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Minister earns award from city he lobbied for change

Holland, Mich., grants Social Justice Award to the Rev. Bill Freeman in same room he led protest for LGBT rights.
By Donald E. Skinner

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Bill Freeman

The Rev. Bill Freeman, a Michigan activist, is minister of the Harbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Muskegon and founder of the interfaith congregation All Spirits in Holland.

There’s a fair bit of irony in the award that the Rev. Bill Freeman will be picking up on Jan. 16 in the city council chambers in Holland, Mich., for standing up for the rights of other people.

The Holland Human Relations Commission (HRC) is giving him the city’s Social Justice Award for his work in establishing a nondenominational interfaith congregation, known as All Spirits, and for organizing a free breakfast program on Saturdays that attracts up to 100 people.

The award will be presented during a city council meeting. This would be the same city council that Freeman, who is also minister of the Harbor Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Muskegon, has lobbied for more than two years to expand its anti-discrimination ordinance to include sexual orientation and gender identity. In June 2011 the council voted 5-4 to reject a recommendation by its HRC to expand the ordinance.

For months after that vote Freeman attended nearly every city council meeting, appealing to the council to reverse its decision. On Oct. 19, 2011 he was arrested on a charge of criminal trespass when he refused to leave city hall following an evening council meeting.

A jury found him guilty, but a judge declined to send him to jail, instead fining him $100. The award he will receive Wednesday does not mention his LGBT advocacy or his arrest. It simply notes, “He is known for his compassion for others and his strong beliefs for inclusion and equity for all in the community.”

In a post on his Facebook page, Freeman said he would gladly trade the award for a vote by the city council affirming LGBT rights.

This is not Freeman’s only foray into attempting to sway public officials. He has lobbied Congress to pass hate crimes legislation, worked on behalf of an anti-bullying law in the state legislature, and he was on the front lines of recent right-to-work protests in Michigan.

Freeman, who had a former career as a television personality in Grand Rapids, said that he felt a call to the ministry on Sept. 11, 2001. “I just have a passion for justice,” he said. “I believed Dr. King when he said the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. I hold out hope that the city council will see the handwriting on the wall now that more states are authorizing same-sex marriage and after the end of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ in the military. I’m hoping they’ll want to get on the right side of history while there is still time.”

Freeman’s two congregations are 30 miles apart. He has been a contract minister since September 2011 for the Muskegon congregation. He also co-hosts a radio show, Faith and Reason, in Grand Rapids, with longtime UU minister the Rev. Dr. Fred Wooden.

He said some members of the Holland congregation stood with him in the city hall chambers, but left before he was arrested. “Both congregations support what I do,” he said. “The one in Muskegon started a ‘Free Willie’ fund after I was arrested.”

Would he risk arrest again? “I’m not sure. But I’ll do whatever I can to get the city council to change its mind,” Freeman said.

Gwen Williams, social action chair at the Muskegon congregation, said Freeman’s activism has helped put the congregation on the map. “His work has made us a lot more visible,” she said. “We have a steady influx of visitors who hear about him and come to check us out.”

She said the congregation has long had an active social justice focus itself, especially in areas of reproductive health. “We’re planning to continue to be that voice in our community. We have a Roe v. Wade prayer breakfast and a march every year.”

And with Freeman there may be other causes for the congregation to champion. Williams noted, “He has made the statement that he never met a picket he didn’t like. He’s absolutely willing to be at the head of the march, and we’ll be there with him,” Williams said. “I think he really represents the best of what pastors can be in a UU congregation.”

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