New Orleans Congregations Take Lead with Local Interfaith Worker Justice

The Unitarian Universalist congregations of greater New Orleans have come together to join in an exciting partnership with Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) and the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. Their joint work has produced a model of congregational and community cooperation that has begun transforming efforts for economic justice in the city. Together, they have opposed wage theft, protested the abuse of immigrant workers and fought the closing of the Avondale Shipyard, the largest employer in New Orleans. The strength of the partnership comes from strong leadership, especially from the Unitarian Universalists ministers and their efforts to communicate and work with their congregations and other local organizations.

Taking the First Steps

The idea of partnering with Interfaith Worker Justice emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The three Unitarian Universalist congregations in the area, Community Church of New Orleans, First Unitarian Church of New Orleans and North Shore Unitarian Universalist were all adversely affected by the storm and joined together for support to create the Greater New Orleans Unitarian Universalists (GNOUU). Soon after, they realized that while their congregations were hurting, there were many in their community who were struggling even more. In response, Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church, and Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, minister of First Unitarian, began new efforts to reach out to local organizations, including the local branch of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ). They found that IWJ organizer, Keron Blair was not only very receptive to a partnership with their churches as their mission is to bring faith and labor communities together, but that he also had a personal interest in Unitarian Universalism.

After some initial conversation, Blair was invited to speak at Community Church, where the congregations’ membership began to learn more about IWJ and its mission. While the ministers served as informal liaisons to IWJ, their congregations began reorganizing their congregation’s social justice ministries. Committees became ministry teams, dedicated to building long-lasting and meaningful relationships within the community. Past interest in charity work began to evolve into deeper concern for larger, systematic issues. All three congregations began emphasizing the importance of strong communication, both within their churches and between them, including new efforts to survey and gauge people’s interest in particular social justice causes. A new spirit was spreading; Liz Trotter, chair of the Community Ministry Team at Community Church, articulated this change as beginning to see social justice “not as work, but as ministry.”

Working Together

As the partnerships between the GNOUU congregations and Interfaith Worker Justice grew stronger, both ministers increased their role in IWJ’s leadership. Rev. VanderWeele became Chair of New Orleans’s IWJ and Rev. Morel-Ensminger its Secretary. Most recently, their work has included fighting the closure of the Avondale shipyard, which employs over 5,000 New Orleans workers. Organizing alongside the AFL-CIO and Save our Shipyard (SOS), IWJ formed the “Prayers for Avondale” initiative, which encouraged churches to honor and support the workers of Avondale during September, 2011. More than 120 congregations participated in the event, which gained public support from a diverse group of communities including the Catholic Church, National Baptist Convention and numerous synagogues and independent churches.

The collaboration between IWJ and the GNOUU congregations also led many Unitarian Universalists to participate in the “Tour of Truth,” an event led by the Congress of Day Laborers and the New Orleans Worker Center for Racial Justice. The event involved a caravan of cars to four localities where undocumented workers were treated poorly and unethically by local law enforcement and by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Participants heard stories of abuse from actual victims, leaving listeners in tears and steadying their resolve to fight injustice.

The partnership between Unitarian Universalist and other local organizations has led to many other collaborative efforts. During a Latino prayer vigil held at the local sheriff’s office, UUs brought supplies (blankets, food, and water) to support the worker’s protest of unfair treatment. Rev. VanderWeele and Rev. Morel-Ensminger regularly meet with local officials and attend city council meetings to advocate with undocumented workers and others to stop deportations and unfair labor practices. The youth of First Unitarian are working with community organizations whose mission is to end homelessness and create affordable housing. In addition, the cluster of churches host the monthly Gillespie Memorial Breakfast that brings together the city’s community organizers, increasing communication and spurring collaboration. GNOUU has also formed the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal, which facilitates social justice work in New Orleans for visiting UUs from all over the country. Volunteers learn about the communities they will serve through trainings and tours and then work with the Center’s partners on a variety of tasks, ranging from rebuilding houses to helping plant school gardens.

Spiritual Focus

The social justice partnership is complemented by a strong commitment to connecting the work to the Unitarian Universalist faith. All three GNOUU congregations regularly invite guests to their congregations to speak on community concerns, both through worship and adult education classes. First Church holds one or two “Labor in the Pulpit” services each year that invite a speaker from the labor community to offer reflections. At Community Church, services contain a segment entitled “Beyond These Four Walls,” which highlights and educates the congregation on the work that the church is doing within the community. Each congregation also includes weekly prayers in their worship, touching on issues of social justice and donating portions of the offering to community organizations. Outside of worship, social justice meetings begin with a centering exercise and opening words and end with a short closing. These practices help ground justice efforts in Unitarian Universalism and imbue it with a sense of greater purpose and commitment. Through cultivating an awareness of their own ‘social location’ within the community, and getting to know and partner with people on the margins in their community, UUs in New Orleans are creating ‘Beloved Community.’ New relationships have been formed and a spirit of care and advocacy is part of congregational and civic life in New Orleans.

Read about action steps for forming a Congregational Community Partnership.

Wage theft protest in New Orelans.

Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of Community Church and Rev. Melanie Morel-Ensminger, minister of First Unitarian, march with Interfaith Worker Justice to protest wage theft.

UU volunteers hold sign for rebuilding New Orleans.