She could be your sister, your daughter, your neighbor. A mother. In Mexico, she's also a commodity to buy and sell.
Sexual trafficking and exploitation is harsh reality in communities along the U.S.-Mexican border and beyond. That reality drew 13 people from the UCC's California-Nevada conferences to Centro Romero April 26-28 to take part in an immersion experience at the Center for Education and Social Transformation in San Ysidro, Calif. The group joined Dr. Carlos Correa Bernier, Director of Centro Romero, and three other UCC staff members to begin developing ways churches in the region can join efforts to address this growing problem of exploitation of women and children. A new way of being church, welcoming all.
"Our objectives are assistance, intervention and connection," said Correa. "We wanted to bring together religious and community leaders, researchers, and practitioners who work in enforcing trafficking laws and in providing direct support and prevention. We're looking into developing ways for future collaborative research, advocacy, and program development focusing on sex trafficking, and in equipping participants to educate others about the needs and risks of those who are victimized."
Commercial sexual exploitation on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border is big business. According to a study for Global Financial Integrity, sex trafficking is the second most profitable illegal business in the world, after the trade in illegal drugs. The border between San Diego and Tijuana has become an active location for sex trafficking, with most of the "consumers" coming from the U.S. side of the border. The women and children –– about 137,000 trafficked through Mexico annually –– range in age from 3 years to 65 years old.
The group met with Stephen Cass, a U.S. citizen now living in Mexico, who operates a ministry to rescue girls who are trafficked for sex. His is the only safe house in Tijuana. A gripping first-hand account of how the safe house literally can be a life changing experience came from a young woman who had been sexually abused by her father for years before receiving assistance. Her testimony touched a nerve with the Rev. Andrew (Andy) Schwiebert, lead pastor at (a)Spire Ministry, a new emergent community that is an extension of First Congregational UCC of Pasadena.
"I was moved by the courage of survivors of sex trafficking to share their stories of unthinkable, horrific abuse as young children at the hands of family and traffickers and at the hands of a violent system," said Schwiebert.
In broad daylight, the group made its way through the "Zone of Tolerance" (e.g., red light district) of Tijuana, where 300 young girls and transgender boys, many of them clearly aged 13-17, were awaiting sex work in plain view of federal and state police.
While in Tijuana, the group visited the only residential treatment program there that is free for those living with HIV/AIDS and talked to two young women, who shared moving and disturbing stories of being trafficked for sex. One was "bought" by an American who took her and her baby to Alaska and forced her to have sex with others. The second woman was lured into the business by a girlfriend, who first got her addicted to drugs.
"I can't comprehend how the victims of this tragic and exploitative industry cope with what must be mountains of pain. Knowing that a few manage to escape and that there are some working to support those who do offers a tiny flicker of hope," said Schwiebert. "The Romero Center is one among a few key places in the UCC that is rallying people of faith together for collective acts of compassion, mercy and justice."
The group, spurred by the people they met and what they saw, are generating ideas on what type of support UCC churches can offer –– with an additional safe house as one possibility.
Lisa McCally, a member of Congregational UCC of San Mateo, Calif., said, "I know some of us hope to help and/or support Carlos, UCC or Centro Romero in exploring ways to take action, including starting a safe house for victims in Rosarito or Tijuana."
Other important steps, the group noted, are educating our congregations and finding out what is going on in our own communities. McCally says her church is meeting in June to brainstorm ideas for ways to follow up locally and beyond. She already has joined a group in her hometown, the Bay Area Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition to learn how she can get involved in the fight against human trafficking.
"I believe this is an important time for members of the UCC to support positive solutions that both curb the demand among consumers of sex work and pornography, and offer support to those seeking a way out and new life," said Schwiebert.
"We're the biggest and fastest-growing LGBT-welcoming church movement in the world," said Andy Lang, executive director of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, which certifies and supports ONA congregations. "Every new ONA church is a community that restores LGBT Christians and their families to the Body of Christ, and potentially saves the lives of LGBT youth who need a clear message of acceptance."
Pillar of Love is an African-American congregation with a predominantly LGBT membership, says Phyllis Pennese, pastor. The church is also affiliated with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a movement led by the Rev. Yvette Flunder.
"We're excited about this honor," Pennese said, "and we're planning to join the celebration when the Coalition's National Gathering comes to our home town in June." "Pillar of Love, like other ONA churches, is a community where LGBT individuals and families can be restored to wholeness," said Pennese. "Our church motto is that 'we have the courage to be all that God created.' I do believe that because so many of us in the LGBT and black LGBT community have been abused and brutalized in the church, the only way we can heal and grow and walk confidently into what God has called us to be is to be showered with love."
The ONA movement dates back to July 1985 when General Synod adopted a resolution "Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming." The resolution urged churches to adopt "covenants" to "welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual people to join our congregation in the same spirit and manner used in the acceptance of any new members."
An explicit welcome for transgender Christians was not at first part of the ONA covenants adopted by congregations. But that changed in 2003 when General Synod's resolution "Affirming the Participation and Ministry of Transgender People" in the UCC came to the floor and passed by a wide margin. Since then, the Coalition has required new ONA congregations to include "gender identity or expression" or similar words in their covenants.
In 1985 Sam Loliger, then the Coalition's national coordinator, established the ONA registry. By 1987, 15 ONA congregations were certified and welcomed at General Synod that year. Also in 1987, the Coalition's ONA program hired its first coordinator –– Ann B. Day. "Little did I know that this was the beginning of 20 years of ministry," Day said.
"I think a lot of the early energy went into identifying the primary issues and developing resources that would address what were then gay and lesbian concerns," Day said of the early years. "And then it blossomed into bisexual and transgender work as well. So we needed to develop materials and standardize what we were asking congregations to do."
The issues in the 1980s were not very different from the questions congregations ask today when they begin their ONA journey.
"Members asked what 'affirmation' meant and whether 'we will become a gay church' if they adopted an ONA covenant,” said Day. "And at first we didn't anticipate how much work would be needed to help churches on the other side of their ONA commitment. We began to realize the Coalition also needed to support new ONA churches as they began to experience a whole new world of ministry."
Helping ONA churches live out the implications of their covenant is still one of the Coalition's top priorities, Lang said.
"The covenant is the beginning, not the end of the journey,” said Lang. "ONA congregations can experience the true power of their commitment when they advocate for LGBT youth who face bullying and threats in their schools, care for LGBT elders who need the support of a loving congregation, provide sanctuary for LGBT asylum seekers who will face prison or worse if forced to return to their homeland. An ONA ministry that reaches beyond the church into the community is the best way ONA churches can establish a visible presence in he LGBT community."
What is the impact of ONA congregations in the LGBT community? Days says that "it changes our lives and our families when we know there are churches that don't 'tolerate' but 'affirm' us, as the writers of the 1985 resolution intended. It makes a difference when our gifts are honored and our families are respected."
And the ONA journey has changed congregations, too. "Churches grow spiritually," Day said. "Many realize that the ONA experience is a turning point in their story as a community. They realize that ONA is not just for LGBT people, but for everybody in the church."
What does Day want for the future of the ONA movement? "I want the list to grow exponentially," she said. "I want congregations to experience the kind of spirit-filled transformation this movement is all about. I believe that, as this happens, we'll have growing impact not only on our church but on our culture. ONA is part of a growing interfaith welcoming-church movement and we're changing the face of American religion. It's amazing to think that we've been part of a new reformation in the church. I want this movement to grow because this is the community Jesus imagined for us. This is what the church is all about--to become a place of mutual respect and love."
The Coalition will welcome ONA congregation #1,000 at its annual National Gathering June 25-28 at Elmhurst College near Chicago, says Lang.
"Beginning today and continuing through the rest of the Coalition's 40th-anniversary year, we'll celebrate the phenomenal growth of this movement. But we'll also renew our commitment to grow the ONA family beyond its present boundaries," Lang said. "There are 4,000 other congregation in the UCC. That's where most LGBT youth are growing up and learning the faith. We want to invite them, too, into this life-changing, life-saving, Christ-centered experience of God's extravagant love."
The virtual celebration is beginning today on the Coalition's Facebook page at facebook.com/ucc.coalition.
Think. Act. Be.
Next week marks the beginning of Black History Month, a time to honor and elevate the many accomplishments of African Americans – individuals who thought boldly, acted differently, and had the courage to be themselves in the face of any and all adversity. The month of February also includes the start of the Lenten season (Feb. 22), when Christians from around the world prepare themselves for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a time when many commit to giving up selected distractions from their relationship with God — a time for you to think boldly, act differently, and be you.
In order to embrace these two important celebrations, the UCC national setting will be theming its communications throughout the month of February, providing daily and weekly reminders to recognize and honor those who have served before us and to challenge us to think, act, and be in today's world. The UCC will be coordinating this message throughout its communications, including Keeping You e-Posted (KYeP) weekly newsletters, Stillspeaking daily devotionals, the website, social media sites, and more.
Additionally, the Stillspeaking Writers' Group has compiled a brand new resource for this year's Lenten season. Titled, "Give It Up! Lenten Devotionals 2012," this 56-page devotional offers inspiration, humor, and unexpected insights for each day of Lent. "Give It Up" invites readers to rethink the Lenten themes of sacrifice, repentance and renewal in new and unexpected ways.
"The devotionals center on actions or ideas that we don't normally associate with Lent," said Ann Poston, UCC director of Publishing, Identity and Communication. "They are about the new life people can have by giving up things like worrying, or judging others, or underestimating yourself. We're hoping the book will help make Lent a deeper experience for people this year."
"Give It Up!" can be ordered from UCC Resources online or toll free by calling 800-537-3394.
At the UCC Church House in Cleveland, there also is a host of special events to honor Black History Month. During its weekly Wednesday noon services at the Amistad Chapel (located at 700 Prospect Avenue E. in downtown Cleveland), the public is invited to join an exciting line-up of speakers. These services will feature the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president (Feb. 1); the Rev. Paul Hobson Sadler Sr., pastor of Mt. Zion Congregational UCC in Cleveland (Feb. 8); U.S. Federal Judge Denise Page Hood (Feb. 15); and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (Feb. 29).
"The diversity of African-American leaders we celebrate during Black History Month, including those who will lead worship services in the UCC Church House each Wednesday in February, possess extraordinarily different backgrounds and senses of place," said Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life. "From the arts, local- and regional-community building, interfaith and global perspectives, their faith supports each tenet of 'Think. Act. Be.' "
Over the past year, voices across the United Church of Christ have highlighted three distinct values central to the life and mission of the church: God’s continuing testament, extending extravagant welcome, and the many ways the UCC is changing lives.
Rather than proscribing a set of beliefs or practices, these values are meant to guide and inform the world about how the “we” in the UCC are living out the call to be disciples of Christ.
"The core values capture the best of the UCC in a way that's very understandable and easy to articulate," says W. Mark Clark, the UCC’s associate general minister, about the UCC’s intentional commitment to these core values.
Clark also notes that the UCC’s Collegium of Officers is crafting a strategic plan for the national setting of the UCC. It will spend much of 2012 testing the "Big Holy Audacious Goals" contained in the plan in a variety of settings of the church, with a vision toward developing the best ways to implement these goals throughout the denomination.
The New Year brings an added emphasis on highlighting the UCC's core values in the stories we tell in United Church News, the pages of StillSpeaking Magazine and the consistent message from the UCC's more than 5,200 churches already living out these principles. Recent examples include the thousands of congregations that participated in Mission:1 and a continued emphasis on stillspeaking congregations and voices.
Changes are already underway. You'll notice the UCC homepage header has changed to proclaim the core values. In addition, an easy-to-share slideshow has more detail about the UCC’s core values and how they inform our life together.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink . . .” - Matthew 25: 35
Historically, religious organizations and nonprofit agencies have distributed food and meals to people in need. The sharp increases in such requests associated with high unemployment, cuts in the social safety net, decline in the value of public assistance benefits, and increases in housing and other costs has led to unprecedented growth of food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and emergency food programs.
Below are 11 ideas for fun projects to help motivate your congregation to do food donations.
Simply choose a theme and place a large box in a convenient spot at your church so that members can deposit food items that will be delivered to the food bank or food pantry by a designated person at the church. Or encourage your members to deliver items to the food bank/pantry themselves.
1. “Plant a Row for the Hungry” – Plant an extra row in your vegetable garden and donate the harvest to the food shelters. You can also begin this project in the spring or begin to plant a container garden. Donating your extra produce will help others live better and healthier lives.
Things to note: It is important to first contact the local food pantry and make arrangements with the director or staffer at the food bank/pantry to receive your produce. Compile a list of all the government and independent food pantries in your county/community who accept donations of fresh fruits and vegetables. Circulate this list to other congregations.
If weather where you are located does not support planting a row this time of year, consider “planting a seed” by a forming a group to work your state Cooperative Extension agency to identify local Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farms and recruit members for an early spring garden start.
2. “Casserole Wednesday” – Have your church members make Casseroles. Deliver these casseroles to local shelters and outreach centers. Volunteer at the shelter on this day by helping to serve the meal. Show extravagant hospitality by sitting down and breaking bread with community recipients.
3. Have a “Souper Day” – Ask your congregation to focus on gathering cans of soup. Soup contains many nutrients and has many health benefits. Choose soups that are lower in sodium and fat.
4. “Festive Fruity Friday” – Have everyone commit to donating fruit. Inquire if the food bank/shelter accepts fresh fruits, if not, focus on canned fruits that are packed in their own juices or have light syrup.
5. “Tasty Tuna Saturday” – Whether you’re a fisher who could provide a fresh catch or a shopper who could hook some cans, your donations will be much appreciated. Bring these items to your church to be delivered to the food bank/pantry. Fish and meats are good sources of protein and can be mixed with lots of vegetables and grains for a nice meal.
6. “Dedication and Commitment Sunday” – Choose a Sunday and ask your congregation to commit to bringing cans on that day. Designate a special time in the morning service where members may come forward with their food donations and drop them into a special basket in front of the altar. Have a special dedication and prayer over the food items. The items may be delivered to the food bank/shelter during the week.
Take it further and distribute simple “pledge” cards that members by which members of your community can pledge to donate food to pantries and food banks for an entire year. Have members drop their pledge cards into the offering plate. Print out a list of those who have pledged and post it somewhere in the church. Encourage others to pledge throughout the year.
7. “Miscellaneous Mondays” – On this day ask people to donate whatever they’ve got lying around in their house! Bring it to the church to be donated to the pantry/food bank.
8. “Cereal and Oatmeal Shoppers” – Choose a day to donate cereals that are multi-grain with low sugar content. Donate low sodium oatmeal. Cereals supply protein, vitamins and minerals.
9. “Pasta Party” – Focus on collecting all kinds of Pasta! Pasta is a food source of carbohydrates. Don’t forget to add the sauce – tomato-based sauces are good.
10. “Thankful Thursday” – Use this day to collect items for Thanksgiving dinners. Many shelters will prepare and serve thanksgiving meals. Donate turkeys that can be frozen (check to make sure that the food bank has a freezer), dry mashed potato flakes, canned vegetables, condiments, bread, etc. Don’t forget the cranberry sauce!
11. “Calling all Pet Lovers” – People are making choices between feeding their pets and feeding themselves. Many families have to give up their pets because they can no longer feed them. Give donations of pet foods to the shelter or food bank so that people can support their pets and families when they are struggling financially.
Excerpted from the Mission: 1 "Food Donation Resource"
"On the Way"
Sara Kay (independent)
Recently, I joined a Facebook group called PCAN – Progressive Christians Artists Network. They're an open group, so they had to let me join, and they'll probably welcome you if you're an artist, progressive worship leader or thinking about the issues that come with bringing the world of faith and art into some kind of practical harmony.
Given the plethora of music coming from Christian music labels with a largely conservative theological value system, there's a growing hunger among UCC and other forward-thinking, mainline, progressive congregations for music, art, and liturgy to help us in our worship and celebration. To borrow the title of an old favorite book, we're not only looking for "Kind Words for Our Kind of Faith," but yearning for trustworthy resources, well-grounded and robust theological expressions that voice our values, fit our openness and culture-friendly worldview, and our desire to respond to the needy world around us with meaningful acts of compassion and justice/peace making.
One such artist, responding to this great longing is Sara Kay with her debut album, "On The Way." She recently posted on her Facebook page that the 15 songs of this recording were inspired by the writings of Brian McLaren, author of "A New Kind of Christianity," the post-evangelical writer often described as a seminal force in the emergent movement. The spouse and partner of UCC pastor Brian Brandsmeier in Iowa City, Iowa, Sara Kay invites us on the opening track to engage our faith and our world, to listen to our own inner story, to "Be Opened" to all that life in God has to offer.
Performed mostly on piano or acoustic guitar, these are intimate solo recordings of Sara Kay playing her folk/pop melodies, her strong, comfortable singing voice and use of language that bespeaks a progressive Christian witness. In "Resurrection," she emphasizes the living presence of Jesus in the lives of believers when they speak the truth, act kindly and offer hope to another. But she goes on to side with the weak and vulnerable, those easily overlooked.
"Eve's Song" offers an alternative reading of the Genesis telling of "the Fall," a reminder that it's our choices that make us human. We are invited to step beyond our naiveté to give shape to a paradise in God's created world, and evolve into our potential.
For "God of Water and Land" and "God of Movement," Sara Kay has written new, inspiring texts for familiar hymn melodies, but often she has written an original musical setting for lyrical reflections on a biblical text or person. Three songs echo the Psalms, "Goodness and Mercy" recalls the familiar 23rd, "Of Lament and Hope" takes on the cries for deliverance in Psalm 13, and "Victory" ties the words of Psalm 3 to a struggle with breast cancer.
Sara Kay is an artist that brings strong progressive theological values to her songs, with accessible musical settings seemingly designed to allow their use in local congregations. "On The Way" feels like a fine introduction, but by the end I found myself wondering how much stronger this material would sound if Sara's strong voice had the full support of a band, more guitars, a funky rhythm section. All that suggests that Sara Kay has the potential to grow as an artist even as these songs find their way into the lives of progressive congregations.
To get your own copy of "On The Way" (either digital download, or to order a cd), contact her at <reverbnation.com/sarakay>.
"Dreams and Visions"
The Oikos Ensemble (Oikos Music)
I first heard the Oikos Ensemble playing instrumental jazz during select parts of General Synod in Hartford, Conn., back in 2007. Primarily the collaboration of the Rev. Clifford Aerie and Dr. Christopher Bakriges, the duo has worked together with a variety of supportive players offering full jazz-led worship services, free-flowing Spirit-led jazz vespers, concerts and contemplative, meditative music workshops.
On this 2009 recording Cliff Aerie (soprano and tenor saxes) and Christopher Bakriges (piano) are joined on their compositions by the rhythm section of Kenneth Walker (bass) and Chris Lee (drums.) Arianna Aerie sings with a beautiful, classically trained soprano on the five songs that have vocals/lyrics, and Gabriel Mervine adds trumpet and/or flugelhorn to three tracks.
Produced as well by Bakriges and Aerie, "Dreams and Visions" is a solid, ten-song collection of original finely played traditional jazz with bright melodies and up-tempo rhythms. Oikos avoids the cliché of jazz as elevator music, and it further avoids the overwhelming bombast and angularity that renders some modern jazz unlistenable. Rather, with tight and compelling combo playing, they strike a balance between music that's accessible, bright and uplifting as a background and the kind of spirited improvisation that makes you sit up and pay attention.
From the 11 minute "Up the Downspout," based on a riff that recalls somewhat the playfulness of "The Pink Panther" soundtrack, with all it's instrumental interplay and jamming, to "Joy Dawned Again," Bakriges' arrangement of a 15th century carol, the players of The Oikos Ensemble have created a passionate expression of faith that will satisfy the die-hard jazz aficionado while appealing to the more relaxed listener.
While individual performances warrant celebration, as the band's name Oikos, a Greek New Testament word meaning "house" or "dwelling place," suggests, this music and this sound is a place where all can gather together in harmony.
You can hear and stream this music at the band's website <oikos-ensemble.com>.
The Rev. Brian Q. Newcomb is Senior Minister at David's UCC in Kettering, Ohio, and a long-time music critic published in Billboard, CCM Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others. Additional content from Brian is available in his Quincessentials blog at myUCC.
While today is being celebrated worldwide by many as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday – a day of decadence prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent – some are taking a new approach to the traditional 40 days of self-denial, prayer and personal reflection in the post-modern era.
The Lenten season, which a recent Religion News Service article article notes “hasn't always drawn strong interest” among some Protestant denominations, has taken on new meaning by linking fasting, abstention and prayer to social causes. The article, “Age-old Lent gets a 21st-century makeover,” highlights various ways the concept of “fasting” is being lived out among Christians in the new millennium.
Over 4,000 people have joined in the 2011 Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast in an effort to reduce energy consumption and fight global warming. Of the carbon fast, Janis Galvin, an Episcopalian who lives in Everett, Mass., said, "It's exciting because it's not just suffering for its own sake … It's doing good."
Fasting from anything is never an easy sell in a culture that values convenience, according to Jim Antal, who heads the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.
But as a spiritual practice, he said, personal sacrifice can be a key driver in advancing larger movements.
"We're trying to deal with the mingling of individual Lenten disciplines with social change," said Antal, whose conference is spearheading the carbon fast. "And that is precisely what will save the Earth - if individuals who begin to get it... begin to say, `Gosh, I need to change my life, and I need to become an activist.' "
Along with this initiative, the United Methodist Church is urging its 7.8 million U.S. members to refrain from drinking alcohol during Lent. Teetotaling is familiar turf in United Methodism, and now Lent provides a framework to consider the role alcohol plays in individual lives, families and society, according to Cynthia Abrams of the UMC's General Board of Church & Society.
"To ask United Methodists to give up alcohol for Lent is provocative because we like to think United Methodists don't drink," said Abrams, who works on alcohol and other health issues. "We decided ... to confront the elephant in the room by doing something provocative and engaging in conversation about it throughout Lent."
In the United Kingdom, the Christian Vegetarian Association is aiming to revive the ancient Christian practice of foregoing meat during Lent. (Many Orthodox Christians still eat a vegan diet in Lent). It's self-denial for a purpose, organizers say, noting how vegetarian diets improve health, enhance animal welfare and reduce strain on the environment.
Some observers of evolving Lenten practices see them as steps – albeit small ones – in the right direction for a culture that tends to bristle at the idea of voluntary self-denial.
"In a culture as consumer-oriented and materialistic as ours, it is not surprising that churches are seeking in small ways to remind us of those obsessions," said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University. "These are welcome developments, even though they may be rather feeble."
Conventional ways of fasting and abstaining at Lent haven't disappeared. Sixty percent of American Catholics – even those who seldom attend church – abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, according to Mark Gray, senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
And for others, where Lent has taken on a more reflective or study-oriented nature, new resources are available to assist individual groups and individuals in their spiritual pursuits. Identification with Jesus, specifically his earthly ministry and events that led to his crucifixion (and resurrection,) is also part of the Lenten tradition.
To that end, the Living the Questions franchise has released a two-DVD set - "Saving Jesus: Redux" - that, while not specifically intended as a curriculum for Lent, would be a welcome addition to a church or small group Lenten series.
Divided into 12 segments, “Saving Jesus” offers a 20-minute video introduction to a topic, scripture readings and suggested discussion topics aimed at helping participants develop a greater understanding of Jesus.
The United Church of Christ Stillspeaking Writers' Group has also released a new resource, "The Jesus Diaries: Who Jesus is to Me." Again, while not meant exclusively as a Lenten guide, this booklet contains nine reflections that provoke the question, as the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver recalls in the introduction, “How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?”
Whether Lenten practices of self-denial and reflection take modern or historic forms, rooted in spiritual development or concerns for global justice, there's no dispute that the party of Mardi Gras, for many, will be met tomorrow by the challenging reality of Christian discipleship.
Portions of this article were provided by Religion News Service and G. Jeffrey MacDonald.
A group of UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) officials recently returned from visiting more than a dozen mission partners in India. Establishing relationships between mission partners in India and denominational officials, the group toured partner sites Feb. 2-12, and met with Indian church officials. The visit was led by led by the Rev. James Vijayakumar, UCC/Disciples Global Ministries Southern Asia area executive.
Accompanying Vijayakumar was the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president, the Rev. Sharon Watkins, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) general minister and president, the Rev. Cally Rogers-Witte, executive minister for the UCC's Wider Church Ministries and co-executive of Global Ministries, and their spouses.
The group arrived in Raipur from Calcutta on Feb. 4 and was honored at the re-dedication of Emmanuel Church in Bisrahmpur. Along with area bishop and local church pastors, the UCC and Disciples executives presided over the service. The church is a historic vestige of the Rev. Oscar T. Lohr, a German missionary there from 1868 to 1907.
Joining the Global Ministries executives for the dedication were Dr. Anil and Dr. Teresa Henry from Christian Hospital in Mungeli, along with a recently-arrived contingent of visitors from Avon Lake (Ohio) UCC and a group of Disciples members from Atlanta. The local church groups were in India to visit Christian Hospital.
In remarks to the hundreds gathered in the village of Bishrampur for the church re-dedication, Black said, “Jesus spoke of places like this as places of prayer … my prayer for you is that as you continue to worship together and serve together in Jesus' name, you will always extend a very extravagant welcome to the people of all nations who will come to worship and serve with you in this place.”
Watkins also delivered a dedication blessing saying, “I come here today to say I thank God for you in my prayers because I have heard of your faith … and here at this church today we have found a place where the people come in to worship God together. This place becomes holy ground.”
Following the church the delegation and the local church groups traveled to Christian Hospital, where Dr. Anil Henry and his wife, Dr. Theresa Henry, serve as Global Ministries missionaries. The hospital and associated Rambo English School have been under the care of the Henrys since 2004.
The group spent Feb. 5 touring Christian Hospital, beginning with chapel service with staff and visitors. The Rev. Rick Lowery, professor of church history at Lexington Theological Seminary and the husband of Watkins, delivered the sermon. Using Genesis 1 as his text, Lowery encouraged the congregation to appreciate the value in each person as those created in the image of God.
Anil Henry escorted the delegation through his routine of morning rounds, introducing them to the variety of patients seen and explaining hospital operations. A visit to the nearby Rambo English School, a primary and secondary educational institution, included a tour of the construction site of a new facility that will serve the nearly 500 students enrolled at the school.
Subsequent stops for the Global Ministries-led delegation included the Church of South India headquarters, Tamilnadu Theological Seminary, the dedication of a tsunami rehabilitation project in Kanyakumari, and the Marathi Mission institutions, among other partner sites.
Global Ministries is the common witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ responsible for nurturing relationships with international partners on behalf of Disciples and the UCC.
The Rev. Gregg Brekke, UCC news director and editor, accompanied the Avon Lake UCC contingent to India and has been Journaling the group’s experiences and posting pictures on his blog.
The list of recent titles extolling the virtues of daily/common/hourly/liturgical prayer could fill at least one tier of my bookshelf. Well, they nearly do.
The Book of Common Prayer, Celtic Daily Prayer, Phyllis Tickle's Divine Hours (all editions), A Guide to Prayer for All Who Seek God, Praying with the Psalms, Streams in the Desert, Praying with the Desert Mothers, and a dozen more - are all available to me day and night.
A new arrival on this ever-updating scene is not necessarily big news, but in many ways it is a refreshing surprise. The release of "Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals" by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro, is so unique in the list of liturgically oriented devotional books that it needs mention.
What Claiborne and crew have assembled is something of a postmodern Christian marvel. Ably weaving ancient and modern sources of prayer and liturgy along with a sensibility to current-day spiritual concerns, "Common Prayer" transcends denominational (or non-denominational) structures to present a useful – and relevant – guide to prayer.
And relevant is a key word to the entire work. Above all, its authors – respected leaders in the the emergent church and new monastic movements – have tirelessly promoted the need for Christianity to maintain and/or regain its relevancy. The question, "How can we live authentic Christian lives in our times and within our community?" is a primary concern of this ethos.
A little background on the new monastic movement may be helpful. While shrugging off a strict definition, a basic understanding is that these groups are intentional communities of Christians who follow a common rule and work together for the good of their communities. Emerging over the last several decades, the movement takes a cue from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's admonition that a new monasticism would restore the church and differentiate itself from older forms of monasticism by its "complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ."
The uniqueness of "Common Prayer" comes through when all these factors are considered. Postmodern Christians with a concern for community and sensibilities for justice and personal piety are driven together to hold a common rule that includes regular prayer and global responsibility. A tall order.
And for Evangelical Christians – the primary audience of this prayer book – it would seem an especially tall order given its penchant for individualistic "Jesus is my personal savior" brand of faith. Even for mainline Christians, the concept of communal prayer or liturgy outside the confines of Sunday morning worship, has become a foreign concept.
Co-author Shane Claiborne says he grew up in a church culture that didn't really grasp the concept that prayer was conducted in the context of the Church universal. "That created a lopsided prayer life," he says. " 'Common Prayer' is a correction to that – that there is a sense of praying with the whole Church and with the Church throughout history."
"Common Prayer" is not unique in its call for a new ordering of community by a rule and prayer – even in modern times. There are similarities to be found in lay monastic movements of "oblates" among Catholic and Anglican orders. It can be said that Ireland's Iona Community and the Northumbria Community of northern England have the same purpose, along with their associated prayer books.
But it can be said that "Common Prayer" is unique in its origins and within the context of the new monastic movement's spread in the United States and beyond. The authors readily acknowledges the many streams of new monastic thought and prayer guides that formed the book while allowing "Common Prayer" to take on its own form for the service-based communities and partners who will use it.
Gone is the King James English present in many previous prayer books; retained is the liturgical flow that these guides produced. Gone are prayers written hundreds of years ago; retained are celebrations of saints' feast days along with contemporary refections like remembering the passage of Roe vs. Wade (January 22) and the detention of Japanese American during World War II (February 19).
I appreciate that these reflections don't draw their own conclusions or make an overt moral pronouncement. You, the prayer, or better yet the community in prayer, is left to meditate on the event or remembrance – in the same way you are invited to consider the many biographical portraits drawn of spiritual saints during the morning prayer liturgies.
"Prayer isn't just about getting God to do what we want God to do," says Claiborne. "It's how we listen to and discern what God is saying to us, and how we act on it - that is important.
The book is organized in a readable fashion – the introduction describes the book's formation along with guidelines for its use, seven days of evening prayer, a year's worth of evening prayers, a midday prayer, prayers for special occasions and a songbook containing over 50 selections with piano and guitar chords.
Each month of morning prayers opens with a reflection on one of the twelve "Marks of New Monasticism." Interspersed throughout the book are sidebars that introduce the liturgical neophyte to concepts like Advent, Lent, Eucharist, Smells and Bells, Confession and Passing the Peace – an entirely beneficial use of ink given the intended audience of primarily young Evangelicals, to whom these concepts might sound foreign.
In its accessibility and content, "Common Prayer" delivers a useable and useful guide to daily prayer. For some it may be old hat, introducing concepts they have had ingrained in them since birth. For others it is an introduction to a type of Christianity that seeks to share a historic and communal understanding of liturgy – literally, "the work of the people."
"We tried to present a fusion of belief and practice – without cheapening the importance of theology – marrying theology with concrete practice," says Claiborne. He says the idea was to present a guide that would be seen as "radically orthodox and radically orthopraxic" at the same time.
"The idea of formation is really critical [in "Common Prayer"] and has been missing in the last few decades of Evangelical Christianity," he says. "We've been really good at making believers, but not so good at raising followers … who are transformed into different ways of living in the world."
And that is a sentiment to which we can all say "Amen."
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals
by Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove and Enuma Okoro
Online content available at <commonprayer.net>.
Culminating nearly seven years of study and discourse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted Nov. 16 during its fall general assembly in Baltimore to approve the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism."
By a 204-11 vote, the agreement – among the USCCB, the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church-USA, Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church – is being hailed as a "milestone on the ecumenical journey," says Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
"Together with our Reformed brothers and sisters, we Catholic bishops can affirm baptism as the basis of the real, even if incomplete, unity we share in Christ," says Gregory. "Our conference looks forward to seeing all four of the authoritative bodies of the Reformed communities approve the common agreement as we have today."
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, says the church will discuss the USCCB's landmark vote with the entire denomination.
"My expectation is that we the issue will be placed before the Executive Council or the General Synod for official action," says Black, referring to the UCC's biennial conference, to be held next July in Tampa, Fla. "At this point, my preference would be to place it before the General Synod in order to give it maximum visibility in the life of the UCC."
The agreement has been ratified by the Presbyterian Church. The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church are expected to consider the agreement at their national meetings.
"It was quite the journey – seven years," says the Rev. Sidney F. Fowler, Interim Senior Minister of Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md. "I think it offers an opportunity for an amazing conversation among UCC folks who have deep ecumenical commitments."
"There were some rather tough moments," says Fowler, who has worked for the national settings of both the UCC in worship and spiritual formation, and has extensive experience developing lectionary-based and international ecumenical resources.
The two primary roadblocks to the agreement centered on language used during the baptismal rite and the manner in which water is used.
"At a moment of significant impasse, Geoffrey brought fresh eyes and asked crucial questions that helped the process move forward so all parties could sign off on the common agreement," says Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life and assistant to the UCC's five-member Collegium. "Our general minister and president looks forward to charging us as a denomination toward continued groundbreaking and visionary connections – both interfaith and ecumenical – that are ahead of us."
Research found that nearly 20 percent of UCC churches were using alternative language for "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" for baptismal formula, says Fowler. "Catholics don't recognize baptism other than 'in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.' "
Gregory says the agreement, after approval by the four Reformed denominations, will "allow Catholic ministers to presume that baptisms performed in these communities are 'true baptism' as understood in Catholic doctrine and law."
"The presentation of a baptismal certificate by Reformed Christians who wish to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or to marry a Catholic, assures Catholic ministers that the baptism performed by a Reformed minister involved the use of flowing water and the biblical invocation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit," says Gregory.
The agreement encourages local Christian communities to keep baptismal records, a practice already held in the Catholic Church.
The press release stated that other bishops' conferences worldwide have entered into similar agreements with local Protestant communities, but this document is "unprecedented" for the Catholic Church in the United States.