Ida's faith was tested when a stranger came to the door of her home at the end of a country road. She looked out at the white man, quite noticeable in her largely black community, and saw his gray jumpsuit. She was sure he was the convicted murderer the radio said had escaped from the prison several miles away.
Ida had several choices, including the rifle she kept in the corner for shooting squirrels. But instead, she chose to open the door. The whole story merits a longer telling, but here's the crux: At first he was threatening, but Ida fed him and listened to his fears and anger, and spoke to him like the mama he had hardly known.
She insisted on praying with him, and he wept as he remembered a long gone childhood faith. Eventually, the state police surrounded Ida's home. Between the man's renewed fear and the police's intensity on his capture, the situation came to a dangerous moment. But Ida talked to both parties, and brought them to a point where the man could safely be taken into custody.
As they began to put him in the car, he turned to her and said simply, "Thank you for your hospitality, ma'am." And the stranger was gone.
It was a stranger encounter. It was a moment of biblical proportions because the Bible is filled with stranger encounters and with the same tension Ida faced: what to do when confronted with a stranger, someone unknown and different from you?
The stranger (aka alien, foreigner) moves through Hebrew tradition from the exodus through the exile. An overview of the texts reminds us that at times the "stranger" is seen by Israel as a threat, and there is tension in the relationship.
The tension was most evident when Israel felt at its weakest, politically and spiritually, as in the book of Ezra (chapter 10.) The stranger and their strange gods are seen as a danger to the purity of Israel after the exile. At another time, "strangers" are the instruments of God's anger (Ezekiel 11:9).
But those are the minority reports in the stranger encounters of Israel. The overriding affirmation of God is to welcome, protect, share with and, interestingly, identify with the stranger because of the shared experience of having been stranger/alien themselves. Over and over, as God guides the people of Israel into a community, as told in the books of the Pentateuch, we hear this theme:
"When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God" (Leviticus 19:34; Exodus 10: 17-19).
God's expectations of Israel with the stranger even go beyond non-oppression and charity (e.g. leaving gleanings in Deuteronomy 24:19, 21).
In Numbers 15 and 19, the stranger/alien is seen as being responsible to the same law, with the same privileges and responsibilities, as the people of Israel. The equality of status extends all the way to the throne of God: "You and the alien shall be alike before the Lord" (Numbers 15:15).
In the story of Ruth, God makes a radical move by taking a stranger and making her a mother of the new nation of Israel through her great grandson, David.
Then in Jesus, God makes the strangest move of all: embodying, becoming the stranger in our midst. In the perhaps too familiar text of Matthew 25:35, Jesus identifies himself as the stranger to be welcomed.
Familiarity risks robbing this statement of its amazing power, but the urgency of life in a world of strangers requires us to receive its impact. In this story from Matthew, Jesus first acknowledges his identity as "the Son of Man [who] comes in his glory, and all the angels with him." There Christ is, reigning sovereign and savior of the world.
It is astounding, then, that in his very moment of glory Jesus identifies himself with the risky stranger - for strangers were seen as threats to a religion of purity and a nation oppressed by empire. The sovereign Jesus says starkly, "I was a stranger and you welcomed me..."
The savior is stranger, the stranger is savior. To welcome one is to welcome the other. It is an astounding statement.
Clearly the dominant urging from our long faith tradition is hospitality, equality, care for and identification with the stranger. Those are the constant commands of our God, the one who came as a stranger in our midst and with whom we are "strangers and foreigners on the earth" (Hebrews 11:13b).
This is the God who, in Jesus Christ, welcomes and transforms us all so we are "no longer strangers and aliens" but "citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God."
As our nation struggles with immigration issues and the enduring sins of racism, sexism, homophobia and the chasm between rich and poor; and as the nations of the world engage one another across hostile lines, we who follow Jesus, the stranger-savior, have an urgent mission to live this stranger life with him.
The opportunities set themselves before us in diverse ways, great and small - from learning to greet our neighbors in a second language to giving sanctuary to the refugee, as several UCC congregations from New York to California are doing.
One of the last references to strangers in the biblical canon (Hebrews 13:1-2) gives a final encouragement for our stranger encounters: "Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it."
Or all the more, we may encounter Jesus himself, our stranger-savior.
The Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman is interim Conference Minister of the Southern California / Nevada Conference.
No longer a stranger: Welcoming the exile
|Peter Austin | iStockPhoto graphic|
We ignore this text at our peril. It is one of the most radical and telling pieces in all of biblical literature. What it says is that Jesus comes from an immigrant background. He comes from many, not from one. He is of mixed race. He is also understood as a person with a maternal as well as paternal lineage. The writer of Matthew understood what he was saying and doing: Jesus transcends the tribes that often provide us with such false security
The list is not only "contaminated" by mixed races and mixed classes, it includes four women. Genealogies just weren't written that way at the time. The women were omitted, regularly. Even the feeding of the 5,000 counts the men and tells us so. Five thousand were fed, not counting the women and children.
Consider his ancestors.
One of the women is Tamar, who disguised herself as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into keeping his promise to her and producing an heir. The fruit of this tricky union is one of the great-grandfathers of Jesus.
Another is Rahab, a well known harlot who assisted two spies sent to Jericho by Joshua. In doing so, Rahab became an exemplar of faith and works. Rahab is a great-grandmother of Jesus. Ruth is also on the list.
Ruth was a Moabite, a descendent of Lot. Her place in the social registrar of Israel was surely very low. Nevertheless, Ruth became a great-grandmother of David and distant greatgrandmother of our Lord.
Matthew is embarrassed to even name the fourth woman directly. He simply calls her the wife of Ukiah. She is of course Bath Sheba, a victim of the most scandalous case of seduction in the First Testament. She too is a great-grandmother of our Lord.
Notably, not a single one of these women is a Jew. Tamara was a Canaanite; Ruth a Moabite, Rehab of Jericho, and Bath Sheeba, through her husband, a Hittite.
The final 14 generations are almost totally unknown. They aren't recorded elsewhere in scripture. By noting them, Matthew reminds us that God, nonetheless, uses those easily forgotten and overlooked for the good of all. Ordinary people - as well as saints and sinners - notes the populist Matthew, get us to Jesus too.
As New Testament scholar Raymond Brown notes, the Story of Jesus isn't told with straight lines. If you have ever thought that your own family was checkered with both nobility and riff-raff, and if you ever considered your own life a combination of good faith and bad judgment, be comforted by the lineage of Jesus.
This text might also suggest that we stop using the terms "foreigner" and "mixed race." Even "illegal alien" might be shelved.
Queen Elizabeth, apparently, was quoted at some point saying that she wanted her son Charles to marry a woman with a history, not a past. Way too many Christians work way too hard to assure that Jesus is pure and spotless. Matthew differs. He says that all kinds of roads, and tickets, and people, can lead to Christ.
What does this genealogy mean to us today, as our armed forces land in foreign lands, as "our" children and "theirs" cry themselves to sleep because daddy is far away and won't be home for Christmas? It means that the world is one. The sorrow of the sleepless child, whose father is a soldier, is clothed with the sorrow of the people of Afghanistan. Christians have a trans-national, trans-tribal savior.
The current debate over immigration and "foreigners" misunderstands Matthew. It forgets that God is found in the stranger and not in the self. It forgets what Jesus went on to say about how we find him - in the naked and the lost. When Americans say they want the foreigners "out," they are really saying they don't want to meet God.
We may and must see the world as one, not as us and them. We may welcome the so-called "other." He/she is our savior's grandparent.
The Rev. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister of Judson Memorial UCC in New York City, a New Sanctuary congregation. Her most recent books are "Grassroots Gardening: Rituals to Sustain Activists" from Nation books and "Living Well While Doing Good" from Church Publications.
No longer a stranger: Welcoming the exile
The Herald Gospel Liberty was first published Sept. 1, 1808. Courtesy of Disciples of Christ Historical Society, Nashville, Tenn. discipleshistory.org
This fall marks the 200th anniversary of what some claim was the first religious newspaper in the world. The Herald of Gospel Liberty played a formative role in the Christian Church that became part of the UCC.
The outspoken editor of the Herald of Gospel Liberty, Elias Smith, invested his meager savings and all his energies to spread his vision of religion freed from pomp, divisive doctrine and a stuffy clergy. He also provided a magnet that unified scattered frontier congregations in New England, Virginia and the Central South.
Born in Lyme, Conn., in 1769 at the time of the Boston Tea Party, Smith was deeply influenced by the struggle for freedom in Colonial America. And like thousands of others, his life was changed by the second religious Awakening, a period of spiritual fervor and revivalism that swept the nation in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. As a young man, he felt "greatly disturbed" by what he perceived as a call to preach. He hesitated partly because of his limited education. Then, after giving his first sermon in July 1790, he returned to school for 13 days to learn grammar, two more days to study arithmetic, and eight evenings to learn music. Afterwards he taught those subjects in the district schools.
Ordained by local Baptist ministers in 1792, he became an itinerant preacher in New England. In addition to preaching, he wrote a series of articles, disowning official doctrine but "hearing Christ in all things." In 1802, he gathered a small flock of people who agreed with his approach, and the next year they organized a Church of Christ in Portsmouth, N.H. They "agreed to call themselves Christian without the addition of any unscriptural name."
Because the response to his articles was good, he began The Christian’s Magazine in 1805. Every three months he published sermons, interpretations of scripture, and commentaries on religion and on politics — including critical reports of autocratic religion. Smith’s biographer, J.F. Burnett, said, "He held a pen in one hand and a battle axe in the other."
On Sept. 1, 1808, Elias Smith issued the first edition of the Herald of Gospel Liberty. He had no clear expectation of an audience beyond the small group of like-minded New England pastors and church members. Every two weeks they received several columns of Smith’s reflections, his continual advocacy for religious freedom, an occasional blistering critique of the "creed and catechism makers," and an opportunity to read about the revivals that were so popular at the time.
Smith had heard of several groups in Virginia and Kentucky who also professed a simple faith, uncluttered by doctrine, and who called themselves and their churches "Christian." But until his Herald began circulating beyond New England, these scattered people were isolated from one another. Drawn together through the magazine, eventually they became known as the Christian Connection or the Christian Church. In 1931, this group united with the Congregational Churches and in 1957 became a part of the United Church of Christ.
Smith engaged in a dialogue with his readers that gradually led to a clarification of the principles that the frontier Christians affirmed. A Virginia reader once wrote to him: "After we became a separate [independent] people, three points were determined on. 1st. No head over the church but Christ. 2d. No confession of faith, articles of religion, rubric, canons, creeds, etc., but the New Testament. 3d. No religious name but Christians." Smith’s editorial response was: "The three things you mention are what we have all agreed to…"
Nearly 190 years after the first issue, the historian Elizabeth C. Nordbeck credited the Herald of Gospel Liberty as providing "the glue for a coherent Christian identity." It "is hard to overstate the importance of religious journalism, in particular the Herald of Gospel Liberty," to the independent frontier churches, she wrote.
There were other frontier leaders, of course. In addition to Smith, four men were instrumental in early days of the Christian Church: Abner Jones in New England, James O’Kelly in North Carolina, and Barton Stone and Rice Haggard in Kentucky. Others preached and taught and founded colleges; a few picked up Smith’s editorial mantle after he burned himself out in a decade of hard work.
In 1818, near bankruptcy, Smith sold out to Robert Foster, who renamed the paper the Christian Herald. Foster edited this publication for 17 years until his own health gave out, thereafter the paper was owned by publishing associations. Under various editors it was called the Christian Journal, the Christian Herald and Journal, the Christian Herald again, and then the Christian Herald and Messenger. Eventually, it was renamed the Herald of Gospel Liberty, absorbing several other periodicals. Today, its successor is United Church News.
These periodicals became the arena in which the widely scattered individuals and groups sorted out their commonly held convictions. By the beginning of the 20th century six principles were generally mentioned. To the three that Smith had identified in 1908, the right of private judgment, and Christian character as the only test for church membership were added.
The sixth principle caught the spirit of a common goal within the Christian Connection. Barton W. Stone, who had been pastor of the Cane Ridge Church in Kentucky at the time of a massive revival meeting in 1801, was the great advocate for making Christian unity one of the essential principles of the movement. Stone was a signer of the influential "Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery," a declaration first circulated in 1803 that marked the beginning of the movement in the Central South. "We will that this body be dissolved," it stated, "and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large."
Smith reprinted the "Last Will and Testament" in the first issue of his Herald of Gospel Liberty. Like the publication itself, the "Will" energized a people, who eventually affirmed the unity of all Christians as their sixth principle. Their commitment to unity led them into a merger with Congregationalists in 1931.
Because the Congregationalists held similar views, the unity principle helped spark the formation of the United Church of Christ. When leaders of the Congregational Christian churches and representatives of the Evangelical and Reformed Church forged a Basis of Union, their preamble expressed the belief "that denominations exist not for themselves but as parts of that [holy Catholic] Church, within which each denomination is to live and labor, and if need be, die..."
In the years since the UCC was formed in 1957, the heritage of the Christian connection has often been overlooked or forgotten. It is therefore appropriate that the bicentennial of the Herald of Gospel Liberty become a time to acknowledge the courageous people for whom religious liberty was essential and Christian unity a passion.
Elias Smith’s insistence on independence — even from a friendly benefactor — has become the standard expectation in many denominations: editors today enjoy a responsible journalistic freedom akin to the freedom accorded to those who step into the pulpit. That same journalistic independence has powered creative communication in a wide variety of media.
As the Herald did on the American frontier, proclamation in many different forms today provides a tie that binds communities of faith together. The indigenous religious movement that distrusted authority also is echoed in the efforts of men, women and teenagers to build social and religious networks on the internet, including the vibrant websites of congregations and denominations. The legacy of the men and women who energized the Christian Church by publishing their convictions has not merely survived — it has multiplied.
The Rev. J. Martin Bailey was editor of United Church Herald and A.D. magazine, and served as director of communications for the National Council of Churches. He is a member of Union Congregational UCC in Montclair, N.J. A more complete essay about the Herald of Gospel Liberty will appear in the Bulletin of the Congregational Library, Boston.
'Hospice is about living, not dying'
Frequently, as a hospice chaplain, I am asked, "Why not a different ministry? Why that one?"
It is a complicated question with a simple answer. My soul is passionate about hospice. It is a privilege to partner with patients and families during this tender time of sacred discovery.
As an interfaith hospice chaplain, I have the opportunity to work with the full breadth of our world's religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Taoism, including many major and subtle variations. I also work with agnostic people and atheists (who are spiritual in their own right, since they have invested extraordinary thought into "not being religious.") When people make the hospice decision, and qualify for it, they are choosing to live out the rest of their lives with dignity. People are freed from enduring further medical procedures that are not arresting the disease. Medical intervention for symptom management takes the front seat. The renewed focus is on acceptance, care, comfort, dignity and a sense of peacefulness that stems from the very core of their being - their soul.
I often tell patients that our body is the "apartment" for our soul. Although our physical body is failing, our soul may thrive. The language of our soul is meaning. We may re-discover our soul when a poor medical prognosis awakens a need for deeper meaning in us. Spirituality, or life meaning-making, becomes front and center at perhaps a deeper level than before.
In hospice, the patient is back in charge with the support of loved ones and the hospice interdisciplinary team: physicians, RNs, home health aids, social workers and chaplains. Team members travel to the patients' homes, wherever "home" may be: private residence, assisted living, skilled nursing facility or hospital.
Hospice is about living, not dying. We focus on the distinction between curing and healing. While curing eliminates disease, healing focuses on wholeness and peacefulness as we journey toward the end of life. Curative measures may see death as failure. Healing includes death as one of the sacred, natural outcomes of life.
We connect with our vulnerability when we identify our needs for wholeness. Our journey may include releasing old hurts through forgiveness of ourselves and others. We recognize that forgiveness is a gift to ourselves. It does not suggest that we are compromising our dignity or our sense of right or wrong. Rather, we are claiming peacefulness for ourselves - setting our soul free from spiritual unrest.
Re-claiming wellness includes embracing freedom from our devastating medical diagnoses. We own our terminal diagnosis, while at the same time, we claim healing as we work toward our sense of peacefulness. In this process we may begin to deepen and transform our understanding of hope.
Hospice engages hope. It does not let go of hope. I believe God is our infinite, self-renewing source of hope. Our hope may transform as our healing deepens. Our hope may be to have time alone with each of our loved ones. It may be to reconcile a relationship that fell off the track somewhere along the way in our lives. We may have come to realize that it is a relationship we hope to rekindle as part of healing.
Our journey toward peacefulness may involve anger along the way. But is it really anger. It certainly sounds like anger! It may be anger. Anger is easier for us to access than our sadness. It may be profound sadness.
I often sit with patients or family members in silence. I think of it as "relational silence" because there is an awful lot going on. It isn't being articulated, but it is voiced through sacred silence. "Be still and know that I am God!" (Psalm 46: 10a).
When we release our loved one to go, it is an expression of wellness or healing. As a loved one, we face anticipatory grief during this time. It is profoundly sad to be left behind. Perhaps the deepest expression of love is to give our loved one "permission" to go when she or he is ready.
Life is forever altered when a loved one passes on. We learn to carry our grief as part of who we are. We cherish the beautiful gifts that our departed loved ones have given us - gifts of who they were and how they loved us. As people who have been left behind, we own those beloved, intangible gifts forever. In recognition of this trying time, hospice follows patients, families and loved ones for 13 months following death. Support groups may be available indefinitely.
I understand hospice as a gift we give ourselves once medical treatment modalities are no longer helpful. A peaceful passing with the hospice patient is a drawing in and eventual surrender to God. It is natural. It is sacred. What a deep privilege it is to serve in this resilient ministry of life.
The Rev. Janet M. White, affiliated clergy with Trinitarian Congregational UCC in Concord, Mass., is a staff hospice chaplain for All Care Hospice, a subsidiary of Health Management Services, Inc., in Lynn, Mass.
What is hospice?
Considered to be the model for quality, compassionate care for people facing a life-limiting illness or injury, hospice provides expert medical care, pain management, and emotional and spiritual support expressly tailored to meet a patient's needs and wishes.
Hospice focuses on caring, not curing. In most cases, care is provided in the patient's home.
What services are typically offered?
• An interdisciplinary care team works in concert to:
• Manage the patient's pain and symptoms;
• Assist the patient with the emotional and psychosocial and spiritual aspects of dying;
• Provide needed drugs, medical supplies, and equipment;
• Coach the family on how to care for the patient;
• Deliver special services like speech and physical therapy when needed.
• Make short-term inpatient care available when pain or symptoms become too difficult to manage at home, or the caregiver needs respite time.
• Provides bereavement care and counseling to surviving family and friends.
Source: National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization
If you're a member of a church with a big-time pipe organ with a full-time musician, consider yourself lucky. Not all congregations are so fortunate.
Some churches struggle every Sunday to find someone who is able to play the keyboard during worship.
That's why The Pilgrim Press, in cooperation with the UCC's Worship and Education Ministry, has spent the past year developing a set of pipe-organ accompaniment CDs for creative use in congregational worship services. The series of includes an accompaniment for each hymn in The New Century Hymnal, the UCC's hymnal published in 1995.
"The purpose is not to put any organist out of work," says the Rev. Timothy Staveteig, publisher. "The purpose is to give music options to congregations that may need help in strengthening their music offerings, especially in smaller congregations that may have limited opportunities for musicians."
Recording high-quality accompaniments for each of the hymnal's 617 hymns has been no small task, and the bulk of that responsibility has fallen to the Rev. Scott Ressman, the UCC's minister for worship, music and liturgical arts.
Ressman invited and brought together many of the UCC's finest organists, who volunteered to assist with the project. The recordings took place at several Cleveland-area UCC churches known for their high-quality organs. And the sound quality is superior, Ressman said.
"Great care has been taken to present each hymn in The New Century Hymnal with stylistic integrity," he said.
In addition to use in worship, the CDs also can be helpful for worship planning, choir warm-ups, hymn sings or other occasions when an organist may not be available, such as weddings and funerals.
Because of the high-costs associated with producing and packaging the musical CDs, orders received before shipment will take place in various stages. Orders received before September 2008 will be shipped in part. The first volume is expected in April, the second volume in May and the remaining volumes in June and September.
Listen to sample selections and order online at thepilgrimpress.com.
People of color make up the majority of those living in neighborhoods located within 1.8 miles of the nation's hazardous waste facilities.
Neighborhoods with facilities clustered close together have higher percentages of people of color than those with non-clustered facilities.
As a whole, racial disparities for people of color exist in 9 out of 10 EPA regions.
Existing laws and land-use controls have not been adequately applied in order to reduce health risks for those living in or near toxic "hot spots."
Findings in UCC's 2007 report are consistent with an Associated Press study in Sept. 2005 showing African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods where industrial pollution is suspected of causing the greatest health danger.
As in previous budgets, the Bush Administration FY08 budget recommends a 28.4 percent cut to the budget of the EPA's Office of Environmental Justice. ($4.58 million has been recommended, down from $6.34 million enacted in the FY06 budget and FY07 continuing resolution).
Source: "Toxic Wastes and Race 1987-2007"
When the job was finally completed, one environmentally-conscious UCC church was ready for a real "solarbration."
The task, in this case, was the installation of a solar electric system with panels on the church's roof.
Members of Christ Congregation in Princeton, N.J. - which maintains a three-way affiliation with the UCC, the American Baptist Churches and the Alliance of Baptists - had lots to celebrate. There was joy apparent at worship and at the luncheon that followed, and certainly a sense of significant accomplishment.
Unobtrusive roof panels now convert the sun's rays into more electricity than the church uses most days of the year. The excess is fed automatically into the commercial power grid and earns the church a very sizeable reduction in its utility bills.
But more importantly, as far as members are concerned, they are reducing their "carbon footprint" by cutting the greenhouse gasses that cause global warming.
And they are witnessing to their conviction that the Bible calls Christians to be good stewards of God's creation.
Their pastor, the Rev. Jeffrey Mays, has been preaching that kind of stewardship for years.
"When I quote John 3:16," Mays says, "I make clear that God's love for the world includes all that God has created - all that God called 'good' in the first chapter of Genesis." He has been pastor in Princeton for 20 years.
The head of New Jersey's Green- Faith, a religion-based organization that advocates improving the environment, says Christ Congregation is providing real leadership by its efforts.
The Rev. Fletcher Harper, of New Brunswick, N.J., says Christ Congregation has played "an important leadership role" through its solar project.
The chair of the congregation's board of deacons also is enthusiastic. "It was worth all the effort, for sure," says Bill Gaventa, who is an associate professor at the nearby Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. "The project helped our members take the issues more seriously," he says. "Some are considering installing solar panels on their homes. Others have taken other steps. I bought a hybrid automobile."
After implementing several more-common environmental actions — like avoiding the use of styrofoam cups, installing energy-efficient windows, and keeping the thermostat set low when the building is not in use — the congregation made a careful analysis of the merits of a solar electric system.
According to the Rev. Charles McCollough, a member of Christ Congregation, "the policy statements of the UCC had a lot to do with the decision to install the solar electric panels on the roof."
McCollough helped draft the 1999 General Synod statement on Global Warming, and chaired the UCC's working group on "Integrity of Creation, Justice and Peace."
The church offered a screening of the Academy Award-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which features former Vice President Al Gore. Among guests who viewed the fi lm were students from Princeton High School, located across the street from the church. Afterward, the teen-agers enthusiastically followed the installation of the church's solar electric system and wrote essays on environmental issues.
Many had never been inside the church until they attended the movie as a group.
McCollough and his wife, Carol, had taken the teachings of the policy statement seriously and installed a solar electric system on their farm house in nearby rural Hopewell in 2003. They discovered that although their climate is not ideal for solar energy, they soon began saving enough on electricity bills to recover the installation costs. They use the power their system generates to help heat and light not only their home but also the barn-studio that Charles uses in his retirement work as a sculptor.
In the process, the McColloughs made friends with an engineer, Rick Brooke, who volunteered to install the church's system and provided invaluable expertise. He was aided by architect William Wolfe, who volunteered to design the solar electric system.
All this didn't happen without stress. There was rough sailing for the first part of Christ Congregation's solar electric project.
When the congregation first studied the potential of installing the panels, Brooke analyzed the hours of sunlight hitting the roof. He ascertained that a large pin oak tree on the church property would create too much shade and recommended that it be taken down. If the tree was removed, an estimated 40 photo-voltaic panels would power a 7.2 kilowatt system and provide for 75 to 80 percent of the church's energy needs.
State officials responsible for the New Jersey Clean Energy Program were encouraging and made a grant to help cover expenses. So the church obtained an initial permit for the project, and a professional arborist was employed to remove the tree.
But the local shade-tree commission objected after several neighbors opposed the removal of the 60-foot oak. The shade-tree enthusiasts arrived on the scene just 30 minutes before the arborists unloaded their chain saws.
By that time church members were deeply committed to the project and found a local lawyer who eagerly presented the church's case to the borough council. Church members also sought to explain the theological and environmental rationale for the project. They emphasized the importance of reducing dependence on fossil fuels and noted the hidden costs of pollution.
Eventually, a compromise was worked out. The church would receive a new permit but would need to see that three new trees were planted in the borough, as well as three on the church property.
Ironically, when the pin oak was being removed it was discovered that the tree was infected with a bacterial leaf scorch and would need to be removed in any case.
During the weeks that this drama was playing out, the story made headlines in Princeton newspapers, thus building up the church's reputation as the first "green church" in the borough. Overall, the church has enjoyed widespread support.
A progressive, open-and-affirming church, Christ Congregation's membership enjoys its diversity of viewpoints on many issues, but the church was clearly united when it needed to stand up to neighborhood pressure. Members turned out in full force at the Borough Council's September meeting.
That commitment led GreenFaith to salute the church for "putting their faith into action for the earth."
The Rev. John Deckenback, the UCC's Central Atlantic Conference Minister, is also enthusiastic about the Christ Congregation's efforts. The Conference has an active committee, headed by Jane Schaefer of Newark, Del., at work for energy alternatives.
To keep, to care
When McCollough was asked to preach for the post-installation "solarbration," he challenged the centuries-old theology based on the first chapter in the Bible. Genesis 1:28 asserts that humanity's purpose in life is to subdue the earth and have dominion over all creation. McCollough prefers the second chapter of Genesis where God's call to keep and care for creation is recorded.
"Through the ages," he told those who attended the solarbration, "we have dominated the earth, the forests, animals, plants, waters, fish, land, skies, and - when we could get away with it - we have dominated other people."
"We live in the age of overload," he said. "We have overloaded our cars, homes, stomachs, our time, our work loads, landfills and even our atmosphere. We have subdued and dominated God's creation so thoroughly that we - at least the very poor - are drowning and cooking in our overload."
He cited Isaiah and other prophets who condemned such abuses of God's creation and the apostle Paul who described "the whole creation groaning in travail."
Pastor Mays says the solar panels "reflect and symbolize" the spirit of Christ Congregation.
"As a people," Mays says, "we are open to new ways of thinking and doing. We are concerned about the degradation of our environment and are particularly concerned about the issue of global warming. And we are eager to affirm God's creation and our call to be stewards of creation."
The Rev. J. Martin Bailey is former editor of United Church News' predecessor publications, United Church Herald and A.D. Magazine. He also is the former Associate General Secretary of the National Council of Churches for Education, Communication and Discipleship. He and his wife, Betty Jane, live in West Orange, N.J.
A major insurance company that sought out business from a local United Church of Christ congregation in Michigan has refused to even provide a quote for coverage because it learned the church's denomination supported same-gender marriage equality and the ordination of gay clergy.Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company, based in Fort Wayne, Ind., told West Adrian UCC in Adrian, Mich., that its denomination's gay-affirming stances made it a "higher risk" for property and liability insurance.
"Our company's decision to not submit a quote to your organization arose out of information that was supplied in a supplemental application, indicating that your organization 'publicly endorses or practices the marriage of same-sex couples' and 'publicly endorses or practices the ordination of the homosexual clergy,'" wrote Marci J. Fretz, a regional underwriter for Brotherhood Mutual, in a July 30 letter to the church.
Ironically, the church was fully insured by another company, and happily so, but was sought out by a local agent of Brotherhood Mutual who asked to provide the church a quote and then, subsequently, refused to do so.
"I think Brotherhood Mutual's action is one worth noting," wrote the Rev. John W. Kottke in an Aug. 13 letter to the Rev. Kent J. Ulery, the UCC's Michigan Conference Minister, "if for the sake of warning other churches in our Conference that such prejudice exists within certain sectors of the business community."
Founded in 1917, Brotherhood Mutual claims to be one of the nation's leading insurers of churches and related ministries. It provides insurance to 30,000 congregations in 29 states and the District of Columbia.
"[Brotherhood Mutual has] an obligation to serve as stewards of our policyholder's funds, and to avoid knowingly insuring organizations that are at higher risk of loss based on the controversial positions that they have taken," the company wrote to the church.
Cathy Green, president and CEO of the UCC Insurance Board, which insures about 2,600 UCC and Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregations, says Brotherhood Mutual is one of its "key competitors."
In contrast to Brotherhood Mutual, Green says, one of UCCIB's core values is inclusivity. "All UCC and Disciples churches are eligible to receive our services without prejudice to a denominational or congregational position on being open and affirming or on being a congregation with a wide diversity of leadership membership," Green said. "We give our best efforts to every church every time."
West Adrian UCC, founded in 1836, has about 100 members. It is not listed among the nearly 700 UCC churches that have publicly adopted an "open and affirming " position with regard to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.
"I do not believe this company represents the mainstream of insurance providers, but it is good to be aware of how our church's faith perspectives can be misjudged," the church's pastor said. "I hope that none of our churches are drawn into dealings with this company."
The Golden Gate Association ordained the UCC's first gay clergyperson, the Rev. William R. Johnson, in 1972. In 2005, when General Synod affirmed same-gender marriage equality, the UCC became the first and largest mainline Christian denomination to do so.
Across UCC, churches approach Eucharist with diverse traditions, meaningful practices
World Communion Sunday may come and go without much fanfare, foregoing celebrity hype and lacking attention-grabbing scandal.
But in an increasing globalized world, where differences can be divisive, sharing in the elements of the Lord's Supper is the quiet constant that unites believers of Christ — that grace, redemption and healing are afforded through the simple sharing of sacred bread and cup.
On Oct. 7, congregations across the UCC and countless other denominations will celebrate Holy Communion. For some it will be a somber occasion. For others, the elements will be received joyfully.
Sue Blain, the UCC's minister for worship, reflecting on the myriad of different ways that Holy Communion is celebrated, shared and distributed among Christians, says, "I think the ideal would be for folks to experience communion in a variety of different ways."
Blain says that when communion is served in the pews, it symbolizes God coming among the people, feeding them. "But having to make a choice to move forward has another level of commitment in some respects," she says. "Both are true, both are valid," says Blain. "I think we could experience all of that and be enriched spiritually."
At UCC's Cathedral of Hope, communion is weekly highpoint
Cathedral of Hope UCC in Dallas, Texas, regards itself as the largest liberal Christian church in the world with a primary outreach to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
Each week, at Sunday morning services and a Wednesday night contemporary worship, communion is celebrated.
The Rev. Dr. Jo Hudson, senior pastor of Cathedral of Hope UCC, says the decision to serve communion each week came from both practical and spiritual reasons.
"Nobody grew up in this congregation," explains Hudson, who says that the 37-year-old congregation is comprised largely of transplants from the Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist traditions. "For those who come out of a tradition where communion, or the Lord's Supper or the Eucharist is served every week, that's essential to their worship life."
"I think this church also needed that sacrament of grace in a way many churches might not have felt that need," Hudson says. "This congregation suffered greatly during the AIDS crisis of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It had close to 1,500 people die of AIDS. [Communion] became an important part of the healing of the congregation."
Hudson describes communion as being a high point of each worship service.
"The emphasis is on celebration of the feast, the joy of receiving, and the hope contained within that," she says. "Some of the older liturgies are more focused on sin and repenting. Not that we don't recognize that sin exists, but we interpret the sacrament as an act of grace that is designed to bring hope, peace and reconciliation to people."
Having communion each week has become so central that Hudson feels its importance in worship is as a response to God's Word.
"The sacred moment of that sacrament is so powerful, in terms of helping people heal," she says. "It offers grace. We're so committed to the notion that 'Everyone is welcome to the table.' We want to demonstrate that every single week."
Join Cathedral of Hope UCC for worship online at www.cathedralofhope.com.
Disciples/UCC local churches prompt examination of communion 'frequency'
First Congregational UCC in San Jose, Calif., has a long-standing relationship with the United Disciples Fellowship, a congregation of the Disciples of Christ. The two faith communities share facilities and worship, but both keep true to their own denomination's interpretations.
The Rev. Nathan A. Miller says that the relationship between the two churches can sometimes seem confusing to outsiders, but says the partnership has worked seamlessly.
"[The UDF] resembles a house church," explains Miller, who shares his ministerial responsibilities with his associate, the Rev. Nancy C. Peters.
"They meet on the first Saturday of every month in someone's home. They have a worship time, a program time, and a business meeting time. Part of their worship time is always the sacrament of communion, in keeping with the Disciples tradition."
Each Sunday, both congregations share in a common worship service, and the church has found a way to honor the Disciples' tradition of weekly communion, even though the UCC congregation traditionally celebrates the Lord's Supper just once a month.
"At the close of the organ postlude — we're very careful not to say 'at the close of worship' because this is a continuation of worship — people have already been invited to come forward to communion if they wish," says Miller. The UDF furnishes the bread and wine, and communion is served by intinction up around the communion table in the chancel. All are welcome, and Miller says that besides the UDF members, many visitors and UCC members will also take part in the sacrament.
Miller admiringly describes the UDF congregation as "an empowered bunch" and says its members are very theologically astute.
While Peters is a member of UDF, Miller is not. Still, Miller says the UDF is very gracious in welcoming him to events, but says, "they are really self-sufficient in all the positive ways." And the UCC congregation has benefited greatly from the special interest the UDF has taken in sponsoring adult education events, such as a lectureship series.
Miller says while worship style between UCC and Disciples of Christ communities are very similar, the two sacraments — communion and baptism — are viewed quite differently.
"We understand the act of communion much the same, but the frequency hardly matches any UCC church," he says. As for baptism, Miller says, "The Disciples of Christ tradition practices adult baptism, which is a practice of the UCC, but infrequent. And the Disciples immerse."
While serving a church in Mesa, Ariz., Miller remembers his church, a union between Disciples of Christ and UCC, sprinkled the UCC babies and immersed the Disciples young teens and adults. "We'd roll in a tank and fill it up with a hose—it took a day to do it—and there was a heater so that the water wasn't too cold!"
These differences, Miller says, have never gotten in the way. On World Communion Sunday, the UDF members will lead the entire worship, serving communion in the joint worship service with First Congregational UCC in San Jose, and both congregations will partake in the elements, united in Christ.
"Our UCC people only see enhancement of our ministry," says Miller, "and I think the Disciples group sees only enhancement to their ministry. It's just part of who we are."
Pastor: Holy Communion calls us to universal solidarity
"There's a surplus of meaning in the sacrament, and we don't want to nail it down to one thing," says the Rev. Mary Luti, one of the pastors at First Church in Cambridge (Mass.) UCC.
Luti says her congregation celebrates communion once monthly at the morning worship, besides special feast days. A Sunday afternoon service featuring gospel and jazz music serves weekly communion.
Luti feels there is a renewed interest in ritual action across the UCC, not only in the sacrament of communion, but also healing and anointing.
"It's a positive development," she says. "It recovers some of the most ancient traditions of the church that are neither Catholic nor Protestant. They are simply practices that help our bodies and our minds."
To Luti, making sure the communion service never loses its edge is the key to making the ritual meaningful and thought-provoking.
"Very often we repeat the line, 'Jesus sat down to supper with the one who would betray him and the one who would deny him.' That line refers to Judas and Peter," she says.
"There is a challenge there. How do we sit with our enemies? How do we sit with the people we don't agree with, or who don't love us?"
"On World Communion Sunday, a lot of churches are rediscovering the universal aspect of our communion," says Luti. "These rituals are among the ways we show forth and also ground our solidarity with people all over the world."
For Luti, communion has a meaning that transcends time and place. "During communion," she says, "we really link up with the church as it has been, as it is now, and as it will be … we look forward to the day when everyone will be fed around this table with equal joy and equal justice."
For 20 years, the UCC has been asking, What color is toxic waste?
Like millions of others, Sheila Holt-Orsted's family dreamed of owning their own home. But that dream became a nightmare.
An African-American resident of Dickson, Tenn. - a small town about 35 miles west of Nashville — Sheila, like many of her relatives, was born and raised in Dickson's 'Eno Road' community, a place where the Holts and other descendants of slaves had called home for generations.
Eno Road first became Dickson's preferred site for city dumping in the 1940s. Subsequently, over several decades, the now 74-acre Dickson County Landfill - an open, unlined site - has been used as the principal dumping ground for multiple sanitation, construction and demolition projects.
Despite the fact that over 1,400 residents obtain their drinking water from private wells or springs within a four-mile radius of the landfill, industrial solvents - generated as waste from nearby automotive plants and other industries - were buried within a mere 54 feet of the Holt family's front door.
Sheila's father died of prostate and bone cancer in January 2007. And during his illness, Sheila, a personal fitness trainer, was shocked to learn that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Several other family members also had endured significant illness, including cervical and colon polyps, rheumatoid arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders and immune disorders.
Sheila discovered that her family had been drinking water — for four decades - from a well contaminated by trichloroethylene (TCE), a suspected carcinogen.
Muddying the toxic waters
Even after government testing had revealed that the area's water supply was contaminated, Tennessee's Department of Health and Environment continued to allow the operation of the Eno Road landfills.
White families who lived near the landfill, however, were quickly notified about the results of the testing. They were provided with bottled water until they could be placed on the city water system.
Yet the Holt family was provided misinformation about the quality of their well water.
"Your water is of good quality for the parameters tested," read a 1998 letter sent to the Holt family from the Department of Health and Environment. "It is felt that the low levels of methylene or trichloroethylence may be due to either lab or sampling error."
But, soon, the lie would be exposed.
"For four decades, [my family] drank well water poisoned by the Dickson County Landfill," Sheila says. "We are all sick, and the government seems to be waiting for us to die."
What happened to Sheila Holt-Orsted's family is not an oversight. It is not an accident or unfortunate twist of fate.
Although Dickson County covers over 490 square miles, the only cluster of solid waste facilities in the county is located in the predominantly African-American Eno Road community.
All permitted landfills in Dickson County are concentrated in Eno Road, which is certainly no coincidence. It is yet another concrete sign of environmental racism.
UCC jumpstarts a movement
Twenty years ago, the UCC began its hard-fought campaign to bring environmentally racist practices to the forefront of the public consciousness. Yet, despite the church's insistence that such practices be ended, evidence of the ongoing struggle is clear.
In 1987, a groundbreaking study on the connection between race and the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities was released by the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice.
"Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States" found race to be the leading variable in predicting the location of hazardous waste sites, a stronger indicator than household income, home values, and estimated amount of hazardous waste generated by industry.
To this day, the 1987 UCC study is widely credited by community leaders, environmental activists and leaders from all levels of government as the pivotal element in the environmental justice movement.
U.S. Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) dubs the study as "keystone."
"As the first comprehensive national report to truly document the link between race and the location of hazardous waste sites, Toxic Wastes and Race catapulted the concern of environmental racism to national prominence," Hastings says. "This keystone document established the foundation for the development of the environmental justice movement."
Eileen McGurty, associate chair of the environmental sciences and policy department at Johns Hopkins University, says, "The scope and scale of the study pioneered and entirely new area of investigation. All subsequent research about equity in the distribution of environmental risk was a response to the UCC's methodology and conclusion."
The UCC study influenced generations of advocates. And many of those touched had no knowledge of or connection with the UCC. Monique Harden, an attorney, is the co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans, La.
"At the age of 19 when the UCC published Toxic Wastes and Race, I was completely unaware of this study and the signifi cant role it would have in my advocacy work 10 years later," Harden says. "Without the report, the voices of each polluted community of color where I provide legal advocacy assistance would be muted."
Injustice 'not an accident'
The Rev. Carlos Correa Bernier serves as minister for environmental justice with the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries.
Correa first became aware of the study during his work as a psychologist with the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his counseling work with Spanish-speaking families, Correa says he observed a high frequency of cognitive development problems in children.
He learned that 80 percent of the Spanish-speaking families he was seeing were from the Tijuana region of Mexico, an area heavily concentrated with maquiladoras, U.S. factories that relocated to Mexico and other countries where companies could take advantage of lax labor environmental practices.
One of the primary industries that located in the Tijuana region was television manufacturing, where workers on the assembly line - many of them women carrying pregnancies - were exposed to high levels of mercury, a heavy metal contaminant associated with cognitive development problems.
In his work, Correa was able to connect the dots between exposure to heavy metals in the Tijuana maquiladoras and the cases of cognitive development problems in the children he saw in Chicago. The UCC's 1987 study gave Correa a larger conceptual framework which to understand his work with Latino children in Chicago.
"What we see today," Correa says, "is what we saw in 1987. The greater exposure to toxic wastes experienced by communities of color is not an accident. It is by design."
Companies intentionally locate their waste sites in communities of color, Correa says, because they know such communities frequently lack the resources to fight the placement of such sites in their communities.
Origins of landmark study
In late 1970s to early 1980s, the then-governor of North Carolina promised industries that they could have a landfill to dispose of wastes in impoverished Warren County. Placing a landfill in the area, which is predominantly African American, was seen by the state as an attractive solution to the problem of illegally-dumped PCPs along roadways in 14 North Carolina counties.
But the state of North Carolina underestimated the power of county residents — and the possibilities that come with zealous community organizing.
Dollie Burwell, a long-time UCC lay leader who is now a staff member for U.S. Rep. G.K. Butterfi eld (D-N.C.), was on the front lines of the struggle to block the landfill in Warren County.
In 1978, Dollie was among a group of residents who formed Concerned Citizens Against PCPs. From the beginning, the group understood its efforts to be part of a larger and more long-term movement. Burwell and others saw their activism around the landfill as yet another extension of the Civil Rights Movement.
From 1978 to 1980, state hearings were held on the landfill proposal. Burwell recalls that it was a time when residents joined together across racial lines in a common effort to protect the health of their families.
Despite turnouts of hundreds of residents at the state hearings expressing opposition to the landfill proposal, construction of the landfill began in 1982.
In August 1982, Burwell joined more than 500 protesters who stood in front of the construction trucks in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience.
Early that morning, Burwell recalls preparing her nine-yearold daughter, Kim, for school. But Kim had other plans. "I'm not going to school," Kim told her mother. "I'm going with you."
When Burwell was arrested for impeding traffic and led to the police wagon, she could see her daughter watching and crying. The young child's sobbing was captured by numerous media stories and helped to galvanize college students and activists from outside the state to join the fight against the landfill.
Although the landfill was ultimately constructed, community activists succeeded in their call for a General Accounting Office investigation of toxic waste dumping in the Southeast U.S.
And the UCC's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ), which had supported the nonviolent protest of Warren County residents, was moved to take another step.
CRJ commissioned a study to examine patterns in the placement of hazardous waste sites. The now-famous UCC study was a breakthrough for the environmental justice movement.
In releasing the report, then UCC staffer Charles Lee coined the term "environmental racism," now a commonly recognized phrase used in the environmental movement.
Not surprisingly, Lee now heads the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's office of environmental justice.
The role of churches and people of faith is not something new to justice movements, but it can be said that the UCC arrived early when it comes to environmental justice.
"For such a time as this" is how Burwell describes how her faith led to her involvement. And she's proud that local churches, including UCC congregations, were key centers of organizing in the environmental justice movement.
Correa says those communities facing the greatest impact of toxic dumping and exposure recognized the power of the church as a prophetic voice. They recognize that faith communities have helped to bring the issue of environmental racism to greater prominence in public consciousness.
"They didn't just call the lawyers right away," Correa says. "They called the churches."
Churches provided much-needed information and became sources of moral and theological empowerment, he says.
In Warren County, those who once may have considered themselves too poor or too uneducated to get anything accomplished found encouragement in church basements. More and more African Americans became involved in local elections, as people made the personal connection between politics and their own well-being.
Ultimately, residents' organizing efforts led to a government-mandated clean-up of the Warren County landfill in 2003, a process that included community planning and monitoring.
The landfill site is now a recreational park.
There have been precious victories over the past 20 years. What, if anything, has truly changed?
This persistent question led the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries to commission a 20th anniversary follow-up report, which was released earlier this year and celebrated at General Synod in June.
The newest study, "Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty 1987-2007," applied new methodology to better determine where people live in relation to toxic sites, revealing that racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste sites are, in fact, greater than previously reported.
"Twenty years after the release of Toxic Wastes and Race, significant racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities," reads the report's executive summary. "Although the current assessment uses newer methods that better match where people and hazardous waste facilities are located, the conclusions are very much the same as they were in 1987."
The 2007 study was authored by Robert D. Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University; Paul Mohai, professor at University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment; Robin Saha, assistant professor of environmental studies at the University of Montana; and Beverly Wright, sociologist and founding director of UCC-related Dillard University's Deep South Center for Environmental Justice.
According to the study, people of color comprise the majority of the population living near the nation's commercial hazardous waste facilities.
Researchers found that for Latino/as, African Americans and Asian/Pacific Islanders, major disparities in the location of hazardous waste facilities exist in the majority of the Environmental Protection Agency's regions.
The findings are particularly troubling, because they indicate that those environmental protections that do exist on the books are not equally enforced.
The still-fresh images of the painful aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 paint the story of the UCC's newest report.
Several weeks after the storm, the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality gave the okay to the city of New Orleans to open the 200-acre Old Gentilly Landfill in east New Orleans for dumping demolition waste from the storm. In the 1980s, federal regulators had ordered the landfill closed.
Yet, four months after the hurricane, debris trucked to the Old Gentilly Landfill stood 100 feet high. Objections from residents, environmentalists and even some high-ranking officials went unheeded. In November 2005, the landfill caught fire.
Correa, Burwell and other activists agree that it is time for the eco-justice and environmental justice movements to join together.
Remembering her experiences in Warren County, N.C., Burwell recalls, "We [once] thought the environmental movement was about whales, not about us."
But there is growing understanding among advocates that environmental justice must have a more-comprehensive vision.
"We need to start thinking more theologically about environmental justice," Correa says. "We need to offer a vision that is rooted in our biblical and theological understanding of all of creation." The preface of the UCC's 2007 report echoes this call for a larger vision.
"There is only one environment," it reads. "The environmental justice movement is concerned about wetlands, birds, and wilderness areas; it is also concerned, however, about urban habitats, about reservations, about the things that are happening on the U.S-Mexico border, about children poisoned by lead in their own homes and about children playing in contaminated parks and playgrounds."
The stories of Sheila Holt-Orsted, the residents of New Orleans and countless others show that addressing the racial inequalities in exposure to environmental risk requires not only better environmental protection laws, but the vigilant monitoring of government agencies tasked with enforcing current laws.
Shelia can only wonder what her family's life would be like had the government's testing of well water in Dickson County, Tenn., had been equitably reported.
Justice demands something more than "what if."
Sandy Sorensen, a veteran public policy advocate in the UCC's Washington, D.C., offi ce, is acting communications minister for Justice and Witness Ministries.