One of the oldest churches in Vermont, named the UCC Church of the Month for "embracing diversity," won over the contest judges by proposing that a church in rural Vermont has to work pretty hard to embrace the kinds of diversity others take for granted. But the Guilford Community Church United Church of Christ, the spiritual home of 100-120 congregants of all ages, abilities and ethnic backgrounds has a lot going for it to back up that proposition.
"Diversity has become a source of fascination, joy and awareness in all of us," said the Rev. Lise Sparrow, Guilford Community Church's pastor. "This in turn, has created a context in which we can examine our differences and develop the skills necessary for conflict transformation both among ourselves and, hopefully, as we go forward into the larger world."
Guilford is not just a racially diverse congregation that actively supports the LGBT community. The church is also proud of its long-held commitment to accessibility. Guilford was the first of local churches to provide both a lift for congregants to access its sanctuary and to the chancel area which functions as a stage. The church for years has offered hearing assistance for the hearing impaired and the services of an interpreter for its deaf members as well as large print bulletins for the visually impaired.
"In each instance a church member inspired our working to be more inclusive," said Sparrow. "The son of a beloved member died of HIV/AIDS which led to our becoming Open and Affirming — which even still was a tough fight...that was 2002. One of our choir directors has MS so we worked to have not only a lift but an accessible chancel."
Hearing impaired members came to Guilford drawn by a local school for the deaf that has since closed and the congregation adapted, providing an interpreter and signing the songs.
"This added a lot of joy to the services," said Sparrow. "The choir has a repertoire of songs we do with ASL signing — not every Sunday — but the whole congregation knows and loves the songs. There is a power in seeing a big diverse happy choir sing great music week after week — an emblem, if you will, of what we are and strive to be and we are graced by an organist and choir directors who love the challenge."
"We now have our services online and on local TV to make the services accessible to shut-ins and people who miss services — not to mention the general public," she continued. "It is an expense but one we have stretched to take to make our church accessible."
The monthly "Be the Church of the Month" contest has invited UCC congregations to demonstrate how they are living out each of the nine values proclaimed on the denomination's "Be the Church" banner. The value statements reflect the UCC's mission of extravagant welcome, and for the last several months dozens of churches have shared — through emailed text, photos and video — what they are doing in their communities to put these statements into practice. This is the last month of the contest.
"We have had to work harder at racial diversity but currently have eight family units who are people of color," Sparrow noted. "I believe this has come about by our involvement in the local community, and with youth especially, so we are seen as a welcoming community and word gets around. I think having a vital Sunday School and active teen group has been a draw as teens pass the word to each other and parents like that kids like to come to church."
The church also helps young people reach beyond their local area by partnering with a rural community in Kenya where they have helped build a high school for children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. The youth group has traveled there and to South Dakota to work with the Cheyenne River Sioux. The congregation is also helping sponsor a Congolese refugee family.
Most recently, young adults with disabilities have become actively involved in the church community.
"In every instance these opportunities have come to us in some fashion and we have embraced them as opportunities to stretch in our service and ministry. We have maximized the opportunities God has sent us with great joy and gratitude," said Sparrow. "Singing a diverse repertoire is a start. Bringing in children who are always themselves diverse is a start, hosting community activities and events wherever possible has brought in folks as has our willingness to do funerals for anyone who needs this. I think any church can do these things and I know my interest in interfaith endeavors has given us a community presence which is invaluable as well. It all happens step by step. I know we are very blessed and don't take that for granted either."