At the Intersection of the Congregation and the World, an Interview
Matt Alspaugh and Jacqueline Duhart
What is your role as a Unity intern?
My internship is focused on parish life, and so I have responsibilities in parish pastoral care, visitation, leading ongoing groups like men’s groups and the elders group, and religious education at all levels. I also engage with the fundraising efforts of the Pledge Team, and special projects such as the UUA Principles and Purposes review.
Jacqueline and I work closely when we can. We create worship services for Wellspring Wednesday, our mid-week gathering for a meal and learning.
My internship is what the UUA calls a hybrid internship. I serve Unity Church Unitarian in the role of a parish intern and I serve Amicus, a non-profit agency, working with prison inmate, ex-offenders and juveniles to build successful lives and stronger communities. This role is akin to being a chaplain.
Like Matthew, I lead worship services, offer pastoral care, and staff several outreach ministry teams. I feel that the most fruitful place where Matt and I share common ground is supporting each other. Having a fellow student to reflect with is priceless. The major difference between our placements is the degree to which I am engaged in community life. I am a link between the community and Unity Church Unitarian.
How would you describe or characterize Unity Church Unitarian? What makes it unique?
The social location of Unity Church Unitarian (UCU). This was one of the first questions that I addressed in supervision. I’d describe UCU as a large church, with formal worship. It’s the only church of the four UU institutions in the Twin Cities area that robes on Sunday mornings. It’s a wealthy church, God centered, urban, social-justice minded and predominantly white-skinned people.
Unity Church has a strong sense of its history. What has surprised me is how many members here have parents and even grandparents in this church. That’s different from other UU churches I’ve known, where most people have joined from other faiths. All these attributes make this a particularly complex setting. We both are challenged to find our prophetic voices in ministry.
How does UCU’s uniqueness affect its approach to racial and economic justice?
I think many members struggle with being a mostly white, upper-middle class church in a mixed urban neighborhood. They would like to attract a wider variety of people, but if it means changing cherished traditions, like the formal worship style, others would be uncomfortable with that. It’s a difficult balance.
It is my impression that the congregation is very accustomed to being cared for by the ministers and church staff. Members are focused on being cared for as opposed to caring for the community beyond its church walls. Changing this culture of looking inward to outward is a journey.
You are both involved with antiracism work. Can you explain the purpose of the teams you’re part of?
I support the ministry of the Restorative Justice Ministry Team (RJ), the community partners with Amicus, working to restore health and wholeness to people and places. I also serve the Anti Racism Leadership Team (ARLT), whose focus is supporting the congregation in becoming an anti-racist institution. This team also has a monitoring function. It looks at various functions, behaviors/actions and evaluates how the institution is living into its mission.
I’m working with the Racial Justice Ministry Team, which is a newly formed group focused on community outreach around areas of racial justice. It is one of nearly a dozen other Community Outreach Teams, each responsible for a specific social justice issue. This team is brand new, and just had its first organizational meeting last month.
Part of the challenge has been to sort out how the teams work together. The general idea is that the Anti-Racism Leadership Team will focus on issues inside the church, and the Racial Justice Ministry Team will focus on issues external to the church. I think the teams have to get their own identities clear before we can find ways for them to work together, though we do want them to each be aware of what the other is doing.
I would add that in order for all of the outreach ministry teams to be successful they each need to have a anti oppression lens from which they do their work and work in support of each other.
What kind of issues are you facing in terms of the scope of the work to be done?
The scope of the work is lifelong, complicated and complex. We all need each other and yet we all want to carve out a piece of the work that is just for us. I feel sad that I only have nine months to be here at UCU.
I’ve been told that sometimes these Community Outreach Teams will get Ôstuck’ in preferring one sort of work, like service work, to another, like advocacy or education. I hope we can avoid that.
I also see that our participants have a wide variety of understanding of racism, so some internal education will be important. I think my ECO (Educating to Counter Oppressions) work has really helped me be sensitive to this reality, and I hope it will allow me to help guide this internal education.
What kind of issues are you facing in leadership and organization of the teams?
We’re fortunate that a good number of people are interested in this work. We’re also fortunate that there is a model, a template for what is expected of Community Outreach Teams. They are expected to work with an outside partner, for example, and they are expected to think theologically about how their work intersects with Unitarian Universalism. I think the critical issue before us is leadership — how leadership emerges, and is developed.
I would add that a challenge is to maintain a spiritual/religious focus to the work. Once you get outside the walls of the church holding onto the fact that your work is HOLY, ordained by a power larger than your self, becomes illusive.
Unity Church Unitarian interns Matt Alspaugh and Jacqueline Duhart interviewed each other with the help of their partners, Cynthia and Liz.
The Revs. Janne and Rob Eller-Isaacs are co-ministers at Unity Church Unitarian in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Eller-Isaacs also serve as intern-supervisors for Matt and Jacqueline.
Rev. Janne Eller-Isaacs
I have always enjoyed serving a congregation committed to being a teaching church. I watch the parishioners invest themselves in the professional development of a student and the other staff members who invite interns into collaborative and creative projects. Most of all I get to see the growth of relationship between the intern and the worshiping congregation and their own sense of calling. Everyone benefits from participating in the internship experience.
During each of our two sabbaticals the congregations we served invited the former interns back to conduct a service and preach. Upon our return, people were uniformly enthusiastic about the intern’s presence among them. Their sense of involvement and ownership in the growth of the interns is palpable.
This past year we have embarked upon a shared community and parish internship. It has been especially gratifying as we have seen first hand the ways that a congregation can support ministers or interns actively involved in the larger community and in living out a ministry to the larger world. As Jacqueline’s supervisor I have experienced the ways that her connection to this worshipping community has served her work outside our walls. And I have witnessed the ways that her work outside our walls has brought a depth of experience to the words she shares during worship.
Rev. Rob Eller-Isaacs:
There is a lot that I love about the parish ministry. I love the deep engagement of spiritual direction. I love liturgical design. I love the standing invitation to “pass life through the fire of thought.” But I don’t love the fact that so much of what we do is so ephemeral. Sometimes it seems as though ministry is little more than smoke and mirrors. Nothing lasts.
When such doubts take hold of me the surest tonic is remembering the many intern ministers nurtured and inspired by the churches that we’ve served. There is no clearer evidence of the lasting positive effect of our ministry than the small credit we can claim in the ministries of those who have fallen in love with the work while in our care. Some spend most of their time in churches, others work in community settings while grounding their work in congregational life. The work goes on. Teaching churches touch an immortality all of us can trust.
Rev. Ken Collier Endows SKSM Truth and Reconciliation Fund
The Truth and Reconciliation Fund is an endowed fund at Starr King School for the Ministry established by SKSM graduate Rev. Kenneth Collier. The purpose of the Fund is to support theological education that leads toward reconciliation for the legacies of racial injustice in American society. The fund is also established in memory of Mary Jones, who was once enslaved by Rev. Collier’s ancestors. The endowed fund may support scholarships for students of African descent and programs and faculty that educate to counter oppressions and create just communities.
Rev. Ken Collier will gift $100,000 to establish the fund. Others are encouraged to contribute toward this fund, and may do so by contacting Rev. Kelly Flood, Vice President of Advancement.
Collaboration: Community and the Academy
Is it possible for a class at Starr King to become a vital community collaboration on a key social justice issue? That is the question which we will test this spring in my class on Prisons and Punishment.
Students will read a variety of texts about the prison system and crime in the U.S., includingBeyond Prisons: A New Interfaith Paradigm of Our Failed Prison System, by Laura Magnani;Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic, by James Gilligan; and Peacemaking Circles: From Crime to Community, by Kay Pranis, Barry Stuart, and Mark Wedge. Guest speakers will join us to talk about the death penalty women in prison, survivors of crime, prison chaplaincy, and other issues.
But the real work will be a series of group exercises in search of new justice paradigms. The current criminal justice system is based on punishment and revenge. Practitioners of various models of transformative/healing justice are experimenting with methods of reconciliation and accountability that see their goal as healing and wholeness.
What does it take for a community to come back into balance after some kind of violation? What do survivorÕs need? What do perpetrators need to re-establish right relationship with those around them? The best examples of these practices can be found in indigenous cultures, and we will study those methods and determine which are transferable to non-indigenous settings. If there are possibilities, what would be needed to change the political/social climate to make room for such alternatives?
The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) has been working on prison issues for over fifty years. In that time, we have seen the system grow worse, and legislatures adopt increasingly punitive approaches. Incarceration rates have increased steadily over the last 30 years so that now, nationally, we incarcerate people at over 700 per 100,000 of the population.
The incarceration rate for African Americans was 2,526 per 100,000 in 2004 — eight times greater than the rate of incarceration for blacks in South Africa at the height of apartheid. But more than just a statistical analysis is needed as we come to understand prisons as tools of oppression, and as the modern equivalent of slavery. Indeed, slavery is permissible in prisons, according to the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
We are all deeply implicated in the ways we tolerate these forms of oppression. Politicians play the fear card for a reason. It works. This class will look at the spiritual, personal, and political factors that prop up the prison system, and prevent us from moving beyond it. Established faith-based social action organizations like the AFSC are as prone to habit and complacency as anyone else. Collaborating with students, some of whom are coming fresh to the issues, and others who have experience in various parts of the system, will enable us to experiment with new visions of justice, and to dare to dream up new solutions and new strategies.
Starr King School’s January Happenings
SKSM is holding January intersession courses including, “Media Skills in Public Ministry,” taught by Helio Fred Garcia; and “Combating Oppression: Power Analysis through Anti-Ableist and Anti-Racist Lenses,” taught by Sofia Betancourt and Devorah Greenstein. | Professor Patti Lawrence will host a two-day reflection for students currently serving congregations or non-profit organizations as interns and their supervisors on Jan. 22nd and 23rd. | The Starr King board of trustees will meet in retreat with SKSM core faculty and staff in Danville, Calif. on Jan. 18 through the 20th.
A group of SKSM students are in Rome, Italy attending the course, “Rome: A Crossroads of Religion” organized by the American Waldensian Society and La Facolta’ Valdese. Taught at Italy’s oldest institution for advanced studies in Protestant theology, the course explores Rome’s ecumenism, religious pluralism, and church and state relationship, through the fields of archeology and Christian history. SKSM Professor Gabriella Lettini joins two other U.S. scholars and La Facolta’ faculty to teach the course.