Across UCC, churches approach Eucharist with diverse traditions, meaningful practices
World Communion Sunday may come and go without much fanfare, foregoing celebrity hype and lacking attention-grabbing scandal.
But in an increasing globalized world, where differences can be divisive, sharing in the elements of the Lord's Supper is the quiet constant that unites believers of Christ — that grace, redemption and healing are afforded through the simple sharing of sacred bread and cup.
On Oct. 7, congregations across the UCC and countless other denominations will celebrate Holy Communion. For some it will be a somber occasion. For others, the elements will be received joyfully.
Sue Blain, the UCC's minister for worship, reflecting on the myriad of different ways that Holy Communion is celebrated, shared and distributed among Christians, says, "I think the ideal would be for folks to experience communion in a variety of different ways."
Blain says that when communion is served in the pews, it symbolizes God coming among the people, feeding them. "But having to make a choice to move forward has another level of commitment in some respects," she says. "Both are true, both are valid," says Blain. "I think we could experience all of that and be enriched spiritually."
At UCC's Cathedral of Hope, communion is weekly highpoint
Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, regards itself as the largest liberal Christian church in the world with a primary outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Each week, at Sunday morning services and a Wednesday night contemporary worship, communion is celebrated.
The Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson, senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC, says the decision to serve communion each week came from both practical and spiritual reasons.
"Nobody grew up in this congregation," explains Hudson, who says that the 37-year-old congregation is comprised largely of transplants from the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist traditions. "For those who come out of a tradition where communion, or the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist is served every week, that's essential to their worship life."
"I think this church also needed that sacrament of grace in a way many churches might not have felt that need," Hudson says. "This congregation suffered greatly during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It had close to 1,500 people die of AIDS. [Communion] became an important part of the healing of the congregation."
Hudson describes communion as being a high point of each worship service.
"The emphasis is on celebration of the feast, the joy of receiving, and the hope contained within that," she says. "Some of the older liturgies are more focused on sin and repenting. Not that we don't recognize that sin exists, but we interpret the sacrament as an act of grace that is designed to bring hope, peace and reconciliation to people."
Having communion each week has become so central that Hudson feels its importance in worship is as a response to God's Word.
"The sacred moment of that sacrament is so powerful, in terms of helping people heal," she says. "It offers grace. We're so committed to the notion that 'Everyone is welcome to the table.' We want to demonstrate that every single week."
Join Cathedral of Hope UCC for worship online at www.cathedralofhope.com.
Disciples/UCC local churches prompt examination of communion 'frequency'
First Congregational UCC in San Jose, Calif., has a long-standing relationship with the United Disciples Fellowship, a congregation of the Disciples of Christ. The two faith communities share facilities and worship, but both keep true to their own denomination's interpretations.
The Rev. Nathan A. Miller says that the relationship between the two churches can sometimes seem confusing to outsiders, but says the partnership has worked seamlessly.
"[The UDF] resembles a house church," explains Miller, who shares his ministerial responsibilities with his associate, the Rev. Nancy C. Peters.
"They meet on the first Saturday of every month in someone's home. They have a worship time, a program time, and a business meeting time. Part of their worship time is always the sacrament of communion, in keeping with the Disciples tradition."
Each Sunday, both congregations share in a common worship service, and the church has found a way to honor the Disciples' tradition of weekly communion, even though the UCC congregation traditionally celebrates the Lord's Supper just once a month.
"At the close of the organ postlude — we're very careful not to say 'at the close of worship' because this is a continuation of worship — people have already been invited to come forward to communion if they wish," says Miller. The UDF furnishes the bread and wine, and communion is served by intinction up around the communion table in the chancel. All are welcome, and Miller says that besides the UDF members, many visitors and UCC members will also take part in the sacrament.
Miller admiringly describes the UDF congregation as "an empowered bunch" and says its members are very theologically astute.
While Peters is a member of UDF, Miller is not. Still, Miller says the UDF is very gracious in welcoming him to events, but says, "they are really self-sufficient in all the positive ways." And the UCC congregation has benefited greatly from the special interest the UDF has taken in sponsoring adult education events, such as a lectureship series.
Miller says while worship style between UCC and Disciples of Christ communities are very similar, the two sacraments — communion and baptism — are viewed quite differently.
"We understand the act of communion much the same, but the frequency hardly matches any UCC church," he says. As for baptism, Miller says, "The Disciples of Christ tradition practices adult baptism, which is a practice of the UCC, but infrequent. And the Disciples immerse."
While serving a church in Mesa, Ariz., Miller remembers his church, a union between Disciples of Christ and UCC, sprinkled the UCC babies and immersed the Disciples young teens and adults. "We'd roll in a tank and fill it up with a hose—it took a day to do it—and there was a heater so that the water wasn't too cold!"
These differences, Miller says, have never gotten in the way. On World Communion Sunday, the UDF members will lead the entire worship, serving communion in the joint worship service with First Congregational UCC in San Jose, and both congregations will partake in the elements, united in Christ.
"Our UCC people only see enhancement of our ministry," says Miller, "and I think the Disciples group sees only enhancement to their ministry. It's just part of who we are."
Pastor: Holy Communion calls us to universal solidarity
"There's a surplus of meaning in the sacrament, and we don't want to nail it down to one thing," says the Rev. Mary Luti, one of the pastors at First Church in Cambridge (Mass.) UCC.
Luti says her congregation celebrates communion once monthly at the morning worship, besides special feast days. A Sunday afternoon service featuring gospel and jazz music serves weekly communion.
Luti feels there is a renewed interest in ritual action across the UCC, not only in the sacrament of communion, but also healing and anointing.
"It's a positive development," she says. "It recovers some of the most ancient traditions of the church that are neither Catholic nor Protestant. They are simply practices that help our bodies and our minds."
To Luti, making sure the communion service never loses its edge is the key to making the ritual meaningful and thought-provoking.
"Very often we repeat the line, 'Jesus sat down to supper with the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him.' That line refers to Judas and Peter," she says.
"There is a challenge there. How do we sit with our enemies? How do we sit with the people we don't agree with, or who don't love us?"
"On World Communion Sunday, a lot of churches are rediscovering the universal aspect of our communion," says Luti. "These rituals are among the ways we show forth and also ground our solidarity with people all over the world."
For Luti, communion has a meaning that transcends time and place. "During communion," she says, "we really link up with the church as it has been, as it is now, and as it will be … we look forward to the day when everyone will be fed around this table with equal joy and equal justice."
For 20 years, the UCC has been asking, What color is toxic waste?
Like millions of others, Sheila Holt-Orsted's family dreamed of owning their own home. But that dream became a nightmare.
An African-American resident of Dickson, Tenn. - a small town about 35 miles west of Nashville — Sheila, like many of her relatives, was born and raised in Dickson's 'Eno Road' community, a place where the Holts and other descendants of slaves had called home for generations.
Eno Road first became Dickson's preferred site for city dumping in the 1940s. Subsequently, over several decades, the now 74-acre Dickson County Landfill - an open, unlined site - has been used as the principal dumping ground for multiple sanitation, construction and demolition projects.
Despite the fact that over 1,400 residents obtain their drinking water from private wells or springs within a four-mile radius of the landfill, industrial solvents - generated as waste from nearby automotive plants and other industries - were buried within a mere 54 feet of the Holt family's front door.
Sheila's father died of prostate and bone cancer in January 2007. And during his illness, Sheila, a personal fitness trainer, was shocked to learn that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Several other family members also had endured significant illness, including cervical and colon polyps, rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders and immune disorders.
Sheila discovered that her family had been drinking water — for four decades - from a well contaminated by trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen.
Muddying the toxic waters
Even after government testing had revealed that the area's water supply was contaminated, Tennessee's Department of Health and Environment continued to allow the operation of the Eno Road landfills.
White families who lived near the landfill, however, were quickly notified about the results of the testing. They were provided with bottled water until they could be placed on the city water system.
Yet the Holt family was provided misinformation about the quality of their well water.
"Your water is of good quality for the parameters tested," read a 1998 letter sent to the Holt family from the Department of Health and Environment. "It is felt that the low levels of methylene or trichloroethylence may be due to either lab or sampling error."
But, soon, the lie would be exposed.
"For four decades, [my family] drank well water poisoned by the Dickson County Landfill," Sheila says. "We are all sick, and the government seems to be waiting for us to die."
What happened to Sheila Holt-Orsted's family is not an oversight. It is not an accident or unfortunate twist of fate.
Although Dickson County covers over 490 square miles, the only cluster of solid waste facilities in the county is located in the predominantly African-American Eno Road community.
All permitted landfills in Dickson County are concentrated in Eno Road, which is certainly no coincidence. It is yet another concrete sign of environmental racism.
UCC jumpstarts a movement
Twenty years ago, the UCC began its hard-fought campaign to bring environmentally racist practices to the forefront of the public consciousness. Yet, despite the church's insistence that such practices be ended, evidence of the ongoing struggle is clear.
In 1987, a groundbreaking study on the connection between race and the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities was released by the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice.
"Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States" found race to be the leading variable in predicting the location of hazardous waste sites, a stronger indicator than household income, home values, and estimated amount of hazardous waste generated by industry.
To this day, the 1987 UCC study is widely credited by community leaders, environmental activists and leaders from all levels of government as the pivotal element in the environmental justice movement.
U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) dubs the study as "keystone."
"As the first comprehensive national report to truly document the link between race and the location of hazardous waste sites, Toxic Wastes and Race catapulted the concern of environmental racism to national prominence," Hastings says. "This keystone document established the foundation for the development of the environmental justice movement."
Eileen McGurty, associate chair of the environmental sciences and policy department at Johns Hopkins University, says, "The scope and scale of the study pioneered and entirely new area of investigation. All subsequent research about equity in the distribution of environmental risk was a response to the UCC's methodology and conclusion."
The UCC study influenced generations of advocates. And many of those touched had no knowledge of or connection with the UCC. Monique Harden, an attorney, is the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans, La.
"At the age of 19 when the UCC published Toxic Wastes and Race, I was completely unaware of this study and the signifi cant role it would have in my advocacy work 10 years later," Harden says. "Without the report, the voices of each polluted community of color where I provide legal advocacy assistance would be muted."
Injustice 'not an accident'
The Rev. Carlos Correa Bernier serves as minister for environmental justice with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
Correa first became aware of the study during his work as a psychologist with the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his counseling work with Spanish-speaking families, Correa says he observed a high frequency of cognitive development problems in children.
He learned that 80 percent of the Spanish-speaking families he was seeing were from the Tijuana region of Mexico, an area heavily concentrated with maquiladoras, U.S. factories that relocated to Mexico and other countries where companies could take advantage of lax labor environmental practices.
One of the primary industries that located in the Tijuana region was television manufacturing, where workers on the assembly line - many of them women carrying pregnancies - were exposed to high levels of mercury, a heavy metal contaminant associated with cognitive development problems.
In his work, Correa was able to connect the dots between exposure to heavy metals in the Tijuana maquiladoras and the cases of cognitive development problems in the children he saw in Chicago. The UCC's 1987 study gave Correa a larger conceptual framework which to understand his work with Latino children in Chicago.
"What we see today," Correa says, "is what we saw in 1987. The greater exposure to toxic wastes experienced by communities of color is not an accident. It is by design."
Companies intentionally locate their waste sites in communities of color, Correa says, because they know such communities frequently lack the resources to fight the placement of such sites in their communities.
Origins of landmark study
In late 1970s to early 1980s, the then-governor of North Carolina promised industries that they could have a landfill to dispose of wastes in impoverished Warren County. Placing a landfill in the area, which is predominantly African American, was seen by the state as an attractive solution to the problem of illegally-dumped PCPs along roadways in 14 North Carolina counties.
But the state of North Carolina underestimated the power of county residents — and the possibilities that come with zealous community organizing.
Dollie Burwell, a long-time UCC lay leader who is now a staff member for U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfi eld (D-N.C.), was on the front lines of the struggle to block the landfill in Warren County.
In 1978, Dollie was among a group of residents who formed Concerned Citizens Against PCPs. From the beginning, the group understood its efforts to be part of a larger and more long-term movement. Burwell and others saw their activism around the landfill as yet another extension of the Civil Rights Movement.
From 1978 to 1980, state hearings were held on the landfill proposal. Burwell recalls that it was a time when residents joined together across racial lines in a common effort to protect the health of their families.
Despite turnouts of hundreds of residents at the state hearings expressing opposition to the landfill proposal, construction of the landfill began in 1982.
In August 1982, Burwell joined more than 500 protesters who stood in front of the construction trucks in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Early that morning, Burwell recalls preparing her nine-yearold daughter, Kim, for school. But Kim had other plans. "I'm not going to school," Kim told her mother. "I'm going with you."
When Burwell was arrested for impeding traffic and led to the police wagon, she could see her daughter watching and crying. The young child's sobbing was captured by numerous media stories and helped to galvanize college students and activists from outside the state to join the fight against the landfill.
Although the landfill was ultimately constructed, community activists succeeded in their call for a General Accounting Office investigation of toxic waste dumping in the Southeast U.S.
And the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ), which had supported the nonviolent protest of Warren County residents, was moved to take another step.
CRJ commissioned a study to examine patterns in the placement of hazardous waste sites. The now-famous UCC study was a breakthrough for the environmental justice movement.
In releasing the report, then UCC staffer Charles Lee coined the term "environmental racism," now a commonly recognized phrase used in the environmental movement.
Not surprisingly, Lee now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of environmental justice.
The role of churches and people of faith is not something new to justice movements, but it can be said that the UCC arrived early when it comes to environmental justice.
"For such a time as this" is how Burwell describes how her faith led to her involvement. And she's proud that local churches, including UCC congregations, were key centers of organizing in the environmental justice movement.
Correa says those communities facing the greatest impact of toxic dumping and exposure recognized the power of the church as a prophetic voice. They recognize that faith communities have helped to bring the issue of environmental racism to greater prominence in public consciousness.
"They didn't just call the lawyers right away," Correa says. "They called the churches."
Churches provided much-needed information and became sources of moral and theological empowerment, he says.
In Warren County, those who once may have considered themselves too poor or too uneducated to get anything accomplished found encouragement in church basements. More and more African Americans became involved in local elections, as people made the personal connection between politics and their own well-being.
Ultimately, residents' organizing efforts led to a government-mandated clean-up of the Warren County landfill in 2003, a process that included community planning and monitoring.
The landfill site is now a recreational park.
There have been precious victories over the past 20 years. What, if anything, has truly changed?
This persistent question led the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries to commission a 20th anniversary follow-up report, which was released earlier this year and celebrated at General Synod in June.
The newest study, "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007," applied new methodology to better determine where people live in relation to toxic sites, revealing that racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste sites are, in fact, greater than previously reported.
"Twenty years after the release of Toxic Wastes and Race, significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities," reads the report's executive summary. "Although the current assessment uses newer methods that better match where people and hazardous waste facilities are located, the conclusions are very much the same as they were in 1987."
The 2007 study was authored by Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University; Paul Mohai, professor at University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment; Robin Saha, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana; and Beverly Wright, sociologist and founding director of UCC-related Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
According to the study, people of color comprise the majority of the population living near the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities.
Researchers found that for Latino/as, African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders, major disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities exist in the majority of the Environmental Protection Agency's regions.
The findings are particularly troubling, because they indicate that those environmental protections that do exist on the books are not equally enforced.
The still-fresh images of the painful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 paint the story of the UCC's newest report.
Several weeks after the storm, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality gave the okay to the city of New Orleans to open the 200-acre Old Gentilly Landfill in east New Orleans for dumping demolition waste from the storm. In the 1980s, federal regulators had ordered the landfill closed.
Yet, four months after the hurricane, debris trucked to the Old Gentilly Landfill stood 100 feet high. Objections from residents, environmentalists and even some high-ranking officials went unheeded. In November 2005, the landfill caught fire.
Correa, Burwell and other activists agree that it is time for the eco-justice and environmental justice movements to join together.
Remembering her experiences in Warren County, N.C., Burwell recalls, "We [once] thought the environmental movement was about whales, not about us."
But there is growing understanding among advocates that environmental justice must have a more-comprehensive vision.
"We need to start thinking more theologically about environmental justice," Correa says. "We need to offer a vision that is rooted in our biblical and theological understanding of all of creation." The preface of the UCC's 2007 report echoes this call for a larger vision.
"There is only one environment," it reads. "The environmental justice movement is concerned about wetlands, birds, and wilderness areas; it is also concerned, however, about urban habitats, about reservations, about the things that are happening on the U.S-Mexico border, about children poisoned by lead in their own homes and about children playing in contaminated parks and playgrounds."
The stories of Sheila Holt-Orsted, the residents of New Orleans and countless others show that addressing the racial inequalities in exposure to environmental risk requires not only better environmental protection laws, but the vigilant monitoring of government agencies tasked with enforcing current laws.
Shelia can only wonder what her family's life would be like had the government's testing of well water in Dickson County, Tenn., had been equitably reported.
Justice demands something more than "what if."
Sandy Sorensen, a veteran public policy advocate in the UCC's Washington, D.C., offi ce, is acting communications minister for Justice and Witness Ministries.
People of color make up the majority of those living in neighborhoods located within 1.8 miles of the nation's hazardous waste facilities.
Neighborhoods with facilities clustered close together have higher percentages of people of color than those with non-clustered facilities.
As a whole, racial disparities for people of color exist in 9 out of 10 EPA regions.
Existing laws and land-use controls have not been adequately applied in order to reduce health risks for those living in or near toxic "hot spots."
Findings in UCC's 2007 report are consistent with an Associated Press study in Sept. 2005 showing African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of causing the greatest health danger.
As in previous budgets, the Bush Administration FY08 budget recommends a 28.4 percent cut to the budget of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice. ($4.58 million has been recommended, down from $6.34 million enacted in the FY06 budget and FY07 continuing resolution).
Source: "Toxic Wastes and Race 1987-2007"
The Rev. Myron Ross, 82, the fi rst African-American ordained in the Evangelical and Reformed Church, who also served for many years in Japan, starting in 1954, as the E&R's fi rst African-American missionary, died of lung cancer on May 11 in St. George, Utah. Ross, an activist in the Civil Rights Movement entered Eden Theological Seminary as a Presbyterian, but later told an audience at the UCC-related seminary in St. Louis that he joined the Evangelical and Reformed Church (which would soon become the UCC) because he was inspired by the intellectual vigor of his seminary professors.
The Rev. Chester Terpstra, 89, former Hawaii Conference Minister from 1968 to 1978, died April 12 in Sequim, Wash., after a long illness. During his ministry, Terpstra also served several pastorates in Hawaii and was a missionary, along with his wife, Margery, in Pohnpei.
The Rev. Robert Molsberry, UCC pastor in Grinnell, Iowa, is the candidate for Ohio Conference Minister and will be considered by the Conference on July 27-28. The Rev. Sheldon Culver, Missouri/Mid-South Associate Conference Minister, is the candidate for Illinois South Minister and will be considered when the Conference meets Sept. 7-8.
Anderson, Paul N. to First Cong. UCC, East Troy, WI
Ashley, Timothy S. Spring Grove, PA to St. Paul"s UCC, Sheboygan, WI
Bracebridge, Shawn E. Clifton Park, NY to Cong. UCC, West Stockbridge, MA
Breedlove, Christopher J. San Antonio, TX to Trinity UCC, Jasper, IN
Brownell, Jennifer G. to Community UCC, Hillsdale, OR
Burd, James K. to Association Minister, Wauwatosa, WI
Clippinger, Arthur P. Massillon, OH to Trinity UCC and St. Peter"s UCC, Clinton, OH
Comeau, Megan E. Worcester, MA to Central UCC, Orange, MA
Cornell, Edward F. to Second Cong. UCC, New London, CT
Dunlap-Wolfe, Barbara J. Potosi, WI to Immanuel UCC, Woodman, WI
Favreau-Sorvillo, Jeanne M. Redlands, CA to Cong. UCC, Diamond Bar, CA
Fournier, Richard T. Northampton, MA to First. Cong. UCC, Buckland, MA
Frazier, Kenneth A. to First Cong. UCC, Waterbury, CT
Frueh, Donald G. to First Cong. UCC, Salem, OR
Gregory, Kevin P. Appleton, WI to St. John"s UCC, Manchester, MO
Harris, George M. to Second Cong. UCC, New Britain, CT
Haslanger, Phillip C. Madison, WI to Memorial UCC, Fitchburg, WI
Holman, Gail F. to Phoenix Community UCC, Kalamazoo, MI
Hudson, John F. Concord, MA to Pilgrim UCC, Sherborn, MA
Jacobsen, Steven D. to Cong. UCC, Mentone, CA
Kwon, Yul Madison, WI to UCC, Hancock, WI
LaMarche, Nichol M. to Federated, Cotuit, MA
Manz, Kevin to Plymouth, Lawrence, KS
McHugh, Nancy S. Cedar Grove, NY to UCC, Waitsfi eld, VT
Morkin, Charles W. Sturgeon Bay, WI to United, Holyoke, MA
Nelson, John A. Dover, MA to Community UCC, Niantic, CT
Nichols, J. Christopher Goshen, CT to First Cong. UCC, Madison, CT
Pastors, Jennifer to Colonial UCC, Prairie Village, KS
Patton, Alison B. Chicago, IL to First Church of Christ UCC, Simsbury, CT
Robinson, Olivia H. to Cong. UCC, Kensington, CT
Rogers-Brigham, Ann M. East Orleans, MA to Immanuel UCC, Plymouth, WI
Scott, Judith I. Kingston, RI to Evangelical UCC, Marysville, KS
Shiels, Joan M. to Hope UCC, Sturgeon Bay, WI
Stone, Kenton V. Lawrence, KS to First Cong. UCC, Topeka, KS
Szyszko, Dolores B. to Church of the Good Shepherd UCC, South Woodstock, CT
Vaccariello, Carol Medina, OH to Cong. UCC, North Canton, OH
Wagner, Johanna Easthampton, MA to Church of Christ UCC, Granby, MA
Watson, Jimmy R. Terre Haute, IN to St. Andrew UCC, Louisville, KY
Wenzel, Lorrie M. to Calvary Memorial UCC, Wauwatosa, WI
Woitasek, Walter Springfi eld, MA to Church of Christ UCC, Granby, MA
Wyatt, Andrea C. Holliston, MA to Pilgrim UCC, Lexington, MA
Yonkman, Nicole G., Kettering, OH to UCC, Fishers, IN
Yonkman, Todd G., Kettering, OH to UCC, Fishers, IN
Information on pastoral changes is provided by UCC"s parish life and leadership ministry.
Adams, Ann. B., 52, 5/3/2007
Bourne, Donald S., 94, 5/24/2007
Bowers, Daniel A., 88, 4/21/2007
Gerber, John A., 91, 4/10/2007
Gregory, Lillian S., 92, 3/28/2007
Klein, Ernest C., 82, 5/28/2007
Pirazzini, Francis X., 84, 5/6/2007
Ross, Myron W., 82, 5/11/2007
Tom, Vernon G.S., 65, 3/26/2007
Vodola, Esther, 95, 5/18/2007
Information on clergy deaths is provided by UCC"s Pension Boards
The Southern Baptist Convention, with some 16.2 million members on the books, claims to be the nation's largest Protestant denomination. But the Rev. Thomas Ascol believes the active membership is really a fraction of that. Ascol, pastor of the 230-member Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla., points to a church report showing that only 6 million Southern Baptists attend church on an average Sunday.
"The reality is, the FBI couldn't find half of those (members) if they had to," said Ascol, who asserts his own congregation attendance swells to at least 350 every Sunday. Ascol is urging his denomination to call for "integrity in the way we regard our membership rolls in our churches and also in the way we report statistics."
For religious organizations, membership figures are a lot like a position on the annual list of best colleges. A rise is trumpeted as a sign of vitality, strength and clout. And a drop probably means somebody somewhere checked the wrong box on some unimportant survey.
Vast differences in theology and accounting practices make it nearly impossible to really know how many members a church body has, whether active or occasional worshippers.
That, in turn, makes side-by-side comparisons nearly impossible.
"Church membership is not as straightforward as it seems," said the Rev. Eileen Lindner, associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "It's not like, who's a member of Costco?"
Lindner, a Presbyterian, produces the NCC's annual Yearbook of Canadian and American Churches, which is widely seen as an authoritative source for church membership statistics. But even she knows there are limits.
"A person who attends the Church of God in Christ on Wednesday evening and an (African Methodist Episcopal) service on Sunday morning will likely be included in both counts," the 2007 Yearbook cautions.
Here's a quick look at some of the factors that go into collecting church membership statistics, and why they can be so problematic:
"Numbers are only as reliable as the church officials who collect them. "For some, very careful counts are made of members," the 2007 Yearbook says. "Other groups only make estimates."
For example, the National Baptist Convention of America Inc., a historically black denomination, has reported a steady 3.5 million members since 2000 — no additions, no deletions.
The National Missionary Baptist Convention's numbers have been frozen at 2.5 million since 1992.
Dale Jones, chairman of the 2000 Religious Congregations and Membership Study, which draws from 149 religious groups, said statisticians are wary of membership numbers ending in several zeros, though he declined to cite examples.
"There are groups that we just question, 'Where did they come up with those figures?'" he said.
Often a church's understanding of membership — how it is started, how it is maintained and how it can be revoked — influences counts.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), with 13 million members worldwide, is often reported to be one of the "fastest-growing" churches in the United States. Mormons start enrolling children as members through baptism at age 8. Members stay on the rolls — even if they move to another church — unless they ask to be removed or are excommunicated.
"Baptism is a sacred covenant. We believe it has eternal consequences," spokeswoman Kim Farah said. "Baptism is a very sacred thing, and it's a very personal thing, and far be it for us to take someone off the church membership except if they have asked."
Ascol, the Southern Baptist, takes issue with some churches that enroll people after they answer an altar call and commit themselves to following Jesus. He says it's a superficial means of joining the church and requires no real commitment. Even after those members disappear, the denomination counts them, he said.
"Just because you call yourself Southern Baptist doesn't make you Christian. Just because you go to church doesn't make you Christian," he said. "Our desire is to see people born again. Church membership and the Baptist understanding of that is a covenanted relationship."
Roman Catholics, the largest U.S. church with a reported 69 million members, start counting baptized infants as members and often don't remove people until they die. Most membership surveys don't actually count who's in the pews on Sunday.
To be disenrolled, Catholics must write a bishop to ask that their baptisms be revoked, said Mary Gautier, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a research center affiliated with Georgetown University.
That means it is possible, for example, to be born Catholic, married Methodist, die Lutheran and still be listed as a member of the 1-billion-member Roman Catholic Church.
"The Catholic understanding of membership is that a person becomes a member upon baptism and remains a member for life," Gautier said. "Whether you show up at church or not is not what determines whether you're a member."
Mainline Protestant churches — the UCC, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others — are roundly criticized for hemorrhaging members for 40 years. And while membership has surely dropped, mainline churches are often the first to cleanse their rolls of the inactive to produce a more accurate figure.
The 15 million-member Seventh-Day Adventists, for example, saw their U.S. numbers drop in recent years in part because a church audit found duplicates on membership rolls, said Kathleen Jones, an assistant for general statistics for the denomination. Those duplicates are being purged.
Often, new pastors want up-to-date numbers because they don't want to be blamed for any drops, said Lindner of the NCC. And some denominations assess fees to congregations based on membership, so the smaller the numbers, the smaller the fees.
When asked about voting habits, belief in God or their feelings toward race or gender, Americans are notorious for answering what they think pollsters want to hear. Church demographers say the same rings true for church attendance.
Some studies show more Americans consider themselves Southern Baptist than are accounted for by the denomination's own numbers, said Roger Finke, director of the Association of Religion Data Archives at Penn State.
The same is true of Catholics and Presbyterians, Finke said. And while an estimated 53 percent of Americans consider themselves Protestant, "surveys of denominational membership find that only 35 percent (of the general population) are estimated to be members of a local congregation," he said.
"Many people who are not members of a local church still view themselves as being Protestant, Catholic or some other religion, even though they're not actively involved in a church."
Apples to oranges?
While the UCC prides itself on accurate membership data, the church's institutional honesty often leads to attacks by critics. Here's evidence that counting doesn't always add up.
UCC churches report annually on membership additions (confessions of faith, reaffirmations, transfers in) and deletions (death or transfer out). Most do not include children in their membership tallies until after they are confi rmed, and most periodically cleanse their rolls of inactive members, especially when a new pastor arrives.
The Roman Catholic Church reports all who have been baptized in the Catholic faith, from infancy to death. In order to be excluded from the count, lapsed Catholics must write a letter to a bishop requesting their membership be revoked.
Because it insists that baptism is eternal, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- Day Saints never weeds out members from its tally. The Mormon faith only removes those the church has officially excommunicated or those who specifically request termination.
Some church bodies have used the same membership totals for years. The National Baptist Convention has reported its total at 3.5 million since 2000. The National Missionary Baptist Convention's 2.5 million count has not been revised up or down since 1992.
'To comfort the wounded and bereaved is a tremendous privilege'
The Rev. John Gundlach, a retired Navy Chaplain of 27 years, now serves as the UCC's minister for government chaplaincy. He ministers to the many men and women who are serving the U.S. military as chaplains and their spouses.
"The challenges to our chaplains and their families today are many," he says. "We have had quite a few of our chaplains serve in Iraq — Air Force, Army and Navy chaplains, active duty, reserve and National Guard. They have to be away from their families during deployments for a year to 15 months at a time. This is hard on marriages and families, and requires a period of readjustment even for the strongest relationships."
Gundlach adds that many chaplains who have served in Iraq have returned with symptoms of post traumatic stress. That's why he especially wants to thank UCC clergy who serve as chaplains in the Department of Veterans
"They minister in a myriad of ways to our returning veterans," he says. "They care for those who have been wounded by the horrors of war — those with physical wounds like traumatic brain injuries and amputations, with those who are mentally and spiritually bereft, and those suffering from [post traumatic stress] and a variety of addictions."
"In spite of the cost, there are joys in this ministry," says Gundlach. "Being in there with others in some of the most extreme circumstances any person can endure, and helping to remind them of their humanity as well as the humanity of the enemy, being there to offer the assurance of God's grace, to comfort the wounded and the bereaved, is a tremendous privilege. It's a mantle that few clergy are willing or able to take up, but for our clergy who are called to be military chaplains, it is truly a high calling."
Letters from our UCC military chaplains:
Editor's note: In a two-part series called 'Letters from chaplains,' United Church News has compiled reflections on their ministries from several UCC clergy who serve as military chaplains — at U.S. military bases and hospitals, as well as on foreign deployment. More 'letters from chaplains' will appear in our July-August issue.
The Rev. Rob Heckathorne, a local parish minister and son of a retired-reservist, didn't enter the Navy as a chaplain until July 2001, "at the ripe age of 46." Before that, he served local parishes in both Presbyterian and UCC churches, while volunteering with the Civil Air Patrol, the official auxiliary to the U.S. Air Force. Currently, he is the only UCC chaplain serving on active duty with the United States Coast Guard.
I strongly believe that God places his faithful where Christ's ministry can be realized. Though significantly older than the sailors whom I have counseled and loved (in most cases twice their age), my life experiences, my longevity in the parish, being a parent of similarly aged children, has proved to help me provide more effective ministry.
Ministry among the Coast Guard is unique to the other services in many regards. The Coast Guard's role is a multi-tasked maritime service with eclectic responsibilities from safeguarding fish hatcheries and environmental protection, to providing port security, to lifesaving missions. The diversity of its mission can change each day. During my tour I have had the blessing and opportunity to help in responding to a devastating tsunami and four major hurricanes. In each of these I have witnessed the exceptional integration of our military services with our civilian communities. And similarly have witnessed the collegiality of chaplains from diverse traditions melding seamlessly in an effort to meet the ministry needs of the service personnel and often the civilian communities.
I often wrestle with the concept of how and where can I meet a particular person where he or she might be in their journey of who God is to him or her. At the same time I realize that for many young people with whom I connect, I am of the very first Minister of the Word and Sacrament that they have ever met. That is a great responsibility and opportunity.
The Rev. David C. Nutt, a chaplain in the Connecticut Army National Guard since 1999 and its full-time state support chaplain since August 2005, was called into active duty out of Waterbury, Conn., in June 2006. Nutt is moved by the support from the UCC's Local Church Ministries and local UCC churches.
The high points [of this ministry] come when a soldier 'gets it' that he or she can actually rely on Jesus Christ to help carry their burden when it gets to heavy. I know that sounds trite, but it is true.
I wish the media, in all its hype, would do a better job in explaining that there is a huge difference between the three R's (reunion, readjustment, and reentry) and post traumatic stress disorder. Moreover, what part about that it being forever don't they understand? You might not even experience it until you hit a trigger years later. And the 'cure' is learning how to deal with it, how to turn off the bad movies in your head. It's like grief. It's not cured — you just get better at dealing with it and it doesn't hurt as much.
All of this has not caused me to wrestle with my faith at all, but pushed me to rely on God more and more. Too often as pastors we are prone to dip into hyper intellectual Jesus psycho-babble when all we have to do is merely arrange the meeting between Christ and his estranged children.
The Rev. B.J. Myers-Bradley works at the Louis Stokes Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Brecksville, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. He specializes in substance abuse, gambling addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder. He has served churches in the UCC's Florida and Indiana-Kentucky Conferences.
Being an instrument in the healing of past scars is a joy. Many veterans come into the VA seeking to become whole. The consequences of war, abandonment by family and friends, and the disappointment of failed expectations have resulted in self-destruction. God is viewed as either part of the abandonment, or clung to so closely that the veteran alienates him/herself from others. Joy comes from experiencing the transformation of a veteran forgiving the past, and expanding a concept of spirituality that does not push others away. Empowering healing by presenting an accepting and forgiving God that is larger than past stereotypes and viewing transformed lives because of the interplay between spirituality and counseling fulfills me.
I understand my role as chaplain as not providing explanations, but to empower questions and hope. Chaplain Mahedy, a retired VA chaplain, addressed the hope intrinsic within the dark night of the soul when he states: 'Easter occurred at night, not during the day.'
The Rev. Daniel M. Parker, is a chaplain colonel with the U.S. Army at the Fort Leonard Wood (Missouri) Installation.
I'm the kind of person who likes to get out and about — where the troops are, because I want to be with them, hear their stories, listen to their concerns, laugh with them, pray with them, hold worship wherever they are and help them in their pilgrimage as the multitude of others have for me, especially my God.
The high point of working with these dedicated women and men, brings me to reevaluate my own faith commitment. I've never worked harder than in this assignment, but I've never in my wildest imagination worked as hard as these chaplain and chaplain assistant women and men are working. For most it is often a 14-hour work day. During the summer surge season (May - Sept.) each chaplain covers as many as 2,000 soldiers plus at least 100 cadre and staff. Surprisingly, they don't complain. But I see and hear their pain, their groans.
The Rev. Anton (Tony) Ciomperlik is a chaplain assigned to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. A reserve, he was activated and deployed to Iraq in 2003. A member of Woodland UCC in Longview, Texas, he is currently on sabbatical from Good Shepherd Medical Center as director of pastoral care. He writes:
I spent a year in Tikrit, Iraq during 2003 and 2004 and ministered to over 700 soldiers who were experiencing combat. I worked very closely with a combat stress team to reduce the levels of trauma our soldiers were in. I believe that many of our soldiers were blessed and strengthened by our efforts.
My faith definition has changed since my return from Iraq. I define faith as believing in God for what I cannot provide for myself. Faith took me through many mortar attacks and fire fights that broke out in the middle of the night. I can remember one night in particular when an ambush took place in Tikrit. I slipped out of my bunk onto me knees and began to pray, knowing that my soldiers were on patrol that night and now they were in harm's way. The fight lasted for about and hour and the next day a couple of the soldiers came in and told me how they were ambushed and almost lost one of their soldiers. We talked about the power of prayer and God's protection for them and we prayed together.
Later that week, Matt, a military police officer came in to see me and I could tell he was very troubled. He teared up and told me he was outside at the front gate to our operating base directing traffic. During a time when a convoy was coming in, several Iraqi terrorist fired upon the convoy and one individual fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) at Matt and his humvee. The rocket bounced off his humvee and hit a 10-year-boy who was standing alongside the road across the street. The RPG did not explode but the blunt force trauma killed him anyway. Matt was devastated. He said to me that he was prepared to see grown men with guns die but not a small boy. I led Matt to Christ and baptized him a week later in the Tigris River.
It's great to be here. I've been speaking to a lot of churches recently, so it's nice to be speaking to one that's so familiar. I understand you switched venues at considerable expense and inconvenience because of unfair labor practices at the place you were going to be having this synod. Clearly, the past 50 years have not weakened your resolve as faithful witnesses of the gospel. And I'm glad to see that.
It's been several months now since I announced I was running for president. In that time, I've had the chance to talk with Americans all across this country. And I've found that no matter where I am, or who I'm talking to, there's a common theme that emerges. It's that folks are hungry for change – they're hungry for something new. They're ready to turn the page on the old politics and the old policies – whether it's the war in Iraq or the health care crisis we're in, or a school system that's leaving too many kids behind despite the slogans.
But I also get the sense that there's a hunger that's deeper than that – a hunger that goes beyond any single cause or issue. It seems to me that each day, thousands of Americans are going about their lives – dropping the kids off at school, driving to work, shopping at the mall, trying to stay on their diets, trying to kick a cigarette habit – and they're coming to the realization that something is missing. They're deciding that their work, their possessions, their diversions, their sheer busyness, is not enough.
They want a sense of purpose, a narrative arc to their lives. They're looking to relieve a chronic loneliness. And so they need an assurance that somebody out there cares about them, is listening to them – that they are not just destined to travel down that long road toward nothingness.
And this restlessness – this search for meaning – is familiar to me. I was not raised in a particularly religious household. My father, who I didn't know, returned to Kenya when I was just two. He was nominally a Muslim since there were a number of Muslims in the village where he was born. But by the time he was a young adult, he was an atheist. My mother, whose parents were non-practicing Baptists and Methodists, was one of the most spiritual souls I ever knew. She had this enormous capacity for wonder, and lived by the Golden Rule. But she had a healthy skepticism of religion as an institution. And as a consequence, so did I.
It wasn't until after college, when I went to Chicago to work as a community organizer for a group of Christian churches, that I confronted my own spiritual dilemma. In a sense, what brought me to Chicago in the first place was a hunger for some sort of meaning in my life. I wanted to be part of something larger. I'd been inspired by the civil rights movement – by all the clear-eyed, straight-backed, courageous young people who'd boarded buses and traveled down South to march and sit at lunch counters, and lay down their lives in some cases for freedom. I was too young to be involved in that movement, but I felt I could play a small part in the continuing battle for justice by helping rebuild some of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.
So it's 1985, and I'm in Chicago, and I'm working with these churches, and with lots of laypeople who are much older than I am. And I found that I recognized in these folks a part of myself. I learned that everyone's got a sacred story when you take the time to listen. And I think they recognized a part of themselves in me too. They saw that I knew the Scriptures and that many of the values I held and that propelled me in my work were values they shared. But I think they also sensed that a part of me remained removed and detached – that I was an observer in their midst.
And slowly, I came to realize that something was missing as well – that without an anchor for my beliefs, without a commitment to a particular community of faith, at some level I would always remain apart, and alone.
And it's around this time that some pastors I was working with came up to me and asked if I was a member of a church. "If you're organizing churches," they said, "it might be helpful if you went to church once in a while." And I thought, "Well, I guess that makes sense."
So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.
But my journey is part of a larger journey – one shared by all who've ever sought to apply the values of their faith to our society. It's a journey that takes us back to our nation's founding, when none other than a UCC church inspired the Boston Tea Party and helped bring an Empire to its knees. In the following century, men and women of faith waded into the battles over prison reform and temperance, public education and women's rights – and above all, abolition. And when the Civil War was fought and our country dedicated itself to a new birth of freedom, they took on the problems of an industrializing nation – fighting the crimes against society and the sins against God that they felt were being committed in our factories and in our slums.
And when these battles were overtaken by others and when the wars they opposed were waged and won, these faithful foot soldiers for justice kept marching. They stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, as the blows of billy clubs rained down. They held vigils across this country when four little girls were killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church. They cheered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when Dr. King delivered his prayer for our country. And in all these ways, they helped make this country more decent and more just.
So doing the Lord's work is a thread that's run through our politics since the very beginning. And it puts the lie to the notion that the separation of church and state in America means faith should have no role in public life. Imagine Lincoln's Second Inaugural without its reference to "the judgments of the Lord." Or King's "I Have a Dream" speech without its reference to "all of God's children." Or President Kennedy's Inaugural without the words, "here on Earth, God's work must truly be our own." At each of these junctures, by summoning a higher truth and embracing a universal faith, our leaders inspired ordinary people to achieve extraordinary things.
But somehow, somewhere along the way, faith stopped being used to bring us together and started being used to drive us apart. It got hijacked. Part of it's because of the so-called leaders of the Christian Right, who've been all too eager to exploit what divides us. At every opportunity, they've told evangelical Christians that Democrats disrespect their values and dislike their Church, while suggesting to the rest of the country that religious Americans care only about issues like abortion and gay marriage; school prayer and intelligent design. There was even a time when the Christian Coalition determined that its number one legislative priority was tax cuts for the rich. I don't know what Bible they're reading, but it doesn't jibe with my version.
But I'm hopeful because I think there's an awakening taking place in America. People are coming together around a simple truth – that we are all connected, that I am my brother's keeper; I am my sister's keeper. And that it's not enough to just believe this – we have to do our part to make it a reality. My faith teaches me that I can sit in church and pray all I want, but I won't be fulfilling God's will unless I go out and do the Lord's work.
That's why pastors, friends of mine like Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes and organizations like World Vision and Catholic Charities are wielding their enormous influence to confront poverty, HIV/AIDS, and the genocide in Darfur. Religious leaders like my friends Rev. Jim Wallis and Rabbi David Saperstein and Nathan Diament are working for justice and fighting for change. And all across the country, communities of faith are sponsoring day care programs, building senior centers, and in so many other ways, taking part in the project of American renewal.
Yet what we also understand is that our values should express themselves not just through our churches or synagogues, temples or mosques; they should express themselves through our government. Because whether it's poverty or racism, the uninsured or the unemployed, war or peace, the challenges we face today are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten-point plan. They are moral problems, rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.
And so long as we're not doing everything in our personal and collective power to solve them, we know the conscience of our nation cannot rest.
Our conscience can't rest so long as 37 million Americans are poor and forgotten by their leaders in Washington and by the media elites. We need to heed the biblical call to care for "the least of these" and lift the poor out of despair. That's why I've been fighting to expand the Earned Income Tax Credit and the minimum wage. If you're working forty hours a week, you shouldn't be living in poverty. But we also know that government initiatives are not enough. Each of us in our own lives needs to do what we can to help the poor. And until we do, our conscience cannot rest.
Our conscience cannot rest so long as nearly 45 million Americans don't have health insurance and the millions more who do are going bankrupt trying to pay for it. I have made a solemn pledge that I will sign a universal health care bill into law by the end of my first term as president that will cover every American and cut the cost of a typical family's premiums by up to $2500 a year. That's not simply a matter of policy or ideology – it's a moral commitment.
And until we stop the genocide that's being carried out in Darfur as I speak, our conscience cannot rest. This is a problem that's brought together churches and synagogues and mosques and people of all faiths as part of a grassroots movement. Universities and states, including Illinois, are taking part in a divestment campaign to pressure the Sudanese government to stop the killings. It's not enough, but it's helping. And it's a testament to what we can achieve when good people with strong convictions stand up for their beliefs.
And we should close Guantanamo Bay and stop tolerating the torture of our enemies. Because it's not who we are. It's not consistent with our traditions of justice and fairness. And it offends our conscience.
But we also know our conscience cannot rest so long as the war goes on in Iraq. It's a war I'm proud I opposed from the start – a war that should never have been authorized and never been waged. I have a plan that would have already begun redeploying our troops with the goal of bringing all our combat brigades home by March 31st of next year. The President vetoed a similar plan, but he doesn't have the last word, and we're going to keep at it, until we bring this war to an end. Because the Iraq war is not just a security problem, it's a moral problem.
And there's another issue we must confront as well. Today there are 12 million undocumented immigrants in America, most of them working in our communities, attending our churches, and contributing to our country.
Now, as children of God, we believe in the worth and dignity of every human being; it doesn't matter where that person came from or what documents they have. We believe that everyone, everywhere should be loved, and given the chance to work, and raise a family.
But as Americans, we also know that this is a nation of laws, and we cannot have those laws broken when more than 2,000 people cross our borders illegally every day. We cannot ignore that we have a right and a duty to protect our borders. And we cannot ignore the very real concerns of Americans who are not worried about illegal immigration because they are racist or xenophobic, but because they fear it will result in lower wages when they're already struggling to raise their families.
And so this will be a difficult debate next week. Consensus and compromise will not come easy. Last time we took up immigration reform, it failed. But we cannot walk away this time. Our conscience cannot rest until we not only secure our borders, but give the 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country a chance to earn their citizenship by paying a fine and waiting in line behind all those who came here legally.
We will all have to make concessions to achieve this. That's what compromise is about. But at the end of the day, we cannot walk away – not for the sake of passing a bill, but so that we can finally address the real concerns of Americans and the persistent hopes of all those brothers and sisters who want nothing more than their own chance at our common dream.
These are some of the challenges that test our conscience – as Americans and people of faith. And meeting them won't be easy. There is real evil and hardship and pain and suffering in the world and we should be humble in our belief that we can eliminate them. But we shouldn't use our humility as an excuse for inaction. We shouldn't use the obstacles we face as an excuse for cynicism. We have to do what we can, knowing it's hard and not swinging from a naïve idealism to a bitter defeatism – but rather, accepting the fact that we're not going to solve every problem overnight, but we can still make a difference.
We can recognize the truth that's at the heart of the UCC: that the conversation is not over; that our roles are not defined; that through ancient texts and modern voices, God is still speaking, challenging us to change not just our own lives, but the world around us.
I'm hearing from evangelicals who may not agree with progressives on every issue but agree that poverty has no place in a world of plenty; that hate has no place in the hearts of believers; and that we all have to be good stewards of God's creations. From Willow Creek to the 'emerging church,' from the Southern Baptist Convention to the National Association of Evangelicals, folks are realizing that the four walls of the church are too small for a big God. God is still speaking.
I'm hearing from progressives who understand that if we want to communicate our hopes and values to Americans, we can't abandon the field of religious discourse. That's why organizations are rising up across the country to reclaim the language of faith to bring about change. God is still speaking.
He's still speaking to our Catholic friends – who are holding up a consistent ethic of life that goes beyond abortion – one that includes a respect for life and dignity whether it's in Iraq, in poor neighborhoods, in African villages or even on death row. They're telling me that their conversation about what it means to be Catholic continues. God is still speaking.
And right here in the UCC, we're hearing from God about what it means to be a welcoming church that holds on to our Christian witness. The UCC is still listening. And God is still speaking.
Now, some of you may have heard me talk about the Joshua generation. But there's a story I want to share that takes place before Moses passed the mantle of leadership on to Joshua. It comes from Deuteronomy 30 when Moses talks to his followers about the challenges they'll find when they reach the Promised Land without him. To the Joshua generation, these challenges seem momentous – and they are. But Moses says: What I am commanding you is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven. Nor is it beyond the sea. No, the word is very near. It is on your lips and in your heart.
It's an idea that's often forgotten or dismissed in cynical times. It's that we all have it within our power to make this a better world. Because we all have the capacity to do justice and show mercy; to treat others with dignity and respect; and to rise above what divides us and come together to meet those challenges we can't meet alone. It's the wisdom Moses imparted to those who would succeed him. And it's a lesson we need to remember today – as members of another Joshua generation.
So let's rededicate ourselves to a new kind of politics – a politics of conscience. Let's come together – Protestant and Catholic, Muslim and Hindu and Jew, believer and non-believer alike. We're not going to agree on everything, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. We can affirm our faith without endangering the separation of church and state, as long as we understand that when we're in the public square, we have to speak in universal terms that everyone can understand. And if we can do that – if we can embrace a common destiny – then I believe we'll not just help bring about a more hopeful day in America, we'll not just be caring for our own souls, we'll be doing God's work here on Earth. Thank you.
Malayang, LCM Executive, to retire in November
The Rev. Jose A. Malayang, a veteran UCC leader and passionate encourager of local churches, has announced his retirement, effective late November.
Since 1999, Malayang has served as a member of the UCC's five-person Collegium of Officers and as executive minister of the UCC's Local Church Ministries, which he led into creation as part of the national restructure inaugurated in July 2000.
"It is not an easy decision for me to make because serving the UCC, and Local Church Ministries in particular, gives me a genuine sense of fulfillment and, yes, joy," he wrote in a Feb. 22 announcement.
This year marks Malayang's 45th ordination anniversary and his 47th consecutive year of ministerial service. Ordained in the United Church of Christ in the Philippines, Malayang spent nearly three decades as a local church pastor, serving both small and large congregations in the Philippines and in Michigan.
He later served as staff of the Southern California - Nevada Conference and with the former Office for Church Life and Leadership. He also was general secretary for the division of evangelism and local church development, an agency of the former United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.
Malayang earned a B.Th. degree from Silliman University in the Philippines, a B.A. from the University of the Philippines and a M.Ed. from Wayne State University in Detroit.
"Joe's long career demonstrates a deep faith in God and a joyful love for Christ's mission and Christ's church," said General Minister and President John H. Thomas. "In every setting where Joe has served, he has witnessed to a great passion for the ministry of the local church and I am grateful for the many ways he has strengthened our congregations and encouraged our pastors and lay leaders."
In consultation with Thomas, LCM's board of directors is responsible for selecting Malayang's successor, through a search and call process. That decision also must be affirmed by the 90-member Executive Council, which acts as the General Synod ad interim. Although unlikely, if a candidate for the office was named before General Synod in June, then the delegates at Synod, not the Executive Council, would formally elect LCM's new leader.
The Rev. Paul Minear, a renowned biblical scholar, died Feb. 22 at age 101. Author of more than 25 books and a key translator of the Revised Standard Version and New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, he was a professor at Yale Divinity School and UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School. Minear's ashes will be interred in the memorial garden at First Congregational UCC in Guilford, Conn., where he was an active member. Survivors include his wife of nearly 80 years, Gladys, and three children.
The Rev. B. Davie Napier, a UCC minister, civil rights activist and former president of UCC-related Pacific School of Religion, died on Feb. 24 at age 91. A former professor at Yale Divinity School, he later was dean of the chapel and professor of religion at Stanford University, where he was active in the anti-war movement and joined others in blocking an entrance to a military recruitment office. Since retirement from PSR, he was a resident of UCC-related Pilgrim Place in Claremont, Calif., where he remained active in justice advocacy. Son of missionary parents, Napier became a "revered professor," according to current YDS Dean Harold Attridge.
A class of seven diakonal ministers - the most recent graduates of the Faith-Based Leadership Institute of the UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries - were recognized on March 3 at St. Andrews UCC in Louisville, Ky., during CHHSM's 69th annual meeting. Those commissioned after completing the year-long service-based continuing education program were Mike Readinger, CHHSM's vice president for business services; Brian Magnone, UCC-related Retirement Housing Foundation; Mona Price-Huffman, UCC-related United Church Homes and Services, Newton, N.C.; John Garrett, UCC-related Peppermint Ridge, Corona, Calif.; Judy Alexander, UCC-related Emmaus Homes, Inc., St. Charles, Mo.; John Zinn, UCC-related Hoffman Homes for Youth, Gettysburg, Pa.; and Gayle Klopp, UCC-related Charles Hall Youth Services, Bismarck, N.D.
The UCC's Council for Health and Human Service Ministries recognized several persons and programs during its annual meeting, March 1-4, in Louisville, Ky. Honorees included the Rev. David Taylor, board member, UCC-related Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss. (Faithful Trustee Award); Ada "Sissy" Minor, an employee at UCC-related Good Samaritan Home in Evansville, Ind. (St. Stephen Award); Elinore Gold, a volunteer at UCC-related Phoebe Richland Health Care Center in Pennsylvania (Towel and Basin Award); and the Bridgeways Renewal Project at UCC-related Phoebe Home Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Allentown, Pa. (Exemplary Program Award).
The Julius Varwig Award, presented in partnership with the UCC Professional Chaplains and Counselors, honors the work of exemplary UCC chaplains. The 2007 recipient is the Rev. DeLois Brown-Daniels of UCC-related Advocate Health Care in Chicago.
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The Rev. Mary Luti wasn't supposed to be named "Mary" at all. Her parents' initial plan was to call her "Janice," after her grandmother Janetta. But Luti's difficult, painful birth - "I have very broad shoulders," she explains - left Luti's mother bargaining with God. According to family lore, Luti's mother was heard screaming: "Okay, just get me out of this and I'll name her Mary!"
Raised and educated a staunch Roman Catholic, Luti went on the spend 19 years as a Roman Catholic sister in religious community. She loves the story about her birth, she says, because it underscores the central role that Mary, the mother of Jesus, plays in the daily lives of most Roman Catholics.
"She really is, truly, the mother of the holy family," says Luti. "We prayed the rosary everyday, we had May processions, we stood before Mary statues and offered our lives."
In 1990, when Luti - then on the faculty at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts - joined the UCC and was granted ministerial standing, she was curious by the silence that surrounds Mary, not just within the UCC but among Protestants in general.
"People don't even think about Mary, much less have misconceptions" says Luti, who became pastor of First Congregational UCC in Cambridge, Mass., in 2000. "In many ways, she's just invisible."
The Rev. Kate Huey, a former Roman Catholic, is an unabashed UCC cheerleader - to put it mildly - but, although she works with the UCC's stewardship ministry in Cleveland and serves as part-time interim pastor of New Vision UCC in Canton, Ohio, she still describes herself as a "cellular Catholic."
"For Protestants, Mary is just an idea, a concept," Huey finds. "To Catholics, she's much more of a real person. I can't begin to tell you how many different statues of Mary I had when I was growing up."
Huey says she spent her childhood singing "Mary songs" in ways not-so-dissimilar to Protestant kids who memorized "camp songs." And those kinds of formative religious practices, she believes, have a significant, lifelong impact on a person's spiritual DNA. It's something one can't just walk away from, just because you have changed church traditions.
"Mary is an emotional center for Catholics," says Huey, who has led a quarterly "bridging group" at Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland for Catholics entering the UCC. "Mary provides an emotional outlet. If God was viewed as distant or wrathful, then Mary was viewed as accessible."
"I was never taught that I could talk directly to God; I had to talk to a priest first," Huey recalls, indicating she's just old enough to have grown up before some significant reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) helped to alter Catholics' theological understandings and devotional practices. "But Mary was someone I could talk to. There was this unconditional love from Mary, the mother."
The Rev. Mark Suriano, pastor of Old South UCC in Kirtland, Ohio, and a former Roman Catholic priest, says there's a great deal of misunderstanding about Mary - among most Protestants and even among some Catholics.
Suriano - schooled at Cleveland's St. Mary Seminary, nonetheless - explains that Mary is not an object of "worship" in Roman Catholicism; she is an object of "devotion." A hero, one might say.
The degree and depth of Marian devotion varies throughout Catholicism, Suriano says, especially since Vatican II. Today, he says, Mary is a predominant "sub-culture" for those who grew up in the church prior to the 1960s. For many younger Catholics, she doesn't attract the same type of attention.
For members of the UCC, Suriano says, Mary raises questions about our devotional life - or, as sometimes is revealed, our lack of one.
Luti agrees. She believes the idea of "devotion" is a foreign concept for many born-and-raised Protestants - but shouldn't be.
"There seems to be this fear of elevating certain persons above, yet at the same time we are desperately yearning for examples of discipleship and heroic Christian life," Luti says. "We need a revived sense of edification. Why not look to certain bright lights?"
Often referred to as a "mediator," Mary is basically just an "influential" voice, Luti says. Just as others on earth or in heaven offer intercessory prayers to God, so does Mary.
Many Protestants, for example, wouldn't hesitate to ask a beloved pastor to pray for them - perhaps even with the belief that pastors somehow carry greater weight with God. So, too, do some request the same of Mary.
"For someone to ask for intercession from a saint, such as Mary, it's no different than asking a friend or family member to pray for you," Luti says. "In this way, the same argument could be applied. We don't need our friends to pray for us - because our prayers reach God directly just as their prayers do - but we find comfort in knowing that others are praying on our behalf."
The bigger issue, says Luti, is an "impoverished notion of the communion of saints, in general" which has affected the way we look at prayerful intercession.
Some of UCC members' discontent with Marian devotion, Luti believes, is more deeply rooted in a general discomfort with devotional practices across the board. We're uneasy with intercessory prayer and displays of devotion or piety, because we don't understand "how it works."
"Just do it. Just pray," Luti tells her parishioners. We gain insight from doing something, she says, not just by talking about it.
Poor one-dimensional Mary
Among the UCC's 5,700 local churches, there are hundreds named for Jesus' more-prominent male disciples - such as Peter, Paul, James and John. But only two churches are named for Mary - St. Mary's UCC in Westminster, Md., and St. Mary's UCC in Abbeville, La.
That doesn't surprise Professor Mark Burrows, a UCC minister and scholar who teaches about Mary in his course on medieval theology at Andover Newton Theological School.
If anything, Burrows is shocked to learn there are any UCC churches named for St. Mary - given the traditional Protestant fear for things that appear "too Catholic."
Anti-Mary sentiment, he says, has kept many Protestants wary of embracing the very-Catholic-looking Mary. When they do and where they have, he says, Protestants have largely caricatured Mary as a one-dimensional Christmas figure - as the mother of the baby Jesus only.
There is little talk of Mary throughout the church year as the much-present mother of the adult Jesus and, especially, as the mother of the suffering Jesus.
"If you think about the death of Jesus, for Protestants, Mary is almost completely invisible," Burrows says. "But there is this dramatic story of her watching her son suffer and die. Is there anything more powerful? What more dramatic way is there to connect with the story of human loss and sorrow than through the sorrow of a parent who has lost a child?"
It's ironic given that Protestant theology has been shaped significantly by the importance ascribed to personal experience.
"Mary was there," Burrows says. In Mary's pain, we are exposed to the depth of Jesus' passion - from birth to death to resurrection. Mary is the one eyewitness who was there for all of it.
During the Middle Ages, Mary's role as "mediator" proved extremely popular, Burrows says. It was even understandable given the era's negative portrayal of God as angry and wrathful. Jesus, too, was perceived to be much more harsh than today.
Mary, therefore, was regarded as the approachable one. "Truly our sister" - that was her persona.
In addition, during medieval times, saints played a more-significant role in the everyday lives of Christians than they do today. Allegiance to saints was akin to superstition.
"There were patron saints for everything - from hangnails to crises of faith," Burrows says. "And Mary is portrayed beautifully as being at the center of this communion of saints."
"The Middle Ages also were a period when everything about church structure was patriarchal, but the church was very much matriarchal in its piety and devotion," Burrows says, noting how nearly every Gothic church was built to honor Notre Dame, "Our Lady."
"What a lot of students don't understand is Mary is not the 'mediator of salvation,' but she is the 'mediator of access,' in the medieval understanding of God," Burrows says. "There's something very practical about getting the "mom" involved. Mary becomes, in a way, the constant companion."
All the priests and bishops were male, and the church ruled with a heavy hand. But the gospel's imperatives to love, to care, to serve were "overwhelmingly shaped by the maternal images of Mary," he says.
But, with the rise of the Protestant Reformation, which triggered counter reformations in the Roman Catholic Church, the image of Jesus is transformed; his edges softened. Jesus becomes approachable again. He, not Mary, is the mediator, and the Christian's need for "access" becomes confusing, if not heretical.
"For the most part, she disappears from Protestantism," Burrows says. "It's her role as mediator that people now can't understand. They see it as blasphemy. They can find no biblical justification for this."
Mary, the feminist?
The public face of Mary has evolved over the years, and Catholics and Protestants alike have altered their views of her.
For some, Mary - like Jesus - has been portrayed as overly perfect, and therefore dismissed as irrelevant.
Huey says that, in her mid-30s, she began to realize how Mary was portrayed unfairly as the unattainable "anti-Eve."
"Eve was the bad girl, and Mary was the pure one," Huey explains. "But Catholic girls were always taught two competing values about Mary - virginity and motherhood - but it wasn't possible for us to do both, like Mary did. It was out of reach."
In early feminist writings, Luti says, Mary gets battered around quite a lot. She is rejected by many feminists for her lowly-servant reputation.
Despite the feminist significance of Mary's "bring-the-mighty-down-from-their-thrones" Magnificat in Luke, Mary was often criticized for being defined only by her relationship roles to men: wife of Joseph, mother of Jesus, or vessel of a male God.
"For Catholic feminists, Mary's image cuts both ways; there's the feminine image and there's the feminist image," Luti says. "There's Mary as the subservient, humble handmaiden and then she's the Queen of Heaven, the 'power behind the throne.'"
"In later feminist theology, there's a fairly positive portrayal of Mary," Luti says. "Vatican II was really a breakthrough in Marian theology in that way, when she became identified as the mother of the church and first among the disciples."
For some feminists, Mary is lifted up as somewhat of a Goddess figure. But, at the least, she has helped to temper the male dominance of Christian imagery.
"She embodies feminine characteristics of Christianity," Luti says, "and may have helped us to open up the talk about the Holy Spirit as feminine."
Susan A. Blain, who spent 11 years as a Roman Catholic nun, is the UCC's minister for worship, liturgy and spiritual formation in Cleveland. Her office and home are filled with Mary statues, and she acknowledges bringing a fair amount of Marian devotion with her into the UCC.
"Our family prayer was pretty much the Rosary. It was our mantra of protection," says Blain, who likes the tactile feel of the Rosary beads in her hand, the prayer's call-response design, the calming effect of repetition.
In 1983, Blain - at the urging of her Catholic religious community - began attending Union Theological Seminary in New York, where she studied liturgy and preaching. After graduating in 1986, she stayed on at Union, helping to coordinate the school's worship services and became active at the UCC's Riverside Church.
"For many years, as a Catholic, I was coordinating this Protestant seminary's daily worship," she says, noting the irony.
While at Union, however, she began to look critically at the strengths and weaknesses of both traditions. And while she appreciates Protestantism's pro-female position on clergy leadership, she is struck by how "male" its worship can be.
"The shock to me is how truly male it all was [in Protestantism]," Blain says. "In the Catholic tradition, it's important to realize that, although Mary can be co-opted by the patriarchy, she also helps to mitigate the patriarchy."
Although Mary's image and reputation have evolved, she remains one of the Gospel's central characters. She not only gives birth to Jesus, but she's present throughout the story, even mentioned among the disciples in Acts.
"I haven't really raised the Mary issue [in my church], says Luti, who acknowledges a "lingering affection" for her. "But I do allude to her from time to time."
Luti says she would be interested in "a gentle exploration" of Mary's role for UCC Christians. "If not to be emulated, then at least to be pondered," she says.
She attributes Protestants' lingering anti-Mary sentiment with unresolved anti-Catholic residue. In addition, she says, some of us aren't quite yet comfortable talking about Jesus, much less Mary.
"A lot of this is just unfamiliarity," Luti says. "It's through experience that a lot of people soften up."
Burrows sees a makeover in Mary's future, especially as denominational divisions blur between Protestant and Roman Catholic households.
"In modern times, there's been a marvelous resurrection of interest in Mary," he says, expecting interest to only increase in the UCC, especially in New England. He estimates that, in Massachusetts, about 80 percent of new UCC members are former Roman Catholics and he notes a significant increase among UCC seminarians who are former Catholics as well.
But while Burrows doesn't see the UCC's worship life being significantly altered by an influx of Catholics, it is important to remember that many carry with them a "cellular memory" of Mary that differs from that of cradle Protestants.
Huey agrees, saying that the UCC's usual references to the denomination's "four streams" - Evangelical, Reformed, Congregational and Christian - should give way to added conversations about the theological contributions in more recent years by former Roman Catholics in the North and former Southern Baptists in the South.
Luti believes talk of Mary and other saints is an opportunity to strengthen our prayer life and devotional practices.
"There is a real need to deplastify [the saints]," she says. "There is the opportunity to open ourselves to the riches of those traditions that the Reformation put aside. It's time to move beyond our super-hyped fears of all things supernatural, to return to what's more sensual, more sacramental about Christian life."
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund writes about the history of UCC-Roman Catholic relations in her column - Past as Prologue - published this month in the "opinion matters" section at news.ucc.org.
Sources: Religion News Service, Christianity Today, Catholic Answers, Catholic Bridge and Wikipedia
Raising 'ability awareness,' UCC youth produces educational documentary
Aperfect back flop knocked the wind out of Tyler Greene. "Then," remembers his pastor, "he let out this jubilant scream."
Even though Tyler had already gone horseback riding and water rafting, the Rev. Tim Ensworth of First Congregational UCC in Waterloo, Iowa, assumed Tyler would not jump off the rock into the water below.
"Cerebral palsy and all, he climbs the back of the rock and takes off," Ensworth recalls.
Surprised? Don't be. This is Tyler. This fall, Waterloo School Superintendent Dewitt R. Jones replaced his opening address to the district's 1,700 employees with a screening of a new DVD produced by one of Waterloo's own.
"I'm Tyler: Don't Be Surprised," a 15-minute disability awareness tool, was created by 16-year-old Tyler Greene as his Eagle Scout project, with the help of his father, Paul.
"I know the world needs to hear what it says," Tyler says, speaking to Tiffany Clarno, who serves as the UCC Disabilities Ministries representative to the UCC Youth and Young Adult Board. "My dream is to do good things that are right and of value."
"I want to work on equal rights," he says. "I'm not sure where that will take me."
Church member Dee Vandeventer and her staff at ME&V, an Iowa-based marketing, communications and fundraising company, donated time to assist Tyler with the video project. Tyler's cousin, Max Lind, with the help of a photographer friend, designed the DVD's cover art and a promotional website imtyler.org.
"We had an incredible production team," Paul Greene said.
In the video, viewers are introduced to significant persons in Tyler's life, all who see Tyler for what he can do, not what we can't. They are practicing "ability awareness," Tyler teaches.
Through promoting 'ability awareness,' says Paul Greene, Tyler is determined to change the disempowering way the world interacts with people with disabilities.
The "ability awareness" phrase came to Tyler from a Scout merit badge program called "disability awareness" that his dad teaches. "Except," Tyler explains, "my dad takes out the 'dis-.'"
David Clark, clerk of the church council at Boston's Old South UCC and a member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries board, describes Tyler's DVD as "an exceptional job for a person in his stage of psycho-emotional development."
Clark, who also has severe cerebral palsy, is fully integrated in the world. A web designer and computer troubleshooter since college graduation, Clark was on the original technology team that developed the web accessibility tool, known as "Bobby."
"I don't want people to be amazed that I get up every morning and have a job," Clark says. "Having a job to me is ordinary. When anything is viewed as extraordinary, expectations are not the same."
Tyler shares Clark's view, saying that, once people get to know him or once he gets to talking with his friends, any initial preoccupation with his disability quickly fades away.
"It really does not take long," Tyler says. "Like a minute and it is gone."
Reality over perception
The Rev. Jeanne Tyler, co-pastor of Saint Paul UCC in Keokuk, Iowa, who also manages cerebral palsy, has said she views the realities of people with disabilities as being similar to those "living on the margins."
"It is being an outsider, someone to fear or humiliate," she said in 2004, speaking at the UCC-related Leaven Center in Troy, Mich. "Humiliation is about disempowering someone."
That's why Tyler's church, First Congregational UCC in Waterloo, focuses on empowerment.
More than 12 years ago, when Ensworth became its pastor, the church's 150-year-old building already had been adapted architecturally for inclusion, including the addition of an all-floors elevator, covered entry way, ramp approach and automatic door.
"Attitudinal inclusion started with the attitudes of Tyler and his own family," Ensworth recalls. "They are comfortable with him and he is comfortable with himself, so the church echoes that."
Tyler was born in 1990 as the third child of Gina and Paul, and the brother of Lucas and Molly. The family has been deeply connected with their church for five generations.
"Everything about Tyler is about perception rather than reality," says Tony Lorsung, Tyler's Boy Scout leader, who has known Tyler since his pre-Cub Scout days.
"At first, I felt sorry," Lorsung says. "When Tyler joined Cubs, I realized, why should I feel sorry about him if he does not feel sorry for himself?"
"Tyler is an outgoing person about who he is and about his vision of his future," Lorsung says. "Why should he be separated and not do the things he wants to do? To me, he does not have a disability any more."
Tyler, an active teenager who has earned Karate's yellow belt with a blue stripe, plays softball and enjoys the internet. But he's also direct. His activism speaks to what many disabilities awareness advocates are saying: "Will you be able to see past my wheelchair and my speech challenges to appreciate my abilities?"
Tyler's confirmation co-teacher, Hannah Carse, remembers Tyler's frank response when some spoke to him about "a cure."
"If I were constantly waiting for a cure," Carse remembers Tyler saying, "I would think that I am not okay or whole now. I don't ever feel like I am waiting to be whole. This is who I am."
The Rev. Bob Molsberry, pastor of St. Paul UCC in Belleville, Ill., and vice-chair of UCC Disabilities Ministries, acknowledges that disabilities are a part of a person's identity.
"Human beings are not perfectible," Molsberry said in a nationally-televised interview that aired in August. "Disability is not the defining aspect of any life. It is part of our human diversity. What we need is inclusion so everyone can be at the table. Fix the steps, bathrooms, doors - whatever needs accommodation."
Tyler is a national member of the Kids as Self Advocates' speak-out task force. He wants to see young people with disabilities and those with special health-care needs have control over their own lives and futures.
"KASA has been a huge factor in my realizing the rights I actually have," Tyler says.
Tyler's 'theology of hope'
It was theologian Paul Tillich who once said, "We have learned how hard it is to preserve genuine hope. We know that one has to go ever again through the narrows of a painful and courageous 'in-spite-of.'"
And, UCC minister Dosia Carlson, whom polio paralyzed as a youth, once said, "There has to be a balance between the things that we accept and those we fight."
So Tyler knows that 'hope' is a big factor in his life.
"If you have hope you have a reason for doing things instead of aimlessly wandering around," he says. "We, as a family, ruled out 'can't' a long time ago. I think if we [used] that word, we wouldn't be very far. For us it's always not a matter of whether 'I can,' but just a matter of 'how.'"
Tyler says he hears competing messages in our society: "You can do anything" and "You can't do anything." "It is really hard, when you hear all the messages to figure out, who should I listen to?" Tyler says. "Dad helps with that."
"You cannot go through life not questioning anything," Tyler believes. "If you really, really want to do what is right, you may have to take a few risks."
For Tyler, God is "like your father, your best friend, the one who created everyone. God watches over us and will always be there to love and protect us no matter what."
"I kind of believe that God has a plan for us," he says. "I think God believes that the world needed some help. I think what God has planned for me is to help people understand, to educate people about ability awareness. It is life-long."
Surprised? You shouldn't be.
The Rev. Dee Brauninger, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Burwell, Neb., is editor of "That All May Worship and Serve" and an executive committee member of the UCC Disabilities Ministries.
Learn more @
For information on "I'm Tyler" DVD, visit imtyler.org. Learn more about UCC Disabilities Ministries at uccdm.org. For more about computer accessibility issues, visit davidaccess.org. Kids as Self Advocates' website is or phone 773/338-5541.