United Church of Christ

United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grant Ordained Ministerial Partnership Standing to each other's national leaders

In a move that forges a stronger relationship between the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and that celebrates 25 years of their ecumenical partnership, key national leaders in both denominations now have standing in the respective partner church, and are considered ordained ministers by both churches.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president; the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister for Local Church Ministries; the Rev. James Moos, executive minister for Wider Church Ministries; the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, minister for ecumenical and interfaith relations; and the Rev. Holly MillerShank, minister and team leader of the Ministerial, Excellence, Support & Authorization (MESA) team recently were recently granted this special category of standing by the Disciples of Christ.

The Rev. Sharon Watkins, Disciples general minister and president; the Rev. Julia Brown Karimu, president of the Division of Overseas Ministries; the Rev. Ron Degges, president of Disciples Home Missions; the Rev. Timothy James, associate general minister and administrative secretary of the National Convocation and the Rev. Robert Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity were approved for ministerial partnership by the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference.

"Ordained ministerial partner standing is not new," said Karen Georgia Thompson. "What is new is the deepening of this relationship with the Disciples through the intentionality of these leaders holding this standing as a sign of the commitment to the relationship between the two churches."

This action means each of the UCC and Disciples ministers are now recognized, and will be listed in the yearbooks of the two denominations, as ordained ministers in the partner denomination "with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities pertaining thereto."

"I am really excited about the possibilities that are signalled by this deepening relationship between the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ," said Geoffrey Black. "Working jointly on our shared mission only makes us a stronger, more unified presence."

According to the UCC's Manual on Ministry and the Disciples' Policies and Criteria for Ordered Ministry, the UCC and the Disciples of Christ recognize the ordained ministers of the other church to be effective ministers of grace within that church and these ministries to be valid and full ministries of one Church of Jesus Christ. The ordained ministries of the UCC and the Disciples of Christ are reconciled –– meaning an ordained minister in one church may function, whenever invited and as established procedures permit, as an ordained minister in the other.

The commitment to pursue ordained ministerial partnership for core leadership came out of the 2011 meeting of the UCC-Disciples National Partnership Committee. The committee thought this would be a significant and historic moment in the life of the partnership.

"I wish to express our joy in this concrete act giving expression to our 25 years of ecumenical partnership and recognizing our shared ministry within the one church of Jesus Christ," said Robert Welsh, chief ecumenical officer for the Disciples of Christ and president of the Council on Christian Unity. 

"This is a learning experience," said Thompson of the first in a possible series of joint policy classes, "as both denominations think strategically of who and where this type of joint standing would be beneficial to the life of this partnership, as we move into celebration of 25 years together and plans for where the partnership grows in the future."

The UCC and the Disciples already have a shared staffing model in place in Wyoming and Montana –– UCC Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference Minister the Rev. Marc Ian Stewart and DOC regional minister the Rev. Ruth Fletcher serve churches of both denominations closest to their respective offices.   They also celebrate joint ministerial standing with the national leaders of both denominations.

These new relationships will be publicly recognized and celebrated during the UCC General Synod on June 28 in Long Beach, Calif., and during a worship service July 14 as part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly, July 13-17 in Orlando, Fla.


UCC minister offers progressive praise and worship music for download

A United Church of Christ pastor in Chicago working on a liturgy of rock oriented worship music around themes of justice, peace and extravagant welcome is getting a lot of support for his project from ministerial colleagues around the denomination. The Rev. Rob Leveridge, pastor of First United Church in Oak Park, Ill., is offering free downloads for the use of three songs he has already recorded, and is well on his way to raising the additional funds he needs to finish professionally recording the additional 10 tracks.

"I've always enjoyed praise music, especially the exultation of it, and the way it captures a deep love for God," said Leveridge, a member of the UCC's 2030 Clergy network. "But as a pastor in a very progressive church, I looked for praise music that talks more in-depth about the activity of God, moving people toward justice, peace and radical welcome. I found a small group of songwriters making this kind of music, and realized God was calling me to contribute as well –– I'm writing songs to be as fun, catchy, energetic and open-hearted as possible."

"Rob's utterly delightful and singable melodies enhance the growing movement of musical works, including the ‘Sing' Praise Songbook for progressive, welcoming, inclusive and justice minded congregations," said the Rev. David Schoen, team leader for the UCC's Congregational vitality ministry.

This summer, Leveridge is planning to release a CD and songbook of worship songs as a resource to faith communities, titled "Dancing On The Mountain." The title comes from the 65th chapter of the book of Isaiah, which describes a divine future on God's holy mountain, where communities thrive in peace and mutual enrichment. But his project depends on the successful conclusion of his very creative fundraising campaign via kickstarter.com.

Leveridge, part of a growing number of musicians and worship leaders creating praise songs and liturgical rock music that speaks to the heart of faith with inclusive language, social relevance and theological depth said when that he conceived of the project he realized that the music would have a greater impact if he could get his work professionally recorded with the assistance of a high-caliber record producer. So he initially raised enough money to record three songs at Soundcake studios in Chicago, and set a $14,000 goal to record the rest of the album. With just a few days left in his fundraising campaign, it looks like Leveridge will be back in the studio soon.

"We are excited to support the project, because Rob's music will energize and enhance any worship of God through word, deed and song," said the Rev. Steve Angel, of Eden UCC in Chicago, one of more than 200 backers who've pledged funds to the project. "The church needs fresh words to sing, and Rob's words to God are sung from the heart!"

A sample of Rob Leveridge's lyrics:
For every act of goodwill defying
All that hate intends
For every kindness and understanding
Changing foes to friends
For every choosing of peaceful measures
Bringing wars to end,
Let the voice of praise be heard this day!
 –– from the song, "The Voice of Praise," off the upcoming CD, "Dancing On The Mountain"

The Rev. Luke Lindon of Sylvania United Church of Christ in Sylvania, Ohio is another enthusiastic supporter. "Our church is excited to support Rob's project because we feel that modern praise music often neglects the themes of justice, inclusion, and liberation," Linden said. "We are excited to support music that shares the same theological outlook as our community!" 

Learn more about the project or to download three songs from Rob's new album for free, as well as get lyrics and notation, at www.robleveridge.com.

Rob says that pledges that take him beyond his $14,000 goal will be invested in the production of CDs and songbooks for distribution to churches. He hopes to have the material ready for circulation later this summer.

"I've been thrilled by the support I've received –– hundreds of people from across the country have made pledges and helped to spread the word about the project," Leveridge said. "It's a shared ministry –– I'm the one who's penned the lyrics, but the calling and strength have come from God, and the resources and encouragement have come from a great cloud of witnesses! I can't tell you how grateful I am."




UCC, reformed tradition churches celebrate baptism agreement alongside Roman Catholic Church

The United Church of Christ and three other reformed tradition churches joined the U.S. Roman Catholic Church to sign a historic agreement this week as the denominations will recognize each other's baptismal rites and celebrated the commitment publicly for the first time.

The formal agreement, known as the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism," is the product of seven rounds of discussions among the UCC, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Presbyterian Church (USA), Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.

The Rev. Elizabeth Nash, an associate minister for the UCC's South Central Conference, signed the document for the denomination at the national meeting of Christian Churches Together in Austin, Texas.

The UCC Minister for Ecumenical Relations Karen Georgia Thompson said the move is a step forward for the work among the sides. "The fact that there was actually an agreement between the Reformed Churches and the Roman Catholic Church is helpful to a lot of folks in the UCC and Roman Catholic Church," Thompson said. "Many families live in more than one tradition, so it's helpful that families can be united in a common understanding of baptism."

The UCC is part of the reformed tradition, Thompson said, because it was formed in 1957 through a union of the Congregational Christian churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

"The dialogue between the reformed church and the Roman Catholics goes back 40 years, and there's been a commitment from the UCC to be part of that dialogue," Thompson said. "There have been several rounds of dialogues, and each round has been a different topic. In the last round (Round 7), the conversation was around Eucharist and baptism. The mutual recognition we are celebrating here came out of that dialogue."

The agreement was first approved by the UCC at the 2011 General Synod in Tampa, a moment Thompson described as "significant" in affirming the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism" signed by President and General Minister the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black.

Thompson and Nash were joined in Austin by the Rev. Sidney Fowler, a pastor at First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., as the UCC's representatives to the Christian Churches Together meeting.

Before the agreement, the Reformed Protestant churches had recognized the baptisms performed in Catholic traditions, but the Catholic Church had not accepted theirs.

"I don't think we, as the UCC, haven't recognized the baptism of others, but through mutuality, the Roman Catholic recognition of the way we perform baptisms in our church is significant," Fowler said. "It's reciprocal, and refreshing."

Fowler said the recognition of baptism represents "the reformed community coming together and appreciating each other, and our differences, in a new way. It allows us to go into a new dialogue with a new sense of communion."


UCC Church House to celebrate Black History Month with worship, workshops

Educate and celebrate. That's the inspiration behind the February observance of Black History Month by employees at the national offices of the United Church of Christ. The UCC's Black History Committee has planned an array of events and activities nearly every day during the month of February, featuring guest preachers at weekly worship services in the Church House’s Amistad Chapel.

But the experience of celebrating Black History Month isn’t limited to worship and allows a wide variety of participation.

"By offering different types of events and activities, we hope to provide shared educational opportunities," said Phyllis Richards, one of the members on the UCC's Black History Committee. "Our colleagues can participate at a time that is convenient for them. They can choose events that appeal to them, whether it is something they already like to do such as beading, poetry, food sampling or something new they would like to learn — like West African drumming."

Poetry reading, a day of soul-food sampling, a film festival and other events to incorporate African culture are all part of the entertainment. The UCC has also created a page of prayers, reflections, people profiles and resources on ways to commemorate Black History Month no matter where you are.

The committee sought to create a "shared experience" among its colleagues who choose to get involved in Black History Month observances, Richards said. "They can select the activities that suit them. Hopefully, we are providing something fun for everyone, as well as to help them learn more about African-American history and culture," she added.

Local TV news anchor Leon Bibb of Cleveland’s WEWS TV5 headlines a coffee house poetry day on Feb. 5. Bibb, a UCC member, will perform his original poetry (complete with costume changes) based on his past experiences as a reporter, Vietnam veteran and family memories.

A week later, the Church House will dish up soul food with a Mardi Gras flair on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 12), followed with a handful of movie screenings from Feb. 14-22 of documentaries on black culture and history.

The first of four Wednesday worship services is Feb. 6, as local vocalist Pat Harris performs a selection of songs in an all-music service; On Feb. 13, UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey Black will offer reflections on Ash Wednesday, and a week later Black History Committee member Gloria Otis, who works in Congregational Vitality & Discipleship Ministries, will preach. For the Feb. 27 service, Barbara Ferguson Kamara is a guest speaker. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer to Liberia, and an appointee by President Carter to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.


Celebrating the legacy of Everett Parker on his 100th birthday

The Rev. Everett C. Parker, founder of the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, is celebrating a milestone on his birthday Jan. 17, as he turns 100 years old.

Under his leadership, OC was the first church agency to combine press, broadcasting, film, research and educational functions under one head, a practice widely copied by other religious bodies. The UCC's current Office of Communication, Inc. continues Parker's legacy as a leading force in the struggle to ensure that women, persons of color and low-income persons have equal access to ownership, production, employment, and decision-making in media.

"Just as the UCC stands as a beacon of leadership on social justice, from the environment to peace to equality in gender, race, and marriage, the UCC is also founder of the media justice movement," said Cheryl Leanza, current policy advisor of OC, Inc. "Dr. Parker, as the UCC's first communications director, understood in 1957 what we know more strongly today — without a just and accountable media, social justice goals are that much harder to achieve."

Nowhere has Parker's effect on media justice been felt more than in broadcasting. At the urging of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew first-hand of the lack of African Americans portrayed positively on television throughout the South, Parker petitioned the FCC to deny the license renewal of WLBT, the local station in Jackson, Miss. The FCC denied the petition. Parker took the matter to court, and over the next five years, the courts ruled that the broadcast industry did serve the public interest. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated WLBT's license on the grounds that it had violated the public trust and was therefore guilty of breach of duty.

Under Parker's leadership, OC also successfully petitioned the FCC to adopt EEO regulations, which leveled the playing field for women and persons of color, both on camera and in broadcast management.

"His work will truly stand for generations as millions will be reminded that he demanded that the "public" remain in control of the public interest and that all share in the ownership of the airwaves in spite of who may from time to time be responsible as stewards by our government," said Earl Williams, chair of the OC, Inc. board.

One of Parker's most successful public relations campaigns was the exoneration of the Wilmington Ten, nine young black men and a white woman who were falsely convicted of arson and conspiracy during racial turmoil at the Wilmington, N.C., high school in 1971. Their efforts to have black students treated equally with whites were led by Benjamin F. Chavis, a UCC employee.

As communication director, Parker mounted a public relations campaign in the world press that brought attention and embarrassment to North Carolina and the United States. The warden complained to the governor about the bad press, as did the U.S. State Department. Eventually, the members of the Wilmington Ten were freed by a federal court. Forty years later, the case was finally resolved. On Dec. 31, 2012, group members were granted pardons of innocence by then-governor of North Carolina, Beverly Purdue.

UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black celebrated "Parker's direct role in advocating and initiating the United Church of Christ's engagement in support of the Wilmington Ten. It took a while, but today we are celebrating the exoneration of those young people who were wrongly accused and unjustly convicted in 1972. I feel fortunate to be serving in a time that has been so significantly touched by his life's work."

As the director of the Office of Communication of the UCC from 1954 to 1983, Parker played a key role in ensuring American media accountability in the public interest. His leadership in the development of influential media reform aimed to improve employment prospects for women and persons of color in broadcasting.

"As the current director of the UCC's Publishing, Identity and Communication Ministry, I am well aware of the legacy of Parker's ministry to this office," said Ann Poston. "If it weren't for his important work in equal opportunities for persons of color and — especially in my case — women, I might not be in this position."

The Parker Lecture, hosted annually by the United Church of Christ's Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), was created in 1982 to recognize Parker's pioneering work as an advocate for the public's rights in broadcasting. Poston said, "In standing with oppressed people against the tyranny of broadcasters who felt they owed nothing to the public, Parker carved the path for all media justice work to follow."

Learn more about the Rev. Everett Parker's work, and OC, Inc.
                                                           


UCC celebrates pardons of Wilmington Ten 40 years after wrongful conviction

It took 40 years, but the stain of a false conviction has finally been lifted. The Wilmington Ten, justice activists who became political prisoners in North Carolina in 1972 for a crime they didn’t commit, got their pardon from the state’s governor. After decades of persistence, UCC leaders past and present now say, finally, justice has prevailed.

"[The announcement was] breathtaking news to me and surely to many around the nation and the world," said Avery Post, who was president of the UCC from 1977 to 1989. "My guess is that others, like me, went suddenly quiet with gratitude for the courage and persistence of those who worked over 40 years for this extraordinary moment of justice."

North Carolina’s outgoing governor, Beverly Perdue, issued the pardons on Monday, Dec. 31, citing new evidence in the case.

The Wilmington Ten, the name by which the group of nine black men and one white woman became known, was wrongly convicted four decades ago in a Civil Rights-era case of firebombing a Wilmington, N.C., grocery store in 1971. One of the members, Benjamin F. Chavis, was a UCC justice worker.

After an evening of citywide protests and unrest, the Wilmington Ten were arrested and convicted of the charges — despite their pleas of innocence — related to the firebombing. The group included Chavis, then minister and civil rights community organizer for the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice. Chavis was sent to help leaders meeting at Gregory Congregational UCC in Wilmington organize protests to ensure the area's schools were desegregated fairly.

Post continued, "I saw in that moment the long imprinted images of that racially tense time in Wilmington in 1971, the fire event in the grocery store in town leading to the false accusation of nine men and one woman, the providential presence in that scene of Ben Chavis, a United Church of Christ minister and [former head of] the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice and ultimately one of the accused."

Attorneys for the Wilmington Ten petitioned the state May 17 asking for a full pardon from Gov. Perdue. Three witnesses for the prosecution recanted their testimony in 1976, and NAACP members in November said they discovered notes about how the prosecutor tried to keep blacks off the jury. Perdue said in a statement she decided to grant the pardons "because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained."

The Ten, ages 19 to 35 at the time of the 1971 trial, were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison. Their sentences were commuted in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, but he withheld a pardon. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in 1980 because of perjury and legal misconduct.

The case and the effort to prove the innocence of the Wilmington 10 was a galvanizing moment for the UCC’s racial justice efforts, Post said. Executive Council meetings and General Synod assemblies became affirmations of those efforts and expressions of solidarity, and in those gatherings the funding for legal assistance of the case took shape.

"Defending the Wilmington Ten became a corporate effort in the whole church, with faithful church-wide communication regarding the trials, the imprisonment of the Ten, the dreadful sentences of 25 and 35 years," Post said.

The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a member of the UCC’s Executive Council at the time and a former Connecticut Conference Minister, remembers the leadership Post provided.

"His insistence that we invest ourselves in justice for all 10, that we provide what ended up being about $500,000 to gain their freedom, and that we name the racism in their arrest and trial and imprisonment stands for me as a contemporary example of Christ-led ministry," she said.

Four of the 10 are now deceased (Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright), and many of the six surviving members (Chavis, Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen) are older and in failing health.

The Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, said the news of the pardon is "a relief and certainly long overdue." She wrote an editorial in May calling on North Carolina to issue a pardon.

"The governor’s action finally comes after over 40 years of efforts to prove that this tragic case was a terrible miscarriage of justice," Jaramillo said. "We honor the names of the Wilmington Ten, including the former Executive Director of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice, Benjamin Chavis. Today, we lift in prayer all who suffered in this endurance race toward liberation.

"We are reminded of the tireless and courageous determination of so many who would not rest until justice was realized," Jaramillo added. "Gov. Perdue is to be commended for her action; however, we cannot forget that this case is one among many still pending. As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King this month, may we remember his words, ‘a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’"

Always a leader in prophetic witness for peace with justice, the United Church of Christ has been at the forefront of human rights work since it was formed in 1957. In 1973, its General Synod, the main deliberative body of the denomination — outraged at the false charges and treatment of the prisoners — raised more than $1 million in bail to free the Wilmington Ten.

"But there has not been justice — until now," Post said.


AM21 gathering brings leaders together to move forward

The collaborative spirit of  church leaders from around the country who gathered in New Orleans last week helped bring the United Church of Christ’s conference staff and national staff to common goals at the Authorizing Ministry in the 21st Century Event (AM21).

The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team of the UCC hosted the week-long gathering Dec. 4-7. This was the first year for the new format for AM21, formerly known as Search and Call.

The goal of the program — to bring conference and denominational staff together to raise questions and seek common solutions to best support Authorized Ministers and Committees on Ministry in the UCC.

"Conference staff and MESA staff feel more connected with each other, and we had a glimpse of future possibilities," said the Rev. Holly MillerShank, the MESA team leader. "And I think we have a renewed commitment to this work."

Three elements shaped the work at AM21: Prayer and worship, reflection groups, and facilitated conversations. Conference and national staff worked together during the week to raise questions, and answer them as best as they could, on Authorized Ministers and Committees in the UCC. The reconfigured MESA team, which welcomed three new members in September, hosted conversations led by pairs of conference and national staff leaders on four different topics: Formation and Authorization, Post-Authorization, Search and Call, and Relationships of Committees on Ministry to Local Congregations.

There were more attendees at the 2012 gathering than in 2010, and about 70 percent of the people at AM21 were church leaders. But MillerShank said her key indicator of the event’s success was the feedback she received from attendees.

"The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and beyond our expectations," MillerShank said. "It was the embodiment of postmodern ministry, and highly utilized social media."

An ecumenical delegation, including partners from the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Canada, and optional immersion experiences in New Orleans and Back Bay Mission at the close of the gathering were the other new aspects for AM21. The biennial gathering was re-envisioned by a planning team of conference and national staff in response to meeting the needs of the 38 conferences throughout the UCC.


Solar panels reduce energy costs and carbon footprint for California UCC

When the suggestion of a solar panel installation project first came up at First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, the Rev. David Stabenfeldt was asked a lot of questions. Do these things really work? Are we really going to make our money back? Is this a good investment? A year later, members of the Bakersfield, Calif. congregation say it was one of the best things the church has ever done.

"The naysayers are now congratulating us," Stabenfeldt said.

Stabenfeldt and a few environmentally savvy members had been aware of the benefits of solar power, but the idea became more feasible when California utility companies began offering rebate incentives. First Congregational formed a committee, aptly called The Solar Panel, and began compiling research and crunching numbers to make sure the investment made both ecological and financial sense. With the knowledge that the panels would not only reduce the congregation's carbon footprint, but also produce an energy cost savings of $20,000-$30,000 a year, Stabenfeldt and about three-fourths of the congregation was confident that pursuing the project was the right choice.

"This was a legacy investment, not only for this generation, but for future generations at First Congregational," Stabenfeldt said. "Our church is very aware of the need to reduce our carbon footprint, which is one of the reasons there was such a high buy-in."

One of the main challenges was to make sure the church members were knowledgable about solar energy and its pros and cons. The Solar Panel offered educational sessions, conducted surveys and handed out literature to ensure everyone was informed. The next challenge was making sure members were willing to make a financial investment for the project that would cost about $200,000. The congregation raised $80,000 and received $50,000 in rebates from its utility company. The other $70,000 came from a loan from the UCC Cornerstone Fund, a financial ministry that offers loans to UCC churches and members for improvements and repairs, which the congregation will be able to repay in less than five years.

"Once we got the green light, and raised enough money and all that, everything now has been a blessing," Stabenfeldt said.

The energy cost savings have already been tremendous. The panels on the roof cover a 165'x30' area and produce 240-260 kilowatts of energy on an average summer day. To put it in perspective, last year's energy costs decreased from $25,000 to $7,500, with the $18,000 in cost savings going to repay the Cornerstone Fund loan. To save even more energy dollars, First Congregational has its thermostats adjusted automatically through a computer program, did major repairs on its air conditioning unit, has added additional insulation to older parts of the building, and is generally being more observant about turning things off.

Because of this work, First Congregational UCC has been nominated for an "Energy Oscar" by California Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based organization that promotes energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. But energy conservation isn't the only issue the congregation is concerned with. They are also active in water conservation, and recently replaced all of their landscaping with low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plant species that require less water to survive.  While these changes have obvious financial and environmental benefits, Stabenfeldt says one of the best benefits is the message these actions send into the community and to the church's members, guests and visitors, some of who have been inspired to do things like install solar panels or tank-less water heaters in their homes.

"Every congregation needs to be asking how they can reduce their dependence on fossil fuels," Stabenfeldt said. "Just by asking the questions to their members, congregations can have a multiplying effect on what we can all do to the help the environment."

The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.

With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.

For more information, visit the Mission 4/1 Earth website.


Church gives money to members with hope of making a difference

The Rev. Gary Rarick promoted "Big Surprise Sunday" at Plainville (N.Y.) Christian Church United Church of Christ for about four weeks. Kept in suspense, one member asked if they were having a guest speaker. Another asked if they were having a party. One even had a dream that country singer Taylor Swift was coming to sing with the church choir. But the actual surprise - the church was giving each member $20 with which they were to go out and try to make a difference.

"No matter what they did, I wanted them to think that ministry isn't something that happens just by coming to church and sitting in a pew every Sunday," Rarick said. "If we just go home and forget about church until the next week, that isn't making a difference and being a good, active Christian."

The idea came to Rarick after preaching about the parable of the talents, a story in the Bible where a landowner gives three slaves a different amount of money in hopes of them turning it into more money to give back to him. However, Rarick wasn't concerned with growing the money to bring back into the church – he was more concerned with his members trying to think of creative ways to use the money to make a difference in their communities. As a young pastor celebrating his one-year anniversary at his first church out of seminary, Rarick's goal was to do something different and memorable. But first he needed to get his congregation on board.

"No one made a sound or moved – a bomb could have been dropped outside and no one would have moved," Rarick said of the announcement. "Everyone was stunned and I was actually pretty nervous."

While some are still figuring out what to do with it, other members used their money in a variety of different ways. A few simply added it to their weekly offering and gave it back to the church or the youth group. One woman took the $20 to buy ingredients for pumpkin rolls and pies to sell and has since quadrupled the funds. Three young sisters pooled their money together and bought school supplies for needy children. An enterprising young woman garnered more donations from family and her employer and donated the total to a local nonprofit. Still others gave their money to the local food bank or the Meals on Wheels program.

Barb Longwell was at first conflicted about what to do with her money. Then one day at the grocery store deli counter, she saw a woman buying a few slices of ham and a few slices of cheese, with instructions to the clerk that her order could not exceed five dollars. Realizing that the woman was struggling financially, Longwell used her $20 to buy a grocery store gift card and gave it to her.

"I thought, here's a local person on a fixed income who is obviously struggling a little bit," Longwell said. "It felt good that I could do that for this lady, even though I felt like I would have liked to have done more."

The five-week project technically ended Oct. 21, when 13 members gave testimonials to the congregation explaining how they used their money. But Rarick is encouraging his congregation to continue this kind of thinking in their daily lives, long after the project is over.

"For anyone who thought about the project for even five minutes after church on Sunday, I would say it was successful," Rarick said.


The Amigos of the UCC's Penn Northeast Conference strive to raise awareness of international mission work

To say that Roger and Karen Heim are ambitious would be an understatement. The couple, members of Hope United Church of Christ in Allentown, Pa., is currently in the midst of a three-year, $300,000 project to build a multi-use clinic in one of Guatemala's most remote villages.

The Heims are co-chairs of Amigos de Guatemala, an initiative of the Penn Northeast Conference. They are in charge of how the work gets done, who is going to do it and, most importantly, where the money will come from.

"We came back charged up," Roger said of the group's most recent trip to the country. "We knew we had to do something about this very poor area."

Roger, Karen and their 12-member team from churches around the conference became interested in developing a partnership with a South American community in 2008. With help from Global Ministries, the combined ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Pennsylvania team connected with the Ecumenical Christian Council of Guatemala, a group that works with the country's mainline churches on social advocacy initiatives. Amigos de Guatemala made its first trip to the country in 2010 and quickly noticed the need for improved, accessible medical care, a need the Guatemalan council agreed with.

"We are counting on [the council] to guide us to what their needs are – we don't want to go down there and do anything without their feedback," Roger said. "We want to make sure the local people want – not just need – our help."

Amigos de Guatemala conducted a weeklong medical mission trip in May 2011, sending down a team of two doctors, two nurses and others who provided childcare and served as interpreters, among other duties. When the group reached the village of Monte Margarita, they were greeted with colorful banners, a band and endless food. However, the village was so remote it lacked access to running water and plumbing. The "clinic" was a tarp over a concrete slab and villagers offered their kitchen tables for use in makeshift exam rooms. This is where Amigos de Guatemala knew they were needed most.

"This was a real eye-opener," Roger said. "We were serving the poorest of the poor, some who had never even seen a doctor before."

The goal of Amigos de Guatemala is to construct a multi-use clinic that also will serve as a classroom and dormitory for visiting physicians. This will require installation of plumbing, potable water and backup generators to supply electricity during the village's many power outages. Ideally, the Heims want to have the clinic up and running in two to three years, and for it to be self-sustaining in five to 10 years. In the meantime, the plan is to train promotores, health care providers, to conduct basic first aid between visits from Amigos de Guatemala nurses and physicians. Current estimations to build and furnish the clinic are $250,000-$300,000.

While the timeline is set, the energy is high, and the basic blueprints for the building are drawn, this is where the project currently stands. In addition to the challenge of raising such a significant amount of money, other obstacles stand in the Heims' way. For example, the trips to Guatemala are expensive, so the group cannot send people down there to do training, survey the area and engage with the community as often as they'd like. Also, the country has a mail system that is unreliable at best, making it difficult to get supplies and equipment to the village.

"When we try to send stuff, we are never sure if it will arrive because of theft and corruption," Karen said. "If we sent a shipment of pain medication to the clinic, it would be stolen before it got there."

To relieve some of the financial stress, the group is trying to get other denominations involved in hopes of sending down at least four different groups once a year to provide medical care and to train the promotores. The Hope UCC congregation sells handmade goods like bracelets, necklaces and table runners made by the Guatemalans as part of their efforts, and have tried to host a fundraising dinner with the Pennsylvania medical community. As plans become more solid, the Penn Northeast Conference also has discussed utilizing capital campaigns and endowment funds to raise money.

Relieving another stress, the Heims are also glad to note that the country is implementing a private mail system that should alleviate some of the corruption and make it easier to ship medicine and other supplies.

While the journey may be long, the Heims stress that Amigos de Guatemala is an ongoing project. The most important thing is to make people within the Penn Northeast Conference and beyond aware of and interested in their mission. Perhaps their most successful fundraising so far has been old-fashioned grassroots campaigning, going to from church to church telling their story and asking for donations.

"We are trying to spread the word and invite others to participate." Roger said. "No matter how big or small you are you can contribute to this cause."