The Most Accessible and Holistic Movement -- what would it take?

UU churches and congregations should devote their energies and resources to caring for the hundred of thousands, if not millions of people who hungry to participate in  social movements for radical social transformation.

There are people who want to be a part of the anti-racism movement, the environmental movement, the LGBTQIA movements, the reproductive justice movement, the immigrant movement, the movement for poorly paid workers. They are lots of people who see these things on TV, or online, and they want to do something.

But, it's a sad fact that most people do not have access to these movements. Not only do they not have access, they have other responsibilities in their lives that stop them from locking onto an anchor chain of a Shell Oil rig. They can't relocate to Cambridge to sit in at the Harvard alumni office for divestment.

For most people their only avenues for justice work are to send money to someone, sign an online petition, and share particularly insightful bits of content with their friends and family on social media. Does anyone cares that they desire a great social transformation?

What if our public ministry was to care for all those who want a great social transformation?

What do I mean by "care for"?

I read a report about a small Obama office in 2008, somewhere in the midwest, which had a sign on the wall: RESPECT, INCLUDE and EMPOWER. That's a start.

We should RESPECT the desire expressed by any person for social transformation. We should respect them for having it. We should respect the reasons they have for it. We should stop judging its sophistication. We should not disrespect it, laugh at its naivete, dismiss it as white guilt, or hypocrisy, or being faddish, or inappropriate to their experience. We should meet them where they are.

We should INCLUDE all those folks in some form of public programming. The main focus of our ministry for the next 5 years should be the creation of public events, organizations, occasions which include all those who want a great social transformation. We should be partnering with those outside of UUism to create these events, and we should be mobilizing clergy and lay people, both UU and non-UU to be the leadership of these forms and activities. There is a place for everyone, even if it just to sing along with the songs.

Here's the hard, yet liberating, part: The place where that public ministry happens should not be our Sunday morning worship services. Sunday morning has another purpose.

One example: UU churches could host on Saturday morning, a weekly or monthly Community Justice Forum, where all the groups, organizations and individuals who are engaged in social justice work in the community can come, talk with others, and share their stories. Everyone is invited. Where do the people who want social transformation come together in your community?

Example  #2: Imagine Standing on the Side of Love as a broad-based independent community movement for justice. Yes, it was created by Unitarian Universalists, but we turned it over so it can genuinely belong to all. It was our gift to all those who want justice now: the gift of an organization when it was rare.

And, we should EMPOWER people to do the work and get involved. Use our assets, our buildings, our connections, our power, our access to information to build the social movements. Grow and develop leaders. Teach people better songs and help our justice communities find their voice. Develop and promote the leadership of young people, people of color, and those who are not at the negotiating table.

One of the ways that we empower people is that we care for them. Building personal relationships.  Help them think about these commitments in the context of the totality of their lives. How to live in right relationship with others, including their life partners. How to pass these values and life perspective onto the next generation. How to maintain a multi-generational circle of life. How to carry on after great disappointment, or grievous error. We care for people, not as cadre in the progressive cause, but as persons.

And we offer them the chance to worship. Worship, not community organization, is the work of Sunday morning. Worship, not community organization, is the primary work of our ordained parish ministers. Sunday morning (or any worship time) is for those who want to go deeper into the internal work of living and dying in the world as we know it.


  1. I tried almost exactly this on a monthly basis, got slapped down good and hard before it got going, and am, I think, ready to take another shot at it, once I figure out how:

    "One example: UU churches could host on Saturday morning, a weekly or monthly Community Justice Forum, where all the groups, organizations and individuals who are engaged in social justice work in the community can come, talk with others, and share their stories. Everyone is invited. Where do the people who want social transformation come together in your community?"

    Thank you for your writing. It helps a lot to guide my way.

  2. Dear John -- what motivated the resistance to the idea?

    I was impressed by Operation Push in Chicago -- a big meeting, held on Saturday, so as to not compete with any church or pastor -- a couple of issues taken up each week -- not a discussion group, but presentations which could be almost sermonic, commentary on all sorts of issues, competing points of view expressed freely, some music interspersed. Everybody running for office in Chicago would show up there, usually received graciously. I witnessed this in the 1980's so it was a while ago. Of course, dominated by Jesse Jackson, so it had a lot of top-down dynamics.

    But what I thought was most useful and could be implemented by UU's: regular get together, information and perspective sharing, broad range of issues, structured as to not compete with other organizations, churches or other groups.

  3. Tom, I've thought about that a lot, and I've got no one answer. Let me describe it briefly and then give my best explanation.

    The plan was to take one evening a month, from six to ten, in our fellowship hall. We'd have an event from seven till nine, with networking and social time in the hours before and after. I'd lined up speakers and movies to stimulate discussion (rather than Q&A). It was designed to be a series of low-cost, low-effort events.

    "So what could be wrong with that?" you may ask yourself. As have I.

    So in no particular order, here's what was wrong with that.

    Let's start with me. I am a bad fit for my congregation, culturally out of tune with it and politically to its left. I cuss freely among adults and I don't favor folk, classical, or the Clintons. I like frank language, comic books, popular music, Armistice Day, queer theory, anti-racism, and Bernie Sanders. I am a misfit.

    Also, I am sometimes impolitic and sometimes disorganized. Those are social death in my congregation, and so I'm seen as being considerably worse at both those skills than I really am. But I won't pretend they aren't actual weaknesses. I'd like to be better at them, but I've had to settle for working around them.

    The template for this was a talk on The New Jim Crow by a friend who teaches up at UA-Fayetteville. It was held the Friday night before a church event on organic farming the next morning. With no resources and minimal work, we got forty-three people. With months of planning and a lot of cash, the other event got eighty-six.

    The Friday night event had already been scheduled when the other event's original date got snowed out. The best day to reschedule it was the one it ended up on. I'd urged them to use that date, saying the congregation had the capacity to do two events on consecutive days, as I'd activated different volunteers for it.

    In retrospect, I think I understand why that was a problem. One source of power in an organization is volunteer labor. The more you do of it, and the more you can get other people to do of it, the more power you have. I suspect this and other events I'd organized, which found volunteers which others hadn't, were seen as a threat.

    Sharon Welch's work is relevant here, about power among the dispossessed growing when shared, and power among the privileged being a fixed amount, diminished when shared. I've long identified with the dispossessed and the view of power related to them. (Reading Welch recently was like coming home.) My congregation, not so much.

    The same with scheduling. I organized two events in summer, a time when the church is very unbusy. We had a jazz concert by a once-local couple and a performance by Emma's Revolution. The jazz made a little money for the church, while the Emma's Revolution show cost me a little money. (If it'd made money, it was going to the church.) Again, I thought these were good uses of underutilized resources, both of church facilities and enthusiastic volunteers. What was told, however, was that people didn't want to do things during the summer. That seemed to me like being told to take a nap because someone else was tired, which I guess I've done, but only to a very young daughter.

    My perception was I was adding something to the church which wasn't there before. (Before the jazz concert, I told folks, "Let's go out there and create a thing of beauty!" which we did.) A different perception might be that I was taking something away from people by doing so. If that's true, it points to systemic dysfunction.

    There's also the political difference.

  4. We're an early fellowship congregation, shaped in many ways by the particular dynamics of the civil rights movement in Little Rock. Where the other major battles--Montgomery, Birmingham, Selma, Freedom Summer and the MFDP, the Memphis strike--were mass movements, Little Rock's fight was carried out by a relatively small number of black people. As a result, there was a power vacuum of sorts. The first year of the Central High Crisis, when the Nine won a decisive victory, is best known. It was the following events when white folks took a leading role. The second year, when Faubus closed the entire Little Rock school district, was less visible outside Little Rock.

    That was when progressive white ladies took the lead with the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools. They did brave, difficult work, and we believe every female member of our congregation at the time was a member. (Membership rolls were secret, so it's hard to be certain.) We're proud of that.

    I have no criticism to make of the WEC. They took risks in a dangerous, uncertain situation. And they won, which matters when lives are in the balance.

    But they made two tactical decisions which have shaped Little Rock, and our congregation: They decided to remain a segregated group, in order to improve their credibility among white people, and they were neutral on segregation versus integration and strictly pro-education.

    That no more means the women of the WEC were pro-segregation than the cadre nature of the Central High skirmish meant black citizens didn't support it. In both cases, those were tactical decisions made by legitimate leaders. But I think white folks have long been more prone to misunderstand those decisions than black folks.

    We can see this playing out to this day in the current Little Rock Crisis, where the state government used a pretext to take over the Little Rock school district just as black folks got a majority on the school board. White liberal leadership in Little Rock insists this is a question of democratic control and not racism, and is pleased that a long-time white board member--a good man, I must add--has been placed into the superintendent's job. Most black folks, and white folks either to the left of liberal or very conscious of systemic racism, consider this an openly racist action on the part of the state government with the tacit cooperation of Little Rock's powerful.

    I see this play out in our congregation's approach to social action generally and race in particular: Change is best carried out by nice people, careful to be respectable. And so a program of events centered around systemic racism, queer theory, the Bidder 70 movie, and so on, is not seen as a Good Thing.

    I myself am neither particularly nice (there are better virtues) nor at all respectable, and I get the resistance to me leading this effort, but our governance structure requires the social action lead and the minister agree on programs to be presented, leaving a hard check on my ability to Go Too Far. Instead, I'm pretty much frozen out of social action, and out of church leadership and use of church resources generally. I was aware when I was asked to serve the three-year board presidential cycle that I'd been asked in large part because people didn't really know me, but I didn't anticipate how it's turned out. There's still a little hurt in me from that.

  5. I'll pause to say it's fulfilling to sing in choir, teach OWL, and lead occasional discussion groups. Maybe I'm best used as a teacher and a facilitator. Teaching OWL is particularly wonderful. I've seen kids' lives change for the better from it. Their parents have told me the same thing. It's a great opportunity I've been given.

    While I don't discount there being some personal animosity toward me, I don't think that's a root cause. (It might be a symptom, or it might be my fault.) I honestly believe the people pushing against me are usually acting for the good of the congregation as they understand it.

    But knowing those things through reason doesn't mean I feel good about the situation.

    I dislike being given the opportunity and the temptation--to which I am drawn, bad as it is to admit and hard as it is to resist--to, as Lyndon Johnson put it, stand outside the tent pissing in. I used to be that guy. I don't want to be him again. I'd rather be inside pissing out. And I don't see why anyone would want me pissing in.

    But I feel less pissed off about it than I feel pissed away. After being board president and dealing with things I didn't enjoy dealing with, hard decisions without good outcomes, at least one that broke my heart, I'd wanted to do something to feed my soul. I craved diving into social action but found the pool was empty.

    Well. That's quite the essay. Please discount the self-pity and the self-importance. A smarter person would edit it out, but I'd rather tell it as I understand it, even when it makes me look bad if that aids in understanding. I'll trust in a generous reading that helps me sort out what's important and what's transient.

  6. I'd like to add one point and a bit more.

    The other thing which I believe our experience with the civil rights movement has done was give us the idea that social justice is something that we do for people rather than with people. I won't repeat the circumstances that led us to that point, but they can be found above.

    The other thing is that, despite my frustrations, I feel very optimistic about the long-term future of our congregation. (Even after the unexpectedly difficult and frustrating morning I brought on for myself and others.) I had a hand in bringing our interim minster to us two years ago, and she has done a wonderful job in fulfilling the particular duties we brought her to the church to perform. If I had it to do over, I would bring her back again, despite the fact that she had a hand in frustrating the desires I've expressed here. Her next congregation--she leaves us in June--will be lucky to have her.

    To follow her, our search committee found us a new minister about whom my first thought was, "What's wrong with her? She's too good to be true!" But she wanted to come home to Arkansas and we are incredibly fortunate for that. Our wonderful home, known both as The Natural State and The Land Of Opportunity, gets some credit, too.

    Then this morning, we added nine--or was it ten?--new members! One was a former long-time member who moved home to retire and two were long-term friends who took the plunge. The others were young parents. I already feel the vitality and wisdom and love these new members and their families carry with them.

    We are a good congregation and I'm proud of it. But I want us to be a great congregation, and to do that, we have to lift our eyes and raise our expectations, broaden our horizons and drop our defenses, maintain our boundaries and abandon our borders. That's how my vision for our future looks. Will others share it? I hope so.


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