A United Church of Christ congregation in Texas has been told it cannot participate in an evangelical Christian program that assists children of prisoners because of the church's outspoken gay-friendly stance.
The Rev. Dan De Leon, pastor of Friends Congregational UCC in College Station, Texas, said he learned this summer that his church was disqualified from Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, which encourages churches to buy Christmas presents for the children of inmates.
Prison Fellowship officials said the church's stance on homosexuality, declared on its Web site, represented a disagreement about basic scriptural doctrine.
"For a church to qualify for Angel Tree, its beliefs must be consistent with our Statement of Faith, including being Trinitarian and accepting the unique authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life," reads a July 24 letter the church received from Prison Fellowship.
The church provided a copy of the letter to Religion News Service.
"As we have looked at the doctrine and beliefs of your church in light of our Statement of Faith and partnering guidelines, we have determined that your church does not qualify as part of our program."
De Leon said he called the regional office of Prison Fellowship and was told his church was disqualified because it belongs to the UCC's "Open and Affirming" program that welcomes gays and lesbians as members.
"Personally it came as a shock and when it was shared with the congregation, it was equally shocking," said De Leon, whose church draws an average of 120 worshippers on Sunday. "The emotions ran from anger to confusion to just the wind being taken out of our sails as a community initially."
David Lawson, senior vice president of Prison Fellowship, called the situation "one unfortunate incident" and said "very few" of the more than 12,000 participating churches have been disqualified or disqualified themselves from the Angel Tree program. Such cases usually involve differing views about homosexuality or creation, he said.
He said the Angel Tree program is not limited to Christmas presents but aims for a year-round "full relationship" between churches and prisoners' children, involving them in congregational programs.
"We want to make sure that the churches that we partner with are compatible with our values, our statement of faith," said Lawson, who is based in Lansdowne, Va.
The Texas church has participated in the program for five years and been "Opening and Affirming" since 1996. In recent years, Prison Fellowship has reviewed Angel Tree participants to ensure that churches are compatible with a recently revised mission statement that urges a focus on "transformation," he said.
The United Church of Christ has seen other repercussions from its stance on homosexuality. In July, an insurer refused to offer coverage to a UCC church in Adrian, Mich., saying its pro-gay stance put it at "a higher risk" of property damage and litigation. In recent years, major television networks have rejected UCC ads as "too controversial."
The Texas congregation has drafted a letter to Prison Fellowship, signed by more than 120 parishioners and supporters, to express its dismay at being removed from the program.
"We are disheartened that Prison Fellowship has chosen to lean more heavily on small matters of doctrinal disagreements than on much larger matters of theological authenticity and compassion, which demand that we Christians must love one another if anyone will ever believe that we truly follow Christ," the letter said.
UCC President John H. Thomas wrote a letter of support to the congregation, and encouraged them to respond to Prison Fellowship.
"I pray that those who receive your letter will be challenged by its message and, by God's grace, transformed," Thomas wrote.
De Leon said church members will meet to determine new ways to help children in the community.
Lawson said even though Prison Fellowship is no longer aligned with the College Station congregation, "we affirm them in their desire to serve these children."
It's great to be here. I've been speaking to a lot of churches recently, so it's nice to be speaking to one that's so familiar. I understand you switched venues at considerable expense and inconvenience because of unfair labor practices at the place you were going to be having this synod. Clearly, the past 50 years have not weakened your resolve as faithful witnesses of the gospel. And I'm glad to see that.
It's been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I've had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country. And I've found that no matter where I am, or who I'm talking to, there's a common theme that emerges. It's that folks are hungry for change – they're hungry for something new. They're ready to turn the page on the old politics and the old policies – whether it's the war in Iraq or the health care crisis we're in, or a school system that's leaving too many kids behind despite the slogans.
But I also get the sense that there's a hunger that's deeper than that – a hunger that goes beyond any single cause or issue. It seems to me that each day, thousands of Americans are going about their lives – dropping the kids off at school, driving to work, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets, trying to kick a cigarette habit – and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They're deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long road toward nothingness.
And this restlessness – this search for meaning – is familiar to me. I was not raised in a particularly religious household. My father, who I didn't know, returned to Kenya when I was just two. He was nominally a Muslim since there were a number of Muslims in the village where he was born. But by the time he was a young adult, he was an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew. She had this enormous capacity for wonder, and lived by the Golden Rule. But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did I.
It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma. In a sense, what brought me to Chicago in the first place was a hunger for some sort of meaning in my life. I wanted to be part of something larger. I'd been inspired by the civil rights movement – by all the clear-eyed, straight-backed, courageous young people who'd boarded buses and traveled down South to march and sit at lunch counters, and lay down their lives in some cases for freedom. I was too young to be involved in that movement, but I felt I could play a small part in the continuing battle for justice by helping rebuild some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.
So it's 1985, and I'm in Chicago, and I'm working with these churches, and with lots of laypeople who are much older than I am. And I found that I recognized in these folks a part of myself. I learned that everyone's got a sacred story when you take the time to listen. And I think they recognized a part of themselves in me too. They saw that I knew the Scriptures and that many of the values I held and that propelled me in my work were values they shared. But I think they also sensed that a part of me remained removed and detached – that I was an observer in their midst.
And slowly, I came to realize that something was missing as well – that without an anchor for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And it's around this time that some pastors I was working with came up to me and asked if I was a member of a church. "If you're organizing churches," they said, "it might be helpful if you went to church once in a while." And I thought, "Well, I guess that makes sense."
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.
But my journey is part of a larger journey – one shared by all who've ever sought to apply the values of their faith to our society. It's a journey that takes us back to our nation's founding, when none other than a UCC church inspired the Boston Tea Party and helped bring an Empire to its knees. In the following century, men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women's rights – and above all, abolition. And when the Civil War was fought and our country dedicated itself to a new birth of freedom, they took on the problems of an industrializing nation – fighting the crimes against society and the sins against God that they felt were being committed in our factories and in our slums.
And when these battles were overtaken by others and when the wars they opposed were waged and won, these faithful foot soldiers for justice kept marching. They stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the blows of billy clubs rained down. They held vigils across this country when four little girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. They cheered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King delivered his prayer for our country. And in all these ways, they helped make this country more decent and more just.
So doing the Lord's work is a thread that's run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural without its reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's "I Have a Dream" speech without its reference to "all of God's children." Or President Kennedy's Inaugural without the words, "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own." At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version.
But I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this – we have to do our part to make it a reality. My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
That's why pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes and organizations like World Vision and Catholic Charities are wielding their enormous influence to confront poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious leaders like my friends Rev. Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein and Nathan Diament are working for justice and fighting for change. And all across the country, communities of faith are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, and in so many other ways, taking part in the project of American renewal.
Yet what we also understand is that our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government. Because whether it's poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.
And so long as we're not doing everything in our personal and collective power to solve them, we know the conscience of our nation cannot rest.
Our conscience can't rest so long as 37 million Americans are poor and forgotten by their leaders in Washington and by the media elites. We need to heed the biblical call to care for "the least of these" and lift the poor out of despair. That's why I've been fighting to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the minimum wage. If you're working forty hours a week, you shouldn't be living in poverty. But we also know that government initiatives are not enough. Each of us in our own lives needs to do what we can to help the poor. And until we do, our conscience cannot rest.
Our conscience cannot rest so long as nearly 45 million Americans don't have health insurance and the millions more who do are going bankrupt trying to pay for it. I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2500 a year. That's not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it's a moral commitment.
And until we stop the genocide that's being carried out in Darfur as I speak, our conscience cannot rest. This is a problem that's brought together churches and synagogues and mosques and people of all faiths as part of a grassroots movement. Universities and states, including Illinois, are taking part in a divestment campaign to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the killings. It's not enough, but it's helping. And it's a testament to what we can achieve when good people with strong convictions stand up for their beliefs.
And we should close Guantanamo Bay and stop tolerating the torture of our enemies. Because it's not who we are. It's not consistent with our traditions of justice and fairness. And it offends our conscience.
But we also know our conscience cannot rest so long as the war goes on in Iraq. It's a war I'm proud I opposed from the start – a war that should never have been authorized and never been waged. I have a plan that would have already begun redeploying our troops with the goal of bringing all our combat brigades home by March 31st of next year. The President vetoed a similar plan, but he doesn't have the last word, and we're going to keep at it, until we bring this war to an end. Because the Iraq war is not just a security problem, it's a moral problem.
And there's another issue we must confront as well. Today there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, most of them working in our communities, attending our churches, and contributing to our country.
Now, as children of God, we believe in the worth and dignity of every human being; it doesn't matter where that person came from or what documents they have. We believe that everyone, everywhere should be loved, and given the chance to work, and raise a family.
But as Americans, we also know that this is a nation of laws, and we cannot have those laws broken when more than 2,000 people cross our borders illegally every day. We cannot ignore that we have a right and a duty to protect our borders. And we cannot ignore the very real concerns of Americans who are not worried about illegal immigration because they are racist or xenophobic, but because they fear it will result in lower wages when they're already struggling to raise their families.
And so this will be a difficult debate next week. Consensus and compromise will not come easy. Last time we took up immigration reform, it failed. But we cannot walk away this time. Our conscience cannot rest until we not only secure our borders, but give the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country a chance to earn their citizenship by paying a fine and waiting in line behind all those who came here legally.
We will all have to make concessions to achieve this. That's what compromise is about. But at the end of the day, we cannot walk away – not for the sake of passing a bill, but so that we can finally address the real concerns of Americans and the persistent hopes of all those brothers and sisters who want nothing more than their own chance at our common dream.
These are some of the challenges that test our conscience – as Americans and people of faith. And meeting them won't be easy. There is real evil and hardship and pain and suffering in the world and we should be humble in our belief that we can eliminate them. But we shouldn't use our humility as an excuse for inaction. We shouldn't use the obstacles we face as an excuse for cynicism. We have to do what we can, knowing it's hard and not swinging from a naïve idealism to a bitter defeatism – but rather, accepting the fact that we're not going to solve every problem overnight, but we can still make a difference.
We can recognize the truth that's at the heart of the UCC: that the conversation is not over; that our roles are not defined; that through ancient texts and modern voices, God is still speaking, challenging us to change not just our own lives, but the world around us.
I'm hearing from evangelicals who may not agree with progressives on every issue but agree that poverty has no place in a world of plenty; that hate has no place in the hearts of believers; and that we all have to be good stewards of God's creations. From Willow Creek to the 'emerging church,' from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Association of Evangelicals, folks are realizing that the four walls of the church are too small for a big God. God is still speaking.
I'm hearing from progressives who understand that if we want to communicate our hopes and values to Americans, we can't abandon the field of religious discourse. That's why organizations are rising up across the country to reclaim the language of faith to bring about change. God is still speaking.
He's still speaking to our Catholic friends – who are holding up a consistent ethic of life that goes beyond abortion – one that includes a respect for life and dignity whether it's in Iraq, in poor neighborhoods, in African villages or even on death row. They're telling me that their conversation about what it means to be Catholic continues. God is still speaking.
And right here in the UCC, we're hearing from God about what it means to be a welcoming church that holds on to our Christian witness. The UCC is still listening. And God is still speaking.
Now, some of you may have heard me talk about the Joshua generation. But there's a story I want to share that takes place before Moses passed the mantle of leadership on to Joshua. It comes from Deuteronomy 30 when Moses talks to his followers about the challenges they'll find when they reach the Promised Land without him. To the Joshua generation, these challenges seem momentous – and they are. But Moses says: What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven. Nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near. It is on your lips and in your heart.
It's an idea that's often forgotten or dismissed in cynical times. It's that we all have it within our power to make this a better world. Because we all have the capacity to do justice and show mercy; to treat others with dignity and respect; and to rise above what divides us and come together to meet those challenges we can't meet alone. It's the wisdom Moses imparted to those who would succeed him. And it's a lesson we need to remember today – as members of another Joshua generation.
So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics – a politics of conscience. Let's come together – Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that – if we can embrace a common destiny – then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, we'll be doing God's work here on Earth. Thank you.
Obama a member of denominations largest congregation, the 10,000-member Trinity UCC in Chicago since 1988 has spoken often about his profession of faith, his membership in the socially progressive UCC and the need for Democrats to take seriously the concerns of religious Americans.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCCs general minister and president, said the denominations only organizational interest in Obamas candidacy is that his faith and his religious tradition be discussed accurately within the media.
Our churchs rich historical legacy is interwoven with the history of this nation, and the heritage of the United Church of Christ makes it clear that faith is to be expressed actively in public life on behalf of the community and the world, Thomas said. While it is not appropriate for the church to advocate for any one candidate in electoral politics, I am proud that Sen. Obama is an active UCC member and speaks to many of the values that our church holds dear.
Obama wrote about his faith and his UCC membership in the August-September 2006 issue of United Church News, the UCCs national newspaper.
You come to church in the first place precisely because you are of this world, not apart from it, Obama wrote. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away, because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey. It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity UCC on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith.
In November 2004, during his acceptance speech following his election to the Senate, Obama expressed appreciation for the support of Trinity UCCs members. The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Trinity UCC, is one of Obamas close spiritual advisors and is credited with giving inspiration to the title of Obamas bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope. Obama says he first heard Wright use the phrase in one of his stirring sermons.
Trinity UCC has been a true community to me a place in which the mind, heart and soul come together to celebrate God&'s goodness, Obama told United Church News in 2004.
The UCC is a Cleveland, Ohio-based denomination of more than 5,700 congregations, located in all 50 states. Often confused with the much-different Churches of Christ, the United Church of Christ is one of the oldest and youngest church bodies in the United States.
Formed by name in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the UCCs roots in American history are deep. Eleven signers of the Declaration of Independence were from UCC traditions, and a full 10 percent of present-day UCC congregations were formed prior to 1776.
Many UCC churches trace their founding to the early 1600s, when the Pilgrims and Puritans first came to America. These Congregationalists, as they became known, sought religious independence from persecuting political authorities in Europe. They believed firmly in local church autonomy, covenantal church life, personal piety and the priesthood of all believers.
Today, the UCC holds firmly to these early religious tenets. Often recognized for its historical and contemporary social justice commitments, its present-day approach to worship, however,might be considered traditional by most standards.
Interestingly, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, published in 2002, found that UCC members, slightly more than members of other mainline denominations, listed traditional hymns and biblically-sound preaching as being essential to good worship. Surprising to some, the same study also found that slightly more UCC members self-identified as conservative rather than liberal a tidbit that President Calvin Coolidge, a conservative Republican and the nations only Congregationalist president (1923-1929), might have found interesting.
Although each congregations liturgical style is influenced by its heritage and members preferences, as is true in most mainline denominations, the UCC, as one pastor aptly put it, is known for its beautiful, heady and exasperating mix.
Known for arriving early on social justice issues, the churchs history includes being the first to practice democracy in church governance (1630), the first to ordain an African-American pastor (1785), the first to ordain a woman (1853), the first to ordain an openly gay man (1972), and the first to support same-gender marriage equality (2005).
In 1773, Old South UCC in Boston helped inspire the Boston Tea Party and, in 1777, Old Zion Reformed UCC in Allentown, Pa., hid the Liberty Bell from occupying British forces.
Hundreds of schools including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Howard, Fisk, Wellesley, Smith and Oberlin owe their beginnings to the UCC. The UCCs publishing company, The Pilgrim Press, is the oldest publisher of books in North America.
Obama and his family live in Chicagos Hyde Park neighborhood, which is home to Chicago Theological Seminary, one of the UCCs seven seminaries and the citys oldest institution of higher education.
Largely regarded as a northern church, about 80 percent of UCC members are clustered in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. The UCC is the largest Protestant church in New England, the birthplace of Congregationalism, and it has more than 700 churches in Pennsylvania, the heart of the German Reformed tradition. The UCC is also strong in New York, Missouri, Florida, Hawaii and the Pacific West Coast.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with early Presidential contests, the UCC has 188 and 138 congregations respectively.
In recent years, the UCC has posted growth in the South. The denominations second largest church, the 5,500-member Victory UCC near Atlanta, affiliated with the UCC in 2002. The UCCs fourth-largest, the 4,300-member Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, joined in 2006, as did churches in Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Columbia, S.C., among other places.
Last year, the UCC launched its national Nehemiah Project with plans to start or welcome at least 250 new southern churches within five years.
While Obama looks to be the only UCC candidate in the 2008 presidential election, the 2004 campaign included two UCC members, both Democrats. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chair of the Democratic Party, is a member of First Congregational UCC in Burlington, Vt., and then U.S. Senator Bob Graham is a member of Miami Lakes Congregational UCC in Florida.
The current U.S. Congress includes 10 UCC members five Republicans and five Democrats.
Five U.S. Senators are UCC Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Obama.
Five House seats are occupied by UCC members: Thelma Drake (R-Va.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).
Other notable UCC members include New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D); former U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.); actress Lynn Redgrave; current U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall; Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper columnists Connie Schultz (and wife of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio) and Leonard Pitts Jr.; and Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Gilead.
The Rev. Andrew Young former congressman, U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor is an ordained UCC minister, who began his Civil Rights activism working for the UCC.
The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the legendary social activist who became immortalized as the pastor in Gary Trudeaus Doonesbury comic strip, had ministerial standing in the UCC and served as pastor of the UCCs Riverside Church in New York.
The Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, a UCC minister considered to be one of greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century, authored the now-famous Serenity Prayer.
Journey UCC will meet at a restaurant in Prairieville, La., in a building generally used for weddings and other public events. The new-church start comes at a time when many who once lived in southern Louisiana have moved north into the Baton Rouge area, following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"We have put in months of work and are excited about establishing the only UCC church in what is now the largest city in Louisiana," wrote Malcolm Richard, one of the church's founders, in an email to Conference and National church leaders. "I'm excited, but also nervous. Someone called church planting the 'extreme sport of Christianity.' It has and will be a ride!"
The UCC has only 16 churches in Louisiana, with most being located in the New Orleans area. Funds from the UCC's post-Katrina "Hope Shall Bloom" special offering are being used, in part, to supplement the new-church start.
"God has given me a vision for reaching the unchurched and hurting people of our area," Richard said.
Richard asks that UCC members across the country who know of potential worshipers in the Baton Rouge area to contact him at email@example.com.
Early this week I read a memorial tribute to Dale Turner, a colleague in the United Church of Christ who had a distinguished career in Seattle as pastor of University Congregational Church and as a columnist for The Seattle Times for over twenty years. I was struck by a quote attributed to Dale reflecting on his willingness to speak out on tough moral issues, including support for the civil rights movement and for the rights of gay and lesbian persons, and opposition to the Vietnam War. Dale said, "A divided church that stands for something is better than a united church that stands for nothing." That's a challenging and provocative statement. And I can hear most of you saying what I found myself thinking, "yes, but. . . ." Yet doesn't this statement capture in a compelling way what we've been struggling with as a church? Yearning for unity? Seeking to stand for a world of justice and peace? Can't we have it all? A divided church that stands for something is better than a united church that stands for nothing. How about a united church that stands for something?
The source of this quote was not, by the way, a harsh, stern, unbending prophet, caring more for agendas than for people, but a pastor deeply admired for his compassion for all. Other words attributed to him include this admonition: "Be kind. Everyone you meet is carrying a heavy burden." He once said his guiding belief was that "when we draw closer to one another, we draw closer to the God that created us all." No, by all accounts this was a kind and caring pastor who reached out to folks at both ends of the political, economic, and ideological spectrum. He loved the church and he cared for its health and its wholeness. But when it came to the great moral issues of his day, he would not sacrifice principle for placidness. How is it that we bear witness to the unity of Christ's church which is, after all, an article of our confession, not simply a product of our labors? And how do we do that in the midst of the call to address complex moral and political issues that divide us, each wielding what seem to us to be authoritative interpretations of Scripture? As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the United Church of Christ, the enduring question we have wrestled with has been this: "How can we be a united church that stands for something?"
This is not a new problem in America where we mix our belief that the Bible is authoritative on all matters of faith and practice with our high regard for individual freedom that is reluctant to grant any interpreter ultimate authority. Mark Noll, in a new book on theological issues in the Civil War, shares an outsider's perspective on the American Protestant dilemma:
In their perceptions of the theological crisis of the Civil War, foreign observers clearly identified a significant issue. How, in fact, are Bible believers, especially Protestant Bible believers, supposed to act in harmony when interpretations of the Bible seem to fly nearly everywhere - when as the Europeans put it in the 1860's, there is no "respected authority," no "respect for the established orders and authorities? (Mark Noll, The Civil War as Theological Crisis.)The subject here is slavery. But almost any other hot-button issue could replace it. And has! If everyone has equal access to the Bible, and if there is no single, "respected authority," how can we expect to avoid endless division? In our weariness over church fights, when "interpretations of the Bible fly everywhere," standing for something can seem too costly and unity grows seductive. Remember Rodney King's famous plea? "Can't we all just get along?"
Fifty years ago the General Council of the Congregational Christian Church met for its final meeting in Omaha, Nebraska. It was the meeting that authorized the election of delegates to the uniting General Synod in Cleveland the following year, the meeting that finally brought to a close the long years of struggle to give birth to the United Church of Christ. We tend to imagine the 1950's as a simpler time in American church life, but to read the minutes of the General Council is to experience a meeting as full of contention and controversy as any General Synod since - including Atlanta!
The vast majority of delegates were eager to move toward authorizing the union with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. But a significant and very stubborn minority resisted to the end. They demanded that the minutes of the Executive Committee of the General Council for the previous two years be made available, not merely the summary they had been given. Having heard that President James Wagner of the Evangelical and Reformed Church had been given "assurances" of some kind by the Council, these dissidents were convinced secret agreements had been made and that their precious liberties as Congregationalists had been sold down the river to the stereotypical "Herr Pastors" of the German church. No amount of response from the Moderator could assuage their suspicions, so they went to what was, in the context of that meeting, to the "nuclear option." They dangled the threat of another lawsuit. This caught the attention of the leadership which remembered all too well the decade long delay caused by the Cadman vs. Kenyon law suit in the 1940's. So the Council delegates were reconvened at ten p.m. following worship and sat through the night until 7:45 in the morning hearing the minutes read aloud. One delegate lamented what this all must look like to "our Evangelical and Reformed" brethren, whose long-suffering over these squabbles was surely wearing thin. We haven't had that much excitement at a Synod in a long time!
But it wasn't just conflict over matters ecclesiastical. Debates raged over a resolution about an "Unsegregated Church in an Unsegregated Society," which included the call for a consultation with all Congregational institutions, particularly in the south, to press forward the cause of desegregation. A resolution was passed expressing outrage that one of the Black delegates had been denied accommodation in an Omaha hotel, and lively debate centered around whether or not to take an offering and pursue legal action against the hotel. (Some of you know that we are in the midst of labor issues with hotels in Hartford as we prepare for our 50th anniversary Synod. The more things change, the more they stay the same!) Delegates passed a strong resolution denouncing the tactics of McCarthyism, naming the violation of civil rights going on in the frenzied context of rabid anti-communism. Think about how all of this must have played in the genteel south, or in America's heartland back in 1956. They even welcomed to their podium as a keynote speaker, the Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union! I'm not sure I'm brave enough, or foolish enough, to try that!
The point of this little tour through one part of our history is simply this: There has never been a time in our life as a church when conflict has been absent from our life. In the 17th century our forebears in England gathered congregations of dissenters, separatists and Puritans who stood for a church that would be distinguishable from the culture religion of the established church. Later in that same century they struggled in New England over the question of who could be baptized, and they lived with a tense, uneasy compromise called "the Half-Way Covenant." In the 18th century some stood for their orthodox, Trinitarian faith against the rise of Unitarianism, and as a result saw a "great departure" of their churches and even their beloved Harvard, a set of departures far more extensive than anything we have experienced in this past year since General Synod. In the 19th century German Reformed theologians at Mercersburg Seminary in Pennsylvania stood for the integrity of the liturgy and the role of the catechism against the enthusiasms of the revival tent and the anxious bench, and in the process provoked what came to be known as the Mercersburg Controversy that included the use of the heavily freighted word "heresy," not a comfortable word in the culture of our United Church of Christ.
In that same century one of our congregations ordained Antoinette Brown as the first woman pastor in North America. Yet what we celebrate today as a principled stand for the full equality of woman was mocked and derided in the official Congregational newspapers in Boston. A few days before her ordination Antoinette wrote a friend, "People are beginning to stop laughing and get mad." If you read carefully the bylaws of Congregational churches organized in the 1840's and 50's, you will find that many of them were organized by abolitionists. The bylaws of those churches not only refused to admit slaveholders to membership, they also rejected anyone who would not condemn slavery. New Englanders who went to Kansas went to stand against those who would turn that territory into a slave state. The famous name of one of our congregations there, the "Beecher Bible and Rifle Church," testifies to the conflicts in Bloody Kansas that engulfed our churches as they sought to stand for something.
In the twentieth century our church gave formal support to conscientious objectors, not just during the Vietnam conflict, but during the Second World War as well. We stood for the rights of African Americans in the south to see their faces on television news and to hear their stories reported. We stood with migrant farm workers in California, marching with Cesar Chavez even when some of the farm owners were members of our own churches. We took a stand to ordain an openly gay man over thirty years ago, and have been standing with gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons ever since as they seek full membership in church and society. We took a stand for language in our liturgies and in our hymns that would embrace both women and men. We took a stand against the militarization of right wing paramilitary groups and oppressive dictatorships in Central America during the 1980's. We have consistently taken a stand for the people of Palestine, for their rights to a viable nation and a capital in Jerusalem, even when that has been heard by Jewish friends and neighbors as taking a stand against their beloved Israel. We took a stand against the wall that separated Germany east and west by entering into relationship with the Evangelical Church of the Union, a stand that literally involved us in clandestine border crossings during the Cold War and that played its own little part in the tearing down of that wall.
Standing for something. All of this has involved a cost, and that cost has been conflict and tension in the life of our church. We have sensed it intensely in recent months again. And what has made this difficult for us is that at the same time we have not been willing to relinquish our vision of unity. Ours is not a sectarian piety that signals to those who disagree, "leave." The ecumenical vocation that fired the imagination of our founders still holds sway for most of us. For all our commitment to being a church that stands for justice, a church that works for peace, we remain a church yearning to embody Jesus' prayer "that they may all be one." We want to be, feel called to be a united church that stands for something.
At the Fifth World Conference on Faith and Order in Santiago de Compostela in 1993, Mary Tanner, an Anglican theologian, reminded us that "tension and even conflict will always be part of the life of the church this side of the kingdom." And then she challenged the church:
We are called to stick with the pain of difference and live through it: "Sharp things that divide us can paradoxically turn out to be gift. . . The world with all its divisions is not used to such a possibility as this: that those on opposing sides should stay together, bear each other's burdens, even enter one another's pain." If we are able, by grace, to live together in visible communion while bearing the cost of difference, never again saying "I have no need of you," we shall get hold, at a deeper level, of a communion with a God who suffers and we shall be rewarded with an experience of reconciliation and unity grounded in the unity of God the Holy Trinity at whose heart is forever a cross. (Mary Tanner, "The Time Has Come," Ecumenical Review, January 1993)The vision of unity that the Gospel of John offers is of a Christ who, when he is lifted up, will draw all men and women to himself. But it is not to some happy conviviality that we are drawn; it is to the cross on which Jesus is lifted that we are also drawn. If the Trinity is, in a sense, an icon of the unity in diversity we aspire to image in our own life, then we must never forget that at the heart of that Trinity is forever a cross.
Letter after letter has come to my desk over the past several months complaining that I or the General Synod has eagerly and thoughtlessly introduced conflict into the life of the church. I do think some people in our churches really believe that leaders in the United Church of Christ and its General Synod cavalierly and recklessly seek to stir the pot just to get publicity and attention. We may have been the first mainline denomination to call for the extending of the rights, privileges, and disciplines of marriage to persons of all sexual orientations. But believe me, being first was not what this was all about. There would have been far easier races to win or medals to wear. This was about standing for something at a time when much of our nation would stand against. But not just standing for something; standing for people in our churches, in our communities, in our families who yearn to receive the blessing, and to live within the discipline of the church and its sacraments and rites.
Standing for something. While controversy over sex swirls around us, the war in Iraq continues. Conceived in arrogance and deception, pursued with an unholy enthusiasm rather than lament, it continues to consume our beloved children and sow destruction and disruption throughout the land we are allegedly redeeming, a place where civilian deaths are even hard to number. Horrible things are happening and we are doing some of those things. But what should we have expected? That's what war is, what war does, even to our own noble sons and daughters. Neighbors throughout the world who embraced us with profound love and compassion after the terrorist attacks of September 11 now eye us with suspicion and fear, a dangerous nation bent on empire. My son just finished basic training for the Pennsylvania National Guard. What once seemed rather abstract now cuts a bit closer. Will he be called up? Lynda and I worry that he might be put in harms way. But we also worry that he will be faced with an agonizing moral choice in the murky ambiguity of battle, a choice that could follow him throughout his life.
Yet are we standing for something? I fear that most of our congregations shrink back from doing much more than pray for the victims - our troops, the people of Iraq. To stand for something might mean conflict, tension, even division. Can we bear any more of that? But is this not a shrinking back from the cross, which lies at the very heart of the Trinity whose feast day is tomorrow? About thirty five years ago as the war in Vietnam was drawing toward its bloody conclusion, with the tragedies of Kent State, the incursions into Cambodia, and the deceptions of another administration growing more and more evident, I came home on spring break from college filled with the certainty, the conviction, and I suppose the arrogance of youth, and told my pastor that I wanted to read a statement about the war to the congregation. I still can't believe I did it, and looking back through the lens of my own life as a pastor, I can't quite believe he let me do it! As I finished my passionate and, I thought, prophetic plea, I looked down and saw the parents of my two best friends in h gh school, Bob and Eleanor. Their sons were now marines, serving in Vietnam. It was a charged moment, filled with sudden apprehension, one of those "Oh my God, what have I done?" moments. Yet these were the two who first came to embrace me, not arguing a point, or offering a dissent, but embracing me. Can we be that kind of church? "Sharp things that divide us can paradoxically turn out to be gift. The world with all its divisions is not used to such a possibility as this: that those on opposing sides should stay together, bear each other's burdens, even enter one another's pain."
A divided church, a church enduring conflict because it stands for something is better than a united church that stands for nothing. The great irony of the ecclesiastical landscape today is that churches that have quite deliberately avoided taking a stand on the issue of gay marriage or the ordination of partnered gay and lesbian people are enduring just as much conflict as we are in the United Church of Christ. Is this the warning to Laodicea in the Revelation of John? "I know your works, you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth." Some of you know that I have found great insight in the novel, Gilead, written by United Church of Christ author, Marilyn Robinson. Her narrator is a sensitive rural pastor in Iowa, writing a letter to his son. He recalls his best sermon, one that he never preached. It was about the First World War, and his own sense that the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the country with tragic loss, killing more soldiers than bullets were, was a sign of judgment about our warring madness:
The parents of these young soldiers would come to me and ask me how the Lord could allow their sons to be killed by the flu. I felt like asking them what the Lord would have to do to tell us He didn't allow something. But instead I would comfort them by saying we would never know what their young men had been spared. Most of them took me to mean they were spared the trenches and the mustard gas, but what I really meant was that they were spared the act of killing. . . . So I wrote a sermon about it. I said that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers. And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord's judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and grace of God. It was quite a sermon, I believe, but my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was. . . . I wish I had kept it, because I meant every word. It might have been the only sermon I wouldn't mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it. But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.Each of us, like this thoughtful and wonderful pastor, know the difficulty of "standing." As Bonhoeffer once wrote, we know well our capacity to "heroically extricate ourselves from the affairs of the day." Or as the hymn puts it, "our will to dare great things for God," often collides headlong into "the courage that we lack." Are we willing to sacrifice standing for something in the face of conflict and division?
Finally, at the end, we come to our Conference theme: "Neighbors at Christ's Table." It reminds us that our unity is not to be found in agreement, but in the Christ who makes himself present to us in the breaking of bread. We sometimes forget, I think, that this sacrament, this holy sign, has at its center the same cross that is the heart of the Holy Trinity. At the table we do not come to eat together as a happy family. We come to announce: "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." At the table the broken family breaks the bread of the broken Christ. We are neighbors at the table of Christ's passion, not just friendly next door neighbors. That makes this meal both a hard meal to swallow, and a blessed meal to consume. It is a table for neighbors who are ready to stand for something, even when that makes unity elusive, and conflict real. Ultimately we can only be a united church while simultaneously being a church that stands for something when we experience life together under the Word, a life together around the Word made flesh.
At that General Council meeting in Omaha fifty years ago this month, James Wagner addressed the Congregationalists. He talked about the way succeeding generations like ours might assess the worth of the union they had just authorized:
The real worth and validity of this union in the sight of God will eventually be measured by how profoundly and with what deepening devotion we set about getting God's work done in this world. If by the witness of our united churches the world's broken-hearted find hope and healing, the grieving have the comfort and consolations of grace made real, the aged discover that "at evening time it shall be light"; if young men and women are wisely guided in the choices they must make and strengthened when they have chosen the hard right against the easy wrong"; if men and women in the midst of life's struggle are made "strong in the Lord and in the power of His might"; if the imperatives of God's justice and love are brought effectually to bear on the relationships of men in our workaday world and of nations wrestling with the promises and the peril of power - that is, not in devising new and grandiose schemes for making the world better, but in doing better the age old ministries to which priest and prophet have always given themselves - then time and the event and the silent whispers of the Eternal God will confirm our present faith that the establishment of the United Church of Christ was the doing of His will.I would edit Dale Turner's provocative words to say this: A church in conflict that stands for something is better than a happy and comfortable church that stands for nothing. At our best, for fifty years, and for all the years of our predecessors before, we have often chosen the hard right against the easy wrong. Simply put, we who cherish unity, both our own and that of the larger church, have also attempted to stand for something. And it has brought us to the heart of the Gospel. There's not always much fun in this as many of us have discovered this year. It's a hard path, full of bitterness and strife. Yet Mary Tanner is right: Sharp things that divide us can paradoxically turn out to be gift. So we live as neighbors at the Table, seeking as she puts it "to get hold, at a deeper level, of a communion with a God who suffers," anticipating the reward of an "experience of reconciliation and unity grounded in the unity of God the Holy Trinity at whose heart is forever a cross." Let it be so.
The board of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwestvoted unanimously on May 11 to part ways with the denomination. Less than two weeks earlier, church delegates within the group voted 1,125-209 to recommend the board move to sever ties.
The California group will now use the name Transformation Ministries and will sever ties by Nov. 1. The decision affects about 300 churches affiliated with the denomination in Southern California, Nevada, Arizona and Hawaii.
Leaders of the Valley Forge, Pa.-based denomination, which claims 1.4 members in the United States, have anticipated this decision but reacted with sadness to Thursday's vote.
"This is not a happy day for American Baptists," said the Rev. Robert Roberts, a spokesman for the denomination. "We will all be left weaker by this, in my judgment, and so it's a very sad day."
Asked if other regional groups are likely to follow suit, the Rev. Dale Salico, executive minister of the Pacific Southwest churches, said: "It's possible, but I really can't speak for others."
Roberts said other regions have voiced similar concerns, but said no other regional body has "moved as deliberately" as the California churches.
Last September, the board of the California churches approved a statement that said "deep differences of theological convictions and values" between the region and the denomination are "irreconcilable."
Its members believe the denomination has not enforced a resolution that states "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."
"The inability of the denomination to adequately implement (the policy) was one of the factors," said Salico, whose office is in Covina, Calif., outside Los Angeles.
Salico also cited differences over the authority of Scripture and the accountability of local churches. "When churches are as far apart as we are with ABCUSA, it makes mission really difficult," he said.
"We want to just concentrate on those areas that we're called to be in ministry with and not to be constantly engaged in a struggle within the denomination."
Salico said his organization will continue to send missions-related funding designated to the American Baptist mission efforts by local churches, but an annual administration fee of about $150,000 will end.
Denominational officials said individual churches must also vote if they wish to break ties.
"One of the things that brings us some hope is that there are a number of churches out there that have indicated that they will stay with American Baptists," Roberts said.
"There are enough of them that they will form a new American Baptist association."
Roberts said this is a new dimension for divides within his denomination. In the 1930s, the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches split from the American Baptists, who were then known as the Northern Baptist Convention.
"We've had splits before and we have actually lost many churches in an area before, but it's the first time a regional group has left the denomination," he said.
The divide in this faith group is reflected in other Protestant churches, especially the Episcopal Church, that have battled over homosexuality, autonomy and biblical authority.
"We're in a tug of war that's caught all Christendom, which is the tug of war between right and center," Roberts said.
The Rev. A. Roy Medley, the American Baptists' general secretary, said in November that the debate over homosexuality "tears my soul."
The Rev. Ken Pennings, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, said he felt a "sense of peace" about the Pacific Southwest decision because it allows the region and remaining denominational members "to move on in directions we feel are consistent with our own faith and testimony."
Rather than viewing it as an omen for other faith groups, he said it is an "inevitable" part of a process that can lead to more inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life.
"There'll be people who feel they must cut themselves off from people with whom they disagree rather than build bridges toward them," he said.
Thank you, Curtis! And thank you, search committee and board of directors of Wider Church Ministries for this amazing opportunity!
All the time...God is great!
- as Executive Minister for Wider Church Ministries! And,
- as Co-Executive of our Global Ministries with David Vargas of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). And,
- as an officer of this church along with the other four members of the Collegium whom I so deeply respect and admire.
Through affiliation with TV One, a new cable/satellite television network devoted to programming primarily geared to African-American audiences, Trinity UCC's regular worship services are now able to reach a national audience.
The new "All the People" ad may be viewed at www.stillspeaking.com.