She could be your sister, your daughter, your neighbor. A mother. In Mexico, she's also a commodity to buy and sell.
Sexual trafficking and exploitation is harsh reality in communities along the U.S.-Mexican border and beyond. That reality drew 13 people from the UCC's California-Nevada conferences to Centro Romero April 26-28 to take part in an immersion experience at the Center for Education and Social Transformation in San Ysidro, Calif. The group joined Dr. Carlos Correa Bernier, Director of Centro Romero, and three other UCC staff members to begin developing ways churches in the region can join efforts to address this growing problem of exploitation of women and children. A new way of being church, welcoming all.
"Our objectives are assistance, intervention and connection," said Correa. "We wanted to bring together religious and community leaders, researchers, and practitioners who work in enforcing trafficking laws and in providing direct support and prevention. We're looking into developing ways for future collaborative research, advocacy, and program development focusing on sex trafficking, and in equipping participants to educate others about the needs and risks of those who are victimized."
Commercial sexual exploitation on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border is big business. According to a study for Global Financial Integrity, sex trafficking is the second most profitable illegal business in the world, after the trade in illegal drugs. The border between San Diego and Tijuana has become an active location for sex trafficking, with most of the "consumers" coming from the U.S. side of the border. The women and children –– about 137,000 trafficked through Mexico annually –– range in age from 3 years to 65 years old.
The group met with Stephen Cass, a U.S. citizen now living in Mexico, who operates a ministry to rescue girls who are trafficked for sex. His is the only safe house in Tijuana. A gripping first-hand account of how the safe house literally can be a life changing experience came from a young woman who had been sexually abused by her father for years before receiving assistance. Her testimony touched a nerve with the Rev. Andrew (Andy) Schwiebert, lead pastor at (a)Spire Ministry, a new emergent community that is an extension of First Congregational UCC of Pasadena.
"I was moved by the courage of survivors of sex trafficking to share their stories of unthinkable, horrific abuse as young children at the hands of family and traffickers and at the hands of a violent system," said Schwiebert.
In broad daylight, the group made its way through the "Zone of Tolerance" (e.g., red light district) of Tijuana, where 300 young girls and transgender boys, many of them clearly aged 13-17, were awaiting sex work in plain view of federal and state police.
While in Tijuana, the group visited the only residential treatment program there that is free for those living with HIV/AIDS and talked to two young women, who shared moving and disturbing stories of being trafficked for sex. One was "bought" by an American who took her and her baby to Alaska and forced her to have sex with others. The second woman was lured into the business by a girlfriend, who first got her addicted to drugs.
"I can't comprehend how the victims of this tragic and exploitative industry cope with what must be mountains of pain. Knowing that a few manage to escape and that there are some working to support those who do offers a tiny flicker of hope," said Schwiebert. "The Romero Center is one among a few key places in the UCC that is rallying people of faith together for collective acts of compassion, mercy and justice."
The group, spurred by the people they met and what they saw, are generating ideas on what type of support UCC churches can offer –– with an additional safe house as one possibility.
Lisa McCally, a member of Congregational UCC of San Mateo, Calif., said, "I know some of us hope to help and/or support Carlos, UCC or Centro Romero in exploring ways to take action, including starting a safe house for victims in Rosarito or Tijuana."
Other important steps, the group noted, are educating our congregations and finding out what is going on in our own communities. McCally says her church is meeting in June to brainstorm ideas for ways to follow up locally and beyond. She already has joined a group in her hometown, the Bay Area Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition to learn how she can get involved in the fight against human trafficking.
"I believe this is an important time for members of the UCC to support positive solutions that both curb the demand among consumers of sex work and pornography, and offer support to those seeking a way out and new life," said Schwiebert.
"We're the biggest and fastest-growing LGBT-welcoming church movement in the world," said Andy Lang, executive director of the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns, which certifies and supports ONA congregations. "Every new ONA church is a community that restores LGBT Christians and their families to the Body of Christ, and potentially saves the lives of LGBT youth who need a clear message of acceptance."
Pillar of Love is an African-American congregation with a predominantly LGBT membership, says Phyllis Pennese, pastor. The church is also affiliated with the Fellowship of Affirming Ministries, a movement led by the Rev. Yvette Flunder.
"We're excited about this honor," Pennese said, "and we're planning to join the celebration when the Coalition's National Gathering comes to our home town in June." "Pillar of Love, like other ONA churches, is a community where LGBT individuals and families can be restored to wholeness," said Pennese. "Our church motto is that 'we have the courage to be all that God created.' I do believe that because so many of us in the LGBT and black LGBT community have been abused and brutalized in the church, the only way we can heal and grow and walk confidently into what God has called us to be is to be showered with love."
The ONA movement dates back to July 1985 when General Synod adopted a resolution "Calling on United Church of Christ Congregations to Declare Themselves Open and Affirming." The resolution urged churches to adopt "covenants" to "welcome gay, lesbian and bisexual people to join our congregation in the same spirit and manner used in the acceptance of any new members."
An explicit welcome for transgender Christians was not at first part of the ONA covenants adopted by congregations. But that changed in 2003 when General Synod's resolution "Affirming the Participation and Ministry of Transgender People" in the UCC came to the floor and passed by a wide margin. Since then, the Coalition has required new ONA congregations to include "gender identity or expression" or similar words in their covenants.
In 1985 Sam Loliger, then the Coalition's national coordinator, established the ONA registry. By 1987, 15 ONA congregations were certified and welcomed at General Synod that year. Also in 1987, the Coalition's ONA program hired its first coordinator –– Ann B. Day. "Little did I know that this was the beginning of 20 years of ministry," Day said.
"I think a lot of the early energy went into identifying the primary issues and developing resources that would address what were then gay and lesbian concerns," Day said of the early years. "And then it blossomed into bisexual and transgender work as well. So we needed to develop materials and standardize what we were asking congregations to do."
The issues in the 1980s were not very different from the questions congregations ask today when they begin their ONA journey.
"Members asked what 'affirmation' meant and whether 'we will become a gay church' if they adopted an ONA covenant,” said Day. "And at first we didn't anticipate how much work would be needed to help churches on the other side of their ONA commitment. We began to realize the Coalition also needed to support new ONA churches as they began to experience a whole new world of ministry."
Helping ONA churches live out the implications of their covenant is still one of the Coalition's top priorities, Lang said.
"The covenant is the beginning, not the end of the journey,” said Lang. "ONA congregations can experience the true power of their commitment when they advocate for LGBT youth who face bullying and threats in their schools, care for LGBT elders who need the support of a loving congregation, provide sanctuary for LGBT asylum seekers who will face prison or worse if forced to return to their homeland. An ONA ministry that reaches beyond the church into the community is the best way ONA churches can establish a visible presence in he LGBT community."
What is the impact of ONA congregations in the LGBT community? Days says that "it changes our lives and our families when we know there are churches that don't 'tolerate' but 'affirm' us, as the writers of the 1985 resolution intended. It makes a difference when our gifts are honored and our families are respected."
And the ONA journey has changed congregations, too. "Churches grow spiritually," Day said. "Many realize that the ONA experience is a turning point in their story as a community. They realize that ONA is not just for LGBT people, but for everybody in the church."
What does Day want for the future of the ONA movement? "I want the list to grow exponentially," she said. "I want congregations to experience the kind of spirit-filled transformation this movement is all about. I believe that, as this happens, we'll have growing impact not only on our church but on our culture. ONA is part of a growing interfaith welcoming-church movement and we're changing the face of American religion. It's amazing to think that we've been part of a new reformation in the church. I want this movement to grow because this is the community Jesus imagined for us. This is what the church is all about--to become a place of mutual respect and love."
The Coalition will welcome ONA congregation #1,000 at its annual National Gathering June 25-28 at Elmhurst College near Chicago, says Lang.
"Beginning today and continuing through the rest of the Coalition's 40th-anniversary year, we'll celebrate the phenomenal growth of this movement. But we'll also renew our commitment to grow the ONA family beyond its present boundaries," Lang said. "There are 4,000 other congregation in the UCC. That's where most LGBT youth are growing up and learning the faith. We want to invite them, too, into this life-changing, life-saving, Christ-centered experience of God's extravagant love."
The virtual celebration is beginning today on the Coalition's Facebook page at facebook.com/ucc.coalition.
Think. Act. Be.
Next week marks the beginning of Black History Month, a time to honor and elevate the many accomplishments of African Americans – individuals who thought boldly, acted differently, and had the courage to be themselves in the face of any and all adversity. The month of February also includes the start of the Lenten season (Feb. 22), when Christians from around the world prepare themselves for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a time when many commit to giving up selected distractions from their relationship with God — a time for you to think boldly, act differently, and be you.
In order to embrace these two important celebrations, the UCC national setting will be theming its communications throughout the month of February, providing daily and weekly reminders to recognize and honor those who have served before us and to challenge us to think, act, and be in today's world. The UCC will be coordinating this message throughout its communications, including Keeping You e-Posted (KYeP) weekly newsletters, Stillspeaking daily devotionals, the website, social media sites, and more.
Additionally, the Stillspeaking Writers' Group has compiled a brand new resource for this year's Lenten season. Titled, "Give It Up! Lenten Devotionals 2012," this 56-page devotional offers inspiration, humor, and unexpected insights for each day of Lent. "Give It Up" invites readers to rethink the Lenten themes of sacrifice, repentance and renewal in new and unexpected ways.
"The devotionals center on actions or ideas that we don't normally associate with Lent," said Ann Poston, UCC director of Publishing, Identity and Communication. "They are about the new life people can have by giving up things like worrying, or judging others, or underestimating yourself. We're hoping the book will help make Lent a deeper experience for people this year."
"Give It Up!" can be ordered from UCC Resources online or toll free by calling 800-537-3394.
At the UCC Church House in Cleveland, there also is a host of special events to honor Black History Month. During its weekly Wednesday noon services at the Amistad Chapel (located at 700 Prospect Avenue E. in downtown Cleveland), the public is invited to join an exciting line-up of speakers. These services will feature the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president (Feb. 1); the Rev. Paul Hobson Sadler Sr., pastor of Mt. Zion Congregational UCC in Cleveland (Feb. 8); U.S. Federal Judge Denise Page Hood (Feb. 15); and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (Feb. 29).
"The diversity of African-American leaders we celebrate during Black History Month, including those who will lead worship services in the UCC Church House each Wednesday in February, possess extraordinarily different backgrounds and senses of place," said Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life. "From the arts, local- and regional-community building, interfaith and global perspectives, their faith supports each tenet of 'Think. Act. Be.' "
Over the past year, voices across the United Church of Christ have highlighted three distinct values central to the life and mission of the church: God’s continuing testament, extending extravagant welcome, and the many ways the UCC is changing lives.
Rather than proscribing a set of beliefs or practices, these values are meant to guide and inform the world about how the “we” in the UCC are living out the call to be disciples of Christ.
"The core values capture the best of the UCC in a way that's very understandable and easy to articulate," says W. Mark Clark, the UCC’s associate general minister, about the UCC’s intentional commitment to these core values.
Clark also notes that the UCC’s Collegium of Officers is crafting a strategic plan for the national setting of the UCC. It will spend much of 2012 testing the "Big Holy Audacious Goals" contained in the plan in a variety of settings of the church, with a vision toward developing the best ways to implement these goals throughout the denomination.
The New Year brings an added emphasis on highlighting the UCC's core values in the stories we tell in United Church News, the pages of StillSpeaking Magazine and the consistent message from the UCC's more than 5,200 churches already living out these principles. Recent examples include the thousands of congregations that participated in Mission:1 and a continued emphasis on stillspeaking congregations and voices.
Changes are already underway. You'll notice the UCC homepage header has changed to proclaim the core values. In addition, an easy-to-share slideshow has more detail about the UCC’s core values and how they inform our life together.
“For I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink . . .” - Matthew 25: 35
Historically, religious organizations and nonprofit agencies have distributed food and meals to people in need. The sharp increases in such requests associated with high unemployment, cuts in the social safety net, decline in the value of public assistance benefits, and increases in housing and other costs has led to unprecedented growth of food banks, food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters and emergency food programs.
Below are 11 ideas for fun projects to help motivate your congregation to do food donations.
Simply choose a theme and place a large box in a convenient spot at your church so that members can deposit food items that will be delivered to the food bank or food pantry by a designated person at the church. Or encourage your members to deliver items to the food bank/pantry themselves.
1. “Plant a Row for the Hungry” – Plant an extra row in your vegetable garden and donate the harvest to the food shelters. You can also begin this project in the spring or begin to plant a container garden. Donating your extra produce will help others live better and healthier lives.
Things to note: It is important to first contact the local food pantry and make arrangements with the director or staffer at the food bank/pantry to receive your produce. Compile a list of all the government and independent food pantries in your county/community who accept donations of fresh fruits and vegetables. Circulate this list to other congregations.
If weather where you are located does not support planting a row this time of year, consider “planting a seed” by a forming a group to work your state Cooperative Extension agency to identify local Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) farms and recruit members for an early spring garden start.
2. “Casserole Wednesday” – Have your church members make Casseroles. Deliver these casseroles to local shelters and outreach centers. Volunteer at the shelter on this day by helping to serve the meal. Show extravagant hospitality by sitting down and breaking bread with community recipients.
3. Have a “Souper Day” – Ask your congregation to focus on gathering cans of soup. Soup contains many nutrients and has many health benefits. Choose soups that are lower in sodium and fat.
4. “Festive Fruity Friday” – Have everyone commit to donating fruit. Inquire if the food bank/shelter accepts fresh fruits, if not, focus on canned fruits that are packed in their own juices or have light syrup.
5. “Tasty Tuna Saturday” – Whether you’re a fisher who could provide a fresh catch or a shopper who could hook some cans, your donations will be much appreciated. Bring these items to your church to be delivered to the food bank/pantry. Fish and meats are good sources of protein and can be mixed with lots of vegetables and grains for a nice meal.
6. “Dedication and Commitment Sunday” – Choose a Sunday and ask your congregation to commit to bringing cans on that day. Designate a special time in the morning service where members may come forward with their food donations and drop them into a special basket in front of the altar. Have a special dedication and prayer over the food items. The items may be delivered to the food bank/shelter during the week.
Take it further and distribute simple “pledge” cards that members by which members of your community can pledge to donate food to pantries and food banks for an entire year. Have members drop their pledge cards into the offering plate. Print out a list of those who have pledged and post it somewhere in the church. Encourage others to pledge throughout the year.
7. “Miscellaneous Mondays” – On this day ask people to donate whatever they’ve got lying around in their house! Bring it to the church to be donated to the pantry/food bank.
8. “Cereal and Oatmeal Shoppers” – Choose a day to donate cereals that are multi-grain with low sugar content. Donate low sodium oatmeal. Cereals supply protein, vitamins and minerals.
9. “Pasta Party” – Focus on collecting all kinds of Pasta! Pasta is a food source of carbohydrates. Don’t forget to add the sauce – tomato-based sauces are good.
10. “Thankful Thursday” – Use this day to collect items for Thanksgiving dinners. Many shelters will prepare and serve thanksgiving meals. Donate turkeys that can be frozen (check to make sure that the food bank has a freezer), dry mashed potato flakes, canned vegetables, condiments, bread, etc. Don’t forget the cranberry sauce!
11. “Calling all Pet Lovers” – People are making choices between feeding their pets and feeding themselves. Many families have to give up their pets because they can no longer feed them. Give donations of pet foods to the shelter or food bank so that people can support their pets and families when they are struggling financially.
Excerpted from the Mission: 1 "Food Donation Resource"