Written by Anthony Moujaes
A witness for inclusivity, advocacy against bullying, calls for racial justice, and a book worth reading. Those are some of the items that make up the most popular and most read United Church News stories in 2013.
What defines a ‘top story of the year’ for the purpose of this list? It comes down to the number of readers with interest in a story, and that’s usually measured by the number of different people who visited the story page during the 2013 calendar year.
So, counting down from 10 to 1, here are the UC News stories that garnered the most interest in 2013:
UCC minister the Rev. Lillian Daniel's most recent book (When Spiritual but Not Religious is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church ) was named one of the year's top 10 books on religion and spirituality by Booklist magazine. The book was hailed for its "marvelously-gritty wit," and is a compelling argument for the importance of religious communities.
Daniel said she was inspired to write the book based on feedback from a UCC Daily Devotional she wrote in 2011, titled "Spiritual but Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me." The reflection went viral online, and divided readers between those who agreed with Daniel and those who found the devotional intolerant and condescending.
"There is so much negativity about church, and people talk in such sloppy ways about religion," said Daniel, senior pastor of First Congregational Church UCC in Glen Ellyn, Ill. "I really wanted to make the argument about why religious community matters and the importance of being part of something bigger than you."
Marriage equality in California was celebrated during the UCC’s General Synod 2013, and on June 30 after community-wide worship, UCC pastor the Rev. Dave Sigmund of Seaside Community UCC, in Torrance, Calif., was legally united in marriage to his husband Jay Greaves in front of family, friends, and hundreds of UCC members from around the country.
The couple exchanged vows on the balcony of the Long Beach Convention Center, surrounded by Seaside congregation members, friends in the 2030 Clergy, and a throng of Synod attendees watching from the promenade floor below. Even media members crowded behind the guests with cameras and microphones to document and report on the wedding - a significant moment for marriage equality.
"This is such a unique opportunity," said Greaves. "We don't know if we could have had so many of our friends, family and members of our denomination with us at any other time."
When the interim pastor of Central St. Matthew UCC in New Orleans, the Rev. Sharon Temple, was approached by a local Christian television station about taking out an advertisement, her interest peaked. Temple figured the TV commercial would help Central St. Matthew become more known in the New Orleans community, but the ad opportunity never came to fruition because the station didn’t agree with the church’s stance and acceptance of LGBT members.
"Our church is multiracial, multicultural, we have openly gay people — though we aren't Open and Affirming — and we want to attract all kinds of people," Temple said. "And I said that all needs to be part of this ad. It can't be edited out. That identity needs to come out very clearly in this."
One of the most read stories of 2013 was actually written in June 2012 when the UCC Scarf Project was proposed by the UCC Penn-Central Conference Minister, the Rev. Marja Coons-Torn to raise awareness about LGBT bullying during General Synod 2013. The project became a colorful, symbolic move to mitigate violence and bullying, as thousands of scarves of various rainbow-colored patterns were handmade to distribute to Synod attendees if they pledged to commit to acting against violence.
"The project has spread like wildfire," said Coons-Torn. "It truly has taken on a life of its own. I know of men and women in at least a half-dozen conferences that are already hard at work."
When Florida jurors cleared neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman on July 14 of all charges in the fatal shooting of teenager Trayvon Martin, the UCC’s national officers denounced the decision. The death of the unarmed 17-year old in February 2012 fueled a massive debate and protests throughout the country about equal justice and racial profiling.
The UCC officers' letter reached out in prayer to the family and friends of Trayvon Martin, and expressed outrage at the court’s decision: Our foremost thoughts and prayers today are with members of Trayvon Martin's family, who have lost a beloved child to racially motivated gun violence and who now must bear the additional weight that the perpetrator of this crime will not be held accountable,” it read. “May they be blessed with courage, endurance, and the assurance of God’s continuing love and care."
Immigration reform was a back-and-forth subject in 2013, and in April the UCC’s immigration advocates saw a positive step in a plan with a bipartisan bill -- proposed by eight U.S. senators – because it offered a step toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
"My initial reaction is gladness that a bill has been introduced – this legislation may actually happen," said the Rev. Mari Castellanos, UCC advocate for domestic issues. "This may not be the bill we would have written, but it is a bill to fight for. It will establish a roadmap to citizenship for 11 million new Americans."
That bill, and others, never made it into law. In June, the Senate passed a bipartisan measure, but it stalled in the House of Representatives. It’s likely immigration reform will remain an issue for the 2014 legislative calendar.
The UCC hosted a wedding for one of its church pastors and his partner June 30 during General Synod 2013 in Long Beach, Calif. The Rev. Sigmund, who pastors Seaside Community UCC in Torrance, Calif., and Jay Greaves were together for a decade before they decided to "step out in faith" and legally tie the knot in with everyone gathered at the denomination's biennial gathering.
"We wanted to get married years ago, we've been together 10 years (as of May 31) and we said long ago once they lifted Prop 8 we would do this,” Greaves said.
The couple’s decision to marry in California came moments after the 9th District U.S. Court of Appeals lifted a hold on same-sex wedding in the state, and days after the U.S. Supreme Court returned Proposition 8 to the state of California
Despite a blanket of snow, about 65 people stood outside to witness an annual nativity procession in Bellevue, Ky., in mid-December. The event was clouded by controversy that surfaced when the nativity scene was moved from a public park to the lawn of St. John United Church of Christ, Bellevue's only open and affirming congregation, and other churches in the community withdrew. The Rev. Keith Haithcock said the inclusivity issue drew encouragement and support from the community – and even from people as far away as Hawaii. Until this year, each church in the town of Bellevue had participated for more than four decades in the annual event that brings the community to the nativity scene in the local park for gospel readings and a candlelight vigil.
"I feel that this was perhaps one of the best outreach events we've done in my 15 years here," said the pastor of St. John UCC. "It is now no longer a conflict, but rather a witness to the extravagant welcome we state and live out."
At General Synod 2013 in early July, the UCC adopted a resolution that calls for a move to divest from fossil fuel companies and other financial strategies, as part of the denomination's environmental advocacy effort. The resolution, brought by the Massachusetts Conference of the UCC, had the most buzz going into the biennial gathering. The adopted resolution calls for enhanced shareholder engagement in fossil fuel companies, an intensive search for investment vehicles that are free of fossil fuels, identification of "best in class" fossil fuel companies by General Synod 2015, and a plan to divest from fossil fuel companies by June 2018 that are not "best in class."
St. John United Church of Christ in Bellevue, Ky., offered to host the town’s annual nativity display when it had to be moved from a city-owned park. But because of the congregation’s extravagant welcome of all people, including LGBT people, four other churches in Bellevue decided to back out of the event.
"We were the only place that had space for it," the Rev. Keith Haithcock, the openly-gay pastor of St. John UCC, said of the life-sized nativity scene. "Then all of a sudden, it began to surface that our location was causing controversy for some because of our Open and Affirming stance."
In less than one month since the story was posted Dec. 5, it’s been read almost 10,000 times, with more than 150 comments from readers posted.