Unitarians assemble in S.L. for peace

Published: Sunday, June 28 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

It is not every day a Buddhist, a Jew and a humanist get together to discuss change.

On Saturday it happened as Unitarian Universalists, who also come from many different backgrounds and faiths, met at the Salt Palace Convention Center to "agree to explore truth together," according to General Assembly committee member Beth McGregor from Massachusetts.

Linda Lemons, a member of the Unitarian Universalists, traveled from Des Moines, Iowa, to learn more about what she says is "putting religion in action."

More than 3,300 members gathered for the 48th Annual General Assembly.

"It is a chance to learn, go to workshops together, hear reports about what is going on for social justice and network," McGregor said.

Lemons found the "wonderful and nourishing" workshops bring "a little bit of heaven to earth."

Members of more than 570 Unitarian congregations throughout all 50 states met for hundreds of workshops, lectures and panel discussions. One of the panel discussions focused on bringing peace and doing justice.

"After celebrating my 40th year from seminary, I realized I hadn't taken the time to look internally," the Rev. Stephen Shick said to the crowd. The Rev. Shick said it is important to foster change through spiritual practice and ownership of power.

The Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo, one of the panelists, cautioned the group, "There is no shortage of things that will drag us away or distract us from peace making."

The Rev. Zirpolo spoke about what sustains her to have the continued energy to work for peace and justice.

"I feel small against our world," she said, talking about the obstacles she faces. "I remember the readings and listen to wisdom that calls me to action," the Rev. Zirpolo said. She recounted a story about her experiences helping in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and realized "the need for balance" in her vocational efforts. The Rev. Zirpolo told the crowd it was important for her as a leader of her congregation to find the balance between a "social action passion" and the "unique passions a minister may arrive with."

Panel members discussed their lifelong pursuits of peace.

"Life is the only opportunity we have to grow a soul," said the Rev. Richard Gilbert, one of the panelists.

The Rev. Gilbert spoke of his 70-plus years learning who he is and why he is here on earth. He told the crowd he saw a statement on a hat once that summed up his thoughts, "Life is a journey, not a guided tour." Social action is religious work, said Gilbert, who told listeners they must work for the peace they desire to see in the world.

Peace efforts were spoken of as not only external work. According to panel member the Rev. William Gardiner, they begin from within.

The Rev. Gardiner told about being "an internal white supremacist." Growing up, Gardiner said, he learned of "the great white men who built this nation" and how "he should help those of color" who were less fortunate. It was not until after college and an experience "helping people of color" in Washington, D.C., that he learned to develop what he called an "anti-racist identity."

The Rev. Gardiner said he realized he was not being effective or helpful because of the powerful internalization he had learned all his life.

"I like to think of myself now as a recovering racist," the Rev. Gardiner joked.

There are three ways the Rev. Gardiner said he found to be the change he sought, using accountability, caucusing and staying at the table. "I began following those of color as an effective ally," the Rev. Gardiner said. "I began to reflect on what we were doing." The Rev. Gardiner encouraged people to persevere, or stay at the table. Working for peace, he said, "is going to be rough, and it is so easy to walk away and deny what is going on."

Another panel member, Sharon D. Welch, an author and professor of religion and society at the Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago, talked about sharing ideas with others without anger.

"It took me decades to realize that I no longer trust the rush of righteous indignation," Welch said.

"The basis for justice and peace could be love for the world," she said.

E-MAIL: cneugebauer@desnews.com

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