Visiting New Orleans – Day 4: Streetcars, Local Scenery and a Speech from Baba Sanyika

Day 4 of my trip to New Orleans for the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly (UUA GA) dawned with beauty and sunshine! I’d been really fortunate to find the local streetcar than ran between the neighborhood I was staying in and the Ernest Morial Convention Center. The 1 mile walk between my residence and the streetcar stop was a great way to get some steps in and to see more of New Orleans up close and personal.

I saw the streetcars early on in my visit, when I was catching Uber rides with my housemates, decided to save some money and see some more of the city at the same time. There are three different Streetcar lines: St. Charles (the oldest continuously operating streetcar in the world), Canal Street (it travels the five-and-a-half mile route from the foot of Canal Street through the Central Business District of New Orleans and into the Mid-City area), and the Riverfront Line.

The Riverfront line takes you past the quaint shops of the French Market to the new Aquarium of the Americas and beyond, making shopping, dining and sightseeing just a streetcar ride away. The Riverfront Line also passes by the famous Riverwalk Marketplace, shops at Canal Place, and Harrah’s Casino. . The Riverfront line was the one I traveled most often, though I wish I’d had time to ride the other two. The fare is reasonable: $1.25 for a one-way trip, and you can also get discounts for buying a one-day “Jazzy Pass” ($3.00 for the whole day) and if you’re going to be in NOLA for a while, consider the 3 day pass at $9.00, or a 31-day pass for $55.00!

Baba Sanyika – Dr. Mtangulizi Sanyika (aka Hayward Henry Jr.) – was the founding chair of the Black Unitarian Universalist Caucus (BUUC) and Black Affairs Council (BAC) from 1967 to 1973, during a difficult and contentious time in our denomination’s history. He presented a workshop entitled “Black Power Challenges Liberal Religion: Fifty Years Later” at the conference, and later delivered another speech the following day to the wider GA audience. To hear about the controversy from one who was THERE was amazing and educational and uplifting, because it helped to center for me my commitment to my denomination and my desire to help us all move forward.

Hiding away from controversy – or worse yet, having your voice silenced or ignored to avoid controversy – is NOT a good situation. During this GA, there was a lot of conversation about the past, the present, and about how we can shape a new and different future. It’s been said that denominations throughout the world are watching what we as Unitarian Universalists do to resolve the controversies and how we act, speak and move with each other.

Baba Sanyika told us of the “Black Empowerment Controversy” that affected so many in the faith. I had just learned about the controversy in my Spring 2017 Unitarian Universalist History course, so this was an excellent follow-up to that course. So many hurt feelings and changes came out of that time period. Unitarian Universalism lost 1,500 members (African-Americans and others), and some were so hurt by the fallout from the controversy that they never returned to the denomination. Lessons are still being learned from that time – and it is forcing us modern-day UUs to take a hard look at the disconnect between the behavior of the past and the principles we claim so fervently.

In one of the denominations I was a part of in my past, this discussion would NEVER have been held openly, at a meeting where several thousand members of the denomination were present. Leaders would not have been questioned or held accountable in the same way – I know this, because while the controversy I lived through was not the same as this one, I remember being told that because I was not a member of the ministry or the ruling class, so to speak, my voice would not be heard.

That is one of the gifts of Congregational Polity – the working principle that members of a UU Congregation can call their leaders to question – no matter how difficult the questions are – and keep on asking tough questions until the answers are forthcoming. It’s not a perfect system yet – after all, there are human beings (wonderfully imperfect) involved…but it’s certainly better than anything else I’ve seen!

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