The closing gavel came down on the 31st General Synod of the United Church of Christ in the afternoon on July 4, capping five days in which the denomination deliberated subjects from climate care to gun violence, came together for a series of worship events that merged themes of justice and peace, and celebrated the election of a new justice leader.
Remembering those events and several others from Baltimore, here are 10 significant moments — how the UCC began shaping a just world for all at General Synod 31:
Three Great Loves Launch
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer outlined a new all-church initiative to take place during the next two years leading up to General Synod 32. Three Great Loves is a call to live out the love of children, neighbor and creation in mission. Three Great Loves will look to build on and amplify the sacred work UCC churches are already doing in their communities to care for children, reach out in welcome to their neighbors, and act as good stewards of the earth and all creation.
"Each of the Three Great Loves will have a dedicated call to action with three components: an invitation to give, an invitation to act, an invitation to connect," Dorhauer said.
Over the course of the two years, on the Three Great Loves website, the national setting will be collecting stories; tangible commitments to ministry around the love of children, the love of neighbor, the love of creation. The UCC is also looking to lift up Three Great Loves Heroes, and will be taking nominations, looking for members who have made a difference in the world.
William Barber's call to 'claim the moral language of faith'
The Rev. Williams Barber sounded a clarion call for the church to speak in tongues again to create a new language, and claim the language of deep moral faith. The keynote speaker at the General Synod Gala fundraiser, Barber told the crowd to "get the church out into the streets where it belongs. We have to get out of single-issue silos and link up."
Barber called on the UCC to help launch a new Poor People's Campaign that would benefit from a fusion of poor white, black and brown people to fight an economic system that seeks to keep them from understanding their common humanity. "This is a race problem and a class problem," he said. "We need the fire of Pentecost to illuminate the reality."
Traci Blackmon is elected
After serving as the acting executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries for 19 months, the Rev. Traci Blackmon was resoundingly called by the General Synod on July 2, to lead the ministry for a four-year term. With the crowd chanting her name, Blackmon told delegates, "My promise is I will do everything I can to never make you sorry that you chose me."
During her nomination speech a day earlier, Blackmon brought Synod attendees to their feet more than once during her 30-minute remarks, sermonizing about how a growing church tried to make more space in its racially-diverse sanctuary by adding a balcony, but instead led to the church fracturing because of the discomfort with its racial differences. "There should be no balconies in our hearts. No balconies in our spirits. No balconies in our liturgy. No balconies in our sermons. No balconies in our theology. Because there are no balconies with our God," Blackmon said.
A declaration to be an Immigrant Welcoming Church
Proclaiming that no human being is illegal, Synod delegates voted overwhelmingly July 2 to adopt a resolution that called the denomination to be immigrant-welcoming. The resolution asks that all settings of the UCC study the issues around immigration and discern how best to serve the particular immigrant populations in their own areas.
"We know the plight of our brothers and sisters who are immigrants, and we know the mandate of our scriptures to welcome the stranger among us," said Southern California Nevada Conference Minister the Rev. Felix Villanueva.
Marching for Immigrant Justice
In its first action as an Immigrant Welcoming Church, the UCC marched on July 3 with the family and friends of an Annapolis, Md., artist and grandfather, Guillermo Recinos Morales, who was seized outside his home on his way to work and detained the past three months by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. About 275 General Synod attendees gathered to support his family and to urge ICE to reopen his case so he can apply for asylum and remain in the country.
Diane Haines, from the Minnesota Conference, the primary author of the Immigrant Welcoming Church resolution, offered an apology to the Recinos Morales family. "We want to say to the family of Guillermo: We are so sorry that our nation has done this to you. It is so wrong," she said. "We walk with you in this."
Proclaiming that the Earth is the Lord's
Recognizing both the urgency of climate change and the continual debate over its existence, General Synod delegated affirmed a resolution that called the clergy of the church to preach on the moral imperatives to protect the planet. The resolution "The Earth is the Lord's, Not Ours to Wreck," a late submission to the governing body, also asks UCC members to lead efforts to educate on climate change and advocate for legislation to reduce the human impact on the environment.
"The climate crisis is an opportunity for which the church was born," said Rev. Jim Antal, president and conference minister for the Massachusetts Conference UCC, and the author of the resolution. "This sets the stage for engagement and hope. This is a proclamation of truth and the love of God's gift."
Moved by the Spirit: Four worship services, from Traci Blackmon to Kim Kendrick
General Synod 31 kicked off with a worship service, underscoring the desire to have four worship services over five days that were exuberant and uplifting in their own ways.
It started on June 30, with the Rev. Traci Blackmon asking those in attendance to "climb in the wheelbarrow" to live out their call to joy and justice; two days later, on July 2, the Rev. John Dorhauer led a community-wide worship, which featured a choir of about 100 people, that explored the UCC's vision of creating a just world for all. On July 3, the Rev. David Vasquez-Levy called the church to take the plunge into the work of justice, wholeness and solidarity, and in the closing worship on July 4, the Rev. Kim Kendrick led a Gospel-style celebration of word, music and art that sent Synod guests out of the gathering and back to their homes to "make glad" their world.
Chicago teens speak out about stopping gun violence
General Synod youth stepped into one spotlight during a discussion on gun violence to share their perspectives on its daily impact on their lives, and delegates passed a Synod resolution urging the study of the subject. A trio of young delegates from the Illinois Conference were set to speak in favor of the resolution, but the debate ended before they could. The following morning, Synod moderators gave the three a chance to speak out.
Chicago teenager Kyle King talked about having to "duck and dodge bullets" when someone started shooting at a park where he and his friends were playing football. "It's really sad and messed up that we can't be safe, and we can't have fun at the park without someone coming and starting to shoot," he said.
Honoring youth from Standing Rock
Ten youth representing the Standing Rock Water Protectors were given the UCC's inaugural Movement Makers Award and a standing ovation from the house on July 1 in recognition of the movement they helped create to oppose the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Like many of the youth on the stage, Jasilea Charger found motivation for herself and her comrades in the movement. "Whenever you push someone out of their comfort zone, you do it because you never know how it will change their life."
Recognizing the late Rev. John Deckenback
The life, ministry and legacy of late Central Atlantic Conference Minister the Rev. John Deckenback was recognized and celebrated by the host Conference and General Synod on several occasions. Deckenback was posthumously honored at the Ecumenical and Interfaith Dinner, during plenary with a video featuring an array of his accomplishments, and during a crab feast — a dish he was adamant about serving to Synod guests — in his honor on July 3.
"John looked forward, not backward," said his spouse, the Rev. Carolyn Roberts. "The way we live our commitments to each of God's children is a direct extension of our love for God."