Summer sessions sizzle
Written by Ron Buford
September 2002
September 1, 2002

Betsy Dole holds $3,500 in donations. Ron Buford photo.

As endless rounds of summer meetings conclude, the main message is: 'God will not leave us comfortless'

After visiting a UCC event with me, a childhood friend commented, "Well, this ain't your mamma's religion." On the other hand, isn't it?

According to Betsy Dole of Plymouth Congregational UCC in Grand Rapids, Mich., who attended the Annual Gathering of the Coalition for Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgen-der (LGBT) Concerns, it is. The Coalition Gathering, which took place in Seattle from June 24 to 27, attracted 148 people from 23 states. They represented 110 Open and Affirming (ONA) congregations and others.

Dole's daughter, Peggy, and her partner, Linda, became one of the first openly same-gender couples in Seattle to adopt a child. Dole and her husband both grew up in UCC Congregational forebear churches. Her father was a Congregational pastor. "My love for the UCC grows out of my love for its passion for justice, cutting edge theology and its willingness to be open to a God who is still speaking," said Dole.

Dole, a long-time UCC donor, was busy raising money for the Coalition among parents attending the Coalition gathering. Holding five envelopes containing nearly $3,500 from parents, Dole said, "I like to believe that I am carrying on the work of my ancestors who contributed to the early work of the American Missionary Association." (The AMA grew out of the 1839 movement to free the Amistad captives; even today, its invested money is one of the largest sources of funding for mission in the UCC.)

The Rev. Luther Holland of Congregational Church of Park Manor UCC, Chicago, greets the Rev. Wanda Harris-Watkins of Pakachoag UCC, Auburn, Mass., at the UBC meeting in Norfolk, Va. Ron Buford photo.
30-year impact

The presence of so many was a testimony to the impact of the Coalition's 30th anniversary and the 30th anniversary of the Rev. William R. Johnson's historic ordination as the first openly-gay person in modern times to be ordained to Christian ministry. Like the Gospel story in which a grateful woman washed Jesus feet with her tears and dried them with her hair, this community eagerly gathered for worship, each time filled with palpable gratitude and raw emotion.

The Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, Southwest Conference Minister, led a story-sharing process that tapped sources of that passion and gratitude. The Rev. Mark Doty, of Hammond Street Congregational UCC in Bangor, Maine, shared his story of struggle while pastor of a 3,000-member church in another denomination and his transition to the UCC. He ended by sharing a line from a poem by Jane Kenyon that had been his comfort during his most difficult days: "God will not leave us comfortless. Let evening come.">

As evening came on the final night during the Coalition banquet, religious protesters brought hate messages on signs that read "Repent Perverts." Inside, the Rev. John H. Thomas, UCC general minister and president, encouraged those gathered not to rest on the accomplishments of the last 30 years. Referring only obliquely to the hate message outside, he said, "This is the last gasp of a dying orthodoxy that is giving way to a new and bolder truth." Let evening come.

Virginia Secretary of Education Belle S. Wheelan chats with Kahil Humphrey, 7, of Buffalo, N.Y., at the Harambee event in Norfolk, Va. Ron Buford photo.
Off to Norfolk

How do you follow up such an experience? I flew to Norfolk, Va., to participate in the richness and breadth of the African-American experience at the biennial meeting from July 9 to 13 of United Black Christians (UBC) and Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice (MRSEJ). A power-packed line-up of some of the best black preachers, early morning Bible studies, two worship services and midnight preaching each day, business plenary sessions and workshops kept participants excited for the whole session.

As the Rev. Yvonne Delk preached outdoors during the opening worship about a "Jesus on the outside," people in neighboring houses literally hung out of windows to hear Delk's stirring sermon and the gospel sounds of the Harambee Choir. Their performance concluded the seventh National UBC Youth and Young Adult Event called Harambee (Pulling Together). Harambee 2002 took place from July 7 to 9, concluding just as the UBC/MRSEJ event began. Its gathering included approximately 100 African-American UCC youth from across the nation.

Later that week, people stood in reaction to the powerful sermon, "Can you hear me now?" as Bernice Powell Jackson, Executive Minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, encouraged attendees to work for justice for all people—including LGBT persons. The people leapt to their feet again as the Rev. Ken Samuels, pastor of one of the newest UCC churches, the 5,500-member Victory UCC in Atlanta, spoke at a men's luncheon about the need for critical thinking and for religious progressives to "be on the battlefield" for our principles. At the banquet, UBC legend the Rev. Leon White lifted up an insightful view of the faith required for social activists. "To be an activist," he said, "you must have faith in people—you must have faith for them until they have faith in themselves.">

The Rev. William R. Johnson responds to an ovation at the Coalition Gathering celebrating his 30th ordination anniversary. Ron Buford photo.
The PAAM experience

Many other exciting meetings took place during summer 2002, such as Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries (PAAM), six regional youth events, and Conference meetings.

The PAAM 2002 Convocation drew nearly 200 participants to Chapman University in Orange, Calif., from June 27 to 30. The Rev. Loimata Soa, pastor of Windward Samoan CCC/UCC in Waimanalo, Hawaii, writes of her experience at the PAAM meeting:

"There was great hope in the theme for this year's gathering: 'A Place for Renewal.' I needed renewal in mind, body and, above all, spirit. Being in a different setting and mixing with people who were mostly unfamiliar to me was a wonderful way to begin the renewal process. I felt uplifted by our speakers during worship. Being reminded to stop and to reflect on where you are in your relationship with God is especially important.

"All of us were just blown away by the richness and the color of the many cultures that are PAAM. I was reminded once again that culture truly is a gift from God. Finally, the convocation came to a fitting and moving closure with our worship service. It was with real humility and awe that I was able to take part in the closing service as a Samoan woman pastor.

"As the words of the Psalmist echo, 'How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity' (Psalm 133:1).">

These meetings are examples of the excitement stirring among us. "God will not leave us comfortless. Let evening come.">

UCC Public Relations and Marketing Manager Ron Buford has been on the go all summer, attending these and other meetings.

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"Moving Forward Together"—A booklet of reflections on the Coalition's 30th Anniversary is available from the Coalition for $6. Order from PMB 230, 800 Village Walk, Guilford Ct 06437; e-mail:

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