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Grassroots work joins UUs, others

Faith-based community organizing builds alliances to make change.
By Donald E. Skinner
March/April 2002 3.1.02

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When you're setting out to save the world it's nice to have friends along. That's the principle behind faith-based community organizing, a practice that is growing among Unitarian Universalist congregations. About 80 congregations are engaged in faith-based community organizing. Projects include living wages, better school funding, and improved housing and transportation.

Faith-based community organizing draws its inspiration from the 1940s movement led by activist Saul Alinsky, who organized residents of the old Chicago stockyards neighborhood made famous by Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle. Alinsky died in 1972, but his idea of uniting neighborhood and community organizations, labor unions, and churches in a fight for social justice, keeps spreading. Alinsky's Industrial Areas Foundation now includes some 50 interfaith and interracial organizations from New York City to Los Angeles. Other umbrella groups work at the community level.

The First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, New York, is one of 38 congregations, neighborhood and labor groups, and other organizations that are part of ARISE (A Regional Initiative Supporting Empowerment). The group focuses on a four-county region that includes Albany, Schenectady, and Troy. "What we do is political advocacy," says the Rev. Sam Trumbore, minister of First UU Society and president of ARISE. "Our focus is grass roots. Grassroots organizing applies people power to the problem."

Last fall ARISE asked for public funding for an afterschool program. It called a public meeting and 1,000 people showed up. About 120 were from First UU Society, which has 337 members. "Politicians understand the power of an organization that can put a lot of people in a room," says Trumbore. "We'll probably get $1 million for that afterschool program."

How hard was it to get 120 to show up? Not that hard, says Trumbore. "Most people want to do something, but they can't organize it themselves. "We're making a path for them to achieve what they want to achieve. And because we have a lot of energy a lot of people are paying attention to us."

"What's really interesting," he adds, "is that community organizing uses the same model as churches do. You're always trying to get people who are at rest into motion. You're always working on deepening people's commitment. The more that people commit, the more meaning they extract from their involvement. We help people see that you get what you want from a church by giving what you want."

The First Unitarian Universalist Church of Columbus, Ohio, is among about 40 congregations that work within BREAD (Bringing Responsibility, Equality, and Dignity).

The Rev. Mark Belletini says community organizing can be challenging for some UUs because it's very structured. "Everyone has a script and meetings are timed," he says. "It can create anxiety for some people. But it's also very effective."

Another challenge is working with people whose theologies are dramatically different. "Many of them firmly believe we're going to hell, but they work with us on social justice issues with no problem," he says. Over 100 people from First UU have turned out for BREAD meetings.

The Birmingham Unitarian Church in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, has joined with MOSES (Metropolitan Organizing Strategies Enabling Strength), a Detroit metro area council including 70 member organizations. Birmingham members are working on a MOSES project to bring mass transit to the area.

Teaming up with so many others makes large projects seem more doable. "The problems are so big here," says the Rev. Douglas Gallager, "it's sometimes hard to see ways for one congregation to address them. I'm hopeful we can make a real impact." It's also valuable to be in contact with non-UU congregations, he says. "Our congregations isolate themselves from the wider faith community too much. We think we are too special. We aren't. It's good to be with people who may have very different religious beliefs, but a common dedication to providing quality of life for people."

The Veatch Program of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock, Manhasset, New York, helps provide funding for faith-based community organizing networks. Executive director Marjorie Fine points out that President Bush's faith-based initiative gives public monies to entities that may or may not support the principles UUs believe in."

The First Unitarian Church of Dallas, Texas, was one of the first congregations to join Dallas Area Interfaith (DAI), whose members are about equally divided among blacks, whites, and Hispanics. DAI's successes include increased city funding for community policing and afterschool programs, several miles of new sidewalks to schools, and getting drug users out of parks. "Those are ordinary things that you expect to be there that aren't, especially in poorer parts of town," says Mary Lou Hoffman, a First Unitarian member who works with DAI. "And we've had a decrease in crime in neighborhoods wherever we've worked."

The group provides lots of opportunities to get to know other people. "There's been a lot of distrust and dislike across racial lines in this town," says Hoffman. "We have to learn to trust each other. One of our principles is we never use nametags. We're supposed to know each other by name."

In Pittsburgh, all five metro-area Unitarian Universalist congregations are working with PIIN, the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network. The Rev. Art McDonald, minister of Allegheny Unitarian Universalist Church, is on PIIN's executive board. Before organizing got started, black congregations were invited to investigate the proposal. "We told them, 'If you buy into this, then invite us along.' That's what happened and that was better than white liberals taking the lead."

Nearly a fifth of the 500 who attended a recent PIIN covenanting service were Unitarian Universalists, including 24 from McDonald's 75-member congregation.

"UUs need to be aware that projects such as these do often teach people to be adversarial," says McDonald. "That's because they want you to be able to take your power to public officials and be able to speak up for the sake of justice. We want to bring our values to the work, and our sense of integrity."


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