New address: 24 Farnsworth Street, Boston, MA 02210-1409.
by the Rev. Victoria
WeinsteinChanning Memorial Church, Unitarian
Universalist (At time of writing) Columbia, Maryland
So you want to be a social
justice activist. Of course you
do. That’s one of the primary
reasons you got involved with Unitarian Universalism (UUism) in the first place. The wounded world called out to you for
justice, and you ventured into congregational life as a layperson or a minister
in order to answer that call along with others of good conscience and liberal
ideals. So far so good. In fact, so far so wonderful.
However, if social justice work
was easy, and if social activism undertaken in religious community was simple,
the world would be in far better shape than it is right now. What we know, though, is that changing
society for the better—even a little bit for the better—can be a difficult
endeavor even for folks who share a deep simpatico. This article is for you,
ministers all, ordained or not, who dare to do this work together. How can we best nurture a mutual
ministry of activism in our congregations?
Challenge the spiritual/political dichotomy.
How does the relationship between spirituality and social conscience
play out for you? Within our
movement, there has been an unfortunate tendency to promote a false dichotomy
between spiritual and prophetic ministries. The stereotypes may contain a grain
of truth but are decidedly unhelpful.
You may have heard the contentious remarks in your own congregation:
Are these unfortunate prejudices present in your
congregation? Air them out; challenge them. Celebrate the different ways that the
spirit of Justice makes itself known to the many different personalities in your
congregation. Honor various
expressions of social protest; make room for a diversity of styles. Let it be known that your social justice
program is one area of congregational life where all, despite theological
differences, can reach accord and cooperation. Make it a tradition.
end, encourage your members to articulate how their theology informs their
social justice efforts. Even
if you belong to one of the rare, fairly spiritually homogeneous Unitarian Universalist (UU)
congregations, it might be very inspiring to broach conversations about how
religious beliefs influence our approach to social justice work. If we can try to talk about gender
difference, sexual identities, race, abilities, age and class in our
congregations (whether or not we do it particularly well), we ought not keep
spirituality or religiosity out of the conversation.
I attended a protest outside a
Planned Parenthood clinic recently.
A pro-choice Episcopal priest looked around at the many UUs present and
praised our commitment. “God bless
the Unitarians,” he said. “They always show up. The only thing is, none of them seem to
be able to explain why.” The desire
to work for social justice doesn’t occur in a vacuum; it arises out of deeply
held moral convictions and beliefs. If we can work to find theological language
for those convictions, I believe we will have come a long way toward strengthening our
collective religious identity. People will know why Unitarian Universalists have shown
aware of how social justice efforts are
initiated in your
congregation, and how it affects your shared experience of social justice
ministries. Let’s look at
the two most typical scenarios:
(1) Response to cultural or community
crisis: This is a common way for a congregation to become gripped by the
urgent call to social action. A
hurricane sweeps through the area, and the immediate need for food and housing
galvanizes instant response. A gay
teenager commits suicide and the congregation agrees with one voice to support
the local gay-straight teen alliance at the local high school. The minister leaves under a cloud of
suspicion for sexual misconduct, and the congregation quickly comes to the
conclusion that education and outreach about sexual ethics is necessary.
Each of these events, or series
of events, works convincingly on the hearts and minds of Unitarian Universalists
in a way that provides an obvious focus for activism. Such action is often successful,
inspiring and extremely good for the morale of the fellowship or
congregation. The impetus was so
clear! It was so easy to get a majority of the fellowship involved!
absence of such focus events, social justice concerns can become mired in
endless swamps of congregational process: boards, committees, votes,
conversations, consensus seeking—all common obstacles resulting from our
beloved democratic process. We will
suggest some of solutions to this problem later.
evangelism: For clergy and laity alike,
our most compelling social concerns tend to arise out of personal experience.
Thus, we come to the table with a burning intensity to seek justice around that
issue. This intensity can be
inspiring to the congregation, or it may be intimidating. In the latter case, we
may speak of a passionate person as having an agenda. Listen for that word when it pops up in
your congregations in reference to folks with social justice concerns. Is it
being fairly applied? Would it not be fairer to acknowledge that most of us, if
life has touched us at all, do have an agenda?
given time in our congregations, there may be a certain degree of tension or
competition about how to direct the groups’ efforts toward social change. Consider making time available for the
sharing of personal stories of how individuals have come to their political
convictions. During this time of
disclosure, afford equal time for all.
The public expression of these sacred narratives can be very helpful in
alleviating the tension around perceived “agendas.”
Be willing to
hear a variety of voices for social change. Consider: is one
person or group invited to speak out in your congregation far more frequently
than the others? Does one charismatic and persistent individual, for instance,
consistently dominate the social justice landscape? If so, why? Real support for this person’s concerns?
Guilt? Apathy? Appreciation that because this person is achieving so much, “I/we
don’t have to?” How can you gently
but effectively unbind this monopoly in your congregation?
Congregations with a commitment to social justice issues
should assess whether or not a
variety of voices are heard and a variety of causes considered for their
collective enterprise. Is everyone
getting a fair opportunity to promote their issue? If not, is the congregation
honest about the reasons for its lack of support? Perhaps a congregation prefers
to focus on one effort at a time. Whatever the case, allowing a cause to wither
and die on the vine is not as caring a response as a clear “no” or “not right
now.” If a congregation includes social justice work in its long-range planning,
there will be less confusion or hurt about how the community sets priorities in
about the people who take a long time getting “on board” with a social justice
Moralizing and coercion are almost never effective ways to engage anyone in
social justice work. Some folks, no matter how passionately we feel about an
issue, are just not going to care.
Sometimes they will openly object to our efforts. Is there room for this
kind of dissension within your congregation? Or does self-righteousness prevail
over the right of conscience?
Again and again I have seen UUs
turn away from an issue not because they were uninterested but because of the
demanding manner in which it was presented to them. Allow for your congregants to come,
slowly and prayerfully, to their own conclusions. If they are persuaded to care and to
help, they will have done so with their dignity intact. Remember that most “come-outers” to
Unitarian Universalism are extremely sensitive to strong-arm tactics in the
Along this line, we should be
exceedingly cautious not to label persons who come slowly (or not at all) to
sympathetic alliance with an issue by one of the odious “isms”. Words like “homophobic,” “racist,”
“patriarchal,” and “sexist” are powerful weapons in the hands of angry people;
terms that imply terribly serious accusations and implications. Acquaint yourselves with the definitions
of these terms and refrain from tossing them around at the first sign of
contention. Ask yourselves: even if
I believe my detractor to be sexist/homophobic/racist/etc., is my/our applying
that label likely to help them achieve any more enlightenment about my/our
social justice concern? Is my accusation likely to educate them about the issue
at hand, or will it further alienate them from me/us and my/our issue?
Social change is a ministry and
should always be undertaken within the ultimate value of love. Insulting labels are fearful reactions,
not compassionate responses. We can
never fully know why someone has a resistance to working on an issue. Forgiveness and respect for individual
conscience become much more than cliches in this case.
clergy and personal evangelism.
Ministers have a special responsibility to keep lines of communication open
about the scope of their involvement any specific cause. Certainly no minister intends their
congregation to feel abandoned while they pursue prophetic (rather than
pastoral) ministries, but this can be the case. While some congregations call parish
ministers precisely for their impressive background as activists, they almost
never intend that their minister be more devoted to that endeavor than to
A minister needs his or her
congregation’s support in achieving a healthy balance between pastoral and
prophetic work. Most Unitarian
Universalists expect their clergy to be present and attentive to the issues
within and without the congregation, but this is easier said than done. The talented social activist may not be
as adept in pastoral work, and vice versa.
Ministers and lay leaders should not be afraid to name the minister’s
strengths, acknowledge their weaker points, and work to recruit strong social
justice leaders or hire community ministers to augment the prophetic ministries
of the church.
Some congregations prefer that
their clergy focus on congregational issues but fail to make that clear to their
ministers. In this case, congregations may act out in passive-aggressive ways to
hamper ministerial efforts in that arena: controlling the minister’s schedule,
failing to provide administrative support in order to keep the minister “at
home”, admonishing the minister in evaluations for time spent “away” from parish
concerns, expecting the minister to count time spent on social justice work as
vacation or study leave, and so on.
If a congregation does not seem
to be supportive of their minister’s reform work, it is imperative that there be
discussion why this is so. The
problem may not be so much about time commitments as a reflection of deeper
concerns or questions. It may be
that the minister has failed to invite the congregation into his or her passion,
and has unwittingly set up a “sibling rivalry” between pastoral and prophetic
ministries. Similarly, it sometimes
happens that the minister takes such an emphatic leading role in social justice
work, he or she implicitly denies the congregation permission to feel called to
action on another issue. Whatever
the case, minister and congregation must find the courage to explore this
tension together, or they risk casting a pall over the whole social justice
enterprise in that congregation for decades to come.
Make it easy to pursue justice work through
your congregation. Every congregation should periodically review its
bylaws and discuss its practices of approving and funding social justice
work. Look for discouraging aspects
of your process and consider reforming them. Do you require a lengthy congregational
meeting in order to green-light every social justice effort? Is there one
stalwart individual who has a habit of stonewalling such efforts? Isn’t it time
to lovingly confront this person(s)? Do you unwittingly require programs to
compete with each other for a (usually very small) portion of the budget? Do
social responsibility funds get cut first because it’s such a vague line
item? Are all congregants, even
youth and young adults, equally welcome and enthusiastically invited to join in
social justice efforts? Is social
justice work an “insider” activity in your church? If so, discover ways to open
it up for wider participation, even if that means training and integrating
enthusiastic but relatively uninformed newcomers.
Local work may be scarier, but it’s often
most transformational for congregants and society. Over the years, I
have been curious about why so many UU congregational outreach efforts focus on
remote locations and peoples. The
implications of this question are far beyond the scope of this article, but
certainly bear consideration. Is
your suburban community at all involved with “the city next door?” Supporting
our urban ministries is an urgent charge for the coming era.
Use Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) resources mindfully. Our
Association makes many resources available to its member congregations, and they
should be reviewed and considered regularly. Anti-Racism training or Welcoming
Congregation work might be just the thing to start your congregation on a path
toward more active role in society, but be mindful of the assumptions made by
the program and its leaders. If you
have questions, ask your UUA field staff to clarify the philosophy of the
program. They will be happy to help you and to discuss any concerns you may
have. If you choose to engage the services of field staff, do your homework
first. In the interest of morale,
try not to host a major social justice training without plenty of time for
shared congregational discernment, preparation and time to develop an
enthusiastic critical mass.
If your congregation has a strong
tradition of social action, pride yourselves on mentoring other UU communities
in their development of an equally effective program. Celebrate your lay leaders
who are making notable contributions to justice work in the community and in the
Practice discernment rather than debate.
Unitarian Universalists are not always comfortable acknowledging that
our instinct toward justice is an essentially religious one. Although we may hear this principle
preached from the pulpit, few of us have practice articulating our heart and
souls’ reasons for pursuing social change.
Often shying away from transcendent or explicitly religious language,
many of us prefer to rely on the intellectual detachment of statistics, the
evidence of professional researchers, and the testimony of experts. We are more accustomed to debating our
opinions than sharing a period of quiet and careful discernment with others of
Keep the faith. Changing the world changes us. It is serious business. As we walk together the path toward
justice, there will be great successes, and there will be times of great
despair. This is why we dare not
May the Spirit of Justice guide
you, may the Spirit of Love guard you.
For more information contact web @ uua.org.
This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations.
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Last updated on Wednesday, August 24, 2011.
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