Gracie Taylor holds Duncan Strawbridge during choir rehearsal at Beloved Community UCC. Photo by the Birmingham News, © 2000. All right reserved.
"The church was too big, too expensive, and the church home of the man who had stood in the doorway to prevent our children from attending public schools," says the Rev. Bennie Liggins. "Despite all that, the vote of the congregation was a resounding ‘yes.'"
Four years later, in June 2000, in that very building, Community Congregational UCC hosted the annual meeting of the Southeast Conference, which celebrated this thriving congregation. The Conference also received a generous $100,000 gift for new church starts from former Massachusetts Conference Minister the Rev. Bennie Whiten Jr. on behalf of that Conference.
The Southeast Conference has good reason to celebrate. Under the leadership of its Conference Minister, the Rev. Timothy Downs, it is experiencing dramatic revitalization. For the first time in 25 years, a new church start has grown into a full-fledged UCC congregation. It recently has launched several new churches, all tithing congregations, and welcomed an established congregation that has found kindred spirits in the UCC.
From jazz to Grace
In Birmingham, Ala., a jazz band enlivens worship at the new Beloved Community UCC. According to the Rev. Angie Wright, during a recent service when members offered testimonies about what the church means to them, many spoke of it as a place where they have found healing and a sense of belonging.
One white member recounted being told when he was in grammar school that he could no longer associate with a black friend. "I have spent the rest of my life being scared of people who don't look like me," he said. He reflected on his son and the son of another member playing together during choir practice. "No one will ever tell them that they can't be friends. If that is not the movement of the Almighty God, I don't know what God is."
Another member offered, "I promise you that I have felt the spirit of God in this church like I haven't felt since I made my first communion when I was 7 years old."
Over the mountains, in Crossville, Tenn., Grace UCC shares leadership among its members and rents space for its church services to keep expenses low. This group of 17, several of whom are retired pastors and missionaries who live at the Uplands retirement center, contribute 96 percent of their offerings—$28,000 last year—to outreach both locally and globally.
Welcome the wounded
In the Atlanta area, three churches have become new members in the Southeast Conference family. The Rev. Kathi Martin is pastor of GSN (God, Self, and Neighbor) Ministries in the Virginia Highlands section of Atlanta. She says the church ministers to "the left out and the locked out"—people who have been wounded by the church by virtue of skin color and/or sexual orientation, or who have never been to church at all.
When presented for membership at the Georgia-South Carolina Association annual meeting in Savannah in September, GSN Ministries received a standing ovation. Many of its members, who had made a five-hour van trip from Atlanta, spoke tearfully about what it meant to them not only to feel at home in a church, but to be received joyfully into a denomination.
Then, the Rev. Lewis Tait Jr. spoke about New Life UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga. This vibrant and growing Afro-centric church, with a very active ministry for children and youth, has been worshiping since February 2000. Generously supported by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Trinity UCC in Chicago, New Life is seeking to understand Christianity in the context, and from the worldview, of African-American culture. New Life UCC also was unanimously accepted into membership with a standing ovation.
The Rev. Kwan-Hae Chi then presented Open Community UCC. The church chose to leave a denomination that insisted that women could not offer leadership. Open Community, whose members gather for prayer every morning from 6 to 7 o'clock, seeks to find a "balance between faith and health and identity as Koreans," said Chi.
He spoke movingly about the persecution his pastor father suffered when he spoke out against the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea. Fervent amens from the members of GSN Ministries as he spoke made clear that resistance to oppression and the claiming of liberation cross cultural and generational lines. When he finished speaking, the congregation was on its feet again.
Two weeks after the association meeting, Gary Roberts, the UCC's Minister of Evangelism for Local Church Building, spent a day visiting several new church starts, hearing powerful testimonies of what these churches mean in the lives of their members.
Best day ever
On the way to the airport, Conference Minister Tim Downs, asked him how his day had gone. Roberts replied, "This is the best day I have spent in the United Church of Christ."
That spirit was evident as the association formally welcomed its new churches. In the Southeast Conference, members will be leaping to their feet often as they continue to affirm their unity in the body of Christ, and as they express their joy at being part of a denomination that has room for everyone.
The Rev. Joyce Hollyday is an Associate Conference Minister in the Southeast Conference.