‘A new thing’: Thompson’s historic installation surrounded by multiple traditions, interfaith partners and joyful noise
“God is doing a new thing. God is making all things new.”
If anyone doubted that this was a historic occasion, the Rev. Merlyn Hyde Riley made sure they knew.
The theme of newness, as part of God’s promise, was woven throughout Hyde Riley’s sermon during the Friday, Oct. 20 installation of the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson as the United Church of Christ’s 10th General Minister and President.
The jubilant celebration — featuring a diversity of religious practices, a wide assembly of interfaith dignitaries and powerful, praise-filled performances — was held at Lakewood Congregational Church in Lakewood, Ohio, just a few miles west of the UCC’s headquarters in downtown Cleveland.
Thompson became the first woman to lead the UCC after she was elected by the denomination’s 34th General Synod on July 3 in Indianapolis. And, as former UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey Black noted during the installation, she is also the first woman of African descent and the first immigrant to become head of the UCC.
Hyde Riley echoed this in her sermon.
“It is good news not only for the United Church of Christ but for you, Karen Georgia, a former stranger in the land, now to become the first Black woman, the first woman, a descendant of formerly enslaved people, to lead this church,” she said. “As we would say in Jamaica, ‘Waat a ting!’”
Hyde Riley was a fitting choice to preach. She and Thompson are linked in several ways. Thompson is a Jamaican-born immigrant, while Hyde Riley is General Secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union. Both serve on the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches. And, most relevantly to this occasion, both Thompson and Hyde Riley were appointed this year as the first women to lead their respective denominations.
“This is a historic moment in the United Church of Christ,” Hyde Riley said. “Keen students of history may take note that this service was held at a time when the question penned by that iconic crooner, Lou Rawls — ‘What’s the matter with the world? Has the world gone mad?’ — has taken on painful and heart-wrenching proportions. … A world where food insecurity, child malnutrition, poverty, patriarchy, climate catastrophe and ongoing imperialism are but some of the life-suffocating and justice-denying demons that threaten human flourishing.
“Yet, history will have to record that the leaders of this community of believers did not cower or become paralyzed by the bleak clouds and depressingly bad news, but drew inspiration and hope from one of God’s special resources to the church: the Scriptures.”
As with this summer’s General Synod, the installation centered around two biblical texts, and two verses in particular: Isaiah 43:19 — “I am doing a new thing” — and Revelation 21:5 — “I am making all things new.”
The passages from Isaiah and Revelation were read, respectively, by Giovan Watson, Thompson’s grandson, and Bishop Andrea Vassell of TFAM Global, the convener of the installation’s planning committee.
Hyde Riley placed the context of the Isaiah chapter, written amid the Babylonian exile, against the backdrop of a groundbreaking moment for the UCC.
Thompson and all that her election represents goes against “oppressors and gatekeepers” trying to maintain the status quo, Hyde Riley asserted. Liberation of the people, though, will win out.
“So, let it be known that this is the case for all forces and powers that presume and presuppose that they are in charge and seek to frustrate God’s purpose,” she said.
Black, in introducing Hyde Riley, had noted that she and the Jamaica Baptist Union were “really firmly grounded in the tradition of liberation and justice-seeking,” having come from people who were formerly enslaved and sought abolition.
Hyde Riley made her focus on liberation crystal clear, both for the people in Isaiah’s time and for the future of the church.
“Liberation is an essential aspect of the vindication of God’s promise,” she said.
In addition to Black, another predecessor of Thompson’s was present. The Rev. Paul Sherry, who was President of the UCC from 1989-1999, remarked that Thompson “will be, indeed she already is, an outstanding leader of the church and an outstanding General Minister and President.” He added that she “reflects the very best that is our beloved United Church of Christ.”
In calling the church to mutually support Thompson, Sherry asserted, “She is the leader we need in these days of great challenge.”
Many other UCC leaders participated in the event. But perhaps even more noteworthy was the presence and uplifting of other traditions, practices and peoples. After a welcome from Vassell, the Rev. Joanna D’Agostino, senior pastor of the hosting Lakewood Congregational Church, made a land acknowledgment, recalling “the streams of history in the United Church of Christ which were theologically complicit in the ideologies of colonization.”
Colonialism, too, was addressed in other ways. The Rev. Shernell Edney Stilley, Associate Conference Minister for the Illinois Conference, spoke about the practice of honoring and welcoming ancestors through libation alongside traditional African drummer Papa Assane M’Baye. She recalled in particular Thompson’s parents, noting, “In libation, it is customary to call the name of an ancestor and to then say, ‘Ashe.’”
She then led the congregation in responding “ashe” to a litany while pouring out water as the libation.
Later, Ọyasùúrù Ifáwárìnwa, a priest of the Ifá/Orisha tradition — a Yoruba religion — offered a chant and blessing on Thompson.
‘We are the church’
Words and songs of praise also flowed freely throughout. Vocalist C. Anthony Bryant led rousing choruses that saw many standing, singing and raising their hands in glory to God.
The service culminated in the ceremonial installation itself, during which Thompson knelt while the many ordained clergy present laid their hands on her in blessing.
The Rev. Yvonne Delk — the first African American woman ordained in the UCC and the first woman ever nominated to lead the denomination — gave a passionate prayer of installation in which she called on the “God of apostles and evangelists and preachers and teachers” to help guide Thompson.
“You have called her to us in the fierce urgency of now, as the threats to life are surrounding all around us,” Delk prayed. “And we, the United Church of Christ — well, we are still struggling to become your beloved community. We are still trying to accept the cost and joy of being your disciples. So you’ve called her to us for just such a time as this. … You’ve called her to this moment, and we know that you’ve already gone before her, to prepare a place for her as she leads us as pastor and prophet and priest and poet.”
Thompson herself, in giving the benediction, thanked everyone attending in-person and online for their presence.
“We are the church, the church of Jesus Christ, in all its manifestations,” she said. “We are the blessings of the spirit. Look around you. We are but a fraction of what it means to be the people of God.”
Others who participated in the ceremony included:
- The Rev. Traci Blackmon, UCC Associate General Minister for Justice and Local Church Ministries;
- Peter Maraki, UCC Transitional Executive for Wider Church Ministries and Co-Executive for Global Ministries;
- The Rev. Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister of the UCC Minnestoa Conference and soon-to-be Acting Associate General Minister for Wider Church Ministries;
- The Rev. Kent Siladi, director of philanthropy for the UCC;
- Bishop Yvette Flunder, presiding prelate of the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries;
- The Rev. Noah Brewer Wallin, who chaired the UCC Board search committee that recommended Thompson as the candidate for GMP;
- Julia Gaughan, chair of the UCC Board;
- The Rev. David Long-Higgins, Conference Minister of the Heartland Conference;
- The Rev. Nayiri Karjian, Assocation Minister of the Living Water Association;
- The Rev. Steven Gower, pastor of Olmsted Community Church in Olmsted Falls, Ohio, where Thompson holds her membership;
- The Rev. Mindy Quellhorst, senior pastor of Dover Congregational UCC in Westlake, Ohio;
- Patrick Watson, Thompson’s son;
- Andrene Sergeant, Thompson’s sister;
- The Rev. Terri Hord Owens, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ);
- The Rev. Michael Blair, General Secretary of The United Church of Canada;
- The Rev. Tara Curlewis of the Uniting Church of Australia;
- The Rev. Phil Tanis of the World Communion of Reformed Churches;
- Bishop Jeffrey Leath, past president of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Council of Bishops;
- Bishop Laura Barbins, bishop of the Northeastern Ohio Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;
- Dianna Wright, director of ecumenical and interreligious relations for the Presbyterian Church (USA).
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