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Main Line Unitarian Church (Devon, Pennsylvania): International Engagement
The Transylvanian embroidered cloth that decorates the Main Line Unitarian Church pulpit on special occasions serves as a testament to the Devon, PA, congregation’s sincere commitment to international engagement. From organizing local efforts to educate members on the effects of fair trade practices and globalization, to embarking on a pilgrimage to their partner church in Várfalva / Moldovenesti , Romania, in celebration of the church’s fiftieth anniversary, MLUC congregants effectively “cross-pollinate”—to use Barbara Weber’s phrase—their participation in a diverse range of globally-focused initiatives. The ensuing environment is one of friendly competition and collaboration, as multiple committees and task forces collectively sponsor ambitious internationally-conscious programs.
The multi-faceted approach taken by the MLUC to partnership and pilgrimage activities exemplifies the breadth of enriching opportunities that cooperation affords such large congregations. In preparation for the voyage, travelers participated in a number of educational workshops throughout the winter, which addressed relevant historical, sociological and linguistic topics. On arrival, congregants visited the MLUC-supported Unitarian high school, and attended services in the Várfalva partner church. The travelers led their own service in the church in Torda, home of the historic Edict of Torda that safeguarded religious tolerance. Symbolically, the trip reinforced MLUC’s fiftieth anniversary mantra: Honor the past, celebrate the present, imagine the future. Looking ahead, the congregation has pledged to financially support an important and much needed community-determined project based on the perceived needs and values of the Transylvanian church.
Spiritually, MLUC offers a variety of multi-cultural and global programming that seeks to ground the often-daunting Otherness of international engagement in the familiarity of the close-to-home. For example, the congregation has created the Multi-Racial Family Project, which allows member families to share their international heritage and culture, as well as that of their adopted children, with other congregants. The church complements this initiative with potluck dinners that center on multigenerational family histories, helping younger members come to understand where they fit into their communities and the world.
What’s more, MLUC’s educational activities aim to cultivate faithful global citizenship, both at home and abroad. The church school program regularly incorporates Social Action Sunday programs led by Task Force activists passionate about their work. Youth programs seek to create cross cultural learning and and serving opportunities for youth. Youth participate in Partner Church trips and trips to New Orleans. Rev. Virginia Jarocha-Ernst, Family Minister says that “ such border crossing experiences are key to developing Unitarian Universalists who are confident in their identity and able to engage proactively with strangers and make them friends.” The congregation has established several scholarships to help youth participate in these trips. When youth and adults travel and work together the intergenerational bonds of the congregation are strengthened as well.
One of the most active elements of MLUC’s international engagement profile pertains to justice-making and advocacy work. The congregation boasts an impressive assortment of Social Action Task Forces. These member-led groups identify pressing current issues of global concern and develop strategies (that incorporate financial support, participation with local and global organizations, direct action, etc.) to remedy injustices. Featured in UU World for its leadership in the microcredit revolution, the Latin American Task Force (LATF) has played an instrumental role in supporting the microfinance movement, which empowers local economies by encouraging lenders to make low, fixed-interest rate investments in poverty-stricken regions of the world. As MLUC member and LATF Co-Chair Mimi Collins explains, “only macroeconomics with development, good governance and education can truly end poverty, but microfinance can lift women up onto the ladder that gives them hope and initiates their journey out of poverty.”
Among other accomplishments, the LATF has funded fifteen banks (geographically ranging from Haiti to Guatemala to Mexico to Nicaragua) in association with the non-profit, microfinance organization The Foundation for International Community Assistance (FINCA). The task force routinely organizes trips to the local villages to monitor progress, as well as provide congregants with the opportunity to witness first-hand the benefit of such programs. In so doing, travelers meet the industrious women who, according to Collins, “learn how to run their own business, develop their self confidence, and use their earnings to put better food on the table and to educate their children.” This personalization of both the reality of poverty and the possibility of a better life humanizes the program and reinforces the image of microfinance as a hand-up, not a hand-out.
Alongside the group’s long-term commitment to such microlending initiatives, the LATF offers ten-day tours of Latin American countries, during which MLUC members confront and learn about socio-economic problems facing those nations. Traveling at their own expense, congregants organized a tour of Cuba in 2003, which deepened their awareness of the benefits of free health care and education, as well as the regime’s harsh techniques of curtailing free speech and political dissent. Furthermore, in keeping with the task force’s dedication to “advocacy, education and awareness,” the LATF supports members involved in ESL tutoring, funding teachers in El Salvador, promoting workers’ rights in Guatemala, to name but a few efforts to which congregants dedicate their time, energy and money.
Other globally-minded task forces include the ECO/Green Sanctuary Task Force and the Peace & Justice Task Force. While the former campaigns against global warming and raises awareness of ecologically harmful practices, the latter facilitates nonviolent social action on behalf of peace, integrity in our government, and justice for people around the world.
MLUC’s Peace and Justice Task Force employs the principles of associational leadership in its efforts to promote diplomacy in Iraq. The group partnered with the UUA in opposition to the American occupation, while simultaneously working with a local Baptist church to organize an interfaith monthly vigil on a high-visibility street corner. What’s more, MLUC remains devoted to increasing awareness of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee's (UUSC's) work around the world by developing religious education programs during the annual Guest at Your Table event and including a monthly column on the UUSC’s activities in the newsletter. As a result, the congregation has more than tripled the percentage of parishioners who are members of the UUSC, according to Casey Gilmore, the Chair of the Peace and Justice Task Force.
From faithful stewardship to spiritual support, MLUC undoubtedly, to quote Weber, “does a lot of work internationally.”