Martha and Waitstill Sharp had just arrived in Europe as representatives of the American Unitarian Association hoping to support activists fighting the Nazi Party and its policies. Only a few weeks after their arrival, they witnessed firsthand the Nazi annexation of Czechoslovakia. The couple spent the next five months helping as many people flee the country as they could. Artists, students, intellectuals and political leaders all made it to safety with the help of the Sharps. As they were en route to New York, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.
Martha and Waitstill returned to Europe in June of 1940 to continue their mission. Working mostly in conjunction with other agencies, it is estimated that the Sharps and the Unitarian Service Committee they were a part of saved between 1,000 and 3,000 lives. The USC was formed by the American Unitarian Association as a “committee to investigate opportunities both in America and abroad . . . for humanitarian service as may in its judgment seem desirable and wise,” according to the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee website.
While the Unitarians were working in Prague and later France to evacuate endangered people, Universalists were working in Holland. In 1940, the Universalist Board of Trustees had established a special committee to channel financial aid to Holland.
After the war, Unitarians and Universalists ran a post-war relief program in Holland, as well as an adolescents’ shelter in Verden, Germany. This was the closest the two organizations worked before they became the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in 1963.
Today, UUSC is on the forefront of many humanitarian battles. It advocates for compassionate consumption by educating people about the ethical practices of the companies they’re buying from. It works for universally affordable clean water in America and abroad by supporting legislation which guarantees access to water. The UUSC humans rights for those most likely to be denied them, either because of race, gender, orientation or religion.
After Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, the UUSC launched a special crisis fund focused around survivors who were most likely not to receive the same aid as other victims. The UUSC intends to ensure that every person gets the aid they need with the dignity they deserve.
As the mission statement from website put it, “UUSC advances human rights and social justice around the world, partnering with those who confront unjust power structures and mobilizing to challenge oppressive policies.” The UUSC is a force for good, and has been since the days of hiding students from the Nazis.
– Marina Middleton
Sources: UU World, UUSC
Photo: UUSC Flickr