John Kelly Poorman is always exploring different ways to try to increase contributions to the Christmas Fund. For the past several years, the church council president of St. John's UCC in Boalsburg, Pa., has taken professional holiday photographs of members and their families in exchange for a Christmas Fund donation. This year Poorman wrote a nontraditional Christmas story to support the fund that recognizes and honors those who have served and continue to serve in lay and authorized ministries of the UCC.
"The ones who have been around for long time didn't have what pastors have now, so they struggle, and if anything devastating happens to them, they have no recourse," Poorman said. "We had their support when we needed it, and I think it's important that they have our support now that they need it."
Poorman's story, So, a Preacher and Santa Walk into a Bar, is for sale on amazon.com, and all proceeds will go to the Christmas Fund. While Poorman is not a UCC minister and does not personally benefit from the contributions, he has a special appreciation for the fund that assists ministers in need.
The Christmas Fund for the Veterans of the Cross and the Emergency Fund is one of the UCC's four special mission offerings. In 2012, the fund provided nearly $1.5 million in assistance to 900 clergy facing overwhelming financial demands in the form of Christmas thank-you checks, monthly pension supplementation, quarterly health premium supplementation, and emergency grants, which can also be utilized by active clergy. A ministry carried out by the Pension Boards for 111 years, the fund is received each year on the Sunday before Christmas.
The Rev. Jim Rapp and his ex-wife the Rev. Alicia Spring, who have both served various UCC congregations in Florida, benefitted from a Christmas Fund emergency grant after their son, Evan, had a kidney transplant in May 2013. While insurance paid for the surgery, both Evan and Jim, who was the kidney donor, needed to stay near the hospital for several weeks of follow-up appointments. The emergency grant enabled them to cover the costs of housing and meals during their recovery period. Jim is now pastor of Church of the Isles UCC in Indian Rocks Beach, Fla., and hopes to see his congregation become the highest giver per capita to the Christmas Fund this year.
"It was a no-brainer for me to want to share a kidney with my son," Jim said. "Ministerial assistance came through quickly and generously and we were able to be ministered to."
"We always supported the Christmas fund," Alicia added. "I had always thought of elderly and retired ministers and spouses. I had never thought about the other side – people who were in difficult situations. It was a real blessing to have that weight lifted."
Vernis Brown is the widow of the Rev. Roy Brown, who was called to be a pastor at age 7 and served UCC congregations until he suffered a stroke in 1997 and passed away in 2002. Vernis said her husband always kept his promise to God to serve small congregations, which meant that she and Roy were often the only staff in churches they served in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and South Dakota. Vernis taught Sunday school, ran vacation Bible school, and worked with the women's and youth groups. In addition to preaching, Roy also drove a school bus, and worked as a farmer, hunter, trapper and fisherman. While she would never trade her life as a preacher's wife for anything, Vernis recalls how she, Roy and their 10 children lived on very little because the small churches they served couldn't afford to pay much. But the annual Christmas thank-you check has been and continues to be a welcomed contribution to her family. Each year, Vernis donates one-tenth of her check back to the Christmas Fund and encourages others to give as well.
"It has really been a blessing and helped us in so many ways," Vernis said of the fund. "I'm the first one to stand up and say, ‘I'm a recipient. Give generously to help other people.'"
To donate to the Christmas Fund, visit the Pension Boards website.
The path of Melanie Poehls, a graphic artist from Dallas, changed the day she knelt along side an injured motorist, staying there as a man she didn't know slipped closer to death. Charlotte Morgan is a doctor of naturopathy in private practice in Las Vegas. Her path too, changed when she witnessed the healing power of her patients.
Two different paths now lead down the same road: a calling to ministry, to learn to help people in spiritual ways. Both women are following that call and are completing their second semester at Chicago Theological Seminary, one of six United Church of Christ-related seminaries.
There’s one catch. Neither Poehls nor Morgan relocated to Chicago for their seminary education.
This year, CTS has been approved to offer a master of divinity (M.Div.) program online, making it the first progressive seminary in the country to do so.
CTS’s three-year M.Div.program prepares students to be transformative religious leaders in the church and society. The degree also helps students prepare for non-church and non-traditional ministry, including settings such as health care facilities, human services organizations, government agencies, non-profit organizations, business and academic environments, and advocacy groups. Those are the places where Poehls and Morgan hope to minister when they graduate from CTS.
Poehls was raised Southern Baptist and has lived with a spiritual relationship with God throughout her life, but stopped attending church in her late teens after witnessing how her faith excluded some groups of people.
A pair of events six months before she applied to seminary, both involving death and near-death experiences that made her ponder what she was meant to do.
She saw that brutal motor vehicle wreck involving a motorcycle and truck, and rushed to the side of the man severely injured in that accident. "I was never close to anything like that, but I knew CPR," Poehls said. "I felt this compulsion to rush over to him, but I realized CPR wasn’t going to help. Nothing was going to help. So I just laid my hands on him, just trying to comfort him."
In another instance, Poehls found herself comforting a group of women in a hospital emergency room. Both events got Poehls thinking about how she could comfort people dealing with death or near-death experiences, without relocating her and her partner from Dallas.
"How can a lay person work in hospice care? And the answer I got was chaplaincy," said Poehls, who then began – and eventually grew frustrated with -- searching for a progressive seminary. "One day I Googled ‘gay friendly seminary’ and CTS popped up."
Morgan grew up in the ELCA Lutheran Church in the Midwest, and after moving around the country she landed in Las Vegas. She and her partner have been together for 23 years and have two daughters. While looking for an inclusive faith community that was open and affirming, the family discovered the United Church of Christ.
But it was in her practice and her work in the hospice community that Morgan’s life turned toward a seminary education.
"I saw hope and healing in front of my eyes, and the call came from God," Morgan said. "It created a new life trajectory to go to seminary and get my M. Div. and work with God and help others."
When Morgan thought about what she would do with a seminary education, she figured her path would continue along in the medical field through hospice work or chaplaincy. Now Morgan says she wants to help with the Open and Affirming movement — a way for UCC congregations to become more inclusive of all people — and will spend time in the coming years discerning how her skills as a doctor might help her future ministry.
Both women couldn’t move their families to Chicago for three-years of seminary; through the web-based curriculum CTS students can be connected to the Chicago campus without even being in the same state.
CTS’s accreditation for its online M.Div. degree was the result of two years of work to develop a web-based program, along with a grant to help translate an educational experience to an online environment.
The distance-based learning courses have assigned readings, video-based lectures and podcasts, and web-based classroom discussion. "There’s a lot of reading, and responding to the readings and to classmates," Poehls said. "We have a Facebook group for all incoming students, so I’m friends with some of my classmates on Facebook and they might ask me how things are outside of classes. So there is that sense of camaraderie."
As for any advice to share with people considering a web-based seminary education, both women offered their thoughts.
"Be highly-organized. Have the knowledge about yourself that there is a lot of alone time, time for thought and reflection, but be careful to balance that out. Take advantage and get out of the location [in which you learn] to not become too isolated," Morgan said.
Morgan also suggests registering for one-week intensive classes for credits, which she has done for summer and winter classes. The intensive courses, which take place on the Chicago Theological campus, offered her a chance to meet a few other students, visit the campus and meet administrators and faculty.
Added Poehls, "I can’t speak for others [in this program], but at CTS your voice is heard and your thoughts are recognized, regardless if it’s online or in person. It’s a family."
Founded in 1855, CTS promotes a progressive philosophy, and its students have been advocates for social justice. CTS serves more than 25 different Christian and non-Christian faith communities by preparing men and women for the religious leadership.
"At Chicago Theological Seminary, we like to say, ‘You don’t have to come here to go here,’" said the Rev. Alice Hunt, president of CTS. "Now that’s more true than ever.
A nationally known minister, author and teacher in local church faith formation ministries has been called to lead the United Church of Christ Faith Formation Ministry Team. The Rev. Ivy Beckwith is joining the UCC's Local Church Ministries, headquartered in Cleveland, on Dec. 1. In this new position, Beckwith will foster a significant shift in how the denomination approaches and designs faith formation ministries within and for the UCC, in response to the findings of the UCC's in-depth Christian Faith Formation and Education Ministries Report issued in September 2012.
"As the UCC's Faith Formation Research Report made clear, approaches to faith formation have changed," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries. "No longer are we solely focused on an educational 'Sunday School' model, but one that embraces faith formation as the desired outcome of all we do as Christians and as communities of faith.
"Faith is being formed, for example, when we read the Stillspeaking Daily devotional each morning, or participate in a public witness for justice and then reflect on the experience. Faith is formed in worship, at choir rehearsals, in mission projects, in advocacy letters, with friends and family, and at dinner tables," Guess added. "This is the holistic, intergenerational direction we are emphasizing, helping to create faith formation components to everything we do in the church and in our family life."
"I can envision no one more appropriately suited to lead and speak to these shifts than Ivy Beckwith," Guess said. "Her thinking and writing has inspired and challenged Christian leaders across a broad theological spectrum, from liberal to conservative to emergent."
Beckwith, an ordained UCC minister hired following a national search, has spent her entire ministry career in faith formation ministry, most recently as Director of Religious Education at Rutgers Presbyterian Church in New York, N.Y. She has also served as the Minister to Children and Families at the Congregational Church of New Canaan, Conn.
"I use a very simple definition for spiritual formation of children, youth and adults," Beckwith states. "For me spiritual formation is a process of loving God and living in the way of Jesus. People have written books on the definition and process of spiritual formation, but as I write and speak to groups about spiritual formation I want something that is easy for people to remember. And this definition seemed to be it for me."
Beckwith holds a Ph.D. in religious education and has worked in curriculum publishing as a writer, editor and marketer, authoring several well-received books in the area of childhood faith formation. Her most recent work, "Children's Ministry in the Way of Jesus," written to bring justice into formational ministries, will be released this fall.
"I see this as much more than the once-in-a-while application to a Bible story lesson," Beckwith said. "I think that living out the concept of God's justice in a children's ministry means helping children to act justly in their worlds, talking about human issues that perhaps aren't often talked about in a children's ministry and being aware of what the 'hidden curriculum' in our lives and churches is teaching children. How adults act means much more to them than what we say."
Beckwith's Faith Formation Ministry Team includes the Rev. Susan Blain, Waltrina Middleton, and the Rev. Scott Ressman, plus three part-time children and family ministers working jointly with the UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Rev. Kate Epperly, the Rev. Olivia Bryan Updegrove and the Rev. Olivia Stewart Robertson. They will work to infuse new ideas, understandings and resources that speak to how faith is formed and deepened through every aspect of the church's corporate life (study, prayer, arts, worship, advocacy, mission, service, leadership, etc.), through families, in vocations, and in relationship with all of God's creation.
"Ivy emphasizes we've focused on the 'educational' model exclusively for too long, while ignoring the importance of the 'experiential,'" said Guess. "Her approach to faith formation is holistic. It happens everywhere, not just at 9:30 a.m. on Sunday morning, and it's lifelong and intergenerational."
"We have too long believed that we can 'school' children, youth, and adults into being fully formed lovers of God and followers of Jesus," Beckwith said. "The church has in many ways seen spiritual nurture or faith formation as a cognitive endeavor where we think ourselves into belief or action. I think that is backward. I think we act ourselves into belief which involves behavior and emotion. That's not to say there isn't a place for formal education. I just think the emphasis has been misplaced."
A graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a Masters of Religious Education, Ivy earned a Ph.D. in education from Trinity International University, where her dissertation focused on experiential education and psycho-social growth. As team leader of the UCC Faith Formation Ministry, Beckwith will continue to establish the UCC's "Inspiring Models of Ministry" concept, like the "Bless" event in Boston, or "Peace Village" in San Mateo, Calif., where congregations inspire other congregations in the ministries in which they exceed.
As Guess said, "Ivy has talked repeatedly about the need to find, embrace and replicate what's happening in congregations of all shapes and sizes that is working well."
"I think our churches have much to learn from what other churches have found to be both meaningful and successful," Beckwith said. "And one of the things I love to do is connect people in ministry who are thinking and talking about the same things. However, I do believe that how any church does faith formation really needs to grow out of the ethos of that particular church. I am a big believer in the idea of transferable concepts. Once we understand the underlying basis of a program or initiative, we can bring that idea to different settings and tweak it to fit that particular setting. I am also a big fan of tweaking."
The Rev. Gary Brinn arrived at a local salon this past weekend with a rather unusual request: to have his fingernails painted bright blue. In an effort to raise awareness about bullying and the effects it has on youth and young adults, the pastor of Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ in Sayville, N.Y., will maintain his blue nails through the month of September – and hopes others will be courageous enough to do the same.
"Everyone at the salon was pretty much shocked because I don't represent someone who would have painted fingernails," said Brinn, who describes himself as a "NASCAR-watching, disabled Army veteran." "My nails are already totally chipped because I just don't know how to do this."
Brinn was inspired to publically address the country's bullying epidemic by the UCC's Synod Scarf Project, through which UCC members made more than 10,000 rainbow-colored scarves that were given to those who pledged to take a stand against the bullying of LGBT youth during General Synod 2013 in Long Beach, Calif. He wanted to do something at a local level to raise awareness about the many reasons kids are bullied including their race, weight and disabilities. Brinn recalled a television special he watched this summer that focused on a young man being bullied because he wore blue nail polish to school and decided that would be an effective and simple way to attract attention to the issue.
"This is a continuation of the denomination's long commitment to supporting vulnerable and exploited populations, beginning with its early work towards the abolition of slavery and continuing today in active support for groups like immigrants and the LGBT community," Brinn said.
So far, a handful of people from Sayville Congregational UCC have also painted their fingernails blue, and Brinn hopes this visible witness will continue to catch on once school begins next week. Participants are asked to take a "No Bullying Pledge," promising not to bully others in person or online, to tell an adult if they witness or experience bullying, and to become a friend to those who are bullied. The congregation will host a celebration of its efforts at the end of the month and, if the campaign generates enough attention, Brinn plans to do it again in January, as a reminder to students coming back to school after the holiday break.
Bullying and teen suicide are issues that Brinn and other local clergy and community leaders have been working on for years in New York, he said. The group is currently working to develop a young-adult outreach program in Sayville as a way to help teens dealing with bullying or depression, and the local school system also has a number of programs in place to promote anti-bullying measures.
"Everyone has been very supportive and thinks it's a good idea," Brinn said of the blue nail polish campaign. "People are certainly asking me about it because it looks bizarre. Hopefully responses from other clergy and publicizing it to the community will spread it around."
On the front lawn of Sayville United Church of Christ on Long Island, N.Y., 20 backpacks and six teachers bags hang, each bearing the names and representing the 26 innocent lives that were lost in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Conn. The public display isn't an attempt at a tribute, says Rev. J. Gary Brinn, senior pastor at Sayville UCC. Instead, it's a call for tougher gun legislation in the aftermath of the Dec. 14 shooting that may save a future life.
"I am trying very hard not to call this a tribute. While, to the best of our knowledge, the educators that were victims that day were courageous, this is not about heroism," Brinn said. "This was the slaughter of innocents, and our project is one thing only: a prophetic cry for justice and for life."
Inspired by a similar project by Chinese activist and artist Ai Weiwei, Brinn came up with the idea for the Backpack Project last winter. Throughout the spring, the congregation collected new and used backpacks, as well as six bags to represent the teachers and administrators killed at Sandy Hook – including UCC member Victoria Soto. Deacon Hank Maust, Sayville UCC's Deacon for Prophetic Witness, took charge of the project and led a team to create the backpack display, which they hope to keep in place on the lawn through at least the beginning of the school year.
"For several months we have worked to realize a public witness in the form of an installation on the front of the church," Brinn said. "Deacon Hank Maust has worked tirelessly in recent days, organizing the backpacks [the congregation] donated."
In addition to the visible call for change, several members of the congregation signed a petition calling for a ban on military assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips in early January. The petition was directed at all the congregation's elected representatives of the state and federal government. The state of New York, which at that time was already considering gun reform laws, passed the first set of firearm legislation after Sandy Hook.
The text of the petition reads:
We, the undersigned Covenant Members, Friends of the Church and Guest Worshipers of Sayville Congregational United Church of Christ demand in the name of our God that you support legislation to permanently ban assault-type automatic weapons and the high capacity magazines used in such weapons. We urge immediate congressional action and call on our President, Barack Obama, to sign federal legislation immediately. We call on members of Suffolk County's delegation in Albany to support all possible measures appropriate to the powers of the State of New York to rid our communities of these weapons of mass murder, and call on Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign such measures into law.
"It is time that we turn from tragedy as entertainment to real action," Brinn said. "In a diverse congregation, there will always be some who dissent from the majority. That is our tradition and our strength. But this witness is bold and represents the overwhelming majority of our members."
The congregation will later determine what it will do to continue its witness once the display is taken down. Maust hopes that members will organize with the community around the issue to "do as the banner suggests and ‘Tell Washington to pass sensible gun control,' by flooding elected representatives with letters, emails and phone calls," he said.
Read more about the display on the Sayville UCC website.
United Church of Christ to become first U.S. denomination to move toward divestment from fossil fuel companies
A set of strategies to attack climate change — which includes a path to divestment from fossil fuel companies — was passed by General Synod 2013 Monday afternoon at the Long Beach Convention Center. This action on July 1 makes the United Church of Christ the first major religious body in the U.S. to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies.
The resolution, brought by the Massachusetts Conference and backed by 10 other conferences, calls for enhanced shareholder engagement in fossil fuel companies, an intensive search for fossil fuel-free investment vehicles and the identification of "best in class" fossil fuel companies by General Synod 2015.
By June 2018, a plan would be prepared to divest UCC funds in any fossil-fuel company, except for those identified as "best in class" which the Rev. Jim Antal, the major proponent of the resolution, called an "oxymoron," noting that no such fossil fuel companies are likely to exist.
"Today, the national Synod of the UCC added another 'first' when it became the first national faith communion to vote to divest from fossil fuel companies – and to do it with the support of its major investment institution, United Church Funds," Antal said.
"This resolution becomes a model for all faith communities who care about God's creation and recognize the urgent scientific mandate to keep at least 80 percent of the known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground. . . This vote expresses our commitment to the future. By this vote, we are amplifying our conviction with our money."
The original proposal brought to General Synod called for a five-year movement toward divestment. In committee, a substitute resolution that Antal and the leadership of United Church Funds collaborated on to address the UCF and Pension Boards concerns of their fiduciary responsibility to maximize investment.
"This resolution calls on each and all of us to make difficult changes to the way we live each day of our lives," said Donald Hart, UCF president. "Implementing the multiple strategies outlined in this resolution will demand time, money and care — but we believe Creation deserves no less."
The Pension Boards didn't participate in the negotiations that led to the substitution resolution that was ultimately adopted. After the vote, Michael A. Downs, Pension Boards CEO issued a statement that his organization "will support and implement the resolution, to the extent possible, within our legal responsibilities as fiduciaries of the Annuity Plan for the UCC, acting on behalf of the active and retired members who have entrusted their retirement assets to us."
During the floor debate, a number of delegates urged consideration of the economic impact this course of action will have on jobs and the economies of states like Montana, Wyoming and Kentucky, which are heavily dependent on the fossil fuel industry.
"Let’s talk real divestment here," Mark Wampler of Iowa Conference said. "Divest yourself of your airline tickets and find a non-carbon way to go home."
The General Synod also passed a resolution on making UCC church buildings more carbon-neutral. Earlier in the week, the committee amended the proposal to call on UCC congregations to conduct energy audits on their facilities as the first step toward carbon neutrality. Sara Brace, committee chair and delegate from the Pennsylvania Northeast Conference of the UCC, also stressed that achieving carbon neutrality can be a gradual process for congregations.
"The encouragement portions of the resolution are what resonated with many committee members," said Brace. "By reducing our carbon footprint, we are helping the environment one step at a time."
As the first mainline Protestant denomination to affirm marriage equality, it was only fitting that the United Church of Christ General Synod in Long Beach, Calif. played host Sunday to one of the first same-gender marriages celebrated in California after a federal appeals court in San Francisco allowed them to resume.
UCC pastor, the Rev. Dave Sigmund of Seaside Community UCC, in Torrance, Calif., was legally united in marriage to his husband Jay Greaves at 5 p.m. June 30 in front of family and friends, supported in solidarity by hundreds of UCC members from around the country.
"This is such a unique opportunity," said Greaves. "We don't know if we could have had so many of our friends, family and members of our denomination with us at any other time."
The two were united in marriage on the balcony of the Long Beach Convention Center, surrounded by Seaside congregation members, their friends in the 2030 Clergy, and a throng of Synod attendees watching from the promenade floor below. Behind the guests, a crowd of reporters, photographers and camera crews marked this significant moment in time in the movement for marriage equality. One television station carried the nuptials live.
The Rev. Susannah Davis, pastor of the couple's ‘home church,' Kirkwood UCC in Atlanta, and the Rev. Mel White of Long Beach, a well-known minister and LGBT activist, performed the ceremony. The couple took their vows despite the fact that Proposition 8 supporters tried earlier in the day to halt the issuance of same-sex marriage licenses in the nation's largest state. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy denied the request.
As the ceremony began, White talked about the importance of the wedding, "not just for these guys and the obvious love they have for each other. We need to remember those who died (before marriage equality) and did not have their relationship recognized. Remember the great cloud of witnesses who surround us."
Davis, offering a prayer before the vows were spoken said, "Together we gather in the presence of our Stillspeaking God to live into the reality of the truth – it's just love, Dave and Jay. We gather in the presence of people who love you, care about you, and claim you as brothers in Christ."
When White asked the people of Seaside UCC to do everything in their power to uphold and care for the couple, he got an enthusiastic response. But when Davis then posed the question to the people of the UCC gathered at this National Synod, she got a resounding roar of affirmation from the crowd.
After the men were legally wed, they talked about the community aspect of what they had just done, and the importance of the acceptance of their church.
"To hear that sound of voices rise in support of us, our commitment and our marriage was overpowering, overwhelming, and unbelievably welcome," said Greaves after the ceremony.
Sigmund, ordained two years ago, and Greaves, an executive with a human resource company, have been together 10 years. And while they embraced the previous acceptance of their community of faith, which affirmed marriage equality in 2005, "The validation and legal recognition of our relationship is incredible," said Sigmund.
Valerie Smith has been the exhibit hall coordinator for what is now seven General Synods. It's a massive job of juggling on Day 1 – making sure all the exhibitors can get all their merchandise, displays, and resources in, set up, and ready for the throngs of visitors who converge on the hall to see what there is to see as the exhibit area opens to the public for the first time. It's a pretty intricate job of coordination. This time though, everything that could go wrong went wrong – the hall didn't come together as quickly as usual, with missing boxes, late deliveries and lots of questions and confusion – until she got a special visitor who made her day.
But, as to why he was special, you need the back story.
"A couple months ago I got a call from a young man interested in our church," Smith said. "He said he stumbled across the UCC website and wanted to know if our church was really okay with homosexuals. In his culture, he said, homosexuality is not acceptable."
After assuring the young man that the UCC is the church of extravagant welcome, Smith said he asked about churches in his hometown of Chicago. He also wanted to know more about General Synod (he pronounced it Sigh-nod), and "he got real excited. He said he wanted to go, and was just thankful that he could find a church like ours. I told him if he came to California, hey, I'm in the exhibit hall and I'd love to meet you."
Saturday, as she was taking a breather during "a pretty rough day," Smith was approached by a young man asking about the Scarf Project. "Some kid comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, what are all those scarves for?'" And as Smith explained that the 10,000 scarves were collected as part of a pledge to stand up against LGBT bullying, the young man said, "Wow, that is deep – this is my first Sigh-nod." That's when Smith knew she'd been sent a message.
"I said, I talked to you a few months ago, and he said, ‘You're Valerie – I can't believe you are the first person I talked to here,'" Smith said, adding that the young man then got tears in his eyes. "After 24 months of work getting ready – this is why we do this," she said. "Changing lives – It really warms my heart."
As the nation celebrates the Memorial Day holiday, pastors of the United Church of Christ and their congregations may take some time Sunday to commemorate the work and sacrifice of the men and women in the United States military.
The Rev. Rebecca McMichael is ministering to the United States Army’s 5th Battalion 52nd Air and Missile Defense (AMD), serving with the unit on deployment in the Middle East for one year. A UCC minister since 2007, Chaplain Captain McMichael said that there are some easy ways the church can observe Memorial Day as part of worship services on Sunday, and honor past and present military personnel.
"Just pray for the soldiers, especially the ones that are deployed," she said. "Make them part of the pastoral prayer, and if there are soldiers deployed from the congregation, send a card, check in with family members to offer support. For veterans in the congregation, thank them for their service, and pray for them, too."
The UCC has 45 chaplains on active duty, in the National Guard and with the U.S. Army Reserves. There are also five seminarians preparing for military chaplaincy in the Army and Navy, and there two UCC chaplains deployed to Afghanistan and two on assignment in Europe. While the UCC ordains those chaplains, they are able to pastor to a variety of faiths within their military unit, while also conducting themselves as commissioned officers.
"Personally, and as the Minister for Chaplains and Specialized Ministers, I appreciate the attention that the United Church of Christ is giving to this important and growing segment of our population," said the Rev. Stephen Boyd. "Our Veterans are an invaluable resource and on this Memorial Day we especially remember those who paid the ultimate price."
Over Memorial Day weekend, McMichael plans to rest, call her family members and check in with them, and of course, go to church on Sunday for a Memorial Day service.
McMichael spent December 2011 through December 2012 deployed with Army soldiers in Bahrain and Qatar. She’s been stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, with the battalion since returning. McMichael has been in the Army for three-and-a-half years. While on deployment, McMichael was tasked with the pastoral care of more than 800 soldiers in her battalion.
"The soldiers are my congregation and they’re my church. I tell them that," said McMichael. "You’re embedded with them — you go where they go, you’re part of the battalion staff and you’re advising on moral, ethical and family-care issues."
With family relatives who served in the military, McMichael reflected on joining the military when she was in seminary. She sought a challenging field of ministry that required the use of full knowledge and talent, and she has found chaplaincy work provides exactly that.
"It pretty much happens every day," she said.
The days were long in Bahrain and Qatar, both coastal countries on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Training started at sunrise for the "five-five-deuce," the nickname for the 5th Battalion 52nd Air (5-52) since temperatures in the region rise above 100 degrees in the daytime, and 16-hour days were common for McMichael and the unit. McMichael’s work also took her to a base’s hospital to care for wounded soldiers.
"I think [military life] comes down to sacrificing for something that’s bigger than yourself, and working for the greater good throughout the world to protect people in country, our allies and ensure their safety," she said.
"You just work very hard and very long hours, you deal with a lot of suffering – marriage and family issues – and you’re on call all the time whenever a soldier is in crisis, maybe they get bad news from home," McMichael said. "It’s caring for the soul of a solider and looking out for their morale and well-being."
Through the hard work and generosity of Mission 4/1 Earth participants, nearly 9,000 trees will be planted in the Kenyan village of Kaiguchu by October. The Rev. Lise Sparrow, pastor of Guilford Community United Church of Christ in Guilford, Vt., who initiated the global partnership between the Mission 4/1 Earth campaign and Kenya, couldn't believe the church was able to reach the lofty goal she imagined before the UCC's 50-day earth care campaign began April 1.
"It was just wonderful," said Sparrow of the donations. "It was a question of dreaming the impossible dream – this will make a huge difference."
Sparrow and the Rev. Carter Via, co-pastor of Talmadge Hill Community Church UCC in Darien, Conn., whose congregation also has ties to Kaiguchu, traveled there in June to discuss with the villagers how to best use the funds. A council that formed to represent the villagers decided to purchase 400 macadamia nut tree seedlings, which will provide a future source of income. Those trees will be planted by 12 volunteers from four UCC churches during the October trip.
"I felt we were responsible for the fact that the UCC was so generous and felt I needed to go there to see what the villagers were thinking and talk though how we would use these funds most responsibly," Sparrow said. "We wanted to give the villagers the most possible say in how these funds should be used to benefit their community."
During their June visit, Sparrow and Via helped plant indigenous, fast-growing trees around the school to act as a type of fencing for protection and also aesthetic appeal. The villagers have been busy planting the remaining 8,000 trees provided by Mission 4/1 Earth funds on a deforested hillside once used for coffee and tea production. The trees will help prevent erosion, keep water levels high, and also create a source of wood for cooking and fuel. The villagers hope to have the trees planted by the time the UCC volunteers arrive in October.
The macadamia nut trees will be planted on the grounds of a secondary school being constructed through a partnership between Talmadge Hill UCC and Cross Cultural Thresholds, a nonprofit that works with grassroots community leaders to build schools and create opportunities for underprivileged children. A stipend has been set aside to compensate the villagers who are willing to help care for the trees once they are planted. Sparrow says this is an important part of the equation, as the trees are only beneficial if they thrive and grow.
"You can plant the seedlings, but the real cost is in encouraging people to water the trees and keep them growing and weeded," she said. "Those willing to do this will get a little income over the next few years."
"I feel very strongly that we were born to care and we were born to take care of," Via adds. "And that means ourselves, it means other people, it means the next generation, it means the earth. So this project is really kind of a beautiful extension of that. It’s just about caring and taking care of."
Learn more about the partnership between Guilford Community UCC and the village of Kaiguchu.