The Rev. Gary Rarick promoted "Big Surprise Sunday" at Plainville (N.Y.) Christian Church United Church of Christ for about four weeks. Kept in suspense, one member asked if they were having a guest speaker. Another asked if they were having a party. One even had a dream that country singer Taylor Swift was coming to sing with the church choir. But the actual surprise - the church was giving each member $20 with which they were to go out and try to make a difference.
"No matter what they did, I wanted them to think that ministry isn't something that happens just by coming to church and sitting in a pew every Sunday," Rarick said. "If we just go home and forget about church until the next week, that isn't making a difference and being a good, active Christian."
The idea came to Rarick after preaching about the parable of the talents, a story in the Bible where a landowner gives three slaves a different amount of money in hopes of them turning it into more money to give back to him. However, Rarick wasn't concerned with growing the money to bring back into the church – he was more concerned with his members trying to think of creative ways to use the money to make a difference in their communities. As a young pastor celebrating his one-year anniversary at his first church out of seminary, Rarick's goal was to do something different and memorable. But first he needed to get his congregation on board.
"No one made a sound or moved – a bomb could have been dropped outside and no one would have moved," Rarick said of the announcement. "Everyone was stunned and I was actually pretty nervous."
While some are still figuring out what to do with it, other members used their money in a variety of different ways. A few simply added it to their weekly offering and gave it back to the church or the youth group. One woman took the $20 to buy ingredients for pumpkin rolls and pies to sell and has since quadrupled the funds. Three young sisters pooled their money together and bought school supplies for needy children. An enterprising young woman garnered more donations from family and her employer and donated the total to a local nonprofit. Still others gave their money to the local food bank or the Meals on Wheels program.
Barb Longwell was at first conflicted about what to do with her money. Then one day at the grocery store deli counter, she saw a woman buying a few slices of ham and a few slices of cheese, with instructions to the clerk that her order could not exceed five dollars. Realizing that the woman was struggling financially, Longwell used her $20 to buy a grocery store gift card and gave it to her.
"I thought, here's a local person on a fixed income who is obviously struggling a little bit," Longwell said. "It felt good that I could do that for this lady, even though I felt like I would have liked to have done more."
The five-week project technically ended Oct. 21, when 13 members gave testimonials to the congregation explaining how they used their money. But Rarick is encouraging his congregation to continue this kind of thinking in their daily lives, long after the project is over.
"For anyone who thought about the project for even five minutes after church on Sunday, I would say it was successful," Rarick said.
The Amigos of the UCC's Penn Northeast Conference strive to raise awareness of international mission work
To say that Roger and Karen Heim are ambitious would be an understatement. The couple, members of Hope United Church of Christ in Allentown, Pa., is currently in the midst of a three-year, $300,000 project to build a multi-use clinic in one of Guatemala's most remote villages.
The Heims are co-chairs of Amigos de Guatemala, an initiative of the Penn Northeast Conference. They are in charge of how the work gets done, who is going to do it and, most importantly, where the money will come from.
"We came back charged up," Roger said of the group's most recent trip to the country. "We knew we had to do something about this very poor area."
Roger, Karen and their 12-member team from churches around the conference became interested in developing a partnership with a South American community in 2008. With help from Global Ministries, the combined ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Pennsylvania team connected with the Ecumenical Christian Council of Guatemala, a group that works with the country's mainline churches on social advocacy initiatives. Amigos de Guatemala made its first trip to the country in 2010 and quickly noticed the need for improved, accessible medical care, a need the Guatemalan council agreed with.
"We are counting on [the council] to guide us to what their needs are – we don't want to go down there and do anything without their feedback," Roger said. "We want to make sure the local people want – not just need – our help."
Amigos de Guatemala conducted a weeklong medical mission trip in May 2011, sending down a team of two doctors, two nurses and others who provided childcare and served as interpreters, among other duties. When the group reached the village of Monte Margarita, they were greeted with colorful banners, a band and endless food. However, the village was so remote it lacked access to running water and plumbing. The "clinic" was a tarp over a concrete slab and villagers offered their kitchen tables for use in makeshift exam rooms. This is where Amigos de Guatemala knew they were needed most.
"This was a real eye-opener," Roger said. "We were serving the poorest of the poor, some who had never even seen a doctor before."
The goal of Amigos de Guatemala is to construct a multi-use clinic that also will serve as a classroom and dormitory for visiting physicians. This will require installation of plumbing, potable water and backup generators to supply electricity during the village's many power outages. Ideally, the Heims want to have the clinic up and running in two to three years, and for it to be self-sustaining in five to 10 years. In the meantime, the plan is to train promotores, health care providers, to conduct basic first aid between visits from Amigos de Guatemala nurses and physicians. Current estimations to build and furnish the clinic are $250,000-$300,000.
While the timeline is set, the energy is high, and the basic blueprints for the building are drawn, this is where the project currently stands. In addition to the challenge of raising such a significant amount of money, other obstacles stand in the Heims' way. For example, the trips to Guatemala are expensive, so the group cannot send people down there to do training, survey the area and engage with the community as often as they'd like. Also, the country has a mail system that is unreliable at best, making it difficult to get supplies and equipment to the village.
"When we try to send stuff, we are never sure if it will arrive because of theft and corruption," Karen said. "If we sent a shipment of pain medication to the clinic, it would be stolen before it got there."
To relieve some of the financial stress, the group is trying to get other denominations involved in hopes of sending down at least four different groups once a year to provide medical care and to train the promotores. The Hope UCC congregation sells handmade goods like bracelets, necklaces and table runners made by the Guatemalans as part of their efforts, and have tried to host a fundraising dinner with the Pennsylvania medical community. As plans become more solid, the Penn Northeast Conference also has discussed utilizing capital campaigns and endowment funds to raise money.
Relieving another stress, the Heims are also glad to note that the country is implementing a private mail system that should alleviate some of the corruption and make it easier to ship medicine and other supplies.
While the journey may be long, the Heims stress that Amigos de Guatemala is an ongoing project. The most important thing is to make people within the Penn Northeast Conference and beyond aware of and interested in their mission. Perhaps their most successful fundraising so far has been old-fashioned grassroots campaigning, going to from church to church telling their story and asking for donations.
"We are trying to spread the word and invite others to participate." Roger said. "No matter how big or small you are you can contribute to this cause."
As an example of Christ's constant presence in our midst, congregation members from First Reformed UCC in Greensburg, Pa., are taking paper cutouts of Jesus with them on vacations, volunteer work and to worship at UCC events.
"'Flat Jesus' is a reminder that we need Jesus' presence with us everywhere we go," said Pastor Steve Craft. A range of the congregation's kids, from preschoolers to teenagers, have taken Flat Jesus with them while traveling this summer as a visible expression of their faith. There are also some retirees who have taken Flat Jesus with them on a disaster relief trip to North Dakota.
Flat Jesus, a spin-off of another paper cut-out character, depicts an excited Christ with his arms outstretched that kids can color, carry with them, and take pictures with. First Reformed UCC created the first Flat Jesus cut-outs four years ago, Craft said.
"We created a cutout of Jesus and gave every child one for the summer. You color it and laminate it, and in years past, they'd bring their summer vacation pictures back to share with the church," Kraft said. This year, Flat Jesus' adventures alongside a variety of families are showing up in pictures on a Facebook page the congregation created to quickly share those experiences.
The idea was inspired by Flat Stanley, Craft said. During the Flat Stanley Project, a literacy campaign that began in 1995, children cut out and color a paper Flat Stanley, then use a database to mail or email Stan and track where the cutout travels. Pictures of Flat Stanley and accompanying letters or emails circulate back to the starting destination.
Flat Jesus has been photographed in several locations around the country this year, with stops in West Virginia and Disney World in Florida in May, then Hershey Park in Pennsylvania and the UCC headquarters in Cleveland. From there, it was off to North Dakota for flood relief in June.
He went to the UCC's National Youth Event in early July at Purdue University in Indiana, ventured north for a trip to Alaska, and was recently spotted back in Pennsylvania at the Pittsburgh Steelers training camp.
The church also plans to continue using Flat Jesus through the end of the year.
"It was just supposed to be over the summer, and we were going to end it, but we're going to keep it going," said Valarie Poole, the church's director of education. "It's a great conversation starter. It's a great way to get church information out there in a different way, and it's not intimidating," she said. 'It's a different way to advertise what you're doing at your church."
In a July 31 blog post, Bishop John Shelby Spong, a retired bishop of the Episcopal Church based in Newark, N.J., praised the UCC for its mettle and thanked the denomination's leadership for its insight. Here is the text of his commentary.
Sometimes, as one goes about the normal duties of one's professional life, a pattern of activity slowly becomes visible until one wonders why this had not been seen before. When that happens, it is good to stop, to notice, to put the pieces together, to seek to understand and then to formulate the new insight so that it can become common knowledge.
This was my experience in the first part of this year when I was invited to a number of churches in what might be called the heartland of America. In every incidence, the church to which I was asked to deliver lectures stood out in its community like a beacon of light. It was always the church in that community that engaged the issues of the day. It was the congregation in that community that encouraged people to think and to study. It was a church more interested in genuine education than it was in ecclesiastical propaganda. It was a congregation willing to be controversial, willing to stand up for truth in the public marketplace. It was a church that did not require that the brains of its people be checked at the door prior to worship. It was a congregation whose members cared about their world, their community, themselves and their pastor. These churches also projected vitality and they were all growing. The revelation that ultimately emerged, however, was that each one of these congregations was a part the United Church of Christ-Congregational denomination. This fact was so consistent that I concluded it could not be just a coincidence and that something about the United Church of Christ must be at least in part responsible and so my appreciation for this denomination soared.
Perhaps, I thought, this church can be the one Christian denomination that will inspire, bring about and participate in the necessary reformation required to break the Christian faith out of its dying patterns, its no longer believable theological understandings and its medieval worship practices. Maybe this can be the church that will break the traditional Christian paradigm based on human depravity and transform it to a paradigm based on human wholeness. Until these aspects of Christianity are faced, engaged and changed, there is, I believe, little realistic hope for a Christian future.
Let me briefly tell you, my readers, the story of these four individual UCC congregations:
The first one was the Plymouth United Church of Christ in Wichita, Kansas. Under the enlightened and competent leadership of its senior pastor, Donald Olsen, and his able staff, Plymouth Church has gathered to itself a group of members who are individually and corporately stepping beyond traditional religious formulas to build a church for tomorrow. Gifted young adults, well-educated and in positions of local and national authority, are finding the integrity of a new religious dimension for themselves by their participation in this church's life. No one is fighting yesterday's wars against Darwin, the equality of women or the oppression of gay and lesbian people. The Bible is not seen as a cudgel to be used in debate to shore up the conclusions of a long dead past. They appear to enjoy their life together and, during the time I was there to deliver these lectures, they also brought in a spectacular acCapella male singing group named Cantu for the joy and entertainment of those attending the lecture series. Cantu was magnificent and the combination of lectures and entertainment was a memorable experience for me and for that congregation.
The second one was the First Congregational-United Church of Christ in Greeley, Colorado. This small Colorado city, founded by Horace Greeley in the 19th century, is the home of a community college that has grown into being the University of Northern Colorado and is now the third or fourth largest university in the state of Colorado. In a state where Colorado Springs has become the national headquarters for many right wing fundamentalist groups such as James Dobson's "Focus on the Family," this church in Greeley has accepted the vocation of speaking to this university with an understanding of the Christian faith that is well informed and not dedicated to the perpetuation of biblical ignorance. Its senior pastor, Nathan Miller, is respected as a leader in the entire community and one of this church's most active members is the recently retired president of the University of Northern Colorado.
The third church was in Norman, Oklahoma, the location of the University of Oklahoma, where former Democratic Governor and Senator, David Boren, is now the highly-regarded president. A small group of people led by an urologist formed a new Congregational Church to fill a vacuum in Norman, where fundamentalists and evangelical Protestants are the overwhelming majority. They were assisted in this birth by the UCC pastor at the Mayflower Church in Oklahoma City, Robin Meyers, who is one of America's brilliant new religious leaders. They contracted with a retired UCC minister on a part time basis to lead this new congregation, which has no more than twenty-five members. Undaunted by their newness and their smallness, they organized a public lecture on progressive Christianity to be held in the University of Oklahoma's Museum of Natural History. This was their way of announcing their presence in the city. I was invited to deliver that lecture and also to speak to the members of this congregation at their regular meeting place on Saturday morning. The public lecture attracted over 400 people. It was also the first time I have ever spoken with a mastodon on display immediately behind me! In their own worship space on Saturday, which seated less than seventy people, the two lecture seminar was sold out and every available chair was filled. This new congregation is dedicated to finding ways to serve the larger community and even the world. One program, organized by the urologist and including his two sons, both of whom are planning careers in medicine, has them volunteering for medical missionary duty in some of the deprived parts of the world. Vitality and the hope of good things to come mark this congregation.
Finally, there was the First Congregational-UCC Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, served so ably by its senior pastor, Richard Weidler. Hendersonville is a small town in the mountains of Western North Carolina, about 30 minutes south of Ashville. Calls to repent, invitations to be saved and warnings to prepare to meet your God are painted on signs on almost every nearby highway. Three crosses adorn the countryside in more than one field. A visit on the radio dial will reveal a steady diet of evangelical preaching, punctuated only by the ranting of Rush Limbaugh. Yet because of Hendersonville's wonderful summer climate, it has attracted many retirees to that area who are left looking mostly in vain for a church if they do not want fundamentalism. Into that vacuum, this church has moved led by its former, now retired, pastor, David Kelly. About a decade ago a layman, named Walter Ashley, taught an adult Bible class in that church and it had been an erudite and transformative experience for many. A "Classics Scholar" with a degree from Oxford University in the UK, he had opened that congregation to a whole new way of being a Christian. They became the one church in town that was a haven for thinking Christians. When Walter died, his widow Jo Ann, an attorney well into her eighties, endowed a lectureship in memory of her husband. Twice each year, a well-known Christian scholar is invited to do the Ashley Lectures in this church in Western North Carolina. John Dominic Crossan, Marcus Borg, Amy-Jill Levine and I have all been among those visiting lecturers. The event attracts people from miles away and has helped to identify this church as something quite different.
Recently in North Carolina, there was a statewide referendum to ban gay marriage by a constitutional amendment. It seemed like every preacher in the state from Billy Graham on down came out in support of this amendment, identifying it with the Bible and the will of God. This was not true, however, of the First Congregational-United Church of Christ in Hendersonville. Instead they bought and ran a large advertisement in the local newspaper every other day for a period of time prior to that vote stating their opposition to North Carolina's "Marriage Amendment." In this ad they stated first the historical tradition of the United Church of Christ as a supporter of social justice and civil rights. They reminded readers that their forebears were Pilgrims who came to this country in 1620 seeking freedom from restrictions imposed in Europe. They recalled the history of their denomination, telling the newspaper's readers that in 1785 the UCC ordained Lemuel Haynes, America's first African-American pastor; in 1853 the UCC ordained Antoinette Brown, America's first female pastor; in 1972 the UCC ordained Bill Johnson, America's first openly-gay pastor. Now this church, representing this denomination, called on all to reject this prejudiced marriage amendment. This ad dramatically lifted this church into public awareness causing them to be attacked and ridiculed by almost every other church in the area, but it also caused the religiously disenfranchised to discover a new possibility for their religious lives. So, new people began to show up at their doors on Sunday Mornings.
These four churches I have described so briefly had several things in common. They each had a well-trained and well-educated senior pastor. Each was linked to a national denomination that encouraged them to press the edges. Each had drunk deeply of that denomination's courage in the public arena on the right side of the cultural issues of our day.
If the United Church of Christ is represented locally by the churches I have encountered in Wichita, Greeley, Norman and Hendersonville, they must be doing something right.
So to these churches and to the leadership of the National United Church of Christ, I first raise my hand in salute for your courage and your dedication. Second, I stand before you in awe for what you have meant in my life and in the life of Christianity itself. Third, I bow my head and my heart in thanksgiving for your witness to the Truth.
- John Shelby Spong
Editor's note: Plymouth Congregational in Wichita, Kan., is part of the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches, not the UCC.
Reprinted by permission of Progressive Christianity, Bishop Spong's on-line publisher. Contact Bishop Spong at www.johnshelbyspong.com.
During the UCC’s National Youth Event 2012, the Collegium of Officers and the Council of Conference Ministers of the United Church of Christ published a pastoral letter on the future and the relevance of the denomination and the youth who are its caretakers.
Pastors and lay leaders, please download the pdf version of the letter to share with your congregations during worship.
Here is the text of that letter:
July 13, 2012
A Pastoral Letter from Leaders of the United Church of Christ
Dear sisters and brothers of the United Church of Christ:
Greetings in the name of Jesus, the wise, young teacher who taught the elders of the temple!
MK Asante, the opening worship speaker at this year’s National Youth Event (July 10-13 at Purdue University), said, “If you make an observation, you have an obligation.” It is with that persistent spirit of holy engagement, that we – the five national officers of the church and 21 Conference Ministers in attendance – feel compelled to write this letter of profound gratitude and urgent response.
First, we wish to begin with gratitude. Thank you to the more than 2,500 youth of this church who gave of yourselves – so generously and sacrificially – to be here and to open your hearts, your lives, to this faith-filled moment. You – our sisters, our brothers – are amazing; every single one of you. This was your event and you helped us all feel extravagantly welcomed into it.
Our gratitude extends to national staff and organizers who spent years planning, orchestrating and executing this empowering event; to many regional organizers who coordinated travel plans and helped care for those entrusted to you; to chaperones who offered loving guidance, presence and patience; and to churches, agencies, Associations and Conferences of the UCC that prayerfully and financially encouraged and supported the attendance of our youth. Thank you, also, to parents and guardians who gave encouragement to this event as a priority in your child’s life. And thanks to every UCC person who encourages ongoing all-church support for Our Church’s Wider Mission – our common ministry fund – which provided the critical financial resources necessary to make NYE possible.
Second, beyond gratitude, National Youth Event leaves us with important lessons about the church, its present and its future, and our response to this critical moment. There are days when it seems as though all we hear are voices of concern about the church’s status, its relevance and its future. You, the youth of NYE, helped teach us about the sacred responsibility of claiming this time and this place as God’s moment to change lives. There are days when it seems as though all we hear are voices lamenting a disconnect between youth and the church. You reminded us of the importance of celebrating and supporting the youth that are faithfully encountering God’s presence in, through and even beyond the church. There are days when we hear resistance to change in traditional worship. You taught us that the deep beats of God’s activity live in hip hop rhyme, flow easy in laughter, and rattle in roars of sustained ovation and praise. All, we passionately believe, are sounds of a new Pentecost opening the church to new realities, new days of vitality, inclusivity and engagement. Thank you, wise and wonderful teachers.
In the preamble to our constitution, the United Church of Christ “affirms the responsibility of the Church in each generation to make this faith its own in reality of worship, in honesty of thought and expression, and in purity of heart before God.” We believe we must seize and build upon this powerful NYE moment – in response and gratitude to UCC youth – to realize the significance of what has happened here and how we are leaving this event infused with expanding hopefulness for the United Church of Christ, our distinctive message and impact, and the need for an intergenerational movement of hope.
Let this be the moment where the church truly imagines its new reality and its hopeful future, under God’s watchful love and tender mercy.
Imagine, God is still speaking,
The Collegium of Officers of the United Church of Christ
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black
General Minister and President
W. Mark Clark
Associate General Minister
The Rev. J. Bennett Guess
Executive Minister, Local Church Ministries
The Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo
Executive Minister, Justice and Witness Ministries
The Rev. James Moos
Executive Minister, Wider Church Ministries
The Council of Conference Ministers of the United Church of Christ
The Rev. Phil Hart
Northern California Nevada Conference
The Rev. Felix Villanueva
Southern California Nevada Conference
The Rt. Rev. Béla Posnán
The Rev. John R. Deckenback
Central Atlantic Conference
The Rev. Walter John Boris
Central Pacific Conference
The Rev. Charles L. Wildman
The Rev. Kent Siladi
The Rev. Charles Buck
The Rev. Jorge Morales
The Rev. Sheldon Culver
Illinois South Conference
The Rev. John Vertigan
The Rev. Rich Pleva
The Rev. Krista Betz
The Rev. David R. Gaewski
The Rev. Jim Antal
The Rev. S. C. Campbell Lovett
The Rev. Karen Smith Sellers
The Rev. Jeff Whitman
Missouri Mid-South Conference
The Rev. Marc I. Stewart
Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference
The Rev. Roddy Dunkerson
The Rev. Gary Schulte
New Hampshire Conference
The Rev. Rita Root
New York Conference
The Rev. Wade Schemmel
Northern Plains Conference
The Rev. Bob Molsberry
The Rev. Mike Denton
Pacific Northwest Conference
The Rev. Marja Coons-Torn
Penn Central Conference
The Rev. Alan C. Miller
Penn Northeast Conference
The Rev. Char Burch
Penn West Conference
The Rev. Judith Youngman
Pennsylvania Southeast Conference
The Rev. Beverly Edwards
Rhode Island Conference
The Rev. Tom Rehling
Rocky Mountain Conference
The Rev. Douglas Anders
South Central Conference
The Rev. David Felton
South Dakota Conference
The Rev. Timothy C. Downs
The Rev. Edward S. Davis
The Rev. John C. Dorhauer
The Rev. Lynn Bujnak
The Rev. David Moyer
Dean Alton B. Pollard III will serve as guest preacher June 13 at the UCC's weekly worship service in the Amistad Chapel of the UCC's Church House, 700 Prospect in downtown Cleveland.
"It is of critical and faithful importance to the School of Divinity community that we strengthen and renew our common commitment to visionary faith and academic freedom with the UCC," said Pollard. "You have partnered with us from our historic beginnings to the present day. Our relationship is deep and of longstanding."
"Even more enduring is the Amistad legacy of freedom that pervades and unites our respective institutional endeavors," said Pollard. "From the UCC's support of the defendants in that stirring 1839 uprising called Amistad until this very present moment, the social justice witness of the UCC has inspired us."
In 2002, the relationship between the school and the UCC was born anew. Under Dean Clarence G. Newsome and in partnership with the UCC Friends of HUSD ("The Friends"), the first James Floyd Jenkins Pillar of Faith Award Luncheon was held.
"The United Church of Christ has always been a ‘friend of our mind,'" said Pollard. "The UCC and our Pillar of Faith honorees have helped us to gather the many theological pieces of faith seeking understanding in this world and put them in the right order."
Pollard specializes in African-American religion and culture, the sociology of the Black church, southern African studies, Pan-Africanist religious thought, American religious cultures, and the sociology of religion. He is author, co-author, editor and consulting editor of several books and is former associate editor of the "Black Sacred Music Journal."
An ordained Baptist minister, Pollard is former pastor of John Street Baptist Church (Worcester, Mass.), New Red Mountain Baptist Church (Rougemont, N.C.) and Bell Buckle and Hopewell A.M.E. churches (Tenn.). He is a former associate minister of Trinity Tabernacle Baptist Church in Mableton, Ga., and a board member and consultant to numerous organizations.
Pollard served as director of the Program of Black Church Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta and has held faculty appointments at St. Olaf College and Wake Forest University.
He earned a bachelor's degree with honors in religion, philosophy and business management from Fisk University; an M.Div. degree from Harvard University Divinity School; and a Ph.D. from Duke University's Department of Religion.
Learn more about the Howard University School of Divinity.
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.