Volunteers reinforce the levees at the 1993 General Synod/Assembly in flood-affected St. Louis. Steve Digby photo. W. Evan Golder photo.
In 1993, the last time the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ held a common General Synod/Assembly, the Mississippi River threatened to flood St. Louis, the site of the meeting.
With hundreds of other volunteers, I boarded a yellow schoolbus and headed out to stuff sandbags and build levees. On the bus, I sat next to a Disciples minister from Fayetteville, N.C. We knew the odds were against us. Weather reports predicted that flooding would break through the levees.
"Suppose our efforts don't do any good?" I asked her.
"Volunteering is about being faithful," she said, "not necessarily about being successful."
Being church together at that event meant enduring challenges, some more successful than others. It wasn't easy meshing two very different gatherings into one.
So why do it again?
I've been giving this question some thought. Here are my "top 10" reasons why we should "Gather at the Welcome Table" (Romans 15:1-7) this summer in Kansas City at a common General Synod/Assembly.
10. To volunteer at something besides tossing sandbags
Weather predictions are for no El Ni? and La Ni?, and no flooding, this year. Disciples and UCC members should be able to volunteer for other meaningful service.
9. To satisfy our curiosity
The Kansas City Convention Center where we're meeting—1.6 million square feet spread out over eight city blocks—boasts the continent's largest column-free exhibit hall. That I've gotta see. Kansas City has more waterfalls than any other city in the world except Rome. I want to see the waterfall in center field in Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals play baseball.
We're curious about each other, too. The Disciples may wonder: How does the UCC's "collegium" work? What do UCC members do in all those committee meetings? UCC members may want to know: What do the Disciples do while the UCC delegates are in all those committee hearings? Is the General Assembly really more of a family reunion than a business session?
8. To meet old friends and make new ones
I don't expect to meet House Minority Leader Richard Gephart or South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu again, who were tossing sandbags near me. But I might bump into the Rev. Jean Vandergrift, the North Carolina pastor who rode the bus with me to the riverbank. And I look forward to working with UCC/Disciples press room staff, whom I only see at these meetings.
7. To explore new mission opportunities
I'm also looking forward to Mission-Fest 2001 on July 14, where Disciples and UCC congregations will use displays and demonstrations to tell their stories of ministry. Churches will share examples of their work with such groups as Habitat for Humanity, and also demonstrate projects including constructing housing abroad, providing sleeping bags for homeless people, sewing layettes for infants and school bags for children, making head scarves for cancer patients, and organizing violence prevention projects in schools.
6. To learn more about each another
In St. Louis, we met in side-by-side halls, with the wall between them removed only occasionally, as when Archbishop Tutu addressed us all. This time we will observe each other at work in one large plenary hall. UCC members will notice that Disciples can only "adopt, not adopt or refer" business sent to the Assembly. Disciples will hear UCC delegates debate and amend resolutions before voting. Some 10,000 Disciples will attend, as they can send a certain number of voting delegates from every congregation. UCC members will number around 3,000, of whom 900 will be voting delegates.
5.To see youth participate in ?Big Jammin' Youth 2001'
The youth attending this special program will be busy from dawn till long past dusk, choosing among activities on a multi-option track. Each day will begin with devotions and Bible study and end with a party, concert or dance. In between will be workshops, focus groups, service projects and Synod/Assembly plenaries. The youth also will plan and lead Monday evening worship. Their presence injects freshness and new points of view into our "adult" discussion and helps keep us honest about where the church is going.
4. To see the world through the eyes of our Common Global Ministry Board
The most unique part of this partnership we share is the work of our Common Global Ministry Board. Together we sponsor 200 missionaries in 50 countries in six areas of the world.
This relationship is not only symbolic of Christian unity. It's a practical demonstration of partnership at work and it's a unique window on the world. Short of visiting missionaries where they live and work, a conversation at the Global Ministries exhibit booth can help open our eyes.
3. To deepen our ecumenical partnership
Since 1989, our two denominations have been in "full communion," meaning that we share our faith, sacraments, mission and ministry. Our special "partnership" is unique and ours alone. People in other denominations often ask what our partnership means. We won't know unless we make opportunities to test it out. Unlike a family Thanksgiving dinner, where long-separated relatives gather to eat and make polite conversation—deliberately avoiding mention of topics such as religion, sex and money—our Synod/Assembly brings these topics right out in the open. Our attitudes about such topics reveal our basic theological values. Even our disagreements, expressed in love, will signal the strength of our partnership.
2. To celebrate our unity in Christ
"Unity is God's intention for the Church," writes UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John H. Thomas in an issue of Mid-Stream called "Walking Together in Unity: A Resource for our Common Gathering." "The search for unity is our response to a biblical and theological conviction about the Church. It is a matter of fidelity rather than practicality...Unity is not something we create, but something we recognize and receive. Our task is not so much to create unity, as to make it visible."
It's not because we are alike that our oneness in Christ brings us together. It's our differences that make our oneness in Christ so amazing. This unity in Christ provides us a stronger reason to be together than our differences provide to drive us apart.
1. To be faithful
My conversation during the bus ride to the riverbank in 1993, and the response of the Disciples pastor, really caught the essence of what being a Christian is all about: trying to discern what it means to be faithful to God and act that out in our daily lives.
"I believe we should approach this event in a spirit of expectation," writes Disciples General Minister and President the Rev. Richard L. Hamm in the same issue of "Mid-Stream," "expecting that God will be present with us [and that]...both our communions will be blessed for seeking to be faithful to the God-given unity of the church of Jesus Christ."
From the parting of the Red Sea to the sending of a son as Savior, God always has had our best interests at heart. So we respond in kind, trying to discern what it means to be faithful to God, and trying to act that out in our daily lives.
See you in Kansas City!
This year, for the first time, you can register for Synod/Assembly online. Click here for more information.
The Rev. W. Evan Golder is editor of the national edition of United Church News.