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UUs raise funds for Filipino church

An American minister, filmmaker, and swimmer pool their talents for the UU Church of the Philippines.
By Julia Angley

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Rev. Rebecca Quimada-Sienes

The Rev. Rebecca Quimada-Sienes is president of the UU Church of the Philippines. (Len Pellettieri)

The Rev. Fredric John Muir, of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, Md., wrote a book and sent a copy to every minister in the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Len Pellettieri of the First UU Church of San Diego, Calif., worked for 10 months to produce a 15-minute informational video.

And Lee Boeke Burke of the Fox Valley UU Fellowship in Appleton, Wisc., is training to swim 1.25 miles across San Francisco Bay in September.

Each of them has donated time and talent to raising awareness about the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines (UUCP).

Muir, Pellettieri, and Burke are all members of the fundraising committee for a project called BUILD: Build Unitarian Universalism, Inspire, Lead, Develop. The project, created by the UUCP, seeks to construct a dormitory for women in Dumaguete City, on the island of Negros in the Philippines. The dormitory will provide safe, affordable housing for female students, and it is designed to be economically sustainable, with profits going to the UUCP. Currently, the UUCP relies heavily on grants from the UUA, but the BUILD project will provide a source of income that can help the church become financially independent.

Muir has been involved with the UUCP since 1990, when he made his first trip to the Philippines as part of the research for his thesis on liberation theology. Now, as a church ambassador, he returns every three years. He spent three months on sabbatical* researching the history of Unitarian Universalism in the Philippines, and he wrote a book titled Maglipay Universalist (2001), meaning “Be joyful, Universalist.” Muir links Unitarian Universalism to the theology of Dr. Jose Rizal (1891-1896), widely considered a national hero of the Philippines, and Muir recounts the UUCP’s founding in 1955 by the Rev. Toribio Quimada. Quimada is the father of the Rev. Rebecca Quimada-Sienes, the current president of the UUCP and fundraising coordinator for BUILD.

In 2008, Muir distributed Maglipay Universalist to UU ministers around the United States. Muir asked ministers to deliver sermons on the history of the UUCP and its current efforts to become financially sustainable. He also asked that churches start up collections.

But no money came in. Muir attributed the lack of response to the downturn of the American economy, as well as the lack of knowledge about the cause. Muir admitted to knowing very little about the Philippines and the UU presence there until his arrival in Negros in 1990. This kind of general ignorance, he says, is hard to overcome, especially when the people who need the money are so far away.

But, with increased efforts, members of the fundraising committee are finding ways to raise awareness and funds.

Pellettieri’s first trip to the Philippines was more than 50 years ago, when he traveled there as a Peace Corps volunteer. When, in 2006, a member of his church proposed partnering the San Diego church with one of the 29 UU congregations in the Philippines, Pellettieri was intrigued. He spent the next few years visiting and becoming involved with various congregations of the UUCP.

In 2010, he began work on an informational video. Pellettieri wanted to present the information in Muir’s book in an accessible way, to reach out to the Filipinos and UUs in San Diego and around the country. The 15-minute film includes dramatizations of the life and teachings of Rizal and Quimada. The film, completed earlier this year, hasn’t received as much attention as Pellettieri would have liked, but he remains hopeful that it can play its part in raising awareness about the UUCP.

Burke first began working with the UUA’s Partner Church Council in 2000, and became involved with the UUCP in 2007. Burke is a lifelong swimmer, and has found a way to pair her enthusiasm for open water with her commitment to BUILD. On September 17, she will swim 1.25 miles across the frigid San Francisco Bay. “I really hope it will inspire people to learn more about the BUILD project and UUCP,” says Burke.

She’s set a fundraising goal of $25,000, and asks her sponsors to chip in at least $20—$4 per quarter mile—toward the cause. Burke hasn’t seen a great deal of money come in yet, but she has sponsors who are willing to match her first $5,000. Large donations give her hope, and a reason to keep jumping into Lake Superior, where she does most of her training.

Muir has new plans, too. Recognizing that people are more responsive when they have a cause they can identify with, he hopes to sponsor a speaking tour for the Rev. Nihal Attanayake, head of the Faith in Action program and International Relations Officer for the UUCP. Attanayake’s tour would take him to UU congregations in the United States to speak about the UUCP, providing a face for the BUILD project that could help inspire donations. “It’s always easier to raise money when you’ve got an example of the program right there in front of you,” says Muir.

The BUILD project, with a goal of $400,000, has raised around $40,000, only a tenth of the amount needed to start construction. Muir acknowledges that it will be a long-term project, perhaps five or 10 years. “People get excited, but when you’re this far away, it’s hard,” Muir said. (Donations can be given online at uucpdorm.com.)

Burke hopes to see a leap in progress as her September swim approaches, but reports that she’s on the BUILD committee for “as long as it takes.” BUILD may have had a slow start, but its participants display an unwavering passion and dedication to the project.

For Pellettieri, the hard work is worth the reward. “I experience joy and a feeling like my life is significant,” he says about his work with BUILD and the UUCP. “I can give people things that they’ve asked for, and work with them to make things happen.”

Correction 8.23.11: An earlier version of this story misstated the year in which Fred Muir's history of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Philippines was published. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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