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."