When the question is asked at new member classes — "How many of you grew up in the United Church of Christ or one of its predecessor denominations?" — the number of raised hands typically represents far less than half in the room.
As I convene meetings of the UCC's Collegium of Officers, I am joined by a former Presbyterian, a former Roman Catholic, a former Baptist and a former member of our partner church in the Philippines.
When the Collegium arrives in Hartford to celebrate the denomination's 50th, I'll be the only one of us to have been around since the beginning! Our denominational diversity has profoundly enriched our life. But I'm also grateful for the privilege of being shaped early in life within the faith of this church.
I was almost 7 when the Uniting General Synod was held in Cleveland. The event didn't have much impact on me then, but it wasn't long before I began to hear debates at church over whether to join this new denomination. Fortunately, enthusiasm for Christian unity overcame the resistance of those who harbored New Englander fears about the much caricatured "Herr Pastor" of the German side of the merger!
By the time the UCC was 10 years old I'd been to my first ordination, and it was a woman! Long before I knew about Antoinette Brown I knew our associate pastor, the Rev. Pat Robbennolt, and understood that God calls women as well as men.
I was a regular at church camp at UCC-related Silver Lake Conference Center in Connecticut, as well as the annual Bushnell Rally where several hundred Pilgrim Fellowship youth would meet near the Hartford Civic Center for youth "revivals." In my local church and at Silver Lake, we'd been hearing about the Civil Rights Movement, not just in the South, but in Stamford, Conn., where debates over joining a fair-housing effort made congregational meetings tense.
Clearly, church was where the big things of life were addressed.
By the time the UCC was 15, I'd watched the church step into the heated conflict over the war in Vietnam in ways that forced me to balance personal conviction with strained relationships among the members of my own church. I'd discerned a call to ministry with the help of wonderful pastors and lay leaders, and was beginning studies at Yale where the Congregationalist faces on the refectory wall gazed down on an amazing array of theological students from varied traditions and around the world.
A church deeply committed to the ecumenical vocation. A church nurturing its youth toward lay and ordained ministries. An inclusive church honoring the leadership of women and men. A church prepared to withstand conflict in order to address the great public issues of the day.
These are some of the memories I will carry with me to Hartford. And while they're not the experiences of all, or even of many any more, I cherish them, and give thanks for them. They are the memories that help me "let it shine!"
The Rev. John H. Thomas, who spent his childhood at First Congregational UCC in Stamford, Conn., grew up to become the UCC's general minister and president. He is a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers.