Unitarian Universalists join millions to march on Washington and in other U.S. cities.
One of many Standing on the Side of Love banners at the Women’s March on Washington, January 21, 2017 (Justine Rothbart).
At 10 p.m. on January 20, 2017—the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration—106 people gathered in the parking lot of Taunton High School in Taunton, Massachusetts, and climbed onto two buses for an overnight trip to the nation’s capital. The next morning, they joined a singing, chanting crowd of over 500,000 people at the Women’s March on Washington to uphold women’s rights and human rights in the face of the new presidential administration.
“They all came together, they all helped. Most of them I’d never met before. That’s the holy right there,” said the Rev. Christana Wille McKnight, minister of First Parish Church in Taunton, who organized the buses, which included ten Unitarian Universalists from her congregation and fifteen from the UU Society of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, as well as many non-UUs.
UUs from around the country converged in Washington for the march. There were 673 sister marches worldwide, from Nairobi to Antarctica, including in all fifty U.S. states, according to the women’s march website, with UUs at many of them. The march’s organizers estimated 4.9 million people participated around the globe in what is being called the largest organized march in human history.
UUs for Social Justice arranged via Facebook for UUs to gather in front of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Hubert H. Humphrey Building. According to the Facebook page, 649 UUs responded that they would be attending the march. At that meeting site, there were dozens of yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” posters and a giant SOSL banner. The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) officially endorsed the march.
The rally began at 10 a.m; the larger-than-expected crowd size prevented most from getting close to the area where speakers—from Melissa Harris-Perry to Gloria Steinem—spoke of women’s rights, racial justice, immigrants’ rights, and more. Many UUs chose to stay put in front of the Humphrey building. With the U.S. Capitol as the backdrop, the throng shouted a call-and-response—“Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”—and a chant, “Say it loud, say it clear! Refugees are welcome here!”
The Rev. Patrice Curtis, minister at Unitarian Universalists of Clearwater, Florida, attended the march with her wife, Nancy Jasa, who carried a yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” poster. While the couple flew to D.C., Curtis said that UUs from the Clearwater and St. Petersburg area filled two buses that hit the road at 7 p.m. Friday night.
“I’m here because these UUs and everyone here are our allies. We have to build our resistance for the next four years, not just today. We are up to this! I believe that,” said Curtis. “Because silence is consent, I plan to speak up every day of this administration.”
Jo VonRue, intern minister at the UU Congregation of Binghamton, New York, said she joined the march, “For women! For everybody! For the intersectionality of every being.” She and four friends drove down Friday night after their bus was cancelled at the last minute, joining ten from her congregation.
Alexis Robert from Wilmington, North Carolina, who identifies as a black UU, said she traveled to the march to support women’s issues, adding, “I grew up when abortion was illegal.”
Stephanie Olmstead, from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, is Catholic but went to the march with UU friends. “I’m here for my daughter, who is two-and-a-half,” she said. She began to weep, and added, “She’s Native American and I just want her to have a future.”
After the rally, organizers had to change the planned route for the march due to the large crowd. A woman perched on a street sign announced via megaphone that people were to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House, the same route as the Inaugural parade a day earlier. The crowd moved slowly; when it reached the Trump International Hotel, many began to boo.
Some marchers found their way onto risers that had been erected for the inauguration, including two people holding Mexican flags. One of them also held a sign reading, “I am not a rapist.”
There were a number of “Black Lives Matter” signs, banners, and buttons, and several times the crowd chanted “Black Lives Matter!” A woman handed out bright-pink “Stay Nasty” signs with safety pins.
Many in the crowd held creative, hand-drawn signs: “There are no jobs in my uterus—so keep out!”, “ACA Saved My Life!”, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun(damental Rights!)”, “Nyet My President,” and “Love Your Muslim Neighbor.” A blond man held a sign that read, “A Nasty Woman Raised This Fierce Queen.” Many women, and some men, wore “pussy hats”—knitted hats with cat ears in every shade of pink and purple. Many wore pink stickers that said, “This is what a feminist looks like.”
There were humorous signs with serious messages including, “Make America Read Again!”, and “Thou Shalt Not Mess with Women’s Reproductive Rights – Fallopians 1:21.”
There were a few Trump supporters visible in the crowd. A white couple in their twenties, both wearing red caps that read “Make America Great Again,” stood in a small clearing in the crowd along with their toddler daughter and began trying to provoke marchers. When three twenty-something black women stopped to talk to them, the man said, “White privilege is ridiculous. Where’s my white privilege? I make fourteen bucks an hour.” He looked at the three women and added, “You’re probably richer than I am.”
Among the UUs in D.C. were all three candidates for president of the UUA. A new president will be elected at General Assembly 2017, in June, in New Orleans.
The Rev. Alison Miller, a candidate for UUA president and senior minister at the Morristown Unitarian Fellowship in Morristown, New Jersey, wants UUs to “advocate, agitate, and further develop public leaders.” She added, “It was amazing to be surrounded by over a million people who were activated enough to march in the streets of D.C., and engage in a spiritual practice of moving our feet, wheelchairs, and strollers towards justice.”
The Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, candidate for UUA president, travelled from Phoenix, Arizona, where she is lead minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix. “A march empowers people for the work ahead,” she said. “I’m marching today to feel the power of my sisters and brothers in this struggle for human rights and human dignity, and to care for and uplift life and our planet.”
“The unanimity that I saw was great, the age diversity was great, but I hold a little bit of a concern that it was not diverse in race, and I don’t know how diverse it was in economic impact, and those stay with me,” said the Rev. Jeanne Pupke, senior minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church of Richmond, Virginia, and the third candidate for UUA president.
For over ten hours, Wille McKnight stood in the very thick of the crowd, unable to move, before her group got back on the bus after the march, arriving in Taunton at 4 a.m. “I really wanted to do this personally, not necessarily in my ministerial capacity,” said Wille McKnight. Having “self-identified as feminist my whole life,” she said, “to have something specifically about women was important to me.”
Now people within and outside her congregation are looking to her for leadership on next steps, and she is figuring out how to leverage her role as a UU minister at one of the oldest congregations in the U.S. She called the march a critically important springboard launching the resistance.
Julie McCumber Andrews, of Jamestown, Rhode Island, who identifies as a UU, said she was so inspired by the march that she’s already decided to take concrete action that she’d never before considered. Inspired to run for office, she is going to seek a seat on her local school board.
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Elaine McArdle is a UU World senior editor and a member of First Unitarian Church in Portland, Oregon. An award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, she has also written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Law Bulletin, and others.
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