United Church of Christ

Newtown UCC minister, interfaith leaders urge stricter gun laws

Newtown Congregational Church minister the Rev. Matt Crebbin sees the approaching debate on gun violence as a moral issue. The United Church of Christ senior minister has witnessed the devastating consequences of a gun in the wrong hands. That’s why he and other faith leaders from the small Connecticut town — marked by the murders of 26 innocent people in a school shooting in mid-December — wrote an open letter to U.S. Senators, which was hand-delivered to the 100 lawmakers on Tuesday. The letter, which was also posted in Politco, contains the signatures of more than 4,000 religious leaders from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths who signed the letter in less than 72 hours in a show of solidarity.

"We as a nation will be judged by how we respond to these events," Crebbin said. "There is a moral imperative to affect change now."

Since the Senate Judiciary Committee could vote this week on potential gun violence measures, faith leaders are asking senators to pass legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, enforce stricter background checks and end gun trafficking. Crebbin drafted the letter with Rabbi Shaul Praver from Congregation Adath Israel.

"Our interfaith clergy group [in Newtown] has been meeting together, much more regularly because of the events of Dec. 14," Crebbin said. "That conversation has led us as interfaith leaders to say the status quo isn’t acceptable around issues of gun safety. We felt it was important to express that as best we could."

The letter, spearheaded by clergy members from Newtown, was shared with religious leaders from across the country through the PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign and Sojourners. The PICO Network is a national network of faith-based community organizations that seeks to solve social issues.

The letter reads in part, "As the clergy leaders of Newtown, joined by colleagues from across the nation, we have witnessed the scourge of gun violence in our neighborhoods, and we call on Congress to pass comprehensive gun violence prevention legislation that will help stop the slaughter."

Though the letter began with Crebbin, Praver and other faith leaders in Newtown, they reminded the Senate that gun violence is a much broader issue that affects the whole nation.

"As faith leaders, we know the impact of this event in our community, not only for the families who’ve lost a loved one, but for a whole community of 27,000 people," Crebbin said. "We know the ripples of gun violence that are affecting us, and will be affecting us for years to come. We felt it was important in the midst of this to communicate our concern and the recognition that it isn’t just one isolated event. Gun violence affects communities across the nation. It affects the lives lost and the community."

"I am proud to stand with my brothers and sisters from Newtown in calling on our senators to take long overdue action to prevent gun violence," said Pastor Michael McBride, executive director of PICO’s Lifelines to Healing Campaign. "More than 80 people are killed each day by gun violence in the United States. Half of them are our young people. As clergy, we can no longer stand on the sidelines; we have a moral imperative to work for peace in the city, and we must act."

The faith leaders reminded senators in their letter that after the news crews and cameras leave, it is the afflicted community’s clergy who are asked to lead the healing effort. They wrote, "It is we who are asked to answer why this happened; to bind up the brokenhearted; and to explain why nothing in Newtown or our many communities will ever be the same again."

The letter continues, "As faith leaders, we commit ourselves to fostering a culture of peace to complement and serve as a foundation for any proposed gun legislation. The slaughter of innocence in Newtown awakened our nation to the tragedy of gun violence throughout our land and we shall neither slumber nor sleep. Rather, by tireless commitment, loving hearts and the sustaining promise of our many faiths, we believe that Newtown shall be remembered as the bridge to a new and kinder world."

The letter in its entirety can be found on the PICO website.

Newtown clergy begins vigil on the National Mall for victims of gun violence

Surrounded by more than 3,300 grave makers on the National Mall in Washington D.C., the Rev. Matt Crebbin of Newtown Congregational United Church of Christ and fellow Newtown clergy are standing for the thousands who have fallen victim to gun violence in the United States. The clergy members, joined by leaders of faith organizations from the PICO National Network and Sojourners in their 24-hour Thursday vigil, are calling on Congress to vote on gun-violence prevention legislation.

"We have been ministering to families and a community affected by the plague of gun violence [and] a tragedy that has united not only our community, but communities across the nation, to say that the status quo is no longer acceptable," Crebbin said.

The April 11 vigil, sponsored by the PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing campaign and Sojourners, precedes the impending Senate debate on the assault weapons ban, universal background checks, prosecution of unlawful gun trafficking and school safety legislation.

"We come here united in a moral conviction to say that now is the time for change," Crebbin said. "Today we weep as one people. We weep for all our dear ones lost to us, we weep for our sons and daughters, wives and sister, fathers and brothers, our friends and neighbors near and far, each of them beloved. It does not matter where this violence has struck."

The 3,300 grave markers in the mock cemetery represent the number of victims shot and killed since the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in mid-December, that claimed 26 students, teachers and administrators. Crebbin, who officiated the interfaith memorial service days after the massacre, was joined by Rabbi Shaul Praver of Newtown’s Congregation Adath Israel. The pair wrote a letter to Congress in mid-March on behalf of Newtown Clergy calling for tougher gun laws.

"There is a great need to deal with this whole issue with a holistic approach," said the Rev. Sala W. Nolan-Gonzalez, the UCC’s minister for criminal justice and human rights. "My personal prayer is that we can stop violence in cities and municipalities throughout the country, whether it involves a city or rural setting, or children or elders."

The UCC also urged members to take action on Faith Call-In Day April 9, and there were a total of 10,000 calls from 75 different denominations to Congress. Sandy Sorensen, the director of the denomination's Washington D.C. office, maintains that the voices from people of faith are critical in the debate, often amplifying those impacted by gun violence and voices that are unheard in public.

"In February, the Faiths United Against Gun Violence Call-in Day generated an impressive response of over 10,000 calls to members of Congress," Sorensen said. "The impact [of the April 9 Call-In Day] can already be seen at this critical juncture in the Senate debate this week around legislation calling for universal background checks. The voices of sensible gun-violence prevention advocates were successful in countering the threat of a filibuster and have made it possible to bring this legislation to a vote on the Senate floor."

Senate leaders on Thursday reached a bipartisan agreement to strengthen background checks on gun purchases, avoiding a threatened filibuster by 14 senators who oppose the legislation. Sorensen said the agreement is a significant step forward.

"People of faith are joining with a broad and diverse coalition of gun violence survivors, victim families, law enforcement officers, public health experts, and domestic violence advocates in urging Congress to stop delaying and pass sensible gun violence prevention legislation," said Sorensen. "We have already lost far too many women, men and children to gun violence. The time for action is now, and victims of gun violence deserve a vote."

"More than 3,300 people have died as a result of gun violence since the tragedy in Newtown, and it’s past time for our leaders to act," said the Rev. Michael McBride, director of PICO National Network’s Lifelines to Healing campaign. "We have stepped down from our pulpits and left our houses of worship to remind Congress we’re not going anywhere until they pass meaningful legislation that bans assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, institutes enforceable universal background checks, ends gun trafficking, prosecutes straw purchasers, and invests in proven strategies to reduce the gun violence that plagues our cities every day."

Commentary: Every day is an anniversary

On July 20 last year, a gunman opened fire in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater during a midnight screening of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises." Twelve moviegoers were killed, and over 50 were wounded. Yet another anniversary looms on the calendar – Aug. 5 marks the first anniversary of the shooting at a Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing 7 and wounding three. Even as we remember those who were killed and injured in these shootings, along with their families, a tragic litany of life lost as a result of gun violence comes to mind. Aurora and Oak Creek made headlines, but the painful truth is that every single day on the calendar is the anniversary of the terrible toll of gun violence, somewhere in America, whether or not it makes the nightly news.

We simply cannot accept gun violence as the norm in our nation. We cannot find comfort in saying "peace, peace," without committing to the hard work that makes for peace. Certainly, the larger context of gun violence is complex and multilayered, and no one piece of legislation can address it. It will take hard work on many levels, individual and institutional change on many fronts. But common sense gun violence prevention legislation can save lives. We must take every step, large and small, to keep our children, families and communities safe.

One small step is to institute a stronger system of background checks on gun purchases, a measure supported by an overwhelming majority of the American public, responsible gun owners among them. Yet our elected officials rejected this modest step forward. As people of faith, we are called to be the moral voice that prods our members of Congress and our state legislatures to summon the political courage needed to enact meaningful gun violence prevention policy.

The faith community has come together many times in the aftermath of gun tragedies over the years to urge legislators to pass laws that would help to prevent gun violence, and we will not falter in this critical work.

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "The time is always right to do what is right." Every day is the right day to take a step toward ending gun violence.

Prayer of Lamentation:

Gracious God, our Maker and Sustainer, we pause to remember those who were killed and wounded in the shooting at an Aurora, Colorado movie theater one year ago, even as we remember the terrible toll that gun violence has taken since that time. We grieve the promising lives that have been lost, the stories that will no longer unfold, the voices that will no longer be heard, the friends and families left with heartache and a hole that cannot be filled. We hold in our hearts the communities impacted by gun violence that will never quite be the same. Even as we lament the scourge of gun violence and the culture of violence that seems to grip our society, we confess the ways in which we participate in that culture and fail to boldly give witness to your vision of abundant life and wholeness. Strengthen us in the will to do the things that make for peace. Grant us the courage and creative spirit to sow seeds of understanding, cooperation, community and connection. Help us to link hearts, minds and hands in transforming our collective grief into a message of hope.

Sandy Sorensen is the director of the UCC's Washington, D.C. office

Authorized Ministerial Updates October 2014

Pumpkin patch fundraiser brings people together in New Jersey and beyond

At first glance, it looked more like a pumpkin patch than a church lawn –until the sale started at the First Congregational Church of River Edge (FCCRE) in early October. The Pumpkin Patch Project – 3,000 pumpkins, a farmer's market and a slew of volunteers make up this annual fundraiser for the River Edge, N.J., church that brings the congregation together and helps boost the economy of the Navajo people.

"The church started doing this six years ago, said the Rev. Chuck Holm, pastor of FCCRE. "It's good outreach, a great mission and a wonderful way to connect with people in our community."

It's also a huge undertaking. The pumpkins, which are grown on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Farmington, N.M., and trucked in, take hours to unload and arrange. Volunteers staff the pumpkin patch daily for almost a month, six days a week from 10 to 7, and Sundays after service from 11 to 7.

"This has been our major focus the whole month of October, said Holm. "It's great fun, but it's a lot of work." The most visible part, he adds, is when the truck arrives and thousands of pumpkins need to be unloaded. "We usually have over a hundred people forming a chain to take them off the truck."

They hand pumpkins to each other, down a line which snakes from the truck to the lawn. Most of the people are volunteers from the surrounding areas. While FCCRE has 275 people in the congregation, not all of them are able bodied enough to participate. So organizer Pam Weiler had to find other help – recruiting local retirees, and high school kids from the surrounding towns who need community service hours.

It's an effort that will pay big dividends – some which stay with FCCRE, with the majority sent to the Navaho community in New Mexico.

"As of Oct. 26, FCCRE has sold $29,000 in pumpkins and we expect to top $30,000 this year," Weiler said. "The church keeps 40 percent, this year $12,000, that will be used for church renovations."

FCCRE is just one of a few New Jersey churches in the Pumpkin Patch Fundraiser family, raising money for the pumpkin industry on the reservation. Around the country, this seasonal fundraiser is held by thousands of churches and other non-profit organizations – 1,300 locations in 48 states, representing 30 denominations.

Weiler proposed the idea seven years ago, after she attended an organ concert at a church in Englewood, picked up a pumpkin on the way out and thought it would be a good way to raise funds from outside the congregation.

FCCRE was in a time of transition, and Pam and her husband, Ron Phillips, persuaded the church council to take it on. The first year, the church committed to just a quarter truckload of 600 pumpkins, and they were the last on the list to take delivery – during a pretty bad storm.

"We started unloading pumpkins after dark during a Northeaster, and finally – four hours later – we were finished. When we counted them, we had 1,600 pumpkins (since the church before us didn't get all theirs unloaded). But we sold almost every single one. It was a blessing in disguise. It brought everybody together." And the rest is history.

The bake sale portion of the project, the Farmers Market Stand, started with applesauce the first year, branched into hundreds of pies and scores of homemade pickles and everything in between.

"Everybody does their specialty, and with amount of interest the sale generates, our baked goods have traveled across the United States," said Weiler.

"I could not begin to calculate the total hours required to run this project," said FCCRE member Eileen Mars. "It really is a labor of love for our little church. The congregation comes together beautifully, and that never surprises me."

"We always manage to pull it out," said Phillips. "And we see a lot of people who come every year. We try to get to know their names and to greet them. It's actually interacting with others and learning their stories. We get to meet people because of the pumpkin patch that we would never get the opportunity to meet otherwise. Even when we are distributing the rest of the pumpkins, taking them to veterans homes, and to shut-ins after the sale. It's more to us than just a bunch of pumpkins sitting on a lawn."

"It's really been a great opportunity to reach out," said Holm. We've gotten weddings and new members because of this project. There have been some very unexpected positives to come out of this. People can come on the property and just talk to each other."

Authorized Ministerial Updates September 2014

Ministerial changes reported in the Data Hub—the UCC's information system for ministers and churches—for new positions/calls entered into the system in September 2014.

CC: Congregational Christian
CM: Commissioned Minister
DS: Dual Standing
LM: Licensed Minister
MID: Member in Discernment
MS: Ordained Ministerial Partner Standing
OM: Ordained Minister 
POC: Privilege of Call
U: Unknown/No UCC Standing
P: Pastor
SP: Senior Pastor
CP: Co-pastor
AP: Associate or Assistant Pastor
IN: Interim Pastor
SU: Supply Pastor
Y: Youth Ministry
OL: Other local church position
MM: Minister of Music
PE: Pastor Emeritus
CE: Director of Christian Education

DS, Arlene Greenwald, IN, Saint John's UCC, Phoenixville, PA
OM, Amy A. Bruch, Y, Congregational UCC, Topsfield, MA
OM, Ronald A. Rising, IN, Emmaus UCC, Vienna, VA
LM, Pat Carson, OL, Zion Evangelical UCC, Evansville, IN
DS, David Kieffer, P, Liliuokalani Protestant Church, Haleiwa, HI
POC, Alan Hutchens, P, Christ Reformed UCC, Lexington, NC
U, Evelyn Kenny, OL, Saint Luke's UCC, Philadelphia, PA
OM, Ryan Sirmons, P, The United Church of Christ of Annapolis, Edgewater, MD
MID, Regina Kinney, P, Second Congregational Church, Wilton, NH
MID, Taisi Alaelua, P, CCC Malamalama Ole Lalolagi, Carson, CA
OM, Arthur Conrad Urie, IN, Westmoreland United Church, Westmoreland, NH
U, Karen H. Stokes, IN, Trinity UCC, Northport, MI
OM, Camille F. Gianaris, P, Pilgrims' UCC, Fruitland Park, FL
OM, Daniel Borchers, P, Saron United Church of Christ, Sheboygan Falls, WI
MS, Jayne Ryan Kuroiwa, P, Windward United Church of Christ, Kailua, HI
U, Shannon Witt, P, First Congregational Church of Green Island UCC, Miles, IA
LM, Keith Edwards, SP, Pilgrim Congregational UCC, Houston, TX
LM, Janet Monroe Sherman, P, Trinity United Church of Niederwald, Niederwald, TX
OM, Glennyce Grindstaff, P, Community UCC, Greenbelt, MD
DS, Mary Beth Mardis-LeCroy, P, Saint Paul's UCC, Madrid, IA
LM, John Chaplin, IN, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Mason City, IA
OM, Jeffrey Gallagher, SP, United Congregational Church of Tolland UCC, Tolland, CT
OM, Gilford Cornell Bisjak Jr, P, United Church of the Valley, Temecula, CA
OM, Paula J Elizabeth, IN, Community Church Congregational, Corona Del Mar, CA
LM, Beverly Bammel, SU, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Houston, TX
LM, Bonnie Jacque-Gorecki, P, Saint Paul's (Erin) UCC, Colgate, WI
CM, Jeanne Haemmelmann, Y, Pass-a-Grille Beach Community UCC, Saint Pete Beach, FL
OM, Matthew W. Baugh, IN, Iglesia Congregacional Unida UCC, Albuquerque, NM
OM, Denise Louise Griebler, P, First United Church of Christ, Richmond, MI
U, Jessica Schirm, P, Saint John's UCC, Nashua, IA
U, John Nichols, IN, First Parish, Lincoln, MA
OM, Scott A. Ressman, P, United Church of Christ, Rockville Centre, NY
U, Mary A. Dobson, P, Plymouth UCC, Dunkirk, IN
MID, Louis J. Vetri, SU, Trinity UCC, Rehrersburg, PA
OM, Patti Helmer Aurand, SP, Shepherd of the Hills Congregational UCC, Phoenix, AZ
U, Susan Thomas, SP, Trinity Congregational UCC, Fitchburg, MA
LM, Greg Baskerville, P, First Congregational UCC, Newell, IA
LM, Burton Bagby-Grose, P, St. Paul UCC of Corpus Christi, Corpus Christi, TX
OM, Bruce P. Macleod, IN, Central Congregational Church UCC, Chelmsford, MA
U, James Chesnutt, SU, First United Church, Farnhamville, IA
OM, Richard S. Denuyl Jr, SP, First Congregational Church, Old Greenwich, CT
OM, Cynthia E. Robinson, P, New Ark Church UCC, Newark, DE
OM, Patrick Campbell, IN, Church of the Master United Church of Christ, Hickory, NC
LM, Hannah Hannover, Y, United Church of Christ Congregational, Ames, IA
OM, Brady E. Abel, SP, United Church of Sun City UCC, Sun City, AZ
U, Pastor Panama, P, First Samoan Congregational Christian Church in Arizona, Phoenix, AZ
OM, Jean M. Simpson, IN, Community Congregational UCC, New Port Richey, FL
OM, Bonnie L. Lipton, IN, Community Congregational UCC, New Port Richey, FL
LM, Greg Baskerville, P, United Church of Christ, Fonda, IA
LM, Anna Larson, P, Circles of Faith UCC, Waubun, MN
U, David Elton, SP, United Church of Los Alamos, Los Alamos, NM
OM, Hal Chorpenning, P, Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, CO
U, Richard Safford, SP, United Church of Angel Fire, Angel Fire, NM
OM, Greg A. Larsen, SP, First Congregational UCC, Rochester, MI
OM, Daniel E. Furman, SP, Hudsonville Congregational UCC, Hudsonville, MI
MID, Patricia Marsden, P, Newmarket Community Church, Newmarket, NH
U, Emily Slade, OL, Bethlehem UCC, Evansville, IN
OM, Nate Klug, IN, Congregational UCC, Baxter, IA
OM, Hannelore C Nalesnik, SP, Federated Church of Ayer UCC, Ayer, MA
OM, Kristy May, P, Zion United Church of Christ, Calumet, IA
MID, Eric Stricklin, P, First Congregational UCC, Coloma, MI
OM, Darek L. McCullers, P, Dry Creek UCC, Candor, NC
OM, Janice J. Springer, IN, First Congregational UCC, Cedar Rapids, IA
OM, Micah M. Schlobohm, IN, First Congregational UCC, Wisconsin Rapids, WI
OM, Corrine Dautrich, IN, First United Church of Christ, Reading, PA
OM, Christine Lee Pifer-Foote, SU, Allegheny United Church of Christ, Alleghenyville, PA
OM, Kathryn Rust, IN, Peace United Church of Christ, Schofield, WI
MID, Caroline Hamilton-Arnold, AP, Newtown Congregational UCC, Newtown, CT
OM, Charles J. Guerreno Jr, IN, First Congregational Church of Benzonia UCC, Benzonia, MI
LM, Linda Kozlowski, P, Calvary UCC, Barto, PA
OM, Gabriel Andries Oberholzer, P, Greenmont-Oak Park Community UCC, Kettering, OH
OM, William S. Freeman, P, United Church of Christ, Menifee, CA
OM, Kelly Forbush, P, First Congregational UCC, East Hartford, CT
U, Janis Christensen, P, Presbyterian UCC, Le Mars, IA
OM, Arthur L. Cribbs Jr, SP, Filipino-American UCC, Los Angeles, CA
OM, Roger Carroll Banker Daly, IN, South Deerfield Congregational UCC, South Deerfield, MA
OM, Daniel Haas, P, St. John's UCC of Rosenberg, Rosenberg, TX
OM, John MacIver Gage, SP, United Christian Church, Austin, TX
U, Will Green, SP, Ballard Vale United Church, Andover, MA
OM, David Brandon Lindsey, P, Little River UCC, Annandale, VA
OM, Talitha J. Arnold, SP, United Church of Santa Fe UCC, Santa Fe, NM
LM, Lynn Butterbrodt, AP, Saint John's UCC, Clarence, IA
OM, Jerold A Garber, IN, Los Altos UCC, Long Beach, CA
MID, Thea Mateu, SU, Community UCC, San Dimas, CA
MID, Beatrice Manning, AP, The First Parish of Bolton Interdenominational, Bolton, MA
OM, Bruce S. Schoup, IN, United Church of Christ, Schleswig, IA
OM, Anna E Butera, SP, First Congregational UCC, Plympton, MA
OM, Jams Zehmer, P, Zion Evangelical & Reformed UCC, Lenoir, NC
OM, Stuart W Tyson, IN, Cocoa Beach Community Church UCC, Cocoa Beach, FL
U, Elliott Munn, CE, Congregational UCC, Orange, CT
OM, Kendall H. Brown, IN, Edgewood UCC, East Lansing, MI
LM, Steven Jewett, P, New Horizons UCC, Akron, IA
LM, Joe Kay, AP, Nexus Church UCC, Hamilton, OH
OM, Jon R. Haack, P, Promise United Church of Christ, Dallas, TX
OM, Leonard W. Dacy, AP, Promise United Church of Christ, Dallas, TX

The Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) provides oversight of the UCC Data Hub through which ministerial changes are made. However, Conferences and Associations are responsible for reporting changes and maintaining ministerial records in this system. If you have questions about this information, please contact the appropriate Conference or Association.

UCC victorious in lawsuit as judge strikes down N.C. gay marriage ban

A federal judge has struck down North Carolina's marriage laws as unconstitutional, giving the United Church of Christ and its co-plaintiffs a monumental and historic victory for equality for all people. General Synod of the United Church of Christ et al vs. Cooper challenged the state's Amendment One for violating the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion.

"Of the three marriage equality cases pending in North Carolina, it is this landmark case about religious freedom and marriage equality that has finally struck down North Carolina's unconstitutional marriage laws," said UCC General Counsel Donald C. Clark.

U.S. District Court Judge Max Cogburn issued his ruling late Friday, Oct. 10. The landmark lawsuit was the first instance of a national Christian denomination challenging a state's marriage statutes.

"We are thrilled by this clear victory for both religious freedom and marriage equality in the state of North Carolina,' said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, a UCC national officer. "In lifting North Carolina's ban on same-gender marriage, the court's directive makes it plain that the First Amendment arguments, made by the UCC and our fellow plaintiffs, were both persuasive and spot-on. Any law that threatens clergy who choose to solemnize a union of same-sex couples, and threatens them with civil or criminal penalties, is unconstitutional."

The suit, filed in April by the UCC and a coalition of clergy, same-sex couples and religious denominations, claiming that the state's marriage laws violate the First Amendment rights of clergy and the principle of "free exercise of religion."

Under Amendment One, which passed in late 2012, same-sex couples could not legally marry in North Carolina, and clergy could be charged with a crime for officiating a marriage ceremony without determining whether the couple involved has a valid marriage license.

"The issue before this court is neither a political issue nor a moral issue. It is a legal issue and it is clear as a matter of what is now settled law in the Fourth Circuit that North Carolina laws prohibiting same sex marriage, refusing to recognize same sex marriages originating elsewhere, and/or threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional," Cogburn wrote in his opinion.

"What an exciting time to be part of the United Church of Christ," said the Rev. Nancy Ellett Allison, pastor of Holy Covenant United Church of Christ (Charlotte, N.C.) and one of the plaintiffs in the case. "Our denomination, Holy Covenant UCC and our other UCC congregations have stood with clergy and same sex couples throughout the state of North Carolina demanding marriage equality through our lawsuit challenging Amendment One. That the Honorable Max O. Cogburn, Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina, has struck down Amendment One and ordered the state to begin recognizing same-sex marriages is a victory for all North Carolina citizens."

Just hours before the ruling, the plaintiffs filed a motion asking Cogburn to resolve the lawsuit through an agreement between the plaintiffs and North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Even though Friday's agreement by the principal parties dismissed the First Amendment claim, Cogburn's opinion recognized the implications of religious freedom in the case. "It is clear ... that North Carolina laws ... threatening to penalize those who would solemnize such marriages, are unconstitutional," he wrote.

"We are thrilled that the judge's order specifically recognized the religious freedom implications of this case and our clergy will be able to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies as faith practices call for without fear of prosecution," said Heather Kimmel, UCC associate general counsel.

North Carolina becomes the 28th state, in addition to the District of Columbia, to recognize same-gender marriages in the United States. Weddings can begin immediately.

Celebrating Yvonne Delk and 40 years of service to UCC

Ask the Rev. Yvonne Delk to recall her ordination and reflect on her four decades as a minister in the United Church of Christ, she’ll share the moment she was empowered to serve in faith.

"It seems like only yesterday that I was kneeling at the altar and hearing the ordaining prayer, which invoked God’s power and spirt to anoint and empower me for ministry," said Delk.

This weekend, the African American Women in Ministry Conference will celebrate Delk's 40 years of service, the first African American woman ordained in the denomination. The conference, from Oct. 9-11 at the Franklinton Center at Bricks in Whitakers, N.C., is a spirited gathering for women in all phases of ministry — ordained, commissioned, in discernment, and licensed in varied ministry settings — within the UCC and in other denominations.

Under the theme "Embracing God's Call: From Isolation to Celebration," the conference is also a moment to celebrate the women who have followed Delk’s lead.

"As I look back over the past 40 years, I am rejoicing in the increasing number of African American women who have said ‘Yes’ to the call for ministry and who are offering to our church and society their creative spirits, their talents and their visions for change and transformation," Delk said. "They represent the leadership that is needed for growth and new life in the church and society."

The second oldest of six children, Yvonne Virginia Delk grew up in the Southern Conference of the UCC and was ordained in 1974 at Fellowship United Church of Christ in Chesapeake, Va. She was the first African American woman to head a national instrumentality in the UCC (the Office for Church in Society in 1981).

"We lift prayers of thanksgiving to God for the blessings that have flowed to us as a result of the ministry that [Delk] has done in the name of Jesus," the four national officers of the UCC said. "Yvonne Delk has responded to God’s call serving as an exemplary teacher, a prophetic preacher, and a courageous leader in denominational and ecumenical settings."

This year the Rev. Christine Wiley, co-pastor of Covenant Baptist/UCC in Washington, D.C., the Rev. Valerie Bridgeman, founder and executive director of WomanPreach, and the Rev. Jennifer Leath, pastor of Campbell AME Church, Media, Penn., will speak at the conference.

History aside, Delk also feels that women of color still face similar obstacles today, and those issues will be part of the discussion at the conference.

"The challenge for the church is to be open and affirming in not only receiving their gifts but being open and assertive in the placement of these gifts," Delk said. "Racism and sexism were barriers 40 years ago and they are barriers today."

"In the conference at Franklinton Center, we will be building a sister-to-sister network of spiritual and vocational support," she continued. "However, we need the denomination at every level -- national, conference, and local -- to name this as a priority; to identify strategies and resources that will open hearts and doors for their leadership; and at the same time offer its affirmative commitment to remove the barriers which prevent African American Women in Ministry from moving through those doors."

Franklinton Center at Bricks, a former slave plantation, was transformed into a UCC conference center with a focus on justice advocacy. The fellowship hall is named for Delk.

Mission trip to offer solidarity with Honduran LGBT community

Imagine living in fear of assault, persecution or rape for being gay — or worse yet, being murdered for loving someone of the same gender.

The people in the LGBT community in Honduras live with this grim reality. According to Honduran equality advocates, 20 LGBT people are killed every year, United Church of Christ minister the Rev. David Mateo says this is why he and a dozen others will travel to the Central American country this month to be in solidarity with LGBT Hondurans.

"The important thing [people should] know is this is justice work," said Mateo, pastor of Iglesia Unida De Chapel Hill, in North Carolina. "When a country or community isn't respecting human rights, or human differences, people need to pay attention to those actions. So I think our mission as Christians is to be a witness for justice. This group is taking a first step to go there and listen to their stories and bring them back, and share what those people face there."

"We want to give them hope they can continue to bravely do what they are doing, and we want to create a liaison and create a relationship," Mateo said.

The diverse delegation of 10 people, who are LGBT and straight, English- and Spanish speaking, travel to Honduras from Sept. 11 through Sept. 14. While in the city of Tegucigalpa, they'll meet with six nonprofit organizations to build new relationships that will guide a long-term advocacy effort, and will appear in public to announce their presence and intentions before speaking with journalists.

Despite the dangers LGBT Hondurans face, they still possess the courage to advocate for their rights. Mateo and the accompanying delegation will offer their support during the trip by meeting with representatives of these advocacy groups to understand their struggles, and offer support and solidarity in establishing a coalition for the future.

"Last year, I did an informal visit, and it was amazing with more than 70 kids between 18 and 35 in an underground place," Mateo said. "The only place they can be together in is one of these agencies, so they have programs to educate them and keep them safe. It was amazing how [these agencies] work with no resources to keep these kids safe."

Mateo also has a list of items he is trying to collect and distribute to the Honduran non-profit groups, including school supplies, board games and HIV-AIDS resources.

"We already sent about 6,000 condoms for HIV-AIDS advocacy programs two weeks ago," Mateo said. "In the future we'd like to send another 45,000 condoms. We may also consider establishing an LGBT church."

There are six members of Iglesia Unida de Chapel Hill in the delegation, as well as Alex Cordova, director of LGBT affairs with Centro Latino (a nonprofit agency), Jose Alegria, a community leader with gay youth, and the Rev. Roberto Ochoa, interim pastor of Lakewood Congregational UCC in Worcester, Mass.

"We have a commitment to Hispanics in that fight for social justice," Mateo said. "We believe that all human beings deserve a place in the world. Our church is the only Hispanic congregation in the area that accepts openly gay [persons]."

Iglesia Unida is a ministry of United Church of Chapel Hill, a congregation that raised and donated $1,200 toward the cost of the trip.

"We're proud of David and the people of Iglesia Unida, and their willingness to make this witness in Honduras and show solidarity with the people there," said the Rev. Rick Edens, pastor of United Church of Chapel Hill.

PATHWAYS Theological Education program appeals to nontraditional students seeking careers in ministry

Heidi Hulme, of Faith United Church of Christ in Davenport, Iowa, was married with a family when she "tripped" into the Christian education director position at her church. While she knew traditional seminary was not the right path for her, she still felt a pull to full-time ministry. Looking for an alternative route, she became a licensed children's and youth pastor in 2008 through classes offered by the Iowa Conference of the UCC, and is currently enrolled in the PATHWAYS Theological Education program, with hopes of becoming an ordained UCC minister.

"When I read about the PATHWAYS opportunity, it was a no-brainer for me," said Hulme. "It was the only way I saw myself getting to the point of being prepared for the possibility of ordination. This is the perfect PATHWAY for a 'non-traditionalist' like me."

In response to the changing culture of ministerial authorization in the UCC and in an effort to address leadership training needs, the PATHWAYS Theological Education program was launched in Nov. 2011 by the Southeast Conference of the UCC to minister to aspiring learners in theological and ministerial training. The mission of PATHWAYS is to bring together the best of traditional theological education and the contemporary experiences of the church toward new ministry models by offering affordable, accessible and high-quality theological education to lay and authorized leaders.

Open to the wider UCC church, PATHWAYS carries on the legacy of the TAP (Theology Among the People) program used to train lay leaders within the Southeast Conference for a decade. But unlike the TAP program that took place in a classroom setting, PATHWAYS courses are offered online, encouraging partnerships with other conferences and providing accessibility to distance learners. Also, while TAP offered one curriculum designed for lay leaders, PATHWAYS offers training at three different levels, with the second and third levels designed for those seeking authorization in the UCC.

"PATHWAYS is a continuation of the TAP program in the sense that it is a regional theological education program that is conference based, but it is also replacing the TAP program in the sense that we are doing things differently," said the Rev. Sarah Kim, executive director of theological education and dean of PATHWAYS. "We are truly representing an alternative pattern of theological education that aims to prepare our church leaders — a different strategy for a changing world."

PATHWAYS curriculum is built specifically around the Marks of Faithful and Effective Authorized Ministers. Courses are developed and facilitated by an ecumenical group of educators from seminaries and universities, and by ordained clergy and licensed ministers from a variety of denominations who have excelled in local church ministry and other specialized ministries. Each level of the curriculum involves a learning community of 10-15 people. Level 1 is a two-year program designed for lay leaders seeking foundational training in theology and ministry. Level 2 is a 15-month program designed for licensed ministry in a local church setting, and the Level 3 program is 17-month course designed to prepare lay and licensed ministers for ordination in the UCC.

In January of 2012, PATHWAYS also implemented the Global Theological Education (GTE) immersion trip, where participants from the Southeast Conference and students from Lancaster Theological Seminary take a three-week immersion experience to Thailand.

This summer, PATHWAYS recognizes five graduates from the Level 2 program and by Dec. 2014 will have seven graduates from the Level 1 program. There are currently three people enrolled in the Level 3 program, Kim said.

"We have built and are implementing all three Levels of the PATHWAYS program since it launched in 2011," said Kim.

While Kim is not sure there is a "typical" PATHWAYS student, she said there are certain characteristics they share. Many are not interested in attending traditional seminary due to factors such as location, cost, and full-time jobs and families, but they wish to prepare themselves for authorized ministry. They are learners who are able to communicate online and enjoy the flexibility that comes with distance learning, and many are already serving in churches, often in rural areas, and want to continue their education and training.

"The online learning platform does allow a virtual community where learners find strong bonds with one another, get important feedback, and feel a sense of community," Kim said. "Sometimes this type of social context is critical to those serving small churches in rural areas as sole pastors."

Marsha Brown is another student who found success through the PATHWAYS program. After a friend introduced her to Holy Trinity Community Church UCC in Nashville, Tenn., Brown began the TAP program in 2008 during a period of discontent and uncertainty in her life. She has since graduated from the TAP program and is currently completing Level 2 of PATHWAYS, with plans to continue to Level 3 for ordination. She is involved in pastoral care work at Holy Trinity and Phoenix Christian Church in Wildersville, Tenn., where she also preaches once or twice a month. For Brown, these programs helped her figure out her life's true calling during a time when she couldn't find the answers.

"Prior to this, I had moments of wanting to enter into the ministry, but really had no idea of how or in what position or title," Brown said. "I knew I wanted to delve into the scriptures more and I was thirsting for knowledge. So the new chapter in my life began."