A United Church of Christ congregation in Texas has been told it cannot participate in an evangelical Christian program that assists children of prisoners because of the church's outspoken gay-friendly stance.
The Rev. Dan De Leon, pastor of Friends Congregational UCC in College Station, Texas, said he learned this summer that his church was disqualified from Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, which encourages churches to buy Christmas presents for the children of inmates.
Prison Fellowship officials said the church's stance on homosexuality, declared on its Web site, represented a disagreement about basic scriptural doctrine.
"For a church to qualify for Angel Tree, its beliefs must be consistent with our Statement of Faith, including being Trinitarian and accepting the unique authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life," reads a July 24 letter the church received from Prison Fellowship.
The church provided a copy of the letter to Religion News Service.
"As we have looked at the doctrine and beliefs of your church in light of our Statement of Faith and partnering guidelines, we have determined that your church does not qualify as part of our program."
De Leon said he called the regional office of Prison Fellowship and was told his church was disqualified because it belongs to the UCC's "Open and Affirming" program that welcomes gays and lesbians as members.
"Personally it came as a shock and when it was shared with the congregation, it was equally shocking," said De Leon, whose church draws an average of 120 worshippers on Sunday. "The emotions ran from anger to confusion to just the wind being taken out of our sails as a community initially."
David Lawson, senior vice president of Prison Fellowship, called the situation "one unfortunate incident" and said "very few" of the more than 12,000 participating churches have been disqualified or disqualified themselves from the Angel Tree program. Such cases usually involve differing views about homosexuality or creation, he said.
He said the Angel Tree program is not limited to Christmas presents but aims for a year-round "full relationship" between churches and prisoners' children, involving them in congregational programs.
"We want to make sure that the churches that we partner with are compatible with our values, our statement of faith," said Lawson, who is based in Lansdowne, Va.
The Texas church has participated in the program for five years and been "Opening and Affirming" since 1996. In recent years, Prison Fellowship has reviewed Angel Tree participants to ensure that churches are compatible with a recently revised mission statement that urges a focus on "transformation," he said.
The United Church of Christ has seen other repercussions from its stance on homosexuality. In July, an insurer refused to offer coverage to a UCC church in Adrian, Mich., saying its pro-gay stance put it at "a higher risk" of property damage and litigation. In recent years, major television networks have rejected UCC ads as "too controversial."
The Texas congregation has drafted a letter to Prison Fellowship, signed by more than 120 parishioners and supporters, to express its dismay at being removed from the program.
"We are disheartened that Prison Fellowship has chosen to lean more heavily on small matters of doctrinal disagreements than on much larger matters of theological authenticity and compassion, which demand that we Christians must love one another if anyone will ever believe that we truly follow Christ," the letter said.
UCC President John H. Thomas wrote a letter of support to the congregation, and encouraged them to respond to Prison Fellowship.
"I pray that those who receive your letter will be challenged by its message and, by God's grace, transformed," Thomas wrote.
De Leon said church members will meet to determine new ways to help children in the community.
Lawson said even though Prison Fellowship is no longer aligned with the College Station congregation, "we affirm them in their desire to serve these children."
A major insurance company that sought out business from a local United Church of Christ congregation in Michigan has refused to even provide a quote for coverage because it learned the church's denomination supported same-gender marriage equality and the ordination of gay clergy.Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., told West Adrian UCC in Adrian, Mich., that its denomination's gay-affirming stances made it a "higher risk" for property and liability insurance.
"Our company's decision to not submit a quote to your organization arose out of information that was supplied in a supplemental application, indicating that your organization 'publicly endorses or practices the marriage of same-sex couples' and 'publicly endorses or practices the ordination of the homosexual clergy,'" wrote Marci J. Fretz, a regional underwriter for Brotherhood Mutual, in a July 30 letter to the church.
Ironically, the church was fully insured by another company, and happily so, but was sought out by a local agent of Brotherhood Mutual who asked to provide the church a quote and then, subsequently, refused to do so.
"I think Brotherhood Mutual's action is one worth noting," wrote the Rev. John W. Kottke in an Aug. 13 letter to the Rev. Kent J. Ulery, the UCC's Michigan Conference Minister, "if for the sake of warning other churches in our Conference that such prejudice exists within certain sectors of the business community."
Founded in 1917, Brotherhood Mutual claims to be one of the nation's leading insurers of churches and related ministries. It provides insurance to 30,000 congregations in 29 states and the District of Columbia.
"[Brotherhood Mutual has] an obligation to serve as stewards of our policyholder's funds, and to avoid knowingly insuring organizations that are at higher risk of loss based on the controversial positions that they have taken," the company wrote to the church.
Cathy Green, president and CEO of the UCC Insurance Board, which insures about 2,600 UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations, says Brotherhood Mutual is one of its "key competitors."
In contrast to Brotherhood Mutual, Green says, one of UCCIB's core values is inclusivity. "All UCC and Disciples churches are eligible to receive our services without prejudice to a denominational or congregational position on being open and affirming or on being a congregation with a wide diversity of leadership membership," Green said. "We give our best efforts to every church every time."
West Adrian UCC, founded in 1836, has about 100 members. It is not listed among the nearly 700 UCC churches that have publicly adopted an "open and affirming " position with regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.
"I do not believe this company represents the mainstream of insurance providers, but it is good to be aware of how our church's faith perspectives can be misjudged," the church's pastor said. "I hope that none of our churches are drawn into dealings with this company."
The Golden Gate Association ordained the UCC's first gay clergyperson, the Rev. William R. Johnson, in 1972. In 2005, when General Synod affirmed same-gender marriage equality, the UCC became the first and largest mainline Christian denomination to do so.
People of color make up the majority of those living in neighborhoods located within 1.8 miles of the nation's hazardous waste facilities.
Neighborhoods with facilities clustered close together have higher percentages of people of color than those with non-clustered facilities.
As a whole, racial disparities for people of color exist in 9 out of 10 EPA regions.
Existing laws and land-use controls have not been adequately applied in order to reduce health risks for those living in or near toxic "hot spots."
Findings in UCC's 2007 report are consistent with an Associated Press study in Sept. 2005 showing African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of causing the greatest health danger.
As in previous budgets, the Bush Administration FY08 budget recommends a 28.4 percent cut to the budget of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice. ($4.58 million has been recommended, down from $6.34 million enacted in the FY06 budget and FY07 continuing resolution).
Source: "Toxic Wastes and Race 1987-2007"
For 20 years, the UCC has been asking, What color is toxic waste?
Like millions of others, Sheila Holt-Orsted's family dreamed of owning their own home. But that dream became a nightmare.
An African-American resident of Dickson, Tenn. - a small town about 35 miles west of Nashville — Sheila, like many of her relatives, was born and raised in Dickson's 'Eno Road' community, a place where the Holts and other descendants of slaves had called home for generations.
Eno Road first became Dickson's preferred site for city dumping in the 1940s. Subsequently, over several decades, the now 74-acre Dickson County Landfill - an open, unlined site - has been used as the principal dumping ground for multiple sanitation, construction and demolition projects.
Despite the fact that over 1,400 residents obtain their drinking water from private wells or springs within a four-mile radius of the landfill, industrial solvents - generated as waste from nearby automotive plants and other industries - were buried within a mere 54 feet of the Holt family's front door.
Sheila's father died of prostate and bone cancer in January 2007. And during his illness, Sheila, a personal fitness trainer, was shocked to learn that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Several other family members also had endured significant illness, including cervical and colon polyps, rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders and immune disorders.
Sheila discovered that her family had been drinking water — for four decades - from a well contaminated by trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen.
Muddying the toxic waters
Even after government testing had revealed that the area's water supply was contaminated, Tennessee's Department of Health and Environment continued to allow the operation of the Eno Road landfills.
White families who lived near the landfill, however, were quickly notified about the results of the testing. They were provided with bottled water until they could be placed on the city water system.
Yet the Holt family was provided misinformation about the quality of their well water.
"Your water is of good quality for the parameters tested," read a 1998 letter sent to the Holt family from the Department of Health and Environment. "It is felt that the low levels of methylene or trichloroethylence may be due to either lab or sampling error."
But, soon, the lie would be exposed.
"For four decades, [my family] drank well water poisoned by the Dickson County Landfill," Sheila says. "We are all sick, and the government seems to be waiting for us to die."
What happened to Sheila Holt-Orsted's family is not an oversight. It is not an accident or unfortunate twist of fate.
Although Dickson County covers over 490 square miles, the only cluster of solid waste facilities in the county is located in the predominantly African-American Eno Road community.
All permitted landfills in Dickson County are concentrated in Eno Road, which is certainly no coincidence. It is yet another concrete sign of environmental racism.
UCC jumpstarts a movement
Twenty years ago, the UCC began its hard-fought campaign to bring environmentally racist practices to the forefront of the public consciousness. Yet, despite the church's insistence that such practices be ended, evidence of the ongoing struggle is clear.
In 1987, a groundbreaking study on the connection between race and the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities was released by the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice.
"Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States" found race to be the leading variable in predicting the location of hazardous waste sites, a stronger indicator than household income, home values, and estimated amount of hazardous waste generated by industry.
To this day, the 1987 UCC study is widely credited by community leaders, environmental activists and leaders from all levels of government as the pivotal element in the environmental justice movement.
U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) dubs the study as "keystone."
"As the first comprehensive national report to truly document the link between race and the location of hazardous waste sites, Toxic Wastes and Race catapulted the concern of environmental racism to national prominence," Hastings says. "This keystone document established the foundation for the development of the environmental justice movement."
Eileen McGurty, associate chair of the environmental sciences and policy department at Johns Hopkins University, says, "The scope and scale of the study pioneered and entirely new area of investigation. All subsequent research about equity in the distribution of environmental risk was a response to the UCC's methodology and conclusion."
The UCC study influenced generations of advocates. And many of those touched had no knowledge of or connection with the UCC. Monique Harden, an attorney, is the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans, La.
"At the age of 19 when the UCC published Toxic Wastes and Race, I was completely unaware of this study and the signifi cant role it would have in my advocacy work 10 years later," Harden says. "Without the report, the voices of each polluted community of color where I provide legal advocacy assistance would be muted."
Injustice 'not an accident'
The Rev. Carlos Correa Bernier serves as minister for environmental justice with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
Correa first became aware of the study during his work as a psychologist with the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his counseling work with Spanish-speaking families, Correa says he observed a high frequency of cognitive development problems in children.
He learned that 80 percent of the Spanish-speaking families he was seeing were from the Tijuana region of Mexico, an area heavily concentrated with maquiladoras, U.S. factories that relocated to Mexico and other countries where companies could take advantage of lax labor environmental practices.
One of the primary industries that located in the Tijuana region was television manufacturing, where workers on the assembly line - many of them women carrying pregnancies - were exposed to high levels of mercury, a heavy metal contaminant associated with cognitive development problems.
In his work, Correa was able to connect the dots between exposure to heavy metals in the Tijuana maquiladoras and the cases of cognitive development problems in the children he saw in Chicago. The UCC's 1987 study gave Correa a larger conceptual framework which to understand his work with Latino children in Chicago.
"What we see today," Correa says, "is what we saw in 1987. The greater exposure to toxic wastes experienced by communities of color is not an accident. It is by design."
Companies intentionally locate their waste sites in communities of color, Correa says, because they know such communities frequently lack the resources to fight the placement of such sites in their communities.
Origins of landmark study
In late 1970s to early 1980s, the then-governor of North Carolina promised industries that they could have a landfill to dispose of wastes in impoverished Warren County. Placing a landfill in the area, which is predominantly African American, was seen by the state as an attractive solution to the problem of illegally-dumped PCPs along roadways in 14 North Carolina counties.
But the state of North Carolina underestimated the power of county residents — and the possibilities that come with zealous community organizing.
Dollie Burwell, a long-time UCC lay leader who is now a staff member for U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfi eld (D-N.C.), was on the front lines of the struggle to block the landfill in Warren County.
In 1978, Dollie was among a group of residents who formed Concerned Citizens Against PCPs. From the beginning, the group understood its efforts to be part of a larger and more long-term movement. Burwell and others saw their activism around the landfill as yet another extension of the Civil Rights Movement.
From 1978 to 1980, state hearings were held on the landfill proposal. Burwell recalls that it was a time when residents joined together across racial lines in a common effort to protect the health of their families.
Despite turnouts of hundreds of residents at the state hearings expressing opposition to the landfill proposal, construction of the landfill began in 1982.
In August 1982, Burwell joined more than 500 protesters who stood in front of the construction trucks in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Early that morning, Burwell recalls preparing her nine-yearold daughter, Kim, for school. But Kim had other plans. "I'm not going to school," Kim told her mother. "I'm going with you."
When Burwell was arrested for impeding traffic and led to the police wagon, she could see her daughter watching and crying. The young child's sobbing was captured by numerous media stories and helped to galvanize college students and activists from outside the state to join the fight against the landfill.
Although the landfill was ultimately constructed, community activists succeeded in their call for a General Accounting Office investigation of toxic waste dumping in the Southeast U.S.
And the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ), which had supported the nonviolent protest of Warren County residents, was moved to take another step.
CRJ commissioned a study to examine patterns in the placement of hazardous waste sites. The now-famous UCC study was a breakthrough for the environmental justice movement.
In releasing the report, then UCC staffer Charles Lee coined the term "environmental racism," now a commonly recognized phrase used in the environmental movement.
Not surprisingly, Lee now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of environmental justice.
The role of churches and people of faith is not something new to justice movements, but it can be said that the UCC arrived early when it comes to environmental justice.
"For such a time as this" is how Burwell describes how her faith led to her involvement. And she's proud that local churches, including UCC congregations, were key centers of organizing in the environmental justice movement.
Correa says those communities facing the greatest impact of toxic dumping and exposure recognized the power of the church as a prophetic voice. They recognize that faith communities have helped to bring the issue of environmental racism to greater prominence in public consciousness.
"They didn't just call the lawyers right away," Correa says. "They called the churches."
Churches provided much-needed information and became sources of moral and theological empowerment, he says.
In Warren County, those who once may have considered themselves too poor or too uneducated to get anything accomplished found encouragement in church basements. More and more African Americans became involved in local elections, as people made the personal connection between politics and their own well-being.
Ultimately, residents' organizing efforts led to a government-mandated clean-up of the Warren County landfill in 2003, a process that included community planning and monitoring.
The landfill site is now a recreational park.
There have been precious victories over the past 20 years. What, if anything, has truly changed?
This persistent question led the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries to commission a 20th anniversary follow-up report, which was released earlier this year and celebrated at General Synod in June.
The newest study, "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007," applied new methodology to better determine where people live in relation to toxic sites, revealing that racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste sites are, in fact, greater than previously reported.
"Twenty years after the release of Toxic Wastes and Race, significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities," reads the report's executive summary. "Although the current assessment uses newer methods that better match where people and hazardous waste facilities are located, the conclusions are very much the same as they were in 1987."
The 2007 study was authored by Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University; Paul Mohai, professor at University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment; Robin Saha, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana; and Beverly Wright, sociologist and founding director of UCC-related Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
According to the study, people of color comprise the majority of the population living near the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities.
Researchers found that for Latino/as, African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders, major disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities exist in the majority of the Environmental Protection Agency's regions.
The findings are particularly troubling, because they indicate that those environmental protections that do exist on the books are not equally enforced.
The still-fresh images of the painful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 paint the story of the UCC's newest report.
Several weeks after the storm, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality gave the okay to the city of New Orleans to open the 200-acre Old Gentilly Landfill in east New Orleans for dumping demolition waste from the storm. In the 1980s, federal regulators had ordered the landfill closed.
Yet, four months after the hurricane, debris trucked to the Old Gentilly Landfill stood 100 feet high. Objections from residents, environmentalists and even some high-ranking officials went unheeded. In November 2005, the landfill caught fire.
Correa, Burwell and other activists agree that it is time for the eco-justice and environmental justice movements to join together.
Remembering her experiences in Warren County, N.C., Burwell recalls, "We [once] thought the environmental movement was about whales, not about us."
But there is growing understanding among advocates that environmental justice must have a more-comprehensive vision.
"We need to start thinking more theologically about environmental justice," Correa says. "We need to offer a vision that is rooted in our biblical and theological understanding of all of creation." The preface of the UCC's 2007 report echoes this call for a larger vision.
"There is only one environment," it reads. "The environmental justice movement is concerned about wetlands, birds, and wilderness areas; it is also concerned, however, about urban habitats, about reservations, about the things that are happening on the U.S-Mexico border, about children poisoned by lead in their own homes and about children playing in contaminated parks and playgrounds."
The stories of Sheila Holt-Orsted, the residents of New Orleans and countless others show that addressing the racial inequalities in exposure to environmental risk requires not only better environmental protection laws, but the vigilant monitoring of government agencies tasked with enforcing current laws.
Shelia can only wonder what her family's life would be like had the government's testing of well water in Dickson County, Tenn., had been equitably reported.
Justice demands something more than "what if."
Sandy Sorensen, a veteran public policy advocate in the UCC's Washington, D.C., offi ce, is acting communications minister for Justice and Witness Ministries.
Across UCC, churches approach Eucharist with diverse traditions, meaningful practices
World Communion Sunday may come and go without much fanfare, foregoing celebrity hype and lacking attention-grabbing scandal.
But in an increasing globalized world, where differences can be divisive, sharing in the elements of the Lord's Supper is the quiet constant that unites believers of Christ — that grace, redemption and healing are afforded through the simple sharing of sacred bread and cup.
On Oct. 7, congregations across the UCC and countless other denominations will celebrate Holy Communion. For some it will be a somber occasion. For others, the elements will be received joyfully.
Sue Blain, the UCC's minister for worship, reflecting on the myriad of different ways that Holy Communion is celebrated, shared and distributed among Christians, says, "I think the ideal would be for folks to experience communion in a variety of different ways."
Blain says that when communion is served in the pews, it symbolizes God coming among the people, feeding them. "But having to make a choice to move forward has another level of commitment in some respects," she says. "Both are true, both are valid," says Blain. "I think we could experience all of that and be enriched spiritually."
At UCC's Cathedral of Hope, communion is weekly highpoint
Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, regards itself as the largest liberal Christian church in the world with a primary outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Each week, at Sunday morning services and a Wednesday night contemporary worship, communion is celebrated.
The Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson, senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC, says the decision to serve communion each week came from both practical and spiritual reasons.
"Nobody grew up in this congregation," explains Hudson, who says that the 37-year-old congregation is comprised largely of transplants from the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist traditions. "For those who come out of a tradition where communion, or the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist is served every week, that's essential to their worship life."
"I think this church also needed that sacrament of grace in a way many churches might not have felt that need," Hudson says. "This congregation suffered greatly during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It had close to 1,500 people die of AIDS. [Communion] became an important part of the healing of the congregation."
Hudson describes communion as being a high point of each worship service.
"The emphasis is on celebration of the feast, the joy of receiving, and the hope contained within that," she says. "Some of the older liturgies are more focused on sin and repenting. Not that we don't recognize that sin exists, but we interpret the sacrament as an act of grace that is designed to bring hope, peace and reconciliation to people."
Having communion each week has become so central that Hudson feels its importance in worship is as a response to God's Word.
"The sacred moment of that sacrament is so powerful, in terms of helping people heal," she says. "It offers grace. We're so committed to the notion that 'Everyone is welcome to the table.' We want to demonstrate that every single week."
Join Cathedral of Hope UCC for worship online at www.cathedralofhope.com.
Disciples/UCC local churches prompt examination of communion 'frequency'
First Congregational UCC in San Jose, Calif., has a long-standing relationship with the United Disciples Fellowship, a congregation of the Disciples of Christ. The two faith communities share facilities and worship, but both keep true to their own denomination's interpretations.
The Rev. Nathan A. Miller says that the relationship between the two churches can sometimes seem confusing to outsiders, but says the partnership has worked seamlessly.
"[The UDF] resembles a house church," explains Miller, who shares his ministerial responsibilities with his associate, the Rev. Nancy C. Peters.
"They meet on the first Saturday of every month in someone's home. They have a worship time, a program time, and a business meeting time. Part of their worship time is always the sacrament of communion, in keeping with the Disciples tradition."
Each Sunday, both congregations share in a common worship service, and the church has found a way to honor the Disciples' tradition of weekly communion, even though the UCC congregation traditionally celebrates the Lord's Supper just once a month.
"At the close of the organ postlude — we're very careful not to say 'at the close of worship' because this is a continuation of worship — people have already been invited to come forward to communion if they wish," says Miller. The UDF furnishes the bread and wine, and communion is served by intinction up around the communion table in the chancel. All are welcome, and Miller says that besides the UDF members, many visitors and UCC members will also take part in the sacrament.
Miller admiringly describes the UDF congregation as "an empowered bunch" and says its members are very theologically astute.
While Peters is a member of UDF, Miller is not. Still, Miller says the UDF is very gracious in welcoming him to events, but says, "they are really self-sufficient in all the positive ways." And the UCC congregation has benefited greatly from the special interest the UDF has taken in sponsoring adult education events, such as a lectureship series.
Miller says while worship style between UCC and Disciples of Christ communities are very similar, the two sacraments — communion and baptism — are viewed quite differently.
"We understand the act of communion much the same, but the frequency hardly matches any UCC church," he says. As for baptism, Miller says, "The Disciples of Christ tradition practices adult baptism, which is a practice of the UCC, but infrequent. And the Disciples immerse."
While serving a church in Mesa, Ariz., Miller remembers his church, a union between Disciples of Christ and UCC, sprinkled the UCC babies and immersed the Disciples young teens and adults. "We'd roll in a tank and fill it up with a hose—it took a day to do it—and there was a heater so that the water wasn't too cold!"
These differences, Miller says, have never gotten in the way. On World Communion Sunday, the UDF members will lead the entire worship, serving communion in the joint worship service with First Congregational UCC in San Jose, and both congregations will partake in the elements, united in Christ.
"Our UCC people only see enhancement of our ministry," says Miller, "and I think the Disciples group sees only enhancement to their ministry. It's just part of who we are."
Pastor: Holy Communion calls us to universal solidarity
"There's a surplus of meaning in the sacrament, and we don't want to nail it down to one thing," says the Rev. Mary Luti, one of the pastors at First Church in Cambridge (Mass.) UCC.
Luti says her congregation celebrates communion once monthly at the morning worship, besides special feast days. A Sunday afternoon service featuring gospel and jazz music serves weekly communion.
Luti feels there is a renewed interest in ritual action across the UCC, not only in the sacrament of communion, but also healing and anointing.
"It's a positive development," she says. "It recovers some of the most ancient traditions of the church that are neither Catholic nor Protestant. They are simply practices that help our bodies and our minds."
To Luti, making sure the communion service never loses its edge is the key to making the ritual meaningful and thought-provoking.
"Very often we repeat the line, 'Jesus sat down to supper with the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him.' That line refers to Judas and Peter," she says.
"There is a challenge there. How do we sit with our enemies? How do we sit with the people we don't agree with, or who don't love us?"
"On World Communion Sunday, a lot of churches are rediscovering the universal aspect of our communion," says Luti. "These rituals are among the ways we show forth and also ground our solidarity with people all over the world."
For Luti, communion has a meaning that transcends time and place. "During communion," she says, "we really link up with the church as it has been, as it is now, and as it will be … we look forward to the day when everyone will be fed around this table with equal joy and equal justice."
When the job was finally completed, one environmentally-conscious UCC church was ready for a real "solarbration."
The task, in this case, was the installation of a solar electric system with panels on the church's roof.
Members of Christ Congregation in Princeton, N.J. - which maintains a three-way affiliation with the UCC, the American Baptist Churches and the Alliance of Baptists - had lots to celebrate. There was joy apparent at worship and at the luncheon that followed, and certainly a sense of significant accomplishment.
Unobtrusive roof panels now convert the sun's rays into more electricity than the church uses most days of the year. The excess is fed automatically into the commercial power grid and earns the church a very sizeable reduction in its utility bills.
But more importantly, as far as members are concerned, they are reducing their "carbon footprint" by cutting the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming.
And they are witnessing to their conviction that the Bible calls Christians to be good stewards of God's creation.
Their pastor, the Rev. Jeffrey Mays, has been preaching that kind of stewardship for years.
"When I quote John 3:16," Mays says, "I make clear that God's love for the world includes all that God has created - all that God called 'good' in the first chapter of Genesis." He has been pastor in Princeton for 20 years.
The head of New Jersey's Green- Faith, a religion-based organization that advocates improving the environment, says Christ Congregation is providing real leadership by its efforts.
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, of New Brunswick, N.J., says Christ Congregation has played "an important leadership role" through its solar project.
The chair of the congregation's board of deacons also is enthusiastic. "It was worth all the effort, for sure," says Bill Gaventa, who is an associate professor at the nearby Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "The project helped our members take the issues more seriously," he says. "Some are considering installing solar panels on their homes. Others have taken other steps. I bought a hybrid automobile."
After implementing several more-common environmental actions — like avoiding the use of styrofoam cups, installing energy-efficient windows, and keeping the thermostat set low when the building is not in use — the congregation made a careful analysis of the merits of a solar electric system.
According to the Rev. Charles McCollough, a member of Christ Congregation, "the policy statements of the UCC had a lot to do with the decision to install the solar electric panels on the roof."
McCollough helped draft the 1999 General Synod statement on Global Warming, and chaired the UCC's working group on "Integrity of Creation, Justice and Peace."
The church offered a screening of the Academy Award-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which features former Vice President Al Gore. Among guests who viewed the fi lm were students from Princeton High School, located across the street from the church. Afterward, the teen-agers enthusiastically followed the installation of the church's solar electric system and wrote essays on environmental issues.
Many had never been inside the church until they attended the movie as a group.
McCollough and his wife, Carol, had taken the teachings of the policy statement seriously and installed a solar electric system on their farm house in nearby rural Hopewell in 2003. They discovered that although their climate is not ideal for solar energy, they soon began saving enough on electricity bills to recover the installation costs. They use the power their system generates to help heat and light not only their home but also the barn-studio that Charles uses in his retirement work as a sculptor.
In the process, the McColloughs made friends with an engineer, Rick Brooke, who volunteered to install the church's system and provided invaluable expertise. He was aided by architect William Wolfe, who volunteered to design the solar electric system.
All this didn't happen without stress. There was rough sailing for the first part of Christ Congregation's solar electric project.
When the congregation first studied the potential of installing the panels, Brooke analyzed the hours of sunlight hitting the roof. He ascertained that a large pin oak tree on the church property would create too much shade and recommended that it be taken down. If the tree was removed, an estimated 40 photo-voltaic panels would power a 7.2 kilowatt system and provide for 75 to 80 percent of the church's energy needs.
State officials responsible for the New Jersey Clean Energy Program were encouraging and made a grant to help cover expenses. So the church obtained an initial permit for the project, and a professional arborist was employed to remove the tree.
But the local shade-tree commission objected after several neighbors opposed the removal of the 60-foot oak. The shade-tree enthusiasts arrived on the scene just 30 minutes before the arborists unloaded their chain saws.
By that time church members were deeply committed to the project and found a local lawyer who eagerly presented the church's case to the borough council. Church members also sought to explain the theological and environmental rationale for the project. They emphasized the importance of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and noted the hidden costs of pollution.
Eventually, a compromise was worked out. The church would receive a new permit but would need to see that three new trees were planted in the borough, as well as three on the church property.
Ironically, when the pin oak was being removed it was discovered that the tree was infected with a bacterial leaf scorch and would need to be removed in any case.
During the weeks that this drama was playing out, the story made headlines in Princeton newspapers, thus building up the church's reputation as the first "green church" in the borough. Overall, the church has enjoyed widespread support.
A progressive, open-and-affirming church, Christ Congregation's membership enjoys its diversity of viewpoints on many issues, but the church was clearly united when it needed to stand up to neighborhood pressure. Members turned out in full force at the Borough Council's September meeting.
That commitment led GreenFaith to salute the church for "putting their faith into action for the earth."
The Rev. John Deckenback, the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference Minister, is also enthusiastic about the Christ Congregation's efforts. The Conference has an active committee, headed by Jane Schaefer of Newark, Del., at work for energy alternatives.
To keep, to care
When McCollough was asked to preach for the post-installation "solarbration," he challenged the centuries-old theology based on the first chapter in the Bible. Genesis 1:28 asserts that humanity's purpose in life is to subdue the earth and have dominion over all creation. McCollough prefers the second chapter of Genesis where God's call to keep and care for creation is recorded.
"Through the ages," he told those who attended the solarbration, "we have dominated the earth, the forests, animals, plants, waters, fish, land, skies, and - when we could get away with it - we have dominated other people."
"We live in the age of overload," he said. "We have overloaded our cars, homes, stomachs, our time, our work loads, landfills and even our atmosphere. We have subdued and dominated God's creation so thoroughly that we - at least the very poor - are drowning and cooking in our overload."
He cited Isaiah and other prophets who condemned such abuses of God's creation and the apostle Paul who described "the whole creation groaning in travail."
Pastor Mays says the solar panels "reflect and symbolize" the spirit of Christ Congregation.
"As a people," Mays says, "we are open to new ways of thinking and doing. We are concerned about the degradation of our environment and are particularly concerned about the issue of global warming. And we are eager to affirm God's creation and our call to be stewards of creation."
The Rev. J. Martin Bailey is former editor of United Church News' predecessor publications, United Church Herald and A.D. Magazine. He also is the former Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches for Education, Communication and Discipleship. He and his wife, Betty Jane, live in West Orange, N.J.
The Rev. Myron Ross, 82, the fi rst African-American ordained in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, who also served for many years in Japan, starting in 1954, as the E&R's fi rst African-American missionary, died of lung cancer on May 11 in St. George, Utah. Ross, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement entered Eden Theological Seminary as a Presbyterian, but later told an audience at the UCC-related seminary in St. Louis that he joined the Evangelical and Reformed Church (which would soon become the UCC) because he was inspired by the intellectual vigor of his seminary professors.
The Rev. Chester Terpstra, 89, former Hawaii Conference Minister from 1968 to 1978, died April 12 in Sequim, Wash., after a long illness. During his ministry, Terpstra also served several pastorates in Hawaii and was a missionary, along with his wife, Margery, in Pohnpei.
The Rev. Robert Molsberry, UCC pastor in Grinnell, Iowa, is the candidate for Ohio Conference Minister and will be considered by the Conference on July 27-28. The Rev. Sheldon Culver, Missouri/Mid-South Associate Conference Minister, is the candidate for Illinois South Minister and will be considered when the Conference meets Sept. 7-8.
Anderson, Paul N. to First Cong. UCC, East Troy, WI
Ashley, Timothy S. Spring Grove, PA to St. Paul"s UCC, Sheboygan, WI
Bracebridge, Shawn E. Clifton Park, NY to Cong. UCC, West Stockbridge, MA
Breedlove, Christopher J. San Antonio, TX to Trinity UCC, Jasper, IN
Brownell, Jennifer G. to Community UCC, Hillsdale, OR
Burd, James K. to Association Minister, Wauwatosa, WI
Clippinger, Arthur P. Massillon, OH to Trinity UCC and St. Peter"s UCC, Clinton, OH
Comeau, Megan E. Worcester, MA to Central UCC, Orange, MA
Cornell, Edward F. to Second Cong. UCC, New London, CT
Dunlap-Wolfe, Barbara J. Potosi, WI to Immanuel UCC, Woodman, WI
Favreau-Sorvillo, Jeanne M. Redlands, CA to Cong. UCC, Diamond Bar, CA
Fournier, Richard T. Northampton, MA to First. Cong. UCC, Buckland, MA
Frazier, Kenneth A. to First Cong. UCC, Waterbury, CT
Frueh, Donald G. to First Cong. UCC, Salem, OR
Gregory, Kevin P. Appleton, WI to St. John"s UCC, Manchester, MO
Harris, George M. to Second Cong. UCC, New Britain, CT
Haslanger, Phillip C. Madison, WI to Memorial UCC, Fitchburg, WI
Holman, Gail F. to Phoenix Community UCC, Kalamazoo, MI
Hudson, John F. Concord, MA to Pilgrim UCC, Sherborn, MA
Jacobsen, Steven D. to Cong. UCC, Mentone, CA
Kwon, Yul Madison, WI to UCC, Hancock, WI
LaMarche, Nichol M. to Federated, Cotuit, MA
Manz, Kevin to Plymouth, Lawrence, KS
McHugh, Nancy S. Cedar Grove, NY to UCC, Waitsfi eld, VT
Morkin, Charles W. Sturgeon Bay, WI to United, Holyoke, MA
Nelson, John A. Dover, MA to Community UCC, Niantic, CT
Nichols, J. Christopher Goshen, CT to First Cong. UCC, Madison, CT
Pastors, Jennifer to Colonial UCC, Prairie Village, KS
Patton, Alison B. Chicago, IL to First Church of Christ UCC, Simsbury, CT
Robinson, Olivia H. to Cong. UCC, Kensington, CT
Rogers-Brigham, Ann M. East Orleans, MA to Immanuel UCC, Plymouth, WI
Scott, Judith I. Kingston, RI to Evangelical UCC, Marysville, KS
Shiels, Joan M. to Hope UCC, Sturgeon Bay, WI
Stone, Kenton V. Lawrence, KS to First Cong. UCC, Topeka, KS
Szyszko, Dolores B. to Church of the Good Shepherd UCC, South Woodstock, CT
Vaccariello, Carol Medina, OH to Cong. UCC, North Canton, OH
Wagner, Johanna Easthampton, MA to Church of Christ UCC, Granby, MA
Watson, Jimmy R. Terre Haute, IN to St. Andrew UCC, Louisville, KY
Wenzel, Lorrie M. to Calvary Memorial UCC, Wauwatosa, WI
Woitasek, Walter Springfi eld, MA to Church of Christ UCC, Granby, MA
Wyatt, Andrea C. Holliston, MA to Pilgrim UCC, Lexington, MA
Yonkman, Nicole G., Kettering, OH to UCC, Fishers, IN
Yonkman, Todd G., Kettering, OH to UCC, Fishers, IN
Information on pastoral changes is provided by UCC"s parish life and leadership ministry.
Adams, Ann. B., 52, 5/3/2007
Bourne, Donald S., 94, 5/24/2007
Bowers, Daniel A., 88, 4/21/2007
Gerber, John A., 91, 4/10/2007
Gregory, Lillian S., 92, 3/28/2007
Klein, Ernest C., 82, 5/28/2007
Pirazzini, Francis X., 84, 5/6/2007
Ross, Myron W., 82, 5/11/2007
Tom, Vernon G.S., 65, 3/26/2007
Vodola, Esther, 95, 5/18/2007
Information on clergy deaths is provided by UCC"s Pension Boards
The Southern Baptist Convention, with some 16.2 million members on the books, claims to be the nation's largest Protestant denomination. But the Rev. Thomas Ascol believes the active membership is really a fraction of that. Ascol, pastor of the 230-member Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., points to a church report showing that only 6 million Southern Baptists attend church on an average Sunday.
"The reality is, the FBI couldn't find half of those (members) if they had to," said Ascol, who asserts his own congregation attendance swells to at least 350 every Sunday. Ascol is urging his denomination to call for "integrity in the way we regard our membership rolls in our churches and also in the way we report statistics."
For religious organizations, membership figures are a lot like a position on the annual list of best colleges. A rise is trumpeted as a sign of vitality, strength and clout. And a drop probably means somebody somewhere checked the wrong box on some unimportant survey.
Vast differences in theology and accounting practices make it nearly impossible to really know how many members a church body has, whether active or occasional worshippers.
That, in turn, makes side-by-side comparisons nearly impossible.
"Church membership is not as straightforward as it seems," said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "It's not like, who's a member of Costco?"
Lindner, a Presbyterian, produces the NCC's annual Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches, which is widely seen as an authoritative source for church membership statistics. But even she knows there are limits.
"A person who attends the Church of God in Christ on Wednesday evening and an (African Methodist Episcopal) service on Sunday morning will likely be included in both counts," the 2007 Yearbook cautions.
Here's a quick look at some of the factors that go into collecting church membership statistics, and why they can be so problematic:
"Numbers are only as reliable as the church officials who collect them. "For some, very careful counts are made of members," the 2007 Yearbook says. "Other groups only make estimates."
For example, the National Baptist Convention of America Inc., a historically black denomination, has reported a steady 3.5 million members since 2000 — no additions, no deletions.
The National Missionary Baptist Convention's numbers have been frozen at 2.5 million since 1992.
Dale Jones, chairman of the 2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, which draws from 149 religious groups, said statisticians are wary of membership numbers ending in several zeros, though he declined to cite examples.
"There are groups that we just question, 'Where did they come up with those figures?'" he said.
Often a church's understanding of membership — how it is started, how it is maintained and how it can be revoked — influences counts.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), with 13 million members worldwide, is often reported to be one of the "fastest-growing" churches in the United States. Mormons start enrolling children as members through baptism at age 8. Members stay on the rolls — even if they move to another church — unless they ask to be removed or are excommunicated.
"Baptism is a sacred covenant. We believe it has eternal consequences," spokeswoman Kim Farah said. "Baptism is a very sacred thing, and it's a very personal thing, and far be it for us to take someone off the church membership except if they have asked."
Ascol, the Southern Baptist, takes issue with some churches that enroll people after they answer an altar call and commit themselves to following Jesus. He says it's a superficial means of joining the church and requires no real commitment. Even after those members disappear, the denomination counts them, he said.
"Just because you call yourself Southern Baptist doesn't make you Christian. Just because you go to church doesn't make you Christian," he said. "Our desire is to see people born again. Church membership and the Baptist understanding of that is a covenanted relationship."
Roman Catholics, the largest U.S. church with a reported 69 million members, start counting baptized infants as members and often don't remove people until they die. Most membership surveys don't actually count who's in the pews on Sunday.
To be disenrolled, Catholics must write a bishop to ask that their baptisms be revoked, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center affiliated with Georgetown University.
That means it is possible, for example, to be born Catholic, married Methodist, die Lutheran and still be listed as a member of the 1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church.
"The Catholic understanding of membership is that a person becomes a member upon baptism and remains a member for life," Gautier said. "Whether you show up at church or not is not what determines whether you're a member."
Mainline Protestant churches — the UCC, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others — are roundly criticized for hemorrhaging members for 40 years. And while membership has surely dropped, mainline churches are often the first to cleanse their rolls of the inactive to produce a more accurate figure.
The 15 million-member Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, saw their U.S. numbers drop in recent years in part because a church audit found duplicates on membership rolls, said Kathleen Jones, an assistant for general statistics for the denomination. Those duplicates are being purged.
Often, new pastors want up-to-date numbers because they don't want to be blamed for any drops, said Lindner of the NCC. And some denominations assess fees to congregations based on membership, so the smaller the numbers, the smaller the fees.
When asked about voting habits, belief in God or their feelings toward race or gender, Americans are notorious for answering what they think pollsters want to hear. Church demographers say the same rings true for church attendance.
Some studies show more Americans consider themselves Southern Baptist than are accounted for by the denomination's own numbers, said Roger Finke, director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State.
The same is true of Catholics and Presbyterians, Finke said. And while an estimated 53 percent of Americans consider themselves Protestant, "surveys of denominational membership find that only 35 percent (of the general population) are estimated to be members of a local congregation," he said.
"Many people who are not members of a local church still view themselves as being Protestant, Catholic or some other religion, even though they're not actively involved in a church."
Apples to oranges?
While the UCC prides itself on accurate membership data, the church's institutional honesty often leads to attacks by critics. Here's evidence that counting doesn't always add up.
UCC churches report annually on membership additions (confessions of faith, reaffirmations, transfers in) and deletions (death or transfer out). Most do not include children in their membership tallies until after they are confi rmed, and most periodically cleanse their rolls of inactive members, especially when a new pastor arrives.
The Roman Catholic Church reports all who have been baptized in the Catholic faith, from infancy to death. In order to be excluded from the count, lapsed Catholics must write a letter to a bishop requesting their membership be revoked.
Because it insists that baptism is eternal, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints never weeds out members from its tally. The Mormon faith only removes those the church has officially excommunicated or those who specifically request termination.
Some church bodies have used the same membership totals for years. The National Baptist Convention has reported its total at 3.5 million since 2000. The National Missionary Baptist Convention's 2.5 million count has not been revised up or down since 1992.
'To comfort the wounded and bereaved is a tremendous privilege'
The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years, now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy. He ministers to the many men and women who are serving the U.S. military as chaplains and their spouses.
"The challenges to our chaplains and their families today are many," he says. "We have had quite a few of our chaplains serve in Iraq — Air Force, Army and Navy chaplains, active duty, reserve and National Guard. They have to be away from their families during deployments for a year to 15 months at a time. This is hard on marriages and families, and requires a period of readjustment even for the strongest relationships."
Gundlach adds that many chaplains who have served in Iraq have returned with symptoms of post traumatic stress. That's why he especially wants to thank UCC clergy who serve as chaplains in the Department of Veterans
"They minister in a myriad of ways to our returning veterans," he says. "They care for those who have been wounded by the horrors of war — those with physical wounds like traumatic brain injuries and amputations, with those who are mentally and spiritually bereft, and those suffering from [post traumatic stress] and a variety of addictions."
"In spite of the cost, there are joys in this ministry," says Gundlach. "Being in there with others in some of the most extreme circumstances any person can endure, and helping to remind them of their humanity as well as the humanity of the enemy, being there to offer the assurance of God's grace, to comfort the wounded and the bereaved, is a tremendous privilege. It's a mantle that few clergy are willing or able to take up, but for our clergy who are called to be military chaplains, it is truly a high calling."
Letters from our UCC military chaplains:
Editor's note: In a two-part series called 'Letters from chaplains,' United Church News has compiled reflections on their ministries from several UCC clergy who serve as military chaplains — at U.S. military bases and hospitals, as well as on foreign deployment. More 'letters from chaplains' will appear in our July-August issue.
The Rev. Rob Heckathorne, a local parish minister and son of a retired-reservist, didn't enter the Navy as a chaplain until July 2001, "at the ripe age of 46." Before that, he served local parishes in both Presbyterian and UCC churches, while volunteering with the Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force. Currently, he is the only UCC chaplain serving on active duty with the United States Coast Guard.
I strongly believe that God places his faithful where Christ's ministry can be realized. Though significantly older than the sailors whom I have counseled and loved (in most cases twice their age), my life experiences, my longevity in the parish, being a parent of similarly aged children, has proved to help me provide more effective ministry.
Ministry among the Coast Guard is unique to the other services in many regards. The Coast Guard's role is a multi-tasked maritime service with eclectic responsibilities from safeguarding fish hatcheries and environmental protection, to providing port security, to lifesaving missions. The diversity of its mission can change each day. During my tour I have had the blessing and opportunity to help in responding to a devastating tsunami and four major hurricanes. In each of these I have witnessed the exceptional integration of our military services with our civilian communities. And similarly have witnessed the collegiality of chaplains from diverse traditions melding seamlessly in an effort to meet the ministry needs of the service personnel and often the civilian communities.
I often wrestle with the concept of how and where can I meet a particular person where he or she might be in their journey of who God is to him or her. At the same time I realize that for many young people with whom I connect, I am of the very first Minister of the Word and Sacrament that they have ever met. That is a great responsibility and opportunity.
The Rev. David C. Nutt, a chaplain in the Connecticut Army National Guard since 1999 and its full-time state support chaplain since August 2005, was called into active duty out of Waterbury, Conn., in June 2006. Nutt is moved by the support from the UCC's Local Church Ministries and local UCC churches.
The high points [of this ministry] come when a soldier 'gets it' that he or she can actually rely on Jesus Christ to help carry their burden when it gets to heavy. I know that sounds trite, but it is true.
I wish the media, in all its hype, would do a better job in explaining that there is a huge difference between the three R's (reunion, readjustment, and reentry) and post traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, what part about that it being forever don't they understand? You might not even experience it until you hit a trigger years later. And the 'cure' is learning how to deal with it, how to turn off the bad movies in your head. It's like grief. It's not cured — you just get better at dealing with it and it doesn't hurt as much.
All of this has not caused me to wrestle with my faith at all, but pushed me to rely on God more and more. Too often as pastors we are prone to dip into hyper intellectual Jesus psycho-babble when all we have to do is merely arrange the meeting between Christ and his estranged children.
The Rev. B.J. Myers-Bradley works at the Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Brecksville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He specializes in substance abuse, gambling addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. He has served churches in the UCC's Florida and Indiana-Kentucky Conferences.
Being an instrument in the healing of past scars is a joy. Many veterans come into the VA seeking to become whole. The consequences of war, abandonment by family and friends, and the disappointment of failed expectations have resulted in self-destruction. God is viewed as either part of the abandonment, or clung to so closely that the veteran alienates him/herself from others. Joy comes from experiencing the transformation of a veteran forgiving the past, and expanding a concept of spirituality that does not push others away. Empowering healing by presenting an accepting and forgiving God that is larger than past stereotypes and viewing transformed lives because of the interplay between spirituality and counseling fulfills me.
I understand my role as chaplain as not providing explanations, but to empower questions and hope. Chaplain Mahedy, a retired VA chaplain, addressed the hope intrinsic within the dark night of the soul when he states: 'Easter occurred at night, not during the day.'
The Rev. Daniel M. Parker, is a chaplain colonel with the U.S. Army at the Fort Leonard Wood (Missouri) Installation.
I'm the kind of person who likes to get out and about — where the troops are, because I want to be with them, hear their stories, listen to their concerns, laugh with them, pray with them, hold worship wherever they are and help them in their pilgrimage as the multitude of others have for me, especially my God.
The high point of working with these dedicated women and men, brings me to reevaluate my own faith commitment. I've never worked harder than in this assignment, but I've never in my wildest imagination worked as hard as these chaplain and chaplain assistant women and men are working. For most it is often a 14-hour work day. During the summer surge season (May - Sept.) each chaplain covers as many as 2,000 soldiers plus at least 100 cadre and staff. Surprisingly, they don't complain. But I see and hear their pain, their groans.
The Rev. Anton (Tony) Ciomperlik is a chaplain assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. A reserve, he was activated and deployed to Iraq in 2003. A member of Woodland UCC in Longview, Texas, he is currently on sabbatical from Good Shepherd Medical Center as director of pastoral care. He writes:
I spent a year in Tikrit, Iraq during 2003 and 2004 and ministered to over 700 soldiers who were experiencing combat. I worked very closely with a combat stress team to reduce the levels of trauma our soldiers were in. I believe that many of our soldiers were blessed and strengthened by our efforts.
My faith definition has changed since my return from Iraq. I define faith as believing in God for what I cannot provide for myself. Faith took me through many mortar attacks and fire fights that broke out in the middle of the night. I can remember one night in particular when an ambush took place in Tikrit. I slipped out of my bunk onto me knees and began to pray, knowing that my soldiers were on patrol that night and now they were in harm's way. The fight lasted for about and hour and the next day a couple of the soldiers came in and told me how they were ambushed and almost lost one of their soldiers. We talked about the power of prayer and God's protection for them and we prayed together.
Later that week, Matt, a military police officer came in to see me and I could tell he was very troubled. He teared up and told me he was outside at the front gate to our operating base directing traffic. During a time when a convoy was coming in, several Iraqi terrorist fired upon the convoy and one individual fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at Matt and his humvee. The rocket bounced off his humvee and hit a 10-year-boy who was standing alongside the road across the street. The RPG did not explode but the blunt force trauma killed him anyway. Matt was devastated. He said to me that he was prepared to see grown men with guns die but not a small boy. I led Matt to Christ and baptized him a week later in the Tigris River.
It's great to be here. I've been speaking to a lot of churches recently, so it's nice to be speaking to one that's so familiar. I understand you switched venues at considerable expense and inconvenience because of unfair labor practices at the place you were going to be having this synod. Clearly, the past 50 years have not weakened your resolve as faithful witnesses of the gospel. And I'm glad to see that.
It's been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I've had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country. And I've found that no matter where I am, or who I'm talking to, there's a common theme that emerges. It's that folks are hungry for change – they're hungry for something new. They're ready to turn the page on the old politics and the old policies – whether it's the war in Iraq or the health care crisis we're in, or a school system that's leaving too many kids behind despite the slogans.
But I also get the sense that there's a hunger that's deeper than that – a hunger that goes beyond any single cause or issue. It seems to me that each day, thousands of Americans are going about their lives – dropping the kids off at school, driving to work, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets, trying to kick a cigarette habit – and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They're deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long road toward nothingness.
And this restlessness – this search for meaning – is familiar to me. I was not raised in a particularly religious household. My father, who I didn't know, returned to Kenya when I was just two. He was nominally a Muslim since there were a number of Muslims in the village where he was born. But by the time he was a young adult, he was an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew. She had this enormous capacity for wonder, and lived by the Golden Rule. But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did I.
It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma. In a sense, what brought me to Chicago in the first place was a hunger for some sort of meaning in my life. I wanted to be part of something larger. I'd been inspired by the civil rights movement – by all the clear-eyed, straight-backed, courageous young people who'd boarded buses and traveled down South to march and sit at lunch counters, and lay down their lives in some cases for freedom. I was too young to be involved in that movement, but I felt I could play a small part in the continuing battle for justice by helping rebuild some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.
So it's 1985, and I'm in Chicago, and I'm working with these churches, and with lots of laypeople who are much older than I am. And I found that I recognized in these folks a part of myself. I learned that everyone's got a sacred story when you take the time to listen. And I think they recognized a part of themselves in me too. They saw that I knew the Scriptures and that many of the values I held and that propelled me in my work were values they shared. But I think they also sensed that a part of me remained removed and detached – that I was an observer in their midst.
And slowly, I came to realize that something was missing as well – that without an anchor for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And it's around this time that some pastors I was working with came up to me and asked if I was a member of a church. "If you're organizing churches," they said, "it might be helpful if you went to church once in a while." And I thought, "Well, I guess that makes sense."
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.
But my journey is part of a larger journey – one shared by all who've ever sought to apply the values of their faith to our society. It's a journey that takes us back to our nation's founding, when none other than a UCC church inspired the Boston Tea Party and helped bring an Empire to its knees. In the following century, men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women's rights – and above all, abolition. And when the Civil War was fought and our country dedicated itself to a new birth of freedom, they took on the problems of an industrializing nation – fighting the crimes against society and the sins against God that they felt were being committed in our factories and in our slums.
And when these battles were overtaken by others and when the wars they opposed were waged and won, these faithful foot soldiers for justice kept marching. They stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the blows of billy clubs rained down. They held vigils across this country when four little girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. They cheered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King delivered his prayer for our country. And in all these ways, they helped make this country more decent and more just.
So doing the Lord's work is a thread that's run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural without its reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's "I Have a Dream" speech without its reference to "all of God's children." Or President Kennedy's Inaugural without the words, "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own." At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version.
But I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this – we have to do our part to make it a reality. My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
That's why pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes and organizations like World Vision and Catholic Charities are wielding their enormous influence to confront poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious leaders like my friends Rev. Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein and Nathan Diament are working for justice and fighting for change. And all across the country, communities of faith are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, and in so many other ways, taking part in the project of American renewal.
Yet what we also understand is that our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government. Because whether it's poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.
And so long as we're not doing everything in our personal and collective power to solve them, we know the conscience of our nation cannot rest.
Our conscience can't rest so long as 37 million Americans are poor and forgotten by their leaders in Washington and by the media elites. We need to heed the biblical call to care for "the least of these" and lift the poor out of despair. That's why I've been fighting to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the minimum wage. If you're working forty hours a week, you shouldn't be living in poverty. But we also know that government initiatives are not enough. Each of us in our own lives needs to do what we can to help the poor. And until we do, our conscience cannot rest.
Our conscience cannot rest so long as nearly 45 million Americans don't have health insurance and the millions more who do are going bankrupt trying to pay for it. I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2500 a year. That's not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it's a moral commitment.
And until we stop the genocide that's being carried out in Darfur as I speak, our conscience cannot rest. This is a problem that's brought together churches and synagogues and mosques and people of all faiths as part of a grassroots movement. Universities and states, including Illinois, are taking part in a divestment campaign to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the killings. It's not enough, but it's helping. And it's a testament to what we can achieve when good people with strong convictions stand up for their beliefs.
And we should close Guantanamo Bay and stop tolerating the torture of our enemies. Because it's not who we are. It's not consistent with our traditions of justice and fairness. And it offends our conscience.
But we also know our conscience cannot rest so long as the war goes on in Iraq. It's a war I'm proud I opposed from the start – a war that should never have been authorized and never been waged. I have a plan that would have already begun redeploying our troops with the goal of bringing all our combat brigades home by March 31st of next year. The President vetoed a similar plan, but he doesn't have the last word, and we're going to keep at it, until we bring this war to an end. Because the Iraq war is not just a security problem, it's a moral problem.
And there's another issue we must confront as well. Today there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, most of them working in our communities, attending our churches, and contributing to our country.
Now, as children of God, we believe in the worth and dignity of every human being; it doesn't matter where that person came from or what documents they have. We believe that everyone, everywhere should be loved, and given the chance to work, and raise a family.
But as Americans, we also know that this is a nation of laws, and we cannot have those laws broken when more than 2,000 people cross our borders illegally every day. We cannot ignore that we have a right and a duty to protect our borders. And we cannot ignore the very real concerns of Americans who are not worried about illegal immigration because they are racist or xenophobic, but because they fear it will result in lower wages when they're already struggling to raise their families.
And so this will be a difficult debate next week. Consensus and compromise will not come easy. Last time we took up immigration reform, it failed. But we cannot walk away this time. Our conscience cannot rest until we not only secure our borders, but give the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country a chance to earn their citizenship by paying a fine and waiting in line behind all those who came here legally.
We will all have to make concessions to achieve this. That's what compromise is about. But at the end of the day, we cannot walk away – not for the sake of passing a bill, but so that we can finally address the real concerns of Americans and the persistent hopes of all those brothers and sisters who want nothing more than their own chance at our common dream.
These are some of the challenges that test our conscience – as Americans and people of faith. And meeting them won't be easy. There is real evil and hardship and pain and suffering in the world and we should be humble in our belief that we can eliminate them. But we shouldn't use our humility as an excuse for inaction. We shouldn't use the obstacles we face as an excuse for cynicism. We have to do what we can, knowing it's hard and not swinging from a naïve idealism to a bitter defeatism – but rather, accepting the fact that we're not going to solve every problem overnight, but we can still make a difference.
We can recognize the truth that's at the heart of the UCC: that the conversation is not over; that our roles are not defined; that through ancient texts and modern voices, God is still speaking, challenging us to change not just our own lives, but the world around us.
I'm hearing from evangelicals who may not agree with progressives on every issue but agree that poverty has no place in a world of plenty; that hate has no place in the hearts of believers; and that we all have to be good stewards of God's creations. From Willow Creek to the 'emerging church,' from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Association of Evangelicals, folks are realizing that the four walls of the church are too small for a big God. God is still speaking.
I'm hearing from progressives who understand that if we want to communicate our hopes and values to Americans, we can't abandon the field of religious discourse. That's why organizations are rising up across the country to reclaim the language of faith to bring about change. God is still speaking.
He's still speaking to our Catholic friends – who are holding up a consistent ethic of life that goes beyond abortion – one that includes a respect for life and dignity whether it's in Iraq, in poor neighborhoods, in African villages or even on death row. They're telling me that their conversation about what it means to be Catholic continues. God is still speaking.
And right here in the UCC, we're hearing from God about what it means to be a welcoming church that holds on to our Christian witness. The UCC is still listening. And God is still speaking.
Now, some of you may have heard me talk about the Joshua generation. But there's a story I want to share that takes place before Moses passed the mantle of leadership on to Joshua. It comes from Deuteronomy 30 when Moses talks to his followers about the challenges they'll find when they reach the Promised Land without him. To the Joshua generation, these challenges seem momentous – and they are. But Moses says: What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven. Nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near. It is on your lips and in your heart.
It's an idea that's often forgotten or dismissed in cynical times. It's that we all have it within our power to make this a better world. Because we all have the capacity to do justice and show mercy; to treat others with dignity and respect; and to rise above what divides us and come together to meet those challenges we can't meet alone. It's the wisdom Moses imparted to those who would succeed him. And it's a lesson we need to remember today – as members of another Joshua generation.
So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics – a politics of conscience. Let's come together – Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that – if we can embrace a common destiny – then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, we'll be doing God's work here on Earth. Thank you.