"We always know BUF has our back": two days with Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship and their social justice partners

This spring I invited myself to follow the social justice teams at Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship to learn more about their innovative and exciting social justice ministry. What I found was a vibrant mix of longterm partnerships with communities of resistance and traditional charity and advocacy for basic changes in government. D D and John Hilke of the Northwest UU Justice Network were my companions for this journey.   


Our main hosts were Deb Cruz, chair of BUF's social justice committee, and Beth Brownfield, leader of the Native American Connections Team.

Developing accountable effective partnerships with communities of resistance can be challenging. Cultural differences, racism, paternalism and distrust often get in the way.

BUF learned the hard way how much they valued being in partnership with a community organization. When they lost their first formal partnership, the whole congregation felt that something vital was missing from their faith experience. BUF's partnership with C2C is a formal, longterm one, made with a vote of the congregation and of C2C's core leadership team.

C2C was in favor of the partnership because "they get it." Core members of the social justice committee meet monthly with the C2C team. Deb says they always come away with their heads spinning with all that C2C is accomplishing and more ways that BUF can support their important work.

Meeting in the C2C offices (from left) Tara Villalba, Americorps volunteer Christina Woeck, D D Hilke, Edgar Franks, and Deb Cruz.

They first worked with C2C about 9 years ago when the anti-immigrant vigilante group the Minutemen began patrolling the border near Blaine. They continued to work together on other projects and were a natural selection when BUF was seeking a new partner.

C2C's mission statement in progress: C2C will be a self-governing, solidarity economy center fostering political movements defining their own agenda towards the creation of a local solidarity economy.

C2C describes itself as a "place-based, woman-led grassroots organization working for a just society and healthy communities." They are committed to systemic change and strategic alliances that strengthen local and global movements for social, economic and environmental justice. Their work is varied, recently incorporating farmworker rights (with many recent victories), immigration, We the People/Move To Amend, creating cooperatives and Fair Trade.

The road to partnership has not always been easy. Kara Black, a BUF leader in the partnership, raised the issue of dealing with racism within BUF as the most challenging barrier to even more success and engagement by the whole congregation. Yet, she observed, "I think the congregation is 'getting it' more than it appears. They vote for resolutions to support C2C again and again and many volunteer."

For their part, Tara Villalba, one of the C2C core leadership team, was open and welcoming. Yes, she said, racism causes problems, but "the people at BUF are going to be with us forever. We invest in helping them understand."  She voiced a patience that grows from good organizing, "When it is time (to focus on anti-racism training), everyone will know."

I've been asked many times how congregations can partner with grassroots organizations. There is a lot of fear around saying and doing the wrong things, being rejected. What would C2C advise? Edgar Franks who is liaison with the local farmworker union, national staff for Move To Amend and works internationally on food soverienty issues said, "Show up and say, 'I'm here and I want to learn.' When we see you often enough, we will respond."

Tara suggested doing some preliminary work around our own racism first. "Then when the opportunities come, you'll be ready." Their work with BUF, however, is proof that you don't have to have achieved some perfect state of consciouness to work together. A willingness to learn and grow seem to be the keys.

Both BUF and C2C were affirming in their assessment of what they got from one another. It is a true partnership. Kara said, "C2C contributes a lot to BUF in programming, training, particularly but not exclusively anti-racism training, and multi-cultural riches."

"C2C does a lot for us," Deb added. "It offers opportunities to do meaningful work, something that grows and reaches internationally. We are very fortunate to be able to work with them."

Tara observes, "When we do anything political we know that BUF has our back in the religious community." She added that the BUF team they meet with do a good job of translating the issues and the needs to the congregation.

When I asked about where their focus was growing, Tara said, "It is time for Queer Justice in Whatcom County."

C2C also has a desire to bring their infectious brand of organizing to other areas of the state. If they arrive in your neighborhood, don't hesitate to visit them and say, "Hi neighbor."

Consider C2C in your Share the Plate decisions. http://foodjustice.org/

Deb Cruz is happy to talk with you about how your own social justice committee can form partnerships with grassroots organizations. Email her at dwcruz@comcast.net. This is the first blog post. You can insert photos into a post and embed content.

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