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Unitarian Universalists lobby for health care reform

Individuals and congregations write letters, visit legislators, and meet to promote health care reform
By Donald E. Skinner
10.5.09

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UU healthcare rally

Members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Berkeley in Kensington, Calif., participate in a September 22 rally in front of Blue Cross offices in San Francisco. (Sara Roberts)

In Jeffrey Melcher’s Lutheran upbringing, he learned not to raise his voice, and to get along and go along with people. But those habits are gone now that Melcher, a Unitarian Universalist divinity student living in the San Francisco Bay Area, is deeply involved in the national fight for health care reform.

This year he visited California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein’s office twice to discuss health care issues. He has engaged people to discuss health care reform in many forums, including in line at the grocery store, his doctor’s and dentist’s office, on the bus, and even on Facebook. He has also helped four UU congregations to find their voice on this issue and has spoken on the need for reform at a synagogue and a United Church of Christ congregation.

“At first it was a stretch for me to really speak out, to take my beliefs and spirituality and be public about them,” he said. “But now I like doing this. I worked through my fears because this is such a core issue of equality. And nearly everyone is interested in talking about health care.”

Melcher is working with UU Voices for Health Care, a project of the UU Legislative Ministry California, which has mobilized UU congregations on the issue of health care.

The divinity student is one of hundreds of individual UUs and congregations who are raising their voices, attending public meetings, writing letters, and otherwise advocating for change as this issue churns through Congress.

Halfway across the country, Shari Pollesch, an attorney and member of the Community Unitarian Universalists in Brighton, Mich., is also speaking up on health care.

She has spent hours collecting signatures on petitions for a public insurance option, made visits to Michigan Democratic Senator Debbie Stabenow’s office, and attended and spoken at health care meetings. It’s taking time away from her law practice, but she won’t stop. “It’s really hard to keep doing this, but we have to keep the pressure on,” she said. “This is the most important work we can be doing now.”

She said the only way to reduce the $18,000 a year she pays in health insurance for her family of three is through a public option.

Randy Block, the director of the Michigan UU Social Justice Network, which organizes UUs in that state to advocate for heath care reform, said about half of Michigan’s 26 congregations have leaders who are focused on health care advocacy and who alert others in the congregation when action is needed. Because Michigan congregations had earlier been involved in an unsuccessful campaign to add the right to health care to the state constitution, UUs had some visibility they could build on in the national campaign.

“When we surveyed Michigan UUs, health care always came out as the top issue. It matters to UUs,” said Block. “Our organization has three goals, to get universal health care coverage through Congress, reform health care in Michigan, and help UUs become more knowledgeable about health care issues and express those views in public.”

Betty Crowley, a member of the UU Church of Annapolis, Md., and co-chair of the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland, which has made health care change one of its priorities, said it’s little things people can do to help out. “We’re not asking people to do superhuman things,” she said. “We’re asking them to write to their members of Congress and either thank them for their support or urge them to change their position. It also helps if people attend town hall meetings and visit their legislator’s office, and write letters to the editor and talk to their neighbors.”

Betty-Jeanne Rueters-Ward, campaign manager for UU Voices for Health Care, located in California, said Unitarian Universalists are gaining a reputation for supporting “quality, affordable health care for all. The legislators all know who UUs are.”

Here’s what she encourages other UUs to do, whether they are members of an organized group advocating for change, or individuals:

  • Have a table at church each Sunday where members can write cards and letters to their representatives. Said Pollesch: “Aides to our senator told us that emails are too numerous to pay attention to. What they notice are hand-written cards and letters. And personal visits to their offices.”

  • Speak from the pulpit, said Rueters-Ward. “When people hear from their minister, or at a Sunday morning forum, about the importance of health care reform, it makes a huge impact. Also, collect health care stories from members and send them to legislators.”

  • Join a local coalition. Health Care for America Now is one that some UU groups are allied with and is also a place to get basic information about how to get involved with the issue of health care reform.

  • Write letters to the editor and op-ed pieces and be prepared to hold conversations with friends, family, and strangers.

Rueters-Ward said she expects the national battle on health care to be over by some time in November, but that fights will continue in many states over local health issues. She noted, for instance, that California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has twice vetoed single-payer health care after it was approved by the legislature, but that a new governor will be elected in 2010. “There is broad-based support here for single payer and we’ll have spent a year in grassroots organizing by the time of the election. So our hope is that we can eventually get single-payer here.”

She said she’s been impressed by people’s spiritual responses to the issue. “There’s a very deep spiritual groundedness coming from UUs on this. I’m grateful that I am doing this work in a religious organization.”

Lee Lawrence, a member of the UU Church of Berkeley, in Kensington, Calif., and a member of the UU Legislative Ministry in California’s Health Care Steering Committee, added, “One of the things we try to do is engage our ministers on this issue. They are able to link health care reform with our UU values not only in the pulpit, but in the public square.

“Our high visibility on health care, including our consistent presence at rallies and forums, is also helping a lot of people understand what Unitarian Universalism is. We have a chance to talk about our perspective on universal health care as a progressive religious issue and a moral issue.”

When UULMCA began mobilizing on health care, Amy Petré Hill was immediately drawn in. “It just clicked that working to bring quality health care for everyone should be an important part of my spiritual practice,” said Hill, an attorney working in non-profit fundraising and co-chair of the Health Care Reform Action Team at the Berkeley congregation. “I started calling meetings at church, and began arranging meetings with legislators. The ministers at UUCB have supported this work and spoken on Sundays about the need for health care reform, and the momentum has built from there.”

She estimates 15 members of her 500-member congregation are deeply involved with this issue, 40 have shared health care stories, and more than 100 have written letters. She has also helped other California congregations meet with their legislators.

Hill also believes that sharing individual health care stories with others can help within the debate. A particular moment stands out for her from a meeting of UUs with an aide at Senator Feinstein’s office in Fresno: “A soft-spoken older woman shared her struggles in finding a primary care doctor in her town of Merced and then talked about the pain of seeing a good friend, diagnosed with cancer, fighting the disease without the pain medication she needs because her insurance company won’t cover the medication. After the meeting was over, she said, ‘I finally feel someone heard me.’ I was struck by how empowered she and other people feel once they share their health care stories.”

She added, “This issue can feel overwhelming, but if you share your health care story, it’s very rewarding. Speaking up about the need for health care reform with legislators, fellow congregants, and friends will help create a better world.”

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