A ramped-up smear campaign against the UCC's largest congregation and U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's home church — Trinity UCC in Chicago — has raised the ire of the Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, who called the e-mail-driven claims "absurd, mean-spirited and politically motivated."
"Our national offices in Cleveland, as well as other settings of the UCC, have been forwarded countless e-mails that obviously derive from a similar source," Thomas said. "They contain misleading statements obviously meant to undermine the integrity of one of our most vibrant, mission-driven congregations."
Thomas said, while it's not his intent to come to the aid of Obama or any presidential candidate, he does feel it's imperative that "absurd, mean-spirited and politically-motivated attacks against one of our UCC churches be challenged forthrightly."
Obama, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has been a member of Trinity UCC for 20 years.
Since Obama won the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 3, a flurry of e-mail messages with identical language and sentiment began circulating across the internet, claiming that Trinity UCC was a "racist" congregation because of its long-stated church motto: "Unashamedly Black, Unapologetically Christian."
"Trinity UCC is rooted in and proud of its Afrocentric heritage," Thomas said. "This is no different than the hundreds of UCC churches from the German Evangelical and Reformed stream that continue to own and celebrate their German heritage, insisting on annual sausage and sauerkraut dinners and singing Stille Nacht on Christmas Eve. Recognizing and celebrating our distinctive racial-ethnic heritages, cultures, languages and customs are what make us unique as a united and uniting denomination."
While Trinity UCC is predominately African American, it does include and welcome non-Black members. The Rev. Jane Fisler-Hoffman, Illinois Conference Minister, who is white, has been a member of the congregation for years.
"Trinity is a destination church for many members of the UCC, a multi-racial, multi-cultural denomination that is largely Caucasian," Thomas pointed out. "When in Chicago, many UCC members flock to Trinity to share in and learn from its vibrant ministries, dynamic worship and justice-minded membership. Contrary to the claims made in these hateful emails, UCC members know Trinity to be one of the most welcoming, hospitable and generous congregations in our denomination."
Trinity UCC was founded in 1961. Ten years later, when the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright became its pastor, the church had 87 families. Today, Trinity UCC has more than 8,000 members, 70 ministries and three Sunday worship services.
Trinity UCC is also the largest congregational contributor to Our Church's Wider Mission, the UCC's common purse for regional, national and international ministries.
The circulating e-mails are written to appear as if they are coming from a groundswell of persons, with different names and e-mail addresses. But each uses nearly identical language, makes similar claims and even manages to make the same mistakes. For example, each makes introductory reference to "Trinity Church of Christ" instead of "Trinity United Church of Christ."
"It's clear that someone is using the internet to give the appearance of widespread concern and, thus, to hopefully create traction for this absurd story," Thomas said.
About the UCC
Formed by name in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the [German] Evangelical and Reformed Church, the UCC's roots in American history are deep. Eleven signers of the Declaration of Independence were from UCC traditions, and a full 10 percent of present-day UCC congregations were formed prior to 1776.
Many UCC churches trace their founding to the early 1600s, when the Pilgrims and Puritans first came to America. These Congregationalists, as they became known, sought religious independence from persecuting political authorities in Europe. They believed firmly in local church autonomy, covenantal church life, personal piety and the priesthood of all believers.
Today, the UCC holds firmly to these early religious tenets. Often recognized for its historical and contemporary social justice commitments, its present-day approach to worship, however, might be considered traditional by most standards.
Interestingly, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, published in 2002, found that UCC members, slightly more than members of other mainline denominations, listed traditional hymns and biblically-sound preaching as being essential to good worship. Surprising to some, the same study also found that slightly more UCC members self-identified as conservative rather than liberal a tidbit that President Calvin Coolidge, a conservative Republican and the nation's only Congregationalist president (1923-1929), might have found interesting.
Although each congregation's liturgical style is influenced by its heritage and members preferences, as is true in most mainline denominations, the UCC, as one pastor aptly put it, is known for its "beautiful, heady and exasperating" mix.
Known for arriving early on social justice issues, the church's history includes being the first to practice democracy in church governance (1630), the first to ordain an African-American pastor (1785), the first to ordain a woman (1853), the first to ordain an openly gay man (1972), and the first to support same-gender marriage equality (2005).
In 1773, Old South UCC in Boston helped inspire the Boston Tea Party and, in 1777, Old Zion Reformed UCC in Allentown, Pa., hid the Liberty Bell from occupying British forces.
Hundreds of schools including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Howard, Fisk, Wellesley, Smith and Oberlin owe their beginnings to the UCC. The UCC's publishing company, The Pilgrim Press, is the oldest publisher of books in North America.
Obama and his family live in Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, which is home to Chicago Theological Seminary, one of the UCC's seven seminaries and the city's oldest institution of higher education.
Largely regarded as a northern church, about 80 percent of UCC members are clustered in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. The UCC is the largest Protestant church in New England, the birthplace of Congregationalism, and it has more than 700 churches in Pennsylvania, the heart of the German Reformed tradition. The UCC is also strong in New York, Missouri, Florida, Hawaii and the Pacific West Coast.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with early Presidential contests, the UCC has 188 and 138 congregations respectively.
In recent years, the UCC has posted growth in the South. The denominations second largest church, the 5,500-member Victory UCC near Atlanta, affiliated with the UCC in 2002. The UCC's fourth-largest, the 4,300-member Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, joined in 2006, as did churches in Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Columbia, S.C., among other places.
Last year, the UCC launched its national Nehemiah Project with plans to start or welcome at least 250 new southern churches within five years.
While Obama is the only UCC candidate in the 2008 presidential election, the 2004 campaign included two UCC members, both Democrats. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chair of the Democratic Party, is a member of First Congregational UCC in Burlington, Vt., and then U.S. Senator Bob Graham is a member of Miami Lakes Congregational UCC in Florida.
The current U.S. Congress includes 10 UCC members -- five Republicans and five Democrats.
Five U.S. Senators are UCC: Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Obama.
Five House seats are occupied by UCC members: Thelma Drake (R-Va.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).
Other notable UCC members include New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D); former U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.); actress Lynn Redgrave; current U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall; Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper columnists Connie Schultz (and wife of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio) and Leonard Pitts Jr.; and Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Gilead.
The Rev. Andrew Young former congressman, U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor is an ordained UCC minister, who began his Civil Rights activism working for the UCC.
The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the legendary social activist who became immortalized as the pastor in Gary Trudeau's Doonesbury comic strip, had ministerial standing in the UCC and served as pastor of the UCC's Riverside Church in New York.
The Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, a UCC minister considered to be one of greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century, authored the now-famous Serenity Prayer.