The Challenges of Engaging in Interfaith Social Justice Work
Remarks by Rev. Jan Christian
Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers are required, as part of our preparation, to do chaplaincy training, which usually takes place in a hospital. I went to Ministry Days in Salt Lake City before my chaplaincy began and was delighted to see that there was a workshop on chaplaincy being offered by the Rev. Pat Sheldon. I was relieved because I was facing the prayer part of my chaplaincy with great trepidation. I don't believe in an omnipotent, omniscient being who intervenes in daily affairs. Where would this leave me if people expected me to pray for a miracle? What would I say? I have to be authentic after all. I can't pretend to believe something that I don't believe. Language matters. Fortunately someone else asked her the question I wanted answered. And the Rev. Pat Sheldon answered in a simple sentence: It's not about you. Oops. I keep forgetting that. So, when a patient or family member asked for prayer, I asked about their beliefs and what they wanted to pray for. Sometimes I asked them to begin. I helped them give voice to what was deepest in their hearts. I helped give words to their deepest longings and their worst fears. I helped them speak the unspeakable. Maybe they wanted a miracle. Haven't we all wanted a miracle? We want the pain to stop. We want the dead to rise up again. We want those who are terminally ill to live. We want to be able to protect our children from all pain. We want good health all of our lives. Yes, we all want miracles. And there were moments in that chaplaincy when I experienced that truth that both the scientists and the mystics espouse: We are one. I experienced those blessed moments when all the false constructs which separate us—class, race, gender, age, religion and more—simply disappear. These moments are mostly possible when we join with others who are “not like us.” I was all prepared to get hung up on the beliefs of others and my own beliefs. For folks who claim to be non-creedal, we can put a lot of emphasis on beliefs and disbeliefs. Perhaps the main challenge for us in interfaith justice work is to learn to listen, really listen—to the deepest fears and hopes and dreams of others. We need to learn to translate when we hear the religious language of others. We need to listen to what the words mean to them, instead of immediately assuming they assign the same meaning to a word that we do. These are all skills related to dialogue and these are skills we mostly do not have in our country or in our congregations. We do not know how to truly speak about things which are of utmost importance to us in a way that leaves us open to our own growth and transformation. But we can learn and we can model those skills in the larger world. I also find that we are appallingly naïve and/or ignorant about the beliefs of others. I have had members assume that anyone who believes in God is a Christian. I have had members say that to be a Christian, you have to believe literally in the resurrection. I have had members wonder how it is possible to be a UU Christian. I could go on and on.
These things can trip us up when it comes to interfaith justice work. In fact, they trip us up before we ever get out of the congregation. Because we can also be very naïve about the diversity in our own congregations and in our movement. And we can also be very unwelcoming to diversity in our own congregations.
This may not apply to your congregation, but last January I facilitated a collegial conversation at our PSWD UUMA [Pacific Southwest District UU Ministers Association] retreat about the culture in many of our congregations which is hostile to certain theological beliefs, most notably Christianity. This kind of culture helps keep us small, literally and figuratively, and it does not help us in interfaith work.
In that conversation, one colleague advised us to help our congregations differentiate “belief” from “faith” and “trust” and show that we rely on a shared faith/trust rather than on shared beliefs.
Which brings me to another stumbling block. I still hear members say that they are not religious. I still hear members use the word “faith” only to mean a belief in the unbelievable. Overwhelmingly members are reluctant to speak of their religious values in the public square.
If we are not people of faith, if we cannot articulate what liberal religious faith is and connect our activism to our faith and our religious values, then how can we engage in “interfaith” social justice? Why should we even be at the table?
Fortunately, there are some wonderful UUA [Unitarian Universalist Association] resources to help us do just that. Those resources can also help us focus first on our values instead of our political positions and to tie the two together. This, too, can help us in our interfaith justice work.
Another dynamic that keeps us from even getting out of the starting gate is a culture of individualism. We have lots of folks involved in social action as individuals but rarely are we using our institutional, congregational power to bend the arc toward justice. I challenged the congregation I serve to find one thing, anything, to work on together as a congregation.
That we learn to work together, that we learn to move as one strong body is more important than the particular issue we identify.
A community organizer for the Gamaliel Foundation often ends meetings by asking people to assess the meeting. One question she will ask is: Were you here for yourself or for the group?
We could even ask that on Sunday mornings. Were you here because the sermon topic appealed to you or were you here because being part of the gathered community is important to you and you know your presence is important to others?
Of course we will always live in the tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the group, but I don't think we have to worry too much about erring on the side of the group anytime soon.
We also have a lot of work to do in order to use our power in a mature way, both individually and institutionally. There is a huge difference in standing in resistance to the unhealthy wielding of power and in simply being against anyone in authority. We often wear our rebellion as a badge of honor. We brag that we can't be organized. And then we wonder why we aren't more powerful.
Angeles Arrien points out that those who rebel against authority are often attracted to competent and effective leaders and then seek to compete with them or undermine them. When we allow this to happen in our congregations, we guarantee our own ineffectiveness and fail to live out our mission and promise.
To move beyond this, we need to create cultures which will empower leaders and assume good faith. We also need to have clear expectations and mechanisms for accountability in place and even the words “expectations” and “accountability” are often very unpopular in our congregations. We have to get over that.
OK, I have been hard on us, haven't I? Here is the good news. We have so much to bring to this work. One, we are often willing to engage in self-critique. And our critique is often aimed at culture and larger institutions. We know that personal morality is important but we have a tendency to see it in a larger context. And that is a great gift in social justice work. We aren't just into pulling people out of the river, we want to keep them from being thrown in.
We are also open to wisdom from different traditions. We are used to navigating differences in beliefs in many of our congregations. And we have good news to bring. Our good news is that we need not think alike to love alike. That is a transforming message and the world needs it. And it can be especially handy in interfaith justice work.
There is some other good news which will be formally unveiled at plenary on Sunday but I can give you a little preview. Beginning on July 1, the Fund for UU Social Responsibility, which I chair, will begin making matching grants for congregation-based community organizing. We will make matching grants for congregational leaders to attend training and for congregations to join a community organizing network. This is possible because of the generosity of the Veatch Program. To find out more about grants for your social justice work, please come to our booth or to our Friday morning workshop.
And here is some more good news. We have so much to gain from this work. We long for community. We long for intimacy and for deep and meaningful relationships with one another. We long for meaning. We long to have our lives matter and to make a difference. We long to take risks and to move beyond our fears.
Many people who come to our congregations say they are looking for community. Community is deepest when it is not a goal, but a byproduct of working together for a greater good. And the more difficult that shared struggle, the greater the payoff in terms of community.
Deep relationships are also built by the sharing of stories that matter. Community organizers often begin their work by eliciting and listening to stories. The question I was most recently asked by a community organizer was: Why do you have a passion for justice? Where does that passion come from?
I spoke about having three foster sisters while I was growing up. The first, Robin, came to us when we were both four. She whimpered as she was led to where my mother and I were sitting. She came with only the ratty clothes she was wearing. I remember a little red sweater with holes and ill-fitting corduroy pants. From then on, child neglect had a face on it for me. And I saw that the system that was supposed to protect her and my other foster-sisters did not.
And when I was 16, my brother was killed in Vietnam. The gentlest and kindest person I knew was taught to kill. He was placed in a position that would have required him to stand against his father, his culture, his government and even his church in order to be true to that still small voice within. My pain and anger over this shaped my world view and my life's work.
Three years ago I inadvertently made contact with his Marine brothers, many of whom are still haunted by the day he died. The Marine motto is Semper Fidelis: Always Faithful. These men have deepened my understanding of faithfulness and about what it really means to leave no brother behind. Together, we are living out the good news that we need not think alike to love alike.
Thank you for listening to some of my story. You, too, have your stories. May you make opportunities to tell your stories and listen to the stories of others. May we find new ways to join with others to bend the arc toward justice. Blessings on our work. Together we can create miracles. May it be so.