General Assembly Experience: Allegheny UU's Liz Dell

by Liz Dell, Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church

Because I was raised UU outside of New England, there were not many moments in my youth where I felt as though I was part of a religious culture. I had friends of various faiths, and went to their churches with them to see what it was like, and I could see that as Jews or Catholics or Presbyterians they had a whole world of people who shared the same formative experiences as they did (bar/bot mitzvah, first communion, baptizing, etc.). As a UU kid, I didn't have that. I couldn't talk to people at my school about Flower Communion, or the Coming of Age service, because I would have to explain it to them. So I always had this feeling of being part of a weird sect - like the Jehovah's Witnesses but without the proselytizing.

That is, until I went to General Assembly in 1996. I was 17 years old and my family and I drove from our home in Washington, DC to Indianapolis, IN to attend. My parents were adult delegates for our church and I was the youth delegate. The only time I had been at a gathering of UUs not of my church was at summer camp, so I had no idea what to expect from something that was programmed mostly for adults.

What I discovered was a common religious culture I had been unaware existed. I was in a convention center with 2,000 other people that had been through (or witnessed) the same things as I had. Flower Communion. Ingathering. A Coming of Age service. AYS (now OWL) training. They spoke the same religious language as me, told UU-specific jokes, and sold UU-themed merchandise. The same things that my friends of other religious traditions had, I now had as well. There are not words to describe the effect this had on me. I joked I had "found my people" - but really that's what it felt like. To a teenager especially, that is a deeply profound experience.

I attended plenary sessions and the keynote and understood (most of) them. I attended workshops and understood (most of) them. But the real joy for me was in the deep conversations I had with friends I made during those few days in Indianapolis, some of whom I still keep in touch with almost 20 years later. I had often heard Unitarian Universalism described as a "movement" - a coming together of people to change things for the better. But day-to-day church life, even in a big church, can feel disjointed from that sense of collective purpose. At General Assembly, Unitarian Universalism feels like a movement.