UUA to help congregations with international connections

UUA to help congregations with international connections

Director of Partner Church Council hired to lead UUA's review of international work.
Jane Greer


At the urging of its Board of Trustees, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations is giving new emphasis to helping U.S. congregations build relationships with churches and organizations abroad.

As a first step, Cathy Cordes, director of the Unitarian Universalist Partner Church Council, has been appointed as part-time interim director of the Unitarian Universalist Association’s International Office.

“It’s not unusual in our denomination for churches to be taking independent action,” Cordes said in an interview, referring to congregations in partnerships with Unitarian churches in other countries, “but it would be helpful to share the information and to determine how the UUA can best support congregations working internationally.” Cordes said she intends to conduct interviews and focus groups with UUs already involved in international work and to create a database of information to help congregations interested in working internationally get started.

The UUA has a history of commitment to international work dating back to long before the 1961 merger of the American Unitarian Association (AUA) and the Universalist Church of America (UCA) to form the current Association. In the 1820s, the Unitarians began supporting missionaries in India. The Universalists had a mission in Scotland from 1876 to 1896 and began a mission in Japan in 1890.

During the 20th century, both denominations became involved in the international interfaith movement. In 1900 the AUA became a founding member of the International Council of Unitarian and Other Religious Thinkers and Workers (now the International Association of Religious Freedom), which the Universalists joined. The Universalists also took part in the World Parliament of Religions, which began in 1893.

During World War II, the AUA supported the creation of the Unitarian Service Committee (now the independent Unitarian Universalist Service Committee), a humanitarian aid association.

After the 1961 merger, UUA President Dana McLean Greeley set up the first Office of Overseas and Interfaith Relations, which closed for financial reasons in the late 1960s. In the following years, international policy was set mostly by individual UUA presidents and successive boards of trustees and was frequently contingent upon the availability of funds, according to a 1997 report by the UUA’s Commission on Appraisal.

When the Rev. John Buehrens was elected as UUA president in 1993, he created the position of special assistant to the president for interfaith and international relations, appointing the Rev. Kenneth MacLean. That same year, at General Assembly, a group of concerned parties met to create a partnership program between North American congregations and Transylvanian Unitarian churches in Romania, which had become accessible after the 1989 overthrow of its communist government. That partnership program evolved into the UU Partner Church Council, which has today facilitated over 180 partnerships between North American congregations and congregations in six countries.

In 1995, the International Council of Unitarians and Universalists was created to strengthen and promote UU values abroad, support member organizations, and to model a liberal religious presence in the world. The membership has been composed of organizations such as the UUA, the Canadian Unitarian Council, and the General Assembly of Unitarian and Free Christian Churches of Great Britain.

In 2000, when MacLean retired, the Rev. Olivia Holmes took his place. Prior to Holmes’ departure in 2005, the UUA’s board of trustees reviewed the Association’s international policy in 2004, writing:

“Mindful of both the brokenness and the potential for reconciliation in the world, the Board of the UUA commits to strengthen and energize UUA member congregations by facilitating their connection to the transforming power of international engagement and partnership.”

Cordes’ role in the next year will be to review ways of implementing this policy.

Cordes brings over ten years of experience working with the Partner Church Council to her new job and will continue to work at the council part-time. She is excited about her new 15-month appointment, which begins April 1. “I would like to see us make a much more concerted effort in the international arena,” she said.

New emphasis on international affairs is also reflected in the creation of an internship at the UUA’s Washington Office for Advocacy and Witness. The intern will be focusing on international developments regarding HIV/AIDS as well as other international crisis issues such as the genocide in Darfur. The intern will also provide support to the UU Holdeen India program, a program founded in 1984 to help empower some of India’s most oppressed groups.

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