A Primer on Activism from Unitarian Universalists

Arizona is ground zero for the struggle over immigration: when the Arizona legislature passed SB 1070 and the law was scheduled to go into effect on July 29, groups in Arizona began organizing and inviting allies from around the nation to join them. Despite the last-minute injunction halting the worst aspects of the bill, planned protests and prayer vigils across the country proceeded, and many resulted in significant media attention.

The religious community was engaged and integral to most of the local organizing, but the leadership didn’t come from denominational structures. Rather, it came largely from immigrant rights and worker justice groups, which invited religious leaders to participate. Although most faith bodies and denominations have very strong statements on immigration reform, those same denominations did not activate people. With one glaring exception—the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA).

Of the several hundred religious leaders who showed up, only the Unitarian Universalist Association seriously committed staff, money, and organizing talent to the struggle.

Standing on the Side of Love

Let’s look at what the UUA did and analyze what lessons others in the faith community, particularly in judicatory leadership, might learn from the UUA’s example.

Susan Leslie, the UUA’s Director for Congregational Advocacy & Witness, provides this useful context:

Supporting human rights for all people, including immigrants, is a core Unitarian Universalist value. At our first General Assembly in 1961, we passed a resolution on the rights of immigrant workers, followed by a 1963 resolution calling for immigration reform. Throughout the 1970s we supported immigrant farm worker campaigns, and in the 1980s many Unitarian Universalist congregations were actively involved in the Sanctuary Movement. Three General Assemblies of the UUA endorsed sanctuary for refugees and the UUA Board of Trustees established a fund to support individuals seeking sanctuary and to aid churches providing sanctuary.

Our 2004 Statement on Civil Liberties affirmed our commitment to advocate for the right to due process of immigrants, refugees, and foreign nationals. In 2006 and 2007, the General Assembly passed Actions of Immediate Witness to support immigrant communities, including a call for an immediate moratorium on federal raids and resulting deportations. In 2007, the UUA became the first denomination to join the New Sanctuary Movement, supporting the leadership of its UU Church of Long Beach, California, which was an early sanctuary congregation. At our most recent GA we passed an Action of Immediate Witness condemning SB 1070 and calling for action to stop copycat legislation in others states and to work for humane federal immigration reform.

Clearly, the UUA was grounded in strong policy. But frankly, almost all the major faith bodies have strong policy positions on immigration reform and economic justice (see “What Faith Groups Say About Immigration Reform” [PDF]).

From 2007 to 2010, the national Advocacy and Witness staff of the UUA compiled a database of more than 300 UU congregations engaged in education, advocacy and organizing around immigrant issues, created educational resources, and posted both educational and advocacy resources on the UUA website.

In 2009, the UUA launched its Standing on the Side of Love campaign, in direct response to the 2008 shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Church in Knoxville. The congregation had been targeted for its openness to gays and lesbians. Activists soon realized that the message “standing on the side of love” applied to a wide variety of justice and human rights struggles, including immigrant rights.

Also in 2009, the UUA’s new president, Rev. Peter Morales, made immigration reform a top UUA public witness priority. At the denomination’s January 2010 Board of Trustees meeting, he and UUA moderator (and Chair of the Board) Gini Courter arranged for trustees to meet with undocumented immigrants, community organizers and immigration experts, thus laying the groundwork for full leadership support for immigration reform advocacy.

When SB 1070 was passed and the Boycott Arizona campaign began, the UUA Board of Trustees put a business resolution on the GA agenda to relocate its 2012 Phoenix meeting. Through consultation with the organizations Puente and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), the UUA decided to keep the event in Phoenix, but focus it intentionally on immigration justice. Soon thereafter, immigrant rights leaders in Phoenix invited the UUA to join them for the July 29 Day of Non-Compliance in Arizona.

The UUA has four congregations in Phoenix that have been leaders on immigration reform. These congregations and their pastoral and lay leaders played important roles in figuring out the on-the-ground activities and coordinating the big July 29 events. Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, sent an e-mail invitation to 30,000 people on the Standing on the Side of Love list asking them to join her in Phoenix. Rev. Paul Langston-Daley, minister at the West Valley UU Church in Glendale, served as a bridge between the national UUA and local organizing work. The Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock provided travel support for those unable to get there themselves.

Months of preparation went into making the experience a meaningful and effective one. Local folks participated tirelessly in coalition work, figuring out what roles they could play in conjunction with others. Arrangements were made for housing, food, legal defense, meeting space, airport rides and coordinated T-shirts. A sophisticated communications program was developed that involved press releases, Facebook, texting alerts, Twitter, and YouTube. The UUA Moderator created a Facebook page calling people to go to Arizona. The UUA President announced at the GA that he was going to Phoenix for the Day of Non-Compliance and it was posted on the denomination’s website. There was a sign up for Phoenix on the Standing on the Side of Love website. The entire leadership of the denomination was focused on making this action come together.

Most Unitarian Universalists descended upon Phoenix two days before the day of action. The first evening, UU demonstrators watched the new film 9500 Liberty and talked afterwards with one of the documentary’s director/producers, Eric Byler. The next day was focused on orientation, which included analysis of the court ruling and why it was only a partial victory, background on the immigration crisis, training for civil disobedience and talking points for working with the media.

On July 28, Rev. Morales published a Huffington Post piece explaining “Why I’ll be in Phoenix,” which outlined the issues and the denomination’s commitment to protesting SB 1070.

Rocking the Protests

On the actual day of protest, the UUs rocked. Some began the day joining the 4:30 a.m. march to the interfaith service. The rest of the UU protestors began the day at the 6 a.m. interfaith service, in which Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray of the UU Congregation of Phoenix, played a central role and UU singers participated in the joint choir. The more than 200 UUs, some in clergy garb but most in their bright yellow shirts emblazoned with the Standing on the Side of Love logo, were visible in the service and then in the march down the street. Once groups convened downtown, around at 9 a.m., civil disobedience actions began in multiple locations. Although there was a fair amount of training and planning behind all the civil disobedience actions, it all looked a bit chaotic—except for the Unitarian Universalists.

The UUs were active in two locations. A large number claimed a major downtown intersection, where 23 of them grabbed hold of a giant flag saying Arizona Human Rights, stood in the middle of the street and refused to leave. Those who chose not to get arrested stood on the sidewalks nearby cheering them on. The group sang songs, repeated chants and offered a powerful witness to the city of Phoenix. Those on the sidelines snapped pictures, posted to Facebook, tweeted and got the word out far and wide. Participants were young and old, men and women, multi-racial. One UU wheelchair-bound protestor, Audrey Williams, came from California to join the witness. Hundreds of Phoenix police in full riot gear surrounded them. The police appeared to be using the event as a training exercise. Groups of 20 police officers would run from side to side. It took well over an hour before the police began to arrest the protestors.

A few blocks away, six other UU clergy, including Rev. Frederick-Gray and Rev. Morales, were arrested outside the Maricopa County jail, known as the 4th Street jail. Chaos reigned when Sheriff Joe Arpaio blocked off the street and protesters got swept into the jailhouse.

The UU engagement in Arizona made a significant impact. Following are seven lessons this experience offers for the faith community on effectively engaging and mobilizing people around the immigration crisis (or other social justice issues).

1) Engage leadership.

The UUA president made a personal commitment on the issue. He offered to go to Arizona. He issued an invitation to others. He agreed to get arrested. Denominational leaders are often overwhelmed with their responsibilities and commitments. And yet, their personal involvement in economic and social justice issues, on the ground, particularly in the midst of tough situations, can support and embolden local leadership and draw others into the work. Leading through action is always stronger than through words.

Equally important was the leadership of the local pastors in Phoenix, especially the terrific work of Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray and of the UUA’s moderator, Gini Courter, who came to Phoenix with members of the UUA Board.

2) Link to principles and history.

The UUs consistently linked the struggle in Arizona to their longstanding commitment to civil rights and their core principles. The UUs also linked the campaign to the denomination’s anti-racism initiative.

3) Assign staff and resources for planning.

The UU committed money and staff to the planning and preparation in Arizona. Presumably, the UUs are as cash-strapped as other denominations, and yet they committed resources to action and witness. As a result of the denomination’s commitment, contributions flowed to help with bail, legal defense, and additional outreach work.

4) Coordinate with local coalitions.

Often, the planning for large social action events, particularly ones involving planned civil disobedience, is a bit complicated, requiring lots of time, patience, and flexibility. The UUs developed their plans in collaboration and coordination with others on the ground. The UUs were particularly grateful for the work of Puente and the interfaith folks in Somos. This respectful approach is not always easy but leads to deep relationships long-term.

5) Be visual.

The UUs were very visual. Their yellow T-shirts could be seen blocks away. Their giant banner was a good media visual. And they chose a smart downtown street location that attracted attention.

6) Use social media.

The UU media team took advantage of the latest in social media. Participants posted on Facebook and YouTube. They tweeted. They took photos and videos. The mass text alerts told people where to go and kept folks abreast of breaking news.

7) Ask for personal engagement and sacrifice.

The UUA made a courageous and bold ask of supporters. People were asked to get to Phoenix in July and consider getting arrested. Approximately one-third of those arrested in Phoenix were UUs. Participants were blessed by the experience. Rev. David Miller from Solana Beach, California wrote in a blog post:

This week I have wept with sadness but also with great hope and joy. I feel this is a turning point for Unitarian Universalism. There we were, in our orange-ish yellow shirts, in mass, with the giant word “love” on our chests. Excuse the old marketing guy in me, but there it was, our brand, we were being called “the love people.” It was phenomenal to be a part of a coordinated effort of civil disobedience with Unitarian Universalists from every corner of this country. Lay people, ministers, administrators, association staff, all coming together. People from all over the association, linked arm in arm with brothers and sisters in the struggle and with our president leading the way, I was so proud. I was proud of our joint effort, our cooperation with local organizations and the visible power we had being there together. We were supporting each other as members of a faith, a faith steeped in the power of love to change hearts.

Just and comprehensive immigration reform is clearly the major civil rights issue for the foreseeable future. Twelve million workers and their families are struggling to survive in the toughest economic time in decades. Immigrant students without documents can’t further their education or fulfill their dreams. And too many native-born Americans, especially those in economic desperation themselves, blame immigrants—instead of the country’s failed immigration and economic policies—for our economic woes.

Given the significance of the immigration crisis, the religious community’s values around welcoming immigrants and the substantial role immigrants play in congregations throughout the nation, one would expect that denominations would be leading in every action around the nation. Unfortunately, the formal denominational leadership has not played the role it could and should. Luckily, the Unitarian Universalist Association offered an example in Arizona of what can and should occur. Let’s hope others will “go and do likewise.”