Written by Anthony Moujaes
After a brief departure from General Synod recognitions and celebrations of the United Church of Christ's grassroots justice leaders, the denomination is planning to honor a few movers and shakers during the upcoming biennial gathering for their work on the ground in creating a just world for all.
"With the nation seemingly embattled in partisan politics and divided during and after the 2016 election cycle, our acting executive minister, the Rev. Traci Blackmon, felt it important to bring back theses recognitions," said the Rev. Bentley deBardelaben, JWM executive for administration and communication.
Recognitions that, from 2001 through 2013, honored individuals, churches and organizations for their commitment to justice work at a local level.
Justice and Witness Ministries will celebrate the Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, awarding her the Social Prophet Award, Jenn Hagedorn with the Youth and Young Adult Award, Pilgrim-St. Luke's & El Neuvo Camino UCC (Buffalo, N.Y.) with the Local Church Award, and Seacoast Family Promise in Stratham, N.H., with the Grassroots Organization Award. Those awardees will be recognized at the Valerie Russell Lecture, 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 1, at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel during General Synod 31, which takes place June 30 through July 4.
Thistlethwaite is a professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, a UCC's seminary, where she was president from 1998 through 2008. An ordained UCC minister since 1974, she has authored and edited numerous books and has been a translator for two different translations of the Bible. Thistlethwaite, a frequent media commentator on religion and public events, has been at the forefront of the UCC's call to be a Just Peace church.
"We are so pleased to honor her contribution to the social witness of the UCC at General Synod," said the Rev. Michael Neuroth, UCC international policy advocate. "Her articulation of faith in the public square is a regular inspiration to me and to many, and is so deserving of this recognition."
Hagedorn, a first-year M.Div. student at Union Theological Seminary, is a member of Plymouth UCC in Seattle. "Jenn's childhood in the UCC, background in public health and experience as an anti-racist community organizer make her attuned to the importance of justice work that honors the interconnected nature of body, mind, spirit and community," said Amy Johnson, coordinator for the denomination's Our Whole Lives curriculum who nominated Hagedorn for the award.
Pilgrim-St. Luke's and El Nuevo Camino UCC, located 10 miles from the Canadian border in Buffalo, proclaimed itself a d Sanctuary Church on Jan. 29, and began housing dozens of people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Colombia and Venezuela in need of shelter and resources. By March, the congregation had helped 13 people cross the border into Canada.
"At Pilgrim-St. Luke's & El Nuevo Camino, we are committed to working with immigrants and honoring the sacredness of lives better," said the church's pastor, the Rev. Justo González II.
Seacoast Family Promise, a nonprofit founded in 2003, has been serving families with children experiencing homelessness by organizing local congregations and organizations to house and feed families as they find stable housing and return to self-sufficiency. In the past 14 years, 87 percent of the families who have gone through the program have secured permanent housing and have remained stable.
"The strength of this organization is its grassroots network of (1,200) community volunteers and partnership of faith-based communities," said the Rev. Jonathan Roach, pastor of Stratham Community Church. "In an area with a shortage of affordable housing for low-income working families, Seacoast Family Promise keeps families together, it keeps children in their home schools, and it gives these families the power to regroup and restart their lives."
In past years during JWM’s General Synod banquet, each honoree would be presented with their award and would share remarks with attendees at to what causes, movements and persons motivated them to do what they were being awarded for. The banquet was also a time for the JWM executive minister to share a bit about the ongoing work of the ministry team, and what areas of focus were before them for the immediate future.
This year, JWM is creating a new award category, the Movement Makers Award, that will be presented on the plenary stage during General Synod.