A lay leader of the United Church of Christ Penn Northeast (Penn NE) Conference is on a spiritual journey, spending his Sundays with several different congregations, and spreading the word about the 3 Great Loves (3GL) initiative.
Gary Barraco, the Outreach Director at Forks UCC, in Stockertown, Penn., was tapped to be the Penn NE Conference's '3 Great Loves Ambassador,' a role he jumped into with both feet.
"3GL is a wonderful initiative," Barraco said. It is the denomination's opportunity as one church to express how Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation work together to address the inequities in our world. "The stories that we can share amongst our faith communities will solidify our purpose and goal as a united church."
A project marketing director for a software provider, Barraco immediately got to work launching 3GL in his part of Pennsylvania. He's put together a traveling roadshow around a customized worship service, with a special liturgy, worship suggestions and a sermon —which he shows up to deliver.
"Gary was one of the first 3GL Conference Coordinators and is so dedicated to sharing the message of our 3GL initiative with the local churches of the Penn NE Conference. He inspires me each time we speak," said the Rev. Dave Sigmund, the UCC 3GL ambassador. "His many travels speak to his creativity and passion to share the message of 3GL and his commitment to the shared mission and ministry of the UCC. In other words, Gary rocks!"
Barraco sent out information and invitations to every congregation in the conference, offering to bring them a Sunday service designed around 3 Great Loves. He created postcards, pamphlets, pins and polo shirts. He commissioned a video that he uses to start his worship presentation, and put an ad in the conference newsletter. Churches immediately took notice.
"The emails started coming in and I am booked for twenty Sunday services between now and June 3," Barraco said. "I am helped by another lay leader – Geoff Brace – who fills in when he can."
Right now Barraco is collecting stories from local congregations, and plans to present information about the top five 3GL ministries in the conference at the Penn NE Annual Meeting in May. But he may have a hard time choosing.
He shared one story about the mission of Christ Church UCC in Bethlehem, Penn. The congregation runs outreach programs to serve a large homeless population in its community; a Saturday soup kitchen, and a weekly program called S.T.A.R. – Serving to Aid and Restore – which uses the fellowship hall and other building space to store and distribute clothing, food and other necessities, information, and resources to homeless and in-need individuals. The church also operates overnight emergency sheltering when the weather turns bad from December through March. It is one of many facilities that comprise Bethlehem Emergency Sheltering, a faith-based partnership that provides a network of care and hospitality for homeless people in the community.
"This congregation is truly dedicated to serving those in need, in a city where hope, peace, love and joy are part of its name. The community has been impacted in many ways through these programs, but the volunteers also leave with the feeling of grace," Barraco said. "Every church I visit tells me that they have connected my message with their own spiritual journey and their outreach work within their individual communities. Not only am I inspiring them, but they inspire me."
The 3 Great Loves initiative, which runs through General Synod 2019, is a visible witness to the collective efforts of one uniting mission. It embraces the many types of ministry in which United Church of Christ congregations are already engaged, all working toward making a more just world for all as God's hands and feet. UCC churches and organizations are invited to discern and lift up the love of God, through their expressions of Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, and Love of Creation in their community. Resources for the initiative can be found on the 3GL website.
"There are so many inventive and inspiring ways to share the story of our 3GL Initiative," said Sigmund, who serves as the national liaison, connecting the denomination's clergy, congregations and conferences in support of 3GL. "Every local church and each conference have amazing stories about how they are living out God's love through the lens of 3GL. What's your story?"