To go, or not to go?

I’ll be going to General Assembly, the annual gathering of United States Unitarian Universalists, this June. Many other Unitarian Universalists have decided not to attend this year, because General Assembly will be held at the Fort Lauderdale convention center — which, as it happens, is within the security boundaries of Port Everglades, a bustling port that requires government-issued identification for anyone who enters — which means that “for better or for worse, it will be the United States government that decides who can or cannot be with us — in worship, in community, and in our plenary sessions,” according to Rosemary Bray McNatt. That’s a pretty creepy thought.

I’ll be going, in spite of the creepiness of the United States government checking my identification before I can enter a worship service. I guess I have never believed that General Assembly is an open meeting. For more than half my working life, I have worked jobs where I would have found it difficult to find the money to pay to travel long distances and stay in hotels for five days while attending General Assembly — assuming that I could have even gotten the time off from work.

General Assembly has always erected huge economic barriers to participation by many (probably most) Unitarian Universalists. Every once in a while, that fact is mentioned in passing, but it is usually dismissed offhandedly. I find it harder to dismiss this fact. The central purpose of General Assembly is for duly appointed delegates from congregations to transact the business of the Unitarian Universalist Association in an allegedly democratic process. The economic barriers to attendance at General Assembly — barriers which keep many potential delegates from attending — mean it’s not a real democracy.

Then there’s the undeniable fact that having thousands of people travel each year to General Assembly releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the air. Other denominations, much bigger than ours, get along fine with general meetings every second year, or even every four years. With the latest projections that the Arctic ice cap will melt by 2013, how can I in good conscience get on a jetliner to attend a meeting that I feel does not need to be held every year? How can I in good conscience contribute to the desertification of central Africa and the flooding of Bangladesh, just so I can attend General Assembly every year? (I’ll be taking the train again this year instead of flying, which will cut my pollution enormously — about 990 lbs. of CO2, as opposed to about 1,930 lbs. if I flew, or 1,160 if I drove, according to

So why am I going to General Assembly this year? For the simple reason that I volunteered to serve as a reporter for the UUA Web site. From a selfish point of view, this is a fantastic learning experience for me, a chance to hang out with geeks, videographers, photographers, writers, and editors who are all far more talented than I. Less selfishly, I feel that reneging on my commitment at this late date would be worse than tolerating the insanity of security checkpoints.

As for next year, I don’t know. The insanity of security checkpoints hasn’t stopped me this year, but the idiocy of an effective economic oligarchy and the heavy environmental cost may well keep me away from General Assembly next year.

16 thoughts on “To go, or not to go?

  1. Anna Banana

    I’ve been a UU for only 4 years and am really looking forward to GA. My 2 teenaged boys (13 and 17) and my husband are going too. They WANT to go. We may never have this possibility of going as a family again. I really don’t know what to expect, hoping it’s good. I heard great things about GA in Portland. I’ll keep in mind what you’re saying.

  2. Steve Caldwell


    Congregations cannot do anything about the environmental footprint of GA travel (with the laws of physics and energy costs of travel).

    However, congregations in theory can do something to reduce the economic barriers to GA travel. All it takes is a line item for GA delegate travel subsidies in the congregational budget.

    This would give the congregation a greater voice in who is a delegate and might encourage delegate responsibility (e.g. the credentialed delegates attending more plenary sessions) and increased responsiveness to what the local congregation would want.

  3. Christine Robinson

    Perhaps if those of us who try to only go to GA every other year picked the same “every other year”, the GA planners would get the message and go to alternate year GA’s. It would be awfully nice.

    I, too, will be going to GA because I have responsibilities there and I plan to just “get over it” about ID’s, just as I have when I fly. The world has changed and so many of those changes are so much more important than ID.

  4. h sofia

    Totally agree about GA not needing to be every year. In my view, too much time and energy is spent preparing for the coming year. What are we, the Academy Awards?

    I don’t know how to make this come into being. So many people seem to think it’s overkill, but how to make it change? Can a resolution be introduced, or is it part of the bylaws?

  5. ms. m

    Won’t be there this year. Economics, solidarity, time, co2…and Florida in June? sheesh. I will likely go next year when it’s a closer time zone (and a hub that a car load can drive to…). I like the idea of every other year, or every third…regional gatherings, online plenaries…so much more sensible.

    The plethora of UU 101 workshops is the same every year, the business feels non-productive at best and joke-able at worst. Worship that family and friends can’t attend is a true sadness, not an abstract. I will miss the time with friends, the insights into the “election” of our future president…so report with gusto!

  6. Juffie

    I will not be going to GA this year because for the government to decide whether or not I can get on a plane is absolutely not the same as for the government to decide who I can and can not welcome to worship and do the work of my religion with me.

    Not to mention that the right to free speech is specifically suspended within the zone – with everyone in the zone being required to report any instance of a number of types of behavior including “anti-American speech” etc.

    I am dismayed that our history is known and respected so little that we rather lightly (because we are so consumed with our own desires) give away the primary freedom for which our forefathers and mothers died.

    But then, I’m an old fartess, so …

  7. Steven R

    I am one of those who wont be there because neither I nor my small congregation can afford it
    (to put the item in the budget, something would have to come out of the budget) –
    I find the issue of showing ID to go to a convention center to worship to be not troubling at all. it’s pretty close to what is already done. It’s especially non-troubling because it’s already addressed and fixed in the future. And of course, so far no one has actually come up with the name of a person who wanted to attend and wouldn’t be allowed to come in.
    I do find being part of the group of UUs now accused of letting my forebearers die in vain to be a bit interesting. Pretty passionate talk there.
    Dan and h sofia, somebody needs to know how to propose bi-annual meetings — go for it!

  8. Steve Caldwell

    On 8 February 2008, h sofia wrote:
    “Totally agree about GA not needing to be every year. In my view, too much time and energy is spent preparing for the coming year. What are we, the Academy Awards?

    I don’t know how to make this come into being. So many people seem to think it’s overkill, but how to make it change? Can a resolution be introduced, or is it part of the bylaws?”

    The hard part for taking GA from an annual event to a biannual event is getting people who many refer to as “GA junkies” to reduce their number of fixes. It would require a bylaws change and that requires a vote at GA to make it happen.

    How to amend the bylaws is in the UUA bylaws — I would start by looking at that first:

  9. Dan

    Anna Banana @ 1 — GA can be a total blast! Don’t let us cynical long-time UUs talk you out of going, nor spoil your fun. (I will only add that if you are an introvert, GA can be a little overwhelming, in which case be sure to take care of your need to be alone.)

    h sofia @ 4 — “What are we, the Academy Awards?” Read this, laughed out loud, choked on tea.

    Juffie @ 6 — Good to hear this point of view stated so well, and concisely. Maybe I have become desensitized to this issue because I walk nearly every day along the waterfront of the Port of New Bedford. We don’t have to show an ID to go down there, but there are signs explicitly stating that the port is it “MarSec Level 1” (Marine Security Level 1, for you innocents out there), and that therefore government officials have the right to… well, it isn’t clear what they have the right to do, which means that they can probably do anything they want, which has been the pattern with the United States these last few years. And we have our own pet Homeland Security officials with offices a block from our apartment. And of course the U.S. government feels free to raid factories here in New Bedford and jail suspected illegal immigrants and separate them from their children, because we are a small and relatively poor city where they know they can operate without much notice. And I watch as the communities of color here in New Bedford are shut out of the political process (e.g., right now my partner Carol is helping fight a political battle where a big government grant was given to an all-white organization without any public hearings, thus shutting out a racially mixed non-profit that was a far more appropriate recipient of that money). And as a minister I frequently talk with people who have been forced into a permanent economic underclass, with no political power and little in the way of political rights. So I admit to being desensitized — show a government ID? no big deal — but really it is a big deal, and it’s all part of the larger pattern, and we simply have to draw the line somewhere. So forgive my cynicism, and rock on Juffie!!

    Christine @ 3 and Steve @ 8 — I am not good with denominational politics, and haven’t the faintest idea of how to change things so GA is every second year. But it does occur to me that those of us who think this way should be very aggressive about posing this issue to the people who are running for president of the UUA….

    Anyone else know how this could happen?

  10. Steve Caldwell

    Dan — the same people who vote for the UUA President and Moderator are also GA attendees.

    So … you’re asking people who want to attend GA (the proverbial “GA junkies”) to support for a candidate who wants to cut back on the GA experience? Good luck.

  11. h sofia

    C’mon, Steve, have some hope. The more I think about it, the more I feel the need to *do* something about this. Once I’m done with this school quarter, I’m going to look at this issue (of less frequent GAs) more closely!

  12. Christine Robinson

    Actually, I do believe that there is something in the works (a task force to look into GA sort of thing) about changing GA, coming from the UUA Board. perhaps our district trustees would know about it.

  13. Steve Caldwell

    It’s not a matter of having hope for this proposed change.

    Annual GA, biannual GA, once-a-decade GA — it really doesn’t matter because the only time my family and I can afford to attend GA is when it’s within driving distance (in other words, within my district).

    The last time we could attend GA was in 2005 (Fort Worth TX).

    FWIW, the UUA Board can push a top-down decision on Independent Affiliates because no bylaws and no GA delegate votes were involved.

    To get GA moved to something other than once-a-year will require not just getting the UUA Board on-board — you’ve also got to get GA attendees on-board as well. This will require both education and advocacy work and will not be an easy task.

  14. Philocrites

    On changing the frequency of GA: The bylaws to pay attention to are Article IV (“General Assembly”), especially Section 4.3, which says the General Assembly must meet each fiscal year.

    Article XV describes the process for amending the bylaws. An amendment would need to come from the governing bodies of at least 15 congregations or from a district assembly; see XV:15.2 and its related rule.

    Of course, amendments have to be submitted by February 1 — so plan ahead if you want to propose an amendment for consideration at the high-attendance 2009 General Assembly.

    The board-initiated conversation about General Assembly is being handled by the Fifth Principle Task Force. I don’t yet know who’s on that board-appointed committee, or how broadly they’ll be seeking input, but they’ve been asked to look at frequency, among other matters.

  15. Dan

    Philocrites @14 — Thanks for this info. I hope someone can take this on — given my present financial status, I’m likely going to have to skip GA next year (besides which, I have no political savvy whatsoever).

    Anyone want to take Philocrites’s advice, and start moving on this for 2009? I will support you by making this blog available for you whenever you need it!

  16. Roger

    The issue of less-frequent GAs has come up before, even during campaigns, but it’s true that a candidate who runs on this platform wouldn’t not please those GA delegates. I’ve been involved in volunteer UU bodies for some years and appreciate the networking that GA allows. As a minister I appreciate our UUMA programs and connecting with colleagues, learning from them and letting them pick up the bar tab. I imagine that those who serve far from other UU colleagues long for this reunion every year; I do and I have several parish and community colleagues in my area (but I’m alone on a weekend and don’t even have to write a sermon!). It has moved me to see parishioners get inspired or get new ideas at GA, but we can do this by unlinking UU University and spreading it around and by beefing up district events. But I confess that the personal benefits of GA make me lazier about talking up district events sometimes. I think if we weren’t so small and spread out GA wouldn’t be such a big deal. Maybe Dan’s comments about YRUU vs. local youth ministry apply to GA too.

Comments are closed.