The archivist for the United Church of Christ spends a lot of time cataloging and tracking material that dates back decades. Even so, it comes as a bit of a surprise that he unfurled a piece of history Tuesday. The UCC's national offices in Cleveland have been in possession of a painting, possibly since the 1960s, that shares a message of love and faith, which was displayed at the World's Fair 50 years ago.
The artwork, a banner that is more than 40 feet long, is the work of Sister Mary Corita (Corita Kent). The Cleveland Museum of Contemporary Art sent curators to the UCC Church House to examine the piece on March 18. The museum is considering featuring the banner during an upcoming travel exhibit, Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, which will run from June through September.
"Finding out about this incredible piece, right here in Cleveland, sent some shockwaves through our curatorial team," said Rose Bouthillier, associate curator and publication manager for MOCA. "It's quite the coincidence, and the banner would be an absolutely stunning addition to the show."
Sister Mary Corita Kent, whose signature is visible in the lower right corner of the canvas, was known for artwork during the 1960s and 1970s that depicted love and peace. The nun painted the piece for the Vatican Exhibit of the 1964 World's Fair in New York City.
The missing bit of information about the painting is how it came into the UCC's possession.
Ed Cade, archivist for the UCC's national setting, said the Corita Art Center contacted him to inquire about the piece, Beatitudes Wall, for the exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Five women, two from MOCA and three from the Intermuseum Conservation Association, inspected "The Beatitudes" in detail and measured its dimensions, and will determine soon if it will be displayed at MOCA this summer.
"My hunch is when the World's Fair was over that no one knew what to do with it," said the Rev. Robert P. "Rip" Noble, who served with the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries as executive associate from 1985 to 2000. Noble hung the artwork in the Church House years ago because "it's a piece of UCBHM and UCC history in terms of support by the church for the arts, and specifically our relationship with Sister Corita. It's a fabulous piece."
When the UCC first moved to Cleveland from New York City, Noble, who chaired the effort to renovate part the building space, designed a wall long enough to display Beatitudes for a few years in the early 1990s. When the building was reconfigured the piece came down and was relegated to the archives where it has remained over the years.
Because of the UCC's relationship with Kent, the United Church Press published two books of her works in the late 1960s. Historians say Kent's art often depicts a blend of social justice, peace and spirituality. Those elements are present in the 40-foot canvas the UCC possesses, with the word "happy" in large colorful letters in several places.
The painting is strewn with a mix of Bible scripture, and quotes from Pope John XXIII and President John F. Kennedy. JFK and Pope John XXIII both died in 1963, but Kent used their comments for "The Beatitudes" because they were "great heroes of the time," according to archives at the Corita Art Center. Kent actually painted three 40-foot banners for the World's Fair and chose this one to display.
Kent later gained international attention for her vibrant artwork in the style of serigraphs – an art form of silk-screening. She was born Frances Kent and joined the Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and ran the art department at Immaculate Heart College until 1968. Kent died in 1986.
Some of Sister Kent's collection has been held by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, both in New York City.
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."Read more
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.
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.
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.
As the nation celebrates the Memorial Day holiday, pastors of the United Church of Christ and their congregations may take some time Sunday to commemorate the work and sacrifice of the men and women in the United States military.
The Rev. Rebecca McMichael is ministering to the United States Army’s 5th Battalion 52nd Air and Missile Defense (AMD), serving with the unit on deployment in the Middle East for one year. A UCC minister since 2007, Chaplain Captain McMichael said that there are some easy ways the church can observe Memorial Day as part of worship services on Sunday, and honor past and present military personnel.
"Just pray for the soldiers, especially the ones that are deployed," she said. "Make them part of the pastoral prayer, and if there are soldiers deployed from the congregation, send a card, check in with family members to offer support. For veterans in the congregation, thank them for their service, and pray for them, too."
The UCC has 45 chaplains on active duty, in the National Guard and with the U.S. Army Reserves. There are also five seminarians preparing for military chaplaincy in the Army and Navy, and there two UCC chaplains deployed to Afghanistan and two on assignment in Europe. While the UCC ordains those chaplains, they are able to pastor to a variety of faiths within their military unit, while also conducting themselves as commissioned officers.
"Personally, and as the Minister for Chaplains and Specialized Ministers, I appreciate the attention that the United Church of Christ is giving to this important and growing segment of our population," said the Rev. Stephen Boyd. "Our Veterans are an invaluable resource and on this Memorial Day we especially remember those who paid the ultimate price."
Over Memorial Day weekend, McMichael plans to rest, call her family members and check in with them, and of course, go to church on Sunday for a Memorial Day service.
McMichael spent December 2011 through December 2012 deployed with Army soldiers in Bahrain and Qatar. She’s been stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, with the battalion since returning. McMichael has been in the Army for three-and-a-half years. While on deployment, McMichael was tasked with the pastoral care of more than 800 soldiers in her battalion.
"The soldiers are my congregation and they’re my church. I tell them that," said McMichael. "You’re embedded with them — you go where they go, you’re part of the battalion staff and you’re advising on moral, ethical and family-care issues."
With family relatives who served in the military, McMichael reflected on joining the military when she was in seminary. She sought a challenging field of ministry that required the use of full knowledge and talent, and she has found chaplaincy work provides exactly that.
"It pretty much happens every day," she said.
The days were long in Bahrain and Qatar, both coastal countries on the shores of the Arabian Sea. Training started at sunrise for the "five-five-deuce," the nickname for the 5th Battalion 52nd Air (5-52) since temperatures in the region rise above 100 degrees in the daytime, and 16-hour days were common for McMichael and the unit. McMichael’s work also took her to a base’s hospital to care for wounded soldiers.
"I think [military life] comes down to sacrificing for something that’s bigger than yourself, and working for the greater good throughout the world to protect people in country, our allies and ensure their safety," she said.
"You just work very hard and very long hours, you deal with a lot of suffering – marriage and family issues – and you’re on call all the time whenever a soldier is in crisis, maybe they get bad news from home," McMichael said. "It’s caring for the soul of a solider and looking out for their morale and well-being."
The landscape of media communications has changed in the 30 years since the inaugural Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture. But the influence of Parker's groundbreaking work is still significant today.
"Our gathering always provides a reminder that social justice issues are inevitably tied to media access, and that the principles that Everett Parker was fighting for remain critically important today," said Sara Fitzgerald, treasurer of the OC, Inc. Board of Directors and one of the event's organizers.
The Parker Lecture, hosted annually by the United Church of Christ's Office of Communication, Inc. (OC, Inc.), was created in 1982 to recognize Parker's pioneering work as an advocate for the public's rights in broadcasting. The event is the only lecture in the country to examine telecommunications in the digital age from an ethical perspective.
"I have truly been blessed to have been able to contribute to, be benefited by and help others to serve in the UCC social justice ministry that required accountability of the media by the citizens it serves. This event is momentous for the thirty year legacy of the ethics lecture and the centennial year of Rev. Parker," said Earl Williams Jr., OC, Inc. board chairman. "I look forward to the remarks of our guests that reflect the current state of our media, government and the effect on our nation."
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. will deliver the 30th Annual Everett C. Parker Ethics in Telecommunications Lecture Tuesday, Sept. 25, in Washington D.C. This year's event will also celebrate Parker's 100th birthday, as well as his pioneering work as an advocate for the public's rights in broadcasting. The lecture and breakfast will take place at First Congregational United Church of Christ.
"It's a rare moment for us. Historically we're a new building but we have history within the civil rights movement," said the Rev. Sidney Fowler, First Congregational's transitional minister. "It's just a very exciting event."
First Congregational is an all-new facility that was dedicated in February, but it sits in the same spot in downtown D.C. since 1868. The new building is the third version the church, which was founded in 1865 by abolitionists as the first racially integrated church in D.C., and played a role in founding Howard University.
Since it was founded in 1959, OC Inc. has been a leading force in the struggle to ensure that women, persons of color and low-income persons have equal access to ownership, production, employment, and decision making in media.
Fitzgerald, a former editor for the Washington Post, said she always found the Parker Lecture very inspiring. "There are so many people involved in media reform and telecommunications policy who recognize how important Rev. Everett Parker's legal battle was to opening up broadcasting to minority voices and ownership and establishing the principle that the public has an interest in how the airwaves are used," she said.
"Many of the persons who attend the Parker Lecture were mentored by Everett Parker early in their careers, and many of them have gone on to help mentor others in the media reform movement and in the broadcasting industry," added Fitzgerald, a member of Rock Spring Congregational UCC in Arlington, Va. "Many of these people are not affiliated with the UCC, so it is wonderful to join with them at his event to celebrate this wonderful legacy."
Parker played a key role in ensuring American media accountability in the public interest. As the director of the Office of Communication of the UCC from 1954-83, his leadership in the development of influential media reform aimed to improve employment prospects for women and minorities in broadcasting.
Two awards will be presented, and two leaders from the UCC national office will also speak at the event. The Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive for the Justice and Witness Ministries, will talk about Parker's legacy and OC, Inc., and the Rev. Geoffrey Black, the UCC's general minister and president, will introduce Jackson.
Charles Benton, chairman of the board of the Benton Foundation, will receive the Everett C. Parker Award for his leadership and support in promoting the public interest in traditional and digital media. S. Jenell Trigg, chair of the Intellectual Property and New Media and Technology Practice Group of Lerman Senter PLLC, will receive the Donald H. McGannon Award in recognition of her work to promote opportunities in telecommunications for women and persons of color.
The United Church of Christ and three other reformed tradition churches joined the U.S. Roman Catholic Church to sign a historic agreement this week as the denominations will recognize each other's baptismal rites and celebrated the commitment publicly for the first time.
The formal agreement, known as the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism," is the product of seven rounds of discussions among the UCC, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Presbyterian Church (USA), Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America.
The Rev. Elizabeth Nash, an associate minister for the UCC's South Central Conference, signed the document for the denomination at the national meeting of Christian Churches Together in Austin, Texas.
The UCC Minister for Ecumenical Relations Karen Georgia Thompson said the move is a step forward for the work among the sides. "The fact that there was actually an agreement between the Reformed Churches and the Roman Catholic Church is helpful to a lot of folks in the UCC and Roman Catholic Church," Thompson said. "Many families live in more than one tradition, so it's helpful that families can be united in a common understanding of baptism."
The UCC is part of the reformed tradition, Thompson said, because it was formed in 1957 through a union of the Congregational Christian churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church.
"The dialogue between the reformed church and the Roman Catholics goes back 40 years, and there's been a commitment from the UCC to be part of that dialogue," Thompson said. "There have been several rounds of dialogues, and each round has been a different topic. In the last round (Round 7), the conversation was around Eucharist and baptism. The mutual recognition we are celebrating here came out of that dialogue."
The agreement was first approved by the UCC at the 2011 General Synod in Tampa, a moment Thompson described as "significant" in affirming the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism" signed by President and General Minister the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black.
Thompson and Nash were joined in Austin by the Rev. Sidney Fowler, a pastor at First Congregational UCC in Washington, D.C., as the UCC's representatives to the Christian Churches Together meeting.
Before the agreement, the Reformed Protestant churches had recognized the baptisms performed in Catholic traditions, but the Catholic Church had not accepted theirs.
"I don't think we, as the UCC, haven't recognized the baptism of others, but through mutuality, the Roman Catholic recognition of the way we perform baptisms in our church is significant," Fowler said. "It's reciprocal, and refreshing."
Fowler said the recognition of baptism represents "the reformed community coming together and appreciating each other, and our differences, in a new way. It allows us to go into a new dialogue with a new sense of communion."
Educate and celebrate. That's the inspiration behind the February observance of Black History Month by employees at the national offices of the United Church of Christ. The UCC's Black History Committee has planned an array of events and activities nearly every day during the month of February, featuring guest preachers at weekly worship services in the Church House’s Amistad Chapel.
But the experience of celebrating Black History Month isn’t limited to worship and allows a wide variety of participation.
"By offering different types of events and activities, we hope to provide shared educational opportunities," said Phyllis Richards, one of the members on the UCC's Black History Committee. "Our colleagues can participate at a time that is convenient for them. They can choose events that appeal to them, whether it is something they already like to do such as beading, poetry, food sampling or something new they would like to learn — like West African drumming."
Poetry reading, a day of soul-food sampling, a film festival and other events to incorporate African culture are all part of the entertainment. The UCC has also created a page of prayers, reflections, people profiles and resources on ways to commemorate Black History Month no matter where you are.
The committee sought to create a "shared experience" among its colleagues who choose to get involved in Black History Month observances, Richards said. "They can select the activities that suit them. Hopefully, we are providing something fun for everyone, as well as to help them learn more about African-American history and culture," she added.
Local TV news anchor Leon Bibb of Cleveland’s WEWS TV5 headlines a coffee house poetry day on Feb. 5. Bibb, a UCC member, will perform his original poetry (complete with costume changes) based on his past experiences as a reporter, Vietnam veteran and family memories.
A week later, the Church House will dish up soul food with a Mardi Gras flair on Fat Tuesday (Feb. 12), followed with a handful of movie screenings from Feb. 14-22 of documentaries on black culture and history.
The first of four Wednesday worship services is Feb. 6, as local vocalist Pat Harris performs a selection of songs in an all-music service; On Feb. 13, UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey Black will offer reflections on Ash Wednesday, and a week later Black History Committee member Gloria Otis, who works in Congregational Vitality & Discipleship Ministries, will preach. For the Feb. 27 service, Barbara Ferguson Kamara is a guest speaker. She is a former Peace Corps Volunteer to Liberia, and an appointee by President Carter to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.
It took 40 years, but the stain of a false conviction has finally been lifted. The Wilmington Ten, justice activists who became political prisoners in North Carolina in 1972 for a crime they didn’t commit, got their pardon from the state’s governor. After decades of persistence, UCC leaders past and present now say, finally, justice has prevailed.
"[The announcement was] breathtaking news to me and surely to many around the nation and the world," said Avery Post, who was president of the UCC from 1977 to 1989. "My guess is that others, like me, went suddenly quiet with gratitude for the courage and persistence of those who worked over 40 years for this extraordinary moment of justice."
North Carolina’s outgoing governor, Beverly Perdue, issued the pardons on Monday, Dec. 31, citing new evidence in the case.
The Wilmington Ten, the name by which the group of nine black men and one white woman became known, was wrongly convicted four decades ago in a Civil Rights-era case of firebombing a Wilmington, N.C., grocery store in 1971. One of the members, Benjamin F. Chavis, was a UCC justice worker.
After an evening of citywide protests and unrest, the Wilmington Ten were arrested and convicted of the charges — despite their pleas of innocence — related to the firebombing. The group included Chavis, then minister and civil rights community organizer for the UCC’s Commission for Racial Justice. Chavis was sent to help leaders meeting at Gregory Congregational UCC in Wilmington organize protests to ensure the area's schools were desegregated fairly.
Post continued, "I saw in that moment the long imprinted images of that racially tense time in Wilmington in 1971, the fire event in the grocery store in town leading to the false accusation of nine men and one woman, the providential presence in that scene of Ben Chavis, a United Church of Christ minister and [former head of] the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice and ultimately one of the accused."
Attorneys for the Wilmington Ten petitioned the state May 17 asking for a full pardon from Gov. Perdue. Three witnesses for the prosecution recanted their testimony in 1976, and NAACP members in November said they discovered notes about how the prosecutor tried to keep blacks off the jury. Perdue said in a statement she decided to grant the pardons "because the more facts I have learned about the Wilmington Ten, the more appalled I have become about the manner in which their convictions were obtained."
The Ten, ages 19 to 35 at the time of the 1971 trial, were sentenced to a combined 282 years in prison. Their sentences were commuted in 1978 by then-Gov. Jim Hunt, but he withheld a pardon. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the convictions in 1980 because of perjury and legal misconduct.
The case and the effort to prove the innocence of the Wilmington 10 was a galvanizing moment for the UCC’s racial justice efforts, Post said. Executive Council meetings and General Synod assemblies became affirmations of those efforts and expressions of solidarity, and in those gatherings the funding for legal assistance of the case took shape.
"Defending the Wilmington Ten became a corporate effort in the whole church, with faithful church-wide communication regarding the trials, the imprisonment of the Ten, the dreadful sentences of 25 and 35 years," Post said.
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, a member of the UCC’s Executive Council at the time and a former Connecticut Conference Minister, remembers the leadership Post provided.
"His insistence that we invest ourselves in justice for all 10, that we provide what ended up being about $500,000 to gain their freedom, and that we name the racism in their arrest and trial and imprisonment stands for me as a contemporary example of Christ-led ministry," she said.
Four of the 10 are now deceased (Jerry Jacobs, Ann Shepard, Connie Tindall and Joe Wright), and many of the six surviving members (Chavis, Reginald Epps, James McKoy, Wayne Moore, Marvin Patrick and Willie Earl Vereen) are older and in failing health.
The Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, said the news of the pardon is "a relief and certainly long overdue." She wrote an editorial in May calling on North Carolina to issue a pardon.
"The governor’s action finally comes after over 40 years of efforts to prove that this tragic case was a terrible miscarriage of justice," Jaramillo said. "We honor the names of the Wilmington Ten, including the former Executive Director of the UCC Commission for Racial Justice, Benjamin Chavis. Today, we lift in prayer all who suffered in this endurance race toward liberation.
"We are reminded of the tireless and courageous determination of so many who would not rest until justice was realized," Jaramillo added. "Gov. Perdue is to be commended for her action; however, we cannot forget that this case is one among many still pending. As we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King this month, may we remember his words, ‘a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’"
Always a leader in prophetic witness for peace with justice, the United Church of Christ has been at the forefront of human rights work since it was formed in 1957. In 1973, its General Synod, the main deliberative body of the denomination — outraged at the false charges and treatment of the prisoners — raised more than $1 million in bail to free the Wilmington Ten.
"But there has not been justice — until now," Post said.