Written by Daniel Hazard
The staggering numbers say it all: About 9,100 people, nearly 1,100 volunteers, 166 registered journalists, and more than 168,000 homemade cookies. With about 100 unique presentations spread across 11 venues, the UCC's 50th anniversary celebration was five party-filled days of worship and service, business and busyness.
General Synod 26 in Hartford, Conn., June 22-26, stayed true to its "birthday bash" billing, as the largest-ever contingent of UCC faithful flocked to New England, filling hotels, motels and dorm rooms across Connecticut and beyond.
Even the cavernous Hartford Civic Center proved to be a hit for many. Initially, it was considered a less-than-desirable, second choice after a union dispute forced a venue change from the newer, swankier Connecticut Convention Center, which ended up sitting empty only a few blocks away. Despite some less-than-optimal conditions for persons with disabilities, the arena-sized crowd seemed to prefer, even enjoy, the arena-sized Civic Center space.
"This is the largest convention ever in the city of Hartford and may well be the biggest ever in the state," announced Connecticut Gov. Jody Rell, as she brought greetings to UCC delegates and visitors on the Synod's opening day.
Side shows also accompanied Synod's main event. The UCC's New York and Massachusetts Conferences decided to take advantage of mass attendance, by taking to the road this year and holding their respective annual meetings in Hartford just prior to Synod's start. Likewise, Justice and Witness Ministries' board of directors did the same, as did the UCC Coalition for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns, which held its three-day National Gathering in advance of Synod's opening day.
Once underway, Synod-goers filled the streets of Hartford with UCC-trademark red, black, white and yellow Stillspeaking/Let it Shine attire. Downtown restaurants were filled with UCC patrons sporting Synod credential badges, justice-themed buttons and slogan-savvy T-shirts. Sandals, not dress shoes, were most prevalent at this balmy church meeting, where temperatures climbed well above 90 on bright, sunny days.
Much-touted keynote speakers did not disappoint.
Bill Moyers electrified the crowd, which rose to its feet in ovation on Saturday, June 23, when he called the oft-mocked, oft-dismissed "lame, limp and liberal" UCC to continue standing with Jesus' disinherited and marginalized ones.
"It is a small determined people of conscience that can turn this country around!" Moyers exclaimed.
U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, later that afternoon, told the crowd that he came to put rest to the lie that "separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life."
"I dispute that," Obama said, as dozens of secular journalists clamored about the stage for footage and photos of the presidential candidate's address.
Rousing worship and stirring music marked many of the emotional highpoints of Synod, as a massive projection screen behind the main stage displayed moving, ever-changing images that brought to life the UCC's "God is still speaking," theme.
After Marian Wright Edelman urged UCC members on Monday, June 25, to "stand up for all your children," singer-songwriter Ken Medema created an on-the-spot ode to "Marian," the tireless advocate for children. Edelman stopped on her way out of the arena to listen, as those in the arena — one-by-one — began standing in response to Medema's musical echoing of Edelman's "stand up" refrain.
Edelman's emotional response characterized the overflowing sentiment of faith and courage that filled the arena.