United Church of Christ

Say a prayer on Memorial Day for U.S. military personnel

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."

9,000 trees planted in Kenya through Mission 4/1 Earth

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.

Everett Parker's influence still impacts today's media


The landscape of media communications has changed in the 30 years since the inaugural Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture. But the influence of Parker's groundbreaking work is still significant today.

"Our gathering always provides a reminder that social justice issues are inevitably tied to media access, and that the principles that Everett Parker was fighting for remain critically important today," said Sara Fitzgerald, treasurer of the OC, Inc. Board of Directors and one of the event's organizers.

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. The event is the only lecture in the country to examine telecommunications in the digital age from an ethical perspective.

"I have truly been blessed to have been able to contribute to, be benefited by and help others to serve in the UCC social justice ministry that required accountability of the media by the citizens it serves. This event is momentous for the thirty year legacy of the ethics lecture and the centennial year of Rev. Parker," said Earl Williams Jr., OC, Inc. board chairman. "I look forward to the remarks of our guests that reflect the current state of our media, government and the effect on our nation."

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. will deliver the 30th Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture Tuesday, Sept. 25, in Washington D.C. This year's event will also celebrate Parker's 100th birthday, as well as his pioneering work as an advocate for the public's rights in broadcasting. The lecture and breakfast will take place at First Congregational United Church of Christ.

"It's a rare moment for us. Historically we're a new building but we have history within the civil rights movement," said the Rev. Sidney Fowler, First Congregational's transitional minister. "It's just a very exciting event."

First Congregational is an all-new facility that was dedicated in February, but it sits in the same spot in downtown D.C. since 1868. The new building is the third version the church, which was founded in 1865 by abolitionists as the first racially integrated church in D.C., and played a role in founding Howard University.

Since it was founded in 1959, OC Inc. has been 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.

Fitzgerald, a former editor for the Washington Post, said she always found the Parker Lecture very inspiring. "There are so many people involved in media reform and telecommunications policy who recognize how important Rev. Everett Parker's legal battle was to opening up broadcasting to minority voices and ownership and establishing the principle that the public has an interest in how the airwaves are used," she said.

"Many of the persons who attend the Parker Lecture were mentored by Everett Parker early in their careers, and many of them have gone on to help mentor others in the media reform movement and in the broadcasting industry," added Fitzgerald, a member of Rock Spring Congregational UCC in Arlington, Va. "Many of these people are not affiliated with the UCC, so it is wonderful to join with them at his event to celebrate this wonderful legacy."

Parker played a key role in ensuring American media accountability in the public interest. As the director of the Office of Communication of the UCC from 1954-83, his leadership in the development of influential media reform aimed to improve employment prospects for women and minorities in broadcasting.

Two awards will be presented, and two leaders from  the UCC national office will also speak at the event. The Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive for the Justice and Witness Ministries, will talk about Parker's legacy and OC, Inc., and the Rev. Geoffrey Black, the UCC's general minister and president, will introduce Jackson.

Charles Benton, chairman of the board of the Benton Foundation, will receive the Everett C. Parker Award for his leadership and support in promoting the public interest in traditional and digital media. S. Jenell Trigg, chair of the Intellectual Property and New Media and Technology Practice Group of Lerman Senter PLLC, will receive the Donald H. McGannon Award in recognition of her work to promote opportunities in telecommunications for women and persons of color.

United Church of Christ and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) grant Ordained Ministerial Partnership Standing to each other's national leaders

In a move that forges a stronger relationship between the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and that celebrates 25 years of their ecumenical partnership, key national leaders in both denominations now have standing in the respective partner church, and are considered ordained ministers by both churches.

The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president; the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister for Local Church Ministries; the Rev. James Moos, executive minister for Wider Church Ministries; the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, minister for ecumenical and interfaith relations; and the Rev. Holly MillerShank, minister and team leader of the Ministerial, Excellence, Support & Authorization (MESA) team recently were recently granted this special category of standing by the Disciples of Christ.

The Rev. Sharon Watkins, Disciples general minister and president; the Rev. Julia Brown Karimu, president of the Division of Overseas Ministries; the Rev. Ron Degges, president of Disciples Home Missions; the Rev. Timothy James, associate general minister and administrative secretary of the National Convocation and the Rev. Robert Welsh, president of the Council on Christian Unity were approved for ministerial partnership by the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference.

"Ordained ministerial partner standing is not new," said Karen Georgia Thompson. "What is new is the deepening of this relationship with the Disciples through the intentionality of these leaders holding this standing as a sign of the commitment to the relationship between the two churches."

This action means each of the UCC and Disciples ministers are now recognized, and will be listed in the yearbooks of the two denominations, as ordained ministers in the partner denomination "with all the rights, privileges, and responsibilities pertaining thereto."

"I am really excited about the possibilities that are signalled by this deepening relationship between the United Church of Christ and the Disciples of Christ," said Geoffrey Black. "Working jointly on our shared mission only makes us a stronger, more unified presence."

According to the UCC's Manual on Ministry and the Disciples' Policies and Criteria for Ordered Ministry, the UCC and the Disciples of Christ recognize the ordained ministers of the other church to be effective ministers of grace within that church and these ministries to be valid and full ministries of one Church of Jesus Christ. The ordained ministries of the UCC and the Disciples of Christ are reconciled –– meaning an ordained minister in one church may function, whenever invited and as established procedures permit, as an ordained minister in the other.

The commitment to pursue ordained ministerial partnership for core leadership came out of the 2011 meeting of the UCC-Disciples National Partnership Committee. The committee thought this would be a significant and historic moment in the life of the partnership.

"I wish to express our joy in this concrete act giving expression to our 25 years of ecumenical partnership and recognizing our shared ministry within the one church of Jesus Christ," said Robert Welsh, chief ecumenical officer for the Disciples of Christ and president of the Council on Christian Unity. 

"This is a learning experience," said Thompson of the first in a possible series of joint policy classes, "as both denominations think strategically of who and where this type of joint standing would be beneficial to the life of this partnership, as we move into celebration of 25 years together and plans for where the partnership grows in the future."

The UCC and the Disciples already have a shared staffing model in place in Wyoming and Montana –– UCC Montana-Northern Wyoming Conference Minister the Rev. Marc Ian Stewart and DOC regional minister the Rev. Ruth Fletcher serve churches of both denominations closest to their respective offices.   They also celebrate joint ministerial standing with the national leaders of both denominations.

These new relationships will be publicly recognized and celebrated during the UCC General Synod on June 28 in Long Beach, Calif., and during a worship service July 14 as part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) General Assembly, July 13-17 in Orlando, Fla.

UCC minister offers progressive praise and worship music for download

A United Church of Christ pastor in Chicago working on a liturgy of rock oriented worship music around themes of justice, peace and extravagant welcome is getting a lot of support for his project from ministerial colleagues around the denomination. The Rev. Rob Leveridge, pastor of First United Church in Oak Park, Ill., is offering free downloads for the use of three songs he has already recorded, and is well on his way to raising the additional funds he needs to finish professionally recording the additional 10 tracks.

"I've always enjoyed praise music, especially the exultation of it, and the way it captures a deep love for God," said Leveridge, a member of the UCC's 2030 Clergy network. "But as a pastor in a very progressive church, I looked for praise music that talks more in-depth about the activity of God, moving people toward justice, peace and radical welcome. I found a small group of songwriters making this kind of music, and realized God was calling me to contribute as well –– I'm writing songs to be as fun, catchy, energetic and open-hearted as possible."

"Rob's utterly delightful and singable melodies enhance the growing movement of musical works, including the ‘Sing' Praise Songbook for progressive, welcoming, inclusive and justice minded congregations," said the Rev. David Schoen, team leader for the UCC's Congregational vitality ministry.

This summer, Leveridge is planning to release a CD and songbook of worship songs as a resource to faith communities, titled "Dancing On The Mountain." The title comes from the 65th chapter of the book of Isaiah, which describes a divine future on God's holy mountain, where communities thrive in peace and mutual enrichment. But his project depends on the successful conclusion of his very creative fundraising campaign via kickstarter.com.

Leveridge, part of a growing number of musicians and worship leaders creating praise songs and liturgical rock music that speaks to the heart of faith with inclusive language, social relevance and theological depth said when that he conceived of the project he realized that the music would have a greater impact if he could get his work professionally recorded with the assistance of a high-caliber record producer. So he initially raised enough money to record three songs at Soundcake studios in Chicago, and set a $14,000 goal to record the rest of the album. With just a few days left in his fundraising campaign, it looks like Leveridge will be back in the studio soon.

"We are excited to support the project, because Rob's music will energize and enhance any worship of God through word, deed and song," said the Rev. Steve Angel, of Eden UCC in Chicago, one of more than 200 backers who've pledged funds to the project. "The church needs fresh words to sing, and Rob's words to God are sung from the heart!"

A sample of Rob Leveridge's lyrics:
For every act of goodwill defying
All that hate intends
For every kindness and understanding
Changing foes to friends
For every choosing of peaceful measures
Bringing wars to end,
Let the voice of praise be heard this day!
 –– from the song, "The Voice of Praise," off the upcoming CD, "Dancing On The Mountain"

The Rev. Luke Lindon of Sylvania United Church of Christ in Sylvania, Ohio is another enthusiastic supporter. "Our church is excited to support Rob's project because we feel that modern praise music often neglects the themes of justice, inclusion, and liberation," Linden said. "We are excited to support music that shares the same theological outlook as our community!" 

Learn more about the project or to download three songs from Rob's new album for free, as well as get lyrics and notation, at www.robleveridge.com.

Rob says that pledges that take him beyond his $14,000 goal will be invested in the production of CDs and songbooks for distribution to churches. He hopes to have the material ready for circulation later this summer.

"I've been thrilled by the support I've received –– hundreds of people from across the country have made pledges and helped to spread the word about the project," Leveridge said. "It's a shared ministry –– I'm the one who's penned the lyrics, but the calling and strength have come from God, and the resources and encouragement have come from a great cloud of witnesses! I can't tell you how grateful I am."

UCC, reformed tradition churches celebrate baptism agreement alongside Roman Catholic Church

The United Church of Christ and three other reformed tradition churches joined the U.S. Roman Catholic Church to sign a historic agreement this week as the denominations will recognize each other's baptismal rites and celebrated the commitment publicly for the first time.

The formal agreement, known as the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism," is the product of seven rounds of discussions among the UCC, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Presbyterian Church (USA), Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.

The Rev. Elizabeth Nash, an associate minister for the UCC's South Central Conference, signed the document for the denomination at the national meeting of Christian Churches Together in Austin, Texas.

The UCC Minister for Ecumenical Relations Karen Georgia Thompson said the move is a step forward for the work among the sides. "The fact that there was actually an agreement between the Reformed Churches and the Roman Catholic Church is helpful to a lot of folks in the UCC and Roman Catholic Church," Thompson said. "Many families live in more than one tradition, so it's helpful that families can be united in a common understanding of baptism."

The UCC is part of the reformed tradition, Thompson said, because it was formed in 1957 through a union of the Congregational Christian churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

"The dialogue between the reformed church and the Roman Catholics goes back 40 years, and there's been a commitment from the UCC to be part of that dialogue," Thompson said. "There have been several rounds of dialogues, and each round has been a different topic. In the last round (Round 7), the conversation was around Eucharist and baptism. The mutual recognition we are celebrating here came out of that dialogue."

The agreement was first approved by the UCC at the 2011 General Synod in Tampa, a moment Thompson described as "significant" in affirming the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism" signed by President and General Minister the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black.

Thompson and Nash were joined in Austin by the Rev. Sidney Fowler, a pastor at First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., as the UCC's representatives to the Christian Churches Together meeting.

Before the agreement, the Reformed Protestant churches had recognized the baptisms performed in Catholic traditions, but the Catholic Church had not accepted theirs.

"I don't think we, as the UCC, haven't recognized the baptism of others, but through mutuality, the Roman Catholic recognition of the way we perform baptisms in our church is significant," Fowler said. "It's reciprocal, and refreshing."

Fowler said the recognition of baptism represents "the reformed community coming together and appreciating each other, and our differences, in a new way. It allows us to go into a new dialogue with a new sense of communion."

UCC Church House to celebrate Black History Month with worship, workshops

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.

Celebrating the legacy of Everett Parker on his 100th birthday

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."

Learn more about the Rev. Everett Parker's work, and OC, Inc.

UCC celebrates pardons of Wilmington Ten 40 years after wrongful conviction

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.

AM21 gathering brings leaders together to move forward

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.