Milestone: ‘Pilgrim’ and ‘Youth’ fellowships came together 50 years ago
Written by J. Bennett Guess
August September 2008
| In 1958, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. met with UCC youth at Purdue University.
Just as thousands of UCC youth were gathering this summer in Knoxville for National Youth Event, many UCC elders are remembering that 2008 also marks the 50-year union of our predecessor bodies' youth organizations.
On June 20-27, 1958 — one year after the founding the UCC — the Pilgrim Fellowship of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Youth Fellowship of the Evangelical and Reformed Church held its first "joint national council" at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
"Many of today's generation of UCC leaders trace the origins of their global justice commitments to seeds sown in Pilgrim and Youth Fellowships," says the Rev. John Thomas, general minister and president. "As a product of Pilgrim Fellowship in the 1960s, I have much to be thankful for as we mark this milestone of the union of the youth movements of our predecessor churches.
"Rooted in the life of congregations, these local fellowships nevertheless saw themselves as part of statewide and national movements of United Church of Christ young people that helped us see beyond our local communities to the reality of a global church and to the pressing needs of the world," Thomas says.
Bridgette Kelly, the UCC's archivist in Cleveland, says the anniversary is a testament to how young people can make a difference in this denomination and in society.
"It is significant to know that the Pilgrim and Youth Fellowships were already working together before the UCC union," Kelly says.
About 330 delegates attended the uniting meeting in June 1958, where they worked to hammer out programmatic details as a joint body moving forward.
"I had never seen an E&R young person before," admitted an unnamed Congregationalist teenager, as quoted in the joint council's 1958 program book.
The June 1958 meeting was followed up later that year with a much-larger gathering of 3,000 UCC participants at the National Conference on Christian Education, held at Purdue University, where teens were given an opportunity to interview the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
"To a great extent, we will have to depend on the youth of this generation to solve the problem [of racism]," King told the UCC audience.
The Rev. Stephen Sterner, acting executive minister for the UCC's Local Church Ministries, says the 50-year milestone for "PF/YF" is an occasion to look back and move forward.
"The many youth fellowship programs in local UCC congregations in 1958 reflected a time of strong institutional participation, the wave of baby boomer children, and the time when Sundays were still relatively free of shopping, organized youth sports and the many other Sunday options families now experience," Sterner says. "A significant number of the current leadership in our churches and our denomination found their faith and their call to serve in these highly organized and mostly full youth fellowship activities."
But Sterner says today's youth movement is different — but still vital — pointing to the more-than 3,000 youth who attended NYE this summer.
"As we look back on this historical moment, we are not given only to a wistful nostalgia for what used to be," Sterner insists. "We have a great base from which to grow."
Local Church Ministries and Justice and Witness Ministries are working with the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries, Conferences, and local church youth and leaders to develop and implement a plan for youth and young adult ministry in the years ahead, Sterner says.
"By the summer of 2009, we will be prepared to begin a renewed emphasis on youth and young adult ministry in the UCC," Sterner says. "We hope that 50 years from now, the church will look back on this moment with as much joy and fondness as we now remember the union of the Pilgrim Fellowship and the E&R youth fellowship."
Learn more @ ucc.org/youth