Social justice work engages, energizes
by Donald E. Skinner
Dennis Dixon, of Tacoma, Washington, remembers the moment that social justice work became real to him. "It was the first time I went down to a soup kitchen to help out. I saw four hundred people standing in line. Just seeing that they were not all the stereotypical down-and-out men, but that many were neatly dressed families with children, brought home to me how close we all are to that edge."
For his wife, Holly Galbreath, her moment came as she was helping organize a local Million Mom March for gun control. "As they read the names of children who had died through gun violence I looked down at my own children and had absolute clarity about why I was there."
Dennis and Holly are social justice committee cochairs of their congregation, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Tacoma. The 155-member congregation's social action has waxed and waned over the years depending on the available enthusiasm; currently it's on the upswing. With new mission and vision statements that call the congregation to be involved in the community, a new minister, and completion of the Welcoming Congregation program, the congregation has found new energy.
In the past year Tacoma friends and members have been helping clean up a local Superfund pollution site, feeding the homeless, and walking in antihunger fundraisers. In the fall many members went door to door in the congregation's neighborhood in an effort to defeat an antigay ballot measure. Other projects planned this year include asking people to give up discretionary spending for a voluntary simplicity week and participating in America's Promise, a national program to help youth.
While many congregations struggle with developing and maintaining strong social justice programs, Tacoma has found its footing. Its minister, the Rev. Ken Jones, says social justice is vital to his congregation's well-being. "If social justice work were not a part of this congregation," he says, "I think many people would feel that the church was an isolated island. Social justice work keeps us connected to the community and to the world, reminding us that for our faith to matter we need to put our values into action.
"People in our congregation see tremendous potential and promise in the talent and energy we have, and in our vision for a better world. But for this vision to sustain itself we need to see results. One comment I hear is when church members are out in the community and discover how many other church members are visible and known as players in the community. It makes people proud to be Unitarian Universalist."
Galbreath had a moment recently when it became clear to her that social justice work was catching fire in the congregation and warming the congregation's spirit. "The minister invited the congregation to attend a peace vigil in Tacoma," she says. "When I got there I found a big percentage of the crowd was Unitarian. It was neat to see that more than the social action committee had come out. It was an example of how slowly, but surely, social action is becoming a part of what we all do."
Further evidence, she says, is that "lots of new people ask about social justice when they come to the church and many have gotten involved with it. Just about every week during joys and concerns someone shares something about a social justice project they're involved with."
First Unitarian Church of San Jose, California, has a rich history of social justice involvement. Much of it comes from its location in an inner-city neighborhood that includes a large number of Central and South American and Asian immigrants. It established a community center in its building and it has a ministry to the Spanish-speaking community, including weekly services in Spanish.
Walking out of the doors of the church into a multicultural environment and being confronted with pressing social needs helps focus a congregation on social justice. So does leadership. "Success in social justice," says senior minister the Rev. Lindi Ramsden, "comes from doing church well, having a strong worship life, and keeping issues in front of people. It's also important that someone in leadership is out in the community connected very actively with social justice efforts so you know what's going on and can bring it back to the congregation."
There had been a social action committee off and on over the years at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Charlotte, North Carolina, but the most recent version of the committee began in 1999 from a class that Wally Kleucker taught on Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States. "Many found that after learning about our history through the lives of ordinary Americans, it almost demanded that a social action group be formed," says Kleucker.
One was. Since then it has gotten involved in movements to end executions in North Carolina and remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. It also created a thriving social justice organization outside the church the Coalition for Peace and Justice. The committee also sponsors an annual social justice conference. Topics have included migrant farm workers, racism, economic justice, and the death penalty. The fourth one will be held in March.
One of those who signed up for Kleucker's class in 1999 was Gloria Kuczminski, who had not been active in social justice in Charlotte.
"I took the class because it seemed interesting," she says. "I learned things that I'd had little awareness of, such as the treatment of Native Americans and the fact that many of them committed suicide rather than become slaves. I have a much better insight into injustices done in this country."
Since the class she has attended a rally in South Carolina against the Confederate flag, joined the Thomas Jefferson District's antiracism program, and become a leader in the Room in the Inn program, which provides beds for homeless people in local churches. Why does she do it? "It makes you feel like you're helping solve a problem rather than just reading about it," she says. "And that perhaps one person, acting collectively with others, can make a difference."
The Rev. Dr. Lucy Hitchcock-Seck was the first minister at Rainier Valley Unitarian Universalist Congregation, formed in 1998 by a Seattle-area cluster of congregations. Because it was created with an intentional focus on social justice, it has always had an outward focus, says Hitchcock-Seck, who last fall became minister at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Miami, Florida.
"Since Rainier Valley was a new congregation," she says, "there was never an argument about whether we should do social justice, as there is in some congregations. We just pitched in. We wanted to be known in the community as activist. It became our identity."
She's continuing her social justice activism in Miami. In one of her first sermons she invited the congregation to take a stand in opposition to an effort to weaken the city's human rights ordinance. "When I suggested it they just erupted into applause," she says. "They were ready to do something. Often what it takes to get something going is one person who is willing to open his or her mouth and take a chance."
Donald E. Skinner is a contributing editor to UU World and editor of the UUA's InterConnections newsletter for lay leaders.