She could be your sister, your daughter, your neighbor. A mother. In Mexico, she's also a commodity to buy and sell.
Sexual trafficking and exploitation is harsh reality in communities along the U.S.-Mexican border and beyond. That reality drew 13 people from the UCC's California-Nevada conferences to Centro Romero April 26-28 to take part in an immersion experience at the Center for Education and Social Transformation in San Ysidro, Calif. The group joined Dr. Carlos Correa Bernier, Director of Centro Romero, and three other UCC staff members to begin developing ways churches in the region can join efforts to address this growing problem of exploitation of women and children. A new way of being church, welcoming all.
"Our objectives are assistance, intervention and connection," said Correa. "We wanted to bring together religious and community leaders, researchers, and practitioners who work in enforcing trafficking laws and in providing direct support and prevention. We're looking into developing ways for future collaborative research, advocacy, and program development focusing on sex trafficking, and in equipping participants to educate others about the needs and risks of those who are victimized."
Commercial sexual exploitation on both sides of the U.S-Mexico border is big business. According to a study for Global Financial Integrity, sex trafficking is the second most profitable illegal business in the world, after the trade in illegal drugs. The border between San Diego and Tijuana has become an active location for sex trafficking, with most of the "consumers" coming from the U.S. side of the border. The women and children –– about 137,000 trafficked through Mexico annually –– range in age from 3 years to 65 years old.
The group met with Stephen Cass, a U.S. citizen now living in Mexico, who operates a ministry to rescue girls who are trafficked for sex. His is the only safe house in Tijuana. A gripping first-hand account of how the safe house literally can be a life changing experience came from a young woman who had been sexually abused by her father for years before receiving assistance. Her testimony touched a nerve with the Rev. Andrew (Andy) Schwiebert, lead pastor at (a)Spire Ministry, a new emergent community that is an extension of First Congregational UCC of Pasadena.
"I was moved by the courage of survivors of sex trafficking to share their stories of unthinkable, horrific abuse as young children at the hands of family and traffickers and at the hands of a violent system," said Schwiebert.
In broad daylight, the group made its way through the "Zone of Tolerance" (e.g., red light district) of Tijuana, where 300 young girls and transgender boys, many of them clearly aged 13-17, were awaiting sex work in plain view of federal and state police.
While in Tijuana, the group visited the only residential treatment program there that is free for those living with HIV/AIDS and talked to two young women, who shared moving and disturbing stories of being trafficked for sex. One was "bought" by an American who took her and her baby to Alaska and forced her to have sex with others. The second woman was lured into the business by a girlfriend, who first got her addicted to drugs.
"I can't comprehend how the victims of this tragic and exploitative industry cope with what must be mountains of pain. Knowing that a few manage to escape and that there are some working to support those who do offers a tiny flicker of hope," said Schwiebert. "The Romero Center is one among a few key places in the UCC that is rallying people of faith together for collective acts of compassion, mercy and justice."
The group, spurred by the people they met and what they saw, are generating ideas on what type of support UCC churches can offer –– with an additional safe house as one possibility.
Lisa McCally, a member of Congregational UCC of San Mateo, Calif., said, "I know some of us hope to help and/or support Carlos, UCC or Centro Romero in exploring ways to take action, including starting a safe house for victims in Rosarito or Tijuana."
Other important steps, the group noted, are educating our congregations and finding out what is going on in our own communities. McCally says her church is meeting in June to brainstorm ideas for ways to follow up locally and beyond. She already has joined a group in her hometown, the Bay Area Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition to learn how she can get involved in the fight against human trafficking.
"I believe this is an important time for members of the UCC to support positive solutions that both curb the demand among consumers of sex work and pornography, and offer support to those seeking a way out and new life," said Schwiebert.
Think. Act. Be.
Next week marks the beginning of Black History Month, a time to honor and elevate the many accomplishments of African Americans – individuals who thought boldly, acted differently, and had the courage to be themselves in the face of any and all adversity. The month of February also includes the start of the Lenten season (Feb. 22), when Christians from around the world prepare themselves for the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and a time when many commit to giving up selected distractions from their relationship with God — a time for you to think boldly, act differently, and be you.
In order to embrace these two important celebrations, the UCC national setting will be theming its communications throughout the month of February, providing daily and weekly reminders to recognize and honor those who have served before us and to challenge us to think, act, and be in today's world. The UCC will be coordinating this message throughout its communications, including Keeping You e-Posted (KYeP) weekly newsletters, Stillspeaking daily devotionals, the website, social media sites, and more.
Additionally, the Stillspeaking Writers' Group has compiled a brand new resource for this year's Lenten season. Titled, "Give It Up! Lenten Devotionals 2012," this 56-page devotional offers inspiration, humor, and unexpected insights for each day of Lent. "Give It Up" invites readers to rethink the Lenten themes of sacrifice, repentance and renewal in new and unexpected ways.
"The devotionals center on actions or ideas that we don't normally associate with Lent," said Ann Poston, UCC director of Publishing, Identity and Communication. "They are about the new life people can have by giving up things like worrying, or judging others, or underestimating yourself. We're hoping the book will help make Lent a deeper experience for people this year."
"Give It Up!" can be ordered from UCC Resources online or toll free by calling 800-537-3394.
At the UCC Church House in Cleveland, there also is a host of special events to honor Black History Month. During its weekly Wednesday noon services at the Amistad Chapel (located at 700 Prospect Avenue E. in downtown Cleveland), the public is invited to join an exciting line-up of speakers. These services will feature the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president (Feb. 1); the Rev. Paul Hobson Sadler Sr., pastor of Mt. Zion Congregational UCC in Cleveland (Feb. 8); U.S. Federal Judge Denise Page Hood (Feb. 15); and the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago (Feb. 29).
"The diversity of African-American leaders we celebrate during Black History Month, including those who will lead worship services in the UCC Church House each Wednesday in February, possess extraordinarily different backgrounds and senses of place," said Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life. "From the arts, local- and regional-community building, interfaith and global perspectives, their faith supports each tenet of 'Think. Act. Be.' "
Over the past year, voices across the United Church of Christ have highlighted three distinct values central to the life and mission of the church: God’s continuing testament, extending extravagant welcome, and the many ways the UCC is changing lives.
Rather than proscribing a set of beliefs or practices, these values are meant to guide and inform the world about how the “we” in the UCC are living out the call to be disciples of Christ.
"The core values capture the best of the UCC in a way that's very understandable and easy to articulate," says W. Mark Clark, the UCC’s associate general minister, about the UCC’s intentional commitment to these core values.
Clark also notes that the UCC’s Collegium of Officers is crafting a strategic plan for the national setting of the UCC. It will spend much of 2012 testing the "Big Holy Audacious Goals" contained in the plan in a variety of settings of the church, with a vision toward developing the best ways to implement these goals throughout the denomination.
The New Year brings an added emphasis on highlighting the UCC's core values in the stories we tell in United Church News, the pages of StillSpeaking Magazine and the consistent message from the UCC's more than 5,200 churches already living out these principles. Recent examples include the thousands of congregations that participated in Mission:1 and a continued emphasis on stillspeaking congregations and voices.
Changes are already underway. You'll notice the UCC homepage header has changed to proclaim the core values. In addition, an easy-to-share slideshow has more detail about the UCC’s core values and how they inform our life together.
While today is being celebrated worldwide by many as Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday – a day of decadence prior to Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Christian season of Lent – some are taking a new approach to the traditional 40 days of self-denial, prayer and personal reflection in the post-modern era.
The Lenten season, which a recent Religion News Service article article notes “hasn't always drawn strong interest” among some Protestant denominations, has taken on new meaning by linking fasting, abstention and prayer to social causes. The article, “Age-old Lent gets a 21st-century makeover,” highlights various ways the concept of “fasting” is being lived out among Christians in the new millennium.
Over 4,000 people have joined in the 2011 Ecumenical Lenten Carbon Fast in an effort to reduce energy consumption and fight global warming. Of the carbon fast, Janis Galvin, an Episcopalian who lives in Everett, Mass., said, "It's exciting because it's not just suffering for its own sake … It's doing good."
Fasting from anything is never an easy sell in a culture that values convenience, according to Jim Antal, who heads the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ.
But as a spiritual practice, he said, personal sacrifice can be a key driver in advancing larger movements.
"We're trying to deal with the mingling of individual Lenten disciplines with social change," said Antal, whose conference is spearheading the carbon fast. "And that is precisely what will save the Earth - if individuals who begin to get it... begin to say, `Gosh, I need to change my life, and I need to become an activist.' "
Along with this initiative, the United Methodist Church is urging its 7.8 million U.S. members to refrain from drinking alcohol during Lent. Teetotaling is familiar turf in United Methodism, and now Lent provides a framework to consider the role alcohol plays in individual lives, families and society, according to Cynthia Abrams of the UMC's General Board of Church & Society.
"To ask United Methodists to give up alcohol for Lent is provocative because we like to think United Methodists don't drink," said Abrams, who works on alcohol and other health issues. "We decided ... to confront the elephant in the room by doing something provocative and engaging in conversation about it throughout Lent."
In the United Kingdom, the Christian Vegetarian Association is aiming to revive the ancient Christian practice of foregoing meat during Lent. (Many Orthodox Christians still eat a vegan diet in Lent). It's self-denial for a purpose, organizers say, noting how vegetarian diets improve health, enhance animal welfare and reduce strain on the environment.
Some observers of evolving Lenten practices see them as steps – albeit small ones – in the right direction for a culture that tends to bristle at the idea of voluntary self-denial.
"In a culture as consumer-oriented and materialistic as ours, it is not surprising that churches are seeking in small ways to remind us of those obsessions," said Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist of religion at Princeton University. "These are welcome developments, even though they may be rather feeble."
Conventional ways of fasting and abstaining at Lent haven't disappeared. Sixty percent of American Catholics – even those who seldom attend church – abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, according to Mark Gray, senior research associate at Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.
And for others, where Lent has taken on a more reflective or study-oriented nature, new resources are available to assist individual groups and individuals in their spiritual pursuits. Identification with Jesus, specifically his earthly ministry and events that led to his crucifixion (and resurrection,) is also part of the Lenten tradition.
To that end, the Living the Questions franchise has released a two-DVD set - "Saving Jesus: Redux" - that, while not specifically intended as a curriculum for Lent, would be a welcome addition to a church or small group Lenten series.
Divided into 12 segments, “Saving Jesus” offers a 20-minute video introduction to a topic, scripture readings and suggested discussion topics aimed at helping participants develop a greater understanding of Jesus.
The United Church of Christ Stillspeaking Writers' Group has also released a new resource, "The Jesus Diaries: Who Jesus is to Me." Again, while not meant exclusively as a Lenten guide, this booklet contains nine reflections that provoke the question, as the Rev. Martin B. Copenhaver recalls in the introduction, “How would you describe your relationship with Jesus?”
Whether Lenten practices of self-denial and reflection take modern or historic forms, rooted in spiritual development or concerns for global justice, there's no dispute that the party of Mardi Gras, for many, will be met tomorrow by the challenging reality of Christian discipleship.
Portions of this article were provided by Religion News Service and G. Jeffrey MacDonald.
Culminating nearly seven years of study and discourse, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) voted Nov. 16 during its fall general assembly in Baltimore to approve the "Common Agreement on Mutual Recognition of Baptism."
By a 204-11 vote, the agreement – among the USCCB, the United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church-USA, Reformed Church in America and Christian Reformed Church – is being hailed as a "milestone on the ecumenical journey," says Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the USCCB Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.
"Together with our Reformed brothers and sisters, we Catholic bishops can affirm baptism as the basis of the real, even if incomplete, unity we share in Christ," says Gregory. "Our conference looks forward to seeing all four of the authoritative bodies of the Reformed communities approve the common agreement as we have today."
The Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC, says the church will discuss the USCCB's landmark vote with the entire denomination.
"My expectation is that we the issue will be placed before the Executive Council or the General Synod for official action," says Black, referring to the UCC's biennial conference, to be held next July in Tampa, Fla. "At this point, my preference would be to place it before the General Synod in order to give it maximum visibility in the life of the UCC."
The agreement has been ratified by the Presbyterian Church. The Reformed Church in America and the Christian Reformed Church are expected to consider the agreement at their national meetings.
"It was quite the journey – seven years," says the Rev. Sidney F. Fowler, Interim Senior Minister of Westmoreland Congregational UCC in Bethesda, Md. "I think it offers an opportunity for an amazing conversation among UCC folks who have deep ecumenical commitments."
"There were some rather tough moments," says Fowler, who has worked for the national settings of both the UCC in worship and spiritual formation, and has extensive experience developing lectionary-based and international ecumenical resources.
The two primary roadblocks to the agreement centered on language used during the baptismal rite and the manner in which water is used.
"At a moment of significant impasse, Geoffrey brought fresh eyes and asked crucial questions that helped the process move forward so all parties could sign off on the common agreement," says Kimberly Whitney, UCC minister for community life and assistant to the UCC's five-member Collegium. "Our general minister and president looks forward to charging us as a denomination toward continued groundbreaking and visionary connections – both interfaith and ecumenical – that are ahead of us."
Research found that nearly 20 percent of UCC churches were using alternative language for "the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit" for baptismal formula, says Fowler. "Catholics don't recognize baptism other than 'in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.' "
Gregory says the agreement, after approval by the four Reformed denominations, will "allow Catholic ministers to presume that baptisms performed in these communities are 'true baptism' as understood in Catholic doctrine and law."
"The presentation of a baptismal certificate by Reformed Christians who wish to come into full communion with the Catholic Church, or to marry a Catholic, assures Catholic ministers that the baptism performed by a Reformed minister involved the use of flowing water and the biblical invocation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit," says Gregory.
The agreement encourages local Christian communities to keep baptismal records, a practice already held in the Catholic Church.
The press release stated that other bishops' conferences worldwide have entered into similar agreements with local Protestant communities, but this document is "unprecedented" for the Catholic Church in the United States.
Producing and presenting the "Kids to Kids" online curriculum has taken a bit more work than the simplicity of its concept might imply.
But now that it has launched, it is carrying Kay Edwards' hopes along with it.
"This is a place for adult leaders of youth groups and Sunday school classes to sit down with their kids, look at it together, and support the kids in their deciding what they are to do," says Edwards, director of Family and Children's Ministries for Disciples Home Missions with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). "The web site was launched just a couple of weeks ago, but it's been in the works for a couple of years."
The goal of Kids-to-Kids VBS Curriculum is for adult church members to engage youth groups to play games, ponder projects and study fund-raising pages – then discern what God is calling them to do.
"Too often, adults make decisions for children; they think that the children can't do that for themselves," says Edwards. "This is about kids of means being called to help children who are not as fortunate as they are. It's giving the kids some vehicles they can use to make choices on their own".
Designed to involve elementary age children in mission work, Kids to Kids was formed 17 years ago by the Disciples of Christ. It is now a joint effort involving the UCC through Global Ministries. The site suggests that group leaders employ a 10-point outline: Explore. Dream. Pray. Talk. Plan. Take a Deep Breath. Dive in! Evaluate and celebrate. Share your ideas. Don't Stop!
"We tried to make it really broad so that there would be something in it that appealed to lower-age elementary students to upper age," says Edwards. Games, puzzles and coloring are just a few of the exercises involved. And no matter where you turn, beginning with the web site's home page, Raja the Friendly Cobra is there to greet you – in multiple languages.
"Raja is from India, she travels all over the world," says Edwards, noting the wide variety of headgear the international star sports throughout the site. "She will visit the Disciples' General Assembly as well as the UCC's General Synod next July in Tampa. Raja has different hats to wear for all the places she goes."
Edwards is primed to grow the project both within and outside the United States.
"'Shake It Baby' is a good example of the type of project we'd like to keep adding, something that the local church is doing," says Edwards. Aimed at helping newborns in need around the world, "Shake It Baby" helps provide supplies such as diapers, cribs and car seats to those in need.
UCC projects include Helping Hands, which gives children the opportunity to help the staff of Charles Hall Youth Services provide creative, fun activities for troubled teenagers; "Welcome!," a basket-filling project providing warm-welcome offerings to children coming to live at Brooklawn Child and Family Services in Louisville, Ky.; and "Go Climb A Tree," which raises money for scholarships at the Illinois DuBois Camp and Conference Center.
In addition, the UCC and Disciples both participate in "Ready, Set, Go," designed to raise money and donate to One Great Hour of Sharing (UCC) and Week of Compassion (Disciples), ensuring that help is available when disaster strikes throughout the world.
"We know a passion for mission is most often planted at a very young age," says Jan Aerie, executive for Mission Education and Interpretation for the UCC's Wider Church and Global Minstries. "The seeds sown by this curriculum and website will nurture a faith and lifelong commitment for children of our churches.
"Our collaborative effort as two denominations has made a costly and time-consuming project not only worthwhile, but far better than we could have created on our own."
The next big step for Edwards is to develop and go live with Vacation Bible School resources for youth about Colombia and Venezuela. VBS curricula focusing on the Congo and India are already on the web site.
Edwards encourages congregations that have developed VBS materials to share them with her for distribution to others.
To contact Edwards, call 434-832-1119 or send an email to email@example.com
A modern-day David-meets-Goliath is playing out in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and, to date, David – in the form of a UCC church known for its compassionate outreach among poor and homeless persons – is holding his own.
Although city officials are trying to close down Hope Outreach Ministries United Church of Christ's Men's Overnight Ministry – an overnight homeless shelter – church members are finding ways, with legal help from the ACLU, to keep the shelter open.
The Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection ordered the shelter shut down Aug. 10, citing building, zoning and fire code violations. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, local zoning laws allow the church to operate 24 hours a day, but do not allow sleeping inside its walls.
The church responded to the order by holding an all-night prayer vigil in the sanctuary where 15-to-25 men have slept each night since September 2009. When inspectors arrived Wednesday, Aug. 11, the sleeping mats were gone, so the church was given the OK to continue operating its shelter. The city told reporters that the inspectors will continue to make unannounced checks to insure that homeless men in the shelter are not asleep.
The Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU is representing the church as it negotiates with the city.
Hope's pastor, the Rev. Deborah Savage, told reporters that the church would continue to hold the overnight prayer vigils through the end of the month.
"The commitment and tenacity of Hope Outreach Ministries to serve the needs of its homeless neighbors is evidence of Christ's presence among them," said the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, UCC general minister and president. "I know that many of Hope's sister congregations across the United Church of Christ are offering prayers of support and encouragement as the congregation works with the ACLU and the city to resolve the legal matters at hand so that Hope's ministries of compassion among the poor in their neighborhood will continue uninterrupted."
Hope UCC began in May 2009 with 12 members and today has an average Sunday worship attendance of 80. It began its outreach homeless ministry in September 2009.
According to the Rev. Linda Noonan, pastor of Chestnut Hill United Church, a UCC/United Methodist congregation in Philadelphia, Hope's ministries extend well beyond the men's shelter:
- Hope's Wednesday morning program has served more than 1,700 people with emergency food and clothing
- It's Mother's Soup Kitchen, held on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has served more than 1,800 meals.
- More then 2,900 people have been fed at Hope's Sunday Morning Overcomers Breakfast Program.
- Area senior citizens receive monthly food boxes
- A clinic is available twice a month for medical assessment, resources and workshops.
In 2009, Hope also provided 4,800 lunches and snacks to neighborhood children, and 65 children received book bags and school supplies.
The church –– with the support of local UCC clergy from the Philadelphia Association, Pennsylvania Southeast Conference, UCC and ecumenical partners across the region and the newly-formed Philadelphia Chapter of UCC Ministers for Racial, Social and Economic Justice –– has begun building safety improvements, continued their vital ministries and moved to holding all-night prayer vigils at the church led by local UCC congregations as a way of continuing the worship life and ministry of the church.
Church website: http://hopeministriesucc.org/
|Covenant Baptist Church in southeast Washington, D.C., was one of two churches that affiliated with the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference on Feb. 27.|
The Central Atlantic Conference received two churches into the UCC on Feb. 27, when Covenant Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., and United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., were granted congregational standing by the UCC's Potomac Association.
Covenant Baptist Church is known throughout the D.C. area for its vibrant worshipping community and its prophetic ministries of justice and service. Founded in 1945 as an all-white Southern Baptist congregation, a racial transition began in 1969 when the church called an African-American pastor to serve its European-American congregation. In its decades of service to its economically challenged neighborhood in southeast Washington, the predominately African-American congregation has developed a reputation for being a beacon of hope, inclusiveness and liberation for the oppressed and marginalized.
Last year, the congregation's senior pastors, the Rev. Dennis and Christine Wiley, were among the visible religious leaders that supported D.C.'s adoption of a controversial law that legalized same-gender marriage.
"Many new members are joining the church, excited by our vision," the Wileys wrote in a Washington Post op-ed column explaining their position. "… Some who disagree with us have condemned us to hell. But we believe that God has granted us the courage of our convictions."
United Christian Church in Lexington Park, Md., under the leadership of the Rev. Annie Blackwell, is an ecumenical partnership congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and the United Church of Christ.
Formerly known as the Southern Maryland Faith Community, United Christian Church is committed to inclusivity, service and speaking to the holistic needs of those they serve.
"Christ calls us to be 'citizens in the world,' reads the church's website. "We believe that our social expression of Christ's love seeks justice for all humankind."
The Rev. Henry E. "Hank" Fairman, moderator of the Potomac Association, says the two new congregations represent how the UCC "continues to live into the future as a united and uniting church."
"Today we took an affirming step into the future in ministry in community together," Fairman said in a written statement. "Isaiah reminds us, 'Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.' Thanks be to God for challenging us to be a progressive, liberal voice in Christian faith, and for gathering us all in as a united church."
A formal service of reception for United Christian Church will be held at Bethany Christian Church in Fort Washington, Md., on Palm Sunday, March 28. A service welcoming Covenant Baptist Church will take place on May 16.
The Rev. John Deckenback is Conference Minister of the Central Atlantic Conference, which includes New Jersey, Delaware, District of Columbia, and portions of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia.