Unitarian Universalists invade Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is one of the great cities to arrive at by air. You descend over the tops of the Rocky Mountains. You feel like your plane may scrape one of the summits, and then gently descend into the Salt Valley. Even in late June you can still see some snow on the mountains. The city unfolds around you as you approach from the south. Out the window I watched the Great Salt Lake glimmering in a setting sun. Unlike the busy hub of Atlanta where I had left, Salt Lake’s airport is rather serene in the evening. It is also unusually close to the center of the city. A few volunteers with the Unitarian Universalist Association greeted me as I descend toward baggage claim. They noticed my Serenity T-shirt and giggled. They should have known I was a UU just from the T-shirt. A shuttle to my hotel awaited. Fifteen minutes later I was at my hotel, the Little America Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City on a warm and dry Tuesday night.

Salt Lake has grown up since 1996. The Salt Palace Convention Center is still there but the mall across the street has been torn down. Condominium skyscrapers are going up in their place. Some of these buildings are so high that they tower over nearby Temple Square, a sort of Vatican City for Mormons. All this construction suggests that mammon may be Utah’s real religion. Yet within a block or two of the convention center there are plentiful vacant storefronts. Utah, like much of the west, is hurting in this economy. Still, the city seems to be shrugging off hard times and building for a boom they have faith will arrive eventually. Its leaders are thinking strategically. There was no light rail system back in 1996, but it has arrived in 2009. I can pick it up at a stop a block from my hotel, but it is better to walk the five blocks or so to the convention center for exercise.

Preparing for the Banner Parade at the UUA General Assembly, Salt Lake Ctiy

Unitarian Universalists from across the world have arrived in Salt Lake to occupy the city, or at least its downtown. The plentiful Mormons are happy to have our business, and seem a happy bunch in general. I know I am not in Northern Virginia when I cross the street at a crosswalk in the middle of the block and the cars actually stop. In Northern Virginia or DC such a brazen act would likely get you run over. Their economy may be close to being in shambles, but the people of Salt Lake City never forget their manners. Even the tough looking types will offer a pleasantry when you pass them on the street.

The UUs tried to string a five story high banner from the convention center, but it didn’t quite work. “Standing on the side of love” is the theme of this General Assembly. One of the ways we are standing on the side of love is by standing up for marriage equality for same sex partners. In this reddest state in the Union, this could be dangerous. Salt Lake City though is a tiny dot of blue in an otherwise deeply red state. It has two versions of a city paper and a progressive Democratic mayor. Perhaps this is because the city, white as Wonder Bread back in 1996, is now becoming a tad Pumpernickel. African Americans can be seen unloading baggage at Salt Lake City airport, and Hispanics can be found as hotel maids and working at the local Wendys. Perhaps the whites of Salt Lake City no longer wanted these jobs.

A few of us representing the Reston, Virginia contingent of Unitarian Universalists manage to meet up Wednesday night in the exposition hall at the Salt Palace Center. As this is my first General Assembly it is both exciting and comforting. I am very much at home, with or without members of my church, for we speak a common language and share similar values. It has gotten to the point that I can spend five minutes or so with anyone and tell with an eighty percent probability whether they are a UU or not. The normal signs would be a hybrid automobile and a Darwin fish on the rear fender, but in person you can often tell from the way they look – it’s a certain crease around the eyes. There are other clues, like the chalice that many are wearing as jewelry. The flaming chalice is the symbol of Unitarian Universalism.

Still, there is a big difference between attending a service at your local church and being in the presence of four thousand other UUs at an opening plenary session and service. Frankly, I found it a bit overwhelming. The plenary session started out with a banner procession. Each congregation has a banner and they paraded around the enormous room with their banners to the great applause of fellow UUs. While the vast majority of UUs are centered in the United States, we had UUs from Africa, Europe and the Philippines in attendance also. Outgoing UUA president William Sinkford delivered a report to the membership that I found surprisingly stirring. You might think a relatively small faith like ours might not have made much of an impact these last eight years, but you would be wrong. From opposing the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to being at the vanguard of marriage equality, to our outreach to the Muslim community, UUs have made great strides under Rev. Sinkford’s leadership. We also have had two unwitting martyrs. A new association president is to be voted in later this week. The campaigning is hot and heavy on the convention floor. Should we choose a Hispanic man or our first woman as president? Either one, like the African American Bill Sinkford, would demonstrate that our largely white congregation is becoming more inclusive.

It is not often that you attend a worship service with four thousand people. Only the pope gets bigger venues. The service, which followed the plenary session, was both stirring and moving. Hearing our signature hymn, “Spirit of Life” sung in four different language (including Hungarian) was touching, as was the “Passing of Peace” where we offered peace to the people sitting around us, in some cases going more than a few rows back. The service had the theme of atonement. Unitarians were one of the religions selected to help “civilize” Native Americans after they were sent to reservations in the 19th century. In retrospect, this was a great injustice. We made a public apology and had our apology accepted by one of the native tribes. There were few dry eyes in the house.

The exhibition hall showed me the amazing diversity of UUs. There were booths for pretty much every conceivable variation of UU you could imagine, from the humanists, to the Buddhists, to the UUs who think Jesus was divine, to the polyamorists.

Ironically, UUs are still largely silent about the polyamory community. If they are going to stand up for love, why not for those who want to love more than one human being at the same time? Right now we are being largely silent. I imagine this will change in time too. I spoke to the polyamorous UUs and told them I couldn’t figure out how they could juggle more than one loving relationship at a time. They are certainly charting a brave new frontier in love.

Today I attended three seminars, but by far the most interesting was the Theology for a Secular Age course, part of the UU University series. It is being taught by the minister of the All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York City, the Rev. Galen Guengerich. He may be the best speaker I have ever had the pleasure of listening to, a man of great learning and insight. The seminar resumes tomorrow at eight a.m. so I must be to bed early. I don’t want to miss a word!

Tomorrow will be another day of fellowship and learning.

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