Looking back over 25 General Synods

That church witness never would have happened if it hadn’t been for the zeal and organizing genius of the Rev. Malcolm Bertram, then a local church pastor from Kansas.

“That event 32 years ago firmly cemented me in the UCC,” he remembered.
Bertram and three others are a select group here in Atlanta, those who have attended all or nearly all of the 25 General Synods. United Church News invited each to share what he considered a defining moment.
When the grape strike started to turn violent, Bertram said Chavez appealed to the UCC to send a delegation of three or four, and the Executive Council agreed.
“Why do we respond with tokenism,” Bertram said he wondered.” “Let’s hire a 747 and take the whole Synod to witness.”

He actually found one of the giant jets, but when he went to sign the contact, the plane was suddenly “unavailable.” Bertram said he thinks the Teamsters got wind of his scheme and put pressure on the airline.

Undaunted, he came up with a smaller plane and quickly filled it with GS volunteers each of whom paid his or her own way. They flew overnight, stood in the 110-degree California heat on the picket line for a day and returned to St. Louis the next day, along with boxes of grapes which they shared with the GS family. Synod subsequently voted to support a national grape boycott. Chavez said the Coachella 95 was a major force in giving his fledging union national recognition, Bertram said.

For United Church News reporter J. Martin Bailey, GS4 in 1963 in Denver was a turning point when, in his opinion, the still new UCC turned from looking inward at the problems of union to outward, responding to cries for justice in a troubled world. The issue that opened doors? “Racial justice,” Bailey said firmly.
It was, he said, a time of “crisis in the nation,” and he and others shared an ominous foreboding that the country was about to erupt in racial violence and terror. There was spirited debate among Synod delegates about what was the proper role of the church. Some argued it was a civil issue and inappropriate for churches to be involved in integration struggles. Tempers flared and tension was in the air. Suddenly, Bailey said, UCC President Ben Herbster rose before the gathering saying Christians had a moral duty to be involved.
Synod then set aside the agenda and voted to create a Committee for Racial Justice (which evolved into the Commission for Racial Justice which today continues in Justice and Witness Ministries). The Board for Homeland Ministries chose to limit building loans and grants to local churches that declared themselves racially inclusive. UCC-related colleges, seminaries, and health and welfare institutions subsequently followed suit.
“We made the right move at the right time,” Bailey said. “I’ve never been prouder of my church.”
Martin Bailey, a UCC minister, has covered every Synod as a religion journalist.
For Charles Lockyear, the first Synod launched a successful 32-year career in the UCC. At that uniting Synod in Cleveland in 1957, made famous by the presidents of the Evangelical and Reformed Church and the Congregational Christian Churches shaking hands, Lockyear was a lay delegate. E&R officials had approached the young banker to come to work for the church.
“I didn’t know what I might be getting into,” Lockyear chuckled at the memory, “so I demurred.” But the church persevered.
“I came to Synod as a banker and left as an assistant treasurer,” he said. When the agencies of the two denominations merged, Lockyear moved from St. Louis to New York as the treasurer of the UCC. Retired now, he’s missed only one GS.
Bill Land watched the first Synod through the wide open eyes of an impressionable 15-year-old. But he said he couldn’t help noticing that there weren’t many black faces. In fact, there were only two black executives out of a total of 600. But Land wasn’t discouraged at the sea of white faces. He came back to the next Synod and the next and the next, right up to today.
GS7 in 1969 in Boston made an indelible impact on him. Ordained and now working with the Committee for Racial Justice, he was looking forward to hearing James Forman present his Black Manifesto to the delegates. Forman had jumped into national headlines with his call for reparations from the white community to African Americans and had briefly occupied the offices of the UCC Board for World Ministries. He had nailed a copy of his manifesto to the door of New York’s Riverside Church.
It was in this atmosphere that nervous Synod officials refused Forman’s request to speak.
“We in the black community were bitterly disappointed,” said Land. “We threatened to demonstrate.” After some deliberation, the church leadership relented and invited Forman to the podium.
The response was “very chilling,” Land said, but the black ministers thought it was a powerful message, and “I think it did some good.” Indeed, Synod did pay more attention to issues of race, and the Committee for Racial Justice became the Commission for Racial Justice with standing and a budget. Land was one of its first employees. Today, he is pastor of Amistad UCC in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Categories: United Church of Christ News

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