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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/
(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.
In the wake of misleading attacks on its mission and ministry, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ is being lauded by United Church of Christ leaders across the nation for the integrity of its worship, the breadth of its community involvement and the depth of its commitment to social justice.
"Trinity United Church of Christ is a great gift to our wider church family and to its own community in Chicago," says UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas. "At a time when it is being subjected to caricature and attack in the media, it is critical that all of us express our gratitude and support to this remarkable congregation, to Jeremiah A. Wright for his leadership over 36 years, and to Pastor Otis Moss III, as he assumes leadership at Trinity."
Thomas says he has been saddened by news reports that "present such a caricature of a congregation that been such a great blessing."
"These attacks, many of them motivated by their own partisan agenda, cannot go unchallenged," Thomas emphasizes. "It's time for all of us to say 'No' to these attacks and to declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends."
Located in the heart of Chicago's impoverished Southside, Trinity UCC's vast array of ministries include career development and college placement, tutorial and computer services, health care and support groups, domestic violence programs, pastoral care and counseling, bereavement services, drug and alcohol recovery, prison ministry, financial counseling and credit union, housing and economic development, dozens of choral, instrumental and dance groups, and diverse programming for all ages, including youth and senior citizens.
Thomas, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, has attended worship at Trinity UCC on a few occasions -- most recently on March 2 -- and says he is "profoundly impressed" with the 6,000-member congregation.
Among Trinity UCC's crowning achievements, Thomas says, is its work with young people.
"While the worship is always inspiring, the welcome extravagant, and the preaching biblically based and prophetically challenging, I have been especially moved by the way Trinity ministers to its young people, nurturing them to claim their Christian faith, to celebrate their African-American heritage, and to pursue higher education to prepare themselves for leadership in church and society," Thomas says.
The Rev. Steve Gray, the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference Minister, describes Trinity UCC as a "jewel."
"It's everything a Christian community is supposed to be," says Gray, who has been working with Trinity UCC for the past three years to develop a new UCC congregation in Gary, Ind. "Trinity has given well over $100,000 in support of its partnership with us, and in 15 months of regular meetings with Jeremiah Wright, we always found him to be a man of gracious hospitality, humor, generosity, who paid attention to detail but also a man who does not call attention to himself."
Trinity UCC has been involved in planting more than 15 new congregations, according to the UCC's Evangelism Ministry in Cleveland.
Gray, a member of First Congregational UCC in Indianapolis, has worshiped several times at Trinity UCC and is most impressed by the overflowing sense of welcome it extends to visitors.
"When you're Euro-American, the people [at Trinity UCC] are so exceedingly gracious, warm and welcoming. They hug you and say, 'Welcome to our church!'"
Many, including Gray, point with appreciation to Trinity UCC's generous support of denominational and ecumenical ministries. From 2003 to 2007, Trinity UCC gave more than $3.7 million to Our Church's Wider Mission, the UCC's shared fund for connectional mission and ministry.
The Rev. Bennie Whiten, retired Massachusetts Conference Minister who prior served for 15 years as associate director of Chicago's Community Renewal Society, says, "Trinity was one church that we could always rely on to respond almost immediately. They have been very, very involved in the community in so many meaningful ways."
Noting the church's work in health care, early childhood education and economic development, Whiten says, "The scope of their concern and outreach is extraordinary. It's really just an outstanding congregation."
Whiten, a member of Pilgrim UCC in Oak Park, Ill., is especially taken with Trinity UCC's commitment to the need and importance of quality theological education. More than 60 members of Trinity UCC are currently enrolled in seminary and pursuing masters-level degrees. Moreover, the congregation pays for students' tuition costs.
"They firmly believe in the UCC's commitment to an educated, seminary-trained clergy," Whiten said, "and they have probably had more people feeling the call to ministry than any other church in the denomination."
The Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, president and professor of theology at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, says Trinity UCC is a model church in the way it supports its people in discerning and cultivating their gifts for ministry, both lay and ordained.
"Another thing I really appreciate about Trinity is that its ministries are always directed both inward, toward the congregation itself, and also outward in supporting other congregations ecumenically and supporting community organizations that are dedicated to lifting up the wider society," Thistlethwaite says. "We have had so many fine students come through Chicago Theological Seminary who were helped to discern their call to ministry through this church's dedication to serving the wider church."
'Jesus and justice'
The Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga., says he is impressed that Trinity UCC "promotes spirituality and piety while also being emphatic about social justice."
While Trinity UCC is the denomination's largest congregation, Samuel's 5,300-member church is the UCC's second largest. Founded in 1987, it joined the UCC in 2004.
"Trinity was really one of the churches that inspired me to want to affiliate with the United Church of Christ," Samuel said. "My church was originally National Baptist and Southern Baptist, but it was the critical-thinking that [Trinity] brought to this work, the justice work, that helped me to want to become a part of the denomination. I have no regrets about that."
Samuel says that, during Wright's 36-year ministry at Trinity, Wright has not been afraid to tackle difficult topics, while staying equally committed to preaching "Jesus and justice."
"There have been two major sins in the Black church that many Black churches will not address – homophobia is one and sexism is another," Samuel says, "and Jeremiah Wright has been one of the articulate, courageous voices that has not been afraid to address these critical issues. If he can do that and still maintain his close connectivity to the Black community, and stay grounded in the Black ethos, that's what has inspired me."
'Speaks well for us'
Carol Brown, national president of United Black Christians and a member of Cleveland's Mt. Zion UCC for more than 50 years, describes Trinity UCC as "the flagship church of the United Church of Christ."
"I think it's very interesting that a minority group within a denomination can have the largest church, support the most ministries and give the largest number of OCWM [mission] dollars," Brown says. "That speaks well for us as an accepting, open and affirming denomination. Especially, as a justice-oriented church, [Trinity UCC] sets a standard for all the denomination that all are welcome."
Brown, who worships at Trinity UCC when in Chicago for meetings, says she is most taken by its exuberant spirit.
"It's certainly a very welcoming church, and it's certainly very reaffirming of the faith when people join in such large numbers when there's an altar call," Brown says. "It's something that you don't see in the average church. God is certainly at work there, and it's exciting when you see that many people stand up to witness to their faith and step forward."