No One Is Outside the Circle of Love: UUA General Assembly 2017

Jolinda Stephens, Tahoma UU Congregation Member

The most remarkable thing that happened at UUA General Assembly transpired after everyone went home.

On Saturday night, the last night of the annual meeting of Unitarian Universalists in New Orleans, defense attorney and author of Just Mercy, Bryon Stevenson, gave the Ware Lecture focused on restorative justice. The two thousand people who packed the hall had no idea that at the same time an opportunity to practice restorative justice was forming nearby.

Four young men attacked and robbed two UUA staffers as they returned from dinner. “James Curran was treated for a fractured nose and other milder injuries and released, but days after the attack, Tim Byrne remained hospitalized with an “acute brain injury.” The most recent information I have is that Tim continues to improve and has been upgraded from critical to serious. His doctors are cautiously optimistic.

The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, newly elected UUA President, announced the attack at the beginning of the huge Sunday worship service. We were saddened, angry, and worried for the victims. With all the sadness and anger, UUs began posting about what it means in this particular situation to practice restorative justice. In particular, I noticed excellent posts in the UU Allies for Racial Equity Facebook group.

The following day, as delegates and attendees were catching planes for home, President Susan Frederick-Gray issued her first pastoral letter as President declaring that GA had been devoted to reflecting on “the narratives and wider systems of oppression that perpetuate both systemic and personal violence.” Even as she updated us on Tim Byrnes’ condition and expressed our love for him, James Curran and their families, she reiterated the lessons of the Ware Lecturer. “Simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” She urged us to hold the attackers in the same love we hold Tim and James.

A group of New Orleans UUs immediately leaped to put the inspiring words into practice when four young black men were arrested and arraigned for the crimes. The group consulted with their families and showed up at the arraignment, many in Black Lives Matter tees. They were there to advocate for reasonable bail for the young men. The New Orleans Advocate quoted local UU Jolanda Walters: “We wanted to show up for restorative justice. We wanted to advocate for a reasonable bond for all four. We don’t want these young men thrown away.”

Check out for updates on Tim’s recovery, and donate to the staff assistance fund to aid Jim and Tim in their recoveries.

I attended General Assembly from my home, the only off-site delegate from our congregation. Delegates attending GA in New Orleans were Mary Rhine, Doug Taylor, and Barbara Tripp. I represented you as I voted for the President of the UUA for the next four years. Also, as a delegate I helped decide:

  • To eliminate the gender binary in our 2nd Source, there was a preliminary change that will be voted on again in  2018: Words and deeds of prophetic people (revised from “women and men”) which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
  • To encourage the UUA Board to direct the commission formed to review our Principles and Purposes to widely involve congregations in robust discussion of UU identity and purposes.
  • To amend with stronger language on white supremacy and capitalism and pass the 2017 Statement of Conscience: Escalating Inequality. Statements of Conscience grow out of a four-year congregational study process and are used by the UUA as a guide and permission for public statements and actions by the board and staff.

Other functions of GA are to inform and inspire. Excellent programming and worship services from GA are available on the UUA YouTube channel.

If you can’t attend General Assembly next year in person in Kansas City, MO, I encourage you to join me in representing TUUC from home. We can caucus together in making our decisions about the future of Unitarian Universalism. However, I don’t want to discourage anyone from attending the next GA in person. It is an overwhelming experience to meet thousands of UUs, and the Sunday morning worship is unforgettable. However, attending onsite can be expensive, and the off-site experience is improved every year. With this inexpensive alternative, it is possible to involve more people like me who can’t afford the airfare and a hotel room for five days. For most of our UUA existence, our national decisions have been made by those that can afford to attend. We need to live out more fully our 5th Principle which affirms our support for democracy, and this is one way to do it.

Jolinda Stephens

Tahoma UU Congregation Member