2016 Bennett Award Recipient: First Parish in Bedford Unitarian Universalist

The 2016 recipient of the Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action is First Parish in Bedford Unitarian Universalist of Bedford, MA. 

First Parish in Bedford Unitarian Universalist has developed a dynamic climate justice ministry with a high percentage of members engaged in blocking a local pipeline, working in Massachusetts coalitions, and attending congregational educational events. There is a clear focus on building the congregation's political power, and increasing the congregation’s understanding of social movements.

Their Climate Justice Group, headed by a paid UU climate organizer, leads the congregation's climate justice work. Full congregational support empowers this group to take principled actions, make sacrifices and take risks—including non-violent civil disobedience. The congregation brought a Resolution Declaring Our Right to a Livable Climate to their semi-annual parish meeting for a congregational vote, and it passed with an overwhelming majority. With that strong vote of confidence, the Climate Justice Group focused on education, movement organizing (with other UU congregations), and campaign action.

In November 2015, five members of the climate justice team participated in an act of non-violent civil disobedience at the construction site of the Spectra pipeline project in West Roxbury. Inspired by the congregation's new resolution calling for a livable climate, these activists and church members felt a call to moral witness against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in Massachusetts. On November 12, 2015, they crossed the barriers of the pipeline site, and succeeded in halting further construction until the police arrived. They were promptly arrested, handcuffed, and driven away in the "paddy wagon." At their January 6th court hearing, all charges against them were dropped, but they were warned by the judge not to expect so lenient a response in the future.

First Parish Bedford reports that, “Everyone is deeply proud of our five activists who placed themselves on the line for what they believed to be right. Our five participants in this act of civil disobedience came from several different walks of life and were a truly intergenerational bunch, ranging in age from one young adult to a resident of a Bedford area retirement community. Our climate justice team is continuing to receive training in effective nonviolent action and preparing for further acts of civil disobedience.”

Despite warnings, a dozen First Parish activists and their minister, the Rev. John Gibbons, were back at the Spectra pipeline in May. A crowd of more than a hundred people joined an interfaith worship service calling for the salvation of our earth through words and songs. After marching to the construction site, clergy trespassed and sat by the gash in the earth where the hazardous fracked-gas pipes will be laid. At the trench, they prayed not only for the earth, but for the construction workers and police whose livelihoods depend on this dirty business. All gave personal testimony to their commitment.

Gibbons, who also serves as chaplain to the Bedford Company of Minutemen, was dressed as an 18th century revolutionary clergyman, complete with frock coat, knee breeches, buckle shoes, and broad-brimmed hat. Likening the fossil fuel resistance to early American resistance to British imperialism, Gibbons exhorted, “No gasification without representation!” Sixteen clergy—representing UU, Jewish, Hindu, Episcopalian, Baptist, Presbyterian, Buddhist, United Church of Christ, and other faiths—were arrested and taken to holding cells in a local police station. Indicative of widespread community opposition to the pipeline, the protesters were treated with the utmost respect, which the police reciprocated. The arrested clergy will go to court in July; meanwhile, protests are escalating and many more will risk arrest.

First Parish Bedford does all their work in partnership and coalitions, taking the lead of those most impacted. They have been marching with those opposed to and displaced by the proposed pipeline in Southern New Hampshire. They are part of MA Interfaith Coalition for Climate Action-Massachusetts, a coalition of congregations and faith organizations working together for a clean and just energy future. They are members of MA Power Forward, a coalition of environmental leaders, community development organizations, clean energy businesses, faith groups, neighborhood health and safety advocates and Massachusetts families. They are strong participants in UU Mass Action, which has a history of mobilizing the 140 Massachusetts Unitarian Universalist congregations around social justice issues in that state. They have participated in legislative actions to make renewable energy affordable for all, including advocating for solar legislation that makes clean energy accessible to lower income families. Members have attended legislative hearings, written letters and made phone calls to legislators, met directly with their representatives and senators, and filed a motion to intervene with the Federal Regulatory Energy Commission.

In addition to educating people about legislative and social actions, First Parish Bedford is educating people about climate change in general. They have held book discussions around This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein and shown screenings of the films Do the Math and This Changes Everything. Public Narrative trainings and World Climate negotiation simulations were offered and well-attended.

Members and friends of the congregation are able to connect in a variety of ways. There are 60 people in the email group and a core of eight to twelve people who show up regularly to meetings. Others march in parades, bike for climate justice, and go to rallies and advocacy visits. Ninety people—about 1/3 of the congregation—showed support for addressing climate change by appearing in the "First Parish Bedford Strongly Supports Climate Action" photo for COP21. The congregation is actively mobilizing other UU churches, and making connections with non-UU faith communities, bringing a strong faithful presence to the movement for climate justice.

The congregation at First Parish in Bedford UU

The congregation at First Parish in Bedford Unitarian Universalist.

Rev. John Gibbons of First Parish in Bedford arrested at pipeline protest.

Rev. John Gibbons being arrested at the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline construction site.

Interfaith climate justice action in Massachusetts.

Rev. John Gibbons and interfaith clergy protesting at the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline construction site.

Clergy and others holding hands at a construction site protest.

Rev. Elizabeth Nguyen and others form a human chain during a climate justice action.