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People's Church in Kalamazoo, MI is 2012 UUA Bennett Award Winner

People's Church in Kalamazoo, MI is 2012 Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) Bennett Award for Congregational Action of Human Justice and Social Action Winner!

Social Justice History

Ten years ago, after a Sunday Service, a newcomer asked about People’s Church social action program and a long-time member answered, “Oh, we don’t do that.” Today, just a look at the congregation’s website reveals a vibrant social justice ministry, from community organizing and community service, to advocacy at the local, state and national level, and an international partnership. Now a Standing on the Side of Love banner hangs in the sanctuary, forty people from the congregation recently attended a faith-based community organization event where they brought a $1,000 donation they had raised, and fifty people—adults, youth, and children—helped prepare and serve a meal at an interfaith weekly program for homeless people. What has changed to make the congregation this year’s recipient of the UUA’s social justice award?

People’s Church has a long and proud history of working for human justice and social action. In 1889 the church called a young woman minister, Caroline Bartlett, who soon after arriving in Kalamazoo said, "This church cannot be a place where we are merely to come together once a week and enjoy our doctrine and congratulate ourselves that we have a faith free from superstition. We must do something for others, as well as for ourselves. And the more we have done for others, the more in the end, we shall find we have done for ourselves." She promoted a seven-day church with social programs for all people, regardless of race, color or creed. In 1892, having constructed a new building, a free public kindergarten was opened to the community; a women's gymnasium was instituted; a school of household science taught cooking, housekeeping, home nursing, and sewing using as teachers vocational school graduates from Chicago. There was a manual training class for men and a literary club named The Frederick Douglass Club for African Americans.

Throughout the 1900s the church was active in the Kalamazoo community, from participating in the Council of Social Agencies and the Central Trades Labor Council in the 1930s and 1940s to working for school integration in the 1950s and 1960s and for women’s and gay and lesbian rights in the 1970s. However, like in many UU congregations, this period was followed by a time of conflict, and during the 1980s and into the 1990s the prevailing philosophy became that while individuals should work for justice, 'the church should never take a stand.'

A New Approach

By 1995, the congregation was ready for a new approach to congregational life and outreach. Rev. Jill McAllister was called to be the minister of the church in 1998, bringing her experience on the UUA Board of Trustees and a dedication to developing the collective strength of the Unitarian Universalist movement as a whole. She and the Board members began talking about creating a Social Justice Coordinating Committee and some of them attended a Heartland District Social Justice Workshop and came back with enthusiasm, ideas, and resources for doing so. An All Church Planning Retreat was held soon after that with the goal of developing a justice ministry deeply engaged in their community.

In spring 2002 the congregation brought in a UUA Social Justice Empowerment Workshop to discern what they most cared about, to develop a collective vision, and decide who they wanted to work with and how. They established criteria for selecting issues to speak out and act on that included grounding in Unitarian Universalist (UU) religious values, an opportunity to make a difference, and being in relationship with community partners to work for justice. A special focus was on developing interfaith relationships and bridging race and class divides. This process transformed what had previously been a divisive dynamic in the congregation to one that was more thoughtful, nuanced, and religiously grounded.

A major outcome of the retreat and workshop was that the congregation decided to join an effort to start an interfaith congregation-based community organization (CBCO) in Kalamazoo that became known as ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Action and Advocacy in the Community). ISAAC is an affiliate of the statewide Gamaliel of Michigan, and of the national Gamaliel Foundation Network. During the first three years of participation nearly twenty members of the congregation’s 200 members were trained by the organizing network and a Core Team of eight members formed. People’s participated in an all congregation listening campaign that took place among ISAAC’s member congregations and involved over 200 people to decide the focus of the organization. Members of People’s took leadership roles in all the task forces that emerged, including early childhood and education, housing, and county transportation. Several of them went on to become city commissioners and organizers of major community coalitions. People's received ISAAC's Leadership Award for their role in securing funding from the city and state for early childhood education, as well as bringing a multi-million dollar grant for the Nurse Family Partnership to Kalamazoo. ISAAC also lifted up People’s role in voter registration and for bringing a specific anti-racism focus to ISAAC’s ministry and they were recognized for their lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) advocacy in the community.

Standing on the Side of Love

In 2009, the congregation held its inaugural Standing on the Side of Love event when they joined with other community organizations as One Kalamazoo to advocate for the continuance of a local non-discrimination ordinance passed by the City Commission. Religious conservatives had challenged the ordinance, but thanks to the work of People’s with One Kalamazoo the repeal of the ordinance was defeated by more than 85% of voters.

People’s also has a commitment to anti-racism ministry. Through a Kalamazoo Racial and Economic Justice initiative, the congregation became engaged in local anti-racism work, and in May 2009 invited ERAC/CE (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality), a local anti-racism organization, to present an introduction to a Crossroads anti-racism training. More than 25 members attended that workshop. Of those 25, ten attended a two-and-a-half day ERAC/CE training later in the year. People’s obtained grant support from the Kalamazoo County Foundation to support ERAC/CE training for congregational staff. They also procured a grant to bring UU theologian Rev. Dr. Mark Morrison Reed for a weekend workshop on multiculturalism that helped them form an anti-racism multicultural committee. The Examining Whiteness UUA curriculum was used and they and are currently designing a plan for long-term congregational transformation.

Crossing International Borders

For more than ten years, People's has been active in the UU Partner Church Program. In addition to being in partnership with a church in Romania, the congregation has become a partner with an emerging congregation in Burundi. The partnership received a UU Funding Program grant to support an initiative addressing domestic violence in Burundi. The congregation also supports a micro-lending program in Burundi and outreach to an ethnic minority population in Burundi to help them attain education, voting cards, and other civil rights. The micro-lending project began with $2,500 sent by the Kalamazoo congregation three years ago. A widowed woman with children and no income could qualify to receive $100 to $150 to invest in a small business, such as selling vegetables, rice and/or coconut or banana drinks in the market. That woman would pay back the money with very little interest and then the money would be loaned to someone else. The Burundian Unitarians added a literacy component to the program—teaching reading, basic accounting skills and reproductive health information.

The most recent partnership project was for building a church in a neighborhood of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, that has the highest domestic violence rates in the country. The government had told the Burundi congregation they could not establish a legally recognized church without property and a building, so People’s Church and other U.S. and Canadian UU congregations helped them buy land and build a church by raising $45,000 in two years.

Rev. Jill McAllister says, “Our international work is not missionary work in the traditional sense. Our work begins with requests. Through shared leadership, we help people articulate their own priorities and discover their own local resources to help their efforts be both successful and sustainable.” People’s international connections have also led them to be active with the Unitarian Universalist Association of Uganda in their struggle against criminalization of homosexuality there.

Dynamic Social Justice Ministry

The congregation’s members support a dynamic and diverse range of justice ministries, including ongoing community organizing with ISAAC on youth violence, drug prevention, affordable housing, and transportation; a community prisoner release project; a Green Sanctuary Committee; Habitat for Humanity; Martha's Table—an interfaith weekly program for homeless people supported by eleven congregations; and mentoring at Lincoln Elementary School, where over 20 church members donate one hour per week. People’s is a supporting member of the Michigan UU Social Justice Network advocating with UUs and other partners for just legislation at the state level. The Social Justice Coordinating Council held five special collections for selected social programs this year, raising over $7,000. The congregation has also recently begun outreach to the local immigrant community and is learning about immigration policy in preparation for Justice GA and for bringing the work home.

Dr. Tim Barktik, President of People’s Church writes: “When Jill introduced a Charge for a Social Justice Coordinating Committee in 2000, we were not truly acting as a congregation on the outreach mission statement we had adopted. Now, we are a recognized community leader in social justice. All ages in our church participate in this work. This ministry brings people to our church. We have gone from writing (righteous) 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. We also engage with others in our district, in the UUA, and in the international UU movement to make our values be seen, heard, and effective in building more just communities and a more just world.”

At the ISAAC Banquet where Rochelle Habeck Hunt, People’s Core Team leader received the Leadership Award, she said, “While People's may be getting the award for our contribution, we think our church has been the lucky one in this relationship. We have received much from ISAAC—the opportunity to work for social justice in partnership with other churches, the chance to get to know members of other congregations and to appreciate and enjoy their ways of worship. We have formed friendships with people with whom we live in this village, but whom we may never have met. We have gone into each other’s churches. We have sung and worshiped and celebrated together. Our team and our congregation have learned much from our work and from knowing you. And we at People's are the better for it.”

Read the action steps for transformative congregational justice ministry.

For more information contact socialjustice @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Wednesday, May 9, 2012.

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Members of People's Church in Kalamazoo, MI attend ISAAC's Issue Convention in 2010.  


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Rev. Jill McAllister at a 2011 ISAAC event


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Religious Education Committee members from People's Church serve food at Martha's Table, an interfaith weekly program for homeless people supported by eleven congregations.

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