Morales: Our most important product must be ‘acts of love’

Rev. Peter Morales

Before the Rev. Peter Morales, president of the UUA, began his report to the General Assembly on Saturday, he held up a copy of today’s local newspaper with a large photo of Friday’s public witness event. “Anybody see the front page of the Charlotte Observer?” he said. The convention hall erupted with applause and cheering.

Protesting anti-illegal immigration laws in Arizona

“Before I became your president,” he said, “I was a law abiding citizen. I had never been arrested. But last year, about a month after GA, I, along with Susan Frederick-Gray and other ministers and lay people, was arrested down in Arizona in an act of civil disobedience to protest egregious acts which were violating basic human rights.”

“It was a real education for me,” Morales said of spending the night in jail. “Because I witnessed not only the dehumanizing effect of that reign of terror on Latino people in Arizona, but I saw the dehumanizing effects it has on those who are enforcing those laws.” He said the jailers were “hardened, dehumanized” by enforcing Arizona’s anti-immigration laws.

After a brief hearing, Morales said he was released around three in the morning on his own recognizance. Worried about how he was going to get back to his hotel at that hour of the morning, he walked out. “And then the door opened, and there were scores of my fellow Unitarian Universalists,” he said, showing a photograph of dozens of Unitarian Universalists standing outside the Maricopa County jail wearing bright yellow t-shirts with the “Standing on the Side of Love” logo. Cheers and applause greeted this photograph. “And you know what, all of you were there,” he said, “you and generations of Unitarian Universalists were there—because it was our Association, and our great tradition of standing with the disempowered, that made that [civil disobedience in Arizona] possible.”

“But you get a chance to go back to Phoenix for real in a year,” he continued, referring to the justice-centered GA that will be held in Phoenix, Ariz., in June 2012. “And if they thought we were a presence the last couple of times [we were in Arizona], wait until they see that sea of yellow shirts in Phoenix.”

“To that end, we are forming a ministry in the coming year, to get the message out across the country,” he said. The justice-centered GA in Phoenix will work with local partners, under the leadership of the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray of the UU Congregation of Phoenix.

50th anniversary, and coming challenges

Turning to the fiftieth anniversary of the consolidation of the American Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church of America, which this year’s GA celebrates, Morales said this has been an opportunity to look back at the last 50 years, “to see where we’ve been successful, and where we haven’t been successful.”

“What I want to do now,” he continued, “is to take a look and highlight some of the things that are going on right now.” He said also wanted to “talk about where we need to go, culturally and spiritually, if we are going to thrive in the next decade.”

Morales reviewed some of the ways in which the United States is a country that is changing at a rapid rate. While the population over 70 is mostly white, among children under 10 years old, whites are a minority. The country is also facing rapid secularization. Morales said these and other challenges lie ahead, along with “amazing opportunities.”

Speaking of those who have no religious affiliation, Morales asserted that “they want a spiritual community that is free from dogma.” He went on to say, “We can be that organization which feeds the spiritually hungry.”

UUA finances

Morales spoke briefly about the financial challenges facing the UUA.

“It has been a very challenging time for the UUA staff,” he said, as the UUA has dealt with budget cuts and staff cuts. Yet in spite of the cuts, he said UUA staff has continued to provide innovative programming.

Asking the UUA staff who were present to stand, he said, “Let us all thank our UUA staff for doing a tremendous job.” The delegates responded with extended applause and cheers.

Three priorities

Morales said that when he became president of the UUA, he talked about three priorities for his presidency. First, he wanted to create “a new ministry for this new age.” Second, he wanted to ensure growth by ministering to those “who were hungry for spiritual nourishment.” Third, he said, “I wanted to build on the terrific work of my predecessors to raise the profile of Unitarian Universalism.”

To hep create a new ministry for a new age, Morales worked with the UU Minister’s Association (UUMA). “This year in partnership with the UUMA, there was an institute for professional development in California that really blew me away,” he said. In addition to such continuing education opportunities, Morales said, “My dream is that everyone who enters into our ministry attains multicultural competency, and part of that is an experience of another cultural setting.” To that end, he has been working with UU seminaries to send seminarians to Uganda and Haiti.

“We need to recruit passionate and entrepreneurial leaders in the coming generation, and not just rely on divine intervention,” he said. “Most of us don’t believe in miracles, and we shouldn’t rely on miracles to get good ministers and good religious educators into our movement.”

In the area of growth, Morales reported on his Leap of Faith pilot program. “Within our Association, we have amazing congregations. We have the knowledge, the enthusiasm, to grow our Association.” He is helping leading congregations with an established record of growth to provide mentoring “to congregations that are hungry to expand and grow.”

“In the area of public witness and social action,” Morales said, “wow.” He mentioned yesterday’s public witness action in Charlotte for LGBT rights.

Morales then told a story of raising public awareness of the UUA during the civil disobedience actions in Phoenix last year. His assistant at the time, Dea Brayden, was talking to reporters from CNN, and learning that they needed a story to lead off the next hour of news, she wanted to arrange an interview with Morales. Unitarian Universalists had been very noticeable in their bright yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” t-shirts in Phoenix, so she said to CNN staffers, “Do you want to talk with the head of the yellow shirts?”

Relations with international Unitarians and UUs

“As we try to build a multicultural faith, and as we try to do interfaith cooperation, our international partners as essential to this,” Morales said. “We have so much to learn from people in the Khasi hills and the Philippines,” and in other Unitarian and Unitarian Universalist communities around the globe.

Morales turned to the devastating earthquake in Japan earlier this year. “We’ve raised almost half a million dollars that we’re sending as relief,” he said, and much of that relief aid will be distributed through already existing connections in Japan. “What a wonderful act of partnership that we’re doing with our long-time partners in Japan.”

Morales reported that he visited the Philippines in the past year. He said that the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines is “living proof that Unitarian Universalism is not the faith of the urban and highly educated.” He said that Unitarian Universalism in the Philippines is primarily rural, “and they are passionate UUs.”

Where we need to go

Where should Unitarian Universalism go next?

“One,” said Morales, “we gotta get religion. Two, we need to grow leaders, and three, we need to cross borders.”

“What I mean by ‘get religion’ is that we have to release the passion of our people,” he said. “Religion is more about what we love and what we hold sacred than about what we think.” He went on to add, “And religions is not something we we do individually; I would even suggest to you that individualism is the spiritual disease of our time.”

“Two,” Morales said, “we have to grow leaders. Now we come from an anti-authoritarian tradition, and we are nothing if not skeptical about power.” However, he said, “this is not ultimately organizational. Ultimately this is spiritual, my friends: we need to learn how to trust one another.” The delegates applauded this remark. “We need to learn how to identify potential leaders, train them, nurture them, empower them, and we need to let our leaders lead.” Again, the delegates applauded. “Otherwise, we become paralyzed, and our most important product becomes process. [But] our most important product has to become acts of love.”

“Finally,” Morales said, “we need to cross borders, and these are the borders of class and culture.” This statement also drew applause from the delegates. “Ultimately, this is about being spiritually open, and taking risks . . . [and] building relationships with people a little different from us.”

“I ran for president because I had a religious experience,” he said in conclusion. “Lots of religious experiences, really. I got a glimpse of the beloved community. We can be the religion for our time. Let’s get religion, let’s grow leaders, let’s cross borders. And together we can create a Unitarian Universalism that would make our founders proud. Let’s get busy.”

At the conclusion of the president’s report to the General Assembly, the delegates burst into applause and even some cheers.

(Correction 6/26: An earlier version of this article inaccurately described the news story Morales highlighted in his report.)

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