Monday, June 29, 2009

Delighted with Peter Morales's election win

Over the weekend, the Unitarian Universalist Association elected a new president. Peter Morales — a latecomer to the UU ministry and a former newspaper publisher — was elected with about 58% of the vote. It was the first UUA election in which absentee ballots were cast, and I was happy to cast one of my congregation’s. (The UUA is an organization of congregations, not of individuals; this was specifically established at one point in our history.)

At the end of the General Assembly at which he was elected, President Morales (the UUA’s first Latino president) presided over his first board meeting. Notes from the meeting have appeared on many blogs, and it seems that relations were a little stilted. I’m not operating with any inside info here, but UUA Convener Gini Courter, who was reelected herself, endorsed Morales’s opponent Rev. Laurel Hallman, the favorite of many who might be perceived as an east coast establishment within UUism.

I am sure that the Hallman endorsers will deny that there is an east coast establishment inside the UUA. When I moved to New York from Ohio and San Francisco more than thirty years ago, I could see (and feel!) a real difference in Unitarianism in the east. And that’s not mentioning New England, which is even more different. There are sound historical reasons for these differences and it doesn’t do right by our history to pretend they aren’t there, even though congregations in the far west are just as likely to be in the eastern tradition as they are in the midwestern.* Incidentally, nobody including me is painting this as a sectional upset or anything like that.

I supported Morales precisely because he was out of the mold. The two candidates did not have opposing visions, but their emphases were very different from each other. It seemed to me beforehand that we would be defining our history to date — especially late 20th century events — by the choice made in this election. At left: Peter Morales as a Knight International Press Fellow in Peru.

Peter Morales won my heart with a speech he made in 2006, describing a study reported in the American Sociological Review a year earlier. I will spare you the numbers, but the point was that between 1985 and 2005, Americans lost relationships. That is, they went from having three people to whom they felt they could confide close personal matters, to having less than one. The sociologists doing the study were so shocked by the results that they didn’t publish for a long time, while they reexamined their data.

Or, in Peter Morales’s own words: Hear the cry of pain in these numbers. This study reveals a level of human isolation that is unprecedented in American life — and perhaps unprecedented in human history. Americans are lonelier than they have ever been. The close friendships that are so essential to us are being eroded at a frightening rate. One in four Americans has no close personal relationship at all. Zero.

At the risk of tedium, I will continue quoting. Let me throw just one more statistic at you. At the end of the Second World War about half of all American households had three generations in them. … Today there are almost no three generation households left. The two or three percent of multi-generational households that exist are almost all poor recent immigrants. … Today, one out of four households in American is a single person household. Let me say that again. One quarter of American addresses today has only one person living there. …You and I are relational creatures. We become fully human in a network of relationships. We desperately long to belong. We need community the way we need food and shelter [but]... we have created a society that systematically rips apart human relationships. Yet our need for deep relationship never goes away. Above, standing at left: Seminarian Morales with other members of LUUNA, the Latino/a UU Networking Association.

This oppressive and painful reality presses in on me no matter which of my most important hats I wear. As myself growing older, as the mother of an only child, as a student in ministry, and as an elected official, this social reality is terrible. And the future of today’s reality is even worse. I don’t believe people evolved to live the way Americans do now, and the longer I see myself as a person preparing for ministry, the worse the issue appears.

Peter Morales saw that study and he knew, from his own life and ministry, that it told a real truth. He’s within a very Anglo tradition, yet he comes to it from outside that tradition, which is perhaps why he can see it so clearly. He sees UUs as having good news and wants to lead us to a greater understanding of what we’ve lost, where we can take ourselves, and who we can be for people who need us.

*Mark Harris of Watertown, my UU history prof, told me that one defining characteristic can be that eastern congregations have communion sets. Communion sets! As an Ohioan, I was shocked.

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