Community forum opens dialogue
by Sonja L. Cohen
After a police chase that ended in the death of an African-American motorcyclist in Benton Harbor, Michigan, hundreds of people rioted, burning a vacant house, damaging police vehicles, and pelting police with bricks and bottles. No one was seriously injured, but the damage was done.
In this climate of anger and frustration, the Berrien Unitarian Universalist Fellowship's Community Outreach and Social Action committee sponsored a community forum, “Weighing the Scales of Justice in Berrien County.” This action earned the UUA's 2004 Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action for the 42-member fellowship, which is in neighboring St. Joseph.
Berrien County social justice activist Scott Elliott, in a letter supporting the fellowship's nomination, said, “One of the most challenging and frustrating things is to get people to listen and begin to think about issues that on the surface may not seem to directly affect them. No one, individually, or as a group, has been more effective in this regard.”
The fellowship partnered with a local radio station to cosponsor the citywide public forum for criminal-justice reform. The forum attracted an excellent turnout despite bad weather and was broadcast live on WSJM radio. The goal of the forum, which included a nine-person panel of criminal justice officials and community justice activists, was to examine strengths and weaknesses in the local justice system in order to identify areas in need of reform. Outgoing fellowship president Tricia Johnson said that by offering an open dialogue, the forum helped relieve a lot of tension.
“What's critical to community outreach is that you are there, not just sitting in church thinking and talking about it,” said Emily Bettencourt, co-chair of the fellowship's social action committee.
Committee members have also taken part in other hands-on projects like Habitat for Humanity and the nonpartisan voter registration group the committee initiated, Voters Involved in America.
Johnson said the fellowship's outreach projects have helped make a name for it in the community as a justice advocate.The Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action honors a congregation that has done exemplary work in social justice, and is accompanied by a $500 cash award.