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Surrounded by more than 3,300 grave makers on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the Rev. Matt Crebbin of Newtown Congregational United Church of Christ and fellow Newtown clergy are standing for the thousands who have fallen victim to gun violence in the United States. The clergy members, joined by leaders of faith organizations from the PICO National Network and Sojourners in their 24-hour Thursday vigil, are calling on Congress to vote on gun-violence prevention legislation.
"We have been ministering to families and a community affected by the plague of gun violence [and] a tragedy that has united not only our community, but communities across the nation, to say that the status quo is no longer acceptable," Crebbin said.
The April 11 vigil, sponsored by the PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing campaign and Sojourners, precedes the impending Senate debate on the assault weapons ban, universal background checks, prosecution of unlawful gun trafficking and school safety legislation.
"We come here united in a moral conviction to say that now is the time for change," Crebbin said. "Today we weep as one people. We weep for all our dear ones lost to us, we weep for our sons and daughters, wives and sister, fathers and brothers, our friends and neighbors near and far, each of them beloved. It does not matter where this violence has struck."
The 3,300 grave markers in the mock cemetery represent the number of victims shot and killed since the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in mid-December, that claimed 26 students, teachers and administrators. Crebbin, who officiated the interfaith memorial service days after the massacre, was joined by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Newtown’s Congregation Adath Israel. The pair wrote a letter to Congress in mid-March on behalf of Newtown Clergy calling for tougher gun laws.
"There is a great need to deal with this whole issue with a holistic approach," said the Rev. Sala W. Nolan-Gonzalez, the UCC’s minister for criminal justice and human rights. "My personal prayer is that we can stop violence in cities and municipalities throughout the country, whether it involves a city or rural setting, or children or elders."
The UCC also urged members to take action on Faith Call-In Day April 9, and there were a total of 10,000 calls from 75 different denominations to Congress. Sandy Sorensen, the director of the denomination's Washington D.C. office, maintains that the voices from people of faith are critical in the debate, often amplifying those impacted by gun violence and voices that are unheard in public.
"In February, the Faiths United Against Gun Violence Call-in Day generated an impressive response of over 10,000 calls to members of Congress," Sorensen said. "The impact [of the April 9 Call-In Day] can already be seen at this critical juncture in the Senate debate this week around legislation calling for universal background checks. The voices of sensible gun-violence prevention advocates were successful in countering the threat of a filibuster and have made it possible to bring this legislation to a vote on the Senate floor."
Senate leaders on Thursday reached a bipartisan agreement to strengthen background checks on gun purchases, avoiding a threatened filibuster by 14 senators who oppose the legislation. Sorensen said the agreement is a significant step forward.
"People of faith are joining with a broad and diverse coalition of gun violence survivors, victim families, law enforcement officers, public health experts, and domestic violence advocates in urging Congress to stop delaying and pass sensible gun violence prevention legislation," said Sorensen. "We have already lost far too many women, men and children to gun violence. The time for action is now, and victims of gun violence deserve a vote."
"More than 3,300 people have died as a result of gun violence since the tragedy in Newtown, and it’s past time for our leaders to act," said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing campaign. "We have stepped down from our pulpits and left our houses of worship to remind Congress we’re not going anywhere until they pass meaningful legislation that bans assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, institutes enforceable universal background checks, ends gun trafficking, prosecutes straw purchasers, and invests in proven strategies to reduce the gun violence that plagues our cities every day."
On July 20 last year, a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises." Twelve moviegoers were killed, and over 50 were wounded. Yet another anniversary looms on the calendar – Aug. 5 marks the first anniversary of the shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing 7 and wounding three. Even as we remember those who were killed and injured in these shootings, along with their families, a tragic litany of life lost as a result of gun violence comes to mind. Aurora and Oak Creek made headlines, but the painful truth is that every single day on the calendar is the anniversary of the terrible toll of gun violence, somewhere in America, whether or not it makes the nightly news.
We simply cannot accept gun violence as the norm in our nation. We cannot find comfort in saying "peace, peace," without committing to the hard work that makes for peace. Certainly, the larger context of gun violence is complex and multilayered, and no one piece of legislation can address it. It will take hard work on many levels, individual and institutional change on many fronts. But common sense gun violence prevention legislation can save lives. We must take every step, large and small, to keep our children, families and communities safe.
One small step is to institute a stronger system of background checks on gun purchases, a measure supported by an overwhelming majority of the American public, responsible gun owners among them. Yet our elected officials rejected this modest step forward. As people of faith, we are called to be the moral voice that prods our members of Congress and our state legislatures to summon the political courage needed to enact meaningful gun violence prevention policy.
The faith community has come together many times in the aftermath of gun tragedies over the years to urge legislators to pass laws that would help to prevent gun violence, and we will not falter in this critical work.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The time is always right to do what is right." Every day is the right day to take a step toward ending gun violence.
Prayer of Lamentation:
Gracious God, our Maker and Sustainer, we pause to remember those who were killed and wounded in the shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater one year ago, even as we remember the terrible toll that gun violence has taken since that time. We grieve the promising lives that have been lost, the stories that will no longer unfold, the voices that will no longer be heard, the friends and families left with heartache and a hole that cannot be filled. We hold in our hearts the communities impacted by gun violence that will never quite be the same. Even as we lament the scourge of gun violence and the culture of violence that seems to grip our society, we confess the ways in which we participate in that culture and fail to boldly give witness to your vision of abundant life and wholeness. Strengthen us in the will to do the things that make for peace. Grant us the courage and creative spirit to sow seeds of understanding, cooperation, community and connection. Help us to link hearts, minds and hands in transforming our collective grief into a message of hope.
Sandy Sorensen is the director of the UCC's Washington, D.C. office
Newtown Congregational Church minister the Rev. Matt Crebbin sees the approaching debate on gun violence as a moral issue. The United Church of Christ senior minister has witnessed the devastating consequences of a gun in the wrong hands. That’s why he and other faith leaders from the small Connecticut town — marked by the murders of 26 innocent people in a school shooting in mid-December — wrote an open letter to U.S. Senators, which was hand-delivered to the 100 lawmakers on Tuesday. The letter, which was also posted in Politco, contains the signatures of more than 4,000 religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths who signed the letter in less than 72 hours in a show of solidarity.
"We as a nation will be judged by how we respond to these events," Crebbin said. "There is a moral imperative to affect change now."
Since the Senate Judiciary Committee could vote this week on potential gun violence measures, faith leaders are asking senators to pass legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, enforce stricter background checks and end gun trafficking. Crebbin drafted the letter with Rabbi Shaul Praver from Congregation Adath Israel.
"Our interfaith clergy group [in Newtown] has been meeting together, much more regularly because of the events of Dec. 14," Crebbin said. "That conversation has led us as interfaith leaders to say the status quo isn’t acceptable around issues of gun safety. We felt it was important to express that as best we could."
The letter, spearheaded by clergy members from Newtown, was shared with religious leaders from across the country through the PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign and Sojourners. The PICO Network is a national network of faith-based community organizations that seeks to solve social issues.
The letter reads in part, "As the clergy leaders of Newtown, joined by colleagues from across the nation, we have witnessed the scourge of gun violence in our neighborhoods, and we call on Congress to pass comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation that will help stop the slaughter."
Though the letter began with Crebbin, Praver and other faith leaders in Newtown, they reminded the Senate that gun violence is a much broader issue that affects the whole nation.
"As faith leaders, we know the impact of this event in our community, not only for the families who’ve lost a loved one, but for a whole community of 27,000 people," Crebbin said. "We know the ripples of gun violence that are affecting us, and will be affecting us for years to come. We felt it was important in the midst of this to communicate our concern and the recognition that it isn’t just one isolated event. Gun violence affects communities across the nation. It affects the lives lost and the community."
"I am proud to stand with my brothers and sisters from Newtown in calling on our senators to take long overdue action to prevent gun violence," said Pastor Michael McBride, executive director of PICO’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign. "More than 80 people are killed each day by gun violence in the United States. Half of them are our young people. As clergy, we can no longer stand on the sidelines; we have a moral imperative to work for peace in the city, and we must act."
The faith leaders reminded senators in their letter that after the news crews and cameras leave, it is the afflicted community’s clergy who are asked to lead the healing effort. They wrote, "It is we who are asked to answer why this happened; to bind up the brokenhearted; and to explain why nothing in Newtown or our many communities will ever be the same again."
The letter continues, "As faith leaders, we commit ourselves to fostering a culture of peace to complement and serve as a foundation for any proposed gun legislation. The slaughter of innocence in Newtown awakened our nation to the tragedy of gun violence throughout our land and we shall neither slumber nor sleep. Rather, by tireless commitment, loving hearts and the sustaining promise of our many faiths, we believe that Newtown shall be remembered as the bridge to a new and kinder world."
The letter in its entirety can be found on the PICO website.
PATHWAYS Theological Education program appeals to nontraditional students seeking careers in ministry
Heidi Hulme, of Faith United Church of Christ in Davenport, Iowa, was married with a family when she "tripped" into the Christian education director position at her church. While she knew traditional seminary was not the right path for her, she still felt a pull to full-time ministry. Looking for an alternative route, she became a licensed children's and youth pastor in 2008 through classes offered by the Iowa Conference of the UCC, and is currently enrolled in the PATHWAYS Theological Education program, with hopes of becoming an ordained UCC minister.
"When I read about the PATHWAYS opportunity, it was a no-brainer for me," said Hulme. "It was the only way I saw myself getting to the point of being prepared for the possibility of ordination. This is the perfect PATHWAY for a 'non-traditionalist' like me."
In response to the changing culture of ministerial authorization in the UCC and in an effort to address leadership training needs, the PATHWAYS Theological Education program was launched in Nov. 2011 by the Southeast Conference of the UCC to minister to aspiring learners in theological and ministerial training. The mission of PATHWAYS is to bring together the best of traditional theological education and the contemporary experiences of the church toward new ministry models by offering affordable, accessible and high-quality theological education to lay and authorized leaders.
Open to the wider UCC church, PATHWAYS carries on the legacy of the TAP (Theology Among the People) program used to train lay leaders within the Southeast Conference for a decade. But unlike the TAP program that took place in a classroom setting, PATHWAYS courses are offered online, encouraging partnerships with other conferences and providing accessibility to distance learners. Also, while TAP offered one curriculum designed for lay leaders, PATHWAYS offers training at three different levels, with the second and third levels designed for those seeking authorization in the UCC.
"PATHWAYS is a continuation of the TAP program in the sense that it is a regional theological education program that is conference based, but it is also replacing the TAP program in the sense that we are doing things differently," said the Rev. Sarah Kim, executive director of theological education and dean of PATHWAYS. "We are truly representing an alternative pattern of theological education that aims to prepare our church leaders — a different strategy for a changing world."
PATHWAYS curriculum is built specifically around the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers. Courses are developed and facilitated by an ecumenical group of educators from seminaries and universities, and by ordained clergy and licensed ministers from a variety of denominations who have excelled in local church ministry and other specialized ministries. Each level of the curriculum involves a learning community of 10-15 people. Level 1 is a two-year program designed for lay leaders seeking foundational training in theology and ministry. Level 2 is a 15-month program designed for licensed ministry in a local church setting, and the Level 3 program is 17-month course designed to prepare lay and licensed ministers for ordination in the UCC.
In January of 2012, PATHWAYS also implemented the Global Theological Education (GTE) immersion trip, where participants from the Southeast Conference and students from Lancaster Theological Seminary take a three-week immersion experience to Thailand.
This summer, PATHWAYS recognizes five graduates from the Level 2 program and by Dec. 2014 will have seven graduates from the Level 1 program. There are currently three people enrolled in the Level 3 program, Kim said.
"We have built and are implementing all three Levels of the PATHWAYS program since it launched in 2011," said Kim.
While Kim is not sure there is a "typical" PATHWAYS student, she said there are certain characteristics they share. Many are not interested in attending traditional seminary due to factors such as location, cost, and full-time jobs and families, but they wish to prepare themselves for authorized ministry. They are learners who are able to communicate online and enjoy the flexibility that comes with distance learning, and many are already serving in churches, often in rural areas, and want to continue their education and training.
"The online learning platform does allow a virtual community where learners find strong bonds with one another, get important feedback, and feel a sense of community," Kim said. "Sometimes this type of social context is critical to those serving small churches in rural areas as sole pastors."
Marsha Brown is another student who found success through the PATHWAYS program. After a friend introduced her to Holy Trinity Community Church UCC in Nashville, Tenn., Brown began the TAP program in 2008 during a period of discontent and uncertainty in her life. She has since graduated from the TAP program and is currently completing Level 2 of PATHWAYS, with plans to continue to Level 3 for ordination. She is involved in pastoral care work at Holy Trinity and Phoenix Christian Church in Wildersville, Tenn., where she also preaches once or twice a month. For Brown, these programs helped her figure out her life's true calling during a time when she couldn't find the answers.
"Prior to this, I had moments of wanting to enter into the ministry, but really had no idea of how or in what position or title," Brown said. "I knew I wanted to delve into the scriptures more and I was thirsting for knowledge. So the new chapter in my life began."
Love trumps all. The Rev. Eliza Buchakjian-Tweedy, pastor of First Church Congregational United Church of Christ, wants to spread that message far and wide as a way to say thank you to supporters around the world. Her Rochester, N.H., congregation, which received more than 70 LGBT rainbow flags from all over after its flags were stolen, will recognize the support and solidarity it received by commemorating those gifts.
First Church Congregational will celebrate a welcoming love for all people on Sunday, Sept. 7, when the church hosts a "Sunday of Extravagant Welcome" to recognize diversity within the church and around the Rochester area.
The event comes after First Church Congregational was victimized twice in July by the theft of rainbow flags that symbolize the church's Open and Affirming commitment to welcome people of all races, classes, nationalities, genders, gender identities, and sexual orientations. Since the thefts became public, replacement rainbow flags and banners have streamed into First Church Congregational from across the United States and around the world from places such as Canada, France and Germany.
The world-wide support has left Buchakjian-Tweedy feeling "overwhelmed."
"To see this outpouring of love and support — the Gospel promises that loves trumps all, that love wins over hate, love wins over anger, and love wins over death — what we have is God's kingdom shining through this small church in a small state," she said.
The Sunday of Extravagant Welcome will also reaffirm First Church Congregational's commitment to welcoming all people without exception, and thanking those who generously supported the church. Buchakjian-Tweedy will say a few words to mark the occasion, and then those assembled will gather on the church lawn to decorate the church with the six dozen rainbow flags it received. The event is open to the community.
First Church Congregational, which was founded in 1731, became an Open and Affirming Congregation in 2002. The first theft of a rainbow flag occurred in 2013, during the week of Fourth of July. When it happened again multiple times this summer, she reported it to local police. The story eventually went viral, prompting the donations of dozens of rainbow flags.
"I've gotten handwritten notes from people I've never met, flags from complete strangers," Buchakjian-Tweedy said. "To take something they read on the internet and respond in a physical and tangible way, this speaks to something profound within people."
Buchakjian-Tweedy plans to share a few donated rainbow flags with nearby churches, who are "changing their signs to say, 'We stand with First Church Congregational,'" Buchakjian-Tweedy added.
"If we can reach just one teenager, scared and alone, contemplating suicide, we will have done our job," Buchakjian-Tweedy said. "The United Church of Christ — a denomination with a long history of social justice work — holds that 'God is Still Speaking' and that churches are still called to strive for a just and compassionate world for all of creation, most especially for those who have been historically marginalized and excluded from the Church."
With a deep sense of gratitude, serving the United Church of Christ during a time that he's called both a challenge and a privilege, the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, the denomination's general minister and president, has announced he plans to retire early.
Black's decision to retire at the end of General Synod 2015 – two years before the conclusion of his second term – is in part because of his belief that at that time the church will reach an intersection where the transition to a unified body of governance, the scope of work among the covenanted ministries, and the missional priorities of the national setting will all align.
"Terms of office do not always fit the ever-evolving needs of an organization," Black said. "The national setting of the United Church of Christ has moved through a major transition and we are steadily moving forward as a leaner, more focused and agile organization. I hope we can continue along this trajectory and maintain our momentum. I believe that a change in leadership next year, bringing new energy and vision, will help to ensure that we do."
The UCC continued to break new ground during Black's tenure, becoming the first national denomination to file a lawsuit against a state (North Carolina) challenging the constitutionality of its marriage laws. The UCC became the first denomination to take a stand against fossil fuels when the General Synod in 2013 voted in favor of moving toward divestment from fossil fuel companies, along with other strategies, as a way to combat climate change. The church also completed its transition to a single 52-member board of governance from five different boards, marking the first time that one board was responsible for all the church's affairs.
Black announced his retirement 11 months before he plans to leave office so that the United Church of Christ Board will have ample time to identify and nominate his successor. Board chair the Rev. Bernard Wilson, who expressed his gratitude for Black's leadership during a period of difficult transitions, is now putting together a search committee to recommend the denomination's next General Minister and President. He hopes to have the group in place by the end of the month.
"The search committee will require careful, prayerful discernment but will also need to adhere to a tight timeline," said Wilson. The committee will need to collect and review the profiles of those called to apply for consideration. The committee then will need to interview those candidates it considers worthy, select one candidate and present that candidate at the March 2015 meeting of the UCCB."
Black has acknowledged that the months ahead will be filled with important work and decisions for him and his fellow national officers, and that he remains committed to his responsibilities.
"My hope and expectation is that you will join with me in that engagement, with the awareness that my tenure as General Minister and President will end next year, but with an even greater awareness that there is much to be accomplished before then," Black said.
Black was re-elected by the General Synod of the UCC to a second term in June 2013 during the denomination's biennial gathering in Long Beach, Calif. He was called to the leadership of the church five years ago by the former Executive Council of the UCC, and was confirmed as the UCC's seventh GMP by delegates during General Synod 2009 in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Before arriving in Cleveland for his first term in April 2010, Black was the conference minister for the New York Conference of the UCC from 2000 to 2009, and a pastor at the Congregational Church of South Hempstead (N.Y.) for almost 15 years (1980-1994). He also worked for the national setting from 1994 to 2000 in the UCC's Office for Church Life and Leadership.
"Given the fact that God has blessed the United Church of Christ with such a rich and diverse array of very capable and inspired leaders, I am confident that there is someone in our midst who will answer to God's call to serve as our next general minister and president," Black said.
"I ask for your prayers for Geoffrey and his wife Pat, for those who will serve on the search committee and for those who will come before it," Wilson said. "I also ask that you pray for our beloved United Church of Christ as we move into the future God has before us."