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First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque's Anti-Torture Witness
First Unitarian Church of Albuquerque's Anti-Torture Witness
International Engagement & Building Peace

In the fall of 2005, a subcommittee of the Social Justice Council (SJC) of the Albuquerque First Unitarian Church formulated a resolution to end the occupation of Iraq. After discussion with the board of directors, it was discovered that our church had no policy for handling resolutions from church members. The subcommittee then considered using an existing policy requiring the board to call a meeting through a petition process.

However, upon learning of the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT) and realizing that a resolution against torture might have a better chance of succeeding, we shifted our focus. In the meantime, the board approved a policy for processing member-initiated resolutions that, if approved by the congregation, would culminate in the church taking a public position.

After the board decided to implement the new policy, Renee Wolters and Ann Harrison came out of the meeting and Harrison said, "We have to put this policy to the test, and torture is the perfect issue as no one can really be for torture, at least in our church." Our minister suggested requirements to be met in educating church members and publicizing our efforts.

We launched a promotional campaign that included showing videos about the war and torture, with discussion afterward. We arranged three congregational "town hall" meetings in early 2007 to present the case for joining NRCAT, based on our church’s mission statement and the principles of Unitarian Universalism. The high school youth group, at a "con," asked us to present our ideas, which resulted in thoughtful and heartfelt discussion. The following Sunday, they also displayed t-shirts with anti-torture slogans on a clothesline.

We held informal "round table discussions" during Sunday coffee hour to answer questions and we asked members and friends to sign our petition in favor of joining NRCAT. UUA President Rev. William Sinkford and the Mountain Desert District (MDD) Justice Ministries also inspired us. These efforts culminated in a unanimous congregation vote, in April of 2007, to join NRCAT as an endorsing member.

During the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly 2007 in Portland, OR, one of us proposed an Action of Immediate Witness (AIW) against torture, gathered the requisite number of signatures from delegates, and presented the petition to the full assembly. The AIW was passed.

To publicize our efforts and to gather support for NRCAT, we wrote to the MDD member congregations, and were in touch with the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC). The Unitarian Church of Santa Fe, NM, requested an in-person presentation and subsequently became a member of NRCAT. We are in the process of identifying contacts in MDD congregations with whom we can continue to discuss anti-torture advocacy.

The First Unitarian Church’s social justice council purchased a black banner from NRCAT with the slogan “Unitarian Universalists say Torture is Wrong” written in white lettering. We carried the banner in a march commemorating the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq. The banner garnered attention and admiration, and honks from drivers passing by.

In June 2008, we hung the banner in the church. We also hung the banner at the October 2008 MDD conference held in Albuquerque. The hotel staff helped us display the banner where the guests entering the hotel’s restaurant couldn’t miss it.

In closing, it is important to remember that First Unitarian Church congregants:

  • Are not accustomed to the congregation taking public stands.
  • Are concerned about retention of IRS tax-exempt status.
  • Cherish a peaceful atmosphere when they attend church service and dislike divisiveness.
  • Appreciate much discussion and advocacy that relates to the Unitarian Universalist Association principles.
  • Want to know that their neighbor in church will understand their position either for or against the current issue.
  • Want everyone in church, young and old, to be included.
  • Care about each other and our world.

This article was written by Ann Harrison, past SJC chair, and Jane Ronca-Washburn, SJC member. Other significant contributors to FUC’s anti-torture advocacy include Liz McMaster, SJC member; Tiska Blankenship, past SJC co-chair; and Renee Wolters, past SJC chair.

Ann is currently a member of the NRCAT Program Council and is working with the NRCAT Editorial Board. She also received the 2006 MDD Award for Social Justice.