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Kalamazoo congregation lauded for wide-ranging social justice efforts

People’s Church earns UUA’s 2012 Bennett Award for social action.
By Donald E. Skinner
6.25.12

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Jill McAllister and Craig Roshaven

The Rev. Jill McAllister, minister of People's Church in Kalamazoo, Mich., accepted the 2012 Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action on behalf of her church from the Rev. Craig Roshaven, the UUA's Witness Ministries director, June 19, 2012. (© 2012 Nancy Pierce)

The roots of social justice work run deep at People’s Church, Kalamazoo, Mich., the winner of the 2012 Bennett Award. In 1892 it opened a free public kindergarten. It followed that with a gymnasium for women, a school of “household science,” a manual training class for men, and a literary club called “The Frederick Douglass Club” for blacks.

In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, it was active in school integration, reproductive rights, and gay and lesbian rights. Currently it is engaged in more than a dozen social justice programs from non-discrimination to prison ministry and domestic violence, and it is undertaking a major new initiative around antiracism.

The Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action is an annual honor given by the Unitarian Universalist Association to a congregation that has done exemplary work in social justice. The award’s selection team wrote to the Kalamazoo congregation in April: “We were inspired at the breadth and depth of your ministry. Your congregation’s steady progression toward a healthy, multicultural, and anti-racist/anti-oppressive justice-oriented congregation is admirable and deserves to be publicly recognized.” The team was led by Susan Leslie, the UUA’s director of the Office for Congregational Advocacy and Witness. The award will be presented at General Assembly June 20-24 in Phoenix, Ariz.

Much of the congregation’s early social justice work was taken on by individuals since the congregation had long had a philosophy that the church itself should never take a stand on issues.

In the mid-1990s the congregation went through a period of conflict. Then by 1998 it was ready for a new approach. It called the Rev. Jill McAllister, who had a deep commitment to social justice. In 2000 she suggested the creation of a “social concerns committee.” The following year two board members attended a Heartland District social justice workshop and brought home information and enthusiasm. That was followed by an all-church planning retreat to talk about social justice, among other topics.

A Social Justice Coordinating Committee was formed out of that retreat. One of its first projects was to bring in the Rev. William Gardiner and Rev. Cynthia Prescott to conduct a Social Justice Empowerment Workshop in 2002.

“They showed us that freedom of conscience and a congregation standing up for what it believed in were not mutually exclusive,” said McAllister. “We began to speak the language that there were things that we believed in so much as a congregation that we could stand up and say so.”

Then came the Gamaliel Foundation and DART. These two community organizing groups arrived in Kalamazoo about the same time. Members of People’s Church learned about both, then joined Gamaliel, and through it, helped form an interfaith organizing network, ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Action & Advocacy in the Community) in 2002.

Since then, the congregation’s work in the community has taken off. Members of People’s Church became involved in ISAAC’s many task forces. Some became leaders of city-wide coalitions, securing major grants for family health and for preschool education. In 2009 ISAAC helped defeat a proposed repeal of a city non-discrimination ordinance for LGBT people.

Members are involved in many other social justice activities, as well. Some members volunteer as mentors at a local school. The Green Sanctuary task force organizes road cleanup activities and sales of fair trade coffee and candy. There is a support group for people just out of prison. And members help prepare a weekly meal for homeless people.

People’s Church is also a partner with a Transylvania congregation and a new congregation in Bujumbura, Burundi. In the latter partnership it is supporting a microlending program, has advocated for the rights of indigenous people there, and supported the congregation in its fight to prevent the criminalization of LGBT people.

People’s Church’s newest venture, getting under way this fall, is a deep exploration around antiracism and multiculturalism.

In its letter of application for the Bennett Award, congregational leaders noted the congregation’s social justice evolution. “We have gone from writing individual letters to the editor to engaging deeply as a congregation together with others across religious, economic, and race divides in our community to work powerfully with our local and state elected officials to accomplish social justice actions that impact much closer to the core of the issues addressed.”

McAllister said ISAAC was transformative for the congregation. “Some of our members moved quickly and easily into leadership of that coalition and it began to depend on us. Within ISAAC we are seen as a congregation that always turns people out for events and who are competent and effective at what we do.”

She said she preaches only infrequently about social justice. “Social justice is not the primary function of church,” McAlister said. “The primary function is to help people learn about and practice living in right relation within the church and in families. If you can’t do it with people in your congregation, how can you create peace in the world?”

She is enthusiastic about this fall’s exploration of antiracism and multiculturalism. “How do you actually change the way you interact with others? There are skills that can be learned by people and organizations to that end. Antiracism work often gets you to the talking level and then stops short. If you’re still embedded in your own habits, it just stops. Now, there are ways to learn skills and to practice them in the congregation. This is a very exciting thing we’re moving into. “

Phil Kramer, chair of the congregation’s Social Justice Coordinating Committee, credits three factors for the congregation’s engagement in community work. “Having a new minister who was committed to social justice in a different way than prior ministers. Then with the workshop with Bill Gardiner and Cynthia Prescott we began to identify a model we wanted to pursue. The third thing was the arrival of ISAAC. It gave us good impetus for moving ahead.”

He said the congregation has a core group of about 40 people who are deeply engaged in social justice. “There’s a second larger circle of people who will participate when they’re called upon. The congregation as a whole will support causes in more minor ways.”

Kramer added, “I don’t feel that we’re unique. What we have is good leadership. The minister’s role is very important. So is a core group that’s prepared to start an issue off. I feel very proud about being involved in social issues and receiving the Bennett Award. Our social justice work is part of our UU values system. It’s who we are.”

The Bennett Award for Congregational Action on Human Justice and Social Action, instituted in 1999 by James Bennett to honor the congregation that has done exemplary work in social justice, is accompanied by a $500 cash award. Dr. James R. Bennett is professor emeritus of the University of Arkansas and he is the former director of the Gustavus Meyers Center of Human Rights in North America, founded in 1984. Bennett is a member of the UU Fellowship of Fayetteville, Ark.

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