Faith Based Community Organizations Prepare to Govern

By Susan Leslie, Director, Unitarian Universalist Association Congregational Advocacy and Witness

Unitarian Universalists (UUs) engaged in Congregation-based Community Organizing (CBCO) and legislative advocacy from around the country were part of a diverse gathering of 3,000 activists and leaders from the faith community called Realizing the Promise: A Forum on Community, Faith and Democracy which was held on December 4 at the Washington Hilton in Washington, D.C.

The gathering was hosted by the Gamaliel Foundation (the faith-based organizing network that trained President-Elect Barack Obama) and the Center for Community Change, an organizing and funding network established by Robert F. Kennedy in 1968.

The purpose of the event was to meet with members of the Obama transition team and key congressional leaders, to partner together to promote universal health care, immigration reform, and the creation of new jobs. Key speakers at the gathering were Melody Barnes, Director, Domestic Policy Council for President-Elect Obama's White House; and Valerie Jarrett, Co-Chair, Obama/Biden Transition Project (and the incoming White House Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison). Barnes told the audience, "We have elected a different kind of president. The President-Elect understands the hunger you all have for him to deliver on campaign promises. He understands that we are interconnected and the solutions to these various problems are interlocked. We are listening on health care, on labor, and on immigration reform. The first year agenda will deal with the economic crisis. We will not be forgetting health care, education, or the immigrant community. These are all part of the economic recovery that we need. First we need to get past the flawed economic policy of the past eight years."

Many of the speakers—who were faith leaders, national organizers, and labor union heads—cast this moment as the biggest opportunity of the past thirty to forty years. Ana Garcia-Ashley of Gamaliel said, “We need big, bold solutions that create a new economy and expand democracy. To do so we need to organize nationally and move from the politics of protest to the challenge to govern.” Much of the forum sounded the note of moving from the ‘old America’ to a ‘new America’ and called for leaders to ‘realize the promise’ of the new coalition that came together to elect change.

Dr. Ron Trimmer, an African American minister and leader of Illinois' United Congregations of Metro East said, “We were not allowed to sit at the table. Now we own the table.” Rev. Grant Stevensen, President of ISAIAH, a faith-based community organizing in St. Paul/ Minneapolis, talked about the need to engage at a deeper level with politicians. He said, “Politics has become inhuman. Politicians don't get asked what they care about. Democracy is broken. We treat each other as cogs in a machine. We are a blessing and we have an opportunity now to engage at a more human level.”

Valerie Jarrett was greeted with a standing ovation as she addressed the audience. She said, “The challenges are daunting. The opportunities are endless. This campaign was never about just winning an election but about changing this country for the better.” She said that the Obama administration intends to hold Town Hall meetings around the country and to " bring the people's voice to the White House."

The gathering was preceded and followed by several public witness actions: 400 people demonstrated at United Health Care. Another 600 people attended an immigration reform rally where Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) promised to work toward ending the Immigratrions and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and in support of comprehensive immigration reform. Over 700 activists and leaders conducted 178 legislative visits on health care, immigration reform, and the economic crisis.

Unitarian Universalists (UUs) were well-represented at the historic gathering. Among those present were leaders from Atlanta, GA; Pittsburgh, PA; St. Louis and Kansas City, MO; Niagara Falls, NY; Detroit, MI; Arlington, Alexandria, and Hampton Falls, VA; Baltimore and surrounding areas in Maryland. All came with their congregation-based community organizations. The leaders of the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland (UULM-MD) also attended.Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) staff included Susan Leslie, Director of Congregational Advocacy and Witness; Lisa Swanson, UUA Washington Office for Advocacy Legislative Assistant for Economic and Racial Justice; and Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) Washington, D.C. representative Shelley Moskowitz.

Also in attendance, and photographed at the event, were Margery Knight, UULM-MD Interim Coordinator; Rev. Linda Olson Peebles, Minister of Religious Education at the UU Church of Arlington, VA; Susan Leslie; John Gubbings, member of Cedar Lane UU Church; Rev. Mary Ganz, Team Minister for Community Building of the UU Church of Arlington, VA; Rev. Cynthia A. Snavely, Minister, Goodloe Memorial Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Maryland and Administrator for the UUs for Social Justice of the Baltimore-Washington-Northern Virginia region; and Betty McGarvie Crowley, co-chair of UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland.

The Unitarian Universalist Association participates in the Interreligious Organizing Initiative (IOI), which was a co-sponsor of the event. The IOI, which includes Gamaliel and the Center for Community Change as well as ten denominations, other major networks, and funders, is working to both deepen and grow congregation-based community organizing and coordinate action between advocacy and organizing networks on health care and immigration reform.

More Information

A room full of people watch a screen showing Valerie B. Jarrett addressing the crowd.

Valerie Jarrett, Co-Chair, Obama/Biden Transition Team, and White House Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison

Susan Leslie and other UUs pose for a picture at Democracy Days in Washington, DC, December 4, 2008.

Many UUs were in attendance at the event.