United Church of Christ

Commentary: Why We Can't Give Up on Preventing Gun Violence

I am not writing this in the immediate aftermath of another horrific mass shooting. I am not marking the anniversary of a prominent gun violence tragedy, although given the estimated 30,000 deaths from gun violence annually, it is likely the anniversary of a gun tragedy in some American community somewhere. And although legislation to strengthen background checks on gun purchases is still before Congress, most political observers give it little chance of moving in a midterm congressional election year. But perhaps it is just such a time as this when we need to redouble our efforts to prevent gun violence from continuing to take its tragic toll in our nation. Truly our silence will not protect us.

The fact is that gun violence is preventable. We have the means to reduce gun violence, and we have the knowledge to implement prevention approaches. We have studies that give us insight into the factors contributing to gun violence and insight into effective strategies for preventing it. We certainly know the cost of failing to prevent further gun violence, although we may not ultimately be able to fully measure the cost of trauma, despair, hopelessness and grief that is left in its wake. It is striking and sobering that 14 months after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, charities that helped to provide funds for mental health care in the Newtown community have nearly exhausted those funds, and it is unclear how long into the future the need for such services will remain.

What we seem not to have is the political will to take action. An overwhelming majority of the American public, including a majority of gun owners, supports strengthening the background check system on gun purchases in response to gun violence, but such legislation remains mired in the fear of alienating special interests in an election year. These same special interests have even gone on the offensive to derail the nomination of Dr. Vivek Hallegere Murthy for Surgeon General, because he has identified gun violence as a public health crisis.

Faiths United Against Gun Violence, a diverse, interfaith coalition of faith-based groups united by the call to confront our nation's gun violence epidemic, just concluded its Gun Violence Prevention Sabbath observance. As part of the Sabbath, thousands of people of faith around the country engaged in prayer and action to address gun violence in our communities through public policy advocacy, participation in community prevention programs and education. Faiths United rests on a core belief that is reflected across faith traditions, the belief that violence and death cannot and will not have the final word. That is reason enough to continue our efforts to prevent further gun violence.

It is time to reclaim our streets, schools, and workplaces from the threat of gun violence, and it is time to reclaim the power of our vote from narrow special interests that seek to block even modest, common-sense measures to prevent gun violence. Our culture has a heavy investment in death; isn't it time we invested in hope and change?

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

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General Synod 2015 theme, General Synod 2017 location announced

How have you found God in an unexpected moment or place? That's a question people from across the life of the UCC will ponder during General Synod 2015 next summer as part of the gathering's theme, "Unexpected Places."

Pastoral Changes March 2014

Ministerial changes reported in the Data Hub—the UCC's information system for ministers and churches—for new calls begun in 2014 (as updated in the system in March 2014).

Mary Little Apicella, Federated Church of Christ UCC, Brooklyn, CT
Kevin Ewing, United Church On the Green UCC, New Haven, CT
Michael Fritz, Bethlehem UCC, Maple Lake, MN
Anna Larson, First Congregational UCC, Hancock, MN
Patricia S. Ross, United Church of Christ, Beavercreek, OR
Shelley R. Wagener, Meridian UCC, Wilsonville, OR
Nancy Parsons, Friedens United Church of Christ of Beasley, Beasley, TX
Sarah Anders, Rockville United Church of Christ, Rockville, MD
Ann Beaty, First Congregational UCC, Madison, WI
Molly Carlson, United Church of Christ Congregational, Yankton, SD
Jacob Buchholz, First-Plymouth Congregational UCC, Lincoln, NE
David Jennys, United Church of Christ of Beresford, Beresford, SD
David Jennys, United Church of Christ, Centerville, SD
Lucinda Haak, Saint Paul's UCC, Eureka, SD
William Painter, First Congregational UCC, Glenwood, IA
Susan Reed, First Congregational UCC, Glenwood, IA
William Alexander, Plymouth Congregational UCC, Ottumwa, IA
Tara K. Olsen Allen, Second Congregational UCC, Beverly, MA
Erick Trudel, First Congregational UCC, Watertown, CT
Bruce Bradley, Presbyterian UCC, Aurora, NE
Ashley Dodson, United Church of Chelsea Federated, Chelsea, VT
Jeff Dodson, United Church of Chelsea Federated, Chelsea, VT
Ken Ehrke, Cathedral of Hope UCC of the Mid-Cities, Bedford, TX
Adam Lassen, Saint Luke's UCC, Columbus, NE
Derek White, Bethany Congregational Church, Foxboro, MA
Penny L. Lowes, First Congregational UCC, Romeo, MI
Christopher C. Owen, United Church of Jaffrey UCC, Jaffrey, NH
Vanessa Colesworthy, Federated Church in Thomaston UCC, Thomaston, ME
Jennifer K. Macy, United Church in Walpole, Walpole, MA
James Pennington, First Congregational UCC, Phoenix 
Rick Normand, Prospect Congregational Church UCC, Prospect, CT
Darryl Kensinger, Trinity UCC, Tamaqua, PA
Todd B. Farnsworth, Federated Community Church, Hampden, MA
J. Mary Luti, Wellesley Congregational Church UCC, Wellesley, MA
Glenn Root, First Congregational UCC, Wallingford, CT
Sue Timothy-Hall, First Congregational Church of Madison, Madison, CT
Nancy Bacon, Tehachapi Community Congregational Church UCC, Tehachapi, CA
Gary L. Proietti, Calvary UCC, Crestline, OH
Lisa Gail Irwin, Union Congregational United Church of Christ of Green Bay, Green Bay, WI
Jack W. Kraaz, Union-Congregational Church, Waupun, WI
Rose Trenbeath, Salem United Church of Christ, New Salem, ND
Michael Cassady, United Church of Christ, Spencerville, OH
Doug E. Adams, United Church of Christ, Westminster, OH
Bryan Simon, United Parish of Alpena UCC, Alpena, SD
Rebecca J. Sunday, Saint Paul UCC, Wapakoneta, OH
Tom Emerick, Faith United Church of Christ, Muscatine, IA
Milo D. Van Veldhuizen, Saint Paul UCC, West Burlington, IA
Mike Cleeton, Peace United Church of Christ, Monticello, IA
Melvin Hurst Jr., Congregational UCC, Farragut, IA
Danielle Buhuro, Lincoln Memorial Congregational UCC, Chicago 
Robert A Gross Jr., First Congregational UCC, Akron, OH
William A. Krepps, Zion United Church of Christ, Gilman, IL
Elaine June Painting, Zion United Church of Christ, Steubenville, OH
Andrew Taylor-Peck, Trinity UCC, Canton, OH
Rebecca M. M. Nystrom, First Congregational UCC, Geneseo, IL
Jacqueline A. Perry, First Congregational UCC, Norfolk, NE
Trudy Irving, Beulah United Church of Christ, Lexington, NC
Tim Wilcox, United Church of Newport, Newport, VT
David George Plant, Saint Peter's UCC, Amherst, OH
Jack Whitcomb, First Congregational UCC, Stockville, NE
Mark J. Stewart, Mount Olivet UCC, East Berlin, PA
Carol Hill Bastin, Grace United Church of Christ, Allentown, PA
Nancy L. Hardy, Orangeville United Church, Orangeville, PA
Nancy L. Hardy, Zion United Church of Christ, Orangeville, PA
Nancy L. Hardy, Saint James UCC, Stillwater, PA
Susan Kaplan-Burgess, United Church of Christ, Cornish, ME
Matthew James Mccaffrey, Waterford Congregational UCC, Waterford, CT
Stephanie Wooten, Saint Luke's UCC, Philadelphia, PA
Barbara E. Pence, Peace in Zion UCC, Zieglerville, PA
Barbara D Doerrer-Peacock, Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ, Scottsdale, AZ
Roger Zimmerman, South Congregational UCC, Springfield, MA
Diane Kay Martin, Black Forest Community UCC, Colorado Springs, CO
Sally Elizabeth Balmer, Guemes Island Community Church UCC, Anacortes, WA
Karl W. Jones Jr., Saint Peter's UCC, Orwin, PA
Karl W. Jones Jr., Trinity UCC, Tower City, PA
Barbara Elizabeth Laucks, Seabreeze UCC, Daytona Beach, FL
Charles P Laucks, Seabreeze UCC, Daytona Beach, FL
Emily Kellar, Pilgrim Church of Duxbury UCC, Duxbury, MA
Ed Shriver, Grace United Church of Christ, Massillon, OH
Mary Ann Short, Saint Jacob's UCC, Leetonia, OH
Alana Kelley, Lake Avenue UCC, Elyria, OH
Kelly J. Burd, Pilgrim Congregational UCC, Cleveland 
John Boydston, Hope United, Georgetown, TX
MC Lewis, Grace United Church of Christ, Houston 
Sarah Conway, Teche United Church of Christ, New Iberia, LA

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

UCC, United Church of Canada start path to full communion

Six delegates from the United Church of Christ will spend three days in Toronto this week  working with ecumenical colleagues from the United Church of Canada to continue bringing the denominations closer together. This first discussion toward full communion underscores the United Church of Christ’s promise of a General Synod 2013 resolution that calls for strengthening the relationship between the United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada.

The church representatives gather from Feb. 12 through Feb. 14 as a 12-member committee to begin laying a foundation for a full communion agreement.

"This meeting in Toronto is the first of a series of meetings that follow the General Synod resolution regarding the ecumenical relationship with the United Church of Canada," said the Rev. Karen Georgia A. Thompson, United Church of Christ ecumenical officer and one of six people from the United Church of Christ on the trip.

"The hope is that this group of 12 persons will be able to bring back a common document that will go to the United Church of Canada’s General Council and the United Church of Christ’s General Synod, both of which will be held in 2015," Thompson said, adding that General Council takes place every three years compared to every two for General Synod.

While in Toronto, the 12-person Joint Full Communion Committee (sometimes referred to as the United Ecumenical Partnership Committee) will reflect on what a full communion agreement might mean for the two related, but nationally distinctive, denominations.

"We have to come to mutual terms to how we know ourselves and understand ourselves," Thompson said.

Joint Full Communion Committee for each denomination
  United Church of Canada United Church of Christ
  Prof. Mark Toulouse Rev. Sue Davies
  Rev. Daniel Hayward Rev. David Greenhaw
  Rev. Danielle Ayiana James Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson
  Rev. Cheryl-Ann Stadelbauer-Sampa Rev. Campbell Lovett
  Rev. Bruce Gregersen Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson
  Ms. Nora Sanders Rev. Geoffrey Black

The United Church of Christ has a full communion with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a Formula of Agreement with the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and a "Kirchengemeinshaft" with the Union of Evangelical Churches in Germany (UEK).

The partnership with the United Church of Christ would be a first for United Church of Canada. The Rev. Michael Blair, executive minister of Church Mission for the United Church of Canada, said after the resolution was approved in July that it was "a first for us because we work in partnership with many denominations, but no formal relationships like this resolution would produce."

The United Church of Christ and the United Church of Canada began a formal conversation in April 2012, when the United Church of Christ made a historical visit to the United Church of Canada offices in Toronto. The denominations met again in April 2013 at the United Church of Christ's National Offices in Cleveland.

The General Synod 2013 resolution on the ecumenical relationship outlined that each church would form a team of five members, in addition to the general secretary of the United Church of Canada and general minister and president of the United Church of Christ serving as ex-officio members of the committee. Each committee includes a seminary representative, a theologian, a conference representative, a pastor, a staff member and the head of communion.

There are likely two more meetings ahead this year between the United Church of Christ and United Church of Canada to have a communion agreement in place by the end of 2014. Thompson said that dates and locations of future meetings will be set this weekend "with respect to the timelines necessary to get the documents to General Synod and General Assembly." Later in the process, the United Church of Christ committee will find a way to hear from various constituents in the church.

UCC Christmas Fund gives back to retired, active ministers in need

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.

Chicago Theological Seminary offers online path to ministry

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.

Nationally known author, teacher called to lead UCC Faith Formation Ministry Team

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."

New York pastor wears blue nail polish as a visible stand against bullying

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."

A visible call for tougher gun legislation marks Long Island church

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

general_synod_29_04.jpgA 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."