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Working together for education, justice, growth
By Donald E. Skinner

When an antigay measure came before the California electorate in 1999, it was natural that UU congregations would stand up and oppose it. And as the campaign progressed, many did, in individual ways.

But then Rob Hardies had a better idea. A ministerial intern at First Unitarian Church of Oakland, he decided to bring congregations together to challenge this issue. "I thought that if we couldn't cooperate on an issue that is so central to our movement's identity, then what could we cooperate on?" says Hardies, now minister at 84-member Sierra Foothills Unitarian Universalists in Auburn, California.

He and another intern minister, Michelle Favreault, brought more than 20 congregations together against the measure to bar same-sex marriage, known as Proposition 22, and raised $30,000 for newspaper ads.

Hardies believes the cooperation was the first time since the Vietnam war that local UU congregations had cooperated on such a large scale on a social justice issue. The result: although the measure barring same-sex marriage passed, the congregations felt empowered by acting with one voice.

One other benefit followed––a district social action committee. "It had been talked about for years, but nothing had ever come of it," says Beverly Smrha, co-executive of the UUA's Pacific Central District.

"The reality is that more and more of our congregations are understanding that congregational independence need not mean congregational isolation," says the Rev. Bill Sinkford, the UUA's Director of Congregational, District, and Extension Services. "Across the continent, congregations are coming together to share their stories, to work for justice, and to celebrate."

When the Rev. Patrick Price wanted to help his leaders at the UU Fellowship of Columbia, South Carolina, "think outside the box," he took them on a field trip to the Eno River UU Fellowship in Durham, North Carolina. Columbia, with 200 members, wanted to grow. Eno River, with 700, had seen dramatic growth.

Leaders from both groups met for a weekend, exchanging information and looking at the larger congregation's programs. "We went there because they were a healthy, growing congregation a couple of steps from where we were," says Price. "They showed us how they did things to grow."

Ten congregations in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area are working together on affordable housing. "This seems to be a compelling issue for UUs here," says Jo Haberman, social justice coordinator at First Universalist Church and a member of the housing group's organizing committee. "When we all got together we realized that every congregation was already working on affordable housing in one way or another. It was a natural issue."

In Edmonton, Alberta, two congregations share a ministerial intern, Frances Dearman. She serves the 300-member Edmonton Unitarian Church and the 40-member lay-led Westwood Unitarian Society. "It's been really successful," says the Rev. Brian Kiely of the larger congregation. "She gets experience with both size churches."

The congregations also have an informal agreement on holiday services. Westwood holds the annual winter solstice service and Edmonton hosts the Christmas Eve service. They also jointly pay for advertising. For an election this spring, the congregations are co-sponsoring candidate forums.

Cooperation takes work. Hardies, with the California Proposition 22 campaign, at first decided not to try to bring congregations together because it seemed too difficult but finally decided it was worth it. He had to overcome skepticism about whether enough money could be raised but was also impressed by how fast some congregations got on board. "That had to do with the fact this issue was already so important to so many churches," he says.

Youth programs are a common area of cooperation, enabling congregations with few youth to attain enough mass for quality programming. In Sacramento, California, the UU Community Church and the UU Society are offering Our Whole Lives, the UUA's sexuality education programs, to their combined junior high groups. The combined group permits a better program than either congregation could have individually.

Youth from three Delaware congregations, Wilmington, Newark, and Hockessin, sponsored a concert, raising $700 for social action projects. The group meets regularly to plan other service projects. "We feel like we're family now," says Becka Reznick, 15, of First Unitarian, Wilmington. "These are people we can really relate to. They want to get really active in community service and church activities now."

An antiracism project initiated by the Clara Barton UUA district has brought three congregations together in Connecticut. The Universalist Church of West Hartford, the Unitarian Society of Hartford, and the UU Society East, in Manchester, held a community forum in September and hosted a "Jubilee World" antiracism program in February.

"The three congregations draw so much energy from each other," says Jeanne Lloyd, who helped bring the coalition together as an internship project for the district. "When congregations work together in their shared community, it makes for a very strong synergy of effort." She is a candidate for community ministry at Meadville/Lombard Theological School.

The Unitarian Church of Sharon, Massachusetts, was given a custom-built church membership database by a member of First Parish Church in Lexington. When the First Unitarian Church of Victoria, British Columbia, decided to overhaul its church policies, it was guided by a manual from East Shore Unitarian Church of Bellevue, Washington. "It helped us enormously," says Victoria's Keith Jobson.

Congregational "clusters" frequently gather to share information. Many of the 10 Pittsburgh-area congregations meet quarterly. In Cincinnati, six congregations meet regularly. Last year they had a combined Sunday service at a downtown auditorium, boosting enthusiasm and self-esteem.

Congregations in many metro areas, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, also share advertising dollars. Some congregational clusters have a common Web site to help prospective visitors find a church.

Some congregational sharing comes from individual yearnings. Marjorie Rice, a professional caterer in the Shawnee Mission UU Church in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park, Kansas, had always wanted to do a dinner and invite the other area congregations. In Kansas City, Missouri, John Blevins of the Fulfilling the Promise committee at All Souls UU Church had been looking for a way to reach out to other congregations. The result was "The Gathering," a Saturday last fall when 70 UUs from six congregations came together at Shawnee Mission for dinner, a songfest, earth-based rituals, and small-group sessions on various aspects of church life. The congregations shared information on membership committee procedures, caring committees, and other topics.

"Everyone had such a great time that now they want to do it again next year," says Rice.

UU World XV:2 (May/June 2001): 50-51.

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