Written by Daniel Hazard
Some may relish the procedural protocol of General Synod's business sessions, but for most, it's the elaborate, moving worship services that inspire and renew.
On July 1, during the General Synod's opening worship service, the Rev. John H. Thomas called on UCC members to "come to the waters" as representatives from ecumenical bodies and global partners liturgically offered water from their respective traditions and homelands to fill a common font.
Recalling a young girl in Accra in West Africa whom he watched chase a bus there last August, Thomas remembered how she balanced a bowl of small bags of drinking water on her head, in an "agonizing dance of frustration and futility."
Finally, she reached toward a grabbing hand and sold some water, an act that perhaps fed her family that day with the coin she earned.
"She is, this little girl, this prophet, the image of Christ, the Crucified one, giving himself as living water to all who would reach out to receive it," Thomas said. "Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters."
But it was the bus that the little girl was chasing that also caught Thomas' sermonic imagination.
"There will be times in these next days when General Synod will feel like an endless bus ride," Thomas said, "bumping along a jarring route through worship and committees and sponsored meals and community groups and plenaries with [Synod Moderator] Jack [Jackson] at the wheel and Edith [Guffey, the UCC's associate general minister] calling out the stops.
"But a bus in this region is more than an amusing image," he said. "Here the bus has vivid echoes of oppression...where Sister Rosa's ear, attuned to the prophet's voice, simply sat down and refused to move, an act of resistance that ignited a pilgrimage as stirring as those Babylonian exiles returning joyfully to Zion."
Thomas urged Synod goers to be open to the possibility of a new voice to "startle us out of our certainties," to be ready to hear the prophet's voice.
'We must listen'
On July 2, Claudia De la Cruz, a Latina community organizer, challenged worshipers to consider, "Is God not speaking in Spanish, too?"
The 24-year-old De la Cruz was responding to the God is Still Speaking campaign in which "not a single word in Spanish appeared on any of those signs in the ads. …God does not speak English only."
She implored UCC members to keep in mind that Spanish speakers make up the fastest growing demographic group in the United States.
A member of Iglesia San Romero de las Americas UCC and an organizer with the Dominican Women's Development Center in New York City, De la Cruz recently completed her first year at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
Reflecting on the parable of the sower in Mark 4:1-9 in which Jesus implores, "Let anyone with ears to hear, listen," De la Cruz said, "To listen is to actively pay attention to what's being said, or not being said."
"How well are we listening?" she asked. "Are we listening to the incarcerated at Guantanamo? Are we listening to undocumented workers, those who demand transformation rather than charity?"
"We must listen to the word of God calling us to be a prophet in a time of hopelessness," she said.
'Talk to me'
The walls of the cavernous Georgia World Congress Center quaked on July 3 when the Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of the 5,500-member Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga., rattled the concrete rafters with a blazing psalm to a Stillspeaking God.
Using Isaiah 1:7-18 as his text, the preacher invited more than 3,000 delegates and visitors to come "smack dab in the middle of an argument between the nation of Israel and God."
In the biblical story, he said, Israel was indignant, demanding to know why they had been forsaken. "Are we not the seed of Abraham?" Samuel quoted the ancient Israelites as asking.
"But God is not impressed with sanctimonious displays of piety," Samuel thundered. "What good is one nation under God when that nation is beset with classism, bigotry and prejudice? What good are the Ten Commandments on the walls of the courthouse when we can't insure justice in the halls of the courthouse? What good is a nation that delivers democracy in Iraq but can't deliver it at home?"
But then God does an amazing thing, he said. "God puts God's anger on hold so they can each express themselves. 'Come,' God says, 'let us reason together'...What an awesome act, an open conversation with God."
"'You've got problems; I've got possibilities. You've got roadblocks; I've got new directions. Get it off your chest. Talk to me!'"
The worship service included selections offered by Victory for the World Church Choir, under the leadership of Keith Wilson, and the Victory Sanctuary Dancers, led by Barbara Sullivan.
On July 4, a jazz vespers service was led by the Rev. Dwight Andrews, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Atlanta, and the Dwight Andrews Jazz Quintet. The service included a commemorative blessing of "The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ," a series of seven volumes of UCC history.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, series editor, presented the General Synod with an eighth volume filled with blank pages, representing the UCC's history in the making.
Delegates and visitors then joined Atlanta residents, just outside the convention center, for the city's Independence Day fi reworks display.
'Got to live together'
At the closing worship service on July 5, the Rev. Nancy Hastings Sehested, a state prison chaplain in North Carolina, shared the story of a surprised inmate who had received a letter alerting him that he had received an unexpected inheritance. At first, she said, he didn't understood what being a "beneficiary" meant exactly, or even that the news was good.
Sehested, who also serves as co-pastor of Circle of Mercy (UCC/ Alliance of Baptists) in Asheville, N.C., then drew upon the story to illumine the magnificence of God's bestowed inheritance upon all. She said it's the call of the Christian life to live in constant recognition of that grace-filled act.
As Christians, Sehested said, we've all inherited a house. The problem is "we've got to live in it together."
General Synod closed with a service of anointing where youth and young adult representatives and Conference Ministers marked worshipers' foreheads with a sign of God's blessing. Delegates and visitors went out rejoicing, singing "This Little Light of Mine."