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UU Society of Black Hawk County, Iowa: International Engagement
"Notice the embroidered message on the pulpit," Rev. Eva Cameron advises the members of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Black Hawk County in her weekly email update. She is referring to a YouTube video about a children's pageant celebrated at a church in Fuzesgyarmat, Hungary—the Unitarian pulpit cloth reads "Egy az Isten," which translates to "God is One." This small act illustrates one of the many ways in which the Cedar Falls, IA, congregation is promoting the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all.
Admittedly, Rev. Cameron notes on her blog entitled Message from Eva, "we can't always travel to meet our [international] Unitarian and Universalist friends." Thus, the Black Hawk County church invests time and energy into learning about and supporting global justice and Unitarian/Universalist (U/U) initiatives. Every year, the congregation dedicates at least one Sunday to spiritual support as it shares information, blessings and stories from "our cousins in faith from around the world." This past year, Rev. Cameron focused on the Transylvanian Unitarian heritage. What's more, the members take advantage of the unique resources that exist within the congregation. From former Peace Corps volunteers to military personnel once posted overseas, the congregants themselves possess a wealth and breadth of international experience, which they regularly communicate to the greater church community under the banner, "Stories that Changed My Life." On July 27, 2008, for example, Judy Davis presented reflections on her volunteer work with a health center in Kibera, the largest slum in East Africa. Other congregants have discussed interfaith healing and reconciliation in Belfast, Northern Ireland, as well as international assistance to Kenya.
The congregation designates the first Friday of each month as a time to celebrate an international religious holiday with the minority groups in the region. This strengthens local intercultural and inter-ethnic connections and friendships. During these "First Friday Festivals," the church opens its doors to the local community to gather in unison. For example, members of the Turkish community shared stories from their youth in celebration of Ramadan. These personal relationships and educational partnerships help, according to Rev. Cameron, "bring the world to the members of the Cedar Falls congregation."
The most time-consuming and ambitious form of international engagement and justice-making in which the church participates is the Sponsor-A-Student program. The initiative strives to "assist the Education Committee of the Unitarian Union of North East India in running their program to build schools and provide education in areas that are lacking alternatives." Founded in 2002, the program matches UU congregations in the United States with rural village schools in northeast India, thereby encouraging congregants to financially, spiritually and morally support Khasi Hills children. Members of the Black Hawk community, in close association with the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor, MI, have actively assumed the responsibilities associated with such a support network, writing letters of encouragement to the young students and funding their education. Individual church members sponsor an individual student, and so the program is spread out throughout the congregation. This selfless assistance is desperately needed in a region that suffers from abject poverty and a dearth of resources. “In return they receive letters and pictures of their students. This helps an everyday Iowan picture life in a different world with different circumstances. Letters from the teachers, principal, and Khasi Contact person also give them a sense of what the challenges and joys of life are like there. And so learning happens from both sides.” As the Sponsor-A-Student website explains, "These village schools are very basic. Until recently, most did not have an outhouse or bathroom of any kind. Simple window holes with shutters let in air. A tin roof is something saved for. Children sit on benches. Most still have no library or computers. Usually, the schools serve children from other surrounding villages. Some children walk up to 2 hours each way to get to the schools."
Rev. Cameron insists that international awareness and involvement must extend beyond the confines of a select group of two or three dedicated members. While the latter case remains noble in its aims, the pressing importance of global engagement calls for congregation-wide participation in local and international efforts that emphasize the inter-connectivity of a globalized world.
The Office of International Resources at the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has designed the Faith Without Borders program in an effort to assist congregations in creating and sustaining effective ministries of international engagement. Of the seven areas that compose the program’s holistic framework, the UU Society of Black Hawk County demonstrates active commitment to: Spiritual Support, Education, Justice-making and Advocacy, Faithful Stewardship, Associational Leadership.
The Unitarian Universalist Society of Black Hawk County is a 140 member congregation founded by the Cedar Falls Unitarians and the Waterloo Universalists in 1962. Grateful thanks to Rev. Cameron for providing the information in this profile.