Friends and members of the congregation have always been deeply engaged in social justice work, but as the time for Breeden’s retirement approached, the congregation stepped up its game. People were encouraged to volunteer at a food pantry and a shelter that provides services for people who are homeless. They also volunteered for other projects throughout the region.
Drew Schrader, who helped coordinate the volunteer project, estimated that people donated more than 100 hours. “It was hard to keep track toward the end,” he said. Volunteers were sent out across the city with buttons that read “Bill Sent Me.”
“As his retirement approached we wanted to name what a focal point social justice has been for Bill’s ministry,” said Schrader. “It was a way that we could pay tribute to what he did for us and for the community.”
Breeden had been co-minister at UUCB since 2002, first with the Rev. Barbara Carlson and the Rev. Mary Ann Macklin, and then with Macklin alone. He began his ministry as a Disciples of Christ minister, then found Unitarian Universalism when his teenage daughter began attending the Bloomington congregation. He completed his 12th year of settled ministry with the congregation in June.
He said he was surprised and gratified by the congregation’s volunteer activity in his name. “I didn’t know they were doing any of this until it was underway. What I told them was they had it backwards. Instead of ‘Bill Sent Me,’ it should have been ‘UU Sent Me’ because they gave me the opportunity to live out a social justice calling. They gave me new life as a minister. I would not have been able to accomplish what I have without them.”
All of the ministers at UUCB engage in social justice work, but Breeden has a special passion for it. He developed a prison ministry at Bloomington and has a long association with a homeless shelter in addition to other causes such as antiwar activism and economic justice.
Breeden says he was converted to the cause of social justice in the 1970s by none other than peace activist Father Philip Berrigan, who spent about 11 years in jails and prisons for civil disobedience. Breeden has been arrested four times. The first was in 1979 in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda as he prayed for peace. The latest was in 1991 in opposition to the first Gulf War.
Social justice has helped the congregation find its voice and grow, he noted. Breeden can still remember a time when members of the congregation were shy about sharing their faith. “Then they realized that if they wanted to grow, wanted to have a bigger imprint on society, they had to get over that. And they did. Now it’s very common for members to talk about their faith.” The congregation itself has long been involved in activism, from the civil rights era to nuclear protests and Vietnam and Gulf War resistance.
Breeden said that over the years a majority of his sermons have been about social justice issues. “Not everyone agreed with me, especially when I preached about economic justice. But overall I would say that the congregation and I encouraged each other. Too often a minister is afraid to address social issues clearly. A prophetic voice is something that every congregation ought to encourage.”
“Social justice has become so much a part of our identity that when around 2005 a researcher came from the University of Illinois to do research on social justice activism he kept being told, ‘You need to talk to the Unitarians,’” said Breeden. “The congregation sees social justice as its focus. Part of its reason for being is to change the world.” And that’s helped draw a crowd, he noted. The congregation has almost 500 members. “My dad always said if you get on fire for Jesus people will come and watch you burn. It’s the same thing if you get on fire for justice.”
Breeden has been granted minister emeritus status by the congregation and will return as a member of the congregation after covenanting with his successor.
- UU Church of Bloomington, Indiana Social justice at UU Church of Bloomington (uubloomington.org)