Three years ago, the First Unitarian Church of Hamilton decided to get focussed as a congregation on social justice and community outreach. After a number of years of working diligently to keep the church going through ministerial transitions, internal reorganizing of governance, and staffing changes, it was time to consider their larger call to faith and service in the community at large.
With the guidance of Rev. Carly Gaylor, the congregation engaged in a discernment process to identify the specific areas of expertise and concern where they felt they could have the greatest impact in the Hamilton area. From an initial pool of over 100 ideas for possible social justice projects and initiatives, the congregation developed three priorities: face-to-face volunteering and support for the Eva Rothwell Centre (a community service centre in a challenged neighbourhood in Hamilton’s north end), affordable housing, and work with the LGBTQ+ community. A task force headed by Jennifer Kaye, Gail Rappolt, and Ed Canning worked to develop and implement the congregation’s vision and priorities.
Work began to develop the relationships, contacts, and opportunities needed to actively engage the congregation with these social justice priorities. Volunteers started working in programs offered at the Eva Rothwell Centre, including an early morning breakfast program for children, reading and tutoring support for kids after school, and a community clothing room offering donated items at no cost. This involved coordinating volunteers and schedules, learning about each other’s cultures and communication styles, and working through issues and concerns as they arose. Pat Dickinson, a First Unitarian congregant, stepped forward to match volunteers with opportunities and interface with the staff of Eva Rothwell to address issues that arose during the initial phases of the project. Over a year later, volunteers report that they are learning from and enjoying their work at the Centre.
Bill Johnston leads the congregation’s efforts to work for affordable housing in the Hamilton area. He and his volunteer team have worked to identify community partners where the support of the First Unitarian congregation can have a meaningful impact. The congregation has decided to partner with Sacajawea Non-Profit Housing, which develops housing options for Aboriginal and First Nations individuals. Recently, the congregation was able to make a $5000 donation toward the group’s work, specifically to develop and furnish a community room at one of their housing developments.
UU’s have, of course, been supporters and allies for the LGBTQ+ community for many years, and First Unitarian Hamilton is working to expand their visibility and service in this area. After a number of years on hiatus, a reorganized PFLAG group now meets regularly at the congregation’s building. In the fall, the congregation will be engaging in furthering their engagement as a Welcoming Congregation, a status they first achieved a number of years ago. Monica Bennett leads the efforts of the congregation in this focus area.
A unique opportunity recently arose as the City of Hamilton called for public comment on a proposed new protocol for working with the Trans and gender-nonconforming community. The City of Hamilton was ordered by the court to develop this protocol in response to the settlement of a case brought against the City by a Trans woman denied entry to a public washroom facility.
The First Unitarian Church of Hamilton responded to a call by one of the City Councillors to the progressive churches of Hamilton to speak to their support for the Protocol. Rev. Victoria Ingram, First Unitarian’s minister, was among the more than 50 people who testified before City Council on the protocol. Four of those faith communities testifying urged the Council to not ratify the protocol’s provisions, citing concerns for public safety. Representatives of the two synagogues, the Mennonite churches, the United Church of Canada churches, the Catholic Teacher’s Association, the Sisters of St. Joseph, and various organizations supporting the LGBTQ+ community of Hamilton spoke in favour of the protocol, which eventually passed the Council’s vote unanimously.
The Protocol for Transgender and Gender-Nonconforming Persons represents a progressive step forward for Hamilton, and is a model for other Canadian cities. The First Unitarian Church of Hamilton is proud to have been a part of its passage, but is even prouder of the success of their efforts in re-focussing and actively engaging in providing support for social justice and outreach through their renewed efforts to be a congregation living their values “out loud.”