Sacred Fire UU Passes On Success of Bail Fund to Local Leadership

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A bail and legal defense fund created and run by Unitarian Universalists grew tenfold as donations flowed in during this summer’s protests against police violence and in support of Black lives. Rev. Nathan Hollister speaks to how a project he had been a part of for years achieved success like he had never imagined — and how the leadership then stepped aside for Black organizers to run the fund. 

In 2017, North Carolina was swept with protests following the Unite the Right gathering and counter protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. Demonstrators were arrested as they protested the presence of and removed the “Silent Sam” statue on the UNC Chapel Hill campus, a Confederate monument. In response members of Mutual Aid Carrboro, a covenanting community grounded in social justice work, began to collect money in order to create a bail and legal defense fund. The fund provided cash bail for protestors across the state who were arrested fighting white supremacy. 

Three years later, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national protests, the fund grew tenfold in the matter of weeks. There were well over 1,000 unique donors as people from across the country donated to the bail and legal defense fund. But after this rapid growth, the leaders of the fund did something that for some could have been more difficult than building the success — they stepped aside, and gave their leadership to Black community organizers.

After this rapid growth, the leaders of the fund did something that for some could have been more difficult than building the success — they stepped aside, and gave their leadership to Black community organizers.

Mutual Aid Carrboro is a covenanting community: a deliberate community of people with spiritual meaning, depth, and connection. Seven years ago Rev. Nathan Hollister — who prefers to go by Rev. Nato — created a missional organization called Sacred Fire UU. Sacred Fire provides training to help congregations and ministers become more impactful in their social justice work. It also helps to plant and grow these covenanting communities across the country.

The bail and legal defense fund is just one of many projects that Mutual Aid Carrboro is undertaking. They have started a Refugee Community Partnership as well as the Solidarity Network, an organizing strategy that aids people with housing or jobs. 

The bail and legal defense fund functions in large part thanks to an array of committed volunteers spread across the state of North Carolina. Volunteers are on the ground in almost every major city, including Raleigh, Charlotte, Greensboro, and Durham, to name a few. The arrestees rarely know of the fund, so volunteers have to be on site at the jail when people are being arrested or likely to be arrested. Sometimes they are required to bail a protestor out in the middle of the night.

The National Lawyers Guild works closely with the fund. The lawyers are able to give information about who is arrested and how high the bail is set. From there, it is up to the bail fund to come up with the money. Bail is required to be paid in cash — not credit — which is why the figure is so frequently unattainable for people to meet, as well as why the predatory bail bonds industry thrives on low-income families.

In the last month, the bail and legal defense fund has been able to do its job more than well. “We have been able to bail out almost every single person in the state of North Carolina who has gotten arrested in this movement in the past month,” said Rev. Nato, who up until recently was part of the team that ran the fund. 

When the fund grew to ten times its previous size, the leadership decided that it was no longer appropriate for a majority of its leadership to be white. They reached out and recruited some of the most prominent social organizers in the area, all of whom Mutual Aid Carrboro had partnered with in some manner in the past. Then over the last three weeks of July, all of the white leadership stepped aside and gave full decision making capacity to the new leadership team.

“Activists and leftists are always saying to follow Black leadership, and it is talked about — but I felt it happen here. Not only following Black leadership but trusting Black leadership, and not making yourself a gatekeeper,” Rev. Nato said. “It was triggered by the massive amount of money coming in. We thought that now the structure and who is making the decisions is really important. It is very exciting; the new leadership is taking off with the work.”

“Activists and leftists are always saying to follow Black leadership, and it is talked about — but I felt it happen here. Not only following Black leadership but trusting Black leadership, and not making yourself a gatekeeper,” Rev. Nato said.

A key part of the formation of the bail and legal defense fund is that UU congregations are legally positioned to create funds like this one. Because congregations have the 501c3 non-profit status, any congregation can have a restricted fund where people are able to make a charitable, tax deductible donation. Bail funds are especially attractive because of their cyclical nature. When the detainee arrives at their court date, the bail money is returned to the fund — which then goes on to bail another person out of jail. 

“If I could say one thing, it’s that any church can do this. Any church,” said Rev. Nato. “If there isn’t a bail or bond fund in your region, I feel like it is our responsibility to support this movement and to support Black Lives Matter. I feel like it is our duty.”

If you would like to contribute to the bail fund, donations can be made through www.sacredfireuu.org.

Written by Aidan Wertz, UU the Vote blogger. Aidan is a college student in Middlebury, Vermont and a lifelong UU.

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