Collaborative Voices: Unity Church-Unitarian

Dan Gregory September 10, 2018

In this month’s collaborative voices, we head across the river to St. Paul to learn about Unity Church-Unitarian. Unity Church was instrumental in getting Prior Crossing in St. Paul off the ground and looks forward to welcoming other St. Paul congregations into the collaborative. We chatted with Rev. Lisa Friedman, Minister of Congregational and Community Engagement, about its historic role in social justice as well as its current efforts in racial reconciliation.


How would you describe Unity Church?

Unity Church-Unitarian was founded in 1872 with a commitment to civic activism and to being a faith community for all ages. Since 1905, its home has been on Portland Avenue and Grotto Street at the intersection between the Crocus Hill and Rondo neighborhoods. The friendships we have forged through the years have called out a commitment to racial healing and credible partnership in the wider community. Today, Unity is a congregation of around 1000 adults and over 400 children and youth who come from all over the metro area to grow together and help one another embody our mission of living lives of integrity, service and joy.

Unity took part in the effort to make Prior Crossing in St. Paul a reality. How did the congregation get involved with the effort? What did the congregation learn from that experience?

Unity had a long connection with Plymouth Congregational Church before Beacon began. Knowing his past experience in building housing in Oakland, CA, Beacon Executive Director Lee Blons reached out to Unity Co-Minister Rob Eller-Isaacs to be a part of setting priorities for a new project in the Ramsey County area. The committee heard several presentations about the kinds of housing needed and chose to focus on the needs of homeless youth. Unity’s Affordable Housing Community Outreach Team worked with Beacon to recruit the congregation’s participation in lobbying at the Capitol for the Bonding Bill to help fund the project. The congregation helped run a supply drive to gather the kitchen, bath and other items needed to furnish the new apartments and continues to support the ongoing supply closet. Members have volunteered their time to lead arts, cooking, and other programs at Prior Crossing in order to build community among the residents. We learned a lot, including what it takes to talk to your representative and to achieve a project of this magnitude. We made new friends, whose stories gave us insights into the realities of being homeless and the power of having a place to call your own.

We learned through Congregational Organizer Chris Smith that you are involved in the Rondo community, especially in the area of race equity. What has that experience been like for the congregation? How does this work relate to the work for affordable housing?

There’s so much to say here – the work of racial healing and reconciliation, anti-racism and anti-oppression is life-long soul work. But I think our congregation increasingly sees the intersectionality of the justice work that is before us. Restorative justice and affordable housing intersect when people who have served their time in prison are unable to find landlords who will rent to them, even though a permanent address is a requirement of their parole. Racial justice and racial equity intersect with affordable housing in financing practices, community redlining, neighborhood funding, and more.   

How has the congregation been impacted since joining? What about housing issues did you not know before joining Beacon?

Beacon grounds us in the power of the collective – we can do so much more working together, instead of each congregation trying to do it all. Each of our Community Outreach Teams focuses on education, advocacy, service and spiritual reflection. Beacon has sharpened our advocacy skills in so many ways and helped us to find our voice around the issues of affordable housing. It has helped us to bring together people within our congregation who have skills and expertise in this area, who might otherwise not have met. We have also been a part of several Beacon task forces, which has helped us to learn how other congregations organize and engage in their mission of social change.

In your Mission Statement and Ends, I found this: “Unity Church-Unitarian carries out the work of love in community, making a positive impact in our neighborhood and in our world.” What other ways is the congregation carrying the “work of love” in your community?

Through its Community Outreach teams, Unity partners with over 20 organizations engaged in the work of love and justice in so many ways. Together we partner to get medical supplies to rural Bolivia, to volunteer in elementary classrooms, to correspond one-to-one with men and women in incarceration, to support community solar gardens and much, much more. Unity’s Generosity Ministry has also given away 70% of our weekly offering to an outside non-profit organization for the past ten years. But these partnerships are not just about “doing”. They are about building long-haul relationships that can mutually transform us through shared experiences.

You’re located in St. Paul. There are not as many Beacon congregations in St. Paul and the East Metro. Do you see Unity working to bring other congregations online?

We would love to be a part of building Beacon’s capacity in St. Paul! There is a network of congregations who already participate in Project Home, which is the St. Paul equivalent to Beacon’s Families Moving Forward. Each congregation becomes an overflow homeless shelter for homeless families for one month of the year. The experience of hosting has heightened our awareness of the issues and committed us to the need to put the necessity of such shelters out of business. These congregations would be natural partners in Beacon’s mission.

What events and experiences connected with Beacon have been most memorable to you and your congregation? What upcoming events are you most looking forward to you?

The celebration of Prior Crossing when it was completed was a great day. It was the culmination of the efforts of so many individuals and congregations. To see it in its shining brand new reality and to meet the first residents was a deep joy. Going forward, we are very excited about the possibility of hosting some of the Beacon Academy events in St. Paul to help build our Beacon community on this side of the river.

What would you say to another congregation considering joining the Collaborative?

There is great power in partnership and collaboration!  Beacon also offers incredible support to its congregations through their congregational organizers and amazing staff leaders. You are never alone in the work.