New UUSC head brings passion to job
by Donald E. Skinner
Charlie Clements has had a couple of life experiences that have crystalized for him the importance of social justice work. The first came during the Vietnam War when, serving as an Air Force pilot, he concluded that the war he had volunteered to fight in was based on a lie. He refused to fly missions into Cambodia and was discharged.
Another pivotal experience came later, when working as a physician caring for thousands of rural people in El Salvador: He and they were bombed or strafed almost daily by the Salvadoran military as it tried to quell an uprising against the government.
“There were a number of moments when I thought I would probably die,” said Clements. “From those experiences emerged a much greater appreciation of my life and the knowledge that I had survived for a reason. I chose to think that that reason was to continue to dedicate myself to social justice.”
Clements, who has devoted three decades to social justice work, was named president and chief executive officer of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in August 2003. He worked for the UUSC before as director of human rights education from 1986 to 1988. In that capacity he led scores of elected officials to Central America as part of human rights delegations. Additionally, he provided congressional testimony on several occasions.
Clements came back to the UUSC because of the Iraq war. He was on an emergency human rights mission to Iraq a few months before the war started. “I was so angered by the deception that led up to the war and the consequences of the war that I decided I wanted to do more than go on missions,” he said. “I wanted to find a place where I could be a full-time human rights advocate. When I was approached about this job I was very open to it.”
His vision for the UUSC is one of growth. About 10 percent of UUs are members. He’d like to see that grow to 30 to 40 percent and be complemented by non-UU members who are attracted through campaigns about issues such as torture and the right to water.
It will be up to the UUSC’s members to carry its message into the world. “I hope that I can inspire people by helping invoke their hope and their faith rather than their guilt,” he said. “I’d also like for every UU to have the opportunity of participating in a human rights mission or a work camp at which they meet people who they think of as they and have them leave the encounter understanding them as us.”
To create those transformational experiences the UUSC will hold more work camps and fact-finding missions than it has previously. “I hope to take us in the direction of more experiential education, more delegations, more work camps, more encounters where participants actually learn by experience and have an opportunity to reflect on that,” he said. “I still speak to members of Congress I took to Central America in the late eighties, and they still tell me how their lives were changed.”
“What is unique about the UUSC,” says Clements, “is
that we have a natural constituency of a thousand congregations to mobilize.
There are other social justice groups that have interesting missions,
but no constituency. We have a constituency, and that gives us a significant
Clements grew up in an Air Force family and is a graduate of the U.S.
Air Force Academy. Coming to the decision not to fly missions in Vietnam
was a lonely process, he said. Only later did he learn that there were
conscience-based religions that could have helped him with this.
He is the founder of two organizations, the International Medical Relief Fund, which functioned from 1982 to 1998, and the International Commission on Medical Neutrality, an organization devoted to expanding the protections of the Geneva Convention to medical professionals. He is also the author of Witness to War, published by Bantam in 1984 and the basis of a documentary film by the same title.
Clements and his wife, Gigi, met while both were doing work focused on Central America. They have children aged 6 and 8. “I used to be a workaholic,” he said, “but that was before children. Now I work hard and go home to spend family time.”
“There’s a whole lot of need in the world,” he said. “Sometimes I’m discouraged. But I find comfort in words in the Talmud: ‘Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly now, do mercy now, walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.’”
A sense of history helps. “Look at the short amount of time since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was promulgated in 1948,” he said. “There has been enormous awareness of human rights since then and slow but steady progress in setting up the systems that safeguard and hold people accountable including the International Criminal Court and scores of treaties. All of this has taken place in not quite 60 years. It gives me hope.”