Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, two small Michigan towns, are divided by the St. Joseph River. A history of racial tension separates the towns as well.
Spurred on by a heralded book, a United Church of Christ congregation is helping to bridge the racial divide.
Mostly white and prosperous, St. Joseph features a pristine Lake Michigan beachfront and a pretty brick- paved main street lined with boutiques and restaurants. Nearly all black and impoverished, Benton Harbor has boarded-up storefronts and an air of defeat.
Residents of the two communities rarely intermingle. But that is slowly starting to change.
Members of Zion Evangelical UCC in St. Joseph cross the bridge regularly to meet with members of the Brotherhood Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal church in Benton Harbor. The churches have enjoyed choir exchanges, pot luck suppers and a pulpit exchange.
"People are starting to recognize each other around town," says the Rev. Kent Meyer, pastor of Zion Evangelical. "People say, ‘Hey, you were at my church.' Conversations are starting to take place that would not have happened before."
Says the Rev. James Atterberry, pastor of Brotherhood Church of God, "It's been great. We're becoming familiar with each other's style of worship and becoming more comfortable with one another. We're getting to know one another."
Book spurs fellowship
The fellowship was partly inspired by a 1998 book that examined the racial division between the towns. Alex Kotlowitz' much-acclaimed The Other Side of the River used the mysterious death of an African-American teen to plumb the level of distrust between whites and blacks. The youth was found drowned in the St. Joseph River in 1991. Blacks believed whites murdered the teen and whites viewed the death as symptomatic of social problems in Benton Harbor.
"I think the book was the burr under the saddle," says Meyer. "People either hated the book or loved it, but it was a spur [to fellowship]."
Says Atterberry, "The book brought pain and discomfort. It takes that to heal wounds."
Meyer is one of the founders and co-president of the local Christian Alliance for Racial Equality (CARE). When the Ku Klux Klan held two rallies in St. Joseph, CARE countered with prayer rallies attended by blacks and whites.
The Klan rallies drew sparse crowds while the prayer services packed in hundreds.
"We showed that the heart of the community was against the Klan," says Meyer.
Once were sister cities
St. Joseph and Benton Harbor once got along better and even promoted themselves as sister cities. But the economic downturn in the 1970s hit Benton Harbor hard. Whites fled across the river. The YMCA, the hospital and many stores relocated as well. Enmity grew. Residents sarcastically referred to the town across the river as "Benton-Harlem" or "St. Johannesburg."
Towns didn't interact
"The only relationship we had with St. Joe was with the jailhouse and courthouse," says Atterberry. "For Christians, that's not Biblical. That's not the word of God. The best place to turn things around is the churches."
"When my wife and I came here five years ago the division between the communities hit us like a ton of bricks," says Meyer, whose church has 290 members. "We knew we needed to get beyond ‘us and them.' It's harder to stereotype people when you know them."
Meyer first talked to Atterberry about a choir exchange the week the book came out. The two knew each other from CARE.
The exchanges have gone so well that even if the two towns may never again be sister cities, the two churches may become sister churches. Future joint projects may include an outdoor service and community service.
"When the churches work together, we may see people go shopping together," says Atterberry. "We might see people visit one another. We might even see people live next door to one another again."
Seattle's historic Beacon Avenue UCC, nearly dead and buried, is rising to life as a new congregation, thanks to a helping hand from a neighbor UCC church.
Ever since 1906, a Congregational (and then UCC) church on the corner of Beacon Ave. and South Graham St. in South Seattle has ministered to its community. "Over its 94 years, first as Sommerville Congregational, then as Olivet Congregational and then as Beacon Avenue UCC, this congregation tried many ways to reach out," says Beryl Sibley, a member for 43 years and director of a refugee program housed at the church. "At one point, it had 22 ministries to its community."
But that was then. Last year, Beacon Avenue was down to 12 aging members and a diminished financial base. Closing the doors seemed inevitable, even though it still housed seven outreach ministries.
Beacon's plight stirred the interest of Plymouth Congregational UCC, with its own history of fostering new congregations in Seattle. The pastor, the Rev. Tony Robinson, proposed that Plymouth find a way to sustain a UCC presence in the Beacon Ave. facilities.
Together, Beacon and Plymouth members decided to create a new UCC church, named Bethany for the town where Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. During a March 19 service celebrating its life and history, Beacon closed and 25 of its members joined in covenant as charter members of the new multiracial, multicultural congregation. About 15 Plymouth members will worship at the church as associate members. The church will seek official recognition by Advent 2000, and hopes to have 300 members by then.
Except for plans to close the building for repairs two months this summer, its programs and tenants will continue. These include a food bank, a Headstart/ECEAP education center, the Refugee Resettlement Program, and two Samoan and one African-American congregations.
Plymouth is investing $45,000 and has committed to recruiting people from other Seattle-area churches to canvass the neighborhood and tell the UCC story. In addition, the Washington North Idaho Conference is giving $5,000, will seek $5,000 from other UCC congregations and is applying for new church start funds from the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.
The Rev. Felicia Walker-Wilson of New York City and the Rev. James H. Hamett of Carlsbad, Calif., at the UBC/MRS-EJ meeting. UBC photo by Carmen Muhammed
Exciting, inspirational, invitational, and instructional, and interactive! That's how 110 ministers and seminarians described the gathering of United Black Christians in Birmingham, Ala., from July 11-15. The UBC meeting was held alongside the first Pastors Conference of Ministers for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice (MRS-EJ). The theme of that conference was "A Healthy Clergy for a Healthy Church." During this event, the second largest gathering of ministers in its history, the ministers led workshops and gathered with UBC for joint "Theological Reflections and Biblical Interpretation" and late night worship.
The setting of this year's MRS-EJ convocation in Birmingham "helped contextualize the event," says the Rev. Art Cribbs of San Diego. He points out that Birmingham, often referred to as "Bombingham, Alabama," remains "a stark reminder of the long, murderous contention against civil rights for black people in America." He also was moved by the statistics on Africans living with AIDS/HIV, especially with the presence of an international guest from Ghana. "It tore the depths of our souls as we realized that more than 25 million men and women in Africa will die in the coming years," he says.
The multi-cultural/multi-racial, intergenerational community of faith was graced with the presence of the Collegium and blessed with new and veteran voices, with the Late Night Worship topping the agenda for newness. It was designed to give the gathered community of faith (1) exposure to women and seminarians; (2) an alternative means of fellowship, (3) closure in community with God, (4) identifiably talented preachers, and (5) support and encouragement for new voices.
The preachers and their subjects were Rose Wright Scott, "Raise the Roof, Jesus is in the House;" the Rev. Robert Eddy, "In Everything Give Thanks;" the Rev. Francina Parrett, "To Be Determined;" and seminarian Raymond Reid, "Down but not Out."
At the UBC's Women's Luncheon, facilitated by the Rev. Felicia Walker Wilson, persons honored for their contributions in church and society were Bernice Powell Jackson, the Rev. Yvonne Delk, Edith Guffey, and the late Marilyn Adams Moore and Mary McLeod Bethune.
During the minister's business meeting, in the African tradition, the Rev. Paul Sadler was lifted up as the man of the year and the Rev. Felicia Walker-Wilson was officially crowned and named "The Reverend Queen Mother" of the Ministers for Racial, Social, and Economic Justice.
"God's Spirit was present in a powerful way in Birmingham, beachhead of the civil rights movement, when UBC gathered for worship, Bible Study, and to hear key note presentations," says Karna M. Burkeen.
For the Rev. James E. Fouther, Jr., the highlight of the MRS-EJ Pastor's Conference was the focus of the president, officers, and convention leaders on worship. "I deeply appreciated the strong connections between the lay members of the UBC, MRS-EJ, and the youth attending the Harambee event," he says.
For Yoruba Siddiq, the MRS-EJ Biennial Convocation 2000 was "an exciting, spiritual, educational, and cultural experience." As a parish nurse and a seminarian, I was inspired and energized, body, mind, and spirit, to continue my work as an advocate for a healthy Black Church and Community."
Dory Lingo of Florida was elected the UBC's12th president. Other elected officers are Charlene L. Higginbotham of Ohio, Vice-President; Ashley Ekham of North Carolina, Second Vice- President/Youth; Arleathia Crocker of Virginia, Secretary; and Charles Brown of Ohio, Treasurer. There are 278 predominantly black churches in the UCC with more than 71,000 members.
The Rev. Pamela June Anderson of Columbus, Ohio, is Vice President of UCC Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice.
In 1617, when King James was about to reinstitute his control over Presbyterian churches in Scotland, William Brewster sounded the alarm by printing tracts, warning church leaders what was afoot. As the story goes, when he found out about the tracts, King James hired thugs to find and harass the press.
The harassment eventually led a group of "pilgrims" to board the Mayflower with the press in tow. Hence, in 1895 the name eventually became The Pilgrim Press.
The press currently combines several publishing concerns, including the Christian Education Press, Congregational Publishing House, Eden Publishing House and Heidelberg Press. Today The Pilgrim Press, under the leadership of new publisher the Rev. Timothy Staveteig, continues a rich tradition of sounding the alarm on social and moral issues, ever mindful of the publishing tradition instituted by that first publisher, William Brewster.
As Staveteig sees it, its mission today is to bring the values of the United Church of Christ into the marketplace of ideas, to uplift issues and questions and to preserve a free press tradition in society. But over the years the press has had to attend to finances to survive. Today, Staveteig says, the press is financially self sustaining and must make its own way.
"We need to pay salaries as well as contribute our share to 700 Prospect" (the national office), he says. "I think we do a pretty good job by contributing over $1 million to common and central services, including our Berea (Ohio) distribution center, in addition to other publication's expenses."
He adds that the Press' commitment to social justice, begun by William Brewster, has led to more cultural influence than financial success. For example, in 1957 The Pilgrim Press took a chance on publishing a book by a little-known pastor and academic, "The Measure of a Man," by Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1958, the press published "Black Mutiny" by William Owen. The author told the story of Africans being captured and placed aboard the ship Amistad. The book may not seem controversial to current sensibilities, but it was published several years before the Civil Rights Movement gained national prominence. In 1998, this book became the basis for the Steven Spielberg film, "Amistad."
Staveteig, who was hired to be editor of The Pilgrim Press in 1996, has a background that helps him continue the mission and tradition of the press.
Originally a student in chemical engineering, Staveteig left his studies for several years before returning to major in philosophy and religious studies and to go to seminary. He attended Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., became an ordained Lutheran minister and served as pastor to two congregations in Wisconsin. He also held editorial positions with Fortress Press and Westminster John Knox Press.
His desire to put ministry into action and his interest in ethics are evident in books he has acquired. Among these are "Say it Loud: Middle-Class Blacks Talk About Racism and What to Do About It," "War's Dirty Secret: Rape, Prostitution, and Other Crimes Against Women" and "Out on Holy Ground: Meditations On Gay Men's Spirituality."
"These books continue the tradition of promoting the values of the UCC to our society," he says, "by sounding alarms and informing readers of important issues."
Elaine Shelly is Marketing and Publicity Manager/Church and Educational Markets for Local Church Ministries in the UCC's national setting in Cleveland.
The issue of changing the UCC Constitution and Bylaws to include multiple paths to ministry, first voted on by General Synod 25 four years ago, was adopted by delegates to the UCC's 27th General Synod.
The Rev. Holly MillerShank of the Ministry Issues Implementation Committee introduced the necessary amendments by explaining the four themes that run through the Ministries Issues project and are reflected in the proposed amendments.
First is an emphasis on authorization of all UCC ministers: ordained, commissioned, and licensed. Second is the responsibility of the Association in determining fitness for ordination. Third is discernment in the ordination process in all settings of the church. Fourth is the importance of covenants of mutual responsibility.
Despite the years of planning and preparation for these changes, the value of having an "educated clergy" occupied most of the debate time, with several amendments being proposed and defeated.
Most persistent on this subject was Jonathan Page, a delegate from the Massachusetts Conference.
"These things matter!" he insisted, while arguing that a bachelor's degree and Master of Divinity should be the "normative" path to ministry. "An educated clergy matters!"
"We want to affirm the inclusivity of our church," countered the Rev. Martha Ann Baumer, who chaired the committee bringing the amendments, "and this is one important way to do it."
The United Church of Christ has not been known for its evangelistic fervor, at least not within living memory. But I have come to believe that, as a denomination, we have turned the corner and are now hard at work seeking to recover the ministry of evangelism. One only has to look at the "God is still speaking" campaign to see what I mean. Here is a program that has been a very effective means of outreach.
One aspect of the Stillspeaking campaign that caught my attention recently was a series of evangelistic booklets it produces. My favorite is "16 Reasons I Love Jesus." This booklet is real, funny, deeply true and challenging.
I have given away a number of these and, without exception, they have been well received. Now, to be honest, most of these booklets have gone to friends from various churches who, after reading it, express amazement that "16 Reasons I Love Jesus" is being used by, of all denominations, the UCC.
Yes, I know the booklets are meant for those outside the church, but I enjoy the reaction of my church friends and see it as a sign that in the UCC, we are busy getting on with recovering this lost ministry of evangelism.
What happened to the ministry of evangelism in the UCC? I think that this is a complex question but, apart from anything else, the fundamentalists spooked us. Along with other mainline denominations, we seemed to have made a deal. The fundamentalist would do evangelism and we would get on with social justice.
In post-World War II America, the split between these two ministries was deep and non-negotiable. I remember my own amazement when I moved to Africa in the 1960s to discover that the African church apparently had not heard about this deal: They happily went along caring for the needs of others (like feeding the hungry and protesting apartheid) while simultaneously calling people to follow the way of Jesus (and so escape the power of evil spirits and find joy in life).
And, of course, the African church got it right. Both ministries are a central part of the church of Jesus Christ. It is a both/and not an either/or.
So in this 21st century climate of openness to the spiritual but suspicion of the religious, how do we recover the ministry of evangelism? How do we engage in outreach in ways that fit who we are as a denomination, as well as touching the real issues of those we seek to reach?
The first challenge in our churches is to deal with the "cringe factor" when we mention evangelism. Perhaps we do have to talk about outreach, faith sharing, being "good news" people, holy conversation or some other combination of words that get across the central idea that evangelism is all about sharing the amazing news about who Jesus is, what Jesus has done for us and our planet, and how we can experience new life (resurrection life) through Jesus.
So on one level, evangelism is an invitation into relationship. Relationship stands at the core of Christianity: relationship with God, relationship with Jesus, relationship with the community of those seeking to follow Jesus, relationship with those we are called to love, relationship with ourselves.
The idea behind invitation is that when others connect with our Christian community, they begin to discover what the community is all about and, in particular, what binds the community together. "Belonging before believing" is the phrase often used to capture this perspective.
Invitation to belong is one thing; invitation to believe is another. Evangelism is all about an invitation to believe the gospel. In the UCC, we are pretty good when it comes to discussing God but we need to learn what it means to talk about Jesus.
Conversion is another word that causes some discomfort in the UCC. But let us be clear: conversion is the goal of evangelism. Our longing is that people discover the Way of Jesus; that they decide to turn from their own way to this new Way; and that they start following Jesus by faith.
We do not need to be embarrassed by this call to conversion. Conversion to Jesus can and does bring new life out of a destructive lifestyle, even as it brings new purpose out of an aimless lifestyle.
I am convinced that evangelism is not primarily a matter of individual witness. I believe that evangelism is primarily the calling of the community. It takes a community, not only to raise a child, but to reach a person with the gospel. The church is the primary context for conversion.
One thing I have been talking about a lot these days is what I call "contemplative evangelism." The idea is pretty simple. If people are fascinated by spirituality, why not invite them to places and activities where they can explore the spiritual? Perhaps to a small group that is learning the art of spiritual journaling, then journaling together, and then talking about what they are journaling.
This isn’t just academic. Mainline churches have declined steadily for the past 40 years, losing 50 percent of their membership (members per capita). And nothing seems to abate this trend. The UCC is doing worse than most other denominations, losing 60 percent of our market share in this same time frame. The math is easy. If this keeps on there will be no such thing at the United Church of Christ by the year 2100.
Now I do not want to make evangelism into a membership drive. To do so undercuts the whole meaning of the gospel. But I do want to note that without active outreach, we will die as a denomination.
We share the gospel because it is good news and when we do share the gospel — by how we live, by what we say, and by what we do both as individuals and communities — others see new life, come to Jesus, and experience the beginning of transformation.
Conversion is like that. And so they join in our community.
We share not to prevent ourselves from going out of business. We share because this is our business and when we do, we thrive. No, evangelism is not an academic exercise; it is what the church is all about. And the Stillspeaking witness and welcome is what the UCC is all about.
The Rev. Richard Peace is a UCC pastor and the Robert Boyd Munger Professor of Evangelism and Spiritual Formation at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. This article is excerpted from the upcoming booklet, "Rediscovering Evangelism: Outreach in the United Church of Christ in the Twenty-first Century."
I was in a hotel 500 miles from home when my Apple iPhone refused to recharge.
I felt strangely stranded, unable to manage my business, to communicate with family or to negotiate the scheduling intricacies of the trip.
I went to a nearby AT&T store, the carrier that handles iPhones.
"Can't help," said the clerk. "Try the Apple store."
I drove 20 minutes to an outlying mall, found the Apple store.
"Can't help," said one clerk. "I'm a trainer. Try the concierge."
Can't help, said the concierge. Make an appointment with the "Genius Bar." (Don't ask.)
I drove across the street to another AT&T store, steaming and prepared to abandon Apple technology. "Sure, glad to help," said the clerk. He pushed some buttons and fixed the problem. I immediately felt better about my iPhone and confident about the trip.
Lesson learned: every enterprise ultimately depends on customer service. Good technology can't run faster than poor customer service.
Clever marketing can't erase a bad shopping experience. Customer loyalty won't survive surly clerks, endless telephone trees, unanswered e-mails, and return and warranty procedures that favor the vendor.
Customers have too many other choices. They don't need to endure clueless systems and irritable staff. Just consider the reputation U.S. automakers got for slick sales staff, bait-and-switch "closers" and point-of-sale pressure to tack on unwanted extras.
In my consulting work with churches, time and again I see the cumulative impact of poor customer service:
Parishioners who form tight circles;
More attention paid to setting the table than to greeting guests;
Fussy liturgy designed for insiders;
Facilities with poor signage (or websites);
Congregants who fight with each other;
Music that pleases only the trained musician;
Clergy who don't call — the list is long.
When I ask former congregants why they worship elsewhere or stay home on Sunday, that's the list they recite, detail by detail. Some were hurt, some were offended. Some said, "Who needs this?"
It wasn't doctrine or change that drove them away. In a world of many choices, the quest for faith simply won't tolerate poor customer service. People stay where they are treated well - and leave where they aren't.
Pay attention to details, I tell church leaders. Look at how you respond to visitors, for example. Reconsider the maze you impose on anyone asking for care. Watch people's faces sag as they sit through worship. Don't let the prickly long-timer force you to stick with methods that clearly aren't working.
Be customer-driven, not provider-driven, I tell them. Visit a successful church and see lively gathering spaces, helpful signage, friendly greeters, cheerful atmosphere, worship designed to help people worship, leaders who are excited and not dodging bullets — that list is long, too.
This is more than advice for institutional leaders. I think it applies to us as individual believers, as well. It is good to tolerate difficult people and to place ourselves in challenging situations. But we don't have to tolerate institutions that thwart us and clearly are serving only themselves.
Enabling isn't the same as loyalty. No faith community will be motivated to serve effectively as long as its constituents excuse mediocrity.
In order to expect more, of course, we ourselves have to give more.
For we play both parts: "customer" and "provider." We cannot receive what we aren't willing to give.
The Rev. Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of "Just Wondering, Jesus," and the founder of the Church Wellness Project http://churchwellness.com. His website is http://morningwalkmedia.com.
I need you! Like whoa. My life is changing a mile a minute, and I need a spiritual home.
It's a bit nerve-racking to walk into a new church—it took three years for one of my friends to build up the courage to try the local UCC church, even though he knew it was open and welcoming.
The church needs to actively reach out to youth and young adults. This could be as simple as putting your church's name in the list of churches at the local college chaplain's office. Better yet, host an event for the youth or young adults in your area. I've heard about another church that serves a midnight pancake breakfast during finals period, and the whole campus attends this much loved annual event.
You don't need to use that idea, but I am sure homesick college students and young folks new to the area would love a home-cooked meal by loving Christians any time of the year. One church reaches out to young people through their regular social justice programs by advertising the volunteer program to young people in the area.
Whether it is a home-cooked meal, a social justice program, a book group or even a late-night prayer service, I just want a place to make friends with other young Christians.
Youth and young adults are doing all sorts of different things, from starting college to taking their first job. Regard-less of where we are or what we are doing, we are new to our environments and need spiritual partners for the journey.
Church, if there is anything you can do to help me build relationships with other Christians, I would be so grateful! My friend Emilia says, "I need a young adult group in my church! Even if it starts out small, if it isn't there to offer young adults when they come to visit a church, then they feel as if there is nothing there specifically for them."
And Kathryn agrees: "Sometimes, it is just nice to know that the program is there and to have someone to con-nect with over coffee or something…It's nice to have that support and talk about faith or just life in general."
Once you've actively reached out, if you ever see a young person you don't recognize in church one Sunday, don't hesitate to say hello! Many of us go church-shopping to find the right church community for us, and most of the time the first step is just making us feel welcome!
So introduce yourself and ask us about our interests and passions. Who knows? You might make a new friend! As LiErin puts it, "For some young people, a church community is one of the few places to cultivate intergenera-tional relationships. Nurture these relationships! As someone living in student housing, far from my family, I relish the rare opportunity to share a meal in a church member's home or to play Frisbee in a real backyard, with kids of all ages."
One of my friends recently moved to a new town and went to a local UCC church. Everyone was really nice, but it was hard to be one of, if not the only, young person in a congregation with already formed families and friend groups.
As my friend Kevin told me, "People need to realize that oftentimes youth and young adults, not feeling part of the already established group, need to be invited in to ministry and community, not expected to integrate themselves by their own accord."
This does not necessarily mean automatically signing a new member up for the committee in most need of peo-ple. Ask me what my interests are and show me all the different options available in the church. Ask me personally!
My friend Roberta says youth and young adults can be the "active asset of bringing new ideas and a new view to situations."
Youth and young adults have many insights into the church — use us! Listen and take action. We can do so many things like read scripture, design a website, bake for coffee hour, sing in the choir, preach and even write articles. However, you have been in the church longer and know some of the ropes we have not even seen yet. So help us put our ideas into action!
There are many issues that we take very seriously as young Christians. For example, the church is in a unique place to talk about sexuality and faith. Our bodies are changing and the secular world is bombarding us with information about sex and dating. We could use a little guidance. Please don't tell us what to do or what not to do as if the situation is black and white.
But you can give us a place to honestly ask questions and think about how our faith may inform our decisions at this time in our lives. The Our Whole Lives curriculum is a great program to provide such space, and it's a wonderful way to bond with other youth in the church.
Well, here you go church! We love you. We need you. We care. And we know deep down in our hearts that you need us, too. Who else is going to carry on the amazing legacy that is the United Church of Christ?
My friend Meredith sums it up nicely: "Youth and young adults need to be empowered to sustain the church movement and act as Christian leaders seeking a just world."
So here is our challenge to you: reach out to us; encourage us; invite us to the table; and treat us as whole, vital members of the church. Oh yeah, and could you send me a care package?
Young people of the UCC
Kendra Purscell serves on the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries and the Wider Church Min-istries Board of Directors. She ives in Des Moines, Iowa, where she is a Choral Music Education major at Drake University.
Kelly Forbush serves on the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries. She lives in Northampton, Mass., where she leads the Ecumenical Christian Community at Smith College. Next year she will attend seminary to study to become an ordained UCC minister.
Puppets may be associated as "for children," but ask a puppet ministry leader, and they'll tell you that puppets are for everyone.
Maybe it's because puppets are a part of nearly everyone's childhood: there was Kukla, Fran and Ollie in the '50s, and Edgar Bergen and his famous puppet sidekick, Charlie McCarthy. And Jim Henson's creations of Kermit the Frog and the gang at Sesame Street continue to delight children and adults alike, well beyond Henson's untimely death in 1990.
Puppets are fun, silly and colorful. They live in a world of pretend, but they can talk about real issues, too. And in the case of puppets who reside in the world of a UCC church, they can talk about things like tolerance, loving your neighbor, and about the promise of Jesus Christ. "Every time we do something with the puppets at church, everybody goes crazy," says Jim Somers, from First Congregational UCC of Rowley, Mass. He and his wife, Heidi, have led S.T.A.R. (Start Taking A Role) Puppet Ministry for the past five years. "They just swarm the stage afterwards."
|Jim and Heidi Somers (c.), co-leaders of Start Taking a Role (S.T.A.R.) puppet ministry at First Congregational UCC of Rowley, Mass., pose with the cast and crew of "Born in a Barn." photo furnished.|
"They just love it. They just can't get enough of it. Why is this? It's probably just because it's different and it's entertaining," says Somers. "Entertaining isn't usually a word that is associated with a church service, but why not? My theater background says, you're putting on a show in the sense that you've got an audience, and you have to captivate them. The Word is out there, the Word is exciting. So let's not make it boring, let's make it exciting. It's a good excuse to say, 'Hey, let's be dramatic here.' "
Cindy McLean, of Peace UCC in Duluth, Minn., leads a troupe of puppeteers from 4th through 6th grade. As much as she sees the puppet ministry benefitting her students, she laughs heartily when she sheepishly admits that she feels it is she who is having the most fun. "[The kids] are so incredibly creative! Sometimes I'm laughing so hard with tears running down my face because they are so clever!"
McLean says the puppets give the kids a place where they can express their faith. "They have a lot of fun with it, and there's a lot of silliness in it, too," she says. "Puppets say really funny things, and get it wrong a lot!"
Karen Mann, the leader of Good Ship Grace Puppeteers at Grace UCC in Lebanon, Penn., had the fortunate advantage of being in the right place at the right time. "We were blessed by the Rev. Dana Schlegel, a previous puppet ministry person," explains Mann.
Schlegel, a UCC minister who is noted for his advocacy of the use of sacred dance and the arts in worship, decided it was time to pass along his puppet collection. When Mann first met Schlegel, she knew that he wasn't going to give his puppets away to be used as playthings. "Just the way he handled the puppets, I knew they were very special to him," remembers Mann. "They were like his kids."
Since then, Schlegel, who suffers from MS, continues to be an invaluable teacher and mentor to Mann's puppet troupe, comprised of eight adults at her church. To honor Schlegel and his important role to the puppet ministry, proceeds from the Good Ship Grace Puppeteer performances go to the MS Society.
Starting a puppet ministry from scratch can have start-up costs, according to McLean. "You need a couple hundred bucks to start," she says. "Now that we're getting established, we're part of the budget. Every show has costumes and scenery."
McLean's troupe had humble beginnings, which required some ingenuity. Instead of purchasing the more costly hand puppets, McLean opted for making "Peeper Puppets," a technique that involves a set of eyes worn on either a bare hand or a glove.
Through websites like <peeperspuppet.com>, these sets of eyes that hook under the puppeteer's finger can be purchased for just over $3.00 each. McLean's puppeteers would wrap boas and feathery things around their wrists to add color. In fact, even after purchasing the more "high-tech" hand puppets, McLean says the peeper puppets still make appearances in their productions. "They're just so cute, we can't bear to let them go," she says.
|Puppeteers from Peace Puppets at Peace UCC, Duluth, Minn., share the spotlight with their "Birds of Pray." photo furnished.|
Somers, McLean and Mann all agree that the internet is the first stop for inspiration and resources. One Way Street, Inc., a Colorado-based company, gets high grades from all three puppet group leaders. The website sells instructional DVDs on puppeteering, scripts, puppets and scenery, and sponsors periodic training seminars and performance festivals.
Still, each leader finds what works best for his or her group. Depending on the skit, Somers will turn to different websites that offer free, downloadable scripts. Mann says her troupe writes their own scripts or adapts a pre-written one, and often they'll center a performance on a song. McLean has also used songs to tell her puppet's story. But since McLean has yet to find scripts that she feels reflects UCC theology and faith, she has written all of her scripts entirely herself.
Taking the show on the road
Mann's troupe, the Good Ship Grace Puppeteers, gets bookings from all over the local area, and the 8-person troupe has developed a close working relationship because of it. Performing at events like Relay for Life, Special Olympics or performing and leading a workshop for the local Girl Scouts keeps them on their toes, especially since they like to customize their performance for each particular audience.
When Mann got called to fill in at the last minute for some entertainment at a Christmas party for a group of electricians, she admits to feeling a bit worried, wondering if the group of adults would take kindly to being entertained by the puppets. "Thank goodness for the internet," laughs Mann, who hurriedly searched for "electrician humor" so that she could work in a few electrical jokes to the set.
She needn't have worried. "We left there with two other bookings [for future shows]. People said they thought it was so funny." Even when playing to a secular crowd, Mann says, "We don't downplay the religious side of what we do, but we're not grabbing them by the lapels, either. There are subtle ways to get the message across."
Finding your niche
A puppet ministry takes a lot of work, but the results bring people close together, sometimes bringing out talents that were never before realized. "This ministry can reach out to kids who maybe don't have another niche," says McLean. "One of our kids who had a disability was one of our best puppeteers. She was awesome, just awesome," she says. "It was just something she could immediately do."
Somers agrees. "The cool thing about puppets is when someone wants to get involved, but they're terrified to stand up in front of people ... This way, they can hide. All we see is a puppet! They can have a blast, tell a story, be part of this whole ministry without actually being in front of anybody."
Mann feels she's part of something that allows Christians of all ages to go back to the basics. "The puppets teach us about showing Christian love and how to treat people," she says. "[The Rev.] Dana [Schlegel] told us that a long time ago. People hear from a puppet what they might not hear if a person just stood up and talked."
Want to start simple?
|Cmdr. Don Troast talks to a crewmember of the Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Montpelier. Troast recently assumed duties as the first force chaplain of the submarine force in 15 years. U.S. Navy | Xander Gamble photo.|
"Because of my personal experience with the Submarine Force," said Troast, "I think I have a good handle on what religious support requirements for the Submarine Force are."
Troast previously served the Submarine Force as a squadron chaplain from 1994 to 1997. He also served as command chaplain for the USS Harry S. Truman Strike Group and various Marine Corps units deploying to the Far East and Afghanistan.
Troast attended Hope College in Holland, Mich., where he majored in biology and physical education with the intention of being a high school teacher and coach. He then received a call to ministry and went to the theological school at Drew University in Madison, N.J., graduating in 1978. Ordained by the United Church of Christ, he served churches in the Boston area for 13 years and joined the Navy Chaplain Corps in 1991.
"[Chaplains] exist because of the free exercise rights of religion granted by the First Amendment of the Constitution," said Troast, a native of Boston, Mass., "and I would be bold enough to say that if that phrase wasn't in there, we probably would not be in the military.
"Our primary function is to ensure the free exercise of religious rights for sailors, marines, airmen, the military in general, and in my case, the Submarine Force, is met. Our sailors, marines, and coast guardsman go to places where they can't just go to their respective place of worship, so we bring it to them."
Troast, like every Navy chaplain, is required to facilitate the needs of every member's religious needs, regardless of their faith.
"We aren't called to violate our own beliefs in any way," said Troast, "but by policy, training and professionalism, we make sure that all the faith groups present have their requirements met in some way, shape or form as possible, especially in an operational environment."
The Department of Defense does not endorse any specific religion, but it recognizes more than 900 faith-based non-profit organizations, represented by more than 200 different denominations of chaplains.
"One of my roles as the force chaplain is to do a needs assessment of the force," said Troast. "My own personal philosophy is that I don't want anyone left behind. I don't care if it's just one person or two people. If their religious life or spiritual life is important to them, it's a mission-readiness issue. I think every submariner deserves to be able to practice their faith the best way they can, and the best way we can meet their requirements, especially on deployment."
Although he is the first force chaplain in 15 years, he doesn't feel like he is starting anything new.
"The key thing is the lay leader program," said Troast. "To be honest, I think it is more important in the Submarine Force than anywhere else in the Navy because submarines never have chaplains on board."
Troast plans to standardize the program throughout the force so that sailors' religious needs are met the best way they can be. "If a chaplain or a religious programs specialist wants to exceed the identified minimum requirements by adding their own flavor or pizazz, that's great! Good on them," said Troast.
"You don't have to be religious to see the chaplain," said Troast. "If you just need some counseling or some coaching, that's for everybody. I always remind everybody from the commander down to the seaman that they have 'privileged communication,' which means that whatever is discussed privately stays private."
Troast is one of more than 60 UCC clergy serving the U.S. Armed Forces as active duty or reservist chaplains.