United Church of Christ

‘We need UCC chaplains in the military,’ says Navy captain

Capt. Donald P. Troast, U.S. Navy chaplain

"We need UCC chaplains in the military," insists the Rev. Donald P. Troast, a U.S. Navy captain and commander of U.S. submarine force chaplains, offering his own "commercial" at the outset of his sermon at the UCC's Amistad Chapel on May 26.

"We need the diversity that they bring. We need the openness that they bring. We need the sense of mainline tradition that they bring."

Preaching to about 100 worshipers in advance of Memorial Day weekend, Troast recounted moving moments when military chaplains have been both mediators and recipients of God's grace during war, loneliness, suffering, death and survival.

Speaking with tears in his eyes, Troast recalled a time recently — during a tour in Afghanistan — that he returned to his quarters and found a handwritten note from an officer requesting a few minutes of his time.

The officer, an Episcopalian, wanted to receive Holy Communion on the night before his troops were being sent into battle, yet the officer's unit chaplain — a Missouri Synod Lutheran — was not comfortable serving him because of their denominational differences.

But, because of the UCC's open-table approach to the Eucharist, Troast — unlike some chaplains that come from more-restrictive traditions — was able to oblige.

"He was afraid of making wrong decisions in combat that might result in the loss of life," recalled Troast, who reassured the officer of his intellect, training, and support of his soldiers. "And then we had Holy Communion," said Troast, who used the Book of Common Prayer to prepare and consecrate the holy meal "in the tradition he was accustomed to."

"You see why we need UCC chaplains?" he said.

Troast, who has served 19 years in military ministry and was selected last year to lead the Navy's submarine chaplains, was one of 15 military chaplains who gathered last week for a retreat at the UCC's Church House in Cleveland.

"It feels like we've come home," said Troast, speaking of his first visit to the UCC's national offices.

The UCC has 55 chaplains serving throughout the U.S. military and another 25 chaplains serving veterans and their families with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

While it is presumed that chaplains exist primarily to provide worship services for service members and their families, "we do so much more," Troast said.

"Every day a service member approaches a chaplain and says, 'Hey Chap, you got a minute,' and we always do," he said. 

According to the Geneva Convention, chaplains — who do not carry weapons — are classified as non-combatants. Yet they train and work alongside military personnel in every respect. The constitutionality of chaplains has been upheld repeatedly by U.S. courts, because the establishment clause ensures that citizens have "free exercise" of religion — something that might prove impossible in the military, given tours of duty, isolating locations and restrictive conditions, without the presence of chaplains.

"Imagine if your minister showed up with you at work everyday," Troast said. "That's exactly what we do."

The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years who now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy, hosted the retreat in Cleveland.

"It has been our privilege this week to have 15 of our finest clergy with us, our military chaplains," said Gundlach, in introducing the chaplains to Church House staff and visitors.

While in Cleveland, chaplains met with church officers and called for UCC churches to reach out to military families, especially those returning from tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. 

"We need to take care of our returning warriors who are hurting mentally, physically and spiritually," Troast said.

Participating in the chaplain retreat were Lt. Cmdr. Peter E. Bauer, USAR (Southern Conference); Capt. Heather A. Bodwell, USAF (Northern Plains Conference); Col. Stephen B. Boyd, USAR (CA-NV Southern Conference); Capt. Countess C. Cooper (Central Atlantic Conference); Capt. Aristides Fokas (Penn Central Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Leila H. Gomulka, USN (Calvin Synod); Capt. N. Charlene Johnson, USAF (Minnesota Conference); Maj. R. Michael Lake (Kansas-Oklahoma Conference); Cmdr. Luis A. Perez, USN (Florida Conference); Capt. Deris L. Rice, USAR (Wisconsin Conference); Lt. Cdr. Leticia P.J. Rouser, USN (Hawaii Conference); Lt. Col. Grant W. Speece, ARNG (Minnesota Conference); Lt. Cmdr. Beth A. Stallinga, USN (Minnesota Conference); CDR Ronald C. Sturgis, USN (South Central Conference); Capt. Donald P. Troast, USN (Massachusetts Conference); and Col. John L. Trout, ARNG (Penn Central Conference).

Online education holds promise for UCC seminaries; profit may come later

As the recession puts added financial pressure on seminaries, the case for online theological education might seem like simple math. Add more students, subtract costly services such as housing and food — which online students don't need — and improve the bottom line.

All seven UCC-related seminaries already have or will soon offer some form of online or distance learning. None expect the move to bring a quick financial payoff, due to the investments in technology, training, and support staff needed to go online.

Nonetheless, school administrators say the shift is absolutely necessary to serve both students and the wider church.

"There's a greater and greater need within the church to access, if not whole degrees, then at least a certain amount of theological education, without having to pull up stakes and move elsewhere," says the Rev. Richard Weis, dean of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Many United students travel from the Dakotas and Iowa. Online courses will lessen their commuting burden, Weis says.

Because Web-based courses are primarily asynchronous — students can do the work when it's convenient — the online format is well-suited to people whose work and family schedules don't synch with the normal teaching schedule of a seminary, says Mary Tolbert, dean of Pacific School of Religion.

About half of Protestant seminaries with membership in the Association for Theological Schools are engaged in some form of online or distance education, says William C. Miller, one of ATS' three accreditation officers. ATS requires at least one-third of a degree program to be residential. But as schools experiment with different delivery models, including those involving online technology, the definition of "residential" is changing.

Many web-based courses employ a hybrid model, combining one or two on-campus sessions with online reading, video lectures, podcasts, forum discussions, and live chat.

Theology professor the Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite has taught several hybrid courses at Chicago Theological Seminary. Students come to campus for a two-day intensive at the beginning, but the rest of the course takes place on the web.

Kathi Elliott, a commissioned minister serving a congregation in a small Indiana town, took Thistlethwaite's Public Theology course online last fall. Elliott has been pursuing ordination, and her committee on ministry is letting her supplement her Master of Arts in Lay Ministry degree with a few courses, rather than going back to earn a Master of Divinity. So Elliott took a course at a seminary in Indianapolis, balancing church work and family life with commuting and studying. "The class was fantastic, but it almost did me in," she says.

Elliott convinced the committee on ministry to let her to take Thistlethwaite's course. After a two-day intensive in Chicago, the class met online weekly for two-hour chats. Students downloaded podcasts, experimented with social media, and set up blogs.

The committee on ministry worried that an online course would not provide enough interaction with other students, Elliott says. But she found plenty of opportunities through email exchanges, blog comments, and the bi-weekly chats.

The Rev. Jeff Jones, director of distance learning at Andover Newton Theological School, has taught online for six years and has experimented with helping students build community. Jones allows more time for personal sharing at the beginning of a course, and expects some discussions unrelated to course material. "I have a forum called Coffee Break, where I encourage students to post issues they'd talk about during a break between classes," he says.

Thistlethwaite's students get to know her and each other really well during online courses, she says. "The online chats often have some very moving moments. In some ways the discussion is more focused, since people have to type their thoughts out."

Students sometimes underestimate how much time an online course really takes, says the Rev. Nadine Pence, who previously taught theology at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Ind. The school's attrition rate for online courses dropped after they began counseling students in advance, telling them to expect to work 10 to 15 hours per week for each online class.

Pence is now the director at The Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. The center trains faculty to use the tools of online teaching, and to tailor their modes of teaching to the online medium. Teaching an online course often takes more time than teaching in the classroom, because it has a tendency to become almost individualized, Pence says.

Mary Hess, a faculty member at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., does research on digital technology and teaching, and has led workshops for the Wabash Center. Going online can allow seminaries to offer a richer curriculum, and collaborate more effectively, says Hess.

The move online could also lead to increased competition between seminaries. If geography is no longer a key parameter, schools will have to differentiate themselves in ways that are non-geographical, says Miller of the Association of Theological Schools.

The Rev. Barbara Essex, the UCC's Minister for Higher and Theological Education, says the UCC's seven seminaries are interested in finding ways to work together. Each school has different strengths, she says.

Essex sees several possibilities for the seminaries to offer courses jointly online. A UCC History and Polity course, for example, could be hosted on the denomination's web site, available to both seminarians and laypeople. Several seminaries are working closely with UCC judicatories to meet the growing need to train lay leaders — another area where online and distance learning could be a good fit.

Here's a look at what UCC-related seminaries are doing online:

  • Andover Newton Theological School started its distance learning program in 1998, and now offers 12-14 courses a year online, according to Jeff Jones, director of distance learning. Most of those are fully online; a few are hybrid. Between 5 and 10 percent of those taking online classes are not Andover Newton students, Jones said.
  • Bangor Theological Seminary does not offer online classes yet, but trustees have appointed a committee to evaluate the technology and faculty training needed. The seminary plans to have four courses designed, and possibly implemented, by the spring of 2011, says T. Richard Snyder, academic dean. The primary motivation is to better serve students, many of whom commute from remote areas of Maine.
  • Chicago Theological Seminary has offered a few hybrid courses, and some faculty are incorporating web-based components such as online forums into traditional courses. The seminary's impending move to new building with technology upgrades has prompted conversations about next steps, including offering some classes strictly online, says Ken Stone, dean for academic administration.
  • Eden Theological Seminary's introductory biblical studies course has been offered online for several semesters. The school is developing online courses with an eye toward those that are most useful and engaging for future church leadership, according to Deborah Krause, academic dean and New Testament professor. Eden's strategic plan calls for expansion of online and distance learning, in both degree and non-degree programs and in lay education.
  • Lancaster Theological Seminary is in the early stages of exploring distance learning opportunities, says James Siburt, the seminary's director of communications, educational technology, and marketing. This fall, Siburt will teach a hybrid course on new media theory and design as part of the school's new Youth and Young Adult Ministry Program. They are experimenting with iTunesU and Google Apps, and are deploying a new open-source collaboration platform for distance learning. Donors and grant money from the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation are funding classroom upgrades.
  • Pacific School of Religion recently petitioned to the Association of Theological Schools for approval of a full online and distance learning program, according to Laurie Isenberg, director of community and continuing education. Pending approval, PSR will begin offering an online certificate in theological studies this fall. Students who earn the certificate can transfer into the Master of Divinity program with a full year of study completed. Long term, PSR plans to develop a more extensive MDiv program online, so that students won't have to spend two years in residence, Isenberg says.
  • United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities first ventured into online education through its continuing education programs. Two years ago, the seminary introduced its first online academic course — congregational spirituality — using a hybrid approach. This year, they offered two courses, and will expand to three next year. UTS intends to move from hybrid to fully online, but wants to keep an eye on the needs of the church and allow its plans to evolve organically, says Richard Weis, dean of the seminary and professor of Old Testament theology. 

Two churches in D.C. area welcomed into UCC

Covenant Baptist Church in southeast Washington, D.C., was one of two churches that affiliated with the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference on Feb. 27.

The Central Atlantic Conference received two churches into the UCC on Feb. 27, when Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., were granted congregational standing by the UCC's Potomac Association.

Covenant Baptist Church is known throughout the D.C. area for its vibrant worshipping community and its prophetic ministries of justice and service. Founded in 1945 as an all-white Southern Baptist congregation, a racial transition began in 1969 when the church called an African-American pastor to serve its European-American congregation. In its decades of service to its economically challenged neighborhood in southeast Washington, the predominately African-American congregation has developed a reputation for being a beacon of hope, inclusiveness and liberation for the oppressed and marginalized.

Last year, the congregation's senior pastors, the Rev. Dennis and Christine Wiley, were among the visible religious leaders that supported D.C.'s adoption of a controversial law that legalized same-gender marriage.

"Many new members are joining the church, excited by our vision," the Wileys wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column explaining their position. "… Some who disagree with us have condemned us to hell. But we believe that God has granted us the courage of our convictions."

United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., under the leadership of the Rev. Annie Blackwell, is an ecumenical partnership congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.

Formerly known as the Southern Maryland Faith Community, United Christian Church is committed to inclusivity, service and speaking to the holistic needs of those they serve.

"Christ calls us to be 'citizens in the world,' reads the church's website. "We believe that our social expression of Christ's love seeks justice for all humankind."

The Rev. Henry E. "Hank" Fairman, moderator of the Potomac Association, says the two new congregations represent how the UCC "continues to live into the future as a united and uniting church."

"Today we took an affirming step into the future in ministry in community together," Fairman said in a written statement. "Isaiah reminds us, 'Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.' Thanks be to God for challenging us to be a progressive, liberal voice in Christian faith, and for gathering us all in as a united church."

A formal service of reception for United Christian Church will be held at Bethany Christian Church in Fort Washington, Md., on Palm Sunday, March 28. A service welcoming Covenant Baptist Church will take place on May 16.

The Rev. John Deckenback is Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, which includes New Jersey, Delaware, District of Columbia, and portions of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.

DVD review: Rage Against the Machine, and the Art of Protest

"Revolution in the Head: Rage Against the Machine and the Art of Protest"
A Sexy Intellectual Production

[Parental/Youth pastor advisory: Most of Rage's albums landed one of those warning stickers about explicit content due to their use of graphic language. This film is no exception, and includes brief photo shot to the band's nude protest. So, be advised.]

Might as well go ahead and let you in on the two real disappointments that I had with this DVD upfront. First, while there is plenty of footage of the Rage Against the Machine guys playing live, I admit that I was really hoping to see/hear full length live versions of at least a handful of the band's best songs—there have been some live reunions of a sort since 2007. Frankly I was hopeful  this documentary was proof that the band would be coming back together, making more albums and touring. It's a lot to ask, but I miss this band.

The reason for this is tied to my second problem/issue: "This DVD is not authorised (sic.) by Rage Against the Machine, their record company or management." Not only does this mean that the folk who made this disc, like me on deadline, failed to use spell check adequately ("authorized"), but they didn't have access or permission to include the complete Rage songs, live or otherwise. They also don't have the band speaking directly about their own inspirations and intentions.

But, given those two caveats, "Revolution in the Head" is a fine, informative and enjoyable documentary of the career of this band and it's impact in the tradition of the similarly powerful DVD: "Woody Guthrie; This Machine Kills Fascists" (Snapper Music). It connects Rage Against the Machine to the protest music movement that stretches back to folk music's roots, and found expression in influential artists like Guthrie, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and came into the 60's through Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and John Lennon. While you could also mention artists like Credence Clearwater Revival and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the documentary focuses on those acts that had a more direct impact on the sound of Rage Against the Machine: Minor Threat, Public Enemy, Bad Brains, The Clash, and the spiritual guidance in the music of Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen.

Through academic discussion, and the more direct expression from folk protest singer Jerry Silverman (who sings a bit of his song, "Joe Hill"), the film connects rock and hip-hop music's rebellious nature and the more direct political movements of the peace, labor and civil rights movements. With that background, Rage's leading men, vocalist Zach de La Rocha and guitarist Tom Morello, are described as facing racism in their youth, growing up Hispanic and mixed race in suburban America, adopted a left-leaning politics and created music that, Ann Powers of the L.A. Times says "gave young progressive people their own voice" in the 1990s.

Alongside Powers, the film leans heavily on the analysis and insight of a RATM biographer Colin Devenish, OC Weekly writer Gustavo Arellano, Joe Levy a former editor at Rolling Stone and Blender magazines, the Epic Records A&R person who signed the band, Michael Goldstone, Garth Richardson who produced the band debut album and the band's live sound engineer Dave 'Rat' Levine. The film follows the band's history and often paradoxical rise, with forays into the band's unique sound and political emphasis, as well as bold public protests.

They take a look at the band's now infamous "naked performance" on the Philadelphia stop of Lollapalooza '93, where the band stood unclothed except for duct tape over their mouths for 25 minutes of feedback, with only the letters PMRC on their chests (a stand against the censorship of music instigated by the Parents Music Recourse Center.) The making of the notorious "Sleep Now in the Fire" video with Michael Moore, with its guerrilla film-making technique which had the effect of shutting down Wall Street if only for an afternoon. With songs like "People of the Sun" which celebrated the Zapitista movement of the Native Indians of Mexico, and "Bulls On Parade" which explored the business of war that proved prophetic of America's war in Iraq and the privatization of military efforts by the Bush administration.

When Rage was amazingly popular, there were further paradoxes. RATM, a left-wing protest band, signs to a major corporate music entity in Epic Records. Many of their fans loved the angry, rebellious tone of the music but missed the deeper analytical tone of the band's politics. And the assertion in the song "Testify" that the two political parties in America and the two presidential candidates of that era, Bush and Gore, were essentially the same, which led to a performance outside the Democratic National Convention of 2000 in Los Angeles.

Though the band shared many similar left-leaning political ideals, there were documented disputes and in-fighting, leaving La Rocha in disagreement with the Morella and the rhythm section Brad Wilk and Tim Commerford. So much so that after three albums together the remaining trio went on to perform as Audioslave with singer Chris Cornell (previously of Sound Garden). Still, while together, says engineer Dave Rat, "it's that volatility that makes (the music) so interesting."

Given the band's huge commercial success, and the vastly influential albums: "Rage Against the Machine" (1992), "Evil Empire" (1996), and "The Battle of Los Angeles" (1999). The record company managed to pull together a cover album in "Renegades," which included Springsteen's great "The Ghost of Tom Joad" and songs by Cypress Hill, MC5, Afrika Bambaataa, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and more, and a 2000 concert recording, "Live at the Grand Olympic Auditorium."

An artful, creative, energized musical act, as well as a prescient political protest act, brilliant in its use of media and direct action, Rage Against the Machine is willing to point out injustice, inform the public and send a wake up call to the world. As such, this film captures an important voice from the 1990s and if we're lucky again in the 2010s.

The Rev. Brian Q. Newcomb is Senior Minister at David's UCC in Kettering, Ohio, and a long-time music critic published in Billboard, CCM Magazine, Paste, The Riverfront Times and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, among others.  

Documentary: 'Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman'

In our world, where the genre of "contemporary Christian music" outsells both classical and jazz/blues formats, and praise bands with drums and guitars appear in many of the even the more traditional conservative congregational settings around us, it's hard to remember a time when the idea of a Christian rock artist was viewed as revolutionary.

With this documentary, and his previous movie – "Frisbee: The Life and Death of a Hippie Preacher" – filmmaker David Di Sabatino opens up the world of the Jesus Movement of the late 60's and 70's through the story of prominent, often controversial individual.

Larry Norman, who died last year at the age of 60 after a long history of poor health, was a principal architect of what came to be known as "Jesus Music" and/or "Christian rock" music. Arising from the San Jose band People that had a modest yet successful single in "I Love You," Norman's solo career was launched in 1969 with a faith-filled release on the mainstream label, Capitol Records.

That album, "Upon This Rock," remembered fondly by many as the first pop/rock release by an outspoken Christian artist, launched a thousand variations on that theme — presenting and evangelistic message of Jesus' love in what was then a modern pop music form.

Celebrated by some as a songwriter in the league of Bob Dylan and a live performer in the vein of Mick Jagger, Norman's albums of the 70's – including the celebrated Christian rock classic "Only Visiting This Planet" – became expressions of what it might sound like if there was an authentic expression of the gospel message in vital, modern music. Norman's mix of social commentary, political insight, and street level poetic and musical sensibilities, proved a winning combination for Christians looking for relevant musical artists, and mainstream people interested in hearing about a faith relevant to their own experience.

As a groundbreaking rebel rocker, with long hair and the sense of style that it suggests, Larry Norman was a controversial figure and a natural subject for a film about the early development of the idea of the CCM musical business.

But Norman's story is complex and filled with Shakespearean human drama: a best-friend mentored and then betrayed, a failed marriage or two, an unwillingness to embrace an illegitimate offspring, a community of like-minded artists that dissolved in petulant competitiveness and financial misdealing, and at its center hero figure that appears to be his own worst enemy.

Throughout the film, Norman's penchant for myth-making, his personal and commercial dealings, his stalled artistic career and flawed humanity are explored in dramatic detail though interviews with many who knew, loved and worked with him.

The film struggles to tell the public story without getting too entrenched in the personal drama and insider squabbles that develop when something like a family is coming apart, and mostly rises above more voyeuristic tendencies. [Full disclosure: I have known and befriended many of those interviewed here over the years, once interviewed Mr. Norman myself for a cover story in CCM Magazine, and I appear for a brief 15 seconds in the film.]

Of course the challenge for the filmmaker is to tell a story about a beloved if equally infamous, but less than well-known, individual in a way that is compelling to a broad audience. Di Sabatino tells this complex and layered story well, mixing archival footage of Norman performing on television with interviews with the other principals. Still, one can imagine those who know and care little about Christian rock music, and even less about this pioneering artistic influence finding this story less than compelling as it delicately unfolds.

Yet for fans of the genre, especially those like myself who were inspired early on by Christian rock artists like Norman, Randy Stonehill, Mark Heard, the band Daniel Amos and others in his Solid Rock Records family, this is a morality tale as profound and engaging as the biblical story of King David's rise and fall.

Di Sabatino's self-described "Bible story" makes an eloquent move from oral tradition to film document ably, although the low quality live music footage taken largely from archival TV recordings, the more artful animated sections and the tendency to rely on talking heads, reveals more about the challenges of taking on a major undertaking working on a modest budget.

While there is a sense of graceful forgiveness in the film as the folk come to terms with Norman's failings and the hurt he unleashed in their lives and careers, there is a sense of its undoing a popular and highly defended mythic character.

This is no doubt because the CCM industry as a whole has lacked the will and resources to tell the whole story and hold accountable the individuals who make the music, often labeled as "ministry." With a preference for promotion, rather than in-depth journalistic integrity, the Christian music press has remained mostly silent, while Norman's cottage industry has marketed, and repackaged not only his classic music, but maintained the defensive storyline of Norman as an innocent victim.

But the real gift of "Fallen Angel," as if telling the truth is not its own reward, is in the exposure of this fine music, some of it nearly four decades old. Laced with a soundtrack that displays the vast talents of Norman, Stonehill and his cadre of cohorts, the film reminds the viewer of the power of music and poetry, the vital influence and energy of rock music.

Norman's gentle ballad "The Outlaw," and seminal rocker based on words ascribed to Martin Luther, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" together with Stonehill's "King of Hearts" or "Keep Me Running," recall the early innocence, and artistic brilliance that spawned an industry.

Fallen Angel: The Outlaw Larry Norman is available in Festival DVD Release from Jester Media at <fallenangeldoc.com>.


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UCC church leaders shocked at treatment of local pastor by Oklahoma legislators

United Church of Christ leaders on Thursday (Feb. 12) expressed outrage at the perceived discriminatory treatment of a local UCC pastor by the Oklahoma State House of Representatives.

In what legislators are calling a first, one-fifth of the Oklahoma House voted Feb. 11 to strike from the record a prayer offered on the chamber floor by the Rev. Scott H. Jones, pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City. Jones had been invited to deliver the prayer and serve as chaplain for the day by Rep. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City.

Following the prayer, McAffrey asked that the session vote to include Jones' prayer in the House journal, the official daily record of the chamber. An objection was raised by Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, who called for a vote on the prayer's inclusion.

"It was a pretty chaotic moment," said Jones of the procedural points of order that ensued following Wright's objection. "My understanding was that [an objection to a prayer] never happens."

The vote took place once order had been established, with 64 representatives voting to include the prayer, 20 opposing it and 17 abstentions.

Jones is a constituent of McAffrey's Oklahoma City district. Both believe the objection was raised because of their sexuality. Jones leads the largest predominantly LGBT congregation in Oklahoma City and is himself gay. McAffrey is Oklahoma's only openly gay legislator.

"As the leader of Rev. Jones' denomination, I am deeply offended by the treatment he received from the legislature and dismayed by the message of intolerance it sends to the citizens of Oklahoma and beyond," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the UCC. "It is comforting, however, to remember that our prayers are judged at the throne of grace and not in the halls of petty principalities."

"The Oklahoman" newspaper quoted McAffrey on Wednesday, saying that "because most of Scott's congregation are gay people and Scott is gay himself, I'm sure that's the reason why there were negative votes on it."

But Wright sees it differently. In the same Oklahoman article, he stated his objection was procedural - that prayers were only entered into the official record on Thursdays - but later said his "actions were motivated by the faith."

Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, was among those who voted to strike the prayer from the record. Kern is on record as calling homosexuality "the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism and Islam."

The Rev. Gordon R. Epps, conference ministry coordinator for the UCC's Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, delivered a letter to Speaker of the House Rep. Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, on Thursday (Feb. 12). Epps commended Benge "for the democratic way you led the house when an unusual challenge was made to vote on whether or not to enter into the record the opening prayer given by the Rev. Scott Jones."

Responding in support of Jones, the UCC's Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy, the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, said, "Once again, bigotry infects the Oklahoma statehouse by the vote of 20 legislators to reject the prayer offered by the Rev. Scott Jones. In this mean-spirited vote, they have demonstrated profound disrespect to a gifted pastor and a congregation dedicated to faithfully serving its community through a robust and vibrant ministry."

Schuenemeyer sees the proceedings as a clear indication of discrimination. "The action of these legislators has dishonored the core American values of freedom of religion and freedom of expression," he said. "The citizens of Oklahoma and this nation deserve better and ought not to tolerate such behavior from their fellow citizens, much less their elected officials."

The United Church of Christ is a denomination of 1.2 million members in 5,600 autonomous local churches that are joined together in Christian mission through local associations, regional conferences and the biennial all-church General Synod.

At their 2005 General Synod in Atlanta, UCC delegates voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution calling for marriage rights to be extended to same-gender couples. The resolution, In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All, "affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage."

Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City began in 2000 as a church plant of Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas. In January 2007, they became a fully autonomous congregation within the United Church of Christ.


Pilgrim Press and UCC Resources sites join UCC.org

In a further effort to simplify the process of getting information and obtaining materials, the UCC's web team and publishing group have consolidated all product ordering through an integrated e-commerce module on the UCC.org website.

Most significantly, this change streamlines the process by which site visitors can find and order materials that were previously housed in separate online stores maintained by the Pilgrim Press and United Church Press.

"We are pleased that our web host can accommodate an e-commerce store this large," said Timothy Staveteig, publisher of the presses. "This new relationship offers fuller descriptions, more discount options and more personalized service. This change streamlines searches and purchases."

Staveteig notes that while the new catalog is available for customer use and testing, the former stores will remain active during a brief testing period.

Another innovation of this integration is the concept of "single sign-on." Site visitors will now have only one account at the ucc.org website – allowing them to access their preferences on UCC.org, order from the online store and access the forthcoming myUCC social networking site.

"One of our goals was to create seamless experiences for those on our website," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, UCC Director of Communications. "People will find the UCC's new e-commerce module to be a significant step above what we used to offer and the single log-in function will mean you only have to remember one password to access everything that ucc.org has to offer."

To create a new account please register.

If you already receive e-mail from the UCC, please log in.

Book review: 'Saving Paradise' says church got it wrong by emphasizing crucifixion

Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, authors of "Saving Paradise." Photo courtesy Beacon Press.
"It took Jesus a thousand years to die. Images of his corpse did not appear in churches until the tenth century."

Those are the provocative opening sentences of the new book, "Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire" (Beacon Press), by Protestant scholars Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.

"Saving Paradise" turns upside down the history of the church's view of Jesus' crucifixion and its stress on the importance of suffering. The authors attempt to show that for the first thousand years of its existence, the Christian church placed much more emphasis on the resurrection and paradise than the crucifixion.

Before the 11th century, Brock and Parker found, Christian imagery portrayed Jesus alive - teaching and healing and living in this world. At first, the authors were stunned when they discovered the dearth of crucifixion images in Mediterranean churches, especially given their importance to centuries of later doctrine.

Brock, an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, and Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., are also co-authors of the critically acclaimed book, "Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us." Parker has dual standing as an ordained minister in both the United Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Expanding on themes in "Proverbs of Ashes," Brock and Parker argue in "Saving Paradise," which includes 90 pages of footnotes, that the Christian church of the first millennium never stressed that Jesus'
suffering on the cross was necessary for the salvation of humanity.

In "Saving Paradise," they attempt to reveal that the early Christian community did not so much draw inspiration from suffering and the next world, but from the here and now, from earthly life and a vision of paradise.

"During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ ... as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder. But he is never dead," the book says.

"When he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected. The world around him is ablaze with beauty. These are images of paradise - paradise in this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God. But once Jesus perished, dying was virtually all he seemed able to do."

The authors tackle what they consider the subversion of the Christian message - exemplified by the ninth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who instituted the death penalty for conquered people who refused to convert.

After Charlemagne, killing, suffering and dying in the name of Christ began to represent the highest honor for Christians, the book maintains.

Brock and Parker argue that Charlemagne's attitude of conquest remains an undercurrent in some countries' foreign policy, tying it into modern-day wars and imperialism.

By re-emphasizing early Christians' focus on paradise, on the kingdom of God on Earth, the authors are convinced they are reclaiming authentic "traditional" Christianity.

For instance, even though the 13th century monk, Francis of Assisi, is now admired as the patron saint of animals, the authors argue that his love of suffering marked an epochal downturn in the history of Christian theology.

When they cite how Francis of Assisi taught that "perfect joy (is) to share in the suffering of the world as Christ did," they say it was a sign of how far the Christian church had turned from promoting images of paradise and enjoyment of this earth.

Instead, "Saving Paradise" says Francis was fueled by a burning desire to be martyred, to be "torn limb from limb." He brought that belief, they maintain, to his support of the Crusades, which aimed to convert Muslims by the sword.

Alternatively, Brock and Parker urge readers to see church history in a new light, with an eye toward social justice. They call upon readers to "rekindle Christian traditions that hold fast to love and thereby teach Christian people how, in the midst of horror and tragedy and loss, to resist violence, honor the earth, and to humanize life." 

Episcopal Church apologizes for its role in slavery

 In an unprecedented public act of remorse for centuries of support for slavery, the Episcopal Church on Saturday (Oct. 4) held a dramatic service of repentance at one of the nation's first black churches.

Punctuated with the sound of a gong and the sung refrain of "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy," the service began with a "Litany of Offense and Apology" detailing the ways that the denomination participated in human captivity, segregation and discrimination.

More than 500 worshippers, a multicultural sea of faces, spilled over into the aisles of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, founded in 1792 by Absalom Jones, a former slave and the denomination's first black priest.

"Through it all, people of privilege looked the other way, and too few found the courage to question inhuman ideas, words, practices or laws," said Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.

"We and they ignored the image of Christ in our neighbors."

Several of America's founding fathers - most notably George Washington - were Episcopalians and slave owners, and many of the nation's most historic and prominent steeples were built by wealthy donors who made their fortunes on the back of slave labor.

Yet Episcopalians were one of the few U.S. churches that managed to stay intact as the Civil War split Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery.

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United States. Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives issued its own apology for slavery.

"Apology and acknowledgment are an incredibly important part of the process of coming to terms with history," said Katrina Browne, whose recent film, "Traces of the Trade," explores the wealth accumulated by her Episcopal ancestors in Rhode Island through the slave trade.

The service, and the day of workshops that preceded it, were the result of a resolution passed at the Episcopalians' 2006 General Convention that called slavery a "sin" and a betrayal of the "humanity of all persons."

The 2006 resolution asked dioceses to research instances in which they have been complicit or profited from it, and asked the presiding bishop to hold a "Day of Repentance." Each diocesan cathedral was also asked to hold its own service of repentance.

A number of African American participants emphasized that however moving the event, it was only one step in an effort to redress denominational and social inequities.

Noting that another General Convention resolution addresses oppression of "all people of color victimized by society over the past 300 years," Canon Ed Rodman, a professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., added that "until the whole story is told and everybody's voice has been heard we cannot begin the process of reconciliation."

"It is one thing to repent of our sin, but another to turn around and go in the right direction," said Franklin Turner, retired Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.

"I don't think it's what the church does inside the church," added the Rev. Isaac Miller, rector of the historic Episcopal Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. "It's about what happens afterwards."

Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a researcher in forgiveness, said public apologies can help usher in "some manner of justice back into a situation where there has been injustice."

Such apologies may narrow an individual's "injustice gap" - the space between the way someone would like to see an issue resolved, and the way they actually see it being resolved, he added.

The Rev. David Pettee, who oversees ministerial credentialing for the Unitarian Universalist Association, said he has also located slave owners and African and Native American ancestors in his own Rhode Island family tree.

"I was impressed by having the Episcopal Church make this move, and I personally hope that at some point we (the Unitarian Universalists) arrive at an act of redemption and apology," Pettee said after the service.

A joint resolution passed in 2001 by the UCC's General Synod and the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) called upon the United States government to "issue a national apology for participating in and supporting the kidnapping, exporting and enslaving of people of African descent." 

The joint resolution also encouraged congregations, regions, ministries and national assemblies to "join in active study and education on issues dealing with reparations for slavery."

Chicago's Trinity UCC is 'great gift to wider church family'

In the wake of misleading attacks on its mission and ministry, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ is being lauded by United Church of Christ leaders across the nation for the integrity of its worship, the breadth of its community involvement and the depth of its commitment to social justice.

"Trinity United Church of Christ is a great gift to our wider church family and to its own community in Chicago," says UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas. "At a time when it is being subjected to caricature and attack in the media, it is critical that all of us express our gratitude and support to this remarkable congregation, to Jeremiah A. Wright for his leadership over 36 years, and to Pastor Otis Moss III, as he assumes leadership at Trinity."

Thomas says he has been saddened by news reports that "present such a caricature of a congregation that been such a great blessing."

"These attacks, many of them motivated by their own partisan agenda, cannot go unchallenged," Thomas emphasizes. "It's time for all of us to say 'No' to these attacks and to declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends."

Located in the heart of Chicago's impoverished Southside, Trinity UCC's vast array of ministries include career development and college placement, tutorial and computer services, health care and support groups, domestic violence programs, pastoral care and counseling, bereavement services, drug and alcohol recovery, prison ministry, financial counseling and credit union, housing and economic development, dozens of choral, instrumental and dance groups, and diverse programming for all ages, including youth and senior citizens.

Thomas, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, has attended worship at Trinity UCC on a few occasions -- most recently on March 2 -- and says he is "profoundly impressed" with the 6,000-member congregation.

Among Trinity UCC's crowning achievements, Thomas says, is its work with young people.

"While the worship is always inspiring, the welcome extravagant, and the preaching biblically based and prophetically challenging, I have been especially moved by the way Trinity ministers to its young people, nurturing them to claim their Christian faith, to celebrate their African-American heritage, and to pursue higher education to prepare themselves for leadership in church and society," Thomas says.

'Exceedingly gracious'

The Rev. Steve Gray, the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference Minister, describes Trinity UCC as a "jewel."

"It's everything a Christian community is supposed to be," says Gray, who has been working with Trinity UCC for the past three years to develop a new UCC congregation in Gary, Ind. "Trinity has given well over $100,000 in support of its partnership with us, and in 15 months of regular meetings with Jeremiah Wright, we always found him to be a man of gracious hospitality, humor, generosity, who paid attention to detail but also a man who does not call attention to himself."

Trinity UCC has been involved in planting more than 15 new congregations, according to the UCC's Evangelism Ministry in Cleveland.

Gray, a member of First Congregational UCC in Indianapolis, has worshiped several times at Trinity UCC and is most impressed by the overflowing sense of welcome it extends to visitors.

"When you're Euro-American, the people [at Trinity UCC] are so exceedingly gracious, warm and welcoming. They hug you and say, 'Welcome to our church!'"

Many, including Gray, point with appreciation to Trinity UCC's generous support of denominational and ecumenical ministries. From 2003 to 2007, Trinity UCC gave more than $3.7 million to Our Church's Wider Mission, the UCC's shared fund for connectional mission and ministry.

'Extraordinary outreach'

The Rev. Bennie Whiten, retired Massachusetts Conference Minister who prior served for 15 years as associate director of Chicago's Community Renewal Society, says, "Trinity was one church that we could always rely on to respond almost immediately. They have been very, very involved in the community in so many meaningful ways."

Noting the church's work in health care, early childhood education and economic development, Whiten says, "The scope of their concern and outreach is extraordinary. It's really just an outstanding congregation."

Whiten, a member of Pilgrim UCC in Oak Park, Ill., is especially taken with Trinity UCC's commitment to the need and importance of quality theological education. More than 60 members of Trinity UCC are currently enrolled in seminary and pursuing masters-level degrees. Moreover, the congregation pays for students' tuition costs.

"They firmly believe in the UCC's commitment to an educated, seminary-trained clergy," Whiten said, "and they have probably had more people feeling the call to ministry than any other church in the denomination."

The Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, president and professor of theology at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, says Trinity UCC is a model church in the way it supports its people in discerning and cultivating their gifts for ministry, both lay and ordained.

"Another thing I really appreciate about Trinity is that its ministries are always directed both inward, toward the congregation itself, and also outward in supporting other congregations ecumenically and supporting community organizations that are dedicated to lifting up the wider society," Thistlethwaite says. "We have had so many fine students come through Chicago Theological Seminary who were helped to discern their call to ministry through this church's dedication to serving the wider church."

'Jesus and justice'

The Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga., says he is impressed that Trinity UCC "promotes spirituality and piety while also being emphatic about social justice."

While Trinity UCC is the denomination's largest congregation, Samuel's 5,300-member church is the UCC's second largest. Founded in 1987, it joined the UCC in 2004.

"Trinity was really one of the churches that inspired me to want to affiliate with the United Church of Christ," Samuel said. "My church was originally National Baptist and Southern Baptist, but it was the critical-thinking that [Trinity] brought to this work, the justice work, that helped me to want to become a part of the denomination. I have no regrets about that."

Samuel says that, during Wright's 36-year ministry at Trinity, Wright has not been afraid to tackle difficult topics, while staying equally committed to preaching "Jesus and justice."

"There have been two major sins in the Black church that many Black churches will not address – homophobia is one and sexism is another," Samuel says, "and Jeremiah Wright has been one of the articulate, courageous voices that has not been afraid to address these critical issues. If he can do that and still maintain his close connectivity to the Black community, and stay grounded in the Black ethos, that's what has inspired me."

'Speaks well for us'

Carol Brown, national president of United Black Christians and a member of Cleveland's Mt. Zion UCC for more than 50 years, describes Trinity UCC as "the flagship church of the United Church of Christ."

"I think it's very interesting that a minority group within a denomination can have the largest church, support the most ministries and give the largest number of OCWM [mission] dollars," Brown says. "That speaks well for us as an accepting, open and affirming denomination. Especially, as a justice-oriented church, [Trinity UCC] sets a standard for all the denomination that all are welcome."

Brown, who worships at Trinity UCC when in Chicago for meetings, says she is most taken by its exuberant spirit.

"It's certainly a very welcoming church, and it's certainly very reaffirming of the faith when people join in such large numbers when there's an altar call," Brown says. "It's something that you don't see in the average church. God is certainly at work there, and it's exciting when you see that many people stand up to witness to their faith and step forward."