Written by Daniel Hazard
Hartford churches gearing up for 50th anniversary General Synod
Hartford, Conn., is gearing up for the UCC's 26th General Synod this summer, June 22-26.
Synod, held every two years, is especially noteworthy this year, as the UCC celebrates its 50th anniversary.
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, Connecticut Conference Minister, says the Conference is already working hard to make this year's Synod a memorable one. "The preparations for Synod are Conference-wide," she says.
"When you've got 10,000 to 12,000 people coming, we're not just looking at a few hundred volunteers. We're imagining we're going to need over a thousand volunteers for this."
Because most Synod events will take place in the Hartford Civic Center, a venue used mainly for sporting events, Crabtree says, "no matter where you are sitting, you will be able to see what is happening."
On Saturday, June 23, "Synod in the City" will be an all-day festival of worship, Bible study, workshops, lectures, and concerts that will branch out from the Civic Center to other events held throughout the city.
Crabtree says capable staff members and volunteers are already charting out street hospitality, making sure visitors have no question where to go and how to get there.
Crabtree says all the ancillary venues are within a 10-minute walk from the Civic Center, "but there will be vans that are handicapped accessible available to those who need them."
Crabtree is proud that so many visitors will see historic Hartford and its many vibrant, diverse UCC churches within the city.
"Not only do we have Synod in the City all day on Saturday and this glorious birthday event on Saturday night," she says, "but also Sunday afternoon worship is going to be fabulous. People will want to stay for that. It'll be quite an experience."
Storied Hartford church rooted in urban ministry
Immanuel UCC, known for its grand architecture and urban ministry, is the descendant of Hartford's North Congregational Church.
"That's important," emphasizes the Rev. Ed Horstmann, "because [in the mid-19th century] Horace Bushnell was the pastor of North Church, and he's been described as the father of American Liberal Christianity. Our pulpit is dedicated to him."
Horstmann says General Synod visitors will be interested in Immanuel's "extraordinarily glorious sanctuary," designed by architect Earnest Flagg, who also designed the United States Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Md. "It's a domed structure, and does not look anything like a traditional New England church because it's made out of brick."
Just across the street from the church building are two other buildings of note, the Mark Twain House and the Harriett Beecher Stowe Center.
Aside from its aesthetic qualities, though, Horstmann describes his church as "deeply committed to urban ministry."
Horstmann is especially proud of Immanuel's involvement with two urban schools, Hartford Public High School, and Noah Webster Elementary School. Immanuel maintains ongoing involvement with both schools including mentoring, tutoring, and family resources. Each year, the church sponsors one grade and provides each student with a new backpack filled with school supplies.
"This is a congregation who cares very deeply about the welfare of our region," says Horstmann. "And I use the word region, not only city."
Immanuel hopes to be a strong presence at General Synod this year.
"We'll have a table in our fellowship hall every single Sunday, recruiting people to attend, to volunteer, and to bake cookies."
Horstmann, of course, is referring to a long-standing Synod tradition: local churches provide homemade cookies for all the guests over the five-day event.
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, Connecticut Conference Minister, estimates that they will need a staggering 16,000 dozen cookies to fulfill this requirement.
"We're very excited to be part of the hosting process," says Horstmann.
Connection to U.S. Constitution hallmark of centuries-old church
First Church of Christ UCC in Hartford, also known as Center Church, is proud to be turning 375 years old this year, just as the UCC celebrates its 50th.
The congregation organized itself in 1632, and four years later, its members founded the actual town of Hartford.
"[The church] has always been on Main Street," says the Rev. Dick Sherlock. "It still is."
Thomas Hooker, the first called minister of the congregation, is famous for having preached a sermon on The Fundamental Orders of a Democratic Society.
"Many points in that sermon were explicitly made part of the first written constitution," Sherlock says. "Parts of it are in our Constitution of the United States now."
Being in close physical proximity to the Civic Center will mean that Center Church will be a location for off-site Synod events, such as breakfasts for certain caucuses, and a musical event or two. That's just fine with Sherlock, who looks forward to the special events in addition to the church's own year-long anniversary events.
Despite its rich history as a mainstay in downtown Hartford, Sherlock says that the congregation works hard to stay vital in its urban setting, while managing to maintain its two old buildings.
"We are very heavily involved in community and social justice and anti-racism ministries, and we are Open and Affirming," says Sherlock. "We aren't very big, and 70 percent of our members do not live within the geographical boundaries of Hartford."
But Center Church has a diverse congregation in many ways: race, ethnicity, economics, age, gender and sexual orientation.
"We have good worship, and lots of opportunities to serve in the city," Sherlock says.
Historic African-American church offers rich blend of old and new
Faith Congregational UCC in Hartford is an historic African-American church that formed in 1819. Its founding members no longer wanted to be assigned seats in the galleries at white churches.
The church has been an active part of the Hartford African-American community for over 188 years.
"Worship at Faith Congregational Church is a blend of the rich tradition of the African-American church and the emerging forms of worship of today's church," says Ann Jennings, lay leader. "Our worship experience is one of celebration, praise, affirmation and service to God."
For those attending General Synod, Faith Congregational UCC is conveniently located near the downtown Hartford Civic Center.
"We're anxious to be part of General Synod, because we're one of the oldest black congregational churches in the country," says Jennings.