I’ve been hearing stories from different congregations where the Social Justice Ministries are re-inventing and re-invigorating themselves by finding out the potential sweet spot where the congregation’s mission, capacity and will meets the needs and potential impact of the community.
Here is a story from the Rev. Lisa Bovee-Kemper, associate minister of the UU Congregation at Asheville, NC.
Once upon a time… There was a congregation whose Social Justice Council met at noon on a weekday. There were a small group of regulars who came to meet, all retirees but one, who came on her lunch break from work. All of them mostly did their own projects in the name of the church. One day, after a lot of convincing, they decided to change the meeting to a more widely accessible evening time. It took a while for the changes to catch on, but eventually, more people came, and more projects got started.
Then, the Earth & Social Justice Ministry (its name had been changed to reflect the intentions of the group) held an Open Space Technology event with childcare provided, in which lots of congregants of all ages got together and decided what issues they wanted to work on together. It was exciting and inspiring.
And then one day the steering committee observed that it was difficult for parents of young children to participate in the congregation’s justice work, so they proposed a weeknight of action (Action Wednesdays) in which groups would all get together and meet at the same time — that way they could provide childcare, and there would be multi-generational interactions and cross-pollination between groups, letter writing, phone banking, etc.
We don’t know yet if they will all live happily ever after, but what we DO know is that the reason this new thing was proposed is that there was a parent with young children on the steering committee, which not only normalized their experiences, but also put the voice of the need for childcare and other support for parents to be in the room where it happens. Five years from the change of meeting time to this new event. Institutional change is slow, but it does happen.
Abridged Excerpt from “The Future of Justice Ministries” by Rev. David Pyle The Keynote for the UU Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network Annual Meeting 2016
I always default to hope. It is the most constant aspect of my personality. And yet, hope has seemed more difficult these last few days. I could not stand here before you to share about the future of Justice Ministries in our congregations and our movement without acknowledging that hope is harder right now, for myself and I think for many of us. And yet, hope is at the center of what I think religion brings to humanity. Hope is at the center of my understanding of this religious movement of Unitarian Universalism.
And so, it is hope that I am committed to bringing to all of us in this moment when for many of us hope is hard. Hope is most powerful when it is difficult. Hope is most transformative when it is challenged. When hope is easy to hold, we take it for granted. I clearly saw that hope can be taken for granted this week, in that the word “hope” did not appear even once in the first draft of this address, written several weeks ago. I did not use the word, because it seemed to me to be assumed. That early draft took a tone of “of course we are living in hopeful times… we have made progress in so many areas, and conversations that have long been avoided are now being engaged.”
One of the spiritual learnings I have had from this moment in our culture is that we should never assume hope. Hope must be created in every moment. And, as a people of liberal faith, it falls to us to create the hope in the future within this world, more than hope for a future once this mortal coil falls away. We of liberal faith, we are called to be the bringers of hope for this world, in these times, for us all.
And, there is reason to hope. Over my years of serving as a chaplain, as a minister, and as a consultant to congregations, I have come to believe that the opposite of hope is not despair. No, the opposite of hope is apathy. It is the belief that nothing can change. The belief that nothing matters. The belief that nothing can be done. When hope seems absent, the most common reaction is for people to throw up their hands and withdraw. Despair is almost better than apathy, because those in despair still care, and care deeply about the outcome. They are still invested. They still believe in the dreamed of future that hope points us to, even if they despair of finding a path to that future at that moment. Despair you can work with… but apathy?
Apathy is no longer caring. It says that hope is not possible, for there is nothing to hope for. No purpose to hope. Hope is a delusion. Hope cannot make any difference. Apathy is one of the most difficult emotions to work with, because there is nothing to draw someone towards.
And this is why I am hopeful in this moment… because I am beginning to see apathy ending all around us. Not among those of us who already gather in the sanctuaries and basements of Unitarian Universalist churches… if you are willing to get up on a Sunday morning, drive into a church (even if we call it something else), and listen to a preacher talk about who knows what, you have probably already pushed your way out of apathy. You have come because you care. Because we care, we are often the ones feeling despair, when we see no clear paths of how we get to the future to which we have committed ourselves and our movement… the future of beloved community, with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Our challenge is to keep caring, no matter what. From that hope is born.
No, what I see happening around us right now is apathy ending. I see millions of people who have felt as if nothing they did would make any difference, I see them beginning to care. On both sides of the political aisle, I am seeing people awake from apathy to caring. And if they care, then we can be in conversation about what we care about, and where the intersections may be. No such conversation is possible with those who do not care.
In saying that, I do not want to make light of the human cost of that awakening, nor do I want to seem to say that the fear and hatred that has come out of the shadows of our society is somehow a good thing. I will tell you, right now, I’m scared. I am scared for all the people I love who hold marginalized identities. I know that many of my friends and loved ones are scared. I am scared for myself, and for all of the members of our military whom I serve as a chaplain, as well as all the Unitarian Universalists and others out there who have been and will continue to be the target of the racism, hatred, and otherization that has been intentionally released and empowered in our society. People I know and love are going to be hurt. Have already been hurt. Some may even die. Aspects of Justice and of building the beloved community are being seriously damaged. I am scared.
And… I learned long ago that bravery is being scared… and doing your job anyway. Feeling the fear and stepping up to what the world needs from you anyway. If you are not afraid, you cannot be brave.
Hope and bravery… the pastor in me hopes that if you leave here with nothing else today, you leave here centered on these two things. Hope in the inspiration of the Beloved Community that we will build. And bravery for the challenges that lay ahead, no matter how rightfully afraid we are in this moment. And, one more thing… I hope you leave here with an awareness for who we are, and what purpose we, the Movement of Unitarian Universalism, what purpose we are called to play in such times as these.
I will echo my colleague the Rev. Mark Stringer, who said in his Sunday Morning Worship Service sermon at a General Assembly in Providence Rode Island a few years ago that we “Unitarian Universalists are the people who show up”. That when there is a call to something… an action, a protest, a city council meeting, a healing session, a dialogue… no matter what it is, when the spirit of justice is moving somewhere, for some purpose, we Unitarian Universalists show up. We may not even fully know why we are showing up, but we do anyway. We may not have a theology and methodology to justify why we are there. We are just there. Our presence matters more than the why.
I remember a conversation I once had with a Social Worker in Ventura, California, who was a conservative Catholic. As we were talking about how to help one particular family who were experiencing homelessness find their way back into housing, I complimented her on her ability to work with me and our church’s homelessness advocacy program, even though she knew our theologies were so very different.
She looked at me very seriously, and she said, “Well, I learned years ago that you can’t work on Justice in Ventura if you can’t work with the Unitarians. Because you all are everywhere.” We are the people who show up, not just when there is a specific call to action, but also when it is just the every-day work of Justice. Because, one of the commonalities I have found among Unitarian Universalists is that we care. And because we care, we are there.
The second foundation that I think we have brought, and must bring again to the work of building the beloved community, is that we are the infrastructure of the revolution.Michael Moore said that he thanked God for the Unitarian Universalists, because in between all the times that the revolution was out on the streets, it was recovering and being nurtured in the basements of Unitarian Universalist churches. It has happened so many times I have lost count… I would say to some activist that I am a Unitarian Universalist Minister, and they would respond with, “Oh, I’ve been to a UU Church! I was there for a training in non-violent communication and action” or “I was at your church for a panel discussion on low-income housing” or “Hey, you all gave us money to print all those flyers last year” or “I came to a candle-light vigil there when an unarmed black man was killed by the police”.
All revolutions need a sanctuary. They need a place to rest, recover, and organize. They need a place to train. They need a place to build the relationships that hold people fast in the midst of trial and adversity. Our congregations are a part of this sanctuary. We are not the only place, there are indeed other religious traditions that also play this role. But I will make this claim. Of all the religious traditions who serve as sanctuary and institutional support for the work of creating the beloved community, we Unitarian Universalists have a greater ability to draw people into the revolution from the dominant culture than many of our allies do. That is both a blessing and a challenge. It is a blessing in the ways that we can grow and spread the movement. It is a challenge in the ways in which we sometimes express the dominant culture within our efforts for transformation and change. Our work in being that sanctuary is to be of service to the revolution, and to resist the impulse to lead it. We are at our best when we are in partnership and service to the revolution of love and justice.
The third foundation that I think we bring is what I began with. We bring hope. We bring the ability to care about people, the future, and the world. We bring a fierce determination that is rooted in the idea that it is up to us to build the world that we want to live in. A fierce determination that it is our hands that can and will change the world, and a faith that the world can be changed. Our faith is rooted in the here and now… it is rooted in the possibilities within this world. Within humanity. Within our lives and our communities. Unitarian Universalists bring an optimism of immediacy to the revolution of beloved community.
During the work of Ending Homelessness in California, I was sitting with an activist who had fought tirelessly to win a vote in the Ventura City Council. After the vote was taken and we had lost, she talked about her own despair. She then said that the Unitarian Universalists were her inspiration… because we never give up. The moment has stayed with me, for two reasons. First, she was right… my congregation members were standing in the back corner of the room, already planning what our next steps were in light of losing the vote. But second, it struck me that because we would never give up our belief in building a just, sustainable, and peaceful world, neither would she.
We are the people who show up. We are the sanctuary of the revolution. And we are the people who do not give up. And that is who the world needs us to be.
The Rev. David Pyle is a member of the UUA’s Central East Regional Staff, and serves the congregations of the Delmarva Penninsula, Greater Baltimore, and Central Pennsylvania as their UUA Staff Primary Contact. He also serves as a U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain for the 439th Multifuncitonal Medical Battalion at Joint Base Maguire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey.
Following the shock of this week’s presidential election and the social turmoil it has precipitated, UU Churches should expect an influx of first-time visitors and returning old friends. On social media, people are looking for community and are being pointed to our congregations. Gone are the days when a liberals asked with puzzlement, “You’re a Uni-What?”
We need to be ready, this Sunday. We need to be at our best, showing up on the Side of Love, and ready to meet people where they are. We need to encounter one another without assumptions and stereotypes clouding our interactions.
What you can do:
Print and share this 2-sided welcoming tips card with your greeters (both formal in informal) so they can practice open-ended questions.
Add intercultural communication skills to your greeter training, such as this Welcome Table course.
Signal that your congregation includes allies of marginalized groups. Have a bowl of safety pins and a copy of this article explaining what they are for. You may even want to incorporate passing them out as part of the Sunday service of part of our commitment to bend the arc of the universe toward justice, one human encounter at a time.
There can be a significant cultural divide between baby boomers and millennials in our congregations, which is obvious to the millennials, but often invisible to the boomers. I was reminded of this after seeing various reactions on Facebook to a recent article on CNN’s Belief blog, Why millennials are leaving the church, and the video Church Shop created by a group of spirited Presbyterian young adults.
There are two major themes in the message that millennials are trying to deliver.
The first is that the message coming from the church should not be opposed to science nor to lived experience. Millennials understand that they can be spiritual and ethical and believe in evolution and support gay marriage. We Unitarian Universalists are way ahead of the curve on this and are pretty good at saying so on our websites. Millennials should be flocking to our churches, right? They often do check us out if they are willing to give church a second chance.
The second theme in the millennials’ message is the one I want every congregational leader to hear with an open heart:
Millennials are looking toward faith communities as a way of helping them deepen their own faith and to make the world a better place. They also are wise to the fact that they will likely never be as affluent as those born before 1958, but instead of reacting with bitterness or cynicism, Millennials are responding with a creative energy that is outwardly mission-focused and pragmatic.
Here is where our UU congregations often fall short. Instead of seeing the gift that this generation can bring to our faith communities, financially comfortable members often characterize Millennials as a drag on the church because their financial contributions aren’t at a comparable level. Older members might see Millennials’ reluctance to join committees as disinterest, where in fact these young adults aren’t interested in joining committees unless their time will result in some significant mission-focused action. The physical building is not as important as what happens inside, and what happens inside is not as important as how that affects the world outside. The core values between the generations are similar, but the emphasis has changed.
Generational theory shows parallels between the G.I. Generation and the Millennials. Both are civic-minded institution-builders. The G.I. Generation had the resources to focus on the financial, and many church endowments are the beneficiaries of their providence. This new generation will not have the same financial opportunities as their earlier counterparts, but they are creatively meeting today’s challenges with the resources that they do have. I hope our congregations see their potential and help to nurture and support them as they respond to the future with the limited resources that have been left to them.
What does it mean to be a “missional church?” The Rev. Joan VanBecelaere shares her insights after attending a “Change the World” conference at one of the most successful missional mainline churches in the country.
By guest blogger, the Rev. Joan VanBecelaere, Ohio-Meadville District Executive and Central East Regional Group (CERG) Lead
One of the most successfully mission-oriented churches in the United Methodist Church is Ginghamsburg UMC in a semi-rural suburb of Dayton OH. This is the fourth largest church in the UMC, one of the most diverse, and has been widely praised as one of the most influential churches in America by news entities ranging from the New York Times to the Wall Street Journal and Huffington Post.
The 5000 member, 3-campus church is very clear and focused on its missional outreach and message. They run over nineteen different community service ministries in the Dayton area, including food pantries and car, furniture, clothing, medical equipment, pet care, rent/utility assistance and other ministries. They run after-school, mentoring and tutoring programs for at-risk children.
They are currently building 24 houses and rehabbing old ones in some of the most impoverished parts of Dayton. They offer classes on money management, GED, 12 step, employment counseling, English and more. They have started and continue to support $5.6 million in sustainable relief projects, schools and clinics in Darfur, Sudan, and run regular rebuilding trips to Kentucky, Louisiana and Haiti. And a whole lot more. (see their website: www.ginghamsburg.org)
I was at Ginghamsburg a few weeks ago for their annual “Change the World” conference where I learned that this powerhouse church operates its many transformational ministries with a very streamlined, minimalist structure — a 12-member Leadership Board, three on-going committees and a number of teams that come and go as needed to do the work. Just three standing Committees – Human Resources, Financial Resources and Operations. This covers the formal needs of the organization and allows them to maximize energy for mission while cutting way back on the need for meetings. The church also has a 5-member lead staff team that includes the senior pastor, a new church development pastor, an operations exec, a business exec and a discipleship ministries exec.
Keys to Leadership:
There are a also a few simple key components to Ginghamsburg’s concept of leadership.
Healthy churches are reliant on their leaders’ being healthy according to senior pastor, Mike Slaughter. One cannot lead someone farther than you are yourself. Leaders must continually aspire to grow.
Slaughter also urges congregations to be missional rather than attractional. It’s no good to bring thousands of people into the church building, he says, if they are not being changed and transformed. Instead, the leaders must focus the church on the mission, then good news. “If its’ not good news for the poor, it’s not the gospel” according to Slaughter.
At its core, a truly transformational, missional church only works when the leadership lets go of “numbers neurosis” and bureaucracy and frees people to go out into the world and serve without a lot of oversight. The idea is that people are not looking for meetings; they are looking for meaning and are willing to work for it.
It’s pretty amazing to see what can be accomplished with minimal structure and maximum commitment to mission.
Rev. Joan Van Becelaere has served as the District Executive for the Ohio-Meadville District since July 2007 and currently also serves as the Regional Lead for the Central East Regional Group (CERG). Previously, Rev. VanBecelaere was Vice President for Student Services at Iliff Theological School in Denver, CO where she also taught Unitarian Universalist history and polity classes. More…
As election day is approaching, I’m noticing that many Unitarian Universalists are out in the community helping to hold the integrity of the democratic process, a value articulated in our fifth principle; The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large. Voter suppression has been a big concern this election, especially in the swing states, and in states with large populations of people of color. Many UU leaders are volunteering to be poll observers, to help make sure that the right to vote is protected, especially in places where they are expecting possible intimidation of Latino and African-American voters at the polls.
How does one keep calm in a situation where a gross injustice is happening?
I recently re-read an interview with veteran and peace activist Paul Chappell in The Sun magazine (April 2011) and this quote has stayed with me:
What do Buddha, Jesus, Sun Tzu, Seneca, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Schweitzer, martial-arts philosophy, and West Point all have in common? They all taught me that anger is dangerous. Outrage is my conscience saying, This is wrong! When outrage is not supported by a foundation of patience and empathy for both sides, it quickly descends int yelling, resentment, and a shutting down of reason, which doesn’t effectively advance the cause of peace. … The way you get rid of anger is through understanding. As Gene Knudsen Hoffman, founder of Compassionate Listening, said, “An enemy is someone whose story you haven’t heard.”
So how does a leader maintain their “center” in situations that can easily provoke anger? Here are some tips borrowed from Chappel (and from a few others):
Be ready to challenge the underlying myth. In the case of poll observing, know that voter fraud is rare; disenfranchment is less so.
Remain calm. Chappel recommends the practice of developing empathy for the person you are dealing with–to understand the suffering that is eliciting their behavior. Respond to their anger with compassion. Repeat the mantra, I am standing on the side of Love. Imagine them as a small child, before the experiences that brought them to this place.
Speak your truth. Our words are seeds in the world. Some will take root, others will fall on hard ground. But change starts with tension, and our words can help to introduce that tension. I still have phrases spoken to me years ago that annoyed me at first, but still influence my current thinking.
Don’t attack the other’s worldview. Ours is not a faith of coercion, but of mutuality and persuasion. (And seriously, have you ever seen it work?)
Change the conversation. Learn to understand the worldview of the other well enough to find a place of common ground or a common story. Once there you can introduce your own competing worldview in a way that they might be able to hear.
As Unitarian Universalists, we understand freedom of speech and freedom of assembly to be basic to our congregational polity as well as to our understanding of democracy.
The first amendment of the Bill of Rights articulates this right:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
Faithful congregational leaders are committed to transparency and to processes that make space for dialogue from the minority as well as majority–from the margins as well as the center. We bring this ethic to the public sphere as well, in our work–as individuals–in the political arena. This comes from our theological belief that the will of God (or the movement of the Spirit, or the Arc of the Universe) is best discerned by a group of thoughtful and committed people in dialogue.
In my recent visit to West Virginia’s Coal Country, I toured the Whipple Company Store. Hearing the stories of what it was like living in a company-owned town brought to mind this classic folk song:
But the stories of control were not limited to the economic hole that coal miners found themselves in. We learned how the families were treated by the coal companies. The pastors and school teachers were all on the company payroll. The companies hired private police agencies (who acted more like uniformed thugs) to patrol the town. The women were not allowed to handle real money. Since the company store was only open when the men were in the mines, the women had to shop with company scrip–which was worth less than cash–to buy the goods they needed at the prices set by the company.
The women were not allowed to talk to one another in their yards or homes. When they were molested or raped, they had no recourse. They had no privacy: Window shades had to be kept open during the day. If their husband was killed in the mine, the family had to vacate the company house within 24 hours after the burial. The only place women could talk to one another was the company store, where their conversations could be monitored. The store at Whipple was designed like a fortress on the outside with guards posted at all of the entrances. The inside of the store was designed in a round, so that the acoustics allowed a guard posted in the center to hear every word spoken in the space. Any open talk or action toward unionizing was dealt with harshly. Women learned to speak in code, using flower names or quilt patterns to let the others know about clandestine union-planning meetings. Two of the main demands of the union organizers were to protect the privacy of the women, and to decide on their own preachers.
Unitarian Universalist leaders have often been champions of the human rights codified in the First Amendment. My favorite story is of A. Powell Davies (minister of All Souls UU Church in Washington D.C.) criticizing the red-baiting of Senator McCarthy back in the 1950s. But it is always helpful to remind ourselves of the need to protect free speech and free assembly to allow the free flow of ideas in service of the Beloved Community.
I am the keeper of the mountains.
Love them or leave them,
just don’t destroy them.
If you dare to be one too, call…
This past week I visited Kayford Mountain in Raleigh County West Virginia with a group of students from Dalton State College and a group of Unitarian Universalist ministers from the Ohio Meadville District. The visit was part of a coal county pilgrimage organized by the Rev. Rose Edington and the Rev. Mel Hoover, co-ministers at the UU Church in Charleston, WV.
We were supposed to meet Larry Gibson, a well-known mountain top removal activist, but he died on September 9th of a heart attack, less than a month before our trip. Instead, Julian Martin and Wess Harris–both authors, historians and environmental activists–showed us around the mountain ridge where Larry’s family–the Stanley clan–have lived and been buried for over 200 years and shared the legacy that Larry’s leadership created.
Until 1986, the ridge was overshadowed by the surrounding tree-covered peaks of Kayford mountain. Today, what used to be a low ridge is now the highest peak, and the views upward have been replaced by views downward toward bare dirt and earth-moving equipment. The Stanley family ridge is also being coveted for the coal that lies underneath and they have been offered large sums of money for it. An aerial view of the mountain shows that the green ridge is surrounded by swaths of raw dirt.
Without money, Larry found other ways to preserve his family’s land. He couldn’t actually live on the mountain, because there is no drinkable water, but he built a cabin and encouraged other family members to do the same and to spend as much time as possible there.
He built a visitor’s center and arranged tours so that groups could visit and witness the destruction of the surrounding mountain peaks–one of the few places in Appalachia that can provide such a view without being in some sort of aircraft.
After the desecration of his family’s cemetery when nearby coal extraction intruded on his family’s land, he (and others) tried to get legislation passed to preserve family cemeteries…but to no avail.
Larry faced personal danger as he took his stand. He received personal threats. His cabin is riddled with bullet holes. Two of his dogs were killed. The buildings on the family’s ridge were vandalized. Supporters raised $10,000 to install a security system.
Like many activists in the spotlight, (Rosa Parks comes to mind) Larry allowed himself to be the public personality that served as the lightning rod for an issue–in this case mountain top removal. But his death has revealed that there are a network of activists dedicated to continuing his work.
As we Unitarian Universalist leaders look for ways to lead change on social and environmental issues, we can learn some good lessons from Larry Gibson.
I’m sometimes asked about the difference between leadership development in the business (or not-for-profit) world and in the faith world.
I’ve been a regular subscriber and reader of The Nation magazine for almost 30 years. I love the fact that they are independent of most of the news conglomerates and that they break stories that no one else will touch. The articles are skillfully written and their politics are unapologetically progressive. And yet…
There was something missing for me, something that I found when I first walked through the doors of a Unitarian Universalist Church. Issues in the political world (and in the press) are often treated as silos or as competing areas of concern. As a faith community, we are called to approach all of our justice work holistically. The means are as important as the ends — both must reflect our core values.
Even the governance and management of the congregation should be grounded in core values. Our budgets should reflect our mission or purpose statements. Our commitment to diversity should call us to seek ways to become antiracist, antioppressive, multicultural, multigenerational institutions. As a living tradition, our institutions must be flexible for new ideas and new cultural expressions to take root.
Most importantly, I see the need to articulate transcendent values and commitments, so that as we–as religious humanists–bend the arc of the universe, we are doing so with integrity and shared vision.
The fourth stone is the heaviest one for me. Virtue and goodness depends on you and me, on our integrity. An integral part of our freedom is choosing how we respond to our changing context. How does our process reflect our values of shared ministry and transparency?
How do we model our vision of a Beloved Community?
This stone is in tension with the second stone of free and mutual consent. How do we invite others into our vision of the beloved community while honoring difference and diversity? We must guard against letting persuasion slide into coercion.
One way that I think we do this well is when we patiently hold someone in care when they have lost their way. This means we firmly point them in the direction of what we believe is the right while being true to our 7 principles.
There was a recent story in the news that exemplified this ethic about Connie Schultz, a price winning newspaper columnist. She received an email from a blogger from a conservative organization, stating:
We are doing an expose on journalists in the elite media who socialize with elected officials they are assigned to cover. We have found numerous photos of you with Sen. Sherrod Brown. In one of them, you appear to be hugging him. Care to comment?
Dear Mr. [Name Deleted]:
I am surprised you did not find a photo of me kissing U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown so hard he passes out from lack of oxygen. He’s really cute. He’s also my husband. You know that, right?
In a post on her Facebook page, she shared more of the story.
To those asking for (the blogger’s) identity: I figured him to be an intern, as I couldn’t find his name on the staff list of the blog he represented. I’m a mom. I want him to learn the right lessons from this, which won’t happen if I out him.
I don’t know Ms. Schultz’s religious affiliation, but this is a fine example of holding someone both accountable for their actions and in care at the same time.