Left-leaning faith groups in Ashland are banding together to tackle social and political issues, going against the national trend that has seen activism mainly from the religious right, local organizers said.
Most recently, members of the Rogue Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship and the Jewish synagogue Temple Emek Shalom convinced the Ashland City Council this month to open a city building on Thursday nights through April to shelter homeless people.
Members of those congregations, along with other community volunteers, are staffing the shelter, which will run through April.
The shelter launched this week in Pioneer Hall next to Lithia Park after volunteers were trained by people with experience serving homeless people, including representatives from First Presbyterian Church of Ashland and Trinity Episcopal Church.
The Presbyterians already have been offering shelter in their church on Monday nights, while the Episcopalians host homeless people on Wednesday nights.
RVUUF Board of Directors member Deborah Rothschild said faith groups in Ashland are also working together to address immigration reform in the Rogue Valley and other social, political and environmental issues.
"We don't need to pray the same way. All we need is good hearts," Rothschild said.
In the Rogue Valley, she said grass-roots social activism has come mainly from political, peace and labor groups.
Progressive congregations have recently become more active in building interfaith coalitions to tackle issues, she said.
Nationwide, Rothschild said, conservative congregations have been very vocal and have gotten a lot of press.
"It may be time for progressive congregations to come together to do more in our communities," she said. "Hopefully we can get some of the conservative congregations to work with us."
John Wieczorek, an RVUUF member who helped spearhead the effort to secure a city building for shelter on Thursday nights, said he believes that progressive congregations are showing more willingness to take action.
"I would say it's maybe a silent presence, but there's a growing vocal and active presence that seems to be developing," he said. "Stay tuned."
Rabbi Joshua Boettiger from Temple Emek Shalom said he credits RVUUF for reaching out and inviting the synagogue to take part in the effort to create a third shelter night in Ashland.
"This has been wonderful on all fronts," he said of the collaboration. "We all have our particular commitments to specific religious communities. It's important to figure out our areas of commonality."
Boettiger said faith groups share a mandate to reach out to people in need, and shelter is one of the most fundamental of human needs.
Neither the Temple nor the RVUUF building have the right space or layout to accommodate a homeless shelter, which is what pushed the groups to approach City Council about using a city building.
"I was impressed with how the council heard us out and asked good questions," Boettiger said. "The process was a good one. They stepped up as partners."
Councilors first heard the proposal in December and needed city staff members to quickly gather up information about the idea, including how to address insurance and liability issues.
The council held a special meeting in the beginning of January and approved the shelter night with a number of requirements, including that volunteers get criminal background checks and training to deal with emergencies and mentally ill homeless people.
Since then, members of the congregations said city staff members, including Ashland police Chief Terry Holderness and Finance and Administrative Services Director Lee Tuneberg, have helped by taking such actions as expediting the criminal background checks for volunteers and waiving background check fees.
Boettiger said he encourages all community members to get involved in addressing homelessness, whether they are members of faith groups or not.
"Now we have three nights a week covered," he said of the shelter nights. "It is a Band-Aid. We need to come up with better solutions to the homelessness problem. But it is a step in the right direction."
Reach Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or firstname.lastname@example.org.