The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., taught that justice resides in the relationship between love and power: “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
This means that justice and anti-oppression efforts are as integral to religion as are spiritual nurturing and religious education. We must be about more than taking care of ourselves and our friends. The beloved community is not a club.
In our denomination and nation, those who have lived with privilege are becoming more aware of how much we take for granted that is denied to others because of bigotries focused on the color of their skin or their gender identity, disability, generational poverty, and so much more. Developing our skills in advocating for those on the margins, centering their voices, speaking truth to power, and working for systemic change is essential work.
UU social justice committees are often a collection of good souls dedicated to various efforts as driven by their individual passions. They support one another and then go back out and do what they were already doing. But we are so much stronger when we pull together. I would love to work with a social justice committee and full congregation to develop consensus and take concerted action on a project over time—and then to work in partnership with other groups toward our justice goal.
Legal activist Bryan Stevenson, theologian Sharon Welch, and others agree that effective action is rooted in relationship across difference. My home congregation has just opened its doors as a warming center for homeless people, staffed by volunteers. Whereas one member dismissed this as a “feel good” project, my hope is that the relationships that develop will inspire congregants to work on changing the systemic causes of poverty. For me, this is an example of an entry point that could yield a much larger commitment across difference.
My own justice work has needed to focus, in part, on comprehending the experience of others in systems of oppression through several years of group work on racism and the cost of whiteness in our lives. At Starr King, classmates of color actively engaged with me in this work, telling me when I had stumbled. Until the pandemic, I had met monthly with a Wabanaki REACH group since 2015 and advocated for Wabanaki interests with legislators. As preparation for ministry, I attended two Out Maine workshops on trans issues, as well as Beyond Categorical Thinking. I will continue peeling the onion of my part in oppressive systems for the rest of my life.
My externally focused work for justice has been varied: I canvassed door-to-door for Maine’s marriage equality referendum in 2009. I was a congregational liaison for UU the Vote last summer and fall. I was of the “sister” Women’s March in Augusta in January 2017, while millions of others marched throughout our nation and world. Similarly, I was in the Belfast iteration of the March for Our Lives, organized in March 2018 by a colleague and mother affiliated with my home church, to protest gun violence. I trained with ecoactivist Joanna Macy and served on the board of the Maine Earth Institute, which launched sustainable-living discussion courses across the state 1998-2011 and sponsored a retreat with Macy in 2005. Thinking we would could not save the earth while capitalism ran roughshod over it, I attended hearings and wrote letters on behalf of two bills that would have reduced corporate power in Maine. As a member of Maine UU State Advocacy Network (MUUSAN), I’ve written more letters to legislators and visited the statehouse, and I’ve helped to create and lead a “lay justice ministry training” program to ground activism more solidly in our religious principles and beliefs.
I have also engaged in social service, repeatedly volunteering at the food pantry and organizing delivery of dinners made by churches in our ministerium to the staff of an extended care facility experiencing a novel coronavirus outbreak in spring 2020. My priorities, however, are advocacy and systemic change.
Like the diverse interests represented in many social justice committees, my efforts have been scattered. I would have greater impact if I bore down on one issue. Will you join me? Can we work together to identify and commit to that issue?
To ministry I bring an unusual breadth of experience in collaboration, which I am convinced is a path to empowerment in a future where demographics predict smaller churches.
Mine was the first internship offered by a unique collaboration among three UU churches (including my home church) that were initially focused on becoming teaching congregations and working together toward justice. After my internship, I joined the Collaborative Ministry Team (CMT), comprising ministers and lay leaders from all three congregations. The CMT plans an annual, three-church retreat at Ferry Beach; justice-oriented film showings at a centrally located theater, followed by discussions; and collaborative worship services. Before the challenges of ministering during pandemic diverted our energies, we began a visioning process to launch more ambitious forms of collaboration, such as a summer chalice camp for children.
A by-product of this formal collaboration is that the boards and committees now consult fluidly with lay leaders in their sister churches, creating a highly productive cross-fertilization.
Two other collaborations in my experience are the multi-church Maine UU Youth Service Program, which, during my year with it, engaged ministers and youth from five churches, and Roots & Wings, a collaboration among four Maine ministers to deepen the commitment and spiritual fluency of lay justice leaders in UU congregations across the state.
Since 2016 I have been an active member of the Greater Bay Area Ministerium (GBAM), an association of Waldo County, Maine, ministers and lay leaders. Experiencing faithful collaboration from representatives of many faiths, including our local Buddhist sangha, has convinced me that it is a key to strengthening all of our ministries in the community. Working together, churches are able to address crises in the lives of community members who are in danger of dropping through the cracks in our economic system. We create special services, from the high school baccalaureate to a community bereavement service. We formed the Belfast Food Pantry, now its own 501c3 organization. We support one another as caring colleagues. As seems always to be true, we are stronger together.
My roles in GBAM have included leading a discussion at our interfaith “Lenten Luncheons,” bringing a Veterans Administration chaplain to Belfast for workshops on supporting vets, helping to create a covenant among member ministers, and marshaling delivery of meals to the staff of Tall Pines Care Facility during a heartbreaking coronavirus outbreak there.
When I began serving Peterborough UU Church as sabbatical minister in fall 2020, I immediately engaged with the Greater Peterborough Interfaith Council and took a leadership role in its online Thanksgiving service.
Often an interfaith initiative, “witness in the public square” is the one kind of occasion when I celebrate being able to wear a clerical collar (often with a “Side With Love” t-shirt). In February 2019, the Maine Council of Churches and the Poor People’s Campaign asked ministers to stand together in Augusta, where the cold was biting but not even remotely as cruel as the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating children from their parents. After a press conference, I joined a group that met with the staffs of U.S. senators Susan Collins and Angus King. I want such witness, including an occasional letter to the editor, to be welcomed and supported by the congregation I serve.
At this point in time, it is essential for a congregation to post at least some of its sermons or, if copyright requirements are satisfied, entire services in the public portion of its web site, with links added to the Facebook page. This gives people who are disinclined to venture forth on Sunday mornings a way to encounter the energies and meaning of Unitarian Universalism. Our church community does not have to gather in one place to function vibrantly.
As a private citizen, I choose not to post personal information on social media, but, as a minister, I consider it imperative to have a presence. After learning the primary media used by our congregation and those favored by young people, I will join in a system of posting congregation news and ministerial responses to events in our community and beyond. Ideally, we’ll have a volunteer system in place for re-posts on other media.