Nashville, Tennessee, USA – 3-6 October 2019
Report by Mark McKergow
It’s been some 18 months since the previous coming-together in Edinburgh of Sunday Assemblies, with something of a vacuum in large-scale developments. I am delighted to report that the #Reassembly meeting marked something of a new dawn for Sunday Assembly, with clearer expectations and ways forward to develop this movement of secular/godless congregations with our great motto Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.
We met in Nashville, the self-proclaimed and justifiably renowned ‘music city’, at the invitation of Felicia Powers, Brynda Quinn and the SA Nashville community. Assemblies from across the USA were represented, including Atlanta, Los Angeles, East Bay (San Francisco), Knoxville TN, Gainesville FL, Silicon Valley and San Diego CA. Some intrepid UK assemblers also made the trip, including Matt Lockwood (London), Mark Perera (East End), Gareth Dee (Brighton) and Mark Mckergow & Jenny Clarke (Edinburgh). Many of us met up at the Lost Paddy Irish pub on the evening before the event to get the ball rolling. Bizarrely the pub was only allowed to serve high-alcohol beers (>8.5%) due to a mix-up in licences! Oh well… (hic).
The first day of the event was dedicated to looking at how we can all make our assemblies better run, more useful, more attractive and generally better. As ever we started with a song (not one song, TWO SONGS!) from the excellent and highly professional SA Nashville band led by Steven Phelps. It was very moving to hear the keynote from Amy Boyle (Los Angeles) about her journey from starting SA LA in 2014 through starting a family and then being affected by serious illness which has her using a mobility scooter. As one of the original powerhouses in the Sunday Assembly movement Amy summed up so much of what makes our cause wonderful and also vulnerable. So many step forward, and there have been many cases of enthusiasm and commitment leading to burn-out. We must take care to nurture ourselves as well as others as we go forward.
Two rounds of workshops followed, with some excellent topics including emotional resilience, outside the assembly box (building events extending on just the monthly main assembly), leading your assembly organisation as a host rather than a hero, non-profit fundraising, music, storytelling, expanding the assembly structure and secular sexuality. The Trimble House venue worked very well for us, with rooms for each of these along with a refreshment space. All the workshops were videoed and streamed live, a huge achievement by the tech team. While these recordings are currently available to participants and online pass holders, I personally hope they might be made more widely available in due course.
We then entered a period of Open Space, with participants convening discussions on whatever they felt was important about enhancing our assemblies. My own discussion on ‘turning newcomers into regulars’ was very lively and wide-ranging and produced some good ideas including engaging with people first in SMOUPs (small groups), talking with newcomers (but not about SA!), making sure there were spaces for people to make connections with each other, having first-timer coffee tables and using name tags. These discussions were also recorded.
As evening approached we closed up with more singing and music, and then headed out in groups for dinner, while the space at Trimble House was prepared for the annual cabaret – entertainment ‘by the people, for the people’. Michelle Soden was our host for the evening and kept things moving, as around 15 acts took the stage. Highlights for me included Ryan Trout’s beautiful rendition of The Eagles’ song Desperado, Jenny Clarke’s Sondheim sendup ‘Show Me The Doors’ (based on Send In The Clowns), David Lyle’s daughters Mary and Frances performing a violin duet, Gareth Dee’s story, youngster Jackson Powers making balloon animals live on stage, Jen Brown taking on both parts of Defying Gravity from Wicked, and songs from Jared Millet and others. The evening ran on late thanks to last minute co-sponsors Jeff Sargent and Shawn Shih.
We reassembled the following morning for Day Two, with the focus shifting onto looking ahead to the future of the Sunday Assembly movement. A video call with SA charity chair Sarah Morgan in London set the stage, as she updated us on progress with the London charity and its revised aims of simply supporting Sunday Assembly London. Sarah answered questions and was very relaxed and open about wider future developments.
We then moved once again into Open Space, with another two rounds of conversations relating to the future. I joined in with a discussion about accreditation and branding. The old accreditation system is dead, but its aims (to encourage good quality operations and sharing between assemblies) remain important. We talked about the value for assemblies old and new to feel part of, and connected to, a larger thing. Helping new starters is another priority, and we talked about having a ‘create an assembly’ link on as many websites as possible to the new ‘hub’ website run by Ross Llewellyn and Mark McKergow, http://sundayassembly.online.
After lunch the whole gathering convened for a General Meeting, focusing on developing an umbrella body in the USA primarily to support US-based assemblies. The meeting discussed and approved a motion calling on the board of Sunday Assembly in America Inc (SAA), formerly a funding channel, to reconstitute as a representative body of US assembly chapters. New by-laws have been prepared for this purpose. There are many other possible changes which can be discussed and agreed once this reconstitution has taken place – there are changes at SAA which mean that this resolution will be adopted by early November at the latest. The UK assembly representative present told the meeting that while they supported this move, they would not be seeking to form a parallel British/European umbrella in the near future and hoped that routes for wider co-operation and sharing with non-US assemblies could be built with SAA.
Even more exciting news was to come! Shawn Shih announced that SA East Bay were offering to host our international gathering in 2021. But what about 2020? A surprise video linkup with the Netherlands revealed that SA Amsterdam, supported by SA Utrecht, were opening their doors next year on 29-31 May 2020 for the next meeting! Fantastic news. There will be many attractions available in Amsterdam, we were told.
The conference part of the gathering then concluded with more songs (of course) and the assembled throng moved to a non-fire in Long Hunter State Park with hot dogs, marshmallows and campfire singing. (This was planned as a bonfire, but fire restrictions owing to prolonged drought conditions made it into a non-fire instead.)
No Sunday Assembly gathering would be complete without a Sunday Assembly. So we all reconvened back at Trimble House on Sunday morning along with the SA Nashville crowd for a super Sunday Assembly on the theme of Rebuilding led by Brynda Quinn. The band was augmented by an international horn section of Franko Hashiguchi and Mark McKergow on alto saxophones and Ross Llewellyn on trombone. Songs included Some Assembly Required (a Steven Phelps original), High Hopes (Panic At The Disco), Fix You (Coldplay) and Come Alive from the Greatest Showman soundtrack.
The guest speaker was Gayle Jordan, Executive Director of ‘Recovering From Religion’ and styled the most dangerous woman in Tennessee during her daring runs for the state Senate. Gayle gave a very rich and clear presentation of her ‘Nine Suggestions’ for building non-religious community. Gareth Dee from SA Brighton talked about This Much I Know, with learnings gleans on an international backpacking adventure. Aleta Ledendecker from SA Knoxville spoke in the Trying My Best slot, and the whole assembly moved into a potluck lunch and lots of hugs and goodbyes.
This felt very much like a weekend of reassembling, rebuilding and renewing which left everyone there in no doubt that the Sunday Assembly movement has gathered renewed strength and vigour in this new more self-organising phase.
PS There will be a no-charge meeting for UK assemblies in Sheffield on 16-17 November 2019 which will be more accessible than Tennessee for those of us on this side of the pond – contact Mark McKergow or Bill Best (SA Sheffield). All welcome!
Edited 17 October 2019 to correct Jen Brown’s name and clarify the possible availability of recordings, and to add photos – thanks Carl!