The 2014 recipient of the Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action was the Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron, OH.
Building on a long and distinguished history of social activism and service, the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Akron has a growing and thriving social justice ministry.
Thanks in large part to dynamic partnerships with local organizations, to their focus on three key program areas, and to a hands-on, experiential approach to social action that engages church members across the generations, the Unitarian Universalist (UU) Church of Akron comes together to live out a mission to be “a prominent force for social justice” in their local community and in the world at large.
Although they do not confine their work to their three focus areas, the UU Church of Akron devotes the majority of its social justice energy to Immigration, Food Justice, and LGBTQ Outreach. Focusing on these three areas has transformed the way the church organizes their social justice ministry, moving them from a traditional, top-down social action committee model to dynamic, issue-oriented teams that enable the congregation to connect passion with purpose.
For three years, the UU Church of Akron has worked in mutually beneficial partnership with the Immigrant Worker Project, an immigrant rights organization that provides low or no cost legal, educational, and social services to documented and undocumented immigrants from Central and South America living and working in Ohio. The UU Church of Akron has supported everything from legal services to English for Speakers of Other Languages classes to rides to and from court and detention facilities to immigration reform advocacy. In turn, the UU Church of Akron has been transformed by the relationships that have developed, creating more inclusive worship services, offering new religious education classes in Spanish and immigration history and policy, gaining new members, and more.
In 2012, the UU Church of Akron was certified as a Green Sanctuary and launched a comprehensive food justice ministry to continue their environmental justice work, inspired by the UUA’s commitment to ethical eating. This unique ministry brings together the interrelated concerns of ethical eating, community gardening, the food system, and hunger. The congregation planted an organic community garden on their property with the goal of increasing the supply of healthy food in their local community and also giving the church community a hands-on way to learn about the food system. The majority of food produced by the garden is put toward reducing hunger; the church started a monthly hot meal program when a local hot meal site closed. UU Church of Akron also offers community classes from the Northwest Earth Institute, created a food justice blog, and has engaged in advocacy work around moving the greater Akron area into a more just relationship with food.
The UU Church of Akron’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer outreach ministry grew out of the spiritual yearning to continue spreading the inclusivity they so valued from their journey to become a Welcoming Congregation. This ministry includes participating in the Cleveland Gay Pride Parade and Transgender Day of Remembrance; hosting film nights, forums, and discussions; advocating for LGBTQ equality; and more. Most recently they have focused on outreach to LGBTQ youth. UU Church of Akron, the Community AIDS Network Akron Pride Initiative, and a local PFLAG chapter teamed up and developed the joint initiative Teen Pride Network to host regular events for LGBTQ youth and allies, including an annual Pride Prom.
The UU Church of Akron also has a long history of joining across faiths to work for social justice in their community. The congregation was active in the founding of, and continues its commitment to, the local chapter of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, now known as Family Promise of Summit County—a network of congregations providing temporary housing and support services to families experiencing homelessness. The church also hosts the annual Akron Area Interfaith Council Walk to Stop Hunger.
Jeff Stewart, Coordinator of the Interfaith Worker Project, put it best when he wrote the following in endorsing UU Church of Akron for the Bennett Award:
“Solidarity, in every aspect of the word, is reflected in the church's work with the families who seek direct assistance due to the extraordinary hardships they are facing. You have opened your arms and hearts to accompany these families who are in daily peril and fighting near impossible obstacles. The key to this relationship has not been incredible assistance provided to these families, but instead how that assistance has been offered, walking and suffering together these hardships—deportation, family abuse and mental anguish—with these families. An act of true solidarity because both the members of Unitarian Universalist Church of Akron and these families have been transformed, transformed in ways that will span generations and the artificial borders of countries.”
Social action at the UU Church of Akron is a shared ministry that reflects the values, passions, and commitments of the congregation, engaging a wide variety of people across the generations. Through acts of service, justice, education, and witness, they have made a difference in their local community and beyond.
In the words of Rev. Tim Temerson: “For all that we have shared or given we have received as much or more. We have learned, grown, built relationships, and been transformed. We look forward with gratitude to continuing our shared journey and to doing the work of justice with openness, humility, and love.”
Don't miss the Akron Beacon Journal's coverage of the UU Church of Akron winning this award: "Local Unitarian Universalists Using Social Justice Ministry to Change Lives."