For all that is our life! by Rev. Andrew Clive Millard
“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.”
– Our Fifth Principle
I spent two of January’s Tuesdays in Richmond, the first for the Virginia Interfaith Center’s Day for All People and the second for Equality Virginia’s Day of Action. Both were opportunities to learn about the legislative process and the bills before the Virginia General Assembly and then to meet with our elected representatives or their legislative aides to share with them our opinions of those bills and other views on what matters to us.
Now most of us experience some anxiety or at least nervousness when it comes to approaching those who make the laws that govern our lives. I’d only participated in a similar “lobby day” once before, which was a number of years ago at New Mexico’s state capitol in Santa Fé, but that didn’t mean I felt particularly prepared to engage in such public advocacy in Richmond! Of course, I wasn’t doing this alone. While the organizers did a good job of orienting us and providing us with the information we needed to find and speak to legislators, what made all the difference was to be there with UUFP members, with Unitarian Universalists from other congregations, and with non-UUs who share similar values and goals. Being there with kindred spirits, we certainly supported and encouraged one another when it came to “speaking truth to power”!
I learned a few things during those two days of direct civic engagement.
First, our elected representatives are people, too. Most of them want to do the right thing but find themselves struggling to balance special interests, the public interest and a desire to get re-elected. They care not only about what people think about them, but about what they can do to make better the places where we live, because that’s where they live, too. Still, it can be hard to see very far into the long term when everything that’s right in front of you in the here and now is demanding your attention.
Second, it needn’t take many people speaking up to make a big difference. Particularly at the local level, hearing from only a handful of constituents tells a representative a lot about what people think. Meeting with a legislator in person can have the biggest impact, of course, but a personalized letter or even an e-mail will still register an opinion. In the absence of constituents telling their representatives what they need them to do, they’re left in the clutches of special interest lobbyists, who will often try to convince legislators that the public holds opinions that they actually don’t. However, most representatives do genuinely want to know what they people they are representing think about issues, and they’d prefer to hear from those people themselves.
Third, each of us has a well of strength within us that, in spite of nervousness or even anxiety, allows us to speak from our hearts when it is most important to do so. I was repeatedly impressed by witnessing those with whom I went to Richmond speak articulately and with passion about issues that mattered to them. I watched legislators and their aides listen attentively to the wisdom that was being shared with them, asking questions as needed and sharing their own perspectives in a spirit of, if not agreement, then at least mutual respect. But it is sharing of such personal, powerful testimony that changes minds.
Fourth, being grounded for this work is essential. Making the drive up to Richmond amidst — on both days! — the threat of an afternoon snowstorm, then figuring out what was going on and passing through security checkpoints and enduring cramped elevators and navigating confusing corridors, well, it’s enough to raise anybody’s blood pressure. But a morning circle convened by Robin Gorsline, President of People of Faith for Equality in Virginia and a minister of the Metropolitan Community Church, brought us into such a place of calm reassurance that our spirits were prepared for the work we were being called to do. With two MCC ministers, myself and three lay UUs in the circle, I’m not sure whether some would name what we did as “prayer”, but it certainly made a difference to us the rest of that day.
Unitarian Universalists have a long history of civic engagement. It’s part of our living tradition, written explicitly into the covenant that Unitarian Universalist congregations make with one another, a covenant that is otherwise known as the Seven Principles. And as stewards of our shared faith, we are called to speak up for greater justice, equity and compassion in society. Turning our backs on government out of a belief that to engage with it would be to dirty our hands with “politics” is simply abdicating our power as citizens and giving it to those who have little interest in us as anything other than consumers. Rather, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of our own power, and of our collective power that resides in our gathering as a congregation. I am so proud that, at these and other social justice events, the organizers and the legislators, those who agree with us and who who don’t, they all knew when the Unitarian Universalists were in the house!