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.