United Church of Christ News

Philadelphia church pressing to keep homeless ministry running

A modern-day David-meets-Goliath is playing out in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and, to date, David – in the form of a UCC church known for its compassionate outreach among poor and homeless persons – is holding his own.

Although city officials are trying to close down Hope Outreach Ministries United Church of Christ's Men's Overnight Ministry – an overnight homeless shelter – church members are finding ways, with legal help from the ACLU, to keep the shelter open.

The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection ordered the shelter shut down Aug. 10, citing building, zoning and fire code violations. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, local zoning laws allow the church to operate 24 hours a day, but do not allow sleeping inside its walls.

The church responded to the order by holding an all-night prayer vigil in the sanctuary where 15-to-25 men have slept each night since September 2009. When inspectors arrived Wednesday, Aug. 11, the sleeping mats were gone, so the church was given the OK to continue operating its shelter. The city told reporters that the inspectors will continue to make unannounced checks to insure that homeless men in the shelter are not asleep.

The Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU is representing the church as it negotiates with the city.

Hope's pastor, the Rev. Deborah Savage, told reporters that the church would continue to hold the overnight prayer vigils through the end of the month.

"The commitment and tenacity of Hope Outreach Ministries to serve the needs of its homeless neighbors is evidence of Christ's presence among them," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president. "I know that many of Hope's sister congregations across the United Church of Christ are offering prayers of support and encouragement as the congregation works with the ACLU and the city to resolve the legal matters at hand so that Hope's ministries of compassion among the poor in their neighborhood will continue uninterrupted."

Hope UCC began in May 2009 with 12 members and today has an average Sunday worship attendance of 80. It began its outreach homeless ministry in September 2009.

According to the Rev. Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, a UCC/United Methodist congregation in Philadelphia, Hope's ministries extend well beyond the men's shelter:

  • Hope's Wednesday morning program has served more than 1,700 people with emergency food and clothing
  • It's Mother's Soup Kitchen, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has served more than 1,800 meals.
  • More then 2,900 people have been fed at Hope's Sunday Morning Overcomers Breakfast Program.
  • Area senior citizens receive monthly food boxes
  • A clinic is available twice a month for medical assessment, resources and workshops.

In 2009, Hope also provided 4,800 lunches and snacks to neighborhood children, and 65 children received book bags and school supplies.

The church –– with the support of local UCC clergy from the Philadelphia Association, Pennsylvania Southeast Conference, UCC and ecumenical partners across the region and the newly-formed Philadelphia Chapter of UCC Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice –– has begun building safety improvements, continued their vital ministries and moved to holding all-night prayer vigils at the church led by local UCC congregations as a way of continuing the worship life and ministry of the church.

Church website: http://hopeministriesucc.org/

 


Camouflage stoles help connect chaplains to UCC

It started out as a loving favor for her Navy chaplain husband. But now it has turned into an inspiring symbol of affirmation and connection for a growing number of UCC military chaplains serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2008, as Chaplain (CMD) Peter St. Martin was about to be deployed to Iraq, he asked his wife, Judy, if she would do him a favor.

When they were newly married and he was a young parish minister in Iowa and Maine, she used to sew practically all of their two daughters' clothing, as well as pillow cases, curtains, slip covers and other household materials.

Now, he asked, would she please make him a stole of camouflage material that he could wear when serving in the Middle East?

Of course she would.

Different branches of the military wear different color camouflage. Since her husband is in the Navy, his camouflage material is blue. If he was in the Army or Air Force, it would be green, or in the Marines, dark green.


Would she make more?

When he returned stateside, St. Martin attended the UCC General Synod in 2009 in Grand Rapids, Mich. There he took his turn staffing the UCC chaplains' booth in the exhibit hall.

Prominent on the display table was his camouflage stole, with its UCC symbol on one side and a God-Is-Still-Speaking comma on the other.

Among those who admired it was Chaplain John Gundlach, UCC Minister for Government Chaplaincies.

He had an idea. Did St. Martin think his wife would be willing to make a camouflage stole for every UCC chaplain deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan? The UCC, he said, would be willing to underwrite the cost of the materials if Judy St. Martin would provide the labor.

Gundlach saw the stoles as being a symbol of a denomination that supports the ministry of its chaplains.

"It's a very tangible thing to the chaplains," he says, "a continuing reminder that they are a part of the United Church of Christ and that their church stands behind them."

Again, Judy complied.

She has created about four dozen stoles to date. Two dozen have been for UCC chaplains and another 20 or so for chaplains of other denominations who have seen them and asked if they, too, could have one made.

"It's the least I can do," she says. "I'm happy to make them because I know that stoles mean a lot to chaplains and ministers."


Caroling in the desert

U.S. Air Force Chaplain (CPT) Heather Bodwell agrees.

"Receiving mine was very special," she says. "It was the second stole presented to me by the denomination, after the one I received when I was ordained, and I thought about the thought and care that went into the ministry of making these for deploying chaplains."

Once, in the Middle East, she even loaned her stole to an Episcopal priest chaplain for a Christmas service.

"We decorated a conference room in the base chapel, laid out baked goodies from home and wrapped little presents for people to open," she says. "Then those left on base, mostly 'wounded warriors,' went Christmas caroling in the desert."


'A wonderful reminder'

U.S. Army Reserve Chaplain (CPT) Deris Rice received his stole as "a pleasant surprise."

"It was a nice reminder of my covenant with the UCC," he says, "a reminder that I was connected to a group that cared about me and was praying for me."

"Towards the end of my first deployment I was having a difficult time," he remembers. "I was working in a mental health unit, and the stories were beginning to get to me. I wanted to go home.

"Then one day, as I was putting on my stole, I noticed the comma for the first time. It was a wonderful reminder that I was not alone, that God is still speaking to me. It reminded me of my continuing relationship to the UCC."

When Rice returned to his local church after his deployment, he developed a liturgy for changing his ministry from a military chaplaincy back to local church ministry in Sparta, Wis.

The liturgy included representatives from the Association, the congregation and the military and involved changing his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.


Returning to parish ministry

St. Martin will retire from the Navy this fall, after serving 21 years as a military chaplain.

In the meantime, while he is serving with the 24th Marine Expeditionary unit (the Two-Four) on a ship in the middle of an ocean, his UCC profile (resume) is circulating among churches seeking a pastor.

Upon receiving a call to a local church, then he will exchange his camouflage stole for a pastoral stole.

"My stole has been in Afghanistan and on the high seas," he says. "It has been 'present' in memorials to those killed in action as well as in Sunday worship, both in the dirt and on a rocking deck. 

"I will wear it occasionally in the parish that will call me," he adds, "not to mark the uniqueness of my experience as much as to identify a continuance of my call to ministry, connecting one chapter to the next." 


The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor emeritus of United Church News. 


Rethinking church: Measuring growth and vitality

(Part one in a two-part series on the future of the UCC)

While the United Church of Christ continues to lose both members and congregations, the decline may be slowing. Denominational leaders are eyeing these numbers while staying focused on vitality and considering ways to connect with an up-and-coming generation for whom the traditional model of church membership may be obsolete.

Recently-released Yearbook figures for 2009 show a net loss of 33 UCC congregations and 31,492 members. Total membership as of December 31 stood at 1,080,199, with 5,287 congregations.

In 2008, the UCC saw a net loss of 57 congregations and 33,590 members. In 2007, the denomination declined by 141 congregations and 51,193 members — its biggest loss since 1961. The 2005 General Synod affirmation of marriage equality fueled losses in 2007 and 2006, but also led to some new affiliations, church leaders say.

How is the UCC faring compared to other mainline denominations? According to the 2010 Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches published by the National Council of Churches, no mainline denomination saw a net gain in members in 2008 (the year for which the NCCs 2010 Yearbook data was collected). The UCC lost 2.93 percent of its membership; the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 3.28 percent; the Episcopal Church, 2 percent; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 1.92 percent. The United Methodist Church, the largest mainline Protestant denomination at 7,774,420 members, lost 1.01 percent in 2008, according to its own figures.

During the same year, the Catholic Church, the Latter-day Saints, the Assemblies of God, Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.) gained between 1 and 2 percent. The largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Church, lost 0.24 percent of its members.

Denominational leaders in the UCC are paying attention to the decline, but are interested in other factors besides the number of people in the pews. "We're not looking at membership as much as we used to as an indicator of church vitality," says the Rev. Stephen Sterner, executive minister for Local Church Ministries.

One sign of vitality is a diversity that increasingly reflects the changing U.S. population, says Sterner. Within local churches, worship attendance, the number of adult baptisms, and members' involvement in mission or service are also key indicators, he says. A small church that looks like its community and is engaged in ministry there may actually be healthier than a larger church that does not reflect its community's racial mix and is located where people must drive some distance to attend, Sterner added.

One trend impacting churches is the religious habits of young adults. Robert P. Jones, CEO of Public Religion Research, says young adults are marrying and starting families later. They live with roommates or partners and juggle busy schedules, but appreciate opportunities to get involved with groups and issues they care about, Jones says.

Jones and others who study religious engagement patterns among Millenials (ages 18 to early 30s) say young adults don't have strong denominational loyalties. Those who claim any religious involvement are likely to connect with a number of different faith groups and organizations for service, mission, study and worship.

"This is different than a membership model, where you're at services or Sunday School on a weekly basis," says Jones. While Millenials' affiliations may be less regular or institutionalized, "those connections are important to them," he says.

The UCC's progressive stances on issues such as marriage equality have led some members and congregations to leave. These stances may attract youth and young adults, says Jones, because the treatment of gays and lesbians is "a huge factor in how younger generations are evaluating religious institutions."

His findings are similar to The Barna Group's survey of 16 to 29 year-olds outside the Christian faith about their perceptions of contemporary Christianity. The results were the basis for the 2007 book unchristian, by Gabe Lyons and David Kinnaman. Barna's subjects described contemporary Christianity as "anti-gay" "judgmental" and "hypocritical" — qualities they saw as antithetical to Jesus' life and teachings.

The Rev. Geoffrey Black, general minister and president of the UCC, says the challenge of connecting with youth and young adults often comes up in his conversations with local churches, conferences and associations.

Black, Sterner and others are in the final stages of preparing a denomination-wide strategy for youth and young adult engagement. That strategy, Sterner insists, must go beyond trying to figure out how to get 18 to 30 year-olds into the church. "What we need to figure out is how do we get the church to youth and young adults," he says.

This could require "a rethinking of what it means to be church," he adds.

Black's travels around the country during his first year as general minister and president have given him much reason to be hope-filled about the denomination's future, he says.

"We're trying to work through some things, but the church, in its many configurations, is really alive and vibrant and poised to engage those questions and to do that reaching out."

[Part two in this series will explore the question: Can the UCC grow and stay true to its identity?]

The Rev. Rebecca Bowman Woods is a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor, former news editor of DisciplesWorld Magazine, and a regular contributor to United Church News and StillSpeaking Magazine.


‘We need UCC chaplains in the military,’ says Navy captain

Capt. Donald P. Troast, U.S. Navy chaplain

"We need UCC chaplains in the military," insists the Rev. Donald P. Troast, a U.S. Navy captain and commander of U.S. submarine force chaplains, offering his own "commercial" at the outset of his sermon at the UCC's Amistad Chapel on May 26.

"We need the diversity that they bring. We need the openness that they bring. We need the sense of mainline tradition that they bring."

Preaching to about 100 worshipers in advance of Memorial Day weekend, Troast recounted moving moments when military chaplains have been both mediators and recipients of God's grace during war, loneliness, suffering, death and survival.

Speaking with tears in his eyes, Troast recalled a time recently — during a tour in Afghanistan — that he returned to his quarters and found a handwritten note from an officer requesting a few minutes of his time.

The officer, an Episcopalian, wanted to receive Holy Communion on the night before his troops were being sent into battle, yet the officer's unit chaplain — a Missouri Synod Lutheran — was not comfortable serving him because of their denominational differences.

But, because of the UCC's open-table approach to the Eucharist, Troast — unlike some chaplains that come from more-restrictive traditions — was able to oblige.

"He was afraid of making wrong decisions in combat that might result in the loss of life," recalled Troast, who reassured the officer of his intellect, training, and support of his soldiers. "And then we had Holy Communion," said Troast, who used the Book of Common Prayer to prepare and consecrate the holy meal "in the tradition he was accustomed to."

"You see why we need UCC chaplains?" he said.

Troast, who has served 19 years in military ministry and was selected last year to lead the Navy's submarine chaplains, was one of 15 military chaplains who gathered last week for a retreat at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.

"It feels like we've come home," said Troast, speaking of his first visit to the UCC's national offices.

The UCC has 55 chaplains serving throughout the U.S. military and another 25 chaplains serving veterans and their families with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

While it is presumed that chaplains exist primarily to provide worship services for service members and their families, "we do so much more," Troast said.

"Every day a service member approaches a chaplain and says, 'Hey Chap, you got a minute,' and we always do," he said. 

According to the Geneva Convention, chaplains — who do not carry weapons — are classified as non-combatants. Yet they train and work alongside military personnel in every respect. The constitutionality of chaplains has been upheld repeatedly by U.S. courts, because the establishment clause ensures that citizens have "free exercise" of religion — something that might prove impossible in the military, given tours of duty, isolating locations and restrictive conditions, without the presence of chaplains.

"Imagine if your minister showed up with you at work everyday," Troast said. "That's exactly what we do."

The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years who now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy, hosted the retreat in Cleveland.

"It has been our privilege this week to have 15 of our finest clergy with us, our military chaplains," said Gundlach, in introducing the chaplains to Church House staff and visitors.

While in Cleveland, chaplains met with church officers and called for UCC churches to reach out to military families, especially those returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

"We need to take care of our returning warriors who are hurting mentally, physically and spiritually," Troast said.

Participating in the chaplain retreat were Lt. Cmdr. Peter E. Bauer, USAR (Southern Conference); Capt. Heather A. Bodwell, USAF (Northern Plains Conference); Col. Stephen B. Boyd, USAR (CA-NV Southern Conference); Capt. Countess C. Cooper (Central Atlantic Conference); Capt. Aristides Fokas (Penn Central Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Leila H. Gomulka, USN (Calvin Synod); Capt. N. Charlene Johnson, USAF (Minnesota Conference); Maj. R. Michael Lake (Kansas-Oklahoma Conference); Cmdr. Luis A. Perez, USN (Florida Conference); Capt. Deris L. Rice, USAR (Wisconsin Conference); Lt. Cdr. Leticia P.J. Rouser, USN (Hawaii Conference); Lt. Col. Grant W. Speece, ARNG (Minnesota Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Beth A. Stallinga, USN (Minnesota Conference); CDR Ronald C. Sturgis, USN (South Central Conference); Capt. Donald P. Troast, USN (Massachusetts Conference); and Col. John L. Trout, ARNG (Penn Central Conference).


Online education holds promise for UCC seminaries; profit may come later

As the recession puts added financial pressure on seminaries, the case for online theological education might seem like simple math. Add more students, subtract costly services such as housing and food — which online students don't need — and improve the bottom line.

All seven UCC-related seminaries already have or will soon offer some form of online or distance learning. None expect the move to bring a quick financial payoff, due to the investments in technology, training, and support staff needed to go online.

Nonetheless, school administrators say the shift is absolutely necessary to serve both students and the wider church.

"There's a greater and greater need within the church to access, if not whole degrees, then at least a certain amount of theological education, without having to pull up stakes and move elsewhere," says the Rev. Richard Weis, dean of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Many United students travel from the Dakotas and Iowa. Online courses will lessen their commuting burden, Weis says.

Because Web-based courses are primarily asynchronous — students can do the work when it's convenient — the online format is well-suited to people whose work and family schedules don't synch with the normal teaching schedule of a seminary, says Mary Tolbert, dean of Pacific School of Religion.

About half of Protestant seminaries with membership in the Association for Theological Schools are engaged in some form of online or distance education, says William C. Miller, one of ATS' three accreditation officers. ATS requires at least one-third of a degree program to be residential. But as schools experiment with different delivery models, including those involving online technology, the definition of "residential" is changing.

Many web-based courses employ a hybrid model, combining one or two on-campus sessions with online reading, video lectures, podcasts, forum discussions, and live chat.

Theology professor the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has taught several hybrid courses at Chicago Theological Seminary. Students come to campus for a two-day intensive at the beginning, but the rest of the course takes place on the web.

Kathi Elliott, a commissioned minister serving a congregation in a small Indiana town, took Thistlethwaite's Public Theology course online last fall. Elliott has been pursuing ordination, and her committee on ministry is letting her supplement her Master of Arts in Lay Ministry degree with a few courses, rather than going back to earn a Master of Divinity. So Elliott took a course at a seminary in Indianapolis, balancing church work and family life with commuting and studying. "The class was fantastic, but it almost did me in," she says.

Elliott convinced the committee on ministry to let her to take Thistlethwaite's course. After a two-day intensive in Chicago, the class met online weekly for two-hour chats. Students downloaded podcasts, experimented with social media, and set up blogs.

The committee on ministry worried that an online course would not provide enough interaction with other students, Elliott says. But she found plenty of opportunities through email exchanges, blog comments, and the bi-weekly chats.

The Rev. Jeff Jones, director of distance learning at Andover Newton Theological School, has taught online for six years and has experimented with helping students build community. Jones allows more time for personal sharing at the beginning of a course, and expects some discussions unrelated to course material. "I have a forum called Coffee Break, where I encourage students to post issues they'd talk about during a break between classes," he says.

Thistlethwaite's students get to know her and each other really well during online courses, she says. "The online chats often have some very moving moments. In some ways the discussion is more focused, since people have to type their thoughts out."

Students sometimes underestimate how much time an online course really takes, says the Rev. Nadine Pence, who previously taught theology at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind. The school's attrition rate for online courses dropped after they began counseling students in advance, telling them to expect to work 10 to 15 hours per week for each online class.

Pence is now the director at The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. The center trains faculty to use the tools of online teaching, and to tailor their modes of teaching to the online medium. Teaching an online course often takes more time than teaching in the classroom, because it has a tendency to become almost individualized, Pence says.

Mary Hess, a faculty member at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., does research on digital technology and teaching, and has led workshops for the Wabash Center. Going online can allow seminaries to offer a richer curriculum, and collaborate more effectively, says Hess.

The move online could also lead to increased competition between seminaries. If geography is no longer a key parameter, schools will have to differentiate themselves in ways that are non-geographical, says Miller of the Association of Theological Schools.

The Rev. Barbara Essex, the UCC's Minister for Higher and Theological Education, says the UCC's seven seminaries are interested in finding ways to work together. Each school has different strengths, she says.

Essex sees several possibilities for the seminaries to offer courses jointly online. A UCC History and Polity course, for example, could be hosted on the denomination's web site, available to both seminarians and laypeople. Several seminaries are working closely with UCC judicatories to meet the growing need to train lay leaders — another area where online and distance learning could be a good fit.


Here's a look at what UCC-related seminaries are doing online:

  • Andover Newton Theological School started its distance learning program in 1998, and now offers 12-14 courses a year online, according to Jeff Jones, director of distance learning. Most of those are fully online; a few are hybrid. Between 5 and 10 percent of those taking online classes are not Andover Newton students, Jones said.
  • Bangor Theological Seminary does not offer online classes yet, but trustees have appointed a committee to evaluate the technology and faculty training needed. The seminary plans to have four courses designed, and possibly implemented, by the spring of 2011, says T. Richard Snyder, academic dean. The primary motivation is to better serve students, many of whom commute from remote areas of Maine.
  • Chicago Theological Seminary has offered a few hybrid courses, and some faculty are incorporating web-based components such as online forums into traditional courses. The seminary's impending move to new building with technology upgrades has prompted conversations about next steps, including offering some classes strictly online, says Ken Stone, dean for academic administration.
  • Eden Theological Seminary's introductory biblical studies course has been offered online for several semesters. The school is developing online courses with an eye toward those that are most useful and engaging for future church leadership, according to Deborah Krause, academic dean and New Testament professor. Eden's strategic plan calls for expansion of online and distance learning, in both degree and non-degree programs and in lay education.
  • Lancaster Theological Seminary is in the early stages of exploring distance learning opportunities, says James Siburt, the seminary's director of communications, educational technology, and marketing. This fall, Siburt will teach a hybrid course on new media theory and design as part of the school's new Youth and Young Adult Ministry Program. They are experimenting with iTunesU and Google Apps, and are deploying a new open-source collaboration platform for distance learning. Donors and grant money from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation are funding classroom upgrades.
  • Pacific School of Religion recently petitioned to the Association of Theological Schools for approval of a full online and distance learning program, according to Laurie Isenberg, director of community and continuing education. Pending approval, PSR will begin offering an online certificate in theological studies this fall. Students who earn the certificate can transfer into the Master of Divinity program with a full year of study completed. Long term, PSR plans to develop a more extensive MDiv program online, so that students won't have to spend two years in residence, Isenberg says.
  • United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities first ventured into online education through its continuing education programs. Two years ago, the seminary introduced its first online academic course — congregational spirituality — using a hybrid approach. This year, they offered two courses, and will expand to three next year. UTS intends to move from hybrid to fully online, but wants to keep an eye on the needs of the church and allow its plans to evolve organically, says Richard Weis, dean of the seminary and professor of Old Testament theology. 

Two churches in D.C. area welcomed into UCC

Covenant Baptist Church in southeast Washington, D.C., was one of two churches that affiliated with the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference on Feb. 27.

The Central Atlantic Conference received two churches into the UCC on Feb. 27, when Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., were granted congregational standing by the UCC's Potomac Association.

Covenant Baptist Church is known throughout the D.C. area for its vibrant worshipping community and its prophetic ministries of justice and service. Founded in 1945 as an all-white Southern Baptist congregation, a racial transition began in 1969 when the church called an African-American pastor to serve its European-American congregation. In its decades of service to its economically challenged neighborhood in southeast Washington, the predominately African-American congregation has developed a reputation for being a beacon of hope, inclusiveness and liberation for the oppressed and marginalized.

Last year, the congregation's senior pastors, the Rev. Dennis and Christine Wiley, were among the visible religious leaders that supported D.C.'s adoption of a controversial law that legalized same-gender marriage.

"Many new members are joining the church, excited by our vision," the Wileys wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column explaining their position. "… Some who disagree with us have condemned us to hell. But we believe that God has granted us the courage of our convictions."

United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., under the leadership of the Rev. Annie Blackwell, is an ecumenical partnership congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.

Formerly known as the Southern Maryland Faith Community, United Christian Church is committed to inclusivity, service and speaking to the holistic needs of those they serve.

"Christ calls us to be 'citizens in the world,' reads the church's website. "We believe that our social expression of Christ's love seeks justice for all humankind."

The Rev. Henry E. "Hank" Fairman, moderator of the Potomac Association, says the two new congregations represent how the UCC "continues to live into the future as a united and uniting church."

"Today we took an affirming step into the future in ministry in community together," Fairman said in a written statement. "Isaiah reminds us, 'Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.' Thanks be to God for challenging us to be a progressive, liberal voice in Christian faith, and for gathering us all in as a united church."

A formal service of reception for United Christian Church will be held at Bethany Christian Church in Fort Washington, Md., on Palm Sunday, March 28. A service welcoming Covenant Baptist Church will take place on May 16.

The Rev. John Deckenback is Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, which includes New Jersey, Delaware, District of Columbia, and portions of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.


DVD review: Rage Against the Machine, and the Art of Protest

"Revolution in the Head: Rage Against the Machine and the Art of Protest"
A Sexy Intellectual Production

[Parental/Youth pastor advisory: Most of Rage's albums landed one of those warning stickers about explicit content due to their use of graphic language. This film is no exception, and includes brief photo shot to the band's nude protest. So, be advised.]

Might as well go ahead and let you in on the two real disappointments that I had with this DVD upfront. First, while there is plenty of footage of the Rage Against the Machine guys playing live, I admit that I was really hoping to see/hear full length live versions of at least a handful of the band's best songs—there have been some live reunions of a sort since 2007. Frankly I was hopeful  this documentary was proof that the band would be coming back together, making more albums and touring. It's a lot to ask, but I miss this band.

The reason for this is tied to my second problem/issue: "This DVD is not authorised (sic.) by Rage Against the Machine, their record company or management." Not only does this mean that the folk who made this disc, like me on deadline, failed to use spell check adequately ("authorized"), but they didn't have access or permission to include the complete Rage songs, live or otherwise. They also don't have the band speaking directly about their own inspirations and intentions.

But, given those two caveats, "Revolution in the Head" is a fine, informative and enjoyable documentary of the career of this band and it's impact in the tradition of the similarly powerful DVD: "Woody Guthrie; This Machine Kills Fascists" (Snapper Music). It connects Rage Against the Machine to the protest music movement that stretches back to folk music's roots, and found expression in influential artists like Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and came into the 60's through Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. While you could also mention artists like Credence Clearwater Revival and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the documentary focuses on those acts that had a more direct impact on the sound of Rage Against the Machine: Minor Threat, Public Enemy, Bad Brains, The Clash, and the spiritual guidance in the music of Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen.

Through academic discussion, and the more direct expression from folk protest singer Jerry Silverman (who sings a bit of his song, "Joe Hill"), the film connects rock and hip-hop music's rebellious nature and the more direct political movements of the peace, labor and civil rights movements. With that background, Rage's leading men, vocalist Zach de La Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello, are described as facing racism in their youth, growing up Hispanic and mixed race in suburban America, adopted a left-leaning politics and created music that, Ann Powers of the L.A. Times says "gave young progressive people their own voice" in the 1990s.

Alongside Powers, the film leans heavily on the analysis and insight of a RATM biographer Colin Devenish, OC Weekly writer Gustavo Arellano, Joe Levy a former editor at Rolling Stone and Blender magazines, the Epic Records A&R person who signed the band, Michael Goldstone, Garth Richardson who produced the band debut album and the band's live sound engineer Dave 'Rat' Levine. The film follows the band's history and often paradoxical rise, with forays into the band's unique sound and political emphasis, as well as bold public protests.

They take a look at the band's now infamous "naked performance" on the Philadelphia stop of Lollapalooza '93, where the band stood unclothed except for duct tape over their mouths for 25 minutes of feedback, with only the letters PMRC on their chests (a stand against the censorship of music instigated by the Parents Music Recourse Center.) The making of the notorious "Sleep Now in the Fire" video with Michael Moore, with its guerrilla film-making technique which had the effect of shutting down Wall Street if only for an afternoon. With songs like "People of the Sun" which celebrated the Zapitista movement of the Native Indians of Mexico, and "Bulls On Parade" which explored the business of war that proved prophetic of America's war in Iraq and the privatization of military efforts by the Bush administration.

When Rage was amazingly popular, there were further paradoxes. RATM, a left-wing protest band, signs to a major corporate music entity in Epic Records. Many of their fans loved the angry, rebellious tone of the music but missed the deeper analytical tone of the band's politics. And the assertion in the song "Testify" that the two political parties in America and the two presidential candidates of that era, Bush and Gore, were essentially the same, which led to a performance outside the Democratic National Convention of 2000 in Los Angeles.

Though the band shared many similar left-leaning political ideals, there were documented disputes and in-fighting, leaving La Rocha in disagreement with the Morella and the rhythm section Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford. So much so that after three albums together the remaining trio went on to perform as Audioslave with singer Chris Cornell (previously of Sound Garden). Still, while together, says engineer Dave Rat, "it's that volatility that makes (the music) so interesting."

Given the band's huge commercial success, and the vastly influential albums: "Rage Against the Machine" (1992), "Evil Empire" (1996), and "The Battle of Los Angeles" (1999). The record company managed to pull together a cover album in "Renegades," which included Springsteen's great "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and songs by Cypress Hill, MC5, Afrika Bambaataa, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and more, and a 2000 concert recording, "Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium."

An artful, creative, energized musical act, as well as a prescient political protest act, brilliant in its use of media and direct action, Rage Against the Machine is willing to point out injustice, inform the public and send a wake up call to the world. As such, this film captures an important voice from the 1990s and if we're lucky again in the 2010s.


The Rev. Brian Q. Newcomb is Senior Minister at David's UCC in Kettering, Ohio, and a long-time music critic published in Billboard, CCM Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others.  


Our Church’s Wider Mission in 'plain talk'

Our Church's Wider Mission: Plain Talk

Taking a cue from the popular "in plain English" series of YouTube videos, the United Church of Christ's Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM) ministry has produced a video that explains church giving with simple language and graphics.

The video debuted at General Synod 27 in Grand Rapids, Mich., and was an immediate hit with viewers.

"Conference ministers were stopping me every 15 minutes at Synod asking 'When can we have that?,'" says the Rev. Jane Heckles, the UCC's minister for OCWM. "They're looking forward to using this video as a means to explain how giving builds partnerships across all settings of the church."

Rather than detail budget allocations, retention and apportionments from Associations to Conferences to covenanted ministries (confused yet?), the "Plain Talk" video tells the story of how church giving at a local level not only helps ones' church, but also the UCC's regional, national and international efforts.

"The 'Plain Talk' video gives us an easy to use, understandable and fun way to explain something many stumble over trying to describe," says Heckles.

Tracy Carnes, the UCC's associate minister for stewardship resources and OCWM promotion, says there is excitement about the video's ability to better explain how church giving fits into the big picture of the UCC's ministries.

"We've received calls from local church pastors, Association ministers and stewardship lay leaders requesting a copy of the video because they feel it explains OCWM in simple and easy to understand terms," says Carnes. "They're delighted that we've put it together."

The video is available to view online, or via free download or DVD shipment from the UCC Resources store.


Documentary: 'Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman'

In our world, where the genre of "contemporary Christian music" outsells both classical and jazz/blues formats, and praise bands with drums and guitars appear in many of the even the more traditional conservative congregational settings around us, it's hard to remember a time when the idea of a Christian rock artist was viewed as revolutionary.

With this documentary, and his previous movie – "Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher" – filmmaker David Di Sabatino opens up the world of the Jesus Movement of the late 60's and 70's through the story of prominent, often controversial individual.

Larry Norman, who died last year at the age of 60 after a long history of poor health, was a principal architect of what came to be known as "Jesus Music" and/or "Christian rock" music. Arising from the San Jose band People that had a modest yet successful single in "I Love You," Norman's solo career was launched in 1969 with a faith-filled release on the mainstream label, Capitol Records.

That album, "Upon This Rock," remembered fondly by many as the first pop/rock release by an outspoken Christian artist, launched a thousand variations on that theme — presenting and evangelistic message of Jesus' love in what was then a modern pop music form.

Celebrated by some as a songwriter in the league of Bob Dylan and a live performer in the vein of Mick Jagger, Norman's albums of the 70's – including the celebrated Christian rock classic "Only Visiting This Planet" – became expressions of what it might sound like if there was an authentic expression of the gospel message in vital, modern music. Norman's mix of social commentary, political insight, and street level poetic and musical sensibilities, proved a winning combination for Christians looking for relevant musical artists, and mainstream people interested in hearing about a faith relevant to their own experience.

As a groundbreaking rebel rocker, with long hair and the sense of style that it suggests, Larry Norman was a controversial figure and a natural subject for a film about the early development of the idea of the CCM musical business.

But Norman's story is complex and filled with Shakespearean human drama: a best-friend mentored and then betrayed, a failed marriage or two, an unwillingness to embrace an illegitimate offspring, a community of like-minded artists that dissolved in petulant competitiveness and financial misdealing, and at its center hero figure that appears to be his own worst enemy.

Throughout the film, Norman's penchant for myth-making, his personal and commercial dealings, his stalled artistic career and flawed humanity are explored in dramatic detail though interviews with many who knew, loved and worked with him.

The film struggles to tell the public story without getting too entrenched in the personal drama and insider squabbles that develop when something like a family is coming apart, and mostly rises above more voyeuristic tendencies. [Full disclosure: I have known and befriended many of those interviewed here over the years, once interviewed Mr. Norman myself for a cover story in CCM Magazine, and I appear for a brief 15 seconds in the film.]

Of course the challenge for the filmmaker is to tell a story about a beloved if equally infamous, but less than well-known, individual in a way that is compelling to a broad audience. Di Sabatino tells this complex and layered story well, mixing archival footage of Norman performing on television with interviews with the other principals. Still, one can imagine those who know and care little about Christian rock music, and even less about this pioneering artistic influence finding this story less than compelling as it delicately unfolds.

Yet for fans of the genre, especially those like myself who were inspired early on by Christian rock artists like Norman, Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, the band Daniel Amos and others in his Solid Rock Records family, this is a morality tale as profound and engaging as the biblical story of King David's rise and fall.

Di Sabatino's self-described "Bible story" makes an eloquent move from oral tradition to film document ably, although the low quality live music footage taken largely from archival TV recordings, the more artful animated sections and the tendency to rely on talking heads, reveals more about the challenges of taking on a major undertaking working on a modest budget.

While there is a sense of graceful forgiveness in the film as the folk come to terms with Norman's failings and the hurt he unleashed in their lives and careers, there is a sense of its undoing a popular and highly defended mythic character.

This is no doubt because the CCM industry as a whole has lacked the will and resources to tell the whole story and hold accountable the individuals who make the music, often labeled as "ministry." With a preference for promotion, rather than in-depth journalistic integrity, the Christian music press has remained mostly silent, while Norman's cottage industry has marketed, and repackaged not only his classic music, but maintained the defensive storyline of Norman as an innocent victim.

But the real gift of "Fallen Angel," as if telling the truth is not its own reward, is in the exposure of this fine music, some of it nearly four decades old. Laced with a soundtrack that displays the vast talents of Norman, Stonehill and his cadre of cohorts, the film reminds the viewer of the power of music and poetry, the vital influence and energy of rock music.

Norman's gentle ballad "The Outlaw," and seminal rocker based on words ascribed to Martin Luther, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" together with Stonehill's "King of Hearts" or "Keep Me Running," recall the early innocence, and artistic brilliance that spawned an industry.


Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman is available in Festival DVD Release from Jester Media at <fallenangeldoc.com>.

 

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UCC church leaders shocked at treatment of local pastor by Oklahoma legislators

United Church of Christ leaders on Thursday (Feb. 12) expressed outrage at the perceived discriminatory treatment of a local UCC pastor by the Oklahoma State House of Representatives.

In what legislators are calling a first, one-fifth of the Oklahoma House voted Feb. 11 to strike from the record a prayer offered on the chamber floor by the Rev. Scott H. Jones, pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City. Jones had been invited to deliver the prayer and serve as chaplain for the day by Rep. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City.

Following the prayer, McAffrey asked that the session vote to include Jones' prayer in the House journal, the official daily record of the chamber. An objection was raised by Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, who called for a vote on the prayer's inclusion.

"It was a pretty chaotic moment," said Jones of the procedural points of order that ensued following Wright's objection. "My understanding was that [an objection to a prayer] never happens."

The vote took place once order had been established, with 64 representatives voting to include the prayer, 20 opposing it and 17 abstentions.

Jones is a constituent of McAffrey's Oklahoma City district. Both believe the objection was raised because of their sexuality. Jones leads the largest predominantly LGBT congregation in Oklahoma City and is himself gay. McAffrey is Oklahoma's only openly gay legislator.

"As the leader of Rev. Jones' denomination, I am deeply offended by the treatment he received from the legislature and dismayed by the message of intolerance it sends to the citizens of Oklahoma and beyond," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the UCC. "It is comforting, however, to remember that our prayers are judged at the throne of grace and not in the halls of petty principalities."

"The Oklahoman" newspaper quoted McAffrey on Wednesday, saying that "because most of Scott's congregation are gay people and Scott is gay himself, I'm sure that's the reason why there were negative votes on it."

But Wright sees it differently. In the same Oklahoman article, he stated his objection was procedural - that prayers were only entered into the official record on Thursdays - but later said his "actions were motivated by the faith."

Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, was among those who voted to strike the prayer from the record. Kern is on record as calling homosexuality "the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism and Islam."

The Rev. Gordon R. Epps, conference ministry coordinator for the UCC's Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, delivered a letter to Speaker of the House Rep. Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, on Thursday (Feb. 12). Epps commended Benge "for the democratic way you led the house when an unusual challenge was made to vote on whether or not to enter into the record the opening prayer given by the Rev. Scott Jones."

Responding in support of Jones, the UCC's Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy, the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, said, "Once again, bigotry infects the Oklahoma statehouse by the vote of 20 legislators to reject the prayer offered by the Rev. Scott Jones. In this mean-spirited vote, they have demonstrated profound disrespect to a gifted pastor and a congregation dedicated to faithfully serving its community through a robust and vibrant ministry."

Schuenemeyer sees the proceedings as a clear indication of discrimination. "The action of these legislators has dishonored the core American values of freedom of religion and freedom of expression," he said. "The citizens of Oklahoma and this nation deserve better and ought not to tolerate such behavior from their fellow citizens, much less their elected officials."

The United Church of Christ is a denomination of 1.2 million members in 5,600 autonomous local churches that are joined together in Christian mission through local associations, regional conferences and the biennial all-church General Synod.

At their 2005 General Synod in Atlanta, UCC delegates voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution calling for marriage rights to be extended to same-gender couples. The resolution, In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All, "affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage."

Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City began in 2000 as a church plant of Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas. In January 2007, they became a fully autonomous congregation within the United Church of Christ.