Since last fall, David Petras, of Columbus, Ohio, has been getting up early on Sunday mornings and driving two to four hours to speak to Unitarian Universalist congregations about immigration.
He has a sermon in which he talks about the history of immigration and the need to engage it as a social justice issue. Near the end of his remarks he speaks about why it’s important for UUs to attend General Assembly next June 20-24 in Phoenix. He also adds a pitch for money, asking congregants to contribute to a fund to help pay the way of those who can’t afford to attend GA on their own.
“This has been one of the better UU experiences of my life,” Petras said in January, after visiting more than a dozen congregations in the Ohio-Meadville District of the Unitarian Universalist Association. “I do an altar call, asking people to sign a pledge to help support our effort to get as many people as possible to GA. The response has been very gratifying. People commit to this almost totally on faith.” Thus far he and others in the district have raised more than $12,000. The money will be used to pay GA registration expenses. This GA, termed a “Justice GA,” will be almost entirely focused on social justice issues related to immigration.
It’s important to help youth and young adults get to GA because many can’t afford to go, he notes. “We want to make sure that people of all ages who have not had a chance to be there will have an opportunity. We’re presenting this as a moral issue and a chance to live out our values.”
Petras anticipates that more people than usual will be attending GA from his district. His congregation, North UU Congregation in Lewis Center, Ohio, typically has two or three members attend GA. This year, he predicts, the congregation will have at least 10. Both Petras and his teenage daughter will be going for the first time.
He noted that many congregations he visits are already engaged in immigration work. “There are pockets of work being done everywhere. And there will be a lot more next fall. A lot of the focus of this GA will be on bringing this work home.”
All across the country, congregations and districts are organizing for General Assembly.
One of the most ambitious efforts has been in Southern California, where congregations have created a Southern California UU Justice Team and hired a justice coordinator.
“We’re hoping this will be a model for how UU congregations can increase their competency in working in the field of social justice activities and increase their ability to work together on activities that will impact our communities,” said the Rev. David Miller of the UU Fellowship of San Dieguito. The Pacific Southwest District has also created a “Justice Action Plan,” which includes raising funds to support GA attendance by people who might not otherwise be able to attend.
The justice coordinator, Emrys Staton, works quarter-time, presenting sermons and leading discussions at congregations. He also participates in adult education classes, leads congregations in advocacy efforts, and helps connect them to local immigrant- rights organizations. The Rev. Rick Hoyt, minister of First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles, said congregations are hoping to hire a second coordinator, so that one can cover the Los Angeles area and one San Diego, when sufficient funds are collected for that purpose. “We’re still building the program,” said Hoyt. “We have progressively more ambitious plans from now through GA, and then whatever develops after the summer.”
UUA Moderator Gini Courter is talking up the Justice GA in her appearances this year, making an appeal especially to youth and young adults. In December she spoke to youth at the UU Fellowship of Ames, Iowa. “She told us we’re the future,” said Emma Runquist, 17. “She said we’re the ones who don’t care if a person is gay, black, white, Hispanic, or Latino and that we might as well start getting involved now.”
Runquist added, “I’d love to go to GA. I think it would be a fabulous experience and one to remember.” She noted that half of her high school classmates are Latino and that she knows youth whose parents were deported. When there was a raid at the meatpacking plant in her town many students stayed away from school. “This is an important issue to me,” she said.
The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister at the UU Congregation of Phoenix and head of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, said she hopes congregations will use the time before GA to learn about immigration issues and to connect with groups working on these issues in their communities. “Do more than invite people to come and make presentations to you. Go to their meetings and visit their communities. Crossing these kinds of borders is the best way to deepen relationships with outside groups,” she said.
In October the Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, Calif., hosted an immigration conference, attended by 225 people. Other sponsors were the Pacific Central District, the district’s Racial & Cultural Diversity Network, and the UU Legislative Ministry California. Speakers included Enrique Morones, founder of the group Border Angels, and the Rev. Dr. Ken Brown, district executive of the UUA’s Pacific Southwest District, who spoke about plans for GA.
The conference began the process of organizing congregations into geographic clusters to address immigration issues. Work has also begun with building coalitions with community groups around these issues.
At the UU Church of Arlington, Va., the Rev. Carlton Elliott Smith organized a weekly audio forum where UUs could share what their congregations are doing around immigration, and learn about the efforts of others. The forums, called “Journey Toward Phoenix,” are on Saturdays from 4 to 5 p.m. EST. The forums will be archived at the blogtalkradio.com website.
The first forum, on January 7, featured Gail Forsyth-Vail, the UUA’s Adult Programs director, plus Marilyn Baker and Sarah Bazzi, co-conveners of the Immigration Working Group at the UU Church of Arlington, Va. Forsyth-Vail said, “I’m hoping these audio forums provide another tool for UU congregations and individuals to share the ways in which they are preparing themselves through education, reflection, and action to participate in Justice GA. Such sharing will help to build interest and excitement, and help people to respond faithfully and intentionally to the immigration justice issues before our nation.”
Smith said the audio forum grew out of a radio talk show in which he participated in October on immigration. “I took from that a sense of the power of that format. People called in from across the country to talk about their experiences. Long before that I had been thinking that we needed some kind of national platform for conversations about this General Assembly and what congregations were doing to prepare for it. I believe our weekly programs will increase in value as we get closer to Justice GA.”
He added that his congregation plans on doubling its regular GA attendance, from around 25 to 50, including many youth. “There’s lots of fundraising going on to support youth and adults who might benefit from a bit of financial assistance,” Smith said.
At the UU Church of Minnetonka, in Wayzata, Minn., ministerial intern Leslie Mills has been preparing the youth group for a “Pilgrimage to Phoenix.” In the past four months, the youth have raised $4,000 toward their overall goal of $12,000 for the trip.
The group plans to drive from Wayzata to Phoenix, stopping along the way to stay in home hospitality with other UUs or to camp at national parks. Mills is leading the youth in weekly study of immigration issues.
“This isn’t just a vacation road trip,” she said. “This is a very intentional spiritual journey where we will be moving over the face of our country talking about what it means to be ‘American’ and learning the history of native people who lived here before European settlers arrived.”
An abridged version of this article appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of UU World.