Hills of Kentucky refresh activists' spirits
Written by Ted Braun
November 2000

"I feel like I've been to the mountain once again." So said a woman from Nashville who had come on her fourth annual visit to Henderson, Ky., for Zion UCC's Peace with Justice Weekend Oct. 20-22.

In 1992, this remarkable congregation decided to create an annual, national gathering for peace and justice activists to provide refreshment, renewal and relationship-building. This year several hundred people gathered for three days of worship celebrations, concerts, folksinging, storytelling, theological presentations, reports from people who have been on the front lines of battles against injustice, and conversation in which participants shared with each other the core of their passion for social justice.

Exhibits feature activist artwork, global crafts, and literature provided by such organizations as People for the American Way, Amnesty International, Kentucky Fairness Alliance and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays).

Oppose dominant culture

Kathy Stein, the only member of the Kentucky House of Representatives of the Jewish faith and the only one to vote against the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools and buildings, left this word from Edward Yazinsky with her hearers: "Fear not your enemies, for they can only kill you. Fear not your friends, for they can only betray you. Fear only the indifferent who allow the betrayers and killers to roam the earth."

Feminist theologians Johanna Bos from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary and Carter Heyward from the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., shared stimulating thoughts about the need for Christians to live a radically alternative life to the dominant culture.

Melinda Lackey, co-founder and director of the Welfare Rights Initiative for impoverished women in New York City, and co-founder of Iris House in East Harlem, a support center for women infected with HIV/AIDS, spoke about her work on the front lines.

Storytellers Nana Yaa Asantewaa from Louisville, Ky., and Kathy McGregor-Shorrock from Washington, D.C., shared stories from around the world that gave new insights into human nature and offered healing power. Songwriters Jim Scott from Shrewsbury, Mass., Steve Schalchlin from Valley Village, Calif., and Carol Kraemer from Louisville sang about the importance of human solidarity and compassion and the need for Christians to help transform the world.

Committed to joyful living

The remarkable congregation at the heart of this "mountain experience" describes itself as a progressive, intentional Christian community, a just peace, open and affirming church that recognizes the importance of diversity, inclusive language, nonviolence, multicultural and multiracial approaches, open hospitality, and a commitment to living joyfully and participating responsibly in the church's life and mission.

Founded in 1871, the church took on a new lease on life when the Rev. Ben Guess became its pastor in 1992. In addition to its weekly church school, worship, and eucharistic services, it established a Parish Nurse program, a Matthew 25 AIDS Services Center, a subscription publication Out of Line, an annual W.C. Handy Festival (Handy once lived in Henderson), a Christmas Charity Bazaar, and the annual Peace with Justice Weekend.

Last year, under Ben Guess' leadership, and with the support of the mayor and a majority of City Council members, the City of Henderson passed a Fairness Ordinance making it illegal in the city to discriminate in employment, housing, and public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Enter annual covenant

Zion Church now has some 175 members across a wide spectrum of ages from children to senior citizens, including singles, couples, and families. Each year, the church invites its members and friends to enter into a covenant relationship with one another, writing down their commitment to the church's life and mission for the coming year and what they ask or wish from the church. These are then compiled into a booklet and given to each person attending the closing communion service of the weekend.

The covenants include such intentions as serving on various committees (including on one of the church's six cleaning teams), engaging in personal spiritual disciplines, participating in the church's various community ministries, tithing, and reaching out to those without a church community.

The testimonies in the Covenant booklet are quite moving. "If St. Francis were still alive today and living close by, he would go to church here." "I was amazed at how my experience of the Bible readings, prayers, hymns, sermons, and sense of community here came alive in fresh and powerful ways as we put our faith into concrete action for peace and justice!" "I thank God that this is not a normal church, never has been, and I am sure that it will never be. And to me that is why making my covenant is such a challenge." "This Zion Community is one of God's greatest creations, and I am so humbled to be a part of it."

Church moves outward

The testimonies also indicate the outward thrust of the church: "Being a part of Zion UCC for me also means being a part of the larger community. It must commit to continue work to make this community where I live a better place, a more just place. For me, that means voting and adding my voice and intellect to causes of peace, justice, and mercy. I still believe that when I don't take a stand for others who are oppressed, I am less than the human God created me to be." "We must draw near to God and to each other for our own sake and for the sake of those who come after us."

Since Sept. 1, the church has entered a time of transition. Its beloved pastor, Ben Guess, has been called to the national offices in Cleveland to become Minister for Labor Relations and Economic Justice. As the church prepares to find a successor, it intends to carry on this important prophetic mission of proclaiming and incarnating peace with justice.

The Rev. Ted Braun, now retired, lives at Uplands in Pleasant Hill, Tenn.

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