We Keep Coming Back

We Keep Coming Back

Rev. Beth Banks is the Senior Minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis. She journeyed with other UU Religious Professionals to the Arizona-Mexico border in 2014. Below is her reflection of how that journey helped her energize her congregation around immigration justice.

2014 Religious Professionals Border Witness Participants

2014 Religious Professionals Border Witness Participants

In November of 2014, the College of Social Justice offered a border trip for religious leaders of our denomination. I wanted to travel with colleagues who came to learn for their own sake, but who also came to find inspiration for a new level of justice engagement with their congregations.

Each morning started with worship, preparing us for the day’s experience ahead. The week was intellectually stimulating, but it was my heart more than my mind that was broken open. We witnessed tremendous injustice, and what gave me hope, was witnessing the determination of both dedicated individuals and agencies who, because of their faith, had energy that did not cease.

Before returning home from the border trip, the staff of UUCSJ challenged us to choose something concerning immigration that we believed we could address within our sphere of influence. That’s how a new relationship focused on justice between the undocumented students of The University of California at Davis and The Unitarian Universalist Church of Davis began. In November 2014, the same month as the UU College of Social Justice trip for religious leaders, the AB 540 Undocumented Student Center was established by UC Davis. That first year, the Center served the needs of a couple hundred undocumented students. Since that first year, the number of known undocumented students is closer to 500, and there are more students every year.

Our relationship started with the allies who chose to represent the undocumented students. They spoke in worship services, and congregation members took special collections or made donations of gift cards to grocery stores. It seemed like such a small effort, and yet it was the sphere of influence available to us at the time.

SPEAK Member Raising their fists

SPEAK Members

However, at the beginning of the 2016-2017 academic year, the Center put us in direct relationship with members from SPEAK, a support group for students who are undocumented and their allies. Together, we discovered that the members of UUCD, as Unitarian Universalists, are uniquely positioned to be of assistance, as the students hoped to be in relationship with organizations that are LGBTQI friendly as well.

Trust has come slowly. We had much to learn, and so did the students. We were not necessarily skilled allies, and they were not familiar with churches that would support diversity as an ideal. With every passing season, there are more and more volunteer opportunities for congregants to support the students. We supply snacks at the Center where they study, offer our space on our church campus for their end of the year banquets and graduation parties for families. we’re running a Faithify fund raiser for their emergency funds, which supports their presence at the university or pays their DACA fees.

SPEAK - We Exist We Resist

SPEAK – We Exist We Resist

In return we promise to take the UndocuALLY training, to help those of us who have never lived in fear of deportation understand the secrecy needed to survive. With this training, we learn how to listen more carefully – slowly both groups are creating a bridge of trust.

This coming November the congregation is planning a border trip with UUCSJ because more people want to experience their own emersion learning. We will not learn alone. Prior to the trip, everyone in the congregation will be invited to attend the four sessions prepared by UUCSJ on immigration justice.

The sphere of influence, the one small thing that I could do when I returned from the UUCSJ border emersion trip, was making contact with the Executive Director of the Undocumented Center. I returned to her office repeatedly, asking the same question, “How can we help?” Eventually, we found just the place where we were needed most. When I ask the students why they are beginning to trust, they give an answer that is so seemingly mundane. ‘“It’s because you didn’t go away, and kept coming back.”  We’re going to keep coming back.

To learn more about our journeys for Religious professionals or to sign up for the upcoming fall 2017 journeys to the Border (Border Witness for Religious Leaders: Oct. 30 – Nov. 4, 2017) or Nicaragua (Guardians of the River: Climate Justice for Theologians: Nov. 25-Dec. 2), visit https://uucsj.org/journeys/religious-leaders/ 

So Goes West Virginia…

So Goes West Virginia…

In mid-July of 2017, a group of teenagers and adults from the UU Church of Delaware County will visit West Virginia on a UUCSJ Youth Service Journey. In part of the preparation for this pilot program, last week I had the immense pleasure of visiting West Virginia, and meeting with a host of congregations, faith leaders, organizations and activists.

Welcome to West Virginia SignI have to admit, upon planning for this trip, I found myself feeling a range of emotions: intrigued, nervous, romanticizing. Like few other places in the country, West Virginia has come to stand for something very deeply entrenched in our national psyche. It has been heralded as the “home of coal,” and post-election we heard endless analyses of the state of the “white working class” and how on earth they could turn out in such large numbers for someone like Donald Trump. On the other hand, folks in West Virginia often refer to themselves as a “third world country” and as a “national sacrifice zone.”

It’s clear that there is something at stake in engaging with West Virginia. 

One of the first things I noticed upon getting there was the strange fact that West Virginians are on the one hand deeply skeptical of “outsiders” who have come to “do good,” and on the other hand so friendly and hospitable.

They have reason to be skeptical: in the past 100 years, West Virginians have been viciously exploited and plundered by coal companies, northern banks and corrupt politicians. They have watched their breathtaking mountains be destroyed and their water contaminated, their wealth and natural wonders siphoned away to feed the insatiable hunger for national and global progress. And as the coal boom has ended, they have been abandoned. Resources and jobs have fled, and Democrats and Republicans alike have come along with a string of empty promises. The dignity that comes with a job, a community and knowing you are making meaningful contributions to society has withered way, and in that vacuum these same coal companies and political ideologues have imported an insidious narrative of white supremacy and vapid nationalism.

West Virginia Portest SignsBut there is another side I witnessed: West Virginia wasn’t always “white”, and wasn’t always poor, it has a long history of multi-racial activism led by the most affected (especially in coal mining unions), a long history of people fighting for dignity, diversity and sustainable development. And now, in the face of vicious inequality and environmental disaster, ordinary people are coming together to fight for their mountains, their water, their state and for their future.

I was so deeply moved by all the people I met and learned about, from the justice work, wisdom and commitment of the UU Congregation of Charleston, to the small but mighty New River UU Fellowship trying to put their faith into action, to UUSC partner Legal Aid of West Virginia offering legal support to the down and out, to grassroots organizations like RiseUp West Virginia, Refresh Appalachia, Our Water, WV Environmental Council, the WV Hub and countless others trying to organize for peace and justice. I was so grateful to be part of an Appalachian-wide interfaith gathering as they wrestled with huge questions while trying to lay the foundations for a multi-faith organization to help build a new Appalachia from among the ruins. Lastly, I was so inspired by two rural organizations UUCSJ will be partnering with who are both doing heroic work empowering rural West Virginians: Big Creek People in Action and the Southern Appalachia Labor School.

The UUCSJ Youth Service Journey will offer youth the experience I had: to learn this tragic and complex history, to meet these incredible people, to hear about the contemporary struggles of “third world America,” and to work alongside these folks and witness the tremendous efforts they are making to build their own future and maintain their dignity. It is our hope that this journey will provide a learning experience that goes way beyond the local issues faced by West Virginia and Appalachia. As Rev. Mel Hoover said to me, “So goes West Virginia, so goes America.”

By joining in the effort to build a just, sustainable, inclusive Appalachia, we can help build a just, sustainable, inclusive America (and by extension… world!). 

Chris Casuccio, Senior Associate for Immersion Learning

What Would FEM Do?

What Would FEM Do?

Kirsten Hunter is the Director of Religious Education at South Church in Portsmouth, NH and journeyed to Nicaragua with a small group from the church in January, 2017.

I have been back from Nicaragua for a little over a week now.
Such an astounding moment

– to leave

Always Embrace Relentless ChangeAs Trump was preparing to take office
As the Obamas were saying goodbye
With the women’s march gearing up
And the dialogue turned high.
Division was so palpable as we departed
– across aisles, but also between fellows
Women fighting other women for a seat at the table to articulate what feminism should look like in 2017
Liberals, pointing fingers at one another for anything that might be part of the reason for us being where we are
Conservatives trying to breathe into a new definition that has been written upon their heads, that they don’t necessarily own. Or want to own.
At such speed.
A feeling of utter unrest.

– and to return

With Trump in the oval office, and an endless stream of photographs on my facebook feed
Of women
Of children, and fathers. Crowds. Passion
And still unrest
But hope

And despair, oddly swirling in the words of dear ones
Reflecting on a historic gathering.Portsmouth Nicaragua Journey Group Circle
Reflecting on history unfolding.
Bracing themselves
Arming themselves.

– and in between

This part is even more illusive
I am asking myself to avoid romantic colors as I look for words.
I am reaching to find a way to convey all the things at once, so that I don’t mistakenly suggest simplicity
Or hierarchy
But we boarded a plane and arrived quite literally into the arms of people doing heroic work.
People who have not had the decades of national peace that our country has experienced.
People who know exactly what it means to feel powerless under the thumb of-
a dictator
A husband
A system
People, even, who know very dark truth about the country that I love.
About the ways that my United States has thrived at the expense of their liberty.
Long before this election.
And still, these people open their arms to me, to us.
And still, these people are just like us

I spent a week learning about the work of women who have organized.
They speak about it like an event. A moment in their life
“When I became organized” in the same way one might “find Jesus”.
I could hear truth in what they were describing, could find parallels, or glimpses of parallels to my own path.
Moments when I found a practice, a routine, a strategy that unfolded.
Moments when some shift led to blooming.
These women, one by one, found each other.
Day by day, spoke with each other
Examined the challenges they were facing in the midst of a revolution.
They looked under the rug
Looked in the faces of those who were oppressing them
Looked into their own hearts
And then, when they felt like they could see it wholly,
They started to strategize on how to break it down.

What Would FEM Do TogetherAnd for 22 years. They have been breaking it down.
They have been reading books about agriculture and accounting
About medicine and reproductive health
Feminist theory
Neo liberalism
Global economics.
They don’t seem to stop seeking more understanding, but also, they are organized
Which seems to mean, that every new piece of information gets plotted into their vision
Over and over they come back to their vision and it is from that place that they make their next step. And from that place, it seems like anything is possible.

Our week with the women of FEM in Nicaragua was so many things.
Witness, and discussion, and celebration
We shared sorrow and knowledge with one another
We learned from one another
We struggled to find language
We misunderstood, and misspoke, and stumbled over ourselves in ways we don’t even realise
But underlying most of it was a feeling that oddly, we were all doing the same work
We were comrades.

-And so I’m home now

in the midst of all of this madness, and I feel happy. I feel clear and ready to move forward.
I feel at once alarmed by what is being rolled out before me,
But also at ease.
I am prepared to keep breaking it down.
This moment in our country isn’t new
Just a different variety of the same old thing
Greed and power and money, being put before the needs of people.
Taking away access to education, and taking away women’s control of their bodies so that people have fewer tools with which to fight.
Vilifying humans based on their faith, on their skin color, on their sexuality.
Feeding hate
This isn’t new.
It’s almost timeless, really.
Which means all the answers are out there.

We just need to organize.
What would FEM do?

The Days Here are Full, and Fuller Are Our Minds

The Days Here are Full, and Fuller Are Our Minds

by Eleanor Kane

Ellie Kane is a member of South Church Unitarian Universalist in Portsmouth, NH. She is currently in Nicaragua with nine others from her church on an immersion journey of spirit and solidarity with out partner FEM.

Nicaragua RainbowIf the first aspect of Nicaragua that left us stunned was warm air, green trees, and the difference from the cold of home, quickly on the heels of that moment came a succession of others: a view of churning magma in the caldera of a volcano, a double rainbow over Lago Xolotlán, and the women we have met so far.  The days here are full, and fuller are our minds after each meeting.  We have learned of organizations that originated with a dozen women and have grown to change the lives of thousands, spoke with women inspired by the social change around them and have dedicated their lives to joining in, and heard of the odds they face, the culture around them that so resists their work, and the long road they have ahead of them to walk.


Dinner becomes discussions of hegemony, neoliberalism, and what feminism means to us and to Nicaraguans.  In the space of those differences and the meetings of that overlap, we dwell in the murk of deconstruction, unlearning what we thought we knew, leaving us grasping for an understanding that leads to questions upon questions.  Where we look for answers in conversation and long discussions as a group, in twos and threes, in our journals and the quiet moments of the day, what we find is openings for more wonder, so that we start each day full of the need to know more.

Each morning brings another opportunity to learn, and in our discussions with the women here, we see ourselves, the challenges facing our countries one and the same, differentiated by scale and magnitude, but in pursuit of the same goal. 

South Church Portsmouth GroupIn all of us lies a mirrored determination and resolve, and we emerge from each day, each conversation, each encounter re-energized and inspired over again. There is more to absorb here than can be done in a week, and more to talk about than we can cover in a day, and as we near the midpoint of our trip, our challenge turns from absorbing these stories to carrying them back home with us.  How we will represent this experience to others is nearly impossible, to put into words all that we have seen and learned, the stories with which we have been entrusted.  But as difficult a task as lays ahead of us in bringing this week back with us, brought back it will be, for this already has been unforgettable, and we still have days ahead.

A Story From The Borderlands

A Story From The Borderlands

Shelly Koo is the Associate for Online Content at UUSC (one of UUCSJ’s parent organizations). Her post was originally published on UUSC’s blog.

Update November 30: David has been released and is now reunited with his family in the U.S.

Last month, I had the opportunity to go on a Borderlinks trip with the UU College of Social Justice. For those who are unfamiliar with the program, UUCSJ travels with a group of participants to learn about the injustices that are happening in our very own borderlands, specifically near the U.S.-Mexico border between Arizona and Sonora. Through the trip we were better able to understand why so many are fleeing Central America and seeking asylum in the U.S.; what kinds of injustices happen along the journey; and, for those who are stopped, what happens in the detention centers.


The October delegation to Border Links

As an employee at UUSC, I’ve learned a lot about Central American refugees. As part of the communications team, I am able to spread awareness about these issues through multiple channels. And prior to this position, I spent almost two years with UUCSJ. These issues were not unfamiliar to me. Yet going to the borderlands was an eye-opening and jarring experience. For five days, the group was immersed in this one very complex issue, meeting our partners, walking the desert trails that migrants have walked on, and even meeting migrants being held in detention centers. We experienced many things and we heard many stories, but one story in particular, I know I will never forget.

His name was David* and he was only 19. He came to the United States from Guatemala eight months ago and has been in detention ever since. Through Mariposas sin Fronteras (Butterflies without Borders), our group was able to meet with some of the migrants who were being held in the detention centers, including David. Mariposas sin Fronteras works specifically with LGBTQ detainees, providing case support, translation, visitation, and other advocacy.

David was working for months in the capital of Guatemala and eventually, gang members extorted money from him, demanding that he pay a portion of his salary every month. One month when he was unable to pay, he was sexually assaulted as punishment. He tried to move to a new area, but the gang members found him and continued to sexually assault him. Fearing for his life, he fled.

David was specifically targeted and discriminated against because he was gay. He told us that being gay in Central America means you have no support system and no rights. He shared a story about how one small neighborhood was hiding and protecting a young gay man and his partner, and the gang found out and burned down that neighborhood. The police are often corrupt and work with these gangs so there is no protection. His story is not uncommon.

David is an asylum-seeker who is now a detained. His mother and younger sister are already in the U.S. His sister is only nine months old and he’s never met her. He’s experienced many terrible things in his life, but this is not his whole story. David is, in many ways, your average teenager. He has a lot of energy, his eyes and smile are warm, and despite his detention and what he has been through, he is hopeful. When asked what he’s looking forward to most when he gets out of detention, he enthusiastically said, “Pizza!” He also loves football, soccer, and basketball and eventually wants to be a fashion designer. He looks forward to being reunited with his family and holding his baby sister for the first time.

I continue to be hopeful for him and invite you to be a part of David’s journey and many others like him. Learn more about this issue, take action with UUSC, or experience this powerful journey yourself with UUCSJ.

*While David said I could share his story in the hope that it would help others, his name has been changed here to protect his identity.

Responding To The Challenge The World Has Laid At Our Feet

Responding To The Challenge The World Has Laid At Our Feet

Rev. Carolyn Patierno talks about how her eyes were opened by CSJ’s Border Witness Program and how this helped motivate her congregation’s decision to buy a house for refugee families. For more on this audacious decision see the linked Boston Globe article.

For a brief moment in the fall of 2014 I had the eye-opening experience that was UUCSJ’s Border Witness program, in Arizona and Mexico. It wasn’t that immigration injustice had escaped my awareness until then, but rather that the enormity of the injustice was difficult to comprehend until I was at close range.

That experience has stayed with me these two years since, during which the world has seen the most significant human migration in history.

Rev. Patierno leading worship during the Border Witness Program

Rev. Patierno leading worship during the Border Witness Program

We know that people only leave their home countries and seek refuge elsewhere because their lives have become so dire that for their own sake and that of their families, they must leave. We have all seen the images of our human kin desperately seeking safety, fleeing all they have ever known. Whether by raft over oceans or by foot through deserts, these journeys are harrowing and offer only a dim promise of home. But “dim” to many is better than dead.

In the fall of 2015 the house that sits next to All Souls / New London came up for sale. The conversation went something like this:

“Should we buy it?  How could we NOT buy it?”

“What will we use it for?”

“We’ll figure it out.  Its purpose will become clear.”

Which, as you might imagine, wasn’t the best sales pitch for a congregation.

Soon thereafter the plight of Syrian refugees began to be amplified in the media. A leader in the Muslim community came to the table at the local clergy association meeting and challenged faith leaders to do something. He challenged us to do something BIG, in fact. And so we set to work. All Souls is working with 7 other faith communities in an effort that’s been named “Start Fresh”.  Since we started last fall, two families have been settled in New London so far – one from Syria and the other from the Sudan.

And very early on in the process, the purpose for the house next door became crystal clear: it would be a house of hospitality for newly resettled refugee families. It would be the first stop in the long road that is resettlement.

The house is currently being brought back to health and life. We hope it will be ready to receive at least two more families by November 1.

Every day, the faces of the “tired and poor masses” float through heart and memory, whether they come from Central America and across the harsh desert, or from Syria and across the dangerous sea. Systems of injustice and perpetual war need to be dismantled and until they are, we bought a house, put our hands to the task and responded to the challenge the broken and beautiful world has laid at our feet: To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with [our] God.

Or, as Edward Everett Hale said:

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.


To see what All Souls New London is currently doing or to see pictures of the House of Hospitality, check out their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/allsoulsnewlondon/