UCC leaders find energy, electricity and healing in Papal visit
Photo via Flickr.com/governortomwolf
During the first visit to the United States by Pope Francis as leader of the Catholic Church, His Holiness issued calls to humanity to care for people in the margins, addressed the critical need for action on climate change, acknowledged the gifts that immigrants bring to their new home country — all topics that resonate in the wider United Church of Christ. Francis’ six-day tour (Sept. 22-27) through Washington, D.C., New York City and Philadelphia electrified the crowds who came to see him and created momentum for morality, one that denominational leaders witnessed and believe can energize people of faith.
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. John Dorhauer, who visited both nation’s capital and the Big Apple last week while Pope Francis was present, can attest to an “electricity in the air that was palpable.”
“Whether riding on the subways, sitting in the restaurants, or gathering in the churches, everyone, everywhere was talking about the pope and what his visit meant to them,” said Dorhauer. “His clear call for people of faith to reach out to the poor and vulnerable, and his prophetic voice on climate change are going to inspire people all over the globe to behave and to think differently. His visit to the victims of abuse from clergy was a healing moment that was needed for the church. He is bringing credibility and relevance back to religion and I am so grateful for what he is doing.”
The Rev. Ann Kansfield thinks the denomination can learn from Pope Francis, in part because the power of his message comes from being a spiritual leader, not a politician. “Pope Francis’ words are rooted in the gospel of Jesus Christ and his actions are in keeping with Christ’s teaching,” said Kansfield, a Brooklyn pastor and chaplain for the Fire Department of New York.
“I received a phone call this morning from a young man who had recently moved to Florida. He had been away from church for quite some time, but his faith had been reignited by the Pope,” Kansfield said. “He erroneously thought that he was calling the neighboring Catholic Church in order to ask them to transfer his baptismal records to his new church. He may have accidentally called the local Protestant church, but it was real-life evidence that the Pope’s visit has energized people for Jesus.”
While in New York City, Pope Francis led an interfaith service at Ground Zero for the victims of the 9/11 terror attack that claimed the lives of more than 3,000 civilians, police and first-responders. As an FDNY chaplain, Kansfield was present for the service and honored to attend.
“I am so grateful to have had a chance to pray with the Pope on behalf of the 10,200 firefighters and 3,600 EMTs who are members of the FDNY,” she said. Kansfield once worked at the World Trade Center, and found the experience of praying at the 9/11 Museum with the Pope and other interfaith colleagues to be personally healing. “I wish that everyone who has been pained by the events of 9/11 could have such a healing experience. I’m very grateful to have such wonderful colleagues in the FDNY chaplains, and am incredibly grateful to have shared this powerful spiritual experience with them.”
Bishop Dwayne Royster, founding pastor of Living Water UCC in Philadelphia, was at the front of a rally this weekend during the Pope’s visit, calling for social justice and lifting up some of the same themes that the Pontiff highlighted during his trip. The pope’s message isn’t new, Royster said, but was renewed through his visit to America.
“I think for those of us in POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild), we are using this moment to leverage the Pope’s message with what we have prayed for,” said Royster, executive director of POWER, a social advocacy group. “We are responsible to speak to those, and with those on the margins, to see them as fully human and embrace them as brothers and sisters and find a way where they are part of our collective destiny.”
Royster wants the faith community to refocus on helping people based on their needs, beginning with the most oppressed and marginalized. “That includes immigrants, the incarcerated, struggling workers, and young men and women of color who have little or no hope for their futures,” Royster said. “Philadelphia is one of the poorest big cities in America and we have an underfunded school system. If you can’t educate the young people you basically set them up for failure.”
“It was amazing to see so many people of different faiths who showed up to hear the Pope — from the Jewish to Muslim community and Sikh community,” Royster added. “What will be the challenge is we have always chosen to do direct service. So how do we deal with structural issues, like immigration reform and racism, that are just as important?:
As for keeping the moral momentum generated by the Pope’s visit going, Kansfield believes they key to that is to “continue to live out our faith authentically, to speak about what Jesus means to us and about how his message of love and justice translate into everyday living for people in 2015,” she said. “That we can love one another, care for one another, forgive one another and be compassionate with one another — and not just the people we like or who are easy to love. But that we need to love, care for, forgive and be compassionate with the people with whom we disagree or dislike. We must be detectives, constantly looking for people who are on the margins, and to be in solitary with them, because that is where we are most likely to experience the very presence of Christ.”
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