Not since 1992 have members of the UCC's racial and ethnic constituencies had an opportunity to come together, in large numbers, to discuss the denomination's future, especially as it impacts people of color.
But from July 15 to 17, about 250 people attended a convocation of the UCC's Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries (COREM) in Chicago, where participants relished the diversity of cultures represented and challenged the UCC to stay true to its multiracial, multicultural commitments.
"Probably the most valuable thing that happened was our coming together at this point in the church's history, during a very tough, complex time for the church," says Carol A. Brown, incoming president of United Black Christians, who chaired the convocation's planning committee. "It was an opportunity to learn from other people's customs and traditions, and I think we accomplished that."
Created by General Synod 14 in 1983, COREM provides a place where the UCC's racial and ethnic groups can collaborate and develop a common agenda regarding the church's mission life and advocate for racial/ethnic concerns within the church.
In its decision-making capacity, COREM is comprised of 10 persons who meet regularly and advise the denomination on racial/ethnic matters. At the table, two persons represent each of five groups: the Council for American Indian Ministry (CAIM), Council for Hispanic Ministries (CHM), Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice (MRSEJ), Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministry (PAAM) and United Black Christians (UBC).
Learning from our 'elders'
On the first day in Chicago, a panel of "elders" led a plenary discussion of COREM's history and values.
"A majority of people there did not know the [COREM] history, but as they heard the various people sharing the stories, they discovered the passion and the vision that was there in the early 1980s," says the Rev. HZctor L-pez, Central Pacific Conference Minister, who shared stories of COREM's formation. "For some, COREM would be just another meeting to attend, another responsibility. But through hearing these stories, some began to sense God's call to the COREM table as a way of living out the denomination's commitment to being a multiracial, multicultural church."
L-pez says that, in a democratically- governed church where decisions are often made by power brokering or by head counts, the UCC can learn from COREM's approach to living in covenant.
"I think people are trying hard to own the COREM way," says L-pez, who explains that COREM does its business using a "unique way of consensus" whereby if one the five caucus groups is absent from the table, then no decisions can be affirmed. It's an approach that fosters trust, he says.
Tackling tough topics
Participants wrestled with many difficult issues, including the impact of declining contributions to Our Church's Wider Mission, denominational statements on same-sex marriage, and congregational participation in the UCC's "God is Still Speaking" advertising campaign. Sixteen workshops touched on topics ranging from "unlearning homophobia" to understanding the impact of U.S. colonialism in the Marshall Islands.
In a question-and-answer session with three members of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers, Bernice Powell Jackson of Justice and Witness Ministries, Olivia Masih White of Wider Church Ministries and the Rev. JosZ A. Malayang of Local Church Ministries responded to participants' hard questions.
Perhaps most significantly, attendees wrestled with how economic decisions at the UCC's national setting will impact the church's racial/ ethnic ministries. Central to that conversation was the fate of the Office of General Ministries' racial/ethnic liaison positions, commonly called the "racial/ethnic desks," instituted in 2000 to serve as a link between the church's leadership and the four historically underrepresented racial/ ethnic communities.
"These [ministries] are vehicles for the national church to talk to its racial and ethnic constituencies, and we feel that these programs and ministries are extremely important for minorities in the church" says Brown, a member of Mt. Zion UCC in Cleveland.
Recognizing its members
The convocation also provided an opportunity for COREM to honor and celebrate some of its own. Claudia de la Cruz, 23, a member of San Romero de las Americas UCC in Washington Heights, N.Y., and an advocate for youth in the church, was one of four COREM honorees saluted at an evening banquet on July 16.
"One of the things that I posed as a challenge was [for the church] to consider working with youth by creating the space for them to be themselves," de la Cruz says. "Rather than imposing, listen to them. Rather than demanding from them, provide the space for growth."
COREM's convocation was a pivotal spiritual experience for de la Cruz, whose home church joined the UCC last year. She is making plans to attend seminary.
"It was the first time for me to participate in a [COREM] convocation and to see so many people as one. Worship was amazing, and the different ethnic backgrounds added to the experience," de la Cruz says. Also honored were the Rev. A. Knighton Stanley, senior minister of Peoples Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., Bernice Powell Jackson, and Yuri Kochiyama, a pioneering civil rights activist. Additional honorees were recognized by each constituency group at separately held men's and women's luncheons.
'Keep it going'
Overall, L-pez says he left the gathering with a deep sense of gratitude for the substantial impact of COREM on the whole of the UCC, but he also hopes for a greater future.
"My hope would be that, as COREM gathers people, it would seek to be proactive instead of reactive," he says, and that it would build upon the energy of the many youth who were present.
The Rev. Wallace Ryan Kuroiwa of the UCC's economic justice ministry team says the convocation reminded him of a lyric composed by a legendary native Hawaiian songwriter, Israel Kamakawiwo'ole, who died in 1997: "Remember the future but do not dwell there. Face the future where all our hopes stand."
Says Kim Mammedaty of the Council for American Indian Ministry, "After the whole experience of listening to the stories of our elders, I'm still reflecting on how we begin to attend, as a whole church, to living into the multiracial, multicultural identity of the church, and how we do that. Otherwise, it's always great to hear from those who have paved the way for us, but unless we take it in and integrate it for us now, we may miss some of those learning opportunities."
Carol Brown agrees. "I'm excited about what we accomplished in Chicago, but the question for me is Ôhow do we keep it going?' It was long overdue and we shouldn't wait 10 or 12 years from now to do it again," she says. "I hope the individual caucuses will find more ways to be connected on their own. We have to be open and candid across the board and, as a church, we have to be creative in our solutions.
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A longer version of this story can be found at ucc.org/news/u072004.htm.