Just when you think the church is irrelevant...it's not
Written by J. Bennett Guess
October - November 2007
October 1, 2007
Not a week goes by that someone, somewhere isn't calling the Church House in Cleveland looking for a copy of "Toxic Wastes and Race," the 1987 UCC-produced study that first exposed the statistical link between toxic dumping sites and their proximity to people of color communities.
Sometimes it's a doctoral student working on a scientific dissertation. Other times it's a professor putting together a lecture, an activist preparing a community talk or a Congressional staffer arming the elected boss with environmental data.
But, regardless, the continuing popularity of a two-decades-old, church-commissioned study seems odd.
And it speaks volumes.
I wouldn't have believed the report's enduring shelf life myself, except that I once served as communications minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, meaning those repeated requests came to my office.
For those who have come to love and appreciate the UCC for other more-personal reasons — the caring community, the eloquent pastor or the booming choir — it may seem strange that, in some circles, just a mention of the name "United Church of Christ" is heard as wholly synonymous with the environmental justice movement.
And, ironically, there are hundreds of thousands within the UCC who have no clue. The same is true in a completely different arena. In some circles, especially in Washington, D.C., the words "United Church of Christ" evoke another seemingly-secular image: media justice and reform.
On Sept. 18, I attended the 25th installment of the UCC-sponsored Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture at the National Press Club.
At the annual event, several hundred media activists, politicians and policy wonks — most of which are not UCC — gather to commemorate the role the UCC played and continues to play in the obscure realm of media access.
In this issue-focused crowd, every person present knows and can tell the story of how, in 1959, the Rev. Everett C. Parker, a UCC minister, founded the Office of Communication of the United Church of Christ, Inc., a legally-incorporated civil rights organization devoted to ordinary people's access to the media.
In short, the church's work led to the FCC license revocation of WLBT-TV in Jackson, Miss., during the Civil Rights Movement because the station refused to serve the interests of its viewers, who were predominately African American.
Because of the UCC's advocacy, the church helped establish the legal precedent that the people — not the media conglomerates — own the airwaves. TV stations must be responsive to their communities of license. Most of the 200-plus people attending the Parker Lecture probably assume, naively, that every UCC member takes great pride in the denomination's historic role in media reform.
But, you and I know, most do not.
Instead, it's just another chapter in the UCC's storied history of justice work, a proud legacy that eager seminarians are taught, and learned preachers espouse, and squirming confirmands must learn.
In this issue of United Church News, our well-written cover article (Centerstage, pages 10-11) by Sandy Sorensen takes a compelling look at one of these two UCC highpoints.
Twenty years after the release of "Toxic Wastes and Race," we're asked to consider the social and theological underpinnings of the church's work for environmental justice. Hopefully, the article also will help our readers understand why so many people are still ordering reprints of the original 1987 study document, and why the church found it necessary to fund a follow-up report issued this year.
Sometimes, during contentious debate on difficult issues, church folk are tempted to side with complacency. We ask, "What difference does our faith-inspired activism make anyway?"
The evidence abounds, even when sometimes it takes time for our victories to be realized and celebrated among those in our pews.
We're the church of the Amistad and abolition, of foreign missions and the American Missionary Association, of the Deaconesses.
We're also the church of environmental justice and media reform.
Just when you thought the church was irrelevant, history proves it is not.