Over the last five years, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura, California has become the leader in advocating with homeless persons in Ventura County. Their exciting and focused work has led to significant progress within their community; from raising awareness to working with local officials on legislative and funding issues. Working alongside the city’s 10-Year Strategy to End Homelessness, they helped secure over $100,000 in funding, established Lift Up Your Voice (LUYV), a non-profit advocacy group, hold annual memorial services for homeless persons and offer guided trips through "Hidden Ventura". Their success can be attributed to cultivating a focused approach to social justice ministry, encouraging a church culture of generosity and trust, and making budget decisions that allow the staff to spend time and energy in support of justice issues.
Taking the First Steps
The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura’s commitment to advocacy with homeless individuals began through a creative worship exercise that gave away $100 bills to those interested in doing something for social justice. Several church members used this money to buy coats for homeless persons and as a result the relationships they formed, began attending meetings of the city’s Social Services Task Force. These efforts coincided with other local homelessness initiatives, which drew attention to the growing challenge of homeless persons in Ventura County. Sensing that there was energy and interest around these issues, members of the church, including the Rev. Jan Christian, began conversations with members of the homeless population. Through these conversations, the decision was made to focus the congregation’s social justice ministry on advocacy alongside the community’s homeless persons by establishing a new non-profit, Lift Up Your Voice (LUYV). LUYV, always affiliated with the church, was established to build a coalition while developing overall leadership to end homelessness in Ventura.
In order to support this new initiative, the congregation applied for a number of grants, including from the Fund for Unitarian Universalist Social Responsibility and the McCune Foundation. After receiving significant funds, they hired a professional coordinator for LUYV, who worked both within the congregation and around the community. Following the grants, the congregation employed “faith based budgeting,” the practice of crafting a financial plan based not on annual pledge amounts but on the vision and hopes of the congregation. The combination of these efforts ensured the continuing success and sustainability of their ministry.
The commitment to social justice was possible in large part because the congregation had worked to transform its culture. They believed that a strong social justice church needed to also be a strong and mature institution, guided by established best practices. Efforts were made to encourage good communication skills, build covenants of right relationship, design policies to limit disruptive behavior and cultivate a general spirit of generosity, giving, trust and accountability. In the eyes of the church’s leadership, this work was essential to the success of their social justice work.
Within the last five years, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura and Lift Up Your Voice have accomplished much, including:
- Supporting Ventura County’s 10-Year Strategy to End Homelessness, where involved seventeen church members attending a city council meeting. There, the congregation encouraged the county to allocate $100,000 to the city’s efforts to end homelessness. The funds were granted.
- Hosting a benefit concert and education event at the church, which received press attention and helped raise money for to support LUYV grant applications.
- Holding an annual Homeless Person’s Memorial Service, which is attended by more than a hundred people each year. The service provides a place to celebrate and mourn the lives of homeless person’s who might otherwise not be recognized. The first memorial service garnered the attention of the McCune Foundation, who encouraged the church to apply for funding.
- Creating a photo project with twelve professional portraits of homeless persons and their stories. This involved relationship building between dozens of members and people who are homeless, as well as helping those who are homeless learn to tell their stories. The portraits were displayed in city hall, public libraries, parks and numerous communities of faith.
- Spearheading numerous public events to raise money and awareness, including One City; One Weekend; One Fund, which raised over $10,000 and a rally at City Hall, which was attended by over 130 people and resulted in a drastic reversal in city policy.
- Sponsoring Hidden Ventura Trips, which provide an opportunity to see homelessness behind the scenes and offered four people who are homeless an opportunity to serve as guides and share their stories. Participants have including elected officials, city council candidates and numerous community leaders.
- Helping create the Pledge to End Homelessness, which all but one local candidate signed.
- Engaging children and youth in social justice ministry through a variety of curriculum. Using theme based programming, the religious education focused for several months on homelessness, including monthly “Service Sundays” that involves projects both within the church and outside it. In addition, the youth of the congregation takes a leadership role within the Homeless Person’s Memorial Service each year.
- Donating every Sunday Offering to social justice causes. In the past ten months, the congregation has raised over $37,000 alone, some of which supports the work of LUYV.
Despite these many accomplishments, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ventura continues to look for new ways of advocating on homelessness. They have recently called an Assistant Minister, the Rev. David Pyle, and hope that further staffing will allow professional leadership more time and energy for social justice work. In addition, they are looking to incorporate spirituality deeper into their ministry. The congregation has been studying Karen Armstrong’s Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life and leaders have been deliberately encouraging time for reflection and conversation following justice events.
Other recent work addresses growing concerns around homeless persons living in and around the city’s riverbed. The congregation is looking to support these individuals when they are forcibly removed from where they are staying. To do so, the church is designing a program to train members of the community to “stand on the side of love” and offer witness and compassion for those being cleared away. The church hopes to partner with other local religious organizations as well as environmental groups, who are concerned about the health of the river. Other current work includes designing new initiatives to support homeless veterans in Ventura County and advocating for a year round shelter for homeless persons.
- More Congregational Stories and Best Practices
- UU Funding Program - Fund for Unitarian Universalist Social Responsibility
- UUA Economic Justice Resources
- UU Church of Ventura - Lift Up Your Voice
- Ventura Breeze: 'Unitarian Church sponsors Hidden Ventura'
- Ventura County Star: 'A time to remember the county's homeless' by Rev. Jan Christian and Beth Sutherland
- Ventura City Manager: 'Room at the Inn?'
- McCune Foundation - 2011 Grant Awards