On a Thursday evening in late October, roughly twenty Emerging English students and eight volunteers fill the seats around four long tables in religious education classroom 402 at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing, Michigan. Instructor Cait Prentice, from the Refugee Development Center in Lansing, stands at the front of the class near the whiteboard, where she’s written the date and the evening’s agenda. Classic yellow pencils in hand, students describe the pictures of clothing printed on their black-and-white printouts. Their own styles of dress vary; some wear jeans, others sport headscarves and flowing fabrics. Their stories share one key theme, though: each student has left their homeland, whether Somalia, Afghanistan, Bhutan, or somewhere else. In nearly all cases, they fled, refugees eventually resettled in Lansing. For two hours, they write, talk, listen, play bingo—and they laugh together. There’s plenty of space for laughter in this curriculum.
There’s plenty of space at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Greater Lansing in general. Four evenings a week, English as a Second Language classes occupy just a fraction of the square footage in the building, a former school that the congregation renovated and has occupied since June 2016. In January 2017, the church began offering free ESL classes like the beginner-level Emerging English for the first time, in partnership with a local language school. That offering, and the momentum that has followed, led the Unitarian Universalist Association to name the church a 2018 Breakthrough Congregation.
The 320-member congregation moved to South Lansing from its previous location of forty years, a former fraternity house in East Lansing. “We were landlocked and it was a non-accessible building,” explains Mary Elaine Kiener, immediate past president of the congregation. At the outset, most congregants weren’t keen on moving—or on changing. But in 2014, after years spent exploring adding on to their three-and-a-half-story, nearly 14,000-square-foot building with no elevator, then considering moving to a different Lansing location, the church’s site task force learned of a former school for sale. “When this school building came up, it fit all the criteria,” explains the Rev. Kathryn Bert, who served as the church’s settled minister from 2002 until 2017. “There really was no way to argue against it.”
The building offered 39,000 square feet on nearly 10 acres of land—and Ruelaine Stokes, for one, immediately envisioned a new outreach opportunity. “What I could see were . . . all these classrooms,” says UU Lansing member and retired ESL teacher Stokes, recalling the first time she saw the congregation’s current location. It offered “enormous teaching and learning potential for the church,” she says.
The property is on a four-lane road lined with car dealerships, tire stores, and small-scale strip malls. A block or two off the main drag, smaller homes pop up in this less affluent part of Michigan’s capital city. The area contrasts with what UU Lansing member and former ESL volunteer Renee Swanson calls the “cloistered community of East Lansing,” the well-to-do town next to Lansing, home to Michigan State University.
With the building’s purchase in the works, Stokes and other ESL professionals formed the UU-ESL Working Group to ascertain South Lansing’s ESL needs by meeting with local refugee support agencies. By the spring of 2016, “we knew there was a vacuum [of ESL classes] on the south side,” Stokes says. The board of trustees approved the group’s proposal, and although working group members considered offering their own program, they ultimately decided to partner with A+ English Language School, where Stokes taught ESL and fellow UU Lansing member Joanne Cameron taught citizenship classes.
About ten people showed up for class the week they debuted—even braving a big storm on the very first day for a class that was officially canceled—recall Stokes and member Collin Blair, an ESL instructor who taught at UU Lansing with Stokes. Despite snow and cold, the beginners’ group ballooned to some forty students within weeks. By March, the program included three language classes and Cameron’s citizenship class. “We immediately saw what a good need it fulfilled,” Blair says.
A few months later, in June, the program faced a major challenge with the A+ English Language School’s imminent, unexpected closing. Organizers reached out to the Refugee Development Center (RDC), a Lansing nonprofit offering free services to refugees. They agreed that UU Lansing would become a new outpost of the nonprofit’s ESL program. The transition felt reasonably seamless. After a summer break, the RE wing came back to life during the week—even the nursery, where childcare was available for the first time. A year later, RDC added a summer camp for refugee children there.
RDC’s weekly women’s sewing circle also made the move, offered in partnership with St. Vincent Catholic Charities and having outgrown its previous location. On a Thursday morning, hours before ESL classes begin, the rhythmic sound of sewing machines fills the air. Seven women sit at machines set atop three long tables in another of UU Lansing’s RE classrooms. When they’re not sewing, they’re laying fabric on other long tables in the room, cutting along patterns. A young boy sits on one of the tables, his feet swinging in the air. Later, he sits on a chair, eating cookies, looking content. “Looks good, looks good; now we cut,” a volunteer named Sue says. She is one of three community volunteers helping that day.
Sewing instructor Shafiqha Hussein Sulaiman is one of the program’s alums. A native of Iraqi Kurdistan, Hussein Sulaiman arrived in Lansing about thirteen years ago. A lifelong sewer, she praises the program. “This was a really nice place for me to get out,” she says through an interpreter, laughing. “Even if you can’t understand each other, you’re not alone.” After two hours of sewing, the women can understand each other; interpreters arrive for an hour of support group.
When families arrive in the United States, women are often left out of public life, staying home, looking after children, while men find jobs, says RDC’s Anneli Mung, who coordinates the sewing circle. It’s harder for the at-home contingent to learn English and find community. The sewing circle combats isolation, giving women a chance to practice English and to learn a skill in the process. And it lets them know that their challenges aren’t unique; other new arrivals are as baffled or alone as they are. “They can hardly speak to each other, but you can tell there’s a connection there,” Mung notes.
Before UU Lansing arrived, RDC Executive Director Erika Brown-Binion explains, many South Lansing residents traveled up to an hour for ESL classes. Now, 75 percent of RDC’s ESL students go through UU Lansing. She expressed gratitude for the church’s approach. While some of the nonprofit’s partners distance themselves from RDC programs, “at UU [Lansing], it’s ‘ours,’” Brown-Binion explains. “They have put just as much care into the relationship [as we have].”
Stokes agrees: “The church has really embraced the classes wholeheartedly.” She thinks the ESL classes have changed the congregation’s identity and focus. Several members say that the congregation’s self-concept began shifting earlier, during the building search. “It happened so slowly, over a number of years,” remembers Bert, UU Lansing’s former settled minister. The congregation was “trying on different identities,” she says, as they discussed possibilities together.
With that evolution underway, UU Lansing wanted to save its nascent ESL offering. Before agreeing to partner, UU Lansing and RDC representatives sat down several times to discuss needs and barriers. The church also paved the way by identifying local need. “They did a kind of listening tour, I think, and we were part of that. Even if you’re not new to a neighborhood,” Brown-Binion adds, “do a listening tour.”
Beginning with curiosity is crucial for congregations hoping to make a real difference for their communities, according to Michael Hogue, professor of theology, ethics, and philosophy of religion at Meadville Lombard Theological School. He encourages UUs to learn their neighborhood’s physical contours and to understand its history deeply before analyzing what they’ve learned and asking: “What do your Unitarian Universalist values tell you to do?”
“But not in a renegade kind of fashion,” he cautions. Instead, Hogue suggests working with community organizations, ideally crossing borders, whether of race, class, religion, or—particularly fraught nowadays—political persuasion. And he repeats Brown-Binion’s advice: listen first. This can be “a real challenge for progressives and liberals, and UUs in particular,” he notes, urging UUs to set aside progressive exceptionalism in favor of relationship building: “Any partnership is only going to be as effective as the relationship is robust.” All of this work, he emphasizes, takes time.
UU Lansing’s success has inspired it to pursue more new initiatives. Spearheaded by member Linda Anderson, several congregants are converting an old soccer field on church property into a community garden, enlisting the Garden Project at the Greater Lansing Food Bank for guidance. They’re looking ahead to this summer, when “many of these same English students could be gardeners,” Anderson says. So far, twenty-one refugees have said they’d like plots, on offer for a nominal fee or free of charge. “We’ll have to figure out fundraising” to subsidize costs, Anderson says. “I have faith we’ll figure it out somehow.”
Meanwhile, Ministerial Intern theresa rohlck (who does not capitalize her name) and Director of Lifespan Faith Development Teresa Putnam seek to deepen UU Lansing’s involvement with nearby Attwood New Tech Magnet School. The church/school relationship began shortly after UU Lansing moved and Attwood’s Communities in Schools coordinator approached Putnam, with the church playing an increasing role in the school’s life since then. Now, with rohlck’s leadership (developing a project is part of her seminary curriculum at Meadville Lombard), congregants are volunteering at a school closet stocked with clothes and hygiene supplies for students in need.
Along its journey, UU Lansing’s inward focus seems to have shifted not just outward, but to different ways of being together. They took care, as they envisioned their new sanctuary in a former basketball gym, to support their beloved music program with impeccable acoustics. During the new building’s early days, they bonded over painting parties. Now, they’re tending to the building’s landscape together, trying out a new craft-and-chat group and shoring up their social action efforts, perhaps most notably with the Committee to End the New Jim Crow. And with Bert gone, they’re looking for their next settled minister.
Not every UU congregation can, or will, move into a community hoping to make an intentional difference. That’s not necessary, says Hogue, though he posits that even the most affluent places have (sometimes hidden) needs; it’s up to UUs to listen actively in familiar territory to figure out what those are.
But for UU Lansing, moving seems to have been nothing short of transformative. “The move has allowed people to do what they wanted to do all along,” says Anderson. The Rev. John Marsh, the congregation’s interim minister, says he suspects this moment marks “the beginning of the beginning” for UU Lansing.
On a Saturday in late October, Anderson and about ten others from UU Lansing wear gloves, lace-up boots, and waterproof jackets against gray drizzle and fill in the community garden’s new fence. They wield tools and hold wire. “It’s all been donated,” Anderson explains. A few minutes later, she points out one of the fence posts. Two weeks earlier, during a post-placing work party, congregants had carved their names into one, letters clear, ready for future gardeners to read.