A week-long retreat channeled the creativity of artists and activists in the United Church of Christ in an effort to confront the world we live in today. Nineteen participants, ecumenical partners and UCC clergy from across the wider Church, were welcomed to the National Setting and the Amistad Chapel in Cleveland, July 30-August 3. The group's goal — to create a new and evolving language of faith for this moment in time that can be used to impact and resource local churches.
"I am thrilled that the staff called artists and activists among us to take what the spirit has offered and build a new worship experience," the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president, told the group on Wednesday morning, August 1. "You will help us to be more open, to feel free enough in presence of our creator to be fully who we are, without inhibition. It is the voice, the song, the words of the artist that bring full expression to the movement of the spirit. The artists and activists among us open the space for all of us to see who we are and who we can become."
"We know that our public witness and justice work is not separate from the formation of our faith and what happens inside of church buildings with our faith communities. However, there are still very few resources and practices that bridge these areas of ministry and community building," said the Rev. Tracy Howe Wispelway, minister of Congregational and Community Engagement, Justice and Local Church Ministries. She and the Rev. Susan Blain, minister for Faith Formation: Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts, Local Church Ministries, convened the retreat.
"We invited the artists, activists and liturgists for two reasons," Wispelwey continued. "First, to extend our current worship resources and the ministry of Worship Ways towards resourcing local churches beyond Sunday services with liturgical pieces, rituals and art. We are also imagining ways to accompany support and extend our systemic justice work with cultural work, storytelling, art and public liturgy."
The gathering brought together spoken word poets and performers, liturgy scholars, designers and dancers, social activists and artists who work with painting and fabric art. Each of the participants was given the time and space to share their gifts with the group, through individual presentations, larger discussions, community meals, and worship.
The Rev. Erin Beardemphl attended Eden Seminary, has served several churches in associations, and is currently a stay at home mom who fills in for her colleagues. An artist who works in watercolor, Beardemphl uses her current faith community in California, Redlands UCC, as a laboratory for worship experiments. She shared some of what she has learned with the group in her presentation Wednesday morning.
"I asked kids to do a self-portrait and put inside it what makes them feel brave and strong," she said. Beardemphl told the gathering she was looking for self-expression; she said what she discovered was amazing. "You can see the hope, fears and dreams and love of the artists in their work."
Art, Beardemphl said, is an expression of who one is and who he/she is becoming. "If we could, in our churches and in our communities, show people that they really are creative beings, I expect the world would be so much more loving."
Each of the participants took time over the course of the week to share their passion. The Rev. Maren Tirabassi, a longtime United Church of Christ pastor in New Hampshire and Massachusetts is a wordsmith and writer; an author of twenty books. She talked about encouraging people to express themselves by telling their stories, writing on whatever they can get their hands on —including paper plates or band aids. "Churches are an anthology of gathering stories," Tirabassi said. "I teach people how to gather their words."
"The national gathering of artists and activists was amazing. Bringing in a cross section of gifted people within the UCC and our ecumenical partners is all about intersection," said the Rev. Justo González, II, a leader in the Sanctuary movement and an associate minister of the Michigan Conference UCC. "Amazing artists, poets, scholars, dancers, story tellers and activists went hog wild in conceptualizing worship and liturgy in traditional and creative, out of the box ways. Our aim is to provide pastors, worship leaders and liturgy planning teams creative ways connect congregations, those in the pews and the real life issues that are impacting our communities across the country. We strive to create intersectional worship resources that comfort, challenge, raise consciousness and provide strategies that move us beyond Sunday and our buildings to action. We hope to raise awareness and have congregations ask impacted communities what they need rather than assuming and overstepping our role."
"If you are willing, in a community, to try, you'll see things happen that you weren't expecting," Beardemphl said. "God created us to be creative, in His image. When we forget that we are made in God's image, as creative beings, we forget that God is in us."
"I am grateful to be invited to part of this amazing group," Gonzalez said. "I thank Susan Blain and Tracy Wispelwey for planning this gathering and gifting me by inviting me to part of this team."
"Thank you for presenting yourself here for the sake of a church that is crying out and hungry for presence of the sacred," Dorhauer said. "I can't wait to see what the church will become through the offering of your gifts."