Educate and celebrate. That's the inspiration behind the February observance of Black History Month by employees at the national offices of the United Church of Christ. The UCC's Black History Committee has planned an array of events and activities nearly every day during the month of February, featuring guest preachers at weekly worship services in the Church House’s Amistad Chapel.
But the experience of celebrating Black History Month isn’t limited to worship and allows a wide variety of participation.
"By offering different types of events and activities, we hope to provide shared educational opportunities," said Phyllis Richards, one of the members on the UCC's Black History Committee. "Our colleagues can participate at a time that is convenient for them. They can choose events that appeal to them, whether it is something they already like to do such as beading, poetry, food sampling or something new they would like to learn — like West African drumming."
Poetry reading, a day of soul-food sampling, a film festival and other events to incorporate African culture are all part of the entertainment. The UCC has also created a page of prayers, reflections, people profiles and resources on ways to commemorate Black History Month no matter where you are.
The committee sought to create a "shared experience" among its colleagues who choose to get involved in Black History Month observances, Richards said. "They can select the activities that suit them. Hopefully, we are providing something fun for everyone, as well as to help them learn more about African-American history and culture," she added.
Local TV news anchor Leon Bibb of Cleveland’s WEWS TV5 headlines a coffee house poetry day on Feb. 5. Bibb, a UCC member, will perform his original poetry (complete with costume changes) based on his past experiences as a reporter, Vietnam veteran and family memories.
A week later, the Church House will dish up soul food with a Mardi Gras flair on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 12), followed with a handful of movie screenings from Feb. 14-22 of documentaries on black culture and history.
The first of four Wednesday worship services is Feb. 6, as local vocalist Pat Harris performs a selection of songs in an all-music service; On Feb. 13, UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey Black will offer reflections on Ash Wednesday, and a week later Black History Committee member Gloria Otis, who works in Congregational Vitality & Discipleship Ministries, will preach. For the Feb. 27 service, Barbara Ferguson Kamara is a guest speaker. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer to Liberia, and an appointee by President Carter to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
The Rev. Everett C. Parker, founder of the United Church of Christ Office of Communication, is celebrating a milestone on his birthday Jan. 17, as he turns 100 years old.
Under his leadership, OC was the first church agency to combine press, broadcasting, film, research and educational functions under one head, a practice widely copied by other religious bodies. The UCC's current Office of Communication, Inc. continues Parker's legacy as a leading force in the struggle to ensure that women, persons of color and low-income persons have equal access to ownership, production, employment, and decision-making in media.
"Just as the UCC stands as a beacon of leadership on social justice, from the environment to peace to equality in gender, race, and marriage, the UCC is also founder of the media justice movement," said Cheryl Leanza, current policy advisor of OC, Inc. "Dr. Parker, as the UCC's first communications director, understood in 1957 what we know more strongly today — without a just and accountable media, social justice goals are that much harder to achieve."
Nowhere has Parker's effect on media justice been felt more than in broadcasting. At the urging of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who knew first-hand of the lack of African Americans portrayed positively on television throughout the South, Parker petitioned the FCC to deny the license renewal of WLBT, the local station in Jackson, Miss. The FCC denied the petition. Parker took the matter to court, and over the next five years, the courts ruled that the broadcast industry did serve the public interest. In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated WLBT's license on the grounds that it had violated the public trust and was therefore guilty of breach of duty.
Under Parker's leadership, OC also successfully petitioned the FCC to adopt EEO regulations, which leveled the playing field for women and persons of color, both on camera and in broadcast management.
"His work will truly stand for generations as millions will be reminded that he demanded that the "public" remain in control of the public interest and that all share in the ownership of the airwaves in spite of who may from time to time be responsible as stewards by our government," said Earl Williams, chair of the OC, Inc. board.
One of Parker's most successful public relations campaigns was the exoneration of the Wilmington Ten, nine young black men and a white woman who were falsely convicted of arson and conspiracy during racial turmoil at the Wilmington, N.C., high school in 1971. Their efforts to have black students treated equally with whites were led by Benjamin F. Chavis, a UCC employee.
As communication director, Parker mounted a public relations campaign in the world press that brought attention and embarrassment to North Carolina and the United States. The warden complained to the governor about the bad press, as did the U.S. State Department. Eventually, the members of the Wilmington Ten were freed by a federal court. Forty years later, the case was finally resolved. On Dec. 31, 2012, group members were granted pardons of innocence by then-governor of North Carolina, Beverly Purdue.
UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black celebrated "Parker's direct role in advocating and initiating the United Church of Christ's engagement in support of the Wilmington Ten. It took a while, but today we are celebrating the exoneration of those young people who were wrongly accused and unjustly convicted in 1972. I feel fortunate to be serving in a time that has been so significantly touched by his life's work."
As the director of the Office of Communication of the UCC from 1954 to 1983, Parker played a key role in ensuring American media accountability in the public interest. His leadership in the development of influential media reform aimed to improve employment prospects for women and persons of color in broadcasting.
"As the current director of the UCC's Publishing, Identity and Communication Ministry, I am well aware of the legacy of Parker's ministry to this office," said Ann Poston. "If it weren't for his important work in equal opportunities for persons of color and — especially in my case — women, I might not be in this position."
The Parker Lecture, hosted annually by the United Church of Christ's Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), was created in 1982 to recognize Parker's pioneering work as an advocate for the public's rights in broadcasting. Poston said, "In standing with oppressed people against the tyranny of broadcasters who felt they owed nothing to the public, Parker carved the path for all media justice work to follow."
It took 40 years, but the stain of a false conviction has finally been lifted. The Wilmington Ten, justice activists who became political prisoners in North Carolina in 1972 for a crime they didn’t commit, got their pardon from the state’s governor. After decades of persistence, UCC leaders past and present now say, finally, justice has prevailed.
"[The announcement was] breathtaking news to me and surely to many around the nation and the world," said Avery Post, who was president of the UCC from 1977 to 1989. "My guess is that others, like me, went suddenly quiet with gratitude for the courage and persistence of those who worked over 40 years for this extraordinary moment of justice."
North Carolina’s outgoing governor, Beverly Perdue, issued the pardons on Monday, Dec. 31, citing new evidence in the case.
The Wilmington Ten, the name by which the group of nine black men and one white woman became known, was wrongly convicted four decades ago in a Civil Rights-era case of firebombing a Wilmington, N.C., grocery store in 1971. One of the members, Benjamin F. Chavis, was a UCC justice worker.
After an evening of citywide protests and unrest, the Wilmington Ten were arrested and convicted of the charges — despite their pleas of innocence — related to the firebombing. The group included Chavis, then minister and civil rights community organizer for the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice. Chavis was sent to help leaders meeting at Gregory Congregational UCC in Wilmington organize protests to ensure the area's schools were desegregated fairly.
Post continued, "I saw in that moment the long imprinted images of that racially tense time in Wilmington in 1971, the fire event in the grocery store in town leading to the false accusation of nine men and one woman, the providential presence in that scene of Ben Chavis, a United Church of Christ minister and [former head of] the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice and ultimately one of the accused."
Attorneys for the Wilmington Ten petitioned the state May 17 asking for a full pardon from Gov. Perdue. Three witnesses for the prosecution recanted their testimony in 1976, and NAACP members in November said they discovered notes about how the prosecutor tried to keep blacks off the jury. Perdue said in a statement she decided to grant the pardons "because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained."
The Ten, ages 19 to 35 at the time of the 1971 trial, were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison. Their sentences were commuted in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, but he withheld a pardon. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in 1980 because of perjury and legal misconduct.
The case and the effort to prove the innocence of the Wilmington 10 was a galvanizing moment for the UCC’s racial justice efforts, Post said. Executive Council meetings and General Synod assemblies became affirmations of those efforts and expressions of solidarity, and in those gatherings the funding for legal assistance of the case took shape.
"Defending the Wilmington Ten became a corporate effort in the whole church, with faithful church-wide communication regarding the trials, the imprisonment of the Ten, the dreadful sentences of 25 and 35 years," Post said.
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a member of the UCC’s Executive Council at the time and a former Connecticut Conference Minister, remembers the leadership Post provided.
"His insistence that we invest ourselves in justice for all 10, that we provide what ended up being about $500,000 to gain their freedom, and that we name the racism in their arrest and trial and imprisonment stands for me as a contemporary example of Christ-led ministry," she said.
Four of the 10 are now deceased (Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright), and many of the six surviving members (Chavis, Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen) are older and in failing health.
The Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, said the news of the pardon is "a relief and certainly long overdue." She wrote an editorial in May calling on North Carolina to issue a pardon.
"The governor’s action finally comes after over 40 years of efforts to prove that this tragic case was a terrible miscarriage of justice," Jaramillo said. "We honor the names of the Wilmington Ten, including the former Executive Director of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice, Benjamin Chavis. Today, we lift in prayer all who suffered in this endurance race toward liberation.
"We are reminded of the tireless and courageous determination of so many who would not rest until justice was realized," Jaramillo added. "Gov. Perdue is to be commended for her action; however, we cannot forget that this case is one among many still pending. As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King this month, may we remember his words, ‘a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’"
Always a leader in prophetic witness for peace with justice, the United Church of Christ has been at the forefront of human rights work since it was formed in 1957. In 1973, its General Synod, the main deliberative body of the denomination — outraged at the false charges and treatment of the prisoners — raised more than $1 million in bail to free the Wilmington Ten.
"But there has not been justice — until now," Post said.
The collaborative spirit of church leaders from around the country who gathered in New Orleans last week helped bring the United Church of Christ’s conference staff and national staff to common goals at the Authorizing Ministry in the 21st Century Event (AM21).
The Ministerial Excellence, Support and Authorization (MESA) Ministry Team of the UCC hosted the week-long gathering Dec. 4-7. This was the first year for the new format for AM21, formerly known as Search and Call.
The goal of the program — to bring conference and denominational staff together to raise questions and seek common solutions to best support Authorized Ministers and Committees on Ministry in the UCC.
"Conference staff and MESA staff feel more connected with each other, and we had a glimpse of future possibilities," said the Rev. Holly MillerShank, the MESA team leader. "And I think we have a renewed commitment to this work."
Three elements shaped the work at AM21: Prayer and worship, reflection groups, and facilitated conversations. Conference and national staff worked together during the week to raise questions, and answer them as best as they could, on Authorized Ministers and Committees in the UCC. The reconfigured MESA team, which welcomed three new members in September, hosted conversations led by pairs of conference and national staff leaders on four different topics: Formation and Authorization, Post-Authorization, Search and Call, and Relationships of Committees on Ministry to Local Congregations.
There were more attendees at the 2012 gathering than in 2010, and about 70 percent of the people at AM21 were church leaders. But MillerShank said her key indicator of the event’s success was the feedback she received from attendees.
"The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and beyond our expectations," MillerShank said. "It was the embodiment of postmodern ministry, and highly utilized social media."
An ecumenical delegation, including partners from the Disciples of Christ and the United Church of Canada, and optional immersion experiences in New Orleans and Back Bay Mission at the close of the gathering were the other new aspects for AM21. The biennial gathering was re-envisioned by a planning team of conference and national staff in response to meeting the needs of the 38 conferences throughout the UCC.
When the suggestion of a solar panel installation project first came up at First Congregational Church United Church of Christ, the Rev. David Stabenfeldt was asked a lot of questions. Do these things really work? Are we really going to make our money back? Is this a good investment? A year later, members of the Bakersfield, Calif. congregation say it was one of the best things the church has ever done.
"The naysayers are now congratulating us," Stabenfeldt said.
Stabenfeldt and a few environmentally savvy members had been aware of the benefits of solar power, but the idea became more feasible when California utility companies began offering rebate incentives. First Congregational formed a committee, aptly called The Solar Panel, and began compiling research and crunching numbers to make sure the investment made both ecological and financial sense. With the knowledge that the panels would not only reduce the congregation's carbon footprint, but also produce an energy cost savings of $20,000-$30,000 a year, Stabenfeldt and about three-fourths of the congregation was confident that pursuing the project was the right choice.
"This was a legacy investment, not only for this generation, but for future generations at First Congregational," Stabenfeldt said. "Our church is very aware of the need to reduce our carbon footprint, which is one of the reasons there was such a high buy-in."
One of the main challenges was to make sure the church members were knowledgable about solar energy and its pros and cons. The Solar Panel offered educational sessions, conducted surveys and handed out literature to ensure everyone was informed. The next challenge was making sure members were willing to make a financial investment for the project that would cost about $200,000. The congregation raised $80,000 and received $50,000 in rebates from its utility company. The other $70,000 came from a loan from the UCC Cornerstone Fund, a financial ministry that offers loans to UCC churches and members for improvements and repairs, which the congregation will be able to repay in less than five years.
"Once we got the green light, and raised enough money and all that, everything now has been a blessing," Stabenfeldt said.
The energy cost savings have already been tremendous. The panels on the roof cover a 165'x30' area and produce 240-260 kilowatts of energy on an average summer day. To put it in perspective, last year's energy costs decreased from $25,000 to $7,500, with the $18,000 in cost savings going to repay the Cornerstone Fund loan. To save even more energy dollars, First Congregational has its thermostats adjusted automatically through a computer program, did major repairs on its air conditioning unit, has added additional insulation to older parts of the building, and is generally being more observant about turning things off.
Because of this work, First Congregational UCC has been nominated for an "Energy Oscar" by California Interfaith Power and Light, a faith-based organization that promotes energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. But energy conservation isn't the only issue the congregation is concerned with. They are also active in water conservation, and recently replaced all of their landscaping with low-maintenance, drought-tolerant plant species that require less water to survive. While these changes have obvious financial and environmental benefits, Stabenfeldt says one of the best benefits is the message these actions send into the community and to the church's members, guests and visitors, some of who have been inspired to do things like install solar panels or tank-less water heaters in their homes.
"Every congregation needs to be asking how they can reduce their dependence on fossil fuels," Stabenfeldt said. "Just by asking the questions to their members, congregations can have a multiplying effect on what we can all do to the help the environment."
The United Church of Christ has been working for environmental justice for almost 30 years, and recognizes the opportunity for a shared mission campaign to live out our faith — in unity, as one church — for the sake of our fragile planet Earth.
With the help of UCC congregations everywhere, Mission 4/1 Earth, which begins Easter Monday 2013, hopes to accomplish more than 1 million hours of engaged earth care, 100,000 tree plantings across the globe, and 100,000 advocacy letters written and sent on environmental concerns.
For more information, visit the Mission 4/1 Earth website.
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