Notes from GA 2017

November 24, 2017
by Harvey Harrison

I wasn’t planning to attend General Assembly (GA) last summer. I changed my mind when I discovered that Bryan Stevenson would be the Ware lecturer this year. Mr. Stevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor, the incarcerated and the condemned, and he is one of my heroes. Under his leadership, the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, AL, has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent death row prisoners, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

I absolutely HAD to see him in person! He is a wonderful speaker and left me with a clear framework for the work that I am doing on disproportionate minority contact with the justice system in the U.S. To be an effective ally for the oppressed, he says:

  • We must be willing to be proximate with the people we are working for
  • We must change the racist narrative about people of color
  • We must remain hopeful in our work
  • We must be willing to be uncomfortable

Bryan Stevenson’s address is typical of my past experiences with the Ware Lectures. This is an annual event at GA with a very impressive list of lecturer in its 90-year history. It is always one of the highlights for me. It was no different in 2017 in New Orleans. It will be no different in 2018 in Kansas City.

October 27, 2017
by Ellen Taylor

Start where you are

What stood out for me at June’s General Assembly was the workshop “Eight Tools for Powerfully Dismantling Systems of Supremacy.” It tied right into the work we’ve begun to do at First Unitarian.

The facilitators provided specific ways for whites and predominantly white organizations to begin dismantling systems of white supremacy. Their eight tools are designed to guide we white people in self-education and recovery from our inevitable errors. The goal is to sustain accountable relationships and work within a congregation to do less harm in our interactions with black people and other people of color.

Determining a path to accountable actions included the following eight points:

  1. Promote the “Ally” Code of Conduct – which includes showing up, apologizing in a real, meaningful way when you mess up, and accepting that you’ll be uncomfortable
  2. Name, claim, and tame White Fragility
  3. Know what a real apology is and is not
  4. Know what you have to offer
  5. Maintain urgency and commitment for the long haul
  6. Connect accountability within your congregation
  7. Connect accountability outside of your congregation
  8. Explore devices you can use to coach yourself as you take action – including “Safety Pin Box” (mentioned by Rev. Erin during the 10/22 service), Allies in Motion(AIM)

We’ve begun our work on White Supremacy, but there’s so much more to do as individuals and a church community. Whatever your awareness is, start where you are and start making a difference.

October 13, 2017
by Barb Royal
Attending General Assembly (“GA” is the annual International conference of Unitarian Universalists) in June was amazing on many levels. I always enjoy hearing sermons by a number of different ministers from across the country. A favorite was Rev. Cheryl Walker at the Service of the Living Tradition. You can see it at: . The annual Ware Lecture, which brings in world-renowned speakers, featured Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, and author of Just Mercy. And, as always, there were numerous workshops to choose from each day. Most of my focus was on race, which included three presentations by Robin DiAngelo – excellent preparation for a workshop series based on her book, <em>What Does It Mean To Be White?</em>, which I’m co-leading with Karen Lauer at church this fall.

A big highlight was a presentation by our own Director of Religious Education, Tracy Beck! I wonder if everyone knows just how lucky we are to have Tracy leading our RE Program. Tracy is a credentialed Religious Educator who has been with us since 2009. This past year she was honored to be awarded a Fahs Fellowship through Meadville Lombard Theological School. With that honor comes the responsibility to do research and to develop new curricula for use by congregations and families. Tracy developed a “UU Tween Spirituality Toolkit,” which can be found on the web at: There are tools, a covenant group framework, and resources for parents & guardians. CHECK IT OUT!

General Assembly is fun, energizing, and open to ALL (adults & youth). Please consider attending next year: June 20-24, 2018, in Kansas City, MO.

September 22, 2017
by Karen Lauer

Building a community of compassion: Lay Pastoral Care

General Assembly offers a wide-range of workshops on topics from increasing inclusivity in worship services to prison ministry, from stewardship to a wide range of social justice issues.

One of the most impactful workshops I attended was “Lay Pastoral Care as Spiritual Practice.” The presenters emphasized the distinction between the necessary but short-term care provided by what they called the “cards and casseroles” committee, and the longer-term spiritual ministry of a lay pastoral care program.

Lay pastoral care is an extension of the minister, providing spiritual companioning that is sustained (through regular, dependable meetings), trained (knows how to listen, is sensitive, supports need for spiritual practices), and provides care that is confidential.

It is not always possible for the ministers of a congregation to give full-listening attention to members needing pastoral care. A lay pastoral care program helps to build a more loving and vital community by providing an ongoing, caring, listening presence in difficult times. The relationship between trained lay members and those receiving sustained personal support through the program tightens the bonds of community and enriches the spiritual lives of both parties.

The most basic and powerful way to connect to another person
is to listen. Just listen.
Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other
is our attention.
When you listen generously to people,
they can hear the truth in themselves,
often for the first time.
– Rachel Naomi Remen

September 8, 2017
by Deidre Fudge
Ministerial Transitions – We’re off on the right foot

In my experience, the top benefit of attending General Assembly (GA) is attending workshops on topics relevant to our current church issues. This year, I was particularly drawn to the workshop about ministerial transitions where I learned several interesting facts about today’s ministerial search process. I left the workshop feeling good about what we’re doing.

Here’s a sampling of what I learned:

  • In 2016, 90% of the congregations that chose a two-year interim period were successful in their search for a new settled minister. Only 55% of congregations who chose a one-year interim were successful. Ministerial candidates can recognize congregations that are change-ready and those that aren’t. So we’re off on the right foot.
  • The average length of a settled ministry is 7-10 years. Clearly, we were fortunate to have a 16-year relationship. Will lightening strike twice? I think we have many reasons to be optimistic, but also need to be realistic.
  • The most important factors that a prospective senior minister will look at when deciding to apply for a position are: 1) whether a significant other can also find work, and 2) the cost of living. I was pleased that these considerations top location because we know Des Moines is a great place to live and we’ll be able to share our enthusiasm without battling “fly-over” prejudice.
  • Most ministerial searches cost $10-15,000. This includes training by UUA staff for our search committee, and travel and housing for selected candidates to both a neutral preaching site and to Des Moines. The search process is our opportunity to make a first impression and I truly believe we’ll get out of it what we put into it. Fortunately we’re already setting aside money for this expense in our current budget.

My notes from New Orleans include other interesting things and I’d be happy to share them with you. Just ask!

August 25, 2017
by Michael Lauer

UUA General Assembly offers more than great talks, outstanding interaction opportunities, and mind-blowing information. This year GA organizers suggested activities in and around New Orleans that would help attendees more fully enter into the experience of working in solidarity with those on the margins.

My wife, Karen, and I took a tour of Whitney Plantation just 45 minutes from New Orleans. The Whitney is presented as a memorial to those enslaved there, throughout Louisiana, and across this country. With artifacts including the mansion, actual slave cabins, displays, monuments, interviews with former slaves gathered during the 1930s, and skilled tour guides; the complexity, sorrow, and brutality of slavery became a visceral experience. Standing in the blazing summer heat as I read the words of formerly enslaved people, walking through the actual cabins where people lived, loved, and died, brought home not only the horror of slavery itself, but underscored the amazing resilience of the enslaved. One of the artifacts on display is a set of iron cages where slaves were kept prior to being sold at auction. The cages include a plate “made in Philadelphia” that made clear the complicity of northern states in the institution of slavery.

The Whitney placed a healthy ache in my heart that helps me understand more clearly our country’s past, as well as the need to repair the harm that continues reverberate throughout our society today.

To learn more about the Whitney Plantation Museum, go to

August 4, 2017
from Terry Lowman

Since I’ve retired from the restaurant business, I’ve signed up for several volunteer opportunities. In 2012, I applied to be on the UU Funding Program’s Social Responsibility Grant Panel. Every year at GA, the UU Funding Program holds a workshop on the fundamentals of UU Funding grants.

For the UU Funding workshop, we’re asked to share a favorite grant proposal that we worked with. Our panel has approximately 35 full proposals per year with grants up to $20,000 and 10-15 short proposals for matching funds–grants up to $1500. Of all the grants this year, I was really impressed with First Unitarian Church of Des Moines’ proposal to do upgrades for sanctuary. Normally, we do not do grants for physical improvements for church buildings– our goal is to fund projects to create social justice. Because of the urgency for sanctuary space, this became a project to create social justice. The most impressive aspect of First Unitarian’s proposal is the vote to approve and volunteer for sanctuary.

UUs are a “tough” audience. Last year my suggestion at UU Funding Program’s workshop was to drop acronyms…and then I proceeded to applaud UUSC…Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. I’m like “what are they laughing about?”

July 10, 2017
from Karen Lauer

As a first-time General Assembly delegate and attendee, I cannot begin to adequately express the excitement of being amongst thousands of Unitarian Universalists, most of whom were focused on the issues of racial justice facing our denomination and our country.

In the Ware Lecture at this year’s General Assembly in New Orleans, Bryan Stevenson, civil rights attorney, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, and a professor at New York University School of Law, outlined the actions we must take to be agents of change and social justice. In brief, he said we must become proximate to those who are different from us, we must change the narrative surrounding issues of social justice, we must remain hopeful in our work for change, and we must be willing to be uncomfortable.

Immediately I knew this applied to our commitment as a sanctuary church. Providing sanctuary to an undocumented immigrant under immediate threat of deportation is not the ultimate goal of the sanctuary movement, nor should it be our goal.

The actual work of sanctuary means leaving the comfort of our church and going out into the immigrant community and forming relationships. We must get involved with the people and communities that are directly impacted by our unjust immigration laws; it is only through relationships that we can hope to change the common dialog that surrounds immigration, and ultimately change laws that criminalize people’s desperate search for a better life for themselves and their families. It is only when we truly get to know each other, not as white people coming to save the day, but as fellow human beings whose welfare depends on securing the human rights of everyone, that we can hope to enact change, and perhaps experience personal transformation as well.

Link to Bryan Stevenson’s TED talk

Just Mercy, A Story of Justice and Redemption:

June 27, 2017

A group of members, staff and friends have just returned from the UUA General Assembly in New Orleans. We are fired up about many things we’ve learned. First of all, we want everyone to hear from the new President of the UUA, Susan Frederick-Gray. Please click here to learn more and to watch this video to see our new leader.
– Barb Royal & Deidre Fudge, Michael & Karen Lauer, Harvey Harrison & Ellen Taylor, Terry Lowman & Mark Kassis, Lori Emison Clair, Rev. Erin Gingrich & DRE Tracy Beck