When it comes to the often tough subject of economic justice, the Rev. Rick Edens hears the questions - even if they aren't asked aloud.
"I think there is more interest in 'Why are things the way they are?' or 'With all that has been done, why aren't things different?' or 'Where is God, justice and righteousness in the midst of it?' than many people think," said Edens, co-pastor of the United Church of Chapel Hill (N.C.)
After a discernment process four years ago, Edens' church brought a resolution for an Economic Justice Church Program (EJCP) to the UCC Southern Conference, which took it to General Synod 27 in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 2009.
To date, Chapel Hill is the only UCC church to have adopted the covenant. A second North Carolina church - Community UCC in Raleigh - is in discernment about following Chapel Hill's lead.
"The process of developing the program encouraged people to discover or deepen the link between their faith, the deep tradition of justice in Scripture, and economic matters," said Edens. "It has been a resource as people have become involved with advocacy through Justice United (a local IAF organization), immigration reform and workshops on undoing racism, as well as service with Habitat, the local community kitchen and shelter."
Edens said the church was fortunate to have had two church members who are economists from UCC-related Elon University. "They spoke to a packed fellowship hall with two different interpretations of what was happening in the financial meltdown of 2007-08," said Edens. "This was an opportunity to have the language to engage in such conversations."
Edith Rasell, UCC Minister for Economic Justice, praised Chapel Hill for its strong leadership and a plan that provides plenty of opportunities for the congregation to become involved.
"They have a lot of interaction between leadership and the rest of the group in terms of feedback and direction," said Rasell. "They made the whole church see the importance of the commitment."
For those without steady jobs and critically needed health benefits, the challenges are obvious. The gainfully employed often face a different obstacle when it comes to change, said Rasell.
"Some of us have benefited from the current economic system," she said. "We have good jobs and good income, so it can be hard to think about making fundamental changes in the system. It takes a strong faith and deep love of our neighbors to see that this system that has benefited me is not benefiting all of us, and needs to be changed."
Over at Community UCC in Raleigh, the church's commitment to economic justice - at least symbolically - dates to 2004. That's when an agreement between the Mt. Olive pickle company and the farm labor organizing committee - the union representing the workers - was signed at the church, formally ending a strike.
"We have a social justice ministry within our congregation, and they began to want to focus on economic justice issues," said the Rev. Steve Halstead, Community UCC pastor. "We heard about the Chapel Hill discernment process and began one of our own."
A task force was formed, and Rollin Russell from Chapel Hill spoke and preached before the Community congregation. "This spurred interest in the form of a series of forums, each addressing an economic justice issue," said Halstead.
Every week this past February and March, Sunday services centered on topics such as a "Sabbath economy," surplus capital stewardship, social investing and community investing.
"Consumerism drives the economy," said Halstead, "but it has a lot of downsides, too; like the toxic elements in products. We want to practice a more voluntary simplicity in our lifestyles so we just don't buy into the consumer legacy. We'd like to see green jobs created so we have a good choice of cleaning products that are biodegradable."
Shirley Birt, chairperson of Community's Economic Justice task force, said the group is taking its time gaining a thorough understanding of the covenant's meaning and implications.
"Economic justice is a very dominant issue throughout the whole Biblical narrative and throughout my understanding of what the Christian faith is about," said Birt. "We want to generate interest and education among the congregation and to consider issues we want to address."
Rasell applauds Community UCC for its long history of justice advocacy.
"It's wonderful that they have now embarked on a new journey considering whether to become an Economic Justice Church. It is very inspiring for me personally to be with UCC members who are committed to and working for justice.
"It is a public declaration of a congregation's intention and commitment to do this work, somewhat like formalizing a relationship by getting married."
Please visit <ucc.org/justice/ejcp> for more information.