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A People So Bold: Justice and Congregational Mission (II)

General Assembly 2009 Event 3007
UU University Justice Track, Part II

< Part I

“You do not have to see the whole staircase”

Worship was led by the Rev. Marilyn Sewell, Minister Emerita, First Unitarian Church, Portland, OR, and Rev. Louise Green, Minister of Social Justice, All Souls Church, Washington, DC. The music was led by Lenard Starks, Associate Music Director, All Souls Church, Washington, DC. Sewell opened the service with the question “What kind of witness are we?” She talked about our time, money, and what words come from our mouth... or not. In the end there is no hiding from expressing what we stand for and then working on that. She related a story about Alice Walker sitting with a potential publisher of her work. The publishers were pressuring her to make changes and threatened her with a sentence starting “You listen to me...” and suggested that she needed to make some changes. Her response, because she was not willing to make those changes, was to pack up her manuscript and say, “You listen to me, all I have to do in this life is to save my soul.”

Sewell’s emphasis during the service is that we cannot separate ourselves from those people who are suffering. We and they are part of the social fabric. To begin to act is to take that first step. She quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “You don’t have to see the whole staircase to take the first step.”

Meg Riley, Director, Advocacy & Witness in the Washington office of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), next did some framing: this second part of the Justice workshop was about the Hows. It would include more snippets of the videos and references from the book and DVD which will be published this summer, A People So Bold. The brief history of the book and project began in January 2009 when a group of people got together in social justice convocation, to talk about how Unitarian Universalist work grounds them in faith work. The book and this convocation were a partnership between the UUA and All Soul’s in Washington, DC, and engaged 4 UU congregations.

The next few speakers talked about work being done in their congregations around Social Justice and Social Action.

First, Kate Lore, Social Justice Minister at First Unitarian in Portland, OR, talked about the importance of having a covenant that describes how leaders and participants will behave. Social justice is at the core of their congregation with a long history of activism. They are a hub in an urban environment and the community counts on them to do social justice work and give testimony. They decided 11 years ago to ground their work in love and not righteous indignation. Tempers do flair during social justice work and “we are not always kind to each other”. This is when the covenant is most important, when there is conflict and tension. In their congregation you cannot be a leader if you cannot abide by the covenant.

They reach broadly into the community. For example, they hold rituals for fallen soldiers, reaching out to contact the families to let them know this ritual exists and that they and their fallen loved ones are being thought about, and prayed for. Recent conflicts around Palestine deeply divided the congregation with emotions on all sides. They went back to the covenant during this deep conflict. She ended by saying, “Covenants are what allow us to bring our best selves to this work.”

Louise Green spoke next and read a poem she wrote about a tree and it’s analogy for this kind of work. The poem will be part of the book A People So Bold. She referenced the prophetic church and said, “We are all prophets.” She mentioned that “all organizing is reorganizing” and that the key questions to ask are :

  • Who is here—inside the congregation?
  • Who is there—outside the congregation?
  • With whom do we want to build relationships?

If we don’t consider these questions we will be a “a pile of undigested action” and “respond to a true passion of never ending alarms. ” She ended by saying, “What makes a fire burn is the space between the logs.”

Susan Leslie, Director for Congregational Advocacy and Witness at the UUA, spoke next answering the question: What are we doing in the UUA Office for Advocacy? She gave a broad overview of social justice engagement in her role at the UUA, and gave statistics on welcoming congregation, green sanctuary, and the recent social justice empowerment workshops. She said, “We have been getting our houses in order to be able to do this work.” There have been many opportunities to act collectively: marriage equality, save Darfur, end war in Iraq. Many congregations have become members of interfaith organizations in their communities. She remarked that many congregations have taken seriously the challenge from last year’s Ware lecturer, Van Jones.

We then heard three congregational stories about members of these churches who, in a very short time, have reorganized how their members view and do social justice/social action work.

Wendy Von Zirpolo, Marblehead, Massachusetts, talked about how her congregation radically changed how they do this work. The pivotal part of the transformation happened during one of their multiple trips to do work in the Gulf Coast. Her three components for a Social Justice/Social Action program are:

  • Location of social action with religious identity—rather than social action being people’s pet projects, the challenge is to move the congregation to equate membership as signing on to a Social Action Committee of the whole. Each of them holds social action as theologically central to one’s faith development and salvation.
  • Integrated into whole lives—a typical example for Wendy’s church was engaging the larger congregation when they returned from trips to the Gulf Coast. Optimally they engaged others in the next trip to New Orleans. Most recently, their youth learned to lobby around many issues. Wendy said “When we are done, a visitor will come in and truly see social action is central to our faith and experience an invitation to come on in and help us change the world.”
  • Evangelism—gasp! On their first few trip to New Orleans, when connecting with home owners they did not mention their denomination, their beliefs, principles or values. Soon on those trips their logo were plastered all over the vans. Participants talked to those they met on later trips about Unitarian Universalism and our principles. Evangelism is now central to their faith development.

The Rev. Carol Hepokoski from First Unitarian Universalist in Rochester, MN, spoke next. Theirs is the third largest city in Minnesota with a population of 100,000. Social justice is a spiritual journey for the congregation. They have tried to develop a balanced social justice program with multiple components: service, education, witness, advocacy and community organizing. In February 2008 they had the first Social Justice Empowerment workshop—with over one-fourth of the congregation participating. She closed by saying that this journey has been like popcorn in the congregation.

The last presenter was Janice Marie Johnson, Director of Lifespan Religious Education at the Community Church of New York. She told the participants about an incredible timeline of a program that has been implemented in less than 1 year. They collaborated with Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Greenwich Village. Their emphasis was “don’t reinvent the wheel, and go where others are doing similar work.” Their planning retreat was in August 2008 where they identified the plight of immigrants, an area where they wanted to make a difference and explore. They approached Judson for guidance and invited one of Judson’s members to come to their church located in Midtown, and explore possibilities with Community Church. In an afternoon forum they shared stories of immigrant families being torn apart by unjust deportation. With the implicit obligation to welcome strangers at our door they wanted to become a New Sanctuary Congregation. In March 2009 congregational meeting they proposed that the congregational think about becoming a New Sanctuary. There was, in Janice’s words, a “fervent wish to become a New Sanctuary. ” There is a “crying need” in New York City to aid immigrants who have come to the U.S. for opportunities. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has threatened to break up families by deporting immigrants, many of who have citizen children. After not that much time. With great communication and disseminating of information, Community Church voted, 72—2, to become a New Sanctuary congregation. As a multi-generational activity, the Religious Education program and adults worked, with construction paper, glitter and glue, to create paper hearts with messages for more humane immigration, and sent these hearts with cover letters to all member of Congress. Their first opportunity was a Jamaican family who faced deportation and the breaking up of their family. In May 2009 they connected with seminarians at Union Theological Seminary about their work, and in fall 2009, Union students will offer support working with ICE on many of the immigrant deportation issues.

After a break, a resource fair was set up. Round tables with leaders were in a break out room and the lobby of the convention center. Participants were guided to choose from a wide choice, to go consult with people at 3 different tables during 3 rounds. The resource fair buzzed at these tables, as experts shared their advice and participants soaked all the best practices in to take back to their congregations.

The session closed with another worship, and wonderful music. Participants left ready to shake up their social justice congregational world when they return home.

Reported by Sally Russell; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.