An Overview of Social Justice work: Theory and Praxis

By Reverend Tom Goldsmith

An Overview of Social Justice work: Theory and Praxis (rev.)

Reverend Tom Goldsmith

An intense commitment to social justice issues directed at healing the world sits squarely in the congregation’s DNA. Historically, the First Unitarian Church, Salt Lake City, has always endorsed efforts to bring peace among nations and pursue a more equitable society throughout the country and the Intermountain West.  On the state and local level, it has assumed a position of moral leadership in such efforts.

From its inception, the church has had ministers who were Socialists, Humanists, and educators and who molded the spirit and reputation of the congregation to be distinctly liberal in both social and religious matters. Theologically, the emphasis of the church rested not with personal salvation but in the pursuit of a more just society. Never known for cultivating piety, the congregation sought instead to promote human and civil rights for all.

In so doing, the church followed the highly influential Unitarian philosopher of the mid-20th century, James Luther Adams, endorsing his theological justifications for churches acting as change agents. Adams’s essays contributed to a broader understanding of why churches must pursue social justice rather than merely perform charitable operations. Although Adams relied on religious language in defining social justice (calling it for example a part of “God’s love and law”), a predominantly Humanist congregation such as First Church could relate to the poetic tone of his theological validation that churches assume a greater role in creating a more equitable secular society. 

First Church always felt motivated to embrace justice issues because it knew or intuited what Adams proclaimed: “That enormous power exists within the institutional church. In committing to fulfill ‘divine purpose,’ the church is morally empowered to guide political processes to that end. When political institutions fail to consider the theological character of strengthening community, it becomes ‘demonic,’ merely striving to reach its own narrow ends. This is what the Bible refers to as ‘hardness of heart.’” Such hardness, or “turning a deaf ear,” occurs when power is separated from an understanding of its source in the divine.

The institutional church, called to build a human community where justice reigns and dignity applies to all people, finds itself unwittingly in a power struggle with institutions that reject the Divine Purpose for selfish gain. The church is called to act prophetically in an unjust world; to awaken the community to respond to God’s love and law.

First Unitarian Church has always taken its prophetic role seriously and is perceived throughout the Salt Lake Valley as a “liberal oasis” in a desert of conservative ideology.  The church opened its doors in the 1960’s and 70’s to help organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the League of Women Voters, and the American Civil Liberties Union to form local chapters. 

In the 1970’s, volunteers made and served sandwiches to the homeless, a commitment that endured for more than 30 years. The church also responded forcefully to nuclear testing by sending a busload of church members and its minister to protest at the Nevada Test Site in 1987 and 1988. The church was highly visible in protest demonstrations in downtown Salt Lake during the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990’s.  

After the centennial celebration in 1991, First Church began to examine its effectiveness in social justice causes. Although there was a “Social Concerns Committee,” it felt too fragmented. Individuals were following their own passions in the name of the church. No cohesive action plan existed. The congregation as a whole didn’t “own” the social justice program in ways it felt could be more effective. Instead it simply permitted the institution to bless the goodwill of individuals working on behalf of good causes. 

An effort was made to reduce the breadth of issues undertaken by the social concerns committee and consider only a few issues to be endorsed by the congregation as a whole. For a few Annual Meetings in the early and mid-90’s, the congregation would vote on one or two social justice “themes” to pursue as a church. But the vision of the entire institution embracing an issue never materialized to anyone’s satisfaction.

In 1997 a new plan emerged which has served as a foundation for the church’s social justice outreach ever since. Rather than reinvent the proverbial wheel, the church took the time to explore what partnerships with other institutions might mean. The church’s exploration into forming partnerships led the church to Edison School, located in an underserved community on the west side. 

Through the creativity of the school’s principal, Julie Miller, and the church’s adaptability, many opportunities arose for more of the congregation to become actively involved. Suddenly about 40 congregants signed up to learn the school’s tutoring program called One On One. There were strict procedures to follow, and the volunteers from the church admired the organization of an effective tutoring program. 

The principal had also involved the business community to contribute funds to build the school’s first computer lab. After completion, the lab remained empty until members of the church began donating IBM 386 and 486 computers and provided tech support. The faculty at the school was either unfamiliar or intimidated by the idea of using computers as a learning tool. First Church provided faculty support. Some of the congregants were trained ESL teachers and brought that skillset to Edison School. The program was successful at the school, and the church learned that a single focus in pursuing justice would bring tangible results.

As good relationships were fostered between First Unitarian tutors and Edison School students, the church learned of the devastating poverty that impacted mostly all of the students. With the help of Julie Miller identifying homes that needed furnishing, First Church began to collect furniture among its parishioners and began furnishing the homes of families in Poplar Grove where the school was situated.

The success of furnishing homes spawned another partnership, this time with IRC (International Rescue Committee). More than twenty years after its initial contact with IRC, First Church continues to serve refugees who relocate in Salt Lake City. The group dedicated to furnishing refugee apartments has more than fifty volunteers. For a more comprehensive look at the church’s work with IRC, see John Rasmuson’s chapter below

In the mid-90’s, climate change was poorly understood in our country. Although the congregation was informed and alerted to the pending disaster, which loomed in the near future, many if not most of the country paid little attention to overt changes in the environment. A few members of the congregation, Joan Gregory and Michael Mielke in particular, felt compelled to address environmental degradation on a large scale. The Environmental Ministry was chartered in 2001, which drew many supporters from both within and outside the church. Environmental Ministry grew from serving as an educational arm, helping people understand recycling and alternative energy sources, to a major voice of opposition to further oil and gas explorations and fracking. [See chapter by Joan Gregory]. The church voted unanimously in 2013 to divest all its assets invested in companies involved with fossil fuel industries.    

In 2008, Tim DeChristopher, an environmental activist, was arrested for monkey-wrenching (sabotaging) an oil and gas lease auction held in Salt Lake City. Tim was attending First Church and gained the immediate support of the entire congregation. He soon joined as a member of the church and became an icon for the congregation and the environmental movement. Tim personified much of James Luther Adams’ assertion that although we live within the framework of Divine Love, it remains a human endeavor to respond faithfully to that love and to Divine Laws. [Click the documentary “Bidder 70” for a more comprehensive examination of the Tim DeChristopher protest, arrest, and aftermath.]

Through Tim’s actions and the Environmental Ministry in general, First Church made the easy connection between Divine Love and the natural world. Nature, too, demands our compassion, most conspicuously because abuse of The Creation brings devastation to every creature that inhabits it. Earth Justice remains one of the signature endeavors of the church’s Social Justice Council. Fairness to all extends to the whole biotic world and the networks that connect every species in a web of life.   

Another partnership was formed in 2016 with VOA (Volunteers of America). VOA built a shelter for homeless teens, and the church cooks and serves them with four meals a month for approximately 40 teens plus staff. 

In 2017 the church began a partnership with Planned Parenthood, focusing on sex education for women in prison and also on intersecting with other secular agencies lobbying state legislators to bring a fairer representation to a growing diverse population in Utah. [Click on Rev. Monica Dobbins for a more detailed account.]

In the early 2000’s, the minister began meeting with a small group of parishioners who were increasingly concerned about the plight of undocumented immigrants in our country. A national movement was getting underway among progressive churches called The New Sanctuary Movement, reminiscent of the 1980’s when churches offered sanctuary to immigrants fleeing from political oppression in their native Central American countries. 

After several congregation-wide discussions and steps to educate members and friends on the new set of circumstances facing immigrants, First Unitarian Church voted to become a member of the New Sanctuary Movement. This entailed offering “temporary sanctuary” to an individual or family who needed a safe environment in which to publicize the inhumane treatment of immigrants. Temporary sanctuary meant providing enough time to hold a few press conferences so the public could attach a human face to the crisis, and also time for the individual or family to secure a lawyer.

The immigration crisis began to intensify around the country soon after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.  Following Pres. Trump’s nativist directives, federal authorities began raiding homes and workplaces, deporting family members and thus separating families. In late 2017, First Church was contacted by a civic Hispanic organization, Unidad Inmigrante, as to whether or not the church would be available for a family seeking sanctuary. The family was seeking permanent sanctuary, and the congregation voted to change our commitment from a temporary sanctuary to a permanent one. 

Vicky Chavez and her two daughters, originally from Honduras, arrived at the church on January 30, 2018. More than 200 volunteers signed up to help, including about 40 from other churches. The Steering Committee, responsible for food, security, technology, and volunteer training consisted of the following: Joan Gregory, chair; Amanda Esko, Kelly Garrett, Kristen Knippenberg, Samantha Overton, Sarang Joshi, Sven Haynes, Bryan VandenBirge, Lauren VandenBirge, and the Reverends Dobbins and Goldsmith. After Bryan and Lauren VandenBirge left the Steering Committee, new members joined: Lisa Hyte, Katie Swade, Thea Halcomb, and Amy Dominguez. It should be noted that Vicky Chavez, who was in sanctuary at the church, also served as a fully voting member of the Steering Committee.

The church also received support from The Rev. Dr. Pablo Ramos, pastor at San Esteban in West Valley City. That Episcopal Church, consisting mostly of undocumented members, and First Unitarian Church, had been in partnership (sister churches) since 2010, allowing for much trust to flow easily between the two church institutions.

In January 2019, First Unitarian Church began exploring a new partnership with The Inn Between, a hospice for the homeless originally engineered by church member Allan Ainsworth a decade ago. Currently we are offering tech support as they settle into a new facility just seven blocks south of First Unitarian Church. Several church members already serve as volunteers there, with more expected.  

This summary of First Unitarian social justice projects since 1991 provides only a cursory glance of the church’s commitments. The church also partnered with Mountain View Elementary School, Ten Thousand Villages, Equality Utah, and Utah Interfaith Power and Light: A Religious Response to Global Warming. The church also was faithful to its highway cleanup program, organized WOOP (What’s on Your Plate) to fund other nonprofit agencies around town committed to peace and justice work and was aligned with the Norman and Barbara Tanner Center for Peace and Justice Advocacy at the University of Utah. The latter group was largely responsible for initiating an academic major in Peace Studies at the university. (Details of these projects can be found in other chapters of this volume.)

Perhaps the most highly publicized action in the church’s post-centennial history occurred in 1999 when Salt Lake City Mayor Deedee Corradini sold Main Street to the LDS Church for $8.1 million. The price was not the issue, rather the loss of the public’s right to free speech in the heart of the city was. After a lively congregational meeting filled to capacity, First Church voted unanimously to act as the ACLU chief plaintiff in its lawsuit against the LDS Church. The case lost in federal district court but was successfully appealed. In June 2002, the United States Supreme Court refused to hear the case, thus the appellate court ruling stood. The LDS Church had to pay the ACLU $200,000 in legal fees.

Human rights, civil rights, and advocacy for peace and justice all cemented the identity of First Unitarian Church as a religious community unafraid to respond to old prophetic calls to extend human compassion. The congregation is proud of its role in the community as a beacon of progressive ideals while also walking the talk in efforts to attain those lofty goals. Situated on its current site in the affluent East Bench of Salt Lake City since 1927, the congregation has been exceedingly generous fiscally and spiritually. 

Perhaps it’s a response to “Divine Purpose” as posited by James Luther Adams. Perhaps it’s just a gut instinct that we have a moral obligation to make the world a better place. Regardless, the congregation is zealous in its pursuit in allowing all people, not just “the saved” to receive the abundant blessings of life.