Social Justice History
People’s Church is no newcomer to active work in the areas of justice and equity. We have a long and proud history.
The church was at a low ebb in 1889 when they decided to hire a young woman minister, Caroline Bartlett, who was then serving a congregation in Sioux Falls, Dakota Territory. Soon after arriving in Kalamazoo she said “…this church cannot be a place where we are merely to come together once a week and enjoy our doctrine and congratulate ourselves that we have a faith free from superstition. We must do something for others, as well as for ourselves. And the more we have done for others, the more in the end, we shall find we have done for ourselves.” She promoted a seven-day church with social programs for all people, regardless of race or creed. In 1892, after constructing a new building (at Lovell and Park), People’s Church opened a free public kindergarten; a women’s gymnasium; and a school of household science that taught cooking, housekeeping, home nursing, and sewing. There was a manual training class for men and a literary club named The Frederick Douglass Club led by and for Black Kalamazooans.
After the Crane ministry, the churchcontinued to offer services to the community, notably starting a nursery school on the north side of the city to serve working mothers. Four people left bequests to the church because of the services that were being provided there, constituting the “Hubbard-Henika Fund” which contributed to a number of community projects; including furnishing a surgical ward at the new Bronson Hospital, contributing to the support of a visiting nurse, and helping maintain a “free-bed” at Bronson Hospital.
The church ran Evening Rest from 1905 to about 1912, serving working women. The Evening Rest opened the church from late afternoon, with the parlors available for socializing. The women could use the gymnasium equipment and the church library. A hot meal was served every night except Sunday for ten cents, though it cost an extra two cents to have dessert. By 1909, 25,400 meals had been served. A Saturday nursery and kindergarten were also offered to serve country women who came into Kalamazoo to shop.
In June 1934, Edwin Palmer was called as minister. In accord with his idea that the church should be active in the Kalamazoo community, he served as president of the Kalamazoo Council of Social Agencies and on the Central Trades Labor Council as well as on the recreation council. Many organizations held meetings in the building. No rent was charged, and if offered it was returned, suggesting that the gift be given to some organization that also used the building.
During the long and successful ministry of Roger Greeley, 1956 –1985, People’s people were active in the most important issues of the times, including school integration, Planned Parenthood, and gay and lesbian rights. The first work on becoming a Welcoming Congregation for LGBTQIA+ people started in 1974, before the UUA’s Welcoming Congregation program was established. During this time, members and friends of the congregation were encouraged to work on justice issues as individuals, since the prevailing philosophy of the minister and congregation included priority given to the humanistic ideals of freedom of conscience (the church should never take a stand.)
In 1998, the Rev. Jill McAllister was called to be the minister of the church, bringing her experience on the UUA Board of Trustees, and dedication to the collective strength of the UU movement. In December 2000, Jill suggested to the Board the creation of a Social Concerns Committee, which ultimately led to the Social Justice Coordinating Committee.
In the spring of 2002, two major community organizing movements arrived in Kalamazoo. People’s Church to join the Gamaliel organization, and became an official member congregation of ISAAC (Interfaith Strategy for Action and Advocacy in the Community) at the opening public meeting in October 2002.
Being part of ISAAC for over 20 years has offered People’s people powerful opportunities partnership, social change, and personal transformation. We participated in the all-congregation listening campaign, involving more than 200 people, to help decide the focus issues for the organization. People’s people took leadership roles in all of the task forces that emerged, including Early Childhood & Education, Housing, and County Transportation. Members of People’s engaged in this work went on to become city commissioners and organizers of major community coalitions. In 2007, a coalition chaired by a member of people’s helped secure state and local funding to bring a multi-million dollar grant for the Nurse Family Partnership to Kalamazoo, and when changes in the state budget threatened to cut that program, People’s people led the way in advocating with state legislators and the governor’s office, eventually securing continued funding. In 2008, leaders from People’s helped form a broad community coalition, including school districts, business leaders and social service agencies. This coalition, which included People’s, initiated the formation of a new organization, KCReady4s, which supports preschool programs with the goal for universal preschool for all four year olds in Kalamazoo County. People’s people have also collaborated in efforts to end homelessness, expand transit, and create a more just and equitable Kalamazoo County. For these actions and more, People’s Church was awarded the Leadership Award by ISAAC in 2010. Rev. Rachel Lonberg was named ISAAC’s clergy of the year in 2023.
As we were becoming involved in ISAAC, we also worked out an official process for allowing the congregation to take a stand on justice issues in the community. It took several years to move to a new perspective. Along the way we gradually developed a much more nuanced way to organize our congregation in social justice work.
Through a Kalamazoo Racial and Economic Justice initiative, funded by the ARCUS Foundation, in which our minister participated, we became engaged in local anti-racism work, and in May 2009 invited a local anti-racism organization, ERACCE, (Eliminating Racism and Claiming/Celebrating Equality) to present an introductory antiracism training at People’s. In the intervening years, close to 100 People’s people have participated in training through ERACCE and implemented what they learned at church and in the wider world. This work has continued and grown. You can learn more about the work of our Dismantling Racism Team HERE.
In 2016, shortly after the arrival of Rev. Rachel Lonberg, People’s Church began its work resettling refugees. In partnership with many other organizations (including Bethany Christian Services, Samaritas, Temple B’Nai Israel, and Congregation of Moses), People’s people helped one family from Syria and eight families from Afghanistan establish a new life in Kalamazoo. This included helping people find a place to live, get needed medical care, English language learning, driving instruction, job search support, and helping children enroll in school. In fall 2021, when the church was meeting online and outside, we converted The Commons to a furniture and household goods storage facility where members of the wider community could donate things needed by Afghan refugees.
Here is news coverage of this effort: https://www.fox17online.com/news/local-news/kzoo-bc/kalamazoo/kalamazoo-county-churches-preparing-to-welcome-afghan-refugees
Our current social justice work includes:
- Continued partnership with ISAAC.
- Partnership with Lincoln School through Communities in Schools, which includes tutoring, fundraising, stocking the clothes closet, and other support as needed.
- Monthly special collections during services to raise money for organizations doing good and important work in our community.
- Regular food drives for Loaves and Fishes.
- Rev. Rachel is currently the co-chair of Faith Alliance, the clergy and religious leader group affiliated with OutFront.
- We are a member congregation of the Michigan UU Social Justice Network (MUUSJN).
- A regular can and bottle drive to raise funds for the Black Lives Matter meal train.
If there is social justice work that you are passionate about and would like to see People’s become involved in, please reach out to Rev. Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org