UU Barn Blog

Social Justice Starts with You at UUCNH

The world is really looking like a mess right now, so you’re motivated to do social justice work. It doesn’t matter which issue motivates you. When you find your passion, go for it. But if you’re not passionate, stop right here. This work takes deep passion and long-term commitment. Tearing down systemic racism, reversing climate change, equal pay for women, and so on are all going to take years! This is why I feel that social justice work belongs in religious congregations. Unitarian Universalist clergy, values, and our loving community will sustain us on these long journeys. Every journey starts with the first step, so where do you start?

At UUCNH we differentiate between charity work, done by the Compassionate Care Team, and Systemic Change. The Systemic Change Team is trying to right the wrongs that create the need for charity. There is some middle ground, in that the two can complement each other in building relationships with communities with which we want to be responsive and accountable. Steve Fuegi recently volunteered to deliver water to people affected by the crisis in the East End of Pittsburgh. This was organized spontaneously by a group of black activists, essentially the same group who organized the Intersectionality March on January 21st. By participating in compassionate service activities organized by the community being served (rather than the usual charity activities organized by outsiders) we support the autonomy of these communities and build relationships that can also support our Systemic Change work.

Read, listen, research. Stay informed on a few topics. No one can know everything. Don’t be embarrassed in a conversation to say, “I haven’t been following that issue.” Pick one or two that you are passionate about and educate yourself!

Register to vote and vote regularly. This is your most fundamental right as an American. Pennsylvania is infamous for gerrymandering. If this issue concerns you please go to Fair Districts PA on Facebook or introduce yourself to Suzanne Broughton who’s our UUCNH leader in this movement.

Find out who your Federal and State legislators are here. Put their phone numbers in your contact list, or even on speed dial. Call them regularly. If you have never done this before take a look at the Shy Person’s Guide to Calling Representatives or use 5 Calls. 5 Calls provides the phone numbers and scripts on a variety of issues. I try to call daily, usually late afternoon. The staff is generally keeping tallies of how many calls come in on which issues, and also how many for and against. You don’t need to have a long speech or loads of details. Simple and to the point is best!

Are you a listener? We need people to go to meetings or sit on phone calls or online meetings and take good notes. We build power by working in coalitions. That means there will be meetings. We have regular monthly meetings for PIIN (Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network) and UUPLAN (Unitarian Universalist Pennsylvania Legislative Advocacy Network). The PIIN meetings are local and generally face-to-face. UUPLAN meetings are statewide and are done by phone and/or zoom internet. There are eight justice teams; Anti-Mass Incarceration, Economic Justice, Environmental Justice, Gun Violence Prevention, Immigration Justice, LGBTQ Justice, and Reproductive Justice. We really need eight congregants who can each take one call, take notes, and send the notes to the Systemic Change Team. The calls are generally one hour long and you don’t need to drive anywhere!

Are you a writer? We need you for social justice work, too! We need people to research and write position papers and talking points. Material needs to be posted on social media. Letters and petitions need to be written. Letters to the Editor and Forum pieces are needed as well. If you know how to get information on social media, then we really need your skills!

Show-up for social justice! Go to city, township or borough meetings. Go to legislator’s town hall meetings. Visit your legislator and their staff in their local office. Show up for the PIIN annual meeting and the annual banquet. Come to the UUPLAN annual meeting. Attend UUPittsburgh events so you can network with fellow Unitarian Universalists. It’s so uplifting to be with others who share your values.

March if you are willing and able. Marches demonstrate the power of the coalition and get media attention. It also builds relationships within the coalition. Marches are fun too –but dress for the weather!

Practice civil disobedience. This is not an easy decision. I’ll allow Tassi Bisers to describe her experience:

“On a beautiful July day in 2013 a diverse, well-trained group of 30 of us sat down in the middle of Grant Street during Rush Hour. Our target? Regional giant UPMC, whose poverty wages for service workers and union-busting tactics set the standard for every other local employer. Amid blaring horns and the singing of “We Shall Not Be Moved” by 500 of our closest friends, we were respectfully escorted to the Hill District police station and released, with orders to appear in court at a much later date. What did we accomplish besides inconveniencing a city? Our piece of a much larger sustained effort led to 5000 more Pittsburghers gaining a seat at the table at work. And an entire region has now put UPMC on notice. When we, all of us, fight, we win.”

Please join the work, at whatever level you are comfortable with the issue you are passionate about. If you have questions please see any of the Systemic Change Team members: Carol Ballance, Tassi Bisers, Steve Fuegi, Suzanne Broughton, Susie Wood, Ron Smart, or Scott Rudolph.

Carol Ballance

An Elevator Pitch for our Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills

Rev. Scott Rudolph encouraged us in his sermon last Sunday to develop an “elevator speech” to pique people’s interest in UUCNH and UUism generally. Here is mine. You may borrow from it, copy it, claim it as your own, though I have also posted it on my Facebook page.

Dear friends, allow me to proselytize briefly. Many of you share and cherish what I regard as fundamental values, values such as awe, appreciation and respect for the interconnectedness of all life and our precious, fragile planet; the inherent worth and dignity of every person; tolerance, compassion, and an unwavering commitment to justice; loving acceptance of diversity in every manifestation – race, gender and sexual orientation, religious belief, national identity, taste for cilantro, and countless other wonderful varieties.

Many of you think, as I do, that these values are being challenged and undercut by reactionary attitudes and harmful policies here in the US and elsewhere. Millions of others share this concern, as shown by the global support for the Women’s March on Washington, the visceral opposition to Trump’s recent refugee order, and countless acts of kindness toward the oppressed or marginalized that we read about on social media and the mainstream press.

But I also read posts from people wondering how they might do more, how can they connect with like-minded people with whom they can collaborate to advance a just, peaceful, loving world.

I am a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills in Pittsburgh, a passionate, liberal, welcoming community that shares my values and together strives to make the difference we want to see in the world. UUCNH is quite different from how many people think of a traditional church. Belief in one or more deities is not required, though it is tolerated. God, by any definition I’ve yet seen, has no place in my universe. We are a spiritual community, but every person brings her or his own spiritual focus to the church. There is no UU creed, or dogma, or ritualistic mumbo-jumbo. We do have good music. People like me have no problem embracing the seven fundamental UU principles.

I encourage each of you who are looking to join with sisters and brothers in support of tolerance and justice to investigate a UU church in your neighborhood. There are 11 UU congregations in the Pittsburgh area and more than 1000 nationwide. You can learn more about Unitarian Universalism at the website for the Unitarian Universalist Association (www.uua.org).

Tom Brown

President’s Report – January 2017

The mid-year congregation meeting will be held on Sunday, January 22 at noon. The Board will host a light lunch and it will be a good time for us all to catch up with goings-on at UUCNH this first half of the church year (fiscal year). Above and beyond catching up and taking stock, there will be two important issues to vote on. One will be to reduce the size of the Board from 9 members to 7 with the secretary being selected from the Board, rather than being someone outside the Board. The other issue to be voted on will be whether to proceed with the process

of UUCNH becoming a Green Sanctuary. A presentation of what that would entail will be delivered at the meeting, but, as a heads-up, the Board is enthusiastically in favor of this. The meeting will also be an opportunity for our newer members to get a broader sense of the church.

Whether it is a result of the Communications Team spreading the good word about our presence as a liberal church in the North Hills, after-shocks from the election, or our having reached some critical mass, there has been a noticeable surge in attendance this Fall. This surge has led to some issues with seating at the church. There are a few things we can do to alleviate the crunch. We would like to encourage all people arriving for the Sunday Service to take seats as far forward as possible and to move to the center of their row. The last couple of rows should be left for late arrivals. Growth is a good “problem” to have and we can make it less of a problem if we deal with it mindfully.

Lastly, given the rich diversity of religious backgrounds we come from and the diversity of beliefs we hold, UU’s relate to and celebrate the holidays in many different ways. Regardless of how you recognize the holidays, my wish is that you each enjoy togetherness with a wealth of friends and family and find peace and love at the end of this year. It’s a great foundation to start off the new year and to allow us, as my favorite line from a Christmas song goes, “to face unafraid the plans that we’ve made.”

Ivan Baumwell, President– UUCNH Board of Trustees

UUCNH Committee of the Month – The Board of Trustees

This month’s Committee of the Month is the Board of Trustees, on which I currently serve as President. I’d like to present a primer about our Board and current governance structure. I’ll do this in sort of a ‘frequently asked questions’ format.

What is the make-up of the Board? The Board of Trustees is made up of nine members plus three, non-voting, ex officio members including the minister, Scott Rudolph; the Director of Lifespan Faith Development, Jennifer Halperin; and the Board secretary, Kristin Clarke. Each of the nine members of the Board serves a three-year term with three in their third year, three in their second year, and three in their first year.

How do you get to be on the Board and how is the President selected? The Leadership Development Team is responsible for identifying three qualified and willing candidates each year, and the congregation votes on these candidates during our annual spring congregational meeting. Among those three nominees, one is identified to be on a leadership tract. During the first year of their term, that person serves as Vice President. During their second year, they serve as President, and during their third year they serve as a member of an Executive Committee comprised of the minister, the Vice President, the President, and the immediate past President.

What does the Board do? On one level, the Board exists to make policy decisions as needed when situations arise and to see that these are carried out. An example of this arose last year when it was noted that committees were struggling to find volunteers and even chairs. A Volunteerism task force was created on the Board to address this problem. This monthly segment, the Committee of the Month, was one of several direct results of that task force. The idea was not only to educate members about the work of that month’s highlighted committee, but also to encourage people to volunteer if the work of that committee was something in which they were interested. More importantly though, rather than being a reactionary body, the Board looks to help steer the ship in the direction our congregants wish. Examples of past initiatives include our having become a “Welcoming Congregation” and recently deciding to provide health insurance to all the church’s full-time employees. One that we are working on now is to move on the three focus areas gleaned from a visioning process the church went through recently. These three focus areas include social justice, deepening our connections with one another, and growing our church. Another initiative which we’ll be hearing much more about soon is to become a “Green Sanctuary.” The Board meets monthly and the minutes of our Board meetings are posted on the church’s website.

Who is currently on the Board? The third-year members of our Board include Randy Minnich, Joyce Kepner and our immediate past President, Dennis Doubleday. Second year members include myself, Dawn Lindsey, and Jan Hoeter. First year members of the board include Ellen Saksen and our Vice President, Robyn Travers. Due to a resignation, there is currently a vacancy on the Board. On average, our current Board members have been members of the church for over 17 years with a range of as many as 37 years to as few as 3 years. Each of the members of the Board have shown a deep commitment to the church and have been active participants and often leaders in activities and committee work.

If anyone has any other questions, you are welcome to contact me or any of the other Board members. We would be happy to speak with you.

Ivan Baumwell, President of the Board of Trustees

President’s Report – December 2016

It’s been hard to talk with church members these days without bringing up the election.  The concerns brought up by the election have been renewed by some of the selections to high positions by the President-elect.  The implications can be frightening.

As a progressive, liberal church we are uniquely positioned to be a prophetic voice for our values.  We can only be effective in standing up for and protecting those values if we stay engaged.  We can’t mentally, politically, or socially check out for the next two to four years.  There are organizations out there that will be under attack that need support more than ever (not to the exclusion of supporting our church).  Just as important, there are progressives in our communities that, now more than ever, would welcome the opportunity to find a church home where their values are cherished.  Not only values on a single issue, but values that span the range of progressive concerns.

This is an opportunity to introduce our religion and our church to those people whose souls would be relieved and nourished to find us.  This election gives us a chance to put a dent in homelessness, religious homelessness, in our communities.  As I have said many times before, there are large numbers of people who are unchurched who would find a spiritual home here. Take this opportunity to share what we have here with like-minded individuals who would value a place where they could live and speak openly with a group that shares their values. 

We just recently welcomed a dozen new members to the congregation.  We are receiving an increased number of new visitors.  Welcome them in.  Our ability to be a voice of loyal opposition in these times increases with increasing membership.  Share the light.

Ivan Baumwell, President UUCNH Board of Trustees

Unitarian Universalists March Together Against the Trump Drumbeat

November 8, 2016 was a Unitarian Universalist catalyst like few we’ve seen before. Selma and it’s voting rights/civil rights cause was a rallying point, when black lives mattering suddenly, it seems, stepped upon the American political stage. 9/11 was a rallying cry for all Americans to come together to defend our country and way of life – for Unitarian Universalists the event and it’s aftermath were a clarion call to fight racial and ethnic profiling.  Increased targeting of our fellow citizens of color by law enforcement has become a huge catalyst, propelling our support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Ongoing governmental, cultural and business ill-treatment of our LGBTQA brothers and sisters constantly wakes us up to the principals of equal treatment under all Federal and State laws.  And finally, these all seem to come together in the one fight against the ascension of the @realDonaldTrump (PEOTUS’s twitter handle).


I suppose if it was just The Donald we were dealing with, we might let bygones be bygones, but we know from his various foibles that the selection of his cabinet and his eventual enforcement of the Executive branch of our government and Commander-in-chiefhood of our armed forces are particularly worrisome considerations.  And these things all contribute to one thing: brothers and sisters of like minds seeking out a loving religious community that celebrates life and cherishes the connectedness of all things.  The Unitarian Universalist Church of the North Hills, nestled amongst the wooded rolling hills of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s northern communities, welcomes with loving arms the arrival of these brothers and sisters.

What can we offer those who come with love in their hearts?

We have OWL (Our Whole Lives) programs for developing their children into open-minded and socially-educated young adults, as well as many other educational programs, all led by Jennifer Halperin, our Interim Director of Lifespan Development.

We have music for their ears, led most Sundays by Choir Director Mary Doubleday, pianists Hal Dixler and Nick Tiberi, and frequent contributions by our Ukelele and Brass groups.

And we have welcoming Sunday worship services every Sunday at 10:30 am, presented inspirationally by Reverend Scott Rudolph and the Sunday Services Team.

The drumbeat we are hearing (since every UU enjoys a different drummer) leads inevitably to Unitarian Universalism, where we meet every week,

By Building a loving religious community that

 nourishes the spirit,

 celebrates life, and

 cherishes the connectedness of all things,

we will transform ourselves and our world.

Alex Landefeld

“Attendance surges at Unitarian Universalist congregations after Trump’s election — UUs went to church in large numbers yearning for community, solidarity, and ways to serve.”


UUCNH Committee of the Month – Finance Committee

We are the committee you don’t see around the church. In fact, you are probably only aware of our existence when we present the budget and the financial report at the annual meeting. Even though we work behind the scenes, we are a vital part of church operations.

The Board of Trustees is responsible for the financial aspects of the church but the Finance Committee, working with the Treasurer, is responsible for the details. Some of the things we do:

•   Collect information and prepare a budget to be approved at the annual meeting.
•   Monitor income and expenses monthly for budget variances and unusual items.
•   Work with our financial advisors to manage the investment accounts in accordance with the Investment Policy.
•   Be sure we are in compliance with tax regulations and reporting requirements, including sales taxes, payroll requirements, etc.
•   Monitor pledge collections and make sure statements are sent on a regular basis.
•   Review insurance policies to be sure we have adequate coverage.

We would love to have new members on the committee. It may sound like a lot of work but we  only meet about ten times a year. The work load is greatly reduced because of having our highly skilled individual in the Treasurer’s position. All you need is a basic understanding of financial reporting and a desire to make the church operate at its best.  If you have any interest in joining our committee, please talk to any of us. You could also come to a meeting and check us out. You might even get snacks!

Mary Ellen Johnson, Chair
Sue Duda
Joe Meier
Stacy Conlin
Lindsay Scott, Treasurer

President’s Report – November 2016


There are two things I’d like to discuss this month. The first deals with Michelena Wolf’s resignation from the Board. We, as a Board, were very sorry to see her leave (for personal reasons, not due to any strife within the Board) and sorry for the loss of her voice and perspective from our deliberations. The vacancy does, however, allow us to see what functioning with a smaller Board feels like. At the January congregational meeting the Governance Task Force will be asking, amongst other things, for an amendment to the bylaws to reduce the size of the Board. Michelena’s position will be filled only if the congregation rejects this amendment. I’m sure a lively discussion will take place.

The next item I want to discuss is homelessness—religious homelessness. One of the largest and fastest growing religious factions these days is the “Nones”, that is that group of people who do not identify with any organized religion. It is an oft heard refrain that many of us were UUs for years without knowing it because we didn’t know of the existence of Unitarian Universalism. How many Nones are out there in the area surrounding our church who would find a spiritually and intellectually fulfilling home in UUism? For that matter, how many of those who are churched are in an unhappy relationship with their religion and might be UU’s but for knowing of our existence? We may have an opportunity to find out.

Our church was recently contacted by the Milner Foundation, a foundation started by a group of UU’s to promote the growth of our religion. Starting the week of 10/24 they will be launching a direct mail post card campaign in our area introducing Unitarian Universalism and directing people to a web page for more information about UUism. This program comes at no cost to us, will work synergistically with the efforts of our Communications Team, and will be an interesting component to increasing our community profile. Stay tuned and be prepared to welcome newcomers.

Ivan Baumwell, President UUCNH Board of Trustees


This reflection was shared at the September Wednesday Evening Vesper Service, during “Joy Month”. 

I want to thank Scott for asking me to do this reflection. In graduate school, my secondary education professor and advisor pushed “writing as a means of coming to know” for both students and teachers. Until I exercise the discipline of writing down my thoughts, it is unknowable where the exercise will take me. So thank you, Scott, for this gift of discipline and gift of being able to wax rhapsodic about joy in the form of my 15 ½ month old grandson, Avram Rea.

Avi is my first grandchild and the first child of my middle child and only daughter, Lisa, and my wonderful son-in-law Ian. (That’s one word.) They live in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where they moved from the DC area because it’s cool and much more affordable for raising a family. But it’s so darn far away! I don’t get to see them nearly enough, but I am very grateful for Skype and for our too-infrequent times together.

Lisa and Avi were here for the last weekend of July, so I will describe some of Avi’s joyful and joy-providing antics during that visit. Avi is a happy, busy, fast-moving kid. He is a giggler. He is a recent walker – still the drunken toddler. My mental picture of him is from the back – in chase mode. I have a keyboard of the musical variety where you can choose from many different voices – including animal sounds, burps, farts, etc. My very serious, not particularly musical son-in-law has the best time with this keyboard. So we got it out for Avi, and he had the best time too. When Avi decided it was time to move on to other things, he focused on the pair of safety plugs which we had removed from the electrical outlet. He carefully picked them up and started carrying them around the room. Lisa explained that this was something new – finding a “task” and seriously performing it. I have another strong mental picture. Avi is sitting in his car seat, squeezing his fists together, squeezing his lips together, hard enough to shake, but not in anger, but with eyes wide open – in bliss. Like he’s about to explode — with joy! There’s so much wonder, so much to be explored! So much to learn!

Sometimes, when I look at an adult, I try to envision them as a toddler, as full of wonder and anticipation, before the thousands of unkind cuts chink away at the joyful pureness we begin with. When I do this mental exercise, the adult often becomes less tired, more erect, more excited. Happier.  And I realize the necessary role that forgiveness plays in restoring us to joy. I ask, “Can we be joyful if we are angry?”

I work with PIIN, the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network, who is seeking the transformation of a world shaped by the narrative of systemic racism,  to one shaped by Beloved Community. And I am dumbstruck at the role of anger in systemic racism. The oppressor (whoever that is) denies opportunity, which cannot fail but to lead to anger. Anger, unless harnessed by an unbelievable amount of discipline, may lead to action, which is then used to justify the denial of opportunity. A vicious cycle.  I look at the African Americans I am privileged to know, and wonder how they can feel and express joy when there is so much to be angry about. I am awestruck by the level of forgiveness necessary.

So what do we do with this world we are a part of? Where, unless you are part of the solution, you are part of the problem? I look at my grandson, who is the embodiment of joy, of potential, of love. I know he needs a world shaped by the Beloved Community. And I also know that his insistence on joy is our path to it.

Tassi Bisers



(photo credit: Bruce Kushner)

UUCNH Committee of the Month – Buildings & Grounds

The Committee of the Month for October is Buildings & Grounds, and I would like to share my perspective as chair, including a little history and what I think might be a great opportunity for us.

Probably everyone reading this knows that our church used to be a dairy barn, but maybe you don’t know that our only worship space used to be what is now Friendship Hall (until 1991, when the Sanctuary and East Room were built), and that the beautiful and spacious religious education classrooms upstairs were once a huge hayloft that served as the year-round home for the church’s rummage (until 2007, when the second floor as it is now was finished)?

Capital campaigns made these steps in the evolution of our building and grounds possible. We as a congregation came together and made the extra investment in our church that allowed us to respond to growth and that helped our religious education programs to flourish. It was a great investment, and we’ve been reaping the benefits of our new and improved spaces since then.

Fast forward to today, and although our new and improved spaces were once shiny and worry-free, they are now revealing their age and showing years of wear-and-tear. The trouble is, our committee is still funded as if these improvements are new and there’s nothing to worry about. A report to the Board two years ago detailed an extensive list of inevitable repairs and projected expenses that face us, and a good deal of these will cost substantially more than what’s in our committee’s yearly budget. Maintaining our property has become increasingly unsustainable.

But all is not lost — we have a great opportunity. Dealing with the list of inevitable repairs can result in improvements that become the next evolution of our space. For example, instead of waiting for the original, nearly century-old silos to fall down, maybe we can take them down and rebuild one of them with a large enough diameter that we can put two or even three floors of new classrooms in it, alleviating the need for two classes to share one room, as has been happening now for awhile. (The silos are already tall enough for three stories, by the way, in case you haven’t been inside. Let me know if you want a tour!)

You may be wondering, how would spending large amounts of money on improvements make maintaining our property more sustainable? My answer is that many churches keep up their buildings with rental income. The nicer and more accommodating the space, the more income the space can bring. For example, having air-conditioning in two large, adjacent rooms would enable a church to easily host both a wedding ceremony and reception during peak season from June-September. A few weddings a year, at a time when church activity is at a lull, could provide substantial income with little impact on our congregational life, and would introduce countless people to our church.

Having a team of people to support large rentals would also help increase income. When we as hosts provide the capacity to transform the church into a space that works for our renters — setting up tables and chairs, moving plants or hiding the coffee hour sign-up sheet — we can charge them more. When they don’t have to worry about replenishing toilet paper, changing trash bags, or putting the church back in order for Sunday morning — we can charge them more. (Incidentally, we don’t currently have a rental support team, but we would welcome volunteers!)

Even if we don’t substantially increase rental income, we’ll still need more money in our Buildings & Grounds budget to make regular maintenance sustainable. And even if we don’t have a capital campaign to make significant improvements to our church, those large, expensive repairs are still inevitable. Maybe it’s time to start planning for the next stage in our church evolution. Thanks for giving it a thought!

Ron Smart