July 5, 2012
A "Justice General Assembly" for Unitarian Universalists
— Dan McKanan
Delegates to this year's Unitarian Universalist General Assembly tried something new. Together with local partners in Phoenix, Arizona, they convened a "Justice General Assembly" challenging the human rights abuses inherent in the United States immigration system. For five days, Unitarian Universalists gathered with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, Mi Familia Vota, Tonatierra Nahuacalli, Los Comités de Defensa del Barrio, Puente, Somos America, and Borderlinks. Justice General Assembly included worship, workshops, service projects, voter registration, theatrical presentations, and a massive candlelight vigil at the gates of the notorious "Tent City" jail, where persons without documents are detained and denied the basic rights most people in the United States take for granted.
Justice General Assembly began as a compromise: the meeting had been scheduled long before Arizona passed SB 1070 and immigration rights advocates called for a boycott. At the 2010 General Assembly, delegates debated the boycott vigorously, then rallied around the idea of dispensing with "business as usual" and coordinating the Phoenix meeting with local partners.
For Unitarian Universalists, a strong emphasis on justice is nothing new—all General Assemblies are chock-full of justice-related workshops, and in recent years all feature at least one act of public witness. What was new was the expanded emphasis on partnership, and the creation of accountable relationships with specific partner organizations. Together, delegates and partners learned to practice the "cultural humility" that enables common work for justice.
This entailed some surprises: delegates in 2011 had assumed that partner organizations would value action more than talk, and so eliminated the procedure for making immediate social justice statements from the 2012 agenda. It turned out that the partners were very eager for Unitarian Universalists to join the Episcopal Church in condemning the "Doctrine of Discovery"—the notion, first articulated by medieval and early modern popes but then incorporated into US case law, that Christian nations could assert sovereignty over non-Christian peoples they had "discovered." The delegates approved a strong statement that also called for US implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples—but doing so required some fancy parliamentary footwork.
Prior to Justice GA, some Unitarian Universalists had worried that a stronger emphasis on justice would come at the expense of spirituality. But delegates in Phoenix discovered that few tradeoffs were needed. This General Assembly featured expanded worship time, with both justice and ecumenical partners fully included. Participants also learned that only certain forms of partnership can be achieved in a large scale gathering. Partners were elated to see two thousand people from around the country join them for three hours in the heat outside Tent City. But delegates who longed for intense, one-on-one encounters with Arizona immigrants were disappointed: the ratio of 3700 delegates and other Unitarian Universalists to roughly one hundred partner representatives made this impossible. Many people left Phoenix determined to seek out new encounters at home.
In some respects, Justice GA was just the beginning of partnership. Participants contributed tens of thousands of dollars from their personal funds to the partner organizations (as well as a similar amount to the Arizona Immigration Ministry, a UU organization created to coordinate the partnerships), but they did not discuss a permanent budgetary commitment to partnership work. Back in the late 1960s, the issue of such commitment nearly split the tradition, when the denomination first made and then partly rescinded a million dollar budgetary commitment to the Black Affairs Council, a UU group created to foster partnership with organizations promoting black empowerment. The resulting controversy left many advocates of partnership bitterly disappointed. Justice GA helped heal some of those lingering wounds, but it only began to address the tough questions of reparation and shared power that Unitarian Universalists and other people of faith had grappled with in the 1960s.
By the end of the week, most delegates were determined to make aspects of Justice GA into "business as usual" for future gatherings. They selected "Reproductive Justice" as the denomination's next "Congregational Study Action Issue" in part because the proposal envisioned a partnership with Sister Song—the women of color collective that has pioneered the concept of "reproductive justice"—comparable to the Arizona partnership on immigration. The future of Unitarian Universalism may well be intertwined with that of many justice-seeking movements.
Dan McKanan is the Emerson Senior Lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and the author, most recently, of Prophetic Encounters: Religion and the American Radical Tradition (Beacon Press). He attended Justice General Assembly as a delegate from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Medford, Massachusetts.