Field notes for the resistance

Field notes for the resistance

How to defend the values we uphold.

Janet Hayes
black and white line drawing of a small person holding up a large fist that's about to crush the figure.

© istockphoto/jcgwakefield

© istockphoto/jcgwakefield


Immediately following the November election, a political fusillade was aimed at voting rights, abortion access, climate science, the Affordable Care Act, LGBTQ people, and other targets. If these attacks succeed, our country could lose several generations’ worth of social progress. Unitarian Universalists are determined to resist.

But how, exactly, do we do this? Many of us spend hours each day sifting through mountains of online information. We search, click, get angry, and click some more. It feels like we’re doing so much—reading, commenting, sharing, and signing electronic petitions. Unfortunately, these efforts generally will have little impact beyond our social media circles. The resistance may be tweeted, but most of the actual work will happen in city halls, classrooms, courtrooms, and churches. Here’s how we can help.

Protect vulnerable groups and individuals

Within hours of Donald Trump’s win, reports of hate crimes spiked. Vulnerable communities need moral support and practical assistance. Now is the time to reach out to our interfaith neighbors and invite them to share our pulpits and our hospitality. As we did after 9/11, UU congregations need to forge, or strengthen, relationships with local Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh groups so that we can help when they are targeted.

In addition to moral support, civil liberties must be defended legally. Fortunately, we have well-established institutions that have been doing this work for decades. These groups and others have the expertise, resources, and institutional memories the resistance needs. In turn, we can help keep them strong.

Simple steps you can take:

  • Set up automatic monthly donations to the organizations whose work you most value.
  • Subscribe to mailing lists for action calls.
  • Give contributions in lieu of material gifts for birthdays and holidays.
  • Participate in state or local chapter events.
  • Ask your congregation to include “share the plate” offerings for national civil rights groups.

Informal institutions are also blossoming. The sanctuary movement is growing beyond churches and cities. Is your alma mater considering becoming a sanctuary university? Join this effort or start one.

From UUA President Peter Morales

“It is irresponsible folly to act as though we are in a normal transition between administrations.”

We must prepare to provide sanctuary and resist

© Nancy Pierce

Sanctuary commitments could go even further in UU communities, a possibility that inspires Mr. Barb Greve, developmental director of lifespan religious education at Mt. Diablo UU Church in Walnut Creek, California. “What would our congregations look like if we broaden our understanding of sanctuary?” he asked. “For example, we could host legal and medical clinics for undocumented people—and this could include not just immigrants, but also transgender people whose official identity documents don’t yet reflect their gender.”

Greve’s resistance vision includes “brigades” of UU volunteer advocates who could help transgender people battle red tape to access the full benefits of their health coverage, or get approved for new coverage. He describes “a huge gap” currently between the medical rights guaranteed on paper, and the difficulties transgender patients routinely face with caregivers and insurance providers.

Organize proactively

Trump and his team have posted the warnings: resistance will have consequences. One looming consequence is that Planned Parenthood soon may need to operate without any federal funding. But we don’t need to be caught off-guard by this development. Before the crisis hits, we can strengthen state chapters with money and volunteer labor, and we can lobby our legislators.

Likewise, sanctuary cities could lose federal funds for urgent needs such as public transportation and food programs. We need to uphold the vision during this stressful process and support officials who have the courage to make sacrifices to protect residents. And we need to say yes to new city and county taxes for social services. Resistance is expensive.

As we organize locally, our congregations can play a key role, offering meeting spaces, enthusiastic volunteers, communication networks, and clergy leadership. We have years of work ahead of us, what California Governor Jerry Brown called “a long-term slog into the future.”

The Rev. Keith Kron, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s transitions director, offered some advice for aligning our limited resources with overwhelming community needs: “First, we have to prioritize. We need to ask, ‘What is the work of this church for the next four years? Eight years?’ Then we need to determine what’s needed to make that happen. We’ll have to be very mindful.

Resources from the UUA

See how other Unitarian Universalists congregations are taking action in their communities to show their love for justice, and share what your congregation is doing.

Show the Love Resources


Our efforts must be sustainable, so we can’t afford professional burnout. Some congregations will need to revise clergy and staff contracts so more of their paid hours can go toward extramural community work. Lay leaders will need to manage expectations and take responsibility for filling any gaps.

“We’ve been trying to figure out how to do more work outside our walls,” Kron said. “Now the election has given us the green light to increase our public ministry. But it can’t just be ministers doing this work. It has to be all of us.”

That requires being active in shaping decisions in our cities and counties. Here are some steps for incrementally increasing our civic involvement:

  • Subscribe to city announcement and discussion lists.
  • Attend meetings of the school board, city council, parks commission, or police department citizen’s committee.
  • Stay one step ahead by reading the online agenda before the meeting.
  • Stay two steps ahead by helping draft the agenda.
  • Serve as an informal liaison between local governing bodies and your congregation, PTA, or neighborhood group. Help keep others informed and encourage them to be active.
  • Follow local news and write letters to the editor or producer when coverage is lacking or inaccurate.
  • Shape the news: promote justice work in your congregation and community by reaching out to the media with your own messages.

Give voice to the vision

To extend the range of our message, we need to sharpen our communications skills. When we express public support for Muslim Americans, or explain to the local paper why we display a Black Lives Matter banner, we need to use accessible language grounded in positive, shared values.

For the Rev. Jake Morrill, minister of Oak Ridge UU Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and executive director of the UU Christian Fellowship, this is daily work. “Online and in public, my primary audience is not other UUs but people mostly more conservative than me,” Morrill said. So he asks himself: Who is persuadable? What are their interests? How can they hear? “Traditional language, from scripture or our country, is authentic to me. When trying to move people to move left, I also think this language is effective.”

Our public witness work is most powerful when we start from this outward-looking perspective. For example, when fighting mass deportation, we won’t persuade opponents by denouncing them as jingoistic, racist, or cruel. We reach more voters by reminding them that immigrants are our neighbors, people like us who work hard, sacrifice for their children, love the United States, and believe in the American Dream.

When our language reflects familiar, positive values, we begin to seem less threatening. When we get our prickly selves out of the way, our words have more power. The particular language will vary with the context and audience, but the principle holds true at all levels of dialogue: national campaigns, local debates, and interpersonal conversations. In all cases, our focus needs to shift from what’s wrong with our opponents to what’s right with our ideals.

Morrill reflected on why this shift can be difficult for us: “Unitarian Universalists are very skilled in analysis and critique,” he said. “Sometimes we use these skills to take apart our own strategies. Instead, we need to stay focused on the Promised Land, our enduring vision. If we’re in relationship with that, we’ll be wiser and more coherent. Our story will be wider and more easily shared.”

Lead with authenticity

Unitarian Universalists are proud of our contributions to historic social justice victories. But last November our best efforts failed. Many of us are experiencing a crisis of confidence; some are even facing a crisis of faith. We are ready to help heal the world, but how do we heal ourselves?

We can start by being authentic.

Greve talked about the need to acknowledge the ways in which we are part of the problems we want to fix. “We need to confront our privilege,” he said. “And be willing to learn now not to be leaders in this work. Letting others lead, that is really hard for us.”

He stressed that we can’t offer sanctuary to people whose lives are at stake without first understanding how we contribute to and benefit from the systems that endanger them. “It’s painful work, but it is so necessary,” he said. “And it will release us from emotional burdens we don’t even realize we carry.”

Our religious heritage includes language for the laying down of burdens. For many of us (especially for white, college-educated people), independence, certainty, and self-control are familiar burdens. These obstacles to authenticity are what Trump supporters see when they describe us as out-of-touch “elites.” But we don’t have to know everything or keep it all together. We can learn, once again, how to honor the moments when we are uncertain, humbled, emptied, and then spirit-filled. This kind of learning is what church is for.

On the Sunday following the election, Heather and Erin Coale Schwartz attended First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, for a worship service led by the Rev. William G. Sinkford and the Rev. Tom Disrud. The Coale Schwartzes, like hundreds of others in the standing-room-only crowd, arrived that morning numb with shock and fear. Sinkford’s impassioned sermon had a profound impact.

“He raged at the election results,” Heather Coale Schwartz said. “He was on the verge of tears. Seeing him like this—an African American man—it was so powerful.” Trained as a clinical psychologist, she feels that moments like this, when leaders refuse to pretend everything is fine, are critical for personal and community health. “I cried hard, and it was like something in me broke free, the part of me that felt all alone with this, that questioned whether my marriage would be annulled,” she explained. “I no longer fear that, because of Bill’s honesty.”

Resistance is fueled by moral passion. This force is strongest when we act together to protect the vulnerable, articulate our deepest values, and share our truest selves.

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