Critical Connections in the UU Universe

Critical Connections in the UU Universe

Did you know that there are twenty-two established UU State Action Networks (SANs) and more forming as we speak (find out if your state has a SAN here)? Did you know that there is a Coalition of Unitarian Universalist State Action Networks (CUUSAN) that acts as a central “meeting place” and seeks to support their work?

State Action Networks are an important part of the UU Universe as they do work on the local level and can connect congregations to justice work happening near them. We at UUCSJ, UUSC and the UUA are excited about the many ways we have been working more closely with these passionate advocates for spiritually centered social justice!

This July, leaders from many of the UUSANs came together with staff from UUSC, UUA and UUCSJ to build relationships, learn together and share with each other the work we are doing at all levels: local, national and international. Hear about how two of those leaders felt about the convening below.

The Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network begins and ends our bi-monthly in-person statewide meetings with a Chalice Lighting accompanied by opening and closing words. One of my favorites is “Movements are born of critical connections rather than critical mass.” by Grace Lee Boggs.

The recent convening of representatives from most of the Unitarian Universalist State Action Networks in Boston in July lifted up each state’s focused legislative ministry and provided a platform for discovering potential national and regional social justice initiatives. Grateful thanks to UUSC and UUCSJ for bringing together key partners from the national UUA social justice family along with the SANs to build a movement of critical connections.

~ Julie Fitz-Randolph, Co-chair, Maine Unitarian Universalist State Advocacy Network,

As the Chair of a SAN operating since 2005, I was eager to meet with other SANs and the UU movement’s advocacy leaders when this summer’s retreat was scheduled, and I was very pleased with the whole program. It is clear that the national UU groups (UUA, UUSC, UUCSJ) now see SANS as critical partners in building the movement, and the UUA has now agreed to include CUUSAN in future General Assemblies and refer attendees to local SANs to further the justice work developed at GAs. I particularly appreciated the clarification we were provided about the national movement’s “advocacy ecosystem” since there are so many UU groups active in promoting a just and sustainable world. We discussed how best to collaborate on shared goals, development/engagement, and national campaigns. Especially important will be our collaboration on 2020 election efforts to preserve and promote democracy.

The gathering also provided some helpful training and workshops on SAN missions & visions, Theory of Change, and Power Analysis – to help us define what we want and how we accomplish our goals. Focus on relationship-centered organizing will be important as we move to center our efforts on people most affected by government policies, especially those that maintain control by the white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. We also learned from each other new ways to support members of our community in becoming and staying involved, and how to strengthen these connections.

The gathering would not have been possible for many SANs without the generosity of UUSC in hosting and its grants that made it affordable. This generosity is continuing with partial funding for a session on fundraising for SANs that is scheduled for September. I am truly grateful to those who are providing such needed support for our state-based work, and I look forward to working closely with other states and the national leadership in this sacred work.

~ Steve Buckingham, Chair of the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland,

As one of the staff members present for this gathering, and someone who is moving into the new position of Coordinator for Congregational Activism here at UUCSJ and UUSC, this was an amazing opportunity for me to connect with activist leaders across the country. It was great to hear about the work they are doing, what ways we at the national level can support them, and to be in the same physical space rather than over zoom! I am especially grateful for the time we all took to map out the UU social justice universe. My colleague Abby Crum and I are using that work as the basis for an online tool that we can share more widely, so keep an eye out for that. Lastly, I’m excited about all the ways we will work together to engage Unitarian Universalists in the vital work of creating the beloved community.

~ Heather Vickery

Coordinator for Congregation Activism

My Trip to The Border (Operation Streamline)

My Trip to The Border (Operation Streamline)

A unique perspective from a past Border Witness participant.

More than a trip to Tucson, ours was a pilgrimage to the Mexican American border, and an experience that has shaken me to my core.  

One day after coming back from the desert walk, we went to a court to witness Operation Streamline.

Let me tell you this: when I entered that criminal court my heart was pounding. We saw 70 people captured in the desert by border patrol brought there, as the most heinous criminals, briefly released from their shackles to face a judge. Their crime was to cross from Mexico undocumented. As an immigrant myself, I feel uneasy, to say the least, because the rule of law, a system that is temporarily protecting me during my forced exile from my country, is the same used to condemn so many people, and they are my people too.

An hour into the proceedings and it wasn’t my heart but my brain that was pounding. What we witnessed was a very mechanical process, which was not designed to generate surprises or justice. The judge read the charges with the monotony of a rosary prayer,  while “the sinners” always responded with a sad dimmed voice: “culpable, guilty, culpable…” Using on average less than 2 minutes for each defendant, the judge condemned all of them to time, as always happen (except for this time one was sent to immediate deportation). Streamline judges have sentenced many legitimate asylum seekers, people with legal reasons to be here (and even some permanent residents and citizens). Just there is not enough time for them to present their cases.  

It was striking that everybody in the courtroom was so amicable. I am sure that later that day, every lawyer, agent, and even the judge went home to dinner with their kids or to watch tv and Netflix at home. They might not see it this way, but they work in a factory line that processes people as sausages, most of them innocents, sending them to jail, and then back to their countries, to their desperation, sometimes to circumstances of unjust persecution, to be tortured or killed. But these officers were not monsters; they were doing their job.  

In that instant came to my mind the trials of Adolf Eichmann in Israel as reported by Hannah Arendt, the philosopher that penned the concept of the Banality of Evil. At that time, most people regarded Eichmann as an evil monster, he was after all the father of the Final Solution to exterminate the Jews. But Arendt wasn’t most people: Eichmann didn’t strike to her as a particularly evil man but as a good bureaucrat. He clung to the idea that he was unable “to change anything” and that he was doing his job, obeying the law. That way Eichmann was not only claiming innocence but discrediting the idea that the Nazi criminals were psychopaths, different from us, from “normal” people. He was just a good citizen.

But he didn’t trick Arendt. What we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. She didn’t conclude that situations such as the Holocaust can make ordinary people commit horrible crimes given specific contexts and incentives. And I am not equating Operation Streamline (that is the managerial name given to this unjust system) to the Holocaust, but stressing that in both situations the streamline judge, and the border patrol in Tucson – as Eichmann in Nazi Germany— were voluntarily following the principle of authority. But they forgot to apply another principle of the law: that of reciprocity, the golden rule. They decided to apply the law even if it was unjust. I can see that there is a substantial moral distance between the Final Solution and Operation Streamline. But shouldn’t there also exist a substantial moral distance between a totalitarian regime in the 20th century and democracy in the 21st? Today more clearly than in the past the moral choice between good and evil belongs to the individual. The voter, the politician, the legislator, the executioner chooses the ax and nobody can blame society for its own decisions. All our choices have political consequences even when the chooser seems politically powerless.

I’ll leave you with Hannah Arendt:

“Under conditions of terror most people will comply but some people will not, just as the lesson of the countries to which the Final Solution was proposed is that “it could happen” in most places, but it did not happen everywhere. Humanly speaking, no more is required, and no more can reasonably be asked, for this planet to remain a place fit for human habitation.”

Don’t let the streamline judge, the border patrol, or the legislator to trick you. Don’t be as most people. Don’t comply, don’t be accomplices.

~ R


On June 1st, hurricane season starts again

On June 1st, hurricane season starts again

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

She repeated it. We were a tired, overwhelmed group of CSJ participants on a toxic tour run by t.e.j.a.s. (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services). Our group of ten college students and four adult leaders had spent the last week volunteering with Rebuilding Together Houston with their Harvey relief efforts. For four days, our dedicated group worked under the watchful, kind eyes of the Rebuilding crew leaders. We painted, de-molded, deconstructed, constructed and aided in the recovery of homes impacted by Hurricane Harvey. With all of our collective effort of the week, we helped with three houses. On our last day, we left early to join this toxic tour.

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

Connecticut College Group Rebuilding Together HoustonIt was difficult to imagine hurricane force winds with the mild sun and chilly breezes we had been enjoying. On this day, the skies were clouded over and our guide directed our eyes to the gas flames being emitted above the petrochemical companies. We were standing in a children’s playground as we watched the gas burn. We were surrounded by houses. At a local mural, our guide pointed out the references to the petrochemical companies local children had drawn as a part of their community. This was their normal. These were all communities of color.

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

As we drove through seemingly endless miles of petrochemical infrastructure, we started to understand scale. As we peered over the edge of what had once been a popular lodge and heard about polluted flood waters and the damage they did to both buildings and human bodies, we started to understand impact. As our guide spoke about history and laws, we thought about historical patterns of abuse. And as we visited communities and heard about local resistance, we began to think about justice.

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

One of the most difficult parts of the toxic tour happened for me once it was over. Our rental van was running on empty. I plugged directions into my GPS and gratefully pulled into a gas station. Once there, I raised my eyes to see the name of the same petrochemical company that we had heard about during our tour—Valero. I put gas in the car and I cringed. How  to confront the enormity of this? How to understand not only our society’s dependence on fossil fuels, but also the effects that this has on the environment? How to understand that Hurricane Harvey was the third “500 year flood” (1/500 chance in happening per year) in five years? How to understand that connection of environmental justice with our country’s ongoing legacy of white supremacy?

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

I don’t know. But after that tour where we used our vehicle’s gas to drive from petrochemical plant to petrochemical plant, where we looked out our windows at the passing miles of petrochemical infrastructure as if we were on some sort of convoluted Texas safari, I was left mainly with a sense of scale. It’s a big problem. It’s gonna take a big solution. The beauty of both the toxic tour and our time with Rebuilding Houston was that we learned not only about the effects of the hurricane and environmental pollution, but also the power of communities coming together. People in strong networks create a web of support that might be the only thing that can keep us all floating with the rising tides. We will need those life rafts in the days to come. As we were reminded over and over,

“On June 1st, hurricane season starts again.”

Saving Seed

Saving Seed

Rebecca Hennessy lives in Portsmouth, NH and traveled to Nicaragua as a member of South Church in cooperation with the UUCSJ. She is a mother and a garlic farmer. She owns a small value-added food business, Backyard Garlic, coaches ultimate frisbee and likes exploring new places.

Memories of Nicaragua continue to organize in my mind and body.  Reflections on being a part of a delegation as well as an individual have increasingly become a part of my daily life. For me, this is a sure sign of a good trip. One experience in particular, I hold carefully, as though it were alive in the palm of my hand.

On day 5 of our 8-day trip we travelled to Las Diosas farm to spend the afternoon. We shared a meal with the women working there and learned more about what happens from day to day. FEM and Las Diosas’ mission of rebellious attention to reproductive processes and resources were apparent everywhere we looked – through building local, to international markets, expertise in alternative farming techniques, and visionary business practices. The farm has a plant nursery, experimental garden, testing and processing facilities for hibiscus, coffee, and honey, and infrastructure to support continued growth of women owned and operated cooperatives. Also on the farm is the ongoing study and practice of saving seed.Handful of Seeds - Nicaragua

I felt joy on this farm. In simply being there and in what I learned. And it was the practice of saving seed that is most present to me now. A seed can be deceptively simple. Profundity is a trait of simplicity, after all.  And much can be said of the word  – saving. Seed is potential, diversity. Seed is survival. And when a seed is understood for the qualities it brings to the plant, it begins to reveal the history of the soil from which it grew.  From which, and in which, it can be saved.

In this way, seed is memory and soil is history. Both record human activity – present and past. Saving seed is an act of deep affection. It is an act of profound attention to what has gone before.

Knowing how to save seed is not unlike knowing how to raise a hand in protest.  March 8 is International Women’s Day.  And March 24 is March for Our Lives. For both, I will remember what I learned from the women of FEM and on the Las Diosas farm. I will care for the seed in my hand, how it roots me, saves me, in what I believe. I will work to have a deeper understanding of the history I inherited and the history in the making – it is the soil in which I grow. Saving is conserving as well as setting free.

We often heard the word ‘organized’ on our journey. For me the word organized came to mean – knowing who you are and what you bring to the work. It meant planting your words and actions with a rebellious attention, selective care and abundant joy.

Visiting Across Borders

Visiting Across Borders

Gina Collignon is UUCSJ’s Senior Associate for Immersion Learning. She recently led a group from the Bethesda, MD/Washington DC area (that included members from the Cedar Lane, All Souls Unitarian in DC, and Davies Memorial UU churches) to the Arizona/Mexico Border.

Manual at the Border Wall

Manual at the Border Wall

“People used to visit here,” Manuel told us. “They would set up chairs and talk. Sometimes they would bring food and pass it through to each other.” We all stood on the U.S. side of the U.S./Mexico border. Rust iron slats rose high into the air, creating a physical barrier between us and the land that looked not that different mere feet away. Forces of the state had recently put up mesh wiring across the slats, effectively negating what little physical space remained open between the two neighboring lands. “Why would they do that?”  Manuel continued. “Drugs didn’t come through there. They are too tiny of spaces. Families would come to be together, to spend time, to share things. Now, the fence blocks even that.”

The image stayed trapped in my head: family members bringing foldout chairs merely to be close to the physical presence of those they loved; friends coming to chat, state-sponsored separation notwithstanding. As we walked away, I fell into conversation with a fellow delegation member. “These borders are in our mind. It’s just a physical manifestation of our own fears.” She looked at me as if I had said the most obvious thing ever. “Yeah.”

Returning to Borderlinks with a church that had already decided to become a sanctuary church was an eye- and heart-opening experience. As we chatted (a group of adults already committed to justice and yet still learning what that means), someone realized that even though they had committed to being a sanctuary church, they lived in a city divided by race. A river acted as a border separating the two sides. This realization brought us to a deeper questioning of the word “sanctuary.” Is our church really a sanctuary? Who defines sanctuary? How do we know when we’ve achieved that status? As the week progressed, we practiced the act of meeting across borders through visiting with detainees, meeting with people at the forefront of working for immigration justice, through daring to sit with our own messy emotions and identities.

Two Way Traffic SignAs I watched Borderlinks magnificently guide us through our itinerary, again and again I thought, “These borders are in our mind.” And privilege means that our emotive borders become physical borders. Privilege means that unjust borders can be something that we’re blind to. Privilege means sometimes not seeing the socio-economic, race-based, gender-based, body-based, culture-based (and so many more) borders that surround us constantly. “People used to visit here,” Manuel had told us. “They would set up chairs and talk.” Maybe that is one of the first steps we have to do to deconstruct the internalized borders we all carry within us. Set up a chair and talk to the person across. This might be part of the movement that then carries us through the work of dismantling and opposing the physical and legal borders being legally enacted around us. Only when the borders come down can people truly meet.

Activating the Next Generation

Activating the Next Generation

Deva Jones, Senior Associate for Service-Learning and Volunteer Placements, led a group of youth on one of UUCSJ’s newest programs Activate Florida: Solidarity with Migrant Farmworkers this April. To learn more about this program visit 

Old Ship Youth Group in ImmokaleeWhat do you think of when you hear, “Florida?  For many, the first words that come to mind are beaches, warm weather, vacation, and Disney World. For myself and the youth I led on a service learning trip to Immokalee, Fla., we do think of shared experiences, fun, and the outdoors. But above all else, we remember the inspiring farm and food justice organizers we met there, and the new framework for activism that they helped us build.

The Unitarian Universalist College of Social Justice (UUCSJ), a collaboration between the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC) and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), promotes human rights through immersion learning programs. In April, I had the privilege of leading a youth group from Old Ship Church in Hingham, Mass. on the very first UUCSJ Activate Youth Justice Journey to Immokalee. During our trip, we learned first-hand about issues facing migrant farmworkers and grassroots efforts to improve conditions.

Boycott Wendy's BannerLike many low-wage workers across the United States, migrant farmworkers in Southwest Florida face wage theft, harassment, threats of deportation, and discrimination in their work environments. In the face of these injustices, the resilient Immokalee community works together to advocate for their rights, including through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). CIW is a community-led grassroots organization that monitors workplace conditions and improves pay, conditions, and treatment for farmworkers through the Fair Food Program, a worker’s rights and corporate responsibility agreement. After learning from the CIW for two full days and leading a demonstration outside of a Wendy’s restaurant in Naples, Fla. (Wendy’s remains the only large fast food chain to not sign onto the Fair Food Program), the Old Ship Church youth group was eager to put their new knowledge and understanding of justice issues and grassroots organizing to work.

Youth With Dignity Sign

Learning about issues first-hand, and with peers, is a powerful way for youth to become engaged in new human rights and social justice issues. Through learning about one issue in depth, such as farmworker justice in Southwest Florida, youth become equipped with new activist tools and skills—and are inspired to action.

What do you think of when you hear the word, “youth”? When I think of the youth from Old Ship Church and the many others I have met through UUCSJ, I think of thoughtful, energetic activists who want to build a better, more just future.