Trailblazers uplifted by Thompson reflect on her election
After becoming the first woman to be elected to lead the United Church of Christ as General Minister and President, the Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson credited two women who she said “kicked in the doors” for her.
Those women, the Rev. Yvonne Delk and the Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, witnessed her election at the 34th General Synod on Monday, July 3 at the Indiana Convention Center.
“To stand here today, many, many years later and to see this Synod now affirm not only a woman, but a woman of African descent, as the General Minister and President of this church is an amazing affirmation of how far women have come in the denomination,” said Delk, the first woman of African descent ordained in the UCC. The retired pastor and editor of Afro-Christian Convention: The Fifth Stream of the United Church of Christ was nominated for the denomination’s leadership post from the floor of General Synod in 1989.
“It just is a wonderful feeling now for me,” she said. “That moment was not possible for me. But to know that if we kept standing, kept witnessing, kept working, kept representing, kept being in places where we could keep affirming what it means for all of us — but especially women — to be a part of this church, that a day would come that I would be able to see that moment reach its full completion? It felt to me that the circle had completed.”
Delk said it is critical that, in this time, the perspectives of women — and especially African American women — be seen and heard “not only for the church, but for the nation and the world.” That is a witness, she said, to what an “inclusive, diverse, beloved community” looks like.
“It is a moving moment, especially in light of what is happening in the world around us,” she said. “There is so much growing dissent in relationship to African American history. There’s growing dissent in terms of our rights, especially as we look at affirmative action in a very, very conservative court. We’re still struggling to have control over our bodies.”
Delk said this moment in UCC history was made possible by so many women who have been involved in denominational work over the years.
Not yet time
Zikmund is one of those women. Like Delk, she also had been nominated to lead the UCC before Thompson. Zikmund is a retired seminary professor and historian, and author of Clergy Women: An Uphill Calling and The Living Theological Heritage of the United Church of Christ.
“I’m excited about the way women are moving into leadership,” she said after Thompson’s election.
She said the “patterns of history have limited women’s capacities” over the years and that she has met many women who “think they don’t count.”
Zikmund said she knew she was not going to get elected when she was nominated in 1999, as Delk before her.
“Several people told me that it was a difficult time. Other things needed to be more important,” she said. “I’ve been treated well, but some people did not think it was time for women to control the management of the church.
“I have known that women would lead us someday. I pray for and support Rev. Thompson.”
During the plenary session prior to Thompson’s election, several people offered their support for her candidacy.
Wyren Kīwaha, of the Puka’ana Congregational Church on the island of Hawai’i, recalled he first met Thompson when she gave a talk on the idea of people belonging to more than one religious tradition. He said this happened “at a time when there were those who felt I did not belong. And frankly I didn’t feel like I belonged.
“Karen Georgia Thompson made me feel like I belonged,” he continued. “I’m excited about her election. In this position, Karen Georgia Thompson, you belong.”
The Rev. Andrea Vassell of the Central Atlantic Conference said she had “witnessed first-hand” Thompson’s work in ecumenical circles.
“It gives me great hope for the United Church of Christ as we build a bigger table,” Vassell said. “As God makes all things new within us, let us put another leaf in the table so God can manifest among us what love truly needs.”
‘Widening this table’
The Rev. John Gage, senior pastor of the Congregational Church of Needham, Mass., said he had sensed some anxiety in the body in response to Thompson’s comments about widening the table and about interreligious belonging.
“I want to remind us we are called to be yeast and salt; we are not called to be the entire loaf,” he said. “And in fact, the bread would be awfully distasteful if it was just us.”
The Rev. Jess Chancey, co-chair of the UCC Disabilities Ministries board, also offered their support.
“As a person with multiple disabilities who is also trans and queer, I recognize there are a wide assortment of people in the UCC,” they said. “We have all always been here. The point of saying that we are widening this table is to say we are allowing us to be visibly present and authentically here. We have always been here, so Karen Georgia is allowing us to be at the table as our full, authentic selves.”
Tiffany Vail, a General Synod newsroom volunteer, is the director of media and communications for the Southern New England Conference.
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