MONTCLAIR, NJ  - For five days at the end of June each year Unitarian Universalists (UU) from all over the world gather to celebrate their religion, connect with one another, vote on important matters and learn new ideas. This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) held the 59th annual General Assembly (GA), scheduled for Providence, Rhode Island, from the comfort of everyone’s home.

The entire assembly including workshops and worship were virtual. Approximately 4,000 UUs participated, including approximately 30 members from the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair (UUCM). While the UUA previously allowed for virtual voting at the GA in the past, this was the first time the entire event was through the World Wide Web with video sharing, chatrooms and the Zoom platform.

This year’s theme was Rooted, Inspired & Ready! “We are in touch with our theological roots, we are engaged in transforming our faith, and we are fired up to take action in the wider world.” — UUA

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As any UU probably knows these events, such as conventions and retreats, are never light, and keep you busy throughout the day. This was especially true for the delegates, who had to attend General Session meetings to vote on UUA policies and business items. Each congregation’s representation varies according to the size of the congregation. UUCM with a membership of 347 was able to elect seven delegates and two alternates.

The seven delegates included Nicole Gray, Dana Moore, Sarah Scalet, Jennifer Bell, Dave McGowan and Shirley Matthews, with alternate Giancarlo Ponticello and the Rev. Scott Sammler-Michael, UUCM senior co-minister as an advisor.

The GA started with a look back at previous assemblies’ banner parades where UUs usually marched in the hall representing their congregation.

“My first GA was an inspiring experience for me. As someone who has always looked up to the Civil Rights marching, draft card burning UUs of the ’60s. I believe history is calling us to action once again, and the sessions I went to, especially workshops by the Young Adult Ministry Initiative and UU the Vote, showed me how our faith is answering that call,” said Giancarlo Ponticello of Bloomfield.

A typical day at GA for a delegate started with 9 a.m. worship, 10 a.m. workshop, featured speaker at noon, 1:30 to 5:30 p.m. General Session (meeting to review and vote on items), 6 to 7 p.m. lecture or a worship service, 7:30 p.m. reflection (a time to engage with other UUs) and at 9 p.m. a featured speaker. In addition, Friday night at 10 allowed for some fun activities including music, yoga, or dance. The GA wrapped up on Sunday, June 28 with a virtual service held for both the East and West Coast time zones, coffee hour via Zoom and one last workshop at 3:30 p.m.

The voting started with adopting the rules and procedures, a long thought-out process. Delegates voted on UUA business items including adopting the resolution— Embodying Human Rights in Our Investment Decisions and bylaw amendments for Co-Moderator Vacancies and Timelines for Nominating Committee. 

In addition, delegates voted and approved both Actions of Immediate Witness — Address 400 Years of White Supremacist Colonialism and Amen to Uprising: A Commitment and Call to Action in response to police brutality towards Black people. Also adopted are the following Responsive Resolutions— Widening the Circle: Establishing Ongoing Intersectional Accountability Commission and Sunsetting the JTWTC (Journey Towards Wholeness Transformation Committee); Supporting and Investing in Youth and Young Adults in Unitarian Universalism; and The Pandemic: a Religious Response.

Participants had the choice of joining five of the 46 workshops held via Zoom. However, the UUA recorded all workshops and lectures since the GA was virtual for participants to view throughout the summer. Some of the many workshops included Creating a Community of Communities, Being a Social Class Ally for Social Justice, Why We Want and Resist Diversity, Visioning and Governance Can Be Inclusive, Equitable, Co-owned and Sacred Mental Health Matters.

There were six lectures covering “Reflecting on Teachings about Indigenous Peoples;” “Settler Colonialism and a History of Erasure and Exclusion” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz; and an environmental lecture by Naomi Klein- Canadian author, social activist, and filmmaker.

Just like back in the AOL days, participants had the use of a chatroom, one of five to choose from all named after trees, which were active in the Main Hall during all meetings, lectures, and worship services and monitored by volunteers.

The Maple chat quickly drew the youth. The youth pulled themselves from the GA program due to unsettled matters. They however, made their voices heard loudly in the chatroom creating images of a house and then a bunny and chanted, “Maple Youth Autonomous Youth Zone” and “MYAZ is for the people.” While some of the adults were not so happy with this “invasion,” the youth received a lot of support from many of the room participants and even received a shout out during the Ware lecture with Naomi Klein.

Jennifer Bell of Montclair said we must recommit ourselves to youth and young adults. ”Invite youth to move away from the children’s table. Giving youth opportunities to participate and lead is not just making them feel good, but helping them build skills,” she said.

Saturday evening was Family FUUN night and it was exactly what it said it was fun. Participants had the choice of an evening with mezzo soprano Tichina Vaughn, Hip Hop Yoga with Ashley Robinson, A Passion For Piano with Michael Galib and Nicole Pesce, or Rooted, Inspired, and Ready for... a Virtual GA Drag Show!. These were also included for participants to view later.

Although the cost of the event dropped significantly since there was no actual meeting hall, participants were still able to obtain scholarships and volunteer in many ways to cut the cost or attend free.

Bell said her take away from the GA is White supremacy robs us all. “We must be willing to take risks, make mistakes, ask for help, accept others’ voices, and work hand-in-hand. All of us need all of us to make it. Lead conversations in ways that assume that those around us share our values. Good people who do nothing against racism are good people who aid and abet racist actions,” she said. She added, “Environmental health is essential to social justice, and social justice is rooted in environmental justice.”

On Sunday morning, the worship service included a collective choir with UU congregations participating from all over. Participants submitted their parts, which were blended and mixed together for the pre-recorded music video.  Stearns Matthews of UUCM sang solo in the song, "Tomorrow.”

Next year’s assembly is planned for Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but the UUA has been talking about at least partial if not all virtual again.