • Youth! So many young people were there, so excited about being at GA but more importantly, about being Unitarian Universalist. These young people love our faith – we’re in good hands. I encourage you to look at the work the youth caucuses are doing, including campus ministry; I wasn’t able to attend the session on campus ministry, as it was during my own presentation, but there’s a real opportunity for us right up the street, and there are good materials to help make it happen.


  • Because I wasn’t sent as a delegate on behalf of my congregation, I didn’t attend many of the plenary sessions (where the business of the Association is conducted). However, that time was spent talking to people, hearing stories, learning about organizations like ARE (Allies for Racial Equity) and the Ministry for Earth. I ran into Rev. Sam Trumbore from FUUSA about a dozen times (who signed my copy of his new book during one of our encounters), but also had the opportunity to finally meet in person Rev. Erik Walker Wikstrom, who – in addition to having written the beautiful book Simply Pray – was my spiritual director the year I decided to attend seminary. It was nice to finally give him a hug of thanks for being part of my journey.


  • Though personally disappointed in the outcome of the moderator election, I know Jim Key will do a fine job. Meanwhile, outgoing moderator Gini Courter absolutely WOWED the crowd with her final report. It’s worth the watch.


I have so many more memories and lessons learned – from the Murray Lecture (sponsored by NYSCU) to the various worship services I attended – from seeing old friends from my UU Musicians Network days to the crowd of Union students/alumnae closing down a bar. I got to see good friend Reggie Harris, and emma’s revolution, and Brother Sun perform. I got to make new friends, like KC Slack, Nicki Drumb, Craig Rubano, and Elie Kirkpatrick. And I got to hang out with Union friends Emily DeTar, Valerie Freseman, Ranwa Hammamy, Sara Goodman, and Annie Gonzalez. And and and and….the memories and lessons are countless, but since this is already long, I will close simply with this:


Go to a General Assembly before too long. Next year, it’s in Providence, RI. It’s transformative and amazing and exciting and eye-opening and exhausting. It is worth it.

At the end of the Friday morning worship at General Assembly, one of my fellow offsite delegates typed into the chat box, that was a moving service. Worship is my least favorite part of being a UU.

As someone whose probable program focus will be preaching and worship, I was floored. Isn’t that kinda the point of belonging to a congregation? If it’s for social or justice reasons, there are lots of other places to go, whereas a congregation puts all that together with a spiritual dimension.

As I contemplated this, I remembered a conversation I had with a member of another local congregation about the CRUUNY joint service. I was excited because we were going to have a lot of music – organ, choir, congregational singing, and even a multigen rock band. She sighed and said, I don’t think I’ll go then. I dislike music in a service. I’d rather just hear a sermon and some readings.

Again, I was floored. I was in the first class to pursue the Music Leadership Credentialling certification (which I dropped when a back injury kept me out of commission/having surgeries for 18 months). What’s the point of worship services if there isn’t music? If all you care about are the words, there are plenty of books and lectures.



And then I recalled a conversation in our Stewardship committee about Time, Talent, and Treasure. We all agreed that members should be willing to make an investment in all three, but what did Time mean, exactly? Was time the hours spent in Sunday services and at church-wide events? Or was it okay if someone didn’t come to church but attended a small group ministry once a month? Do we ask for a commitment to the one hour a week that everyone shares (as opposed to the many more hours we share in small groups, committees, task forces, etc.)? If you’re all about the small connections, then…what?

All of this leads me to a larger question, one I’m not sure I have the answer to yet, but one which I’m willing to entertain discussion on: does worship matter? Does it matter to a person’s spiritual development, to their connections, to their expression of compassion/acceptance/courage/love/trust/justice/service? Does going to a worship service (whether in person or online) make a difference?

My gut says it does. My gut says that without worship, we are nothing more than a social club with a service focus. Without worship, we forget how to enact the deeper parts of ourselves, which long remember the rituals of our ancient ancestors. Without worship, we become isolated, away from the interconnected web of which we are a part. Without worship, we lose touch with the sacred.

And more…without all the elements of worship – sights and sounds, touch and scents, words, music, movement, and silence – we are missing ways to access our own Divine spirit, as well as that which we define as Divine that is outside ourselves.

I think, too, worship matters for groups. For several years, I was what they call a solitary practitioner in the pagan tradition. I held rituals, by myself. I meditated, sang, danced, incanted, by myself. And half the time, I gave up before I had finished, because it felt empty or I felt silly. When I was in ritual with even one other person, suddenly there was meaning. A shared experience. A connection.

It’s this connection that then leads me on to act. just being with other people in scared space makes me want to be a better person, more engaged, more connected. They don’t tell me to, I feel it. I sing it. I smell it and touch it and taste it.

And…if we are to understand who we are and where we are going, it helps to share this experience time and time again, together, in worship, in community.

Worship matters.

Offsite voting trialSo… I was blessed to be an offsite delegate to General Assembly this year – an experiment to see if having people connected remotely would work, not just for watching, but for participating – speaking, voting, engaging. Despite a couple of technical glitches and some need for adjustments to process, overall, it was great, and I’m pleased to say that the assembled voted to change the bylaws to include offsite delegates.

But that’s only part of the story.

What I’ve been reflecting on the last few days is the difference between my experience and that of onsite delegates. Namely, I’ve been reading a lot about escallators, rain, access issues, confusion on the floor, crowding. Yes, they’re talking too about the votes, about Karen Armstrong’s stunning Ware Lecture, Kaaren Anderson’s invigorating Sunday sermon, about being together when NY passed marriage equality… but it’s very gritty too.

Or to put it in Woodstock terms: muddy.

As an offsite delegate, there was no mud. No crowding, no endless escallators, no rain on the rally (although here in upstate NY we had plenty of rain… one plenary session was interrupted by a knock on the door; an old man with a beard asked me if I knew what a cubit is…). Instead, the experience let me immerse in the messages. I was in a comfortable chair in a comfortable space and I could get a drink or a snack and not disrupt the procedings. I could listen in rapt attention without disturbances of those around me. And I didn’t get muddy.

I bring this up, because I think that while there is something amazing about incarnation – being IN PERSON – there is something a bit magical too about being present remotely, much as Joni Mitchell was during Woodstock. (For those who don’t know, she was slated to be there toward the end, but by the time she arrived, access was blocked and she stayed in town.) She instead caught the spirit and vision of the event, and wrote the seminal song about it:

And so… I feel a bit like Joni Mitchell. I got to hear the incredible messages, catch the spirit and vision, which I think can be summed up in Kaaren’s phrase “Connection and Compassion”…. something happened at this GA; we coalesced as a denomination. We found our heart, we found our message. We are preparing for an incredible journey at next year’s GA, and thank God we know what we’re saying now.

I’m not sure if on-the-ground observers could see the change…maybe they did. I know I did, watching it, unmuddied, open to the spirit and vision and voice of our faith.