North Carolina UUs Celebrate Successful Push for Life-Saving Medicaid Expansion

North Carolina UUs Celebrate Successful Push for Life-Saving Medicaid Expansion

To help sway lawmakers, the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of North Carolina leaned into its partnerships, developing a blueprint others can follow.

Jeff Milchen
A group of people holding protest signs in favor of expanding Medicaid in North Carolina.
© Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of North Carolina


Anthony Brooks, a North Carolina resident, needed heart surgery to sustain his life, but his total income exceeded Medicaid’s annual cap by seven dollars.

The $100,000 surgery was far beyond Brooks' reach without assistance. And passing Medicaid expansion to help Brooks and others like him seemed unattainable last year given the state legislature’s composition.

Rev. Lisa Garcia-Sampson, Executive Director of the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of North Carolina ( UUJMNC), considered a campaign educating and rallying the public to lobby legislators "a transformative opportunity."

Medicaid is the largest insurer in the U.S., providing essential low- or no-cost health coverage to nearly 70 million people.

It is especially helpful to BIPOC communities, LGBTQIA+ people, and women.

"We showed up with the media at the Senate and House leaders' offices and urged them to stop playing political games with Anthony’s life," says Garcia-Sampson. And Anthony was right there to provide a face representing the thousands of people whose health or even lives were at stake.

Volunteers—including at Love Thy Neighbor Advocacy Day at the state legislature’s General Assembly—worked diligently and creatively to sway legislators. On Valentine's Day last year, UU kids across the state helped craft individual valentines for each legislator, asking them to "love thy neighbor, expand Medicaid."

UUJMNC lobbied for getting Medicaid expansion added to the next state budget, joining actions at the state capitol with two people whose lives were at stake.

It followed up by visiting the capitol with Lisa Franklin, whose liver was failing. She demanded to speak with legislative leaders who hid in their offices and refused to speak with her while local television cameras rolled.

"Unitarian Universalists were essential partners in the fight to expand Medicaid. They showed up at every press conference, at every advocacy day [and] writing letters to the editor. Anything we needed them to do, they did it," said Rebecca Cerese, who leads the Health Action NC Coalition.

"Unitarian Universalists were essential partners in the fight to expand Medicaid. They showed up at every press conference, at every advocacy day [and] writing letters to the editor. Anything we needed them to do, they did it."

—Rebecca Cerese, Health Action NC Coalition

The combination of emotional appeals and media-savvy actions persuaded the Senate President to include Medicaid expansion in the state budget, which the assembly then passed.

As of last December, 600,000 people now can access needed, even life-saving medical care. Garcia-Sampson calls it "the biggest win we’ve ever been a part of." UUMJNC now is working to make sure those who are eligible enroll.

How Friday Action Hour at UUJMNC Transformed Partnerships

The victory for bringing health care to people in need indicates how rapidly UUJMNC has woven UUs around the state into a cohesive force.

When Rev. Garcia-Sampson agreed to lead UUJMNC in 2020, she took a leap of faith. Dedicated to advancing the movement for justice and liberation, UUJMNC was a young organization with an annual budget of about $30,000.

The UUJMNC logo. It is topped with two hands supporting a flame. Below the hand hands are the letters UU, that appear to support the hands like arms. Written under that are Justice NC.
Courtesy of the Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of North Carolina.

Garcia-Sampson accepted the position after moving to Durham, North Carolina with her partner. The COVID-19 pandemic was hitting the United States during the first weeks of her tenure, compounding the challenge of building the organization. Yet Garcia-Sampson rapidly helped UUJMNC build a truly statewide base and gain recognition as a potent force for advancing justice, developing a successful plan for collaboration that other organizations can follow.

One of her first initiatives was to launch Friday Action Hour, a weekly Zoom gathering for justice partners across the state.

Each week, participants are briefed on a range of justice issues by their peers, coordinate actions, and build relationships. Different partner organizations speak to educate participants and then call them to actions aligned with statewide movement strategies.

Participants also use a shared Google doc, an online document on which all participants can contribute. With it, they coordinate actions that include legislative advocacy, targeted letters to the editor, and phone blitzes to a public official.

Rev. Garcia-Sampson says Friday Action Hour has helped UUs become nimble, responsive, and accountable to partners while building cohesive personal relationships.

Small, Consistent Actions Built a Foundation for Big Victories at UUJMNC

Garcia-Sampson and I spoke in December as Action Hour participants celebrated their 185th straight week of convening. She believes those gatherings laid the foundation for the largest-ever activation of North Carolina UUs when the network joined the inaugural UU the Vote (UUtV) campaign later in 2020.

"UUtV was an invitation to be a part of something larger than any congregation and larger than our state," said Garcia-Sampson. "It helped us to realize what we were capable of and pushed us to interrogate the limits of our imagination for what we could do collectively."

UUMJNC member congregations generated about 27,000 nonpartisan contacts to boost voter turnout during that debut campaign. In 2022, they grew the effort to a network of more than twenty UU congregations.

Their members made 70,000 contacts via writing and phone calls in partnership with Carolina Jews for Justice and The New North Carolina Project.

Working Together to Defend the Vulnerable in North Carolina

Now, UU Justice NC is deeply engaged in fighting some of the most egregious gerrymandering in the nation.

The NC legislature recently drew voting districts that would dilute the voting power of Black and Hispanic voters by packing them into just three districts. Those changes would almost certainly turn a congressional delegation that stands at seven Democrats and seven Republicans (reflecting the near-even split in votes) into a GOP advantage of at least 10-4.

A coalition now is suing to stop the new district maps from taking effect under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

The Unitarian Universalist Justice Ministry of North Carolina is among the members of the Coalition of Unitarian Universalist State Action Networks.

See if your state has an active network and, if not, consider reading Tips for Starting an SAN!

UUJMNC will work to mitigate those new laws in 2024 while partnering with Blueprint NC to organize people of faith and others skilled in de-escalation and safety work. The program launched in response to ongoing threats from white supremacist groups like the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers at the polls, abortion clinics, drag story-hours, and even school board meetings.

UUs have continued to turn out en masse to advocate for the rights of trans youth. Additionally, UUJMNC and partners have responded by training and deploying "rapid-response safety teams" to support vulnerable LGBTQIA+ youth.

Despite the many daunting challenges to progressive values in North Carolina, Garcia-Sampson said she is optimistic. The joy she finds in organizing is one reason.

"The amount of trust and the depth of relationship across our movement make us who we are, and at the heart of our work is an invitation that is irresistible, centering joy and community," says Garcia-Sampson. "It's the real deal here in North Carolina."