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Anna Runion: Child Of Two Worlds

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices Editor

      A child of two worlds (“I’ve always lived in Latin America (Costa Rica and Mexico) or along the U.S.-Mexico border”), Anna Runion, 25-year-old Minister for Youth and Social Justice at Pilgrim UCC in Carlsbad, California, came by her passion for equality and human rights honestly – from parents who walked the walk.

     “I remember when my dad became the pastor of the Church of the Nazarene in the farming community of Harlingen, Texas.  The congregation was 90% Anglo, the town 90% Hispanic.  He set about changing the numbers at the church and was almost fired for his efforts.   When we moved to Payson, Arizona, my mother, a ‘vocational pastor’s wife’ and social worker, worked with victims of domestic violence, many of them undocumented immigrants.  Everyone in town knew her and those needing support sought her out, which gave me the chance to meet people who lived in fear of who might be around the corner.  These relationships had a profound impact on my life.”

     Her college years, spent at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, strengthened her understanding of the importance for caring for all, led her to ask important “whys” and provided the tools needed to appreciate the problems involved in social justice issues and work toward finding solutions.  Working for the school’s Center for Justice and Reconciliation, which “seeks to transform Christian doctrine into practical social engagement to benefit our world’s hungry, naked and afflicted,” and for the Student Ministries Office further deepened Anna’s commitment to social justice.  “It also led me to ponder the role of the church.  If the church isn’t oriented toward creating a better world, what is its value?”

     Raised in the church by parents who met in seminary, Anna reports she “fell into ministry.  In high school I began to think that maybe I would give it a try; in college I reconsidered, questioning my motives.  Was I simply taking the easy route of following in familiar footsteps?  Couldn’t I help outside the setting of the church?”  After a few years pretending she could and studying non-profit management, she realized she couldn’t get away from the church.  She took the next step, deciding it was okay to work for the church . . . just not as a minister. 

     A job at Mission Gathering Christian Church (DOC), a “hip urban church” in San Diego’s North Park, led to involvement with a homeless teen outreach program and, eventually, to a position with Sunburst Youth Housing, a project of the San Diego LGBT Community Center, which provides “affordable, permanent supportive housing for formerly homeless youth with disabilities between 18-24 years of age.”  Nine months into the job, Anna took the next step.  “I recognized that the work there was primarily focused on maintaining lives, making sure those served didn’t die on the streets – immensely important work but not for me.  I went back to school full-time to study Religion and began seeing a Spiritual Director, working to discern exactly what I was called to do.  During this time I had a part-time job doing behavioral intervention with autistic kids.

     In October 2010 Anna applied for and was given her present job, in which her time is split between the youth of the church and social justice programs.  “I was told to make the job my own, to envision what it should be and to make the changes necessary to make it happen – a directive the very active, involved members of the church support fully.  They gave me the freedom to dream!  I spent the first five months listening and learning, and had the opportunity to participate in community organizing leadership training with the Gamaliel Foundation.”

     Desiring to spawn youth who are strong in character and have both a passion for social justice and the tools to put that passion to work, she is in the process of initiating a program to train teens to be leaders in their church and community, to become advocates for justice.  “We talk about why we care about immigration and other justice issues and about why the church needs to be involved.  As part of the youth program, in addition to Christian Education and fun activities, we do two service projects a month.  The teens love them!”

     Anna stresses the importance of “respecting the capacity of teens to do good and of not seeing them as simply greeters or childcare workers.”  Two recent projects initiated by the youth of Pilgrim UCC are a mug washing program and a winter camping trip.  The former came about when they were challenged to look for “waste” and zeroed in on the use of Styrofoam cups at church functions.  They asked members to use mugs instead and to contribute $5 a month each to have them washed – good for the environment and a moneymaker for the youth mission trip.  The camping trip, planned in all details by those participating, provided excellent opportunities for acquiring and using new skills.

     On the social justice side, Anna comments that friends in other congregations compare getting involvement from congregants to “pulling teeth.”  Pilgrim UCC, in comparison, is a “blessing.  Social justice is an important aspect of congregational life, not a troublesome add-on.  The people here do lots of great work and see my job as involving new people and developing leaders to enable them to do even more.”  To do this she listens deeply to learn their passions and create ways to put them into action.  The church has a strong ONA focus and an immigration ministry team that made the national news (New York Times) with its overpass vigil to get voters out to support the Dream Act (declares undocumented high school graduates are eligible for college scholarships and financial aid).  “It’s a pleasure,” she says, “to work alongside involved people living out their Christian tradition.”

     A special program now “in the works” is through Young Adult Service, a national UCC program which brings 21-30-year-olds to live in intentional community with a congregation, working 6 hours a week for the church, 32 hours a week for an area non-profit.  “Starting in September, we hope to have four such young people join us at Pilgrim!”

     Anna, who is now working on her MA in Religion and has started the process of becoming a commissioned minister for social justice, has a special interest in urban planning and transportation issues, among them ways to lower carbon emission.  In her free time she “hangs out with friends and family” – among the latter a brother, a sister, a cousin and her parents, all of whom followed her to California.   “And with the family puppy,” she adds.

     Asked about her dreams for the church, she speaks of Pilgrim UCC becoming more multicultural and of the churches in San Diego, especially the North County ones, working so well together for social justice that elected officials and community members will recognize the impact of a church that is invested in their community.  “We need to be holistic advocates for our communities.”

     Anna Runion – and Pilgrim UCC, which supports her fully and enthusiastically – are doing just that.

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