Three Committee Members — reflect on Social Justice at the Kent Church
Social Justice Sunday Service January 8, 2012 — Caroline Arnold
SOCIAL JUSTICE: POLITICAL PARAMETERS & PAST
I became active with the First Unitarian Church of Columbus in the early ‘60s. I was then an Instructor in the Ohio State School of Music, played in the Columbus Symphony, and was attracted to the music programs at the Unitarian church.
At that time the John Birch Society was rampant in Columbus and had persuaded the OSU Trustees to enact a gag rule preventing communists or subversives from speaking on campus. The liberals at the Unitarian church frequently hosted those speakers.
I was married at First Unitarian in 1962; in 1965 we moved to Cleveland with our two very young children while my husband was completing his graduate study at the Cleveland Museum of Art. I took a job teaching speech, debate and drama at the prestigious private Hathaway Brown School for Girls.
In 1967, with my marriage unraveling, I returned to Kent and promptly looked up the Kent U-U Church where Peter Richardson was minister.
The next year Kent and Ravenna were rocked with outrage when the Cleveland Clinic moved to seize the small home of a black family in Ravenna in payment of a bill for treating the mother for liver cancer. The good people of Ravenna rose up and held bake-sales, block parties and raffles to help pay the bill, and the woman’s son quit high school to work in the family junk business to try to save his family home. The woman died, of course, but the home was finally saved – probably because the Cleveland Clinic didn’t like to look bad.
One of my star students at Hathaway Brown School was the daughter of the then head of Cleveland Clinic. The spectacle of a black youth being deprived of his education while a wealthy doctor kept his daughter in a private school broke through my disconnectedness and left me with an inconvenient sense of responsibility for the world I live in. I quit at Hathaway Brown and took a position teaching Head Start in Twinsburg for the school year ‘69 – ‘70.
As the selection I read at the beginning of the service indicates, I became more active in the church. At that time the membership was small – perhaps 50 active families, about a quarter older Universalists who had supported John Flint’s liberal, union-friendly theology and three-quarters younger families mostly associated with the university. Leaders of the church were also active with early environmental initiatives, and the church basement hosted the organizational meetings of Kent Environmental Council, draft counseling sessions, and the Students for a Democratic Society coffeehouse, the Yellow Unicorn.
In January of 1970, the church hired Bill Schulz, a pre-theology student at Oberlin College to serve as minister. Bill provided leadership and practical actions for the church after May 4, but more importantly, his involvement with this church at that time changed his life, and contributed to his successful career, including heading Amnesty International and the UUA.
In the wake of the shootings Schulz and the leaders of this church were open to students who wanted to protest or participate in rebuilding community. A food co-op was started on Fridays in the basement. I and a number of other church members were active participants. Church women started a babysitting co-op which rapidly grew into a full time-banking project with people swapping music lessons, lawn care, garden-tilling, sewing and other projects.
After about four years the organizers of the food co-op were graduating or moving on. Some tried to get the church to take over the co-op, but we resisted, and the co-op became Kent Natural Foods, in a storefront downtown, where it still exists today.
As a church we decided to withhold the Federal tax on the church’s phone bill that we believed was supporting the Vietnam War. Nothing happened, but a few church members dropped away.
In the subsequent ten years the membership of the church changed significantly. For young professors and administrators, Kent State was neither a star in their resumes, nor a comfortable position in conservative administration seeking money and students. Some left teaching entirely, others found jobs elsewhere in academia.
As a church we were small then, and poor. We had barely 70 members, and we couldn’t offer more than $10,000/year to a new minister. We joined forces with the Canton Fellowship to sweeten that offer a little, but it still was far short of what we knew we should pay – especially to a professional with a family. We also quickly learned that women ministers were again coming on the market and that they were cheaper than men.
And so the Reverend Vi Kochendoerfer came to Kent in 1972… The church was not only somewhat rudderless and unfocussed – and nearly penniless – it was, literally, physically, falling apart. Vi went quickly to work persuading people to contribute money to repair and restore the building. She raised over $20,000 to renovate the kitchen and remodel the sanctuary, and she raised awareness of the importance of long-range planning for capital improvements.
More importantly, in the five years she was here, Vi mended the fences that had kept our ministers out of the Kent Ministerial Association, and became not only their first woman member, but also, she asserted, their token atheist. She provided authoritative leadership in our church and in the community on important issues like death & dying, sexuality, and gay rights.
Vi studied and preached to this congregation on Islam and the Koran, and she was the first woman minister ever to preach at St. Patrick’s Church in Kent. She also worked extensively with Rev. George Gaiser (Lutheran) and Don Shilling (Methodist) and taught in the Experimental College at Kent State. Here leadership on issues of social justice brought new liberal-minded academics into the church.
Despite that, in the economic downturn of the early 80s the church membership shrank even more, till we could afford only a part time minister. Politically, our focus had turned to the plight of refugees fleeing from repressive dictatorships in Central America and the infiltration of some Arizona churches by the FBI. An ecumenical group spearheaded by Ed Truitt started meeting at our church and talking about how we might help. The challenge we chose was getting refugees from the Mexican border to Canada, which offered them asylum, without their being deported by the US immigration authorities.
At that time the kitchen & bathroom that had been part of the apartment the Flints had lived in were still intact, and we thought that our church could be a “sanctuary” in which the refugees could live safely until they could get to Canada. As things turned out, refugees never actually lived in the church.
Ed Truitt spearheaded the organization of a “Coalition for Sanctuary”. A major consideration was whether individual members of a group governed by majority rule could be held legally liable for the actions of a group. I undertook to write a Constitution and By-Laws on Consensual Principles to address the problems of liability under majority rule. Among other things, it separated Members and Attendees so people who were afraid of prosecution could participate but not be held responsible. Church members Olive Hobbs, Tom Myers, Ann Hastings, Ted Voneida and I were early members. By midsummer there were 15 Members plus over 20 Attendees including people from UCC, the Presbyterian Church, and the United Christian Ministries.
The Sanctuary group was very successful, and is still meeting, now at the UCC, In 28 years they have assisted over 30 refugees to asylum in Canada or residency in the US, and it remains politically active on behalf of immigrants, immigration law, and national policies toward Latin America.
As most of you know, my involvement with social justice in this church has a hole in it from 1985 to 1997, when I served on the staff of Senator John Glenn in Washington and Cleveland. After I retired I started writing an op-ed column for the Record Courier dealing with issues of social justice. The Commondreams.org website has posted over 100 of these columns, including many about the Kent community, this church and May 4.
After retiring I became active again with the church, with Kent Environmental Council, Kent Social Services, and the County Clothing Center. In 2004 we established a Social Justice Committee that has focused on those issues.
An insert in your program contains an overview of our congregation’s recent activities on behalf of social justice. It is a record we can be proud of, and a solid place to stand against global challenges of war, inequality, corporatism, resource depletion, global warming.
Social Justice Sunday Service – January 8, 2012 – Paulette Thurman
Social Justice: Present and Personal
I’ve been a member of SJC for years without ever actually participating in it. I would get the meeting agendas and the meeting minutes and mostly felt guilty that I do nothing about the issues I follow and have plenty of strong feelings about. Well, when Caroline asked me to join her and Mac in presenting this service, the timing couldn’t have been better because the Occupy Movement was brand new then and I was feeling the same guilt there. Clearly, the gods and goddesses of righteous protest were calling. So, not wanting to say no to someone whose political writings I’ve admired for so long, I said Ok, all the while thinking, ‘really? Does this make any sense? I’m just going to jump in and do this when I haven’t been active in this group?’ I started attending the monthly meetings, I’ve now been to three, and have volunteered to be the secretary. I record the minutes.
This is what I want to share about this group of intrepid UUs. These are people who know how to get things done. They’ve been in the trenches with economic and social justice issues for years and years, as we just heard. So many years, in fact, that they’re becoming a little concerned about the future of the group.
So I’m here to appeal – and they didn’t ask me to do this – appeal to anyone else among us feeling discontent over what they know and how they feel about what they know, and what they’re actually doing about it. We’re all busy, our lives are filled up, and yet I have found that there are plenty of simple, quick things one can do and it really is true, every effort counts. Every petition, every rally, every conversation, every letter to the editor, every letter to city council, the representatives and senators in Columbus and Washington….. it all matters.
Probably I’m not the only member of this church who has this predicament of political awareness and political inertia. Or maybe it’s just overwhelm, too many issues and too complicated. But what I’m finding is that with the community and camaraderie of the group, I can be more functional in this arena. I too can get things done.
In my brief time with SJC, this is what’s gone on. Caroline Arnold stepped down after three years as chair, and Sally Burnell stepped up into that position. Sally is especially concerned with issues of local poverty and how we can help. The committee has an interest in doing more to promote the development of the Kent Community TimeBank as well as Empower Portage. The TimeBank is an alternative economy in which members earn timedollars for services they provide which they can then exchange with any other members for the services they offer. It’s a great community builder and some of us here today have already joined. Empower Portage helps people find ladders out of poverty and SJC is exploring what we can do to support them.
SJC is holding a pot-luck Jan 20 followed by a showing of The Healthcare Movie, look for it in the Thread. This is another one of Sally’s pet projects – to return to the pot-luck and movie activity popular in the past.
We get guests at times. A young man with the campaign for the Ohio Medical Cannabis Act of 2012 spoke to us and circulated a petition, which we all signed.
Another guest, Mary Greer, of Shalersville, whose property is now surrounded by neighboring properties leased to the hydraulic gas fracking industry, spoke of upcoming events addressing the denial of human rights, not just the imposition of fracking, and what can legally be done about that.
Committee members Ted and Swanny make regular reports on fracking developments. They’re also busy with Kent Environmental Council and other churches, gathering and distributing information, lecturing and testifying everywhere possible.
Bonnie is looking into the possibility of our having a collection box in the church kitchen for used dishes, pots and pans, silverware, to be made available to people coming out of shelter houses and often needing everything.
Sally hopes to hold a community meeting on the topic of predatory lending and is looking for a speaker.
Saunis continues the fair-trade coffee, tea and chocolate sales which are a good, steady fundraiser.
So you see, this is a busy little group. We only meet once a month, and with the exception of Caroline, we don’t bite.
Social Justice Sunday Service – January 8, 2012 – Mac Goekler
Social Justice: Here and Into the Future
I came late to UUism. After Tina, my first wife died in 1990 – I went in search of GOD, which evolved into writing my own theology. In 1993, I met Susan on eco-tour in Costa Rica and amongst our long discussions; I mentioned that no reasonable church would have anyone like me who went about writing their own theology. As a third generation UU, she assured me there was indeed a place for me. My first UU church was the Church of the Larger Fellowship – a UU Church without walls –our newsletter church.
Susan and I made a historic trip to Africa in 1995 which sealed our relationship. Later that year we were married and upon my return to work I found out that all of our jobs had gone to China. After a brief time with Susan in Atlanta, I moved to El Paso and joined the UU Community of El Paso. A year later, I was on the board as Social Justice Chair — Kent is not the only church that asks newcomers to be leaders. But again, the business disappeared and in 1997, I moved to Lafayette IN at the same time Susan moved to Kent. I joined the UU Church of Lafayette – who interestingly had out grown their space. Sadly, at work, I found out that the “books were being cooked” and as CEO my ethos could not allow me to remain – I could not be party to a lie. Being tired of being married, but living apart – I moved to Ohio to be with Susan and joined this church.
My UUism is driven by my need to try and make the world a better place. My ethical existence requires me to walk away from business practices that are not fully transparent. As jobs were disappearing and business ethics were hitting an all time low – I retired myself early to grow orchids, build steam engines and become a house husband happy to trade my office suite for the kitchen and laundry room.
Besides Social Justice, I like UUism because of how it works. Our basic UU governance structure is non-hierarchical congregational. This coupled with our culture that informs us that all are created equal gives us a member user friendly environment prone to bottom-up leadership. If you have a great idea for a children’s program based on the Harry Potter books – you’ll be encouraged and supported. Next month we don on our wizard hats and under Becky Haines’ guidance we make magic again with our wee wizards.
Our congregation casts a large shadow in our community and within our denomination. This is due to the actions of this church and the individual efforts of some of its members. We are well known for our social justice and have been for many decades. Today you have heard much about this and now we home in on some great work at the denominational level and where our Social Justice is now.
Our dear Rev. Melissa was a key player in negotiating the Phoenix Justice General Assembly compromise. She is now the President –Elect of the group she represented at General Assembly – UU Allies for Racial Equity. This group helps White UUs confront their privilege while being accountable to the People of Color community. It is quite common here to reward good work with more responsibility.
My own dear Susan is a member of our Association’s Commission on Social Witness. This independent group helps congregations formulate social justice public policy and facilitate social justice action by our members. Our denomination’s board of trustees felt that the commission’s process for generating public witness statements took up too much time and asked our denomination’s governing body, the delegates from all the congregations, to eliminate this witness statement process and the delegates said NO. We are a justice seeking people and our people govern. Becky Haines gave me T shirt emblazoned with “If the people lead, the leaders will follow”. When Rev. Sinkford, our Association’s President saw me wearing this, he gestured to it with a loud “Amen”. This is who we are.
Our congregation has had a major impact on UU Social Justice Public Policy Statements. An example, the “Alternatives to the War on Drugs” statement was amended into it final form with half the changes coming from Kent.
When we were working on a program to create a culture of peace within our denomination the question asked was: “How are we going to keep this going after the policy statement is agreed to and the denomination moves on?” “We could, I said, create a group to keep the congregations involved in peace work” – we did and the UU Peace Ministry Network was born. Anyone of us can take up the torch of justice.
This last year my UUs for Alternatives to the Death Penalty board colleagues voted me president – at our aging founder’s request. Good work just seems to get you more and more work.
Our Chalice Lighting this morning gave us the history of our Flaming Chalice and also described the origin of our UU Service Committee. For the second time, I am the district coordinator for the service committee and our own Vivien Sandlund is your local service committee representative.
This year Time Magazine named their Person on the Year “The Protestor”, which looks and sounds a lot like us. Walking though our parking lot – you can readily see what we stand for just by reading all the bumper stickers. At various times we have hung banners on the front of the Church, including “Standing on the Side of Love”, “Healthcare for All”, and a rainbow ribbon. We gathered on the steps and banged pots and pans in memory of Molly Ivins. This coming June at General Assembly you will see a significant protest with most of our people wearing yellow “Standing on the Side of Love” T shirts. You are much more likely to see protest T shirts worn here during services than dress clothes.
Our congregation has been through many trials and tribulations, but has always survived and continued to serve the community. Now we are faced with another inflection point – a good problem this time. We have long discussed that we will run out of room and we now we have. I’m sure we will move forward, expand our space and embrace additional membership – as our mission and vision tells us to do. This is good news indeed. With more membership, we can be a bigger force for good here in our community.
As we move down this new path we will be able to pursue some social justice objectives we have wanted to do – including becoming a Green Sanctuary. Also, we can move forward with updating our pledge to the community and ourselves to becoming a better welcoming congregation. We may even look at a personal favorite of mine and become a peace advocate church.
Will we continue to be a force for social justice well into the future? Our history and traditions do give us a window to view the future with. My prediction, long after I’m gone the babies that were born here this last year will be doing social justice here – likely better than we do it now.