Written by Gayle Elizabeth Starling
"This fountain is a central place for the Church House, both symbolically and architecturally. Symbolically it is a reminder of baptism, which is the rite of entry into the Christian church, and this fountain sits at the entryway to the chapel. It also is more broadly a reminder of the biblical story, because so many biblical stories involve water."
These words, spoken by Hans Holznagel, Assistant to the Collegium for Community Life, are heard often as he escorts an array of groups through the maze of departments and offices in the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.
Holznagel finds giving tours, just one of his tasks in the national setting, rewarding work. No matter how many times he has played host to a variety of guests, he makes every aspect of his history lesson creative and informative.
The Church House offers these tours "because we want to connect with people," he says. "Website, printed literature, United Church News, all of that is absolutely necessary, and yet something happens even more when you meet people face to face. It gives them a human touch, a human feel of the mission in ministry that goes on in the national setting of the church."
Tours are usually customized, with a typical one lasting about 90 minutes. In that time period, visitors get to see the exquisite Amistad Chapel and learn of the role the UCC played in securing the freedom of the captured Africans who sailed on the Amistad, bound for slavery, only to startle their captors and mutiny against them. They also visit some of the mission floors in the nine-story building and meet some staff members.
Holznagel says visitors are truly interested in what goes on in the UCC and how the work is performed. Visitors include confirmation classes, women's groups, retired people, adult study classes and church councils. They come from local churches near and far, UCC associations, ecumenical partners or councils of churches—it can run the gamut. "They all want to find out what goes on here," he says.
Students from confirmation classes, in particular, have certain questions they are hoping to have answered. Typical questions include: What is the national structure of the church? Where does the money go when it is put into the offering plate? What is a mission? What is my mission? What is a calling? How do I connect with the whole church? What does it mean that there are missionaries in other countries on my behalf? These are important to teenagers, he says, and they come ready to learn.
Sometimes the tourists give Holznagel a break and find their own creative ways to take the tour. With a lot of advance work and an idea from their advisor, Linda Carder, a confirmation class from Christ Congregational UCC in Silver Spring, Md., held a scavenger hunt in the Church House. Prior to their arrival, Carder had informed several staff members about the project. When the class arrived, members were given a list of things they needed to track down, e.g., certain persons, their titles, job duties, offices, and materials and brochures on different ministries.
The kids went from floor to floor gathering information. When they were finished, they shared with one another what they had learned.
"They were really excited," says Carder. "All the groups could explain what each ministry did. They were busy for four hours. There was no boredom, no rolling of eyes. Only excitement."
"They were ready," laughs Holznagel. "Nothing could divert them from their goal. Their questions to staff members were right on target." The youth stayed overnight in the Radisson Hotel connected to the Church House and held a worship service the next day in the Amistad Chapel.
Some people have made pilgrimages to the Church House from across the nation to take the tour. Many of them comment that they got "more than they expected," and "went home with new knowledge and appreciation of our history and heritage." Some report back that they were at home in "our" meeting house, and felt welcomed, both by Holznagel and the staff members they met. One youth group was so inspired, they made plans to do an "Amistad Sunday."
Although there are weekend tours, Holznagel strongly encourages weekday visits. He also recommends a call ahead.