My mother's memorial service in February brought me back to my childhood church in Stamford, Conn., the church she had joined in 1928. We sat in the sanctuary where I was baptized, confirmed and ordained, and met friends in the parlor where the church family had watched me grow up.
Here I sang in the children's choir, played in the bell choir, led youth Sunday worship, participated in the Christmas pageants, helped teach Sunday school, led the leadership team of Pilgrim Fellowship and joined in a ministry to inner city kids.
It was in this church that I watched the congregation debate the merits of the United Church of Christ union in 1957, heard them struggle over participation in civil rights efforts around fair housing initiatives in the 1960s and shared in the difficult debates over the church's response to the Vietnam War in the late '60s and early 1970s.
I have often told people that this congregation cherished its young people, expected us to lead and equipped us for that leadership. Several in my generation were ordained; many others offer leadership in other ways in the church.
Two couples from my early years were at the service for my mother. Ray Shoup, along with his wife, Jan, served during my adolescence as the pastor of this church. He played a large part in my decision to prepare for the ministry and later, during my time at Yale, offered me the opportunity to do my field work with him at this new congregation. He and Jan opened their home to many of us for study, for fellowship, for laughter.
Ralph and Elaine Murray joined the church as a young couple and soon became advisors to the Pilgrim Fellowship. They were such role models and encouragers! Ray and Jan, Ralph and Elaine, and others embodied the extravagant welcome that is at the heart of our church. They courageously prodded me and others to engage the big issues of our day, sometimes in the face of opposition from others. They displayed a deep faith and piety centered in scripture and prayer.
Many of us who lead in various settings of the United Church of Christ can remember with affection and gratitude a Ray or Jan, a Ralph or Elaine. With intentionality they set us on a course toward leadership. They helped us discover and use our gifts. They loved us toward maturity. They were our mentors and they became our friends.
This issue of United Church News focuses on the critical issue of leadership development for the United Church of Christ, and on the needs and gifts of youth and young adults in our midst. There is no more important task for us if we are to have a vibrant future.
My visit "home" earlier this year was not just a precious and poignant trip down memory lane. It was a time to be challenged to be the kind of church that nurtured me and others. How do we, today, cherish our young people? How do we communicate our expectation that they will lead? How do we equip them for leadership today, and for tomorrow?
As you read this issue, give thanks for the Ray or Jan, the Elaine or Ralph who shaped your life and gave it direction. Even more, consider how you can become a person like that for young people today.
The Rev. John Thomas is general minister and president of the UCC.