Unitarians and Universalists, throughout their respective histories, have insisted that our faith must be lived. Our faith calls us to engage our world, not retreat from it. If it is this life, not some future life, that matters, then we must embody love and justice right where we are. Unitarian Universalist faith calls us to compassion for those in need. Further, our faith calls us to the work of building and reforming institutions in order to make justice, fairness, and peace the reality of life for all.
This dual calling -- (a) to compassionate direct charity to those in need and (b) to social reforms for peace and justice -- is illustrated in "The Parable of Good Works":
Once upon a time there was a small village on the edge of a river. The people there were good and the life in the village was good. One day a villager noticed a baby floating down the river. The villager quickly jumped into the river and swam out to save the baby from drowning.We are called to "rescue the babies." We are also called to "head upstream" to address causes of the problems. As people of compassion, we want to meet needs that arise. As people of intelligence and awareness, we also want to advocate for reforms to prevent needs from arising.
The next day this same villager was walking along the river bank and noticed two babies in the river. He called for help, and both babies were rescued from the swift waters. And the following day four babies were seen caught in the turbulent current. And then eight, then more, and still more.
The villagers organized themselves quickly, setting up watch towers and training teams of swimmers who could resist the swift waters and rescue babies. Rescue squads were soon working twenty-four hours a day. And each day the number of helpless babies floating down the river increased.
The villagers organized themselves efficiently. The rescue squads were now snatching many children each day. Groups were trained to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Others prepared formula and provided clothing for the chilled babies. Many...were involved in making clothing and knitting blankets. Still others provided foster homes and placement.
While not all the babies, now very numerous, could be saved, the villagers felt they were doing well to save as many as they could each day. Indeed, the village priest blessed them in their good work. And life in the village continued on that basis.
One day, however, someone raised the question, "But where are all these babies coming from? Who is throwing them into the river? Why? Let's organize a team to go upstream and see who's doing it."
The seeming logic of the elders countered: "And if we go upstream, who will operate the rescue operations? We need every concerned person here."
"But don't you see," cried the one lone voice, "if we find out who is throwing them in, we can stop the problem and no babies will drown. By going upstream we can eliminate the cause of the problem."
"It is too risky." And so the numbers of babies in the river increased daily. Those saved increased, but those who drowned increased even more. (Interreligious Task Force for Social Analysis, Must We Choose Sides? Quoted in Richard S. Gilbert, The Prophetic Imperative: Social Gospel in Theory and Practice, 2nd Ed. 2000. pp. 14-15.)
To carry out both kinds of social action -- the work of charity and the work of justice -- Social Action Ministry Teams can spearhead our efforts and provide crucial guidance, direction, and coordination of the congregation's energies.
Here's the plan.
In order to be recognized as a Social Action Ministry Team (SAMT) of CUC, the Team needs:
(1) At least five members
(2) A brief Team Description -- less than one page -- which is revised every summer if the SAMT wishes to continue.
A number of our churches are large enough to have hired a dedicated Social Action Coordinator or called a Social Action Minister who directs the social action efforts of the congregation. The combined experience of these staff and ministers through years of working with their congregants bears out that:
- One person is a lone voice in the wilderness with little connection.
- Two people can have a conversation.
- Three people may be able to pull something off for a little while -- but they'll run out of steam to keep it going.
- Four people is getting close. They can certainly hold regular meetings for a while, though they are likely not to be fully connected to the congregation.
- But five people can represent the broad-base of the congregation. Five people with hearts and minds set on it can change the world. Also, in a team of five, if one or even two people miss a meeting, the team is still large enough to continue its ministry.
"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."We might add: "Small, yes. But it does take at least five."
THE TEAM DESCRIPTION
The Team Description covers seven items; the first three quite simple, and the last four calling for some thought as the SAMT clarifies its drive and strategy.
1. Name. The Social Action Ministry Team needs a name for itself that clearly identifies its intentions and activities.
2. Purpose. The Social Action Ministry Team needs a one- or -two-sentence statement of its purpose. What does the team do to help heal our world? Include whether the SAMT:
(a) is an ongoing effort;
(b) plans/organizes a one-time-event (in which case the SAMT disbands after the event); or
(c) plans/organizes one annual event.
3. Members. List the five or more members of the SAMT. These are the people who are making a commitment to the SAMT's purpose. For SAMTs that are an ongoing effort, the commitment is for one year at time. For SAMTs for one-time or annual events, the commitment is through the completion of the event.
4. Theological motivation. In a couple sentences (three at most), express how the SAMT's "service is our prayer." Think about: why does the team's purpose belong in a faith institution? What is the spiritual reason for doing this? What in your heart inspires you to devote yourself to this ministry? What motivates you? In your own words, from your heart (not using the seven principles as a crutch), why is this ministry important? Articulating your theological motivation can be a wonderful adventure in intentional faith development. Learning to articulate this, and how to translate that theological motivation into justice, is a blessed journey. Rev. Meredith can help your SAMT articulate it's theological motivation.
5. Mission fit. Every ministry of CUC needs to fit into CUC's mission. Each SAMT needs one sentence saying how it's purpose advances the CUC mission.
6. Timeline and goals. Some SAMTs may form to organize a one-time event -- in which case, that event is its goal, and the team needs to sketch a timeline toward its goal. Other SAMTs have an ongoing ministry -- in which case, it needs to determine annual goals each year, and a timeline toward meeting them. How often will the team meet? Will the team hold events? What subsidiary goals will be reached by what dates? All goals should be worded in a way that you will know whether you have reached them or not. Does the team need a budget? How much and why? What other resources do you need?
7. Engaging the congregation. How will your SAMT engage all of CUC in its ministry? A team of five people doing good work together does not a congregation make. A team of five people bringing more congregational members into active participation in healing our world -- now that's ministry!
REVIEWING AND RENEWING
Each year, during the stretch between Fathers' Day and Labor Day, the ongoing and annual-event SAMTs review the year past and make plans for the year ahead.
- Celebrate the victories! Have fun!
- Make new timelines with new goals.
- Discover new ways to engage the congregation.
- Review the MT's membership. Are all five members still active? Have new members joined the team? If the membership falls below five, the team will need to recruit new member(s) to remain a recognized ministry of CUC.
- Has the team's theological motivation changed?
- Has the congregation's mission changed?
- Consider collaboration possibilities. Is there another SAMT or Committee at CUC you can partner with (either as part of "goals" or as part of "engaging the congregation")? Is there a ministry at another congregation you can partner with as part of your goals?
WHY THIS APPROACH?
Our congregations' social action efforts have too often suffered from fragmentation and incoherence. One or two people may have an idea that the congregation should be a part of, or contribute to, such-and-such community project. Without at least five people spearheading the effort, it's probably not something the congregation really wants to do -- the effort is then half-hearted and fails to be a part of either truly meaningful assistance or a part of the spiritual growth of our members. Without forethought about the project's grounding in our UU theology and the congregation's mission, the project will likewise fail to be a meaningful and integrated part of members' faith development.
Saving the world and saving ourselves are not two things, but one. Our efforts outward will be most effective for others when they are also most transformative to ourselves.