Visiting New Orleans – Day 3: Workshops Galore, Polity and History!

Business sessions at General Assembly (GA) are interesting in their own right, but as a student in a UU (Unitarian Universalist) Polity Intensive, they are doubly interesting. Delegates have a special responsibility to bring forward their own voices and the voices of their congregation that they represent.

Those are not necessarily one and the same! I happen to be a Congregation President – my alternative title is President of the Board of Management. When I agreed to serve my congregation at GA as a Delegate, I was not agreeing to represent my own opinions and stances on issues. I was agreeing to represent my congregation and bring THEIR views forward. I am extremely fortunate that in my MC (Micro Congregation) of under 25 people, we know each other well and feel free to speak honestly and clearly to each other. We had been discussing the rapid changes taking place at the UUA (Unitarian Universalist Association) in services and during our coffee hour, and I’d been forwarding emails related to the issues to all of my congregation members.

I take my position as President very seriously, and take the responsibility of speaking on behalf of my congregation equally seriously. I’ve learned over the years that I still have a LOT to learn! For instance – the UUA uses Robert’s Rules of Order.

“The application of parliamentary law is the best method yet devised to enable assemblies of any size, with due regard for every member’s opinion, to arrive at the general will on the maximum number of questions of varying complexity in a minimum amount of time and under all kinds of internal climate ranging from total harmony to hardened or impassioned division of opinion.”
[Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised [RONR (11th ed.), Introduction, p. liii]

Parliamentary law (according to Merriam-Webster) refers to the rules and precedents governing the proceedings of deliberative assemblies and other organizations. Many people have an exposure to Robert’s Rules when viewing or participating in municipal meetings, corporate meetings, or organizational meetings. Motions are made, objections raised, amendments offered and defeated – all during session where the rules are employed. Sometime knowledge of Robert’s Rules can be an advantage – allowing an individual to “call the question” and end discussion on a motion, at other times, changing procedures so that they action they favor can be taken immediately to a vote.

There is a way to access Robert’s Rules online, complete with a study guide to help the newcomer make sense of it all: Robert’s Rules of Order Online – Plan for Study. I plan to spend some time during the summer getting a better handle on “the Rules” and learning more about them to make me a more effective Parliamentarian and user of “the Rules.”

My afternoon sessions included a workshop on using Personal Story to find common ground and build relationships – useful skills when working within an organization or a congregation. The workshop involved making up a story about a fellow participant based on the impressions we’d gained during our brief introductions and discussions. Both of my session partners were strong, beautiful, educated women – one of whom I likened to a “Mother Goddess” – fierce, intelligent, education focused and full of love for her family. Being that “Mother” to her children and her family strengthened her connection to the Earth and to her humanity. She blossomed and became a different teacher after she had children.

The second participant I created a story about was an equally beautiful, strong and educated woman – though in a different way. She had experience with different cultures when her mother married a Jamaican man, and she had the experience of traveling to Jamaica and finding ties to a whole new family. A key takeaway for her was that poverty, as WE see it in this nation, does not necessarily mean an unhappy life. She saw families that had much less in the way of “things” than her family did, but who seemed just as happy if not happier.

The takeaway for me? Learning more about how to let people tell their stories in their way – and understanding that we can find resonance in just about everyone’s story. This becomes more important when thinking about how we govern congregations and our association. Letting people tell THEIR story THEIR way is critically important, and resonates with our first principle of honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people.

One of the more impactful workshops I attended was titled “Black Power Challenges Liberal Religion: Fifty Years Later” featuring Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika (aka Hayward Henry Jr), who was the founding chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) and Black Affairs Council (BAC) from 1967 to 1973. He highlighted the challenges and outcomes – both personal and denominational – of the Black empowerment controversy within Unitarian Universalism in the 1960s. It was a difficult time – one I’d recently studied in my UU History Course, and it was difficult to hear of the acrimony within my beloved denomination.

Much has changed, and much still needs to be done. I count myself fortunate that I was able to hear about the issues straight from the horses’ mouth, so to speak – from someone who had “been there, done that.” Congregational polity failed during this time period – roadblocks were thrown in the way of those wanting an equal voice for Black UUs, funding was promised, then withdrawn, and many other promises were broken or forgotten. Many Black UUs left the faith – in sorrow and with broken hearts.

My experience speaking with Baba (as we called Dr. Sanyika) made me even more grateful for our current times within the denomination. We were privileged to have not one, but THREE Co-Presidents to guide us through a transition before GA and the election of a new UUA President. Rev. Dr. Rosemary Bray McNatt, current President of Starr King School for the Ministry, made time in her busy schedule to speak with our “Polity Wonks” from the class I was taking, and Co-President of the UUA Rev. Sofia Betancourt also made time to speak with us.

Never before in my religious life did I feel as though MY words, thoughts and feelings carried as much weight as anyone else’s. Not until I became a UU. The hierarchy of traditional religion in some cases left the impression that unless you were a Minister, your words carried little importance, and in a conservative denomination, if you were female, you had even LESS influence. Not here at the UUA. We had THREE female candidates for UUA President – THREE! That did my heart good, personally. It give me reason to expect that I might, at some point in the future, be able to aspire to the Presidency.

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