Minister has Long Preached Peace and Justice

Mary Margaret Earl spends much of her time helping others.

Mary Margaret Earl spends much of her time helping others.

By KEVIN PROFT/ecoRI News staff

On some Sunday mornings at the First Unitarian Church of Providence, Mary Margaret Earl, a Unitarian Universalist community minister, leads her congregation in a short meditation. The energy of her bright-red hair is in direct contrast to her calm voice, as she encourages the parishioners to free their minds of worry.

The meditation culminates in a moment of silent reflection, during which the meeting house — and the thoughts of those gathered within — becomes quiet enough to hear the steady ticking of a large antique clock that hangs near the organ.

Providing people with moments of peace, regardless of their situation, has been a touchstone in Earl’s life.

Earl, a resident of Manville, where she helped raise twin stepsons, describes herself as a UU with the underlying theology of a panentheist — one who believes god is in everything. “We all make up a part of god,” she said.

She developed this worldview, after what she described as a “typical” stint as an agnostic during her college years. “I had a spiritual awaking,” she said. “I came to realize that any part that was suffering really mattered. The same way one part of the body affects all the others, I realized that each of us are part of the same whole.”

Earl said she felt called to help ease people’s suffering through ministry.

After college, Earl, then a newspaper reporter in Syracuse, N.Y., began volunteering at the Syracuse Rescue Mission. The organization provides emergency shelter, a day center, and serves three meals a day to those in need.

“I was volunteering among people who had experienced homelessness, addiction and mental illness, and I just loved to be with them,” she said. “I felt centered.”

Earl went into seminary at Boston University’s School of Theology, interned at the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco, and did a chaplaincy residency at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Boston.

The tenants of Unitarian Universalism fit Earl like a glove. The religion’s guiding principles proclaim, “the inherent worth and dignity of every person, justice, equity, and compassion in human relations, and respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.”

As a community minister, an unpaid position, Earl accomplishes most of her work directly in the community, not from the pulpit. She said her role is to “build a bridge” between the congregation and her social justice work at McAuley Ministries, where she worked for the past decade.

McAuley Ministries, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the Sisters of Mercy, provides food, clothing, shelter, health services, emotional services and guidance to those in poverty or homeless in Rhode Island. It’s core values of hospitality, compassion and dignity made the organization a natural fit for Earl.

For much of her tenure there, Earl worked at the organization’s meal site, McAuley House, in South Providence. McAuley House serves 300 hot meals a day, in addition to offering support services such as rental assistance, toiletries and clothing to those in need.

Earl said McAuley House aims to make every individual feel welcome. “Sometimes, somebody would not be there for months,” she said. “I wouldn’t necessarily notice their absence (because of the high volume of people helped), but they thought that I would. I loved that because I wanted them to feel that way.”

Earl said people would often apologize to her and offer explanations for their absence. “People feel seen (at McAuley House) and that made me feel great because they deserve to feel seen.”

Earl eventually became associate director of McAuley Ministries and oversaw the creation of programs designed to improve the mental and physical well-being of the people the organization helps.

The Afternoon Activities Program was developed to provide the homeless a place to gather between lunchtime and 5 p.m., when most shelters open. Prior to the program, the homeless were left with nowhere to go during these hours. With funding from United Way and through a partnership with Riverwood Mental Health Services, McAuley House has opened its doors even wider, creating daytime activities that teach life skills, healthy living, and arts and crafts, while keeping the homeless off the streets. Those that participate are provided a takeaway supper.

“The program has become a vital part of community building for the people who attend,” Earl said. “There are people who are there every day, and it becomes their community. It makes a really big difference in the quality of their life.”

Some of the most rewarding moments of Earl’s time at McAuley Ministries resulted from the Afternoon Activities Program. “I remember visiting an afternoon enrichment class one day,” she recalled. “There were quite a few people doing some kind of activity — making jewelry or something — and I remember seeing a person I knew, a prostitute who had a very hard life on the street, just doing this simple thing that gave her a moment of peace, focus and warmth.”

The Healing Foods Project is another initiative developed during Earl’s time at McAuley Ministries. With support from the Rhode Island Foundation, the program offers plant-based, affordable lunches to McAuley House visitors twice a week. The meals are based on nutrition research by Dr. Mary Flynn, a professor at Brown University and dietician at Miriam Hospital.

High-calorie, low-quality diets have left many poor and homeless people struggling with obesity and related diseases such as type 2 diabetes. The Healing Foods Project demonstrates that a healthy diet can be affordable — just $1.10 per meal, according to Flynn’s research. Earl, a vegan herself for animal rights reasons, said the diet helps human health, animals and the environment.

The project is designed to be easily replicable at other meal sites across the state. For its part, McAuley House is currently shifting its breakfast foods to the Healing Foods Project philosophy as well.

Earl said she is generally able to remain positive despite the challenging and emotional nature of her work. “Everywhere I looked at McAuley House I was surrounded by people who cared,” she said. “Staff, volunteers and donors all cared. I was lucky; I was insulated from people who don’t care.”

Still, Earl said there are moments of heartbreak. For example, some of the people that the organization has helped being treated badly. “I would learn about situations in which individuals who had every strike against them tried to deal with some agency or organization and were disrespected,” she said.

Setbacks at the Statehouse also take an emotional toll, according to Earl. As board president of the Rhode Island Coalition for the Homeless (RICH), a volunteer position she recently stepped down from, Earl said she would witness the organization’s staff working hard to make systemic change to improve the lives of Rhode Island’s homeless, only to be told there’s no state funding available.

“Sometimes it was so obvious why we should create more funding for housing,” she said. “The staff went through a lot of painful disappointments when what they fought for didn’t come to pass.”

Earl recently stepped down as associate director at McAuley Ministries to join The Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry (UUUM) in Boston as executive director and senior minister. For nearly 200 years, the organization has worked to create opportunities for underserved individuals and communities. It currently focuses on education and enrichment programs for school-aged children and housing and support services for victims of domestic violence.

Earl said she chose to pursue the opportunity at UUUMB because it allows her to do social justice work in a UU context. With 50 UU member congregations, Earl said she believes UUUMB’s potential for impact is great. She said she is ready to take on a leadership role where she can use her experience to help define the direction of an organization.

“I played a part in two great organizations,” she said of her time at RICH and McAuley House, “now I hope they flourish without me. You want people to miss you, but not need you.”