Congregations celebrated for supporting Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office
The Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office (UU-UNO) honored thirteen UU congregations as Blue Ribbon congregations at the 2010 General Assembly in Minneapolis. The “Blue Ribbon” designation means that the congregation has fulfilled several requirements in support of the UU-UNO and its mission. Eight American congregations and five Canadian congregations received this recognition.
Founded in 1962, the UU-UNO educates UUs about the work of the United Nations and promotes advocacy on international human rights issues. The UU-UNO office is focusing especially on issues related to international GLBT rights, the rights of women and children, peace building, and climate change.
The Blue Ribbon program honors churches that make the UU-UNO a priority in congregational life. According to Bruce Knotts, UU-UNO executive director, the program began last year as “a way to incentivize what we would like to see congregations do.” Knotts’s inspiration was the UU Global AIDS Coalition’s Red Ribbon Program. Building on that organization’s model, the UU-UNO established four requirements for Blue Ribbon congregations.
The first requirement is the appointment of an envoy or envoy team. The envoy’s primary task is to act as the liaison between their local communities and the international community of the UU-UNO, ensuring that the two groups have an open line of communication. Envoys are also responsible for organizing an annual UN Sunday service, the second requirement for the Blue Ribbon award. According to the UU-UNO’s website, UN Sunday is essential “to highlighting the work of the UU-UNO and reaffirming the connections between UU principles and vital issues dealt with at the UN.”
Often, it is the UN Sunday service that sparks a church’s enthusiasm for the organization. Marietta Tanner of the Unitarian Society of Germantown in Philadelphia, Pa., involved her congregation in just this manner. When she became the social action chairperson of her congregation in 2004, she decided to organize the church’s first UN Sunday. Since then she has continued the tradition of an annual UN Sunday, always building the service around the UU-UNO’s proposed theme for the year. In past years, themes have included peace, water justice, and world hunger. “Now we’re trying to build up awareness around gay and lesbian rights,” Tanner said of her church’s continued involvement with the UU-UNO.
According to Knotts, envoys have the opportunity to perform many other services to their congregations and to the UU-UNO. Envoys can work with their directors of religious education to incorporate the UU-UNO Religious Education curriculum “UN Me.” The UU-UNO has also started providing social justice training for envoys and published its first GLBT Global Action Guide. Knotts said that the social justice training would help envoys to organize their congregations to respond to international human rights issues.
The last two requirements that Blue Ribbon Congregations must fulfill promote the financial health of the UU-UNO. To be eligible for the award, a congregation must either give the UU-UNO a line in its annual budget or offer the UU-UNO an annual collection plate. Finally, a Blue Ribbon congregation must have at least five percent of its congregants be contributing members of the UU-UNO. Membership in the UU-UNO includes a minimum fifty dollar fee for adults and forty dollars for seniors. According to Knotts, this requirement is usually what separates Blue Ribbon congregations from the more than four hundred congregations with envoys to the UU-UNO.
A church’s ability to meet this goal often depends on the demographics of the community it serves. Some congregations, such as the Community Unitarian Church of White Plains, N.Y., are natural candidates for involvement with the UU-UNO. According to David Finch, the congregation’s current envoy and former treasurer of the UU-UNO, enthusiasm for the UU-UNO was high in the multicultural, mostly Manhattanite congregation. Along with an internationally oriented congregation, it was “key that the minister was supportive and on board,” said Finch.
John Hopewell, the envoy for the Blue Ribbon First Unitarian Church of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, said that the UU-UNO Blue Ribbon program was a good fit for his congregation, as well. “In Canada there is a history of deep interest in the UN at large, so it’s a fairly natural association,” he said. In these congregations, members tend to join the UU-UNO independently out of a personal interest in the UN and international affairs.
In other congregations, the seed of involvement is first planted by just one motivated member. At the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Canada, that member was Ruth Pearce. She was elected to the UU-UNO board in April of 2009, but her congregation, preoccupied with relocation to a new building and hiring a new minister, remained largely unaware of the work the organization was doing. Pearce’s work with the UU-UNO made her “concerned that [her] congregation was too inward looking.” The members were unaware, she says, that “there are UU congregations in other countries” with global connections to the UUA and other organizations. For Pearce and her congregation, commitment to the UU-UNO means renewed commitment to learning about and helping UUs and others around the world.
Kent Price, envoy for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Castine, Maine, and vice president for United States Affairs on the UU-UNO board, was also the driving force behind his congregation’s involvement. He shares Pearce’s excitement that it has “helped [his congregation] go outside of the island mentality” that some churches are prone to develop. He is proud to amplify his congregation’s voice on the international stage and to be “representing something that is considerably larger than a single congregation.”
Envoys report that heightened awareness of what is going on at the UN and how UUs can contribute to the international social justice process is the most enriching part of participating in the program. Many envoys are delighted that their congregations achieve what Hopewell describes as “a continuing understanding of what the UN is doing.”
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McCall Breuer served as an editorial intern in May, June, and July 2010 while a Religion and International Studies major at Tufts University. She grew up in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Md.