For the second time since its inception, there will be no Balaam's Courier to serve as an alternative voice for General Synod goers. Due to the deaths of Balaam's founder the Rev. Ted Braun on Feb. 23 and his wife, Donna, on March 4, Balaam's is on indefinite hiatus, and most likely will not return.
How have you found God in an unexpected moment or place? That's a question people from across the life of the UCC will ponder during General Synod 2015 next summer as part of the gathering's theme, "Unexpected Places."
A set of strategies to attack climate change — which includes a path to divestment from fossil fuel companies — was passed by General Synod 2013 Monday afternoon at the Long Beach Convention Center. This action on July 1 makes the United Church of Christ the first major religious body in the U.S. to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies.
The resolution, brought by the Massachusetts Conference and backed by 10 other conferences, calls for enhanced shareholder engagement in fossil fuel companies, an intensive search for fossil fuel-free investment vehicles and the identification of "best in class" fossil fuel companies by General Synod 2015.
By June 2018, a plan would be prepared to divest UCC funds in any fossil-fuel company, except for those identified as "best in class" which the Rev. Jim Antal, the major proponent of the resolution, called an "oxymoron," noting that no such fossil fuel companies are likely to exist.
"Today, the national Synod of the UCC added another 'first' when it became the first national faith communion to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies – and to do it with the support of its major investment institution, United Church Funds," Antal said.
"This resolution becomes a model for all faith communities who care about God's creation and recognize the urgent scientific mandate to keep at least 80 percent of the known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground. . . This vote expresses our commitment to the future. By this vote, we are amplifying our conviction with our money."
The original proposal brought to General Synod called for a five-year movement toward divestment. In committee, a substitute resolution that Antal and the leadership of United Church Funds collaborated on to address the UCF and Pension Boards concerns of their fiduciary responsibility to maximize investment.
"This resolution calls on each and all of us to make difficult changes to the way we live each day of our lives," said Donald Hart, UCF president. "Implementing the multiple strategies outlined in this resolution will demand time, money and care — but we believe Creation deserves no less."
The Pension Boards didn't participate in the negotiations that led to the substitution resolution that was ultimately adopted. After the vote, Michael A. Downs, Pension Boards CEO issued a statement that his organization "will support and implement the resolution, to the extent possible, within our legal responsibilities as fiduciaries of the Annuity Plan for the UCC, acting on behalf of the active and retired members who have entrusted their retirement assets to us."
During the floor debate, a number of delegates urged consideration of the economic impact this course of action will have on jobs and the economies of states like Montana, Wyoming and Kentucky, which are heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
"Let’s talk real divestment here," Mark Wampler of Iowa Conference said. "Divest yourself of your airline tickets and find a non-carbon way to go home."
The General Synod also passed a resolution on making UCC church buildings more carbon-neutral. Earlier in the week, the committee amended the proposal to call on UCC congregations to conduct energy audits on their facilities as the first step toward carbon neutrality. Sara Brace, committee chair and delegate from the Pennsylvania Northeast Conference of the UCC, also stressed that achieving carbon neutrality can be a gradual process for congregations.
"The encouragement portions of the resolution are what resonated with many committee members," said Brace. "By reducing our carbon footprint, we are helping the environment one step at a time."
As the first mainline Protestant denomination to affirm marriage equality, it was only fitting that the United Church of Christ General Synod in Long Beach, Calif. played host Sunday to one of the first same-gender marriages celebrated in California after a federal appeals court in San Francisco allowed them to resume.
UCC pastor, the Rev. Dave Sigmund of Seaside Community UCC, in Torrance, Calif., was legally united in marriage to his husband Jay Greaves at 5 p.m. June 30 in front of family and friends, supported in solidarity by hundreds of UCC members from around the country.
"This is such a unique opportunity," said Greaves. "We don't know if we could have had so many of our friends, family and members of our denomination with us at any other time."
The two were united in marriage on the balcony of the Long Beach Convention Center, surrounded by Seaside congregation members, their friends in the 2030 Clergy, and a throng of Synod attendees watching from the promenade floor below. Behind the guests, a crowd of reporters, photographers and camera crews marked this significant moment in time in the movement for marriage equality. One television station carried the nuptials live.
The Rev. Susannah Davis, pastor of the couple's ‘home church,' Kirkwood UCC in Atlanta, and the Rev. Mel White of Long Beach, a well-known minister and LGBT activist, performed the ceremony. The couple took their vows despite the fact that Proposition 8 supporters tried earlier in the day to halt the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in the nation's largest state. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the request.
As the ceremony began, White talked about the importance of the wedding, "not just for these guys and the obvious love they have for each other. We need to remember those who died (before marriage equality) and did not have their relationship recognized. Remember the great cloud of witnesses who surround us."
Davis, offering a prayer before the vows were spoken said, "Together we gather in the presence of our Stillspeaking God to live into the reality of the truth – it's just love, Dave and Jay. We gather in the presence of people who love you, care about you, and claim you as brothers in Christ."
When White asked the people of Seaside UCC to do everything in their power to uphold and care for the couple, he got an enthusiastic response. But when Davis then posed the question to the people of the UCC gathered at this National Synod, she got a resounding roar of affirmation from the crowd.
After the men were legally wed, they talked about the community aspect of what they had just done, and the importance of the acceptance of their church.
"To hear that sound of voices rise in support of us, our commitment and our marriage was overpowering, overwhelming, and unbelievably welcome," said Greaves after the ceremony.
Sigmund, ordained two years ago, and Greaves, an executive with a human resource company, have been together 10 years. And while they embraced the previous acceptance of their community of faith, which affirmed marriage equality in 2005, "The validation and legal recognition of our relationship is incredible," said Sigmund.
Valerie Smith has been the exhibit hall coordinator for what is now seven General Synods. It's a massive job of juggling on Day 1 – making sure all the exhibitors can get all their merchandise, displays, and resources in, set up, and ready for the throngs of visitors who converge on the hall to see what there is to see as the exhibit area opens to the public for the first time. It's a pretty intricate job of coordination. This time though, everything that could go wrong went wrong – the hall didn't come together as quickly as usual, with missing boxes, late deliveries and lots of questions and confusion – until she got a special visitor who made her day.
But, as to why he was special, you need the back story.
"A couple months ago I got a call from a young man interested in our church," Smith said. "He said he stumbled across the UCC website and wanted to know if our church was really okay with homosexuals. In his culture, he said, homosexuality is not acceptable."
After assuring the young man that the UCC is the church of extravagant welcome, Smith said he asked about churches in his hometown of Chicago. He also wanted to know more about General Synod (he pronounced it Sigh-nod), and "he got real excited. He said he wanted to go, and was just thankful that he could find a church like ours. I told him if he came to California, hey, I'm in the exhibit hall and I'd love to meet you."
Saturday, as she was taking a breather during "a pretty rough day," Smith was approached by a young man asking about the Scarf Project. "Some kid comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, what are all those scarves for?'" And as Smith explained that the 10,000 scarves were collected as part of a pledge to stand up against LGBT bullying, the young man said, "Wow, that is deep – this is my first Sigh-nod." That's when Smith knew she'd been sent a message.
"I said, I talked to you a few months ago, and he said, ‘You're Valerie – I can't believe you are the first person I talked to here,'" Smith said, adding that the young man then got tears in his eyes. "After 24 months of work getting ready – this is why we do this," she said. "Changing lives – It really warms my heart."