Kentucky church prepares for annual Peace with Justice Weekend
Written by Emily Schappacher September 26, 2013
Attendees participate at a past Peace with Justice Weekend at Zion United Church of Christ in Henderson, Ky.
The Rev. Phil Hoy and his wife, Sandra, are busy preparing for the 22nd annual Peace with Justice Weekend at Zion United Church of Christ in Henderson, Ky. For the past 10 years, Phil, pastor emeritus of Zion UCC, and Sandra have co-chaired the event initiated 22 years ago by the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, former pastor of Zion UCC and one of the UCC's national officers. While a few of the details have changed since the inaugural event – for example, it now takes place during a weekend instead of a week – the goal remains the same: providing likeminded social activists a place to learn, connect and renew.
"Ben used to call it a 'liberal's version of a revival,'" said Sandra. "It is a time for peace and justice activists to get together and have their spirits renewed."
The theme of this year's event, taking place Oct. 18-20, is "Freedom From Fear," inspired by the countless incidents of gun violence that have taken place throughout the country. The Rev. Mari Castellanos, policy advocate for domestic issues for the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, will serve as the keynote speaker. The Rev. Fran and Ann Frellick, peace and justice activists from Fort Wayne, Ind., will lead discussions about gun violence and dealing with encountered fears, and Susan Fowler, artist and environmentalist, will lead a workshop using art, music, sign language and storytelling to illustrate peace and justice issues. There will also be a fair trade product shop, coffee hour, worship services and fellowship meals.
"We are a very small church, but a very alive church," Sandra said. "One of the things that helps keep it alive is having a signature event like this. Although there is a small core of people who wear themselves out every year, when it's over, we have such a wonderful time and learn so much that we know we're going to do it again."
Peace with Justice Week (PWJW) was initially a project of the National Council of Churches and the United Nations to link the period between World Food Day, observed annually on Oct. 16, and United Nations Day, observed Oct. 24, as a focused week when communities and congregations would lift up issues of justice and peace in visible, concerted ways, Guess said.
"We took the idea seriously, and my hope while I was a pastor in Henderson was to create a national gathering for justice advocates, not unlike the National Storytelling Festival that is held each October in Jonesborough, Tenn." he said. "I was aiming high and thinking big."
"In Henderson, I can recall one year in the late 1990s when our attendance exceeded 400 people from as many as 12 or more states," Guess continued. "It really put that great little church and that beautiful town on the map for a lot of people. Today, the event is smaller, but a committed core group of activists, especially Phil and Sandra, remain steadfastly dedicated to carrying on that long tradition in Henderson. PWJW is still significant and meaningful for those who attend, and I am grateful because it continues to be a time of bold witness in that part of the world, especially in western Kentucky and southern Indiana."
The Hoys agree that the event has grown smaller over time, and they expect 75-85 people to attend this year. While Zion UCC is the only Open and Affirming church of any denomination in the metropolitan area of Evansville, Ky., with a population of about 400,000, Phil says over the years he has felt a shift in the mindsets of people and congregations to be more accepting of others and their differences, and that Peace and Justice Week has always provided an opportunity for people with similar beliefs to join together and celebrate those changes.
"Besides the encouragement, inspiration and renewal that people get out of these discussions, it does wonders for people to get together and know they're not alone in their convictions about things and issues," said Phil. "And sometimes we find new actions to take."