U.S. congregations helping abroad
From Central and South America to Transylvania to the Khasi Hills in India, a growing number of Unitarian Universalist congregations in the United States are developing international partnerships that pay off doubly: Not only do they improve the lives of people living abroad, they also bring new awareness to the American churches.
One such congregation is the River Road Unitarian Church in Bethesda, Maryland. Each July for eleven years a delegation of youth has gone to Santa Marta, a town in El Salvador ravaged by civil war in the 1980s. “It's an immersion experience for them,” says Don Chery, chair of the church's Latin American task force and one of the adults who accompanies the youth. “They live in homes and work on whatever projects are proposed by the people in the community.”
A recent project was developing a computer center for the local school. Amanda White, who will be entering college this fall, has been to Santa Marta twice and is going again this summer. She has helped to build a fence around a health clinic, planted trees to prevent erosion, and helped build a retaining wall.
Jessica Daniel, who will be a high school junior this fall, went to Santa Marta last summer and is going again this year. She helped paint a mural on the school about the history of the town and helped build a greenhouse. “They lost everything in the civil war,” says Daniel of the townspeople, “then came back and rebuilt the town. I learned a lot about how they survived the war. They're really amazing people.”
The youth who make the trip to Santa Marta often come home questioning the way they live. “It can feel weird to live in a big house,” says White. “And to go to a mall can be overwhelming.” The youth stay in contact with friends in El Salvador after they return home. When a Santa Marta girls soccer team needed help in getting to a tournament, River Road sent enough money to make it possible. White exchanges e-mail with a friend who works at a Santa Marta radio station.
Partnerships such as these are deepening. “Rather than simply responding to requests for charity,” says the Rev. Olivia Holmes, director of the UUA's Office of International Relations, “congregations are getting more intentional about working as true partners in designing, implementing, and funding programs and projects. Some have also begun to put their partnerships into their operating budget rather than raising money for it independently, thus emphasizing its importance to the congregation.”
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, Arizona, has ministries in Nicaragua and Honduras. A group goes twice a year to Nicaragua, where it provides financial assistance to a health clinic and a pharmacy, gives supplies to rural health workers, supports a sewing cooperative, and sends money to young girls to keep them in school.
In Honduras it supports Hogar Materno, a birthing center. Tony Banegas, a trustee of the congregation and a native of Honduras, says, “This really got people excited at church. They've been able to see how a small congregation can make a big difference. We are literally saving lives. It's a very powerful thing to do and it doesn't take a lot.”
Dr. George Pauk, another member of the congregation, coordinates the three projects in Nicaragua. The congregation collects money and supplies including eyeglasses, hearing aids, medical equipment, and computers. “The Nicaraguans are very welcoming,” he says. “It's a wonderful experience to help them do something for themselves.”
Unity Church-Unitarian, in St. Paul, Minnesota, sees its international programs as opportunities for both pilgrimages and service. Like many American UU congregations, it has a partner church project with a Unitarian church in Transylvania. It also supports medical clinics, a school, and a library in Malawi (described in the March/April issue of UU World). Plus, it works through Mano a Mano Medical Resources to collect medical surplus equipment and supplies for clinics and communities in Bolivia.
Each of Unity Church's projects has its own social justice team. To emphasize their importance, the congregation dedicated its eight social justice teams, including the three for Transylvania, Malawi, and Bolivia, in a formal “investiture” ceremony.
“There's a lot of excitement around doing social justice in this way,” says Pat Haff, coordinator of community outreach ministries. “Through the ministry teams, people are creating smaller spiritual communities that are committed to a process of action and reflection.”Congregations interested in partnership projects may contact Holmes at email@example.com or Cathy Cordes of the Partner Church Council at firstname.lastname@example.org. PCC's Web site is at www.uua.org/uupcc.