Has the UCC's $20 million 'Make A Difference' campaign of a decade ago made any difference?
"Oh yes, indeed," enthuses the Rev. Merry Elizabeth Keller, "a huge difference." In 1998, Keller was one of the first students to receive scholarship assistance from Make a Difference. The UCC's help could not have come at a more propitious time. A single mother with two young children and a fulltime day job, she was being squeezed financially to meet tuition bills at Lindenwood University in St. Louis. Then came the UCC's check for $1,248. "I never would have made it without that push," Keller remembers.
Make a Difference was designed to help people like Merry Keller, as a source of funding for out-of-the-box, even sometimes-controversial projects that would underscore the UCC's commitment to being a caring community. Launched in 1992 with an ambitious goal of raising $30 million, two-thirds of the income was to be used by the UCC's national setting to address the needs of clergy, churches and communities, with the balance supporting similar projects initiated by participating Conferences. In the end, $20 million was pledged, says UCC controller Ted F. Meurer, with $14 million now in the till.
Meurer reports that, through June 2003, total interest income from the permanent endowment has reached $700,000, while grants totaling $550,000 have been distributed during the past six years. In 1998, the inaugural grants-making cycle saw $94,000 awarded. In 2003, grants totaled $151,000. In spite of a weakened stock market, "We're doing OK," Meurer says.
It certainly is OK for Sudan UCC, a new church start in Sioux Falls, S.D. Organized in 1996 by a few refugees who had fl ed religious persecution in their Sudanese homeland, the congregation now numbers 70-plus souls led by two Sudanese- American pastors. A $12,000 Make a Difference grant has helped to sustain their pastors' salaries. The presence of a Sudanese congregation "pushes us to be more multicultural," says the Rev. Gene Miller, South Dakota Conference Minister.
Meanwhile, 10,000 miles away in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the United Church of Christ in the Marshall Islands is the beneficiary of a $3,000 grant to assist with radiation detecting. The islands were a favorite nuclear testing site by the U.S. government in the 1950s, and the soil still bears the devastating effects. The UCC's Make a Difference grant is significant, says Jeni Chapman, Global Ministries' program associate for East Asia and the Pacific, because the money has been used as seed money to support non-governmental research, as well as advocacy efforts by those who are the survivors of U.S. nuclear testing.
The California Council of Churches is utilizing a $5,000 Make a Difference grant to help educate churches on how the criminal justice system can be corrupted by politics. "We're trying to get politics out of the justice system," says the Rev. Marcia Malek, pastor of Broadmoor Community UCC in San Leandro, Calif., who is involved with the Council's Restore to Justice project. "We have a governor who rarely grants pardons," she notes, saying that the state's "three strikes and you're out" sentencing code and its death penalty laws disproportionately impact the poor and racial minorities.
"Make a Difference funds for seminarian scholarships and creative programs in both church and community are making a world of difference," says the Rev. William R. Johnson, executive associate in Wider Church Ministries. "Modest grants from the Make a Difference endowment, to which gifts may be added anytime, continue to turn hope-filled visions into life-giving ministries."
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William C. Winslow, a frequent contributor to United Church News, is a freelance writer from New York.