Life Alive – 32nd Unitariertag in Cologne: A Short Report

by Bonnie Friedmann, EUU Member at Large

“Life alive” was the theme of the 32nd Unitariertag in Cologne, a four-day gathering held every two years, during which the Unitarier meet for their general meeting, as well as for worship, inspiration and relaxation together. The event is both very similar to our EUU retreats and also somewhat different. It was my fourth time gathering with the Unitarier (twice for Unitariertag, twice for our joint EUT events), and I came away glad that I could enjoy this motivational weekend and reconnect with many familiar, friendly faces, including that of our own Wolfgang (UURM founding member and member of the Unitarier leadership).

The hybrid event was held at the youth hostel in Cologne where EUU has also had some wonderful events, which inspired the Unitarier to try the hostel for their event. Despite potential challenges with WiFi, the hybrid parts of the weekend went really well, and I hope to share information gathered with our own CC.

Unlike EUU, the Unitarier have the advantage of a more stable membership base with young adults who have grown up in the faith and remain active – about 20 of the nearly 100 in attendance were teens/20-somethings. A major theme of discussion was how Unitarians/UUs can make our faith more known in the world because we definitely have something people are looking for, if only they can find us. Sound familiar? The younger people were very clear that building an online presence is key here.

Bonnie and Inga Brandes on the river bank at Unitariertag 2022

The weekend began Friday evening with singing, sharing the evening meal, a lovely water ceremony, an ice breaker and informal fellowship on the terrace with lovely warmish weather. For the water ceremony, participants brought small bottles of water from a meaningful source and added the water to a lovely big, brass clang bowl with a brief explanation of where the water came from and what it meant to the participant. Small slips of paper were then written echoing those explanations; these were posted on a bulletin board in the main meeting room for reflection throughout the weekend.

Most of Saturday was devoted to their general meeting – four and a half hours of voting and discussion, punctuated by coffee breaks and lunch! It was truly interesting and made me wonder if we somehow need to find more time for our AGMs…a major theme was their “Project for the Future” (Zukunft Projekt), which will be coordinated by the Rev. Rica Kaufel.

Saturday evening was devoted to music, and a good time was had by all.

Prof. Dr. Manuela Kalsky

Sunday began with a morning meditation (“Morgenbesinnung”), followed by the thought-provoking theme talk (“A good life for all – a Unitarian perspective”/”Das gute Leben für alle – Eine unitarischer Perspektive”) given byProf. Dr. Manuela Kalsky, whom some of you may remember from her talk at the EUT in Berlin (2017). Manuela spoke in a thought-provoking way about both the challenges and benefits of connecting with each other as human beings and living out our Unitarian/UU values in our complex, global world.

Sunday afternoon was free for organized or non-organized cultural programs (such as a brewery tour, museum visits, city tour by bus, and even a spontaneously organized self-defense workshop offered by a member with long experience in the martial arts). Shared meals generally spanned an hour and a half, offering plenty of time for informal fellowship.

Sunday, after another shared evening meal, we met for a “Feierstunde” or “solemn celebration” as my dictionary translates it. The hour was led by the Rev. Rica Kaufel, who gave discussion prompts focused on the theme “Räume” (rooms). She posited Unitarian faith as a big house with many different, multi-functional rooms and basically asked us to ponder what we want to give to the next generation of Unitarians. Her talk was followed by the “Bunter Abend” – an hour of “Ratespiele” (guessing games) led by young Unitarier, followed by two hours of rockin’ and rollin’ and dancin’ the night away, which was well attended by both young and old. What fun!

Monday after the usual hostel check-out routine, we all gathered for a “fishbowl discussion” focused on the major themes/questions of the weekend: What does it mean to live in our multi-dimensional Unitarian/UU “house/rooms”? And what are the prospects for Unitarians/UUs to help build the good life for all? We each had 10 minutes for individual reflection, followed by 15 minutes to share our thoughts in small groups of 3 (simply with the people in the rows around us). Then volunteers sat on five chairs on stage and had 2 minutes each to speak and then respond to each other. Audience members could also at any time tap one of the five on the shoulder and take their place. Each question was discussed in this format for 30 minutes. A good number of the younger participants spoke up, again emphasizing how vital it is that people can find Unitarians and have regular contact with each other.  At the end, many voices were heard, and it was also said, remember this is the beginning of the discussion, not the end. It was an excellent format for keeping a large group discussion on track yet open to input from many voices.

The fishbowl discussion was followed by the closing ceremony, a time of singing and summarizing, led by Karsten Urban and Manuela Kalsky, that culminated in adding flower petals to the waters gathered on Friday in the clang bowl and then carrying the bowl in a procession to the nearby Rhein, with everyone singing. The waters were poured into the Rhein to be carried into the world. It was a deeply moving ceremony that felt like both an end and a beginning.

Having the event run from Friday afternoon check-in to Monday afternoon made it much more relaxed than our usual EUU Friday-Sunday retreats. There was also a very conscious decision made on the part of the retreat organizers that “less is more” – they sought to keep things relaxed and simpler, not crammed full like past Unitariertag events.  There were no workshops, for example, but honestly I can’t say I missed them – it felt less overloaded and also felt like there was plenty of input with more of a focus on the themes of the main talks and plans for using those ideas to make the organization stronger. I wonder if we could consider something like this format, along with the extra day – it might mean that some people have to plan to take a vacation day or two from work, but it would also give us more time to appreciate each other and to honor our shared faith in a more relaxed way that then connects more to our lives beyond retreats.

The next Unitariertag will be held in October 2023 on Burg Ludwigstein and the one after that on Pfingsten weekend (17-20 May, 2024) once again in Cologne. The Unitarier would be happy to welcome any EUUs who want to join in. Even if your German isn’t that great, many in the group speak English and are quite open to having us as guests.  Many participants sought me out specifically to tell me how much they value interactions and connections with EUU and hope to continue to build upon our joint values and purposes.

I can highly recommend the Unitariertag as a refreshing and spiritually uplifting event. It offers us a great opportunity to live our values and grow our faith by connecting with like-minded people who appreciate that we have much to learn from each other.