What is Social Action and Where Do I Fit In?
As we embark on our journey with our interim minister, in the spirit of “Standing on the Side of Love” we are re-examining social justice, social action, and where we fit in, as individuals and as a congregation. Many of us are wondering: “What do I call what I do? What we do? Is it charity? advocacy? social action?
There are many definitions for all of this, but one approach that might be helpful is to look at what it would mean to be a “Prophetic Congregation.” This term, referred to at the latest UUA General Assembly, is also the subject of a book, “The Prophetic Imperative,” written by Richard S. Gilbert, a UU minister with forty years of experience in parish ministry, who is currently at the First Unitarian Church of Rochester. In his book, Gilbert talks about four important roles the church can take in social responsibility.* They are: Social Service, Social Education, Social Witness, and Social Action. Let’s look at what we do, in light of these, and see if things become any clearer!
Social Service: Social service is reaching out and providing services to those in need. Sometimes called the “charitable approach” it is tangible and touches people we can see and oftentimes even name. Have we done this? Duh!? Examples are helping someone homeless who lands on our church grounds find ashelter and some food. Or, setting up a rainy day shelter. Or, providing lunches for hungry homeless people. Social services can be informal or delivered by a formal organization. They deal with immediate needs. They usually do not focus on systemic changes that cause the social problem in the first place. But they save lives and, in some cases, can turn lives around. Gilbert says that when social service becomes more than just “Lady Bountiful” with her food basket, something else happens. The “giver” starts asking questions: “What causes this problem? Why are people working, but have no health care?” “Why are immigrants struggling so to ‘make it’ in this country?” That may bring us to:
Social Education: Social education happens when we make the connections between the needs that we serve and the economic and social forces at the root of the problems, e.g. inadequate wages, individual discrimination, institutional racism, interest group power domination (AMA over health care!), and we begin to hold discussions to educate ourselves and others about the problems. Have we done this? I’d say! Examples are health care and immigration forums, films and discussion groups, conferences e.g. viewing Michael Moore’s Sicko; attending discussions about marriage equality and the difficulty gay couples experience; taking part in anti-racism experiential workshops; forming study groups to examine “just war” as a viable concept. When we seriously educate ourselves on issues in light of our religious Principles and Purposes, we may need to profess to others our position. We make public, by word or deed, the conviction of our group. We become a witness.
Social Witness: Social values are made public, in the form of actions or resolutions. When we have a silent vigil and float candles in the bay for citizens and soldiers killed in Iraq, we are making a public statement. When we rally with hotel workers about their inhumane working conditions, we are witness to social injustice. When we, as an organization, pass a resolution that directs us to consider the environment in all of our actions, we are bearing witness to the fragility of Mother Earth. Then, we may become even more organized, for the long haul, and advocate
Social Action: In this typology (Price, 1973), social action involves organized attempts to influence policy makers and decision makers, where the focus is on changing structures rather than people. We focus on the causes rather than the symptoms. So, have we done this? You bet! Examples are campaigns to get the city council to honor the Five Year Plan to End Homelessness and to adopt a strategy for funding affordable housing; forging a campaign to make same sex marriage legal in California, via initiative or legislation; trying to change a university’s policy with respect to aid to immigrant students. In Gilbert’s estimation, the option of Social Action comes closet to what has been called the “prophetic imperative,” because the effect is on large numbers of people and continues into the future, beyond an immediate “band aid.”
So, where do you fit in? Everywhere! You don’t need to do it all. You just need to do something. Come to one of the social action meetings or activities. Or, contact one of the committees that interest you and attend one. Why? Because, as many wise teachers have told us, the meaning of life is found in service to others, and the love we give to those in need returns to us in abundance. As Margaret Mead said, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Chair, Social Action Committee
*The Four Types of Social Concern, Thomas E. Price (1973, Engage/Social Action, UUA)