When the General Synod planning team invited UCC churches to tell their stories, more than 150 congregations jumped at the chance to enter the "Imagine What’s Possible" contest. The friendly competition, however, proved so lively — and meaningful — that choosing the winners became a difficult task for the contests’ judges, who needed an extra 10 days to reach consensus on their final choices.
But, in the end, six winners — one from each of the UCC's six geographic regions — will be recognized for imagining a possibility and then working to make that dream a reality.
The winning congregations are First Congregational UCC, Wallingford, Conn.; Everett (Wash.) UCC; First Congregational UCC, Ypsilanti, Mich.; New Covenant UCC, Williamsport, Pa.; Zion UCC, Burlington, Iowa; and Central St. Matthew UCC, New Orleans, La.
Each of their stories will be shared at General Synod as part of an "Imagine What's Possible Music Celebration" on Saturday evening, July 2, in Tampa, Fla. The pastor and one lay leader from each chosen congregations will have their expenses paid to attend.
"The judging was tremendously difficult because every church’s story represents a huge investment of passion, ingenuity and commitment," says Edith Guffey, associate general minister and administrator of the UCC’s biennial General Synod. “I consider myself blessed to have been able to read many of the congregations’ moving stories before they were passed along to the Synod moderators.”
The contest was judged by 2011 moderator James K. Roberton, an attorney and member of First Congregational UCC in Watertown, Conn., and assistant moderators Carolyn Belson, an attorney and member of Waiola UCC in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, and the Rev. Patricia Aurand, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Mason City, Iowa.
"These stories certainly bring to life our 'Imagine What's Possible' General Synod theme in a powerful way," Guffey says.
The stories were so inspiring that Guffey has decided to compile a descriptive list of all the congregations’ entries to be shared online and as part of the Synod’s program book.
"I think UCC members everywhere will be blown away by the incredible depth of creativity and leadership that our churches have offered to meet the challenges faced in their congregations, communities and around the world," Guffey says. "At a time in which we are prone to doubt our own impact, at times, all of these 150 stories — and not just our six winning entries —need to be lifted and celebrated."
Here is a brief summary of each of the winning congregation's entries:
- Western Region:
In spring 2007, Everett (Wash.) UCC found
itself without a pastor, no money, poor communication, and a broken spirit.
Today, it is a vital, growing and serving congregation, thanks to a faithful
remnant that formed a church development committee with financial assistance
from the UCC’s Pacific Northwest Conference. Once a largely disconnected UCC
congregation, it now embraces its UCC identity with a new website, letterhead,
signage, and sanctuary renovations to upgrade its sound system and make the
chancel accessible to wheelchairs. Twenty new members have joined, and a weekly
feeding program for the homeless and unemployed has doubled. While income generated from renting worship
space to a Pentecostal congregation once provided much-needed resources, the
church made the difficult, but faithful financial decision to end its lease
agreement when it was learned that some of Everett UCC’s own were being
harassed with anti-gay taunts. In turn, the church has become recognized as the
region’s safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and
organizations. Everett UCC refused to
give in to despair and decline, and renewed hope now abounds.
- Great Lakes Region: After learning of violent raids by customs
officials and local police against Latino immigrant families in 2008, First Congregational UCC in Ypsilanti, Mich. —
a small boldly progressive congregation — responded quickly to meet urgent
human needs, including caring for children whose parents had been
detained. With less than eight hours of notice,
the church gathered 50 concerned citizens representing 20 faith-based and
human-rights organizations and soon launched the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition
for Immigrant Rights. Today, the church serves as WICIR’s fiduciary sponsor and
is active in providing a full range of services — political advocacy, legal
aid, community education, fund development, employer assistance and immigrant
peer support — on behalf of their Hispanic neighbors. This UCC-inspired coalition now includes 35
churches and organizations and an email list-serve of more than 400
- Mid-Atlantic Region: In early 2006, New Covenant UCC in Williamsport, Pa., decided it was time to CONNECT, the program it
developed to engage town leaders to determine an unmet community need that the
church could adopt and make its own.
When it was deciphered that Williamsport had limited housing for
homeless families with children, New Covenant UCC purchased a large adjacent
apartment building — long a community eyesore — and worked in partnership with
the Family Housing Alliance, a coalition of 17 community service organizations,
including the church, to renovate and repurpose the building as a four-unit
living space. Combining grants, fundraisers, community labor and church-backed
faith and financing, Journey House was dedicated in late 2007, providing two
years of transitional housing and comprehensive services to those actively
seeking to become self-sufficient again. To date, 14 families — 20 adults and
20 children — have benefitted from Journey House.
- West Central Region: Zion UCC in Burlington, Iowa, is a
downtown church in a town with a failing economy. When the pastor and congregation
were feeling as if they were offering token assistance only to those who asked
for help, the church sought a $20,000 federal grant to redesign and strengthen
its capacity to respond to their neighbors' significant financial struggles. The
grant was not money to hand out to the needy, but seed money to fund the
development of a sustained, long-term strategy. Today, Zion UCC’s comprehensive
program, “Bridging the Gap,” offers a complete line of services to help the
unemployed, including job training, resume writing, interview coaching and
clothing, transportation, life coaching and budgeting, and GED tutorials. A
welcoming and growing congregation of 300 people, the church also has a
commitment to meeting the needs of those beyond their hometown. Each year it
gives 25 percent of members' pledges to Our Church’s Wider Mission, which funds
the UCC’s connectional ministries regionally, nationally and globally.
- Southern Region: They once were two churches with vastly
different cultures, neighborhoods and histories yet their buildings sat only
four miles apart. But after Hurricane
Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, Central UCC and St. Matthew UCC, both in
New Orleans, began to hold joint services and deep friendships formed. Since
that time, they have decided to become one church with two campuses, devising a
plan that allows each church to remain faithful to its roots while igniting new
vitality for the merged congregation.
Central UCC, in turn, decided to donate its insurance settlement to support
a child-care organization, a critical need in the hurricane’s wake. Today, Central St. Matthew UCC in New Orleans is a diverse multi-racial, multi-cultural
expression of UCC unity, one that shares blended traditions, spirited worship
and new-found trust: “White and Black with no gray skies!” the church sings
- New England Region: On Pentecost Sunday in 2006, worshipers at First Congregational UCC in Wallingford, Conn., learned of a need at a Baghdad, Iraq, airbase that they had never heard before: Our U.S. military personnel couldn't get a good cup of coffee. So, the church sprang into action, gathering donations and making calls to coffee companies nationwide. In the process, Holy Joe’s Café, a coffee house ministry sponsored with the support of airbase chaplains, was born. In the past year alone, an estimated 18 tons of coffee, enough to serve 3.6 million cups, has been provided to soldiers thanks to the church’s ingenuity and persistence. And hundreds of UCC congregations nationwide have joined in support of the effort. The coffee has provided more than caffeine; it’s ignited fellowship. Chaplains report significantly increased visibility of their on-base ministries and worship attendance has jumped significantly, thanks to Holy Joe’s Café.