United Church of Christ leaders on Thursday (Feb. 12) expressed outrage at the perceived discriminatory treatment of a local UCC pastor by the Oklahoma State House of Representatives.
In what legislators are calling a first, one-fifth of the Oklahoma House voted Feb. 11 to strike from the record a prayer offered on the chamber floor by the Rev. Scott H. Jones, pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City. Jones had been invited to deliver the prayer and serve as chaplain for the day by Rep. Al McAffrey, D-Oklahoma City.
Following the prayer, McAffrey asked that the session vote to include Jones' prayer in the House journal, the official daily record of the chamber. An objection was raised by Rep. John Wright, R-Broken Arrow, who called for a vote on the prayer's inclusion.
"It was a pretty chaotic moment," said Jones of the procedural points of order that ensued following Wright's objection. "My understanding was that [an objection to a prayer] never happens."
The vote took place once order had been established, with 64 representatives voting to include the prayer, 20 opposing it and 17 abstentions.
Jones is a constituent of McAffrey's Oklahoma City district. Both believe the objection was raised because of their sexuality. Jones leads the largest predominantly LGBT congregation in Oklahoma City and is himself gay. McAffrey is Oklahoma's only openly gay legislator.
"As the leader of Rev. Jones' denomination, I am deeply offended by the treatment he received from the legislature and dismayed by the message of intolerance it sends to the citizens of Oklahoma and beyond," said the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the UCC. "It is comforting, however, to remember that our prayers are judged at the throne of grace and not in the halls of petty principalities."
"The Oklahoman" newspaper quoted McAffrey on Wednesday, saying that "because most of Scott's congregation are gay people and Scott is gay himself, I'm sure that's the reason why there were negative votes on it."
But Wright sees it differently. In the same Oklahoman article, he stated his objection was procedural - that prayers were only entered into the official record on Thursdays - but later said his "actions were motivated by the faith."
Rep. Sally Kern, R-Oklahoma City, was among those who voted to strike the prayer from the record. Kern is on record as calling homosexuality "the biggest threat our nation has, even more so than terrorism and Islam."
The Rev. Gordon R. Epps, conference ministry coordinator for the UCC's Kansas-Oklahoma Conference, delivered a letter to Speaker of the House Rep. Chris Benge, R-Tulsa, on Thursday (Feb. 12). Epps commended Benge "for the democratic way you led the house when an unusual challenge was made to vote on whether or not to enter into the record the opening prayer given by the Rev. Scott Jones."
Responding in support of Jones, the UCC's Executive for Health and Wholeness Advocacy, the Rev. Michael Schuenemeyer, said, "Once again, bigotry infects the Oklahoma statehouse by the vote of 20 legislators to reject the prayer offered by the Rev. Scott Jones. In this mean-spirited vote, they have demonstrated profound disrespect to a gifted pastor and a congregation dedicated to faithfully serving its community through a robust and vibrant ministry."
Schuenemeyer sees the proceedings as a clear indication of discrimination. "The action of these legislators has dishonored the core American values of freedom of religion and freedom of expression," he said. "The citizens of Oklahoma and this nation deserve better and ought not to tolerate such behavior from their fellow citizens, much less their elected officials."
The United Church of Christ is a denomination of 1.2 million members in 5,600 autonomous local churches that are joined together in Christian mission through local associations, regional conferences and the biennial all-church General Synod.
At their 2005 General Synod in Atlanta, UCC delegates voted overwhelmingly in support of a resolution calling for marriage rights to be extended to same-gender couples. The resolution, In Support of Equal Marriage Rights for All, "affirms equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender and declares that the government should not interfere with couples regardless of gender who choose to marry and share fully and equally in the rights, responsibilities and commitment of legally recognized marriage."
Cathedral of Hope UCC-Oklahoma City began in 2000 as a church plant of Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas. In January 2007, they became a fully autonomous congregation within the United Church of Christ.
In a further effort to simplify the process of getting information and obtaining materials, the UCC's web team and publishing group have consolidated all product ordering through an integrated e-commerce module on the UCC.org website.
Most significantly, this change streamlines the process by which site visitors can find and order materials that were previously housed in separate online stores maintained by the Pilgrim Press and United Church Press.
"We are pleased that our web host can accommodate an e-commerce store this large," said Timothy Staveteig, publisher of the presses. "This new relationship offers fuller descriptions, more discount options and more personalized service. This change streamlines searches and purchases."
Staveteig notes that while the new catalog is available for customer use and testing, the former stores will remain active during a brief testing period.
Another innovation of this integration is the concept of "single sign-on." Site visitors will now have only one account at the ucc.org website – allowing them to access their preferences on UCC.org, order from the online store and access the forthcoming myUCC social networking site.
"One of our goals was to create seamless experiences for those on our website," said the Rev. J. Bennett Guess, UCC Director of Communications. "People will find the UCC's new e-commerce module to be a significant step above what we used to offer and the single log-in function will mean you only have to remember one password to access everything that ucc.org has to offer."
|Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker, authors of "Saving Paradise." Photo courtesy Beacon Press.|
Those are the provocative opening sentences of the new book, "Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire" (Beacon Press), by Protestant scholars Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker.
"Saving Paradise" turns upside down the history of the church's view of Jesus' crucifixion and its stress on the importance of suffering. The authors attempt to show that for the first thousand years of its existence, the Christian church placed much more emphasis on the resurrection and paradise than the crucifixion.
Before the 11th century, Brock and Parker found, Christian imagery portrayed Jesus alive - teaching and healing and living in this world. At first, the authors were stunned when they discovered the dearth of crucifixion images in Mediterranean churches, especially given their importance to centuries of later doctrine.
Brock, an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) minister and director of Faith Voices for the Common Good, and Parker, president of Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, Calif., are also co-authors of the critically acclaimed book, "Proverbs of Ashes: Violence, Redemptive Suffering and the Search for What Saves Us." Parker has dual standing as an ordained minister in both the United Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Expanding on themes in "Proverbs of Ashes," Brock and Parker argue in "Saving Paradise," which includes 90 pages of footnotes, that the Christian church of the first millennium never stressed that Jesus'
suffering on the cross was necessary for the salvation of humanity.
In "Saving Paradise," they attempt to reveal that the early Christian community did not so much draw inspiration from suffering and the next world, but from the here and now, from earthly life and a vision of paradise.
"During their first millennium, Christians filled their sanctuaries with images of Christ ... as a shepherd, a teacher, a healer, an enthroned god; he is an infant, a youth, and a bearded elder. But he is never dead," the book says.
"When he appears with the cross, he stands in front of it, serene, resurrected. The world around him is ablaze with beauty. These are images of paradise - paradise in this world, permeated and blessed by the presence of God. But once Jesus perished, dying was virtually all he seemed able to do."
The authors tackle what they consider the subversion of the Christian message - exemplified by the ninth-century Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne, who instituted the death penalty for conquered people who refused to convert.
After Charlemagne, killing, suffering and dying in the name of Christ began to represent the highest honor for Christians, the book maintains.
Brock and Parker argue that Charlemagne's attitude of conquest remains an undercurrent in some countries' foreign policy, tying it into modern-day wars and imperialism.
By re-emphasizing early Christians' focus on paradise, on the kingdom of God on Earth, the authors are convinced they are reclaiming authentic "traditional" Christianity.
For instance, even though the 13th century monk, Francis of Assisi, is now admired as the patron saint of animals, the authors argue that his love of suffering marked an epochal downturn in the history of Christian theology.
When they cite how Francis of Assisi taught that "perfect joy (is) to share in the suffering of the world as Christ did," they say it was a sign of how far the Christian church had turned from promoting images of paradise and enjoyment of this earth.
Instead, "Saving Paradise" says Francis was fueled by a burning desire to be martyred, to be "torn limb from limb." He brought that belief, they maintain, to his support of the Crusades, which aimed to convert Muslims by the sword.
Alternatively, Brock and Parker urge readers to see church history in a new light, with an eye toward social justice. They call upon readers to "rekindle Christian traditions that hold fast to love and thereby teach Christian people how, in the midst of horror and tragedy and loss, to resist violence, honor the earth, and to humanize life."
In an unprecedented public act of remorse for centuries of support for slavery, the Episcopal Church on Saturday (Oct. 4) held a dramatic service of repentance at one of the nation's first black churches.
Punctuated with the sound of a gong and the sung refrain of "Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy," the service began with a "Litany of Offense and Apology" detailing the ways that the denomination participated in human captivity, segregation and discrimination.
More than 500 worshippers, a multicultural sea of faces, spilled over into the aisles of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas, founded in 1792 by Absalom Jones, a former slave and the denomination's first black priest.
"Through it all, people of privilege looked the other way, and too few found the courage to question inhuman ideas, words, practices or laws," said Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
"We and they ignored the image of Christ in our neighbors."
Several of America's founding fathers - most notably George Washington - were Episcopalians and slave owners, and many of the nation's most historic and prominent steeples were built by wealthy donors who made their fortunes on the back of slave labor.
Yet Episcopalians were one of the few U.S. churches that managed to stay intact as the Civil War split Methodists, Presbyterians and Baptists into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery.
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in the United States. Last June, the U.S. House of Representatives issued its own apology for slavery.
"Apology and acknowledgment are an incredibly important part of the process of coming to terms with history," said Katrina Browne, whose recent film, "Traces of the Trade," explores the wealth accumulated by her Episcopal ancestors in Rhode Island through the slave trade.
The service, and the day of workshops that preceded it, were the result of a resolution passed at the Episcopalians' 2006 General Convention that called slavery a "sin" and a betrayal of the "humanity of all persons."
The 2006 resolution asked dioceses to research instances in which they have been complicit or profited from it, and asked the presiding bishop to hold a "Day of Repentance." Each diocesan cathedral was also asked to hold its own service of repentance.
A number of African American participants emphasized that however moving the event, it was only one step in an effort to redress denominational and social inequities.
Noting that another General Convention resolution addresses oppression of "all people of color victimized by society over the past 300 years," Canon Ed Rodman, a professor at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., added that "until the whole story is told and everybody's voice has been heard we cannot begin the process of reconciliation."
"It is one thing to repent of our sin, but another to turn around and go in the right direction," said Franklin Turner, retired Suffragan Bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania.
"I don't think it's what the church does inside the church," added the Rev. Isaac Miller, rector of the historic Episcopal Church of the Advocate in North Philadelphia. "It's about what happens afterwards."
Everett Worthington, a professor of psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University and a researcher in forgiveness, said public apologies can help usher in "some manner of justice back into a situation where there has been injustice."
Such apologies may narrow an individual's "injustice gap" - the space between the way someone would like to see an issue resolved, and the way they actually see it being resolved, he added.
The Rev. David Pettee, who oversees ministerial credentialing for the Unitarian Universalist Association, said he has also located slave owners and African and Native American ancestors in his own Rhode Island family tree.
"I was impressed by having the Episcopal Church make this move, and I personally hope that at some point we (the Unitarian Universalists) arrive at an act of redemption and apology," Pettee said after the service.
A joint resolution passed in 2001 by the UCC's General Synod and the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) called upon the United States government to "issue a national apology for participating in and supporting the kidnapping, exporting and enslaving of people of African descent."
The joint resolution also encouraged congregations, regions, ministries and national assemblies to "join in active study and education on issues dealing with reparations for slavery."
In the wake of misleading attacks on its mission and ministry, Chicago's Trinity United Church of Christ is being lauded by United Church of Christ leaders across the nation for the integrity of its worship, the breadth of its community involvement and the depth of its commitment to social justice.
"Trinity United Church of Christ is a great gift to our wider church family and to its own community in Chicago," says UCC General Minister and President John H. Thomas. "At a time when it is being subjected to caricature and attack in the media, it is critical that all of us express our gratitude and support to this remarkable congregation, to Jeremiah A. Wright for his leadership over 36 years, and to Pastor Otis Moss III, as he assumes leadership at Trinity."
Thomas says he has been saddened by news reports that "present such a caricature of a congregation that been such a great blessing."
"These attacks, many of them motivated by their own partisan agenda, cannot go unchallenged," Thomas emphasizes. "It's time for all of us to say 'No' to these attacks and to declare that we will not allow anyone to undermine or destroy the ministries of any of our congregations in order to serve their own narrow political or ideological ends."
Located in the heart of Chicago's impoverished Southside, Trinity UCC's vast array of ministries include career development and college placement, tutorial and computer services, health care and support groups, domestic violence programs, pastoral care and counseling, bereavement services, drug and alcohol recovery, prison ministry, financial counseling and credit union, housing and economic development, dozens of choral, instrumental and dance groups, and diverse programming for all ages, including youth and senior citizens.
Thomas, a member of Pilgrim Congregational UCC in Cleveland, has attended worship at Trinity UCC on a few occasions -- most recently on March 2 -- and says he is "profoundly impressed" with the 6,000-member congregation.
Among Trinity UCC's crowning achievements, Thomas says, is its work with young people.
"While the worship is always inspiring, the welcome extravagant, and the preaching biblically based and prophetically challenging, I have been especially moved by the way Trinity ministers to its young people, nurturing them to claim their Christian faith, to celebrate their African-American heritage, and to pursue higher education to prepare themselves for leadership in church and society," Thomas says.
The Rev. Steve Gray, the UCC's Indiana-Kentucky Conference Minister, describes Trinity UCC as a "jewel."
"It's everything a Christian community is supposed to be," says Gray, who has been working with Trinity UCC for the past three years to develop a new UCC congregation in Gary, Ind. "Trinity has given well over $100,000 in support of its partnership with us, and in 15 months of regular meetings with Jeremiah Wright, we always found him to be a man of gracious hospitality, humor, generosity, who paid attention to detail but also a man who does not call attention to himself."
Trinity UCC has been involved in planting more than 15 new congregations, according to the UCC's Evangelism Ministry in Cleveland.
Gray, a member of First Congregational UCC in Indianapolis, has worshiped several times at Trinity UCC and is most impressed by the overflowing sense of welcome it extends to visitors.
"When you're Euro-American, the people [at Trinity UCC] are so exceedingly gracious, warm and welcoming. They hug you and say, 'Welcome to our church!'"
Many, including Gray, point with appreciation to Trinity UCC's generous support of denominational and ecumenical ministries. From 2003 to 2007, Trinity UCC gave more than $3.7 million to Our Church's Wider Mission, the UCC's shared fund for connectional mission and ministry.
The Rev. Bennie Whiten, retired Massachusetts Conference Minister who prior served for 15 years as associate director of Chicago's Community Renewal Society, says, "Trinity was one church that we could always rely on to respond almost immediately. They have been very, very involved in the community in so many meaningful ways."
Noting the church's work in health care, early childhood education and economic development, Whiten says, "The scope of their concern and outreach is extraordinary. It's really just an outstanding congregation."
Whiten, a member of Pilgrim UCC in Oak Park, Ill., is especially taken with Trinity UCC's commitment to the need and importance of quality theological education. More than 60 members of Trinity UCC are currently enrolled in seminary and pursuing masters-level degrees. Moreover, the congregation pays for students' tuition costs.
"They firmly believe in the UCC's commitment to an educated, seminary-trained clergy," Whiten said, "and they have probably had more people feeling the call to ministry than any other church in the denomination."
The Rev. Susan Thistlethwaite, president and professor of theology at UCC-related Chicago Theological Seminary, says Trinity UCC is a model church in the way it supports its people in discerning and cultivating their gifts for ministry, both lay and ordained.
"Another thing I really appreciate about Trinity is that its ministries are always directed both inward, toward the congregation itself, and also outward in supporting other congregations ecumenically and supporting community organizations that are dedicated to lifting up the wider society," Thistlethwaite says. "We have had so many fine students come through Chicago Theological Seminary who were helped to discern their call to ministry through this church's dedication to serving the wider church."
'Jesus and justice'
The Rev. Kenneth L. Samuel, pastor of Victory UCC in Stone Mountain, Ga., says he is impressed that Trinity UCC "promotes spirituality and piety while also being emphatic about social justice."
While Trinity UCC is the denomination's largest congregation, Samuel's 5,300-member church is the UCC's second largest. Founded in 1987, it joined the UCC in 2004.
"Trinity was really one of the churches that inspired me to want to affiliate with the United Church of Christ," Samuel said. "My church was originally National Baptist and Southern Baptist, but it was the critical-thinking that [Trinity] brought to this work, the justice work, that helped me to want to become a part of the denomination. I have no regrets about that."
Samuel says that, during Wright's 36-year ministry at Trinity, Wright has not been afraid to tackle difficult topics, while staying equally committed to preaching "Jesus and justice."
"There have been two major sins in the Black church that many Black churches will not address – homophobia is one and sexism is another," Samuel says, "and Jeremiah Wright has been one of the articulate, courageous voices that has not been afraid to address these critical issues. If he can do that and still maintain his close connectivity to the Black community, and stay grounded in the Black ethos, that's what has inspired me."
'Speaks well for us'
Carol Brown, national president of United Black Christians and a member of Cleveland's Mt. Zion UCC for more than 50 years, describes Trinity UCC as "the flagship church of the United Church of Christ."
"I think it's very interesting that a minority group within a denomination can have the largest church, support the most ministries and give the largest number of OCWM [mission] dollars," Brown says. "That speaks well for us as an accepting, open and affirming denomination. Especially, as a justice-oriented church, [Trinity UCC] sets a standard for all the denomination that all are welcome."
Brown, who worships at Trinity UCC when in Chicago for meetings, says she is most taken by its exuberant spirit.
"It's certainly a very welcoming church, and it's certainly very reaffirming of the faith when people join in such large numbers when there's an altar call," Brown says. "It's something that you don't see in the average church. God is certainly at work there, and it's exciting when you see that many people stand up to witness to their faith and step forward."
The Internal Revenue Service has notified the United Church of Christ's national offices in Cleveland, Ohio, that the IRS has opened an investigation into U.S. Sen. Barack Obama's address at the UCC's 2007 General Synod as the church engaging in "political activities."
In the IRS letter dated Feb. 20, the IRS said it was initiating a church tax inquiry "because reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status."
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, called the investigation "disturbing" but said the investigation would reveal that the church did nothing improper or illegal.
Obama, an active member of the United Church of Christ for more than 20 years, addressed the UCC's 50th anniversary General Synod in Hartford, Conn., on June 23, 2007, as one of 60 diverse speakers representing the arts, media, academia, science, technology, business and government. Each was asked to reflect on the intersection of their faith and their respective vocations or fields of expertise. The invitation to Obama was extended a year before he became a Democratic presidential candidate.
"The United Church of Christ took great care to ensure that Senator Obama's appearance before the 50th anniversary General Synod met appropriate legal and moral standards," Thomas told United Church News. "We are confident that the IRS investigation will confirm that no laws were violated."
Before Obama spoke to the national gathering of 10,000 UCC members, Associate General Minister Edith A. Guffey, who serves as administrator of the biennial General Synod, admonished the crowd that Obama's appearance was not to be a campaign-related event and that electioneering would not be tolerated. No political leaflets, signs or placards were allowed, and activity by the Obama campaign was barred from inside the Hartford Civic Center venue.
In an introduction before Obama's speech, Thomas said Obama was invited as "one of ours" to provide reflections on "how personal faith can be lived out in the public square, how personal faith and piety is reflected in the life of public service."
Thomas said the IRS's investigation implies that Obama, a UCC member, is not free to speak openly to fellow UCC members about his faith.
"The very fact of an IRS investigation, however, is disturbing," Thomas said. "When the invitation to an elected public official to speak to the national meeting of his own church family is called into question, it has a chilling effect on every religious community that seeks to encourage politicians and church members to thoughtfully relate their personal faith to their public responsibilities."
Don Clark, a Chicago attorney who serves as the UCC's national special counsel, said the IRS investigation will afford the UCC the opportunity to correct "inaccuracies and misperceptions."
"It's disconcerting, since the IRS did not communicate with us, or seek any facts from us, in advance of their coming to this understanding," Clark said. "But we feel confident that once they are made aware of the facts that they'll draw a different conclusion.
"This inquiry will provide an opportunity for the United Church of Christ to correct any factual inaccuracies and misperceptions that may have prompted the underlying concern, and to reaffirm the importance of the constitutional rights of free speech and association that have been implicated," Clark said.
Sitting presidents and presidential candidates have a long history of speaking before non-profit, faith-based bodies.
In January of this year, both Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton spoke separately to the national gathering of the National Baptist Convention of America. In April 1996, when her husband, Bill Clinton, was seeking re-election, then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, who is United Methodist, spoke before her denomination's quadrennial General Conference.
In March 1983, President Ronald Reagan gave his famous "Evil Empire" speech before the National Association of Evangelicals.
In September 1960, then-candidate John F. Kennedy, a Roman Catholic, appeared before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association to explain the “so-called religious issue” and “to emphasize from the outset that we have far more critical issues to face in the 1960 election.”
The Rev. Edwin R. "Doc" Edmonds, one of the UCC's stalwart justice advocates, died on Nov. 6 of pneumonia-related complications. He was 90.
Edmonds, a former chair of the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice, was the retired pastor of Dixwell Avenue Congregational UCC in New Haven, Conn., where he served for 35 years. A columnist for the New Haven Register referred to Edmonds as "New Haven's premier civil-rights figure of the mid-20th century."
A one-time member of New Haven's Board of Education, Edmonds also led New Haven's inner-city ministry called the "Wider City Parish" and taught sociology at Southern Connecticut State University.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCC's general minister and president, said it was appropriate that Edmonds' death would come just after the UCC was concluding its 50th anniversary on All Saints Sunday.
"Few have had such a long and profound influence on the shaping of our church and its vocation of public witness for racial, social and economic justice," Thomas said. "Doc's leadership over the years pushed us urgently toward greater faithfulness and helped us become the church we celebrated at our 50th anniversary celebration in Hartford."
Edmonds, who moved to New Haven in 1959, is credited with helping to build a thriving black middle class there. When the Ford Foundation gave the city $1 million to pilot anti-poverty and job-training programs, Edmonds was appointed to the original board of the project, called Community Progress, Inc.
Edmonds, who was a pastor and civil rights pioneer in Greensboro, N.C., before moving to Connecticut, met the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1958 at an NAACP convention in Detroit and the two corresponded until King was slain, according to the Hartford Courant.
The Rev. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister for Justice and Witness Ministries, served on the Commission for Racial Justice under Edmond's leadership. JWM is CRJ's successor body in the UCC's national structure.
“I remember Dr. Edmonds as a 'drum major' for justice, words that I believe Dr. King would have used to describe him," Jaramillo said. "I will always treasure the way in which he taught through word and deed. The legacy of this faithful justice prophet will live on within and beyond the United Church of Christ.”
A native Texan, Edmonds attended Sam Houston College, which was co-founded by his grandfather in 1876. He later received a Bachelor of Sacred Theology from Morehouse College and a doctorate in social ethics from Boston University.
Edmonds and his late wife, Maye, had four daughters, Lynette Johnson, Karen Spellman, Cheryl Edmonds and Connecticut State Rep. Toni Walker (D-New Haven). He was a member of Church of the Redeemer UCC in New Haven.
A public memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. on Nov. 24 at Center Church UCC in New Haven.
A United Church of Christ congregation in Texas has been told it cannot participate in an evangelical Christian program that assists children of prisoners because of the church's outspoken gay-friendly stance.
The Rev. Dan De Leon, pastor of Friends Congregational UCC in College Station, Texas, said he learned this summer that his church was disqualified from Prison Fellowship's Angel Tree program, which encourages churches to buy Christmas presents for the children of inmates.
Prison Fellowship officials said the church's stance on homosexuality, declared on its Web site, represented a disagreement about basic scriptural doctrine.
"For a church to qualify for Angel Tree, its beliefs must be consistent with our Statement of Faith, including being Trinitarian and accepting the unique authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life," reads a July 24 letter the church received from Prison Fellowship.
The church provided a copy of the letter to Religion News Service.
"As we have looked at the doctrine and beliefs of your church in light of our Statement of Faith and partnering guidelines, we have determined that your church does not qualify as part of our program."
De Leon said he called the regional office of Prison Fellowship and was told his church was disqualified because it belongs to the UCC's "Open and Affirming" program that welcomes gays and lesbians as members.
"Personally it came as a shock and when it was shared with the congregation, it was equally shocking," said De Leon, whose church draws an average of 120 worshippers on Sunday. "The emotions ran from anger to confusion to just the wind being taken out of our sails as a community initially."
David Lawson, senior vice president of Prison Fellowship, called the situation "one unfortunate incident" and said "very few" of the more than 12,000 participating churches have been disqualified or disqualified themselves from the Angel Tree program. Such cases usually involve differing views about homosexuality or creation, he said.
He said the Angel Tree program is not limited to Christmas presents but aims for a year-round "full relationship" between churches and prisoners' children, involving them in congregational programs.
"We want to make sure that the churches that we partner with are compatible with our values, our statement of faith," said Lawson, who is based in Lansdowne, Va.
The Texas church has participated in the program for five years and been "Opening and Affirming" since 1996. In recent years, Prison Fellowship has reviewed Angel Tree participants to ensure that churches are compatible with a recently revised mission statement that urges a focus on "transformation," he said.
The United Church of Christ has seen other repercussions from its stance on homosexuality. In July, an insurer refused to offer coverage to a UCC church in Adrian, Mich., saying its pro-gay stance put it at "a higher risk" of property damage and litigation. In recent years, major television networks have rejected UCC ads as "too controversial."
The Texas congregation has drafted a letter to Prison Fellowship, signed by more than 120 parishioners and supporters, to express its dismay at being removed from the program.
"We are disheartened that Prison Fellowship has chosen to lean more heavily on small matters of doctrinal disagreements than on much larger matters of theological authenticity and compassion, which demand that we Christians must love one another if anyone will ever believe that we truly follow Christ," the letter said.
UCC President John H. Thomas wrote a letter of support to the congregation, and encouraged them to respond to Prison Fellowship.
"I pray that those who receive your letter will be challenged by its message and, by God's grace, transformed," Thomas wrote.
De Leon said church members will meet to determine new ways to help children in the community.
Lawson said even though Prison Fellowship is no longer aligned with the College Station congregation, "we affirm them in their desire to serve these children."
Obama a member of denominations largest congregation, the 10,000-member Trinity UCC in Chicago since 1988 has spoken often about his profession of faith, his membership in the socially progressive UCC and the need for Democrats to take seriously the concerns of religious Americans.
The Rev. John H. Thomas, the UCCs general minister and president, said the denominations only organizational interest in Obamas candidacy is that his faith and his religious tradition be discussed accurately within the media.
Our churchs rich historical legacy is interwoven with the history of this nation, and the heritage of the United Church of Christ makes it clear that faith is to be expressed actively in public life on behalf of the community and the world, Thomas said. While it is not appropriate for the church to advocate for any one candidate in electoral politics, I am proud that Sen. Obama is an active UCC member and speaks to many of the values that our church holds dear.
Obama wrote about his faith and his UCC membership in the August-September 2006 issue of United Church News, the UCCs national newspaper.
You come to church in the first place precisely because you are of this world, not apart from it, Obama wrote. You need to embrace Christ precisely because you have sins to wash away, because you are human and need an ally in this difficult journey. It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity UCC on 95th Street in the Southside of Chicago one day and affirm my Christian faith.
In November 2004, during his acceptance speech following his election to the Senate, Obama expressed appreciation for the support of Trinity UCCs members. The Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor of Trinity UCC, is one of Obamas close spiritual advisors and is credited with giving inspiration to the title of Obamas bestselling book, The Audacity of Hope. Obama says he first heard Wright use the phrase in one of his stirring sermons.
Trinity UCC has been a true community to me a place in which the mind, heart and soul come together to celebrate God&'s goodness, Obama told United Church News in 2004.
The UCC is a Cleveland, Ohio-based denomination of more than 5,700 congregations, located in all 50 states. Often confused with the much-different Churches of Christ, the United Church of Christ is one of the oldest and youngest church bodies in the United States.
Formed by name in 1957 by the union of the Congregational Christian Churches in America and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the UCCs roots in American history are deep. Eleven signers of the Declaration of Independence were from UCC traditions, and a full 10 percent of present-day UCC congregations were formed prior to 1776.
Many UCC churches trace their founding to the early 1600s, when the Pilgrims and Puritans first came to America. These Congregationalists, as they became known, sought religious independence from persecuting political authorities in Europe. They believed firmly in local church autonomy, covenantal church life, personal piety and the priesthood of all believers.
Today, the UCC holds firmly to these early religious tenets. Often recognized for its historical and contemporary social justice commitments, its present-day approach to worship, however,might be considered traditional by most standards.
Interestingly, the U.S. Congregational Life Survey, published in 2002, found that UCC members, slightly more than members of other mainline denominations, listed traditional hymns and biblically-sound preaching as being essential to good worship. Surprising to some, the same study also found that slightly more UCC members self-identified as conservative rather than liberal a tidbit that President Calvin Coolidge, a conservative Republican and the nations only Congregationalist president (1923-1929), might have found interesting.
Although each congregations liturgical style is influenced by its heritage and members preferences, as is true in most mainline denominations, the UCC, as one pastor aptly put it, is known for its beautiful, heady and exasperating mix.
Known for arriving early on social justice issues, the churchs history includes being the first to practice democracy in church governance (1630), the first to ordain an African-American pastor (1785), the first to ordain a woman (1853), the first to ordain an openly gay man (1972), and the first to support same-gender marriage equality (2005).
In 1773, Old South UCC in Boston helped inspire the Boston Tea Party and, in 1777, Old Zion Reformed UCC in Allentown, Pa., hid the Liberty Bell from occupying British forces.
Hundreds of schools including Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Howard, Fisk, Wellesley, Smith and Oberlin owe their beginnings to the UCC. The UCCs publishing company, The Pilgrim Press, is the oldest publisher of books in North America.
Obama and his family live in Chicagos Hyde Park neighborhood, which is home to Chicago Theological Seminary, one of the UCCs seven seminaries and the citys oldest institution of higher education.
Largely regarded as a northern church, about 80 percent of UCC members are clustered in the Northeast and industrial Midwest. The UCC is the largest Protestant church in New England, the birthplace of Congregationalism, and it has more than 700 churches in Pennsylvania, the heart of the German Reformed tradition. The UCC is also strong in New York, Missouri, Florida, Hawaii and the Pacific West Coast.
In Iowa and New Hampshire, two states with early Presidential contests, the UCC has 188 and 138 congregations respectively.
In recent years, the UCC has posted growth in the South. The denominations second largest church, the 5,500-member Victory UCC near Atlanta, affiliated with the UCC in 2002. The UCCs fourth-largest, the 4,300-member Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, joined in 2006, as did churches in Memphis and Nashville, Tenn.; Montgomery, Ala.; and Columbia, S.C., among other places.
Last year, the UCC launched its national Nehemiah Project with plans to start or welcome at least 250 new southern churches within five years.
While Obama looks to be the only UCC candidate in the 2008 presidential election, the 2004 campaign included two UCC members, both Democrats. Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, now chair of the Democratic Party, is a member of First Congregational UCC in Burlington, Vt., and then U.S. Senator Bob Graham is a member of Miami Lakes Congregational UCC in Florida.
The current U.S. Congress includes 10 UCC members five Republicans and five Democrats.
Five U.S. Senators are UCC Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii), Max Baucus (D-Mont.), Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Obama.
Five House seats are occupied by UCC members: Thelma Drake (R-Va.), Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).
Other notable UCC members include New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D); former U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.); actress Lynn Redgrave; current U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall; Pulitzer-prize-winning newspaper columnists Connie Schultz (and wife of U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio) and Leonard Pitts Jr.; and Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of Gilead.
The Rev. Andrew Young former congressman, U.N. ambassador and Atlanta mayor is an ordained UCC minister, who began his Civil Rights activism working for the UCC.
The late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the legendary social activist who became immortalized as the pastor in Gary Trudeaus Doonesbury comic strip, had ministerial standing in the UCC and served as pastor of the UCCs Riverside Church in New York.
The Rev. Reinhold Niebuhr, a UCC minister considered to be one of greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century, authored the now-famous Serenity Prayer.
Journey UCC will meet at a restaurant in Prairieville, La., in a building generally used for weddings and other public events. The new-church start comes at a time when many who once lived in southern Louisiana have moved north into the Baton Rouge area, following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"We have put in months of work and are excited about establishing the only UCC church in what is now the largest city in Louisiana," wrote Malcolm Richard, one of the church's founders, in an email to Conference and National church leaders. "I'm excited, but also nervous. Someone called church planting the 'extreme sport of Christianity.' It has and will be a ride!"
The UCC has only 16 churches in Louisiana, with most being located in the New Orleans area. Funds from the UCC's post-Katrina "Hope Shall Bloom" special offering are being used, in part, to supplement the new-church start.
"God has given me a vision for reaching the unchurched and hurting people of our area," Richard said.
Richard asks that UCC members across the country who know of potential worshipers in the Baton Rouge area to contact him at email@example.com.