A pulpit exchange on PAAM Sunday strengthens the ties that bind conference pastors

For travel writer and television host, Rick Steves, visiting new places is just as much a spiritual practice as fasting or contemplative prayer. That’s because stepping away from the familiar pokes holes in preconceived notions of “the other,” revealing holy commonalities amid differences.

Sometimes the most life-changing trip, though, can be made without a passport, as pastors and laity in the Southern California Nevada Conference discovered.

On April 28, they packed not their bags, but their sermons, leaving their communities to step into the pulpits of sibling United Church of Christ congregations to celebrate Pacific Islander and Asian American Ministries Sunday.

Seventeen congregations took part in the Southern California Nevada regional PAAM Sunday Pulpit Exchange, which was coordinated by the Rev. Mitchell Young, pastor of Montebello Plymouth Congregational Church in California.

The decision to “go wide” and invite all Southern California Nevada churches, not just regional PAAM congregations, was made at a February PAAM planning meeting.

 “It was important that the preaching voices be those of Pacific Islanders or Asian Americans in our churches, so if churches wanted to participate and didn’t have an AAPI person willing/able/available to represent their congregation, our regional PAAM would help them find a designated AAPI voice to represent them in the pulpit exchange,” said Young.

Young is a fan of pulpit exchanges as they foster a sense of belonging among clergy and congregations. He has coordinated them in the past for regional PAAM churches. The exchanges, Young says, helps break the “my church” mentality prevalent in all denominations.

The Rev. Mitchell Young of Montebello Plymouth Congregational Church spent PAAM Sunday, April 28, preaching at Community Congregational UCC Los Alamitos. Young is a fan of pulpit exchanges and was excited to coordinate this one for the Southern California Nevada Conference and Southern California Nevada regional PAAM.

“Many local churches don’t think about the other churches in the area,” said Young, who also serves as moderator of national PAAM, as well as ambassador of Southern California Nevada regional PAAM. “But when you have a pastor from another church come to the pulpit, there is an opportunity to learn. A connection is then made.”

Strengthening the PAAM Sunday connections being made — and “as a stronger symbol of unity and diversity” — Young encouraged pulpit exchange participants to use the PAAM Sunday liturgical resources, featuring multilingual liturgy and prayers. Fittingly, the text for the day was from John’s Gospel where Jesus spoke about being the true vine and his followers being the branches.

It was yet another reminder of the importance of abiding together that did not go unnoticed by Young.

When Sunday morning worship was over, Young sent the following email to participating congregations: “I pray you all had wonderful experiences branching out, cross-pollinating and connecting our churches together to produce ‘Much Fruit’ on our True Vine this morning!”

Enthusiasm was all around

The Rev. Dr. Sarah Halverson-Cano, senior pastor, Irvine United Congregational Church, Irvine, Calif., was pleased to participate in PAAM Sunday.

“Pulpit exchanges help us realize we are part of something bigger. We may be autonomous, but we aren’t islands to ourselves. We are to be in intentional covenantal relationships,” she said.

While Irvine United Congregational’s youth coordinator, Dustin Nguyen, spent the Sunday at Montebello Plymouth Congregational Church, the Irvine congregation had a slight glitch. The designated exchange pastor could not make it that morning. Young, though, recorded a video message to be played from the Irvine pulpit. While initially disappointed not to welcome a “real live” person, Halverson-Cano said the Spirit could be felt through Young’s words.

“When Pastor Young named all the preachers — and where they were preaching that morning — it sounded like the ‘begats’ in scripture. We absolutely felt connected in the Spirit,” said Halverson-Cano.

Trusting the Spirit

A testimony to how Young lets God’s Spirit blow where it wishes, can be seen in the creative ways he puts pulpit exchange lists together.

One year, the list was made during a regional PAAM gathering where pastors played a game of musical “pulpit” chairs. When the music stopped, the name of the church on the chair would be where the pastor would go. This year’s pulpit exchange list was created with church and pastor names hidden in plastic Easter eggs.

Rev. Mitchell Young used Easter eggs to swap the names of pastors and congregations for the PAAM Sunday Pulpit Exchange held on PAAM Sunday, April 28.

Not all congregations, though, are eager to participate in a pulpit swap. “There is an apprehension of not knowing who they will get as a preacher,” said Young. “I can’t guarantee them that their exchange preacher will ‘fall in line’ with what they believe. It can feel risky to some.”

The Rev. Dr. Ernie Reyes, a chaplain with Kaiser Permanente MC- Home Care Services of Southern California was willing to take “a risk.”  

The Filipino American pastor stepped into the Samoan pulpit of Faaaliga O Le Alofa Church (Vision of Grace Church), which includes two denominations: United Church of Christ and CCCS Congregational Christian Church of Samoa.  

Reyes shared with the congregation how Samoans had been supportive of him throughout his life, from a Samoan inviting him to join the army when he couldn’t find work to another Samoan in the army teaching him how to run and take cover during Desert Storm to yet another Samoan who walked alongside him during his seminary years. “Samoans were also the first to welcome me into PAAM,” said Reyes.

After Reyes’ message, the congregation surprised the guest preacher with a parade of gifts to show their gratitude. Among the Samoan tokens of thanks were woven mats, cases of corned beef and a bolt of fabric. Noticing her husband getting emotional, Michi Reyes whispered in Tagalog (Filipino), “Don’t cry.”

The PAAM Sunday Pulpit Exchange, an idea that was born a year ago at a May regional PAAM meeting, left many a congregation dabbing a tear or two, as stories, traditions and testimonies of God at work among the people were shared.

“We strive to be a multicultural church, so this exchange meant a lot to our Asian American members who saw how we were participating. I know those of us from different ethnic backgrounds appreciated the PAAM Sunday opportunity to learn and listen,” said Halverson-Cano.

Young said another celebration is underway as PAAM celebrates its 50th anniversary this June.


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Categories: United Church of Christ News

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