Response to Our Ministry Begins When We Leave This Place (We CAN do More) by Don Robinson

Rev. Art McDonald, PhD
June 19, 2013.

I’m Art McDonald, minister of the first UU church in Essex, MA., formally minister at the Allegheny UU church in Pittsburgh, PA.

It’s a great privilege to have been asked by Rev. Don Robinson to respond to his reflections on almost 25 years in UU ministry and on his extraordinary work at Beacon House. Don’s been a great friend and colleague since we met at a UUJEC (Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economic Community) gathering in Los Angeles in 1993 and over the years I’ve had the good fortune to have visited Beacon House on several occasions, a place always teeming with eager and engaged children and youth, and I’ve witnessed the joy and enthusiasm, care, love and service that Don has offered for all these many years.

First of all, concerning ministry I consider Don a genius because, like the best of community organizers, Don realizes that ministry is most especially about relationships and he is so good at relationships – he knows people, he reads peoples, he loves people. If you know Don you’ve probably witnessed him working a crowd, offering and accepting hugs (my one claim to fame is I nicknamed him HUGS many years ago) along the way, making connections, deepening friendships. He does the same at Beacon House; he knows all of the hundreds of youngsters and their families and their stories. Don has been "standing on the side of love” long before us UUs developed our recent justice ministries’ campaigns.

In his ministry at Beacon House, Don bridges the urban and suburban worlds, speaking the language appropriate to each, always, along with his wonderful staff, breaking down barriers of race/ethnicity, class, culture, and always facilitating the forging of new relationships.

And in my own now 22 year journey in UU ministry, having been ordained and done my initial ministry in the Catholic world in the South Bronx section of New York City, I’ve never met a colleague more serious about promoting our Unitarian Universalist faith. Don doesn’t understand why everyone isn’t a UU.

At Beacon House Don is always trying to envision the next step, never satisfied with where Beacon House is at in its ministry at any given moment, always alert to what is going on in the community, always listening to what the community is saying, always revising and updating the vision, never self-satisfied, always wanting to do more and do it better. "Lord have mercy, brother Art,” Don often says to me, "what I could do if I had more resources.”

Finally, concerning ministry, as Don so passionately said in his very challenging remarks: "We need to be sharp; we need to be relentless; we need to show a loving spirit in our approaches; and we need to be on the ground in the actual communities we seek to assist” (and accompany –my addition).

So, as you can see, one of the deepest gifts Don offers to me and us is the inspiration that comes from his total immersion in the Northeast Washington community where he began Beacon House Ministry over 20 years ago. Beyond that, in my view, Don’s ministry and remarks today offer each of us in our ministries, but also our wider UU movement and leadership, a number of very profound prophetic challenges. Let me just focus on two which occur to me. Each of you, I’m sure, heard others that will influence your own work.

Don’s first prophetic challenge is the importance of the social location of our UU congregations and ministries, i.e., where are we focusing our actual ministry (ies) and how does that social location help shape our social analysis, our theological reflection, and, ultimately, our actual ministerial work. Don raises the question why we don’t have significant UU congregational and community ministerial presence in what author Chris Hedges calls "greedy capitalism’s sacrifice zones,” where "poverty, powerlessness and despair” abound? Although Don rightly, I believe, acknowledges that "sacrifice zones” can be found in cities, suburbs and rural communities, we both know best those areas concentrated in the inner city or, ever more, inner ring suburbs as more urban neighborhoods begin to re-gentrify.

This notion of the importance of social location brought to mind that in my early years in UU ministry beginning in 1991, there still existed an urban coalition of UU congregations and ministries. Sadly, to me and others, though, the coalition died and lost UU institutional support, in part, I suppose, because there were so few UU congregations left in the inner city in these so-called "sacrifice zones.” Nevertheless, I had the privilege of serving one such church in Pittsburgh, Allegheny UU, from 1991-2003, that nearly closed. In fact, upon arriving I was told by the few remaining members at Allegheny that in the 1960s, when the great movement to the suburbs was underway and so many people and congregations, not only UU, went to the suburbs, three new suburban UU start-ups occurred in the South, North and Eastern suburban areas of Pittsburgh as spin offs from the large, University-centered city church, First Unitarian. But that’s not all they told me. They went on to say that a prominent UU minister was asked by our UU leadership in Boston to approach Allegheny and suggest that if they were good UUs, they would close and the dwindling membership should help support the development of the new suburban churches and fellowships by joining them. Fortunately, they declined the offer, continued their urban presence until reinforcements arrived. Today that church is a solid small congregation, but I wonder where else the same dynamic may have taken place? Institutionally we have been moving away from "sacrifice zones” for over 50 years.

As Don suggests, doing ministry in such a "sacrifice zone” as Northeast DC helps one see and experience on a daily basis the implications of "capitalist greed” that has produced such areas of disenfranchisement and struggle. Doing ministry in such a context/location, Don and I believe, offers one a special lens on social and economic inequality as one listens to stories from those who live the reality daily. Don believes, as do I, that in our social analysis and in our decisions about how we shape our ministries, we need to give priority to the experiences of the primary victims of these areas.

I learned in my seminary years in the early and mid-1970s from some of the earliest liberation theologians in Latin America and the U.S., that this is called the "epistemological privilege” of the poor and disenfranchised. That is, in analyzing social injustice and doing theological reflection leading to the shaping of ministry, we must give priority to and see, as best as we are able, social reality through the eyes and experiences of the poor. It became known as the "preferential option for the poor” as we all struggle together for social justice. In this perspective we are called to solidarity with the poor and accompaniment.

Where we locate our congregations is crucial for us as a movement to understand who is being sacrificed in this latest stage of capitalist development. Don witnesses this everyday and asks: where is our UU presence?

The second of the many challenges Don’s remarks and ministry raise for me, and, I hope, for all our ministries and our wider UU movement, is to understand better how the various oppressions intersect; race/ethnicity, gender, class, sexual orientation, and, once again understand better how these various oppressions work as we do social analysis, theological reflection and make decisions about ministry directions.

I know I am likely stepping into a bit of a minefield here but, although I believe our UU movement has done commendable work in raising consciousness around these many oppressions, especially in our efforts around anti-racism, GLBT rights, more recently in multicultural awareness and education, and environmental justice, I’m less sure how well we’ve done in actually implementing strategies and ministries and raising up real, on the ground models of how to counter injustice and oppression. That is, we’re good on education and awareness, not so great on practice.

I may be wrong about this, unaware of what’s being done on the ground in various communities served by UUs. If so, I apologize for my ignorance. I do know, first-hand, in working with faith-based organizing movements both in Pittsburgh and Boston’s North Shore, that some good multi-cultural ministry is clearly being done. But there may be more that I am not familiar with.

Nevertheless, what Don’s remarks raise for me very poignantly is that I don’t think yet, even though we do give some lip service to it, that we have committed ourselves as a movement to try to understand or tackle just how deeply classism pervades our society and intersects with these other oppressions. At least this is one area I’ve experienced a lot and thought about a lot and read about a lot. I think as a religious movement we still have lots of work to do on the issues of class.

I experienced class oppression regularly especially in my ministry at Allegheny in urban Pittsburgh in a somewhat diverse racial/ethnic and class context. Among other ministries we developed at Allegheny a particularly challenging one was in our response to a crisis in housing as we tried to support, accompany and help organize low-income tenants whose then section 8 housing was about to be ended and converted to market rate, thus assuring that most all would be excluded. Fortunately, we won this struggle, at least for the short term.

Almost all of the tenant leaders were Black women. One evening after a strategy session we were debriefing and a young African-American female lamented what appeared to be an impending gentrification and, subsequent relocation, and said to the group: "it’s clear they want us out of here because we’re black,” to which an older, more seasoned neighborhood resident and activist, and an African-American woman responded: "they want us out not so much because we’re black but because we’re poor.” In this case, gender, race/ethnicity and, especially class, intersected in a very profound way that helped us understand what was really going on.

Because Don consciously located his ministry in one of America’s largest "sacrifice zones,” he witnesses every day how mostly poor Black women and their children struggle to survive, victims of the latest version of "capitalist greed.” Race/ethnicity, gender and class oppression intersect all around Beacon House. Don understands how this works better than most and has created a ministry in which barriers of race/ethnicity, gender and class are challenged and new experiences and understandings emerge. Black and white, well to do and poor, men and women, young and old meet at Beacon House.

But, despite all of the good work and interactions and new relationships, Don knows this is only a beginning. And because Don is a dreamer, always imagining the next stage of ministry, and he has witnessed first-hand how, as our own James Luther Adams suggested long ago, how powerlessness corrupts (not so much power as the saying from Lord Acton goes but powerlessness), Don would love to start up a UU church near Beacon House; a church to worship and praise, a church to sing, and, ultimately, a church to go into the community and organize; a church that understands that ministry continues and deepens when we step out into the community; a church that can be a catalyst to organize regional actions with suburban allies to start to build power and begin to counter-act the worst effects of America’s "sacrifice zones.”

But to this point Don is too busy "saving children,” rescuing so many who he finds "sitting in the gutter eating discarded French fries.” Don often calls me and says: "brother Art, we saved more children today, but, Lord have mercy, there are so many more to be saved.”

Don has a truly prophetic vision of a very different world beyond these "sacrifice zones” and he believes that Unitarian Universalist ministry and message can and should help build on this vision. But his challenge, his ministry and his words, forces me and, hopefully our movement, to re-think our relationship to America’s "sacrifice zones. Where is our UU presence? Where do we choose to locate? How do we support, not allow or even encourage to close, current UU congregations still in these "sacrifice zones…of poverty, powerlessness and despair?” How will we respond?