by Rebecca A. Pace
Although covenants receive a major emphasis in the proposed Unitarian Universalist Association’s Article II, at General Assembly (GA) this past June the Moderators and the UUA Board and staff seemed unconcerned with breaking covenants. Before GA started, the Presidential Search Committee violated the association’s bylaws by presenting only one candidate rather than the required two. That set the stage for many more fractured covenants during GA.
Actions taken at GA will have profound impacts on the UUA for years to come. The delegates had two major proposals before them – amending Article II, and a divestment and reparations resolution.
The proposal to amend the Article II bylaws passed. This will only become effective if confirmed by a 2/3 majority at the next GA.
As serious as the Article II situation is, I want to turn my focus to the business proposal and debate. The failure of the Business Proposal for Divestment and Reparations, sponsored by the young adults, was predictable. The young adults see this as a betrayal, a covenant broken.
As background to this proposal, in 2014 the UUA delegates passed a young adult-sponsored resolution to divest 200 major fossil fuel companies (CU200) from the UU Common Endowment Fund (UUCEF). The 2014 resolution included an exception to allow the Fund to continue to hold shares in a company if the UUCEF was engaged in shareholder activism, such as introducing shareholder proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
The young adults grew impatient with the progress of change and felt that shareholder activism was ineffective. The covenant they thought was there, in 2014, was fractured. A group formed, calling themselves Unitarian Universalist Young Adults for Divestment. Their petition for immediate divestment and reparations was supported by 405 signatures from 41 different congregations; well more than the 250 signatures required to place it on the General Assembly agenda.
The business resolution was 275 lines long. It’s clear that the young adults researched the current portfolio investments, but the resolution was seriously flawed. It was obvious to me, in the language of the resolution, that the young adults did not trust the UUA or the UUCEF managers enough to consult with them on a viable solution. I appreciate the young adults’ idealism; however, the actions called for were unworkable and damaging to the UUA and other fund beneficiaries.
The resolution required that the funds from divestment be transferred to an account for reparations to Indigenous peoples, Black and Brown communities, and refugees harmed by the fossil fuel industry. Days before General Assembly, the business resolution was amended to require transfers even from sources legally restricted to other purposes. Only congregational funds would be exempted. If implemented, it would open the fund to multiple lawsuits by aggrieved donors and their heirs.
The hasty sale of securities and distribution of an estimated $13 million dollars from the UUCEF to the reparations fund would have disrupted any investment strategy, and immediately reduced the income generated by the Fund. If the distribution to the reparations fund was spread out over 20 years, the UUA would be forced to cut their budget by $700,000 a year. The young adults seemed to acknowledge these cuts, when they later chanted, “with courage … we will survive this.”
The proposal failed, so why do I think the impact will be felt for years? The young adults who brought this proposal are our future leaders. They may have been naive and impetuous, but they should have been treated with more respect.
The lack of respect burst to the forefront at the beginning of General Session IV on Saturday, June 24 when the Business Proposal was to be discussed. (Note 1) The young adult members of the Care Team called the UUA leadership to account for a broken covenant. The previous evening, moments before the Synergy Bridging Worship Service, a UUA staff member with the Youth and Young Adults Program had been fired.
The staff member’s room keycard was cancelled, credentials revoked, and he/she was told to leave town immediately. There was no indication that this staff member was involved in any criminal or immoral act. The young adult members of the Care Team said that this action was particularly troubling to them. The Care Team members said that they felt “our UUA leadership team’s actions required us to respond.” Further, they said, “this action can be seen as retaliatory.” They closed by reminding the delegates of the pain caused in our community “when covenant is broken.”
At the close of Saturday’s General Session, Rev. Dr. Susan Frederick-Gray, flanked by her administrative team, justified the firing, saying normal processes had been followed. But the young adults claim a covenant was broken. All of this has been removed from the record of the Assembly.
The statement by the Care Team that the action appeared to be retaliatory rings true. The speculation is that the fired staff member let his/her supervisors know that he/she intended to speak on the pro side for the Divestment and Reparations proposal. This action was in direct opposition to the public statement on the issue released by the UUA Board of Trustees prior to General Assembly. Statements by the administrative team implied that the Board’s position had been discussed with the staff member before they left Boston, but the staff member persisted in speaking his/her truth.
Of course, we are left to wonder what did he/she intend to say? How could one young person alone have possibly spoken eloquently enough to clinch the vote for the proposal when trusted professionals were lined up to speak against it? What could a young person have said at the Assembly that would have been so damaging that the UUA didn’t want it to be voiced?
It is ironic that immediately preceding this announcement, an adult member of the Care Team asked that the delegates be gracious about occasional noise and activity coming from the young people among us. He said our youth and young adults are “sacred and holy.” He continued, “We are called to listen and be respectful.” Even that statement has been removed from the recording.
Late Saturday afternoon, at the close of the proposal’s pro and con statements, the young adults again called the UUA accountable for an implied broken covenant. They rose en masse, moved forward with signs calling for “Divest Now,” “Reparations are Accountability,” and “Fossil Free Future.” They chanted the following:
“… In a moment when we are deciding our legacy and our responsibility in the family of things, our impact depends on our willingness to transform. May we respond with courage, integrity and conviction knowing that we will survive this. We have studied our history—both the prophetic and the posturing—to discern clarity and accountability. May we make history anew on the wings of compassion, justice and hope. For the leaders of our faith, for the investors of our resources, for the representatives of our congregations, we pray for bravery in the face of misinformation, manipulation and fear….”
The young adults claim the implied covenant to fight climate change and to fight for justice with reparations was simply posturing. It’s only an ideal, often talked about but never acted on. Accountability is just an illusion.
These idealistic young adults are our future leaders. The youth will remember. The pain from the firing, and broken covenants, will fester even if the young adults come to realize the proposal was unworkable. Have we a lost generation? Will they just be bitter, not seeking revenge, but seeking reckoning?
These are troubled times for Unitarian Universalists. We need greater transparency and grace from our leaders in Boston.
Note 1: “General Session IV,” Unitarian Universalist Association, https://www.uua.org/ga/off-site/2023/business/iv
In the writing of this article, a number of sources on the UUA website were consulted. Those sources have been saved and are provided below.