Social Justice History within the UU Fellowship

When we hear the words “social justice”, we usually think of providing a service to or support for people suffering from an injustice or misfortune. However, the UUA’s department of Social Justice expands this definition to include three additional elements of social justice work: education, witness, and advocacy.

Described below are eight local social justice service projects and programs that through the years have been administered under the umbrella of the Social Justice Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Vero Beach.

Sharing of Sustenance Sunday:  Our Fellowship has been observing Sharing of Sustenance Sunday since our 1989-90 fiscal year. On the first Sunday of every month, congregants bring non-perishable food or money for the Indian River Food Pantry (IRFP), located at 2221 15th Avenue in Vero Beach. The cash is used by IRFP to buy food items from a food bank in Ft. Pierce. In 2009 we donated 1,521 pounds of food.  In 2008 we donated $ 3,225 to the food pantry.  In 2007 we donated $2,139.00 and 610 pounds of food.  Disposable diapers and baby food are also collected to assist a loving family in Sebastian who fosters babies, toddlers, and youngsters who are HIV positive. Many sizes of diapers are needed. During the winter months, clothing is also collected for migrant farm worker families. Gently used toys and books are also welcomed and distributed by the Redlands Christian Migrant Association.  Clare Nichols initiated this Social Justice project which Paul and Carol Amaru now administer.

Homeless Family Center:  In 2003, our Fellowship decided to provide one meal per month for the Homeless Family Center. Sometimes making casseroles, sometimes sandwiches, congregants gather to prepare and deliver the food by 4 PM on our assigned day. Salads, beverages, and desserts round out the meal.  After expanding its facility in the fall of 2004, the center now houses a maximum of 70 men, women, and children. In addition, toiletries are collected throughout the month and delivered to HFC on our “meal day.” Sample-sized or hotel-size personal care products are perfect for the Center’s clients. A blue bin for collecting these items is located in the foyer near Door B. Liz Mayo and Anne Tschinkel co-chair this Social Justice project.

Reuse Exchange:  The Reuse Exchange at Keep Indian River Beautiful, located in Sebastian, collects a treasure trove of materials for teachers, scout leaders, church school and day care teachers to use for arts and crafts projects. Since these items might otherwise end up in the landfill, this program serves both teachers and the environment.  Congregants can bring all types of craft supplies as well as fabric, yarn, shoe boxes with lids, greeting card fronts, coffee cans, candles, Styrofoam egg cartons and produce trays, just to name a few. (For a complete listing of recovery items, click here.) The Center also collects aluminum can pull tabs, BoxTops for Education coupons, and Campbell’s soup labels for schools. A large collection container can be found near Door B.  In 2004, Susan Winters initiated this Social Justice project which Anne Tschinkel now oversees.

Farm worker Concerns and Project Niños:  Improving the lives of Florida farm workers has long been an area of concern in our Fellowship. We have collected clothing during the winter months and delivered it to the Redlands Christian Migrant Association (RCMA) in rural Fellsmere. We have also supported the RCMA’s day-care program in Fellsmere in a variety of ways: volunteers have read to the children, and new and gently used toys and books have been donated to their classrooms. While the main RCMA day care center is well supported by various local organizations, its “overflow” home centers are sometimes overlooked. Project Niños is a Christmas gift program for three small RCMA day care programs. Each pre-school-aged child is matched with a Fellowship donor who buys one toy or game and one article of clothing appropriate to the child’s age and size. Members of our Fellowship attend their holiday potluck and enjoy participating in the toddler’s delight when they open their gifts. In recent years, money has also been donated to these daycare home programs to purchase needed equipment, such as an art table and a tape recorder with multiple headsets. Norma and Carlos Mooney initiated this Social Justice project in 2001; it is now co-chaired by Denise Haight and Maria Sobkowiak.

Acting also through education and witness, members of the Fellowship were educated about and encouraged to participate in the boycott of Taco Bell, organized in 2001 by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) in Florida. The grievance was settled as of March 2005 with improved wages and a human rights code of conduct for the farm workers who pick tomatoes.

Green Sanctuary:  At the April 4, 2006, meeting of the UUFVB Board, the committee received unanimous support for embarking upon the Green Sanctuary program! The program will lead to the certification of our Fellowship by UUA affiliate, UU Ministry for Earth. A Task Force with a broad representation from many Fellowship committees was assembled. The next step was to conduct an audit of Fellowship practices in many areas including energy usage, energy conservation, water conservation, recycling, waste reduction, environmentally friendly cleaning supplies, socially responsible purchasing and investing policies, landscaping policies, use of toxic chemicals, and environmental religious education for children and adults. All of these areas plus our worship services relate to the seventh UU principle: Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. They also relate to the 2006 Statement of Conscience passed at General Assembly in June: The Threat of Global Warming.  The third step was to write an Action Plan of 12 projects to be implemented by the congregation and its committees to observe more environmentally responsible practices. These projects fall within four categories: sustainable living, worship and celebration, education, and environmental justice. The Action Plan was submitted to UU Ministry for Earth in December 2006.

Social Justice Film Series:   The film series began in October 2006 with the showing of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary about global warming narrated by Al Gore. On the first Sunday of each month a documentary film is shown which features some aspect of social justice.  Topics of films have included the environment, food and nutrition, the Iraq war, the credit card industry, and bigotry and intolerance.  Nancy Stiefel coordinates this program with the assistance of Glenn Rogers and Deborah West.

Participation in the Martin Luther King Jr. Parade:  Since 1995 a contingent of Fellowship members and friends has marched in the January parade held along a 3-mile route in Gifford.  Rev. Richard Speck spoke one year at the program following the parade. Another year our expanded chorus sang  “We’ll Build a Land” in the program. In the early days, marchers carried a cloth banner that identified our group.  In 2008 two sturdier banners were donated; it is attached to the sides of the pick-up truck in which our Fellowship children ride and toss candy to the parade watchers.  Today Dick Haight coordinates this program.

Fair Trade Corner:  In June of 2001, just as world coffee market prices were beginning to collapse, the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee Coffee Project was launched at General Assembly. This project partners UUSC with Equal Exchange, a worker-owned fair trade organization founded in 1986. Buying coffee, tea, and cocoa directly from farmer cooperatives, Equal Exchange follows the standards and principles of fair trade on 100 percent of its products, ensuring that low-income farmers earn a fair price for their products. Direct payment to farmers also eliminates the middlemen, giving farmers a much larger share of the profits. In 2001 alone, Equal Exchange paid farmers almost $1 million above what they would have earned under conventional trade practices. This allows farmers to better meet their families’ basic needs, such as food, education, and health care. In partnership with these small farmer cooperatives from India and Tanzania to Guatemala and Mexico, Equal Exchange also provides essential pre-harvest credits, gives technical assistance to cooperatives, encourages environmentally sustainable practices, and healthy and safe working conditions.

In 2002, UUFVB’s Social Activities Committee made the commitment to serve only Fair Trade coffee on Sunday mornings. The Committee knew that this single act of conscience was making a difference in the lives of small coffee farmers. The Committee was serving not just a cup of coffee, but a just cup! Because the organically-grown, shade-grown coffee is also more delicious, congregants wanted the coffee for home use as well. Our Fair Trade Corner began selling the coffee in small packages and encouraging other Fellowship committees to serve Fair Trade coffee at their meetings and events. In just three years, their product line has grown to include teas, baking cocoa, hot cocoa mix, chocolate bars, organically grown cashews, bean soup mixes, and notepaper products made from the dung of endangered elephants (known as Elli Pooh products). Gale Parmentier chairs this Social Justice project which Susan Winters began.

National and Global Focus:  Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
Much of the national and international work of the Social Justice Committee is done through our Fellowship’s support of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC).  Our local co-reps to UUSC are Paul Amaru and Jack Stiefel. Each November the Fellowship holds a “Guest at Your Table” service to inform and raise funds for UUSC.  March typically features a Justice Sunday service. UUSC President and Executive Director Charlie Clements spoke about the Iraq war at a service in 2008. Staff member, Martha Thompson, spoke about the Darfur genocide in 2007. Rev. Dr. William Schultz spoke from our Fellowship’s pulpit in March, 2011.For a description of UUSC and our involvement with this important human rights and social justice organization, click here.