The Rev. Nathan Woodliff-Stanley shifted the focus of his commitment to social justice from full-time ministry to becoming executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. He is also a volunteer community minister at First Unitarian Society of Denver. UU World recently spoke to Woodliff-Stanley about his work and its heightened sense of urgency under the Trump administration.
UU World: You have a unique combination of higher education degrees, having graduated from both Yale Divinity School and Yale School of Management. How has your education driven your career path and prepared you for working as both a Unitarian Universalist minister and with the ACLU?
Woodliff-Stanley: I began at Yale Divinity School and added the management degree because my wife Ruth had a commitment to return to her home state of Mississippi after graduate school, and I saw that there were no UU ministry positions in Mississippi. Instead, I served for ten years as the founding director of the Mississippi Center for Nonprofits, a management support association for charitable organizations. I was only able to finish the process for ordination after moving to Denver in 2002, which led to eight years of social justice ministry at Jefferson Unitarian Church in Golden. I didn’t think I would get the ACLU position because I am not an attorney, but it turned out that the combination of nonprofit management and social justice work was just what they were looking for.
UU World: With the Trump administration, has the ACLU needed to increase its efforts?
Woodliff-Stanley: The past several months have been intense. Our basic defense of civil liberties for all people has not changed, but the challenges are greater, especially to our work on immigrant rights; First Amendment protections of speech, press, assembly, and protest; and religious discrimination, especially against Muslims. Really, we face new challenges on most of our issues, including voting rights, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, mass incarceration and criminal justice reform, privacy and surveillance, and racial profiling.
UU World: ACLU membership in Colorado has quadrupled since November. Has there ever been such a dramatic increase?
Woodliff-Stanley: There have been jumps in membership before, but not to this degree. Many people were shocked by the election in November, and they saw the ACLU as being well positioned to fight back against attacks on our democracy and basic rights in this nation.
UU World: Protecting immigrant rights has always been of great importance to the ACLU. First Unitarian Society of Denver voted to be a sanctuary congregation and is currently protecting a mother as she battles deportation. How do you view these two different institutions’ roles in fighting injustice to immigrants and their families?
Woodliff-Stanley: I’m proud that our minister [the Rev.] Mike Morran led First Unitarian to be a sanctuary congregation. It flows from a moral imperative. The ACLU primarily works within the legal system to protect and expand civil liberties through lawsuits and the courts—powerful tools that churches rarely have at their disposal. The ACLU does not usually engage in civil disobedience, although we seek to protect rights of protest. We also lobby and seek policy change at national, state, and local levels, and we are increasing our efforts to mobilize supporters for action and advocacy. I see all our efforts for immigrants as complementary.
UU World: With the hostile nature of this administration’s stance on immigration, do you feel the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency will continue to honor sanctuary spaces such as the one First Unitarian has created?
Woodliff-Stanley: We can’t be certain, but we hope so. It would certainly look very bad for ice to raid a church.
UU World: Basic fundamental rights feel under attack in this political climate. Where and how do you find hope and impart that hope to others?
Woodliff-Stanley: I find hope in the way people are waking up and stepping forward, from the enormous turnout at the Women’s March to the airport protests against the Muslim travel ban to the people joining the ACLU and supporting other key resistance organizations. There are people turning to First Unitarian right now, too, and our congregations have an essential role to play in helping our members stay grounded, connected, motivated, and able to make choices informed by our values and principles.
UU World: How do your UU values influence your ACLU work?
Woodliff-Stanley: Among many values, Unitarian Universalism affirms justice, democratic process, and the worth and dignity of every person, leaving no one out. The ACLU seeks justice, protection of democracy, and constitutional rights that are real for everyone, leaving no one out. I know that because of the work of the ACLU in Colorado alone, there are thousands of people who are not in solitary confinement, not in ice detention, or not in jail because of being too poor to afford a fine. That feels like UU ministry to me, and even more so in the world we face today.