A dose of comma sense

A dose of comma sense

November 30, 2003
Written by Staff Reports

UCC public relations and marketing manager Ron Buford wants to let you know that the 'comma' is catching on—with the help and creativity of local churches.
W. Evan Golder photo

As widely known as the Nike "swoosh"—that's Ron Buford's hope for the UCC "comma." And, given the way the comma is catching on with UCC members' imaginations, maybe Buford isn't just wishing on a star.

This summer, for example, seven members of J.O.Y., the joint youth group of Trinity UCC in rural Shiocton, Wis., and St. John's UCC in Cecil, Wis., traveled to Albuquerque, N.M., by van for a mission trip. We wanted "to go out there to see where and how God is still speaking today," explains the Rev. Moira Finley. Highlights of the trip, posted on the website  stillspeaking.com, were called "Follow that comma!"

"One day we decided that instead of having a free day, we would go back to the food warehouse for an extra day," says Cody Van Gheem, 13, "because if we didn't, they would have to close it. I think that was kind of a way that God was still speaking through us."

Outside Christ's Reformed UCC in Hagerstown, Md., two huge banners proudly proclaim, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma É God is still speaking."

Inside Kenilworth UCC in Kenmore, N.Y., the same message is on the placemats at church suppers.

In Cincinnati on May 28, thousands of persons on various street corners received a cold drink and a sticky lapel-comma from members of many UCC churches, including St. Peter's UCC, along with the message, "God is still speaking."

And this summer, that same message could be heard on National Public Radio in the "Triangle Area" of Raleigh- Durham-Chapel Hill, N.C., on cable TV in Washington County, Md., and on local radio in Great Bend, Kan.

As the story goes, after comedienne Gracie Allen died, her husband, George Burns, was going through her papers and found a note from her to him saying simply, "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." While visiting in southern California in 2001, Buford, the UCC's public relations and marketing manager, saw that message on a postcard, found it intriguing, and bought one.

A few days later, back home in Cleveland, Buford woke up in the middle of the night with an epiphany. Why should we never place a period where God has placed a comma? "Because God is still speaking," he says. The next morning he shared the postcard and his revelation with Randy Varcho, the graphic designer in the UCC's Proclamation, Identity and Communication Ministry. Varcho then designed a red-and-black poster with the oversized comma that was distributed to every UCC church.

After that, as churches began to promote the comma, it just took off. "The comma is perfect for representing UCC theology," says the Rev. Diana Coberly of First Congregational UCC in Great Bend, Kan. "It lets people know that there is an alternative, that they have a choice."

Using the UCC Identity Kit, Coberly cut some local radio commercials with the "God is still speaking" message. "After they heard those commercials," she says, "two different men told me that they were 'just stunned' to learn that there was more than one way to read the Bible, that you didn't always have to translate it literally."

One weekend in October, Buford participated in three events in St. Petersburg, Fla. On Friday evening, he spoke to an area UCC lesbian/gay/bisexual/ transgender group. On Saturday he met with the members of Chapel on the Hill UCC in Seminole.

"He helped us understand our changing identity, as we've grown from a rundown church of 30 members five years ago to a 300-member church," says the Rev. Angel Toro. "Now our leaders are 100 percent behind being a 'God is still speaking' church."

The weekend climaxed on Sunday afternoon with "a big wing ding" at Trinity UCC, says the Rev. Roger Miller, attended by more than 230 persons from 18 UCC churches. As visitors entered Trinity's courtyard, music from large speakers played the UCC song "You Belong," a banner proclaimed "WELCOME!," teenagers handed out sticky lapel-commas and glasses of cold water with a slice of lemon, a VCR kept replaying the different UCC-identity spots, and tables displayed the variety of "comma" goods available, including mugs, T-shirts, pens, caps, dress shirts, placemats and banners.

Even Buford was overwhelmed. "It was the 'Big Fat Greek Wedding' meets 'God is still speaking,'" he says. "They generated excitement even before the program started."

"I started getting calls the next day," says Miller, "saying, 'Thank you for making us so proud of being part of the United Church of Christ.'"

"Now my members feel that being UCC is a good thing," says the Rev. Sara Smith of Kenilworth UCC in Kenmore, N.Y., "that what we stand for is an important thing in the church and in the world."

"This church is just coming alive," she says. "The spirit is moving here and the comma is the vehicle that has helped get us moving. I can pause in the middle of a sermon, then say 'and God É' and the congregation will finish the sentence with 'is still speaking.'"

"These people really get it!" she exclaims. "Isn't that wonderful?"

The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News.

MORE @ Go to  stillspeaking.com.

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