One of the United Church of Christ’s biggest advocates for immigrant rights is being honored by the National Council of Churches for his work.
The Rev. Noel Andersen will receive the NCC’s President’s Award for Excellence in Faithful Leadership Monday, Oct. 14, at its Christian Unity Gathering in Hampton, Va. Andersen, the grassroots coordinator for Church World Service and the lead organizer of the UCC Collaborative on Immigration, is being recognized for “faithful, risk-taking leadership among faith leaders.” He was nominated for the award by the Rev. John C. Dorhauer, UCC general minister and president.
"I have known Noel since his early days in ministry. From the very beginning, his combination of gentle compassion and fierce determination for the vulnerable singled him out as a once-in-a-generation leader,” Dorhauer said. “He has always combined that compassion and that passion into advocacy for the most marginal among us. I can think of no one more deserving of this singular award from the National Council of Churches."
Andersen works closely with several teams in the UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries as “immigration minister.”
“As we seek to live out the gospel as an immigrant welcoming denomination through advocacy, action and sanctuary, Noel’s has been invaluable,” said the Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of Justice and Local Church Ministries. “Noel centers the voices of those in pain and leads us, denominationally, in the faithful witness of accompaniment. Whether that is on the front lines of direct engagement, speaking truth in power against unjust policies or actions, leading the United Church of Christ in compassionate pilgrimages to the borders of our nation to serve those whose lives are under threat, or urging political engagement to ensure the voices of Christians who believe that the gospel commands us to love our neighbors and welcome the stranger are heard in the halls of Congress, Noel is a fierce advocate and leader of the church.”
In his roles with CWS and the UCC, Andersen has developed a national network of faith communities acting in solidarity with immigrants and refugees. He was instrumental in creating a Refugee Leadership Development for Social Change project at CWS that helps train hundreds of refugees in community organizing. He has worked tirelessly with Dreamers, asylum-seekers and migrants as well as with faith and community leaders to not only give voice to the issues affecting them but to make sure they are able to speak their own truth and tell their own stories to those in Congress and the Trump administration.
“Noel is a steadfast, tireless organizer and advocate, working alongside the communities most impacted by our nation’s inhumane and unjust immigration and border policy,” said Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC Washington, D.C., office. “In these challenging times, Noel is an unfaltering presence on the front lines of organizing and advocating for immigrant neighbors. His efforts help to make the realities of our border and immigration policy real and immediate to key decisionmakers. I am grateful for his partnership in this work.”
Based in Washington D.C., Andersen holds ministerial standing in the UCC Southwest Conference. He served for three years as associate minister of The Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Ariz., with the Rev. Randy Mayer, senior pastor.
“The congregation loved him, he did great work with the youth and of course he always had his hand in organizing with the immigrant rights and border groups,” said Mayer. “Being at The Good Shepherd gave him good experience as a local church pastor while also allowing him to understand immigration issues from the borderlands perspective. Noel is a humble servant who isn't afraid to do the difficult behind the scenes work to make an event or issue come to the forefront. He is a die-hard community organizer who is always thinking strategically how to leverage an issue and build the people power to push it ahead.”
“While Noel served The Good Shepherd UCC he brought the skills of an organizer to the ministry of the local church. Noel continues to be an integral part of border ministry in the Southwest Conference,” said the Rev. Bill Lyons, Conference Minister. “He is one of our key collaborators as we seek to be a resource for the wider church’s ministries of advocacy and prophetic witness.”
Andersen also worked for non-profit organizations in Central America and on the U.S.- Mexico border, focusing on community development, education and community organizing. As coordinator for the UCC National Collaborative on Immigration and with CWS he works to engage people of faith in the growing Sanctuary Movement’s prophetic resistance to deportation policies.
“Noel is respected by the Immigrant rights leaders around the United States, he is respected by the affected communities, and he is respected in the religious communities and by their leaders.” Mayer said. “He is able to build bridges of trust that benefit all groups, which broadens and strengthens the immigration movement.
“But most of all Noel is a people person. He can relate to anyone — young or old. If you wear a suit and tie or a ripped t-shirt and torn sneakers, he will treat you all the same — with dignity. He honors your story,” Mayer continued. “The United Church of Christ and Church World Service are lucky to have Noel in such a unique role at this time and place in our history when immigration is front and center.”
Andersen, the son of a Methodist pastor, said he was called to ministry but didn’t know how. He went to seminary at Pacific School of Religion to grow as a Christian and to find his place. Equipped with the understanding that social justice is a part of ministry, he was drawn to the United Church of Christ by the church’s justice work.
“The UCC has become my spiritual home. Part of who we are as the UCC provided me the space to grow as a leader,” Andersen said. “It’s been an amazing and joyful experience to work in this kind of leadership role around immigrant justice because people are hungry for it. Our denomination is playing a critical role at a critical time fighting for justice for people this administration wants to exclude. It’s important work and it’s exciting and rejuvenating to be part of that process.”
“During General Synod 2019, Noel led the entire church in a suspension of the business session in a march at a local detention center to protest the actions of ICE,” Blackmon said. “We join with the National Council of Churches in celebration of Noel for this well-deserved recognition. It is an honor to serve with him.”
Anderson is one of four leaders of ecumenical and interreligious movements who will be recognized by the NCC for outstanding service and leadership. The others are Kathryn Lohre, the Rev. Alfred Moss Jr. and Agnes Abuom.
Kathryn Mary Lohre will receive the J. Irwin Miller Award for Excellence in Ecumenical Leadership, given to a layperson who has demonstrated a commitment to church unity. She serves as assistant to the presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and executive for ecumenical and interreligious relations and theological discernment.
The Award for Excellence in Interreligious Leadership, renamed for the Rev. Gwynne Guibord, founder and president of The Guibord Center—Religion Inside Out, will be given to the Rev. Alfred Moss Jr., an Episcopal priest and an emeritus professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park.
Agnes Abuom will receive The President’s Award for Excellence in Faithful Leadership along with Andersen. She has been involved in the ecumenical movement for more than 40 years. She was unanimously elected moderator in 2013 at the World Council of Churches’ 10th Assembly in Busan, South Korea. She previously served, on behalf of the Anglican Church of Kenya, as an executive committee member and as Africa president (1999-2006).
The NCC revived the practice of awarding outstanding leaders in 2017. The nation’s greatest faith leaders — some known, some less known — have been honored with these prestigious awards.
“I am personally grateful for Noel’s life and ministry. His contributions to the Southwest Conference, the United Church of Christ, and the Church Universal are deep and lasting.” Lyons said. “On behalf of the Southwest Conference I extend our heart-felt congratulations as he is honored by the National Council of Churches.”