Immigration justice work is complex. We Unitarian Universalists sometimes think that we have the solutions to complex problems, that we know how to make things right. But our belief in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning implies that there is always more we can learn and additional layers of meaning to uncover. Can we find a multigenerational approach to justice work that focuses not just on solutions to complex problems, but also gives us opportunities to reflect on, and be affected by, the work we do? As we do justice work in our congregations, we need to help one another keep open hearts and be willing to be changed by what we learn, what we see, and what we experience.

It’s not sufficient to study the facts of the issue. Facts engage our minds, but that’s only a part of the picture. It’s not sufficient to tell the stories of those who come to this country and then struggle with the language, underemployment, access to housing and education for their children, prejudice. Stories engage our emotions, but that’s only part of the picture. In our congregations, we must engage in theological reflection to engage our hearts.

Are children and youth capable of doing theological reflection? I think so. In 2003, the Institute for American Values published a report by the Commission on Children at Risk. The report said: “… a less definitive but still significant body of evidence suggests that we are hardwired for meaning, born with a built-in capacity and drive to search for purpose and reflect on life’s ultimate ends.” The report suggested that an answer to this crisis of children at risk might be found in “authoritative communities…groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life.” Our churches and families can be authoritative communities, offering people of all ages opportunities to reflect together on issues of meaning and purpose, including immigration justice. Here are some ways to get started.

Theological Reflection with Children

Many of our forbears came or were brought to the United States from somewhere else, including those who came here thousands of years ago. Talk with children about how family migration stories help us to understand contemporary migration or immigration stories. Ask: how recent is your family’s migration or immigration experience? Do you know which countries or regions your family members came from, why they left their homes and what challenges they faced when they arrived here?  Share both the uplifting stories and the heartbreaking ones in the family and in the congregation. Share artifacts and customs from those who migrated or immigrated here.

Theological Reflection with Youth and Young Adults

The Young Adult Service Journal includes questions for young adults to reflect on before, during, and after a service trip in order to deepen the experience. These theological reflection questions could be used by anyone, high school age or older, venturing into justice making work. In addition, people of all ages might wish to explore the reflection questions and spiritual exercises in Try This at Home and Commit Yourself. Thanks to Erik Mohn for these resources!

Wendell Berry wrote:

We can start from where we are, with what we have, and imagine and work for the healings that are necessary. But we must begin by giving up any idea that we can bring about these healings without fundamental changes in the way we think and live. We face a choice that is starkly simple: we must change or be changed. If we fail to change for the better, then we will be changed for the worse.

How is your congregation helping children, youth, adults and families commit to changing themselves for the better as they engage with immigration justice work? What theological questions are you asking as you act to change the world for the better?


Nancy Heege is District Executive in Prairie Star District. She began her work with Unitarian Universalist congregations as Director of Religious Education at Unity Church Unitarian in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where she is still a member.  Visit her blog.

About the Author
Gail Forsyth-Vail
Gail Forsyth-Vail is the Adult Programs Director in the UUA Faith Development Office. She is a Credentialed Religious Educator, Master’s Level, who served congregations for 22 years before coming to the UUA in 2008. The 2007 recipient of the Angus MacLean Award for Excellence in Religious Education, she has written or developed many religious education resources for UUs of all ages. She and her spouse, P. Stephen Vail, are proud and happy parents of three young adult Unitarian Universalists.


  1. Rachel

    Such a wonderful suggestion for working with youth and young adults! Encouraging them to learn their own families’ immigration stories not only helps them strenthen their own cultural and family ties but also helps to chip away at the ingrained tendency to equate whiteness with being a native citizen and brownness with being an immigrant. Thanks, Nancy!

    • Nancy Heege

      Thanks for your comment, Rachel. Understanding our own stories is a first step in understanding the stories of others. Digging out those ancestral photos [if we have some] helps our children understand the challenges our ancestors must have faced, such as language, loneliness, and the knowledge that they might never see their loved ones again.

  2. Sam Jones

    Great article!
    To often we forget that service work not only changes the world, it also changes us. These seem like some great starting points for reflection before, during and after service.
    When UUSC JustWorks sent a group of young people to Haiti this past August, the service journals you mentioned went with them and were a very popular reflection tool. One of our participants had this to share:

    • Nancy Heege

      Thanks, Sam. My colleague, Rev. Phillip Lund, introduced me to the Service Journal at General Assembly last summer, and I was thrilled to be able to meet the author, Erik Mohn, and express my thanks. I’m glad to know that people are finding it helpful.

  3. Sue Sinnamon

    thank you for beginning this conversation. I think that the ability to reflect theologically is socialized out of children and youth. I have witnessed powerful teachers when children, youth and adults work together.
    Multi generational justice work naturally leads to conversations and witness that cannot occur in other places. In Christian Smith’s recent book, Lost in Transition, he talks about young adults losing the categories and vocabulary to think and talk about moral issues. We can teach this by working and reflecting together in Multi Generational Community.
    To change or be changed we have to create new dynamic learning communities for all ages. I wonder what a series of reflections on our principles with all ages would be like? I wonder if we could find one child and one adult we think models a particular principle by how they live ? Could they lead a discussion?
    I wonder what a multi age social justice project looks like?
    I know when a 10 year old was given $100 to “make a difference ” and asked to bring his story back to the congregation. His struggle was no different from the adults who participated .


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