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Rochester Congregation Focuses on 'The Greater Good'

"We have told people, 'Christmas is not your birthday. It's Jesus' birthday we honor.' And while we don't celebrate salvific qualities of Jesus...we do celebrate his human qualities. We think about who Jesus paid attention to, and what he lifted up. And our call—following his life—is to give to needs greater than our own."
—Rev. Kaaren Anderson

Rev. Kaaren Anderson and Rev. Scott Tayler, co-ministers of the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, NY, wanted to encourage generosity in their congregation. Both ministers came from active social justice ministries and had heard of a 3500-member Methodist church in Ohio that asked members to donate half of what they would normally spend on Christmas to charities working with the church. That congregation managed to raise $375,000.

The project inspired Anderson and Tayler, who began thinking about whether such an undertaking would be possible, in Rochester. Anderson said, "We are building a theology for the congregation the more we're here. And one of the aspects of that theology is the call for us, in the twenty-first century, to move beyond the independence model we Unitarian Universalists have held on two for the last couple of centuries and embrace the fact that we are called forward to radically share."

In December 2005, the ministers started raising the question of whether this project would be possible within their congregation. Anderson said, "We did a poll asking what people spent on Christmas and what giving half of that away would look like. We got about a thirty percent response rate and it looked like that group might raise $30,000. Based on the total church membership at the time, we thought that the total amount we might raise would fall in the $50,000 to $80,000 range."

The congregation's social action coordinator helped to identify five groups, both local and international, in order to choose two where the money might make a significant difference. The organizations had to be focused on helping poor people—understanding that this was Jesus' work—with one organization international and the other local. The fact that there had been several homicides in Rochester involving teens in the previous year made the youth and adults want to support a project that focused on that issue. The congregation chose to support "Family and Friends of Murdered Children" and the University of Rochester's Family Medicine Department's work in Honduras.

"We started trying to educate people about this program from September 2006 on," said Anderson. "We talked about what people spend money on when they buy gifts, and what responsibility we have to the community and the larger world, with values that don't contribute to rampant materialism and consumerism that is so much a part of culture." The church used books, discussion groups, gift making workshops, and most of all, education within their religious education program, to help promote the initiative.

Anderson said, "These [conversations with our children] are not always easy. I know that I am amazed at the gadgets kids have...it is a piece of privilege of who they are. Knowing that we are engaged in The Greater Good, one of my children said, "I don't want anything except that great feta cheese that comes in oil. That's what I want for Christmas—cheese with a big piece of crusty bread!' And I have another child who goes back and forth, struggling with what it is that he wants. He has everything he needs and yet he struggles knowing what those around him will get. So I understand this pull and tug."

When the 2006 Greater Good effort ended, more than $75,000 had been raised to be divided between the two charities. Now the program is underway for a second year, with the international program focused on building the relationship the congregation has forged with the rural Honduran village of San Jose. Funds raised will be used to build a house for a Peace Corp volunteer, to meet schooling needs, and to provide latrines, cook stoves, and micro-financing, all of which will enrich, strengthen and empower the lives of about 3,000 Hondurans. The local program for this year is Rochester Roots, which develops self-reliance by providing the education and tools that help low-income people obtain nutritious, locally grown food, through the growth and marketing of urban produce and products.

And how much money will the congregation raise this year? Anderson said, "I hope we beat $80,000." But what I want more is to know that people are cutting everything in half. This is not about topping your generosity, it is about sacrifice and service to needs greater than your own. People can continue to contribute checks for this program until January 1, and I am hopeful—even though we had a huge snowstorm on Sunday (December 16) and our attendance at church was about half of what it should be—that we will beat last year's total." Currently, nearly $59,000 has been received with less than one week to go. The Greater Good will also be featured in a workshop at the 2008 General Assembly in a presentation by Anderson and Tayler.

Meanwhile, the program has already taken root in another Unitarian Universalist (UU) congregation in Medford, MA (see related content).

Why does it work so well? The Greater Good program seems to transcend religious values from many traditions, Anderson said. "I have gotten messages from Christian ministers and UU ministers alike expressing interest in this program. The reason I think it works for UUs is because we have this ambivalence around Christmas: why are we celebrating this when we don't believe that our savior was born? Yet there are packed houses in our churches on Christmas Eve. In our congregation, we are rooting this holiday and our dedication to The Greater Good in the humanity of Jesus...and it has far-reaching aspects and gives deep meaning to a holiday that we otherwise hang on to by uncomfortable threads."

A postscript:  The 2007 Greater Good project in Rochester raised $70,450.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, June 17, 2011.

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