Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Who do UUs reach out to?

During this Holy Day season, I have noticed, in the newspapers, many accounts of how local evangelical and nondenominational churches, both large and small, have reached out widely to serve the poor, with gifts of food, toys, clothing, and other of life's necessities. These efforts are very much appreciated by recipients, by community members, and, I suspect, even by Unitarian Universalists who, at least around here, don't make large efforts in this department.

One reason I think UUs don't do more of this kind of outreach is that we have little personal experience of deep poverty and homelessness. Many individual UUs have this experience, but most do not. I also think we are self-conscious about privileged white liberals doing something nice for the underprivileged. We've been tarred with that brush a little too often and are aware of the patronizing attitude this projects. We are also well-aware that, though feeding hungry people is absolutely necessary, it doesn't address the root causes of poverty.

So we aren't out there in the Christmas marketplace making a name for ourselves by doing good. The people who are out there tend to be the Salvation Army, the Christian Missionary Alliance, the Union Gospel Mission, Catholic religious, and other conservative religious folk who know darn well what it feels like to go without, because they've been there, have lived in poor neighborhoods, have family members who are the working poor.

This is not a diatribe about UU social uselessness; I think we are very socially useful. I also don't want to appear to undervalue the outreach of other religious folk. It seems to me that, just as there is a continuum of religious philosophy, from radical fundamentalism to radical liberalism, there is a continuum of humanitarian service, from feeding the hungry to investigating and addressing the causes of hunger.

Feeding and clothing are pretty public; they draw the photographers for cute pictures of little kids with new toys and clothes and stories about how whatever church it is has pulled together this major effort to provide a Christmas for hundreds of people. Nearly every article has quotes by one or more leaders of the church saying something like, "I remember what it was like for me...." Those leaders may preach a theology that is not very welcoming in other ways, but they sure walk their talk when it comes to feeding the hungry.

Locally, the pastor of the CMA church refused to show me the ropes as a volunteer chaplain because he didn't agree with my UU theology; however, he and his congregation offer a free lunch twice a week to anyone who wants to come to the CMA church and eat. When I visited there, with our social action team, the lunch bunch was an assorted group of apparent vagrants and well-dressed business people.

Unitarian Universalists, I think, are best suited to figuring out what causes hunger and poverty and then looking for ways to address that at the roots. I read in the UU World of the efforts of UU congregations around the country to help people provide their own food, to teach energy-saving techniques, to increase use of public transportation and that sort of thing. It's not very public work. The photo ops tend to feature older people grubbing in the dirt or pounding nails or registering voters, not cute little kids.

But darn it, I think it's important and it's the kind of social action we do best; it fits with our education level, our world view, and our abilities. And somebody's got to do it or it won't get done.


Z said...

Our UU congregation here in Springfield, IL (the ALUUC) does a lot of work for the poor and the homeless. Our social action committee (of which I am a member) conducts a lot of fundraising for the poor and homeless, and we do quite of bit of work in the community. We are very active in Springfield's Overflow Shelter. I cannot say enough good things about our congregation and the services that we provide to those less fortunate.

We also have quite a few people in the congregation that were, if they are not now, below the poverty level. I was actually homeless for a time myself about 20 years ago. From that low point in my life, it took me quite a long time to build back up to where I am today (middle class, for a reference). Therefore, I do all that I possibly can.

But, not everyone at my congregation was poor at one time or another. However, they still have great compassion and do all that they can and in a variety of ways. I absolutely adore all of the people in my congregation because of their sincere compassion and work to those less fortunate.



Anonymous said...

I find your statement that many of the organizations' members listed have compassion for those less fortunate because they've been there. As a member of a CMA church, I've led a very fortunate life in which I've had the benefit of a higher education, a career wherein I've made six figures for years and, although myself or my family or my upscale neighbors have never experienced want of any kind, I am compassionate and do for others because my faith in Christ demands it of me. Christ says we are obligated to care for those less forunate. For you to assume that those in traditional conservative religions are those less fortunate, is painting with a broad brush. Be careful to not classify people.

ms. kitty said...

Thank you both for your comments. Obviously it doesn't work to make too broad generalizations, and I can see where my experience is too limited for me to pontificate. You've both educated me. Thanks.

LinguistFriend said...

This is a provocative subject, in terms of which many different things happen in different congregations, and there are different views among UUs. I have been a member of one congregation which participated in a good program for housing the homeless, and a member of another which made only limited periodic gestures in that or any similar direction.

Some UUs are pained at the deterioration of the social safety net, something in which both major political parties participated. Others think that there are or should be better ways to deal with such problems. A couple of years ago, I gave a sermon in which I argued that a major reason for the inadequacy of UU efforts in this direction is the fact that such problems go well beyond the ability of single congregations to deal effectively with them. The single congregational unit, however, is the level at which many congregations have defined and limited their functions.

I argued, many UU congregations function in a degree of isolation, whether internally created or externally imposed. In this isolation, they are much less likely to participate in any major charitable activity that is going on in their areas than would probably be the case if they entered into a broader network of interaction.

A number of UU congregations are self-isolated, from other UU congregations in the local area, from their national organization, and from any possibility of ecumenically-based activity. Thus, I have been a member of one congregation which defined itself as humanist in such a narrow sense that it had split off from a local larger unit with broader views, with which congregation it had very little joint activity, and stayed aloof from a potential local cluster group, contributing to the district but hardly participating in it otherwise.

Sometimes, to be sure, such isolation is externally imposed. In one region where I have lived, mainline Christian pressures were so extreme that to state publicly that one was UU was to risk losing one's professional practice, as a local physician told me in explaining why he did not join the UU congregation formally.

I have argued that when we are faced with the social issues of our country at this time, the major ones require collaboration not only across congregational lines, but also across the borders of religious groups. Such ecumenical collaboration is not an infringement on the particular theological views that caused the creation of different groups. To the contrary, it is much more often the case that without such collaboration, each religious group loses the oppportunity to realize itself as fully as it can, even in its own terms.

Joel said...

Anonymous, it's far from universal, but there has always been a certain correlation between religious traditions and socioeconomic strata. I've heard it phrased that members of some of the more fundamentalist churches concentrate on storing up treasure in heaven because they find it so hard to come by on earth. To be honest, I agree with their priorities myself, but I don't live them out as well as a lot of folks I know.