Written by Connie Larkman
In 2013, the United Church of Christ (UCC) continued its work to further its core purpose: to join faith and action for the co-creation of a just and sustainable world. During the past year, the denomination lifted up its bold, public voice around many issues, including marriage equality and climate care. Most recently, the UCC showed an incredible response to the people of the Philippines devastated by a super typhoon with the greatest online giving response the church has ever experienced.
In 2013, the Church lived into its new, unified governance structure. During this summer's 29th General Synod in Long Beach, Calif., the governing body of the church that proclaims "That they may all be one" completed its long-awaited transition into one board, the United Church of Christ Board (UCCB). This new 52-member board is responsible for governing each of the UCC’s covenanted ministries, which previously had their own individual boards. The new board selected the Rev. Bernard Wilson as its first chairperson and Ms. Dale Bonds as vice-chair.
"Unified governance is allowing us to face some of our more difficult challenges, including the National Setting's $2.3 million annual operating deficit," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, General Minister and President. "The UCCB and the Collegium [the Officers of the Church] will be working closely together in the coming year to continue to address financial sustainability within our beloved denomination."
A BOLD VOICE FOR MARRIAGE EQUALITY
The 29th General Synod gathering in July also served as a celebration around the UCC's stand and bold, public voice on marriage equality. Though the denomination first affirmed marriage equality during General Synod in 2005, pastors and open and affirming congregations around the country have been working for equal rights for all couples for several years. In 2013, same sex marriage took center stage in the United States, beginning with the U.S. Supreme Court decision to hear two cases on the issue.
In March, the United Church of Christ was well represented in Washington D.C. when the high court heard Hollingsworth vs. Perry, a case on the constitutionality of California's Proposition 8, enacted in 2008, that ended marriage equality in that state; and Windsor vs. United States, which challenged the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that denies federal benefits to same-sex couples.
"We stand with thousands of same-sex couples across the life the church, affirming their freedom to marry the person they love," said the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, UCC executive for LGBT concerns. "The love and commitment of these couples should have the same recognition, dignity and respect that is granted to all other couples in the U.S. That's why we support the freedom to marry for those who choose it."
In a stroke of divine event planning, the high court rulings were announced just days before UCC delegates began their work in southern California at the denomination's biennial General Synod. Wednesday June 26, the Supreme Court struck down DOMA, and ruled that it lacked jurisdiction to hear a challenge to a California ban on same-sex marriage, which allowed Proposition 8 to die.
On Friday June 28, just minutes after the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California lifted its stay on same-gender marriages in California, hundreds braved blistering heat outside the Long Beach Convention Center to cheer the justice leadership of the United Church of Christ and the validation of General Synod 2005's vote to affirm marriage equality.
At General Synod 2013, the denomination celebrated the landmark decisions that scored a significant victory for gay rights, with a wedding. The Rev. Dave Sigmund, pastor of Seaside Community UCC, in Torrance, Calif., and his partner decided to "step out in faith" and legally tie the knot in front of God and everybody at the denomination's biennial gathering.
"We didn't want to wait," Sigmund said. "We want to live into this reality that our Stillspeaking God is creating in our midst."
Sigmund, ordained two years ago, and his partner, Jay Greaves exchanged vows on the second floor of the Long Beach Convention Center, capped with a resounding roar of affirmation from the crowd of hundreds.
"Our community and our friends and family are surrounding us," Sigmund said. "And it's a statement of who we are as a church."
In 2013, the U.S. added eight states to the growing list of 18 states that allow marriage equality. In December, Utah, New Mexico and Hawaii joined California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and Washington D.C.
"Marriage equality is still a significant issue in the life of this church," said the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries. "While we certainly celebrate this incredible level of progress in the struggle for marriage equality, we must continue to raise our prophetic voice and advocate for policy change in every state until fairness and justice is realized for all persons."
MISSION 4/1 EARTH: 50 GREAT DAYS
During this past year's Eastertide, the people of the United Church of Christ rolled up their sleeves and put a lot of imagination and effort into earth care during the Mission 4/1 Earth 50-day environmental initiative, making the denomination a leading faith voice on climate change.
There were more than 2,100 UCC churches, seminaries, outdoor ministries, and health and human services that participated in Mission 4/1 Earth. As one church, the UCC counted 613,418 earth-care hours, planted 141,166 trees globally, and sent 52,697 plus advocacy letters to U.S. government leaders during the 50 days which began on Easter Monday, April 1, and continued through Pentecost on May 19, 2013.
"Mission 4/1 Earth brought together thousands of churches and communities this past spring and increased our commitment to earth care and other environmental issues. Many UCC churches and conferences developed earth care programs and activities that lasted well beyond the 50-day timeline," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries. "Churches are installing solar panels, nurturing community gardens, and sponsoring recycling programs. The Church has come together – and continues to come together – in incredible ways for our planet."
SUPER TYPHOON PHILLIPINNES RESPONSE
In early November, when the most powerful typhoon ever to make landfall battered the Philippines, the UCC Disaster Ministries team immediately reached out to partners in the country to offer assistance.
Typhoon Haiyan, with powerful winds and an enormous storm surge smashed buildings, destroyed roads and caused widespread power and water outages. The storm forced 3.9 million people from their homes, the Philippine government said. To date, more than 6,000 people have been reported dead, and nearly 1,800 more are still missing.
"Because of gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing we were able to respond immediately to our partners with solidarity grants," said the Rev. Jim Moos, Executive Minister of Wider Church Ministries. "We also sent out an appeal for $250,000 in directed giving. That goal has already been surpassed and money is still coming in (most recent report is almost $300,000). We are deeply grateful for the generosity of our people and churches. It’s the greatest online giving response we’ve ever experienced."
Donations from across the life of the church came in rapidly and in large numbers to assist people in the Philippines put their lives back together after Typhoon Haiyan. The generous gifts from a multitude of contributors enabled the United Church of Christ to raise more than a quarter million dollars in just weeks.
"Our response has been well coordinated with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, Church World Service and the ACT Alliance (an ecumenical umbrella organization which many of our global partners belong to)," said Moos. "While I lift this up as a 2013 accomplishment, we will be engaged in the recovery effort for years to come."