A History of UCAN

In 1987, the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries (UCBHM), the UCC Office for Church in Society (OCIS) and the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) collaborated with one another to form UCAN, a loosely formed network within the UCC.

In 1993, Affirming Persons, Saving Lives (APSL) was created, a groundbreaking curriculum for AIDS awareness and prevention education. In that same year, UCAN received the National AIDS Interfaith Network’s Special Award for Outstanding Curriculum Development for APSL. 

In 2005 UCAN’s recommitmented to promote awareness and offer technical assistance to racial/ethnic minority constituencies throughout the country, who are now among the highest risk group for HIV transmission.

UCAN Inc. acquired its own IRS 501(c)(3) status in 2008, in order to more effectively and efficiently carry out its mission, yet also maintain strong service ties to UCC’s global community.

The Founding of UCAN

In January 1989, the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries (UCBHM), the UCC Office for Church in Society (OCIS) and the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries (CHHSM) co-sponsored a UCC AIDS Ministry Consultation attended by 33 UCC clergy and lay members with extensive, firsthand experience in HIV and AIDS ministry.  The group included persons with HIV and AIDS, family members, pastors, counselors, AIDS service providers, educators and chaplains with rural, suburban and urban perspectives.  The Consultation was initiated under the inspired leadership of the Rev. Dr. William R. “Bill” Johnson, UCBHM Secretary for AIDS Programs and Ministries Coordination.

A Consultation report entitled, AIDS, Where We Live, set forth the Consultation’s recommendations to the whole church and was sent to UCC Executives and Conference Ministers.  One thousand copies of the report were  also distributed at the UCC’s 17th General Synod meeting in Fort Worth, Texas (June 1989).

The other important outcome from the Consultation was the creation of the United Church of Christ AIDS/HIV Network (UCAN), which participants in the Consultation had covenanted together to do.  An Ad Hoc Leadership Team was formed whose primary task was to review the report of the Consultation and oversee UCAN preparations for GS17, including preparation of two General Synod resolutions called for by the Consultation.

UCAN Begins Its Work

The Ad Hoc Leadership Team wrote and submitted two resolutions which were adopted by General Synod 17 (GS17).  One resolution called for a UCC AIDS discrimination audit and endorsement and the other called for the enactment of the Ten Principles for the Workplace.  In addition to the resolutions, UCAN members raised HIV/AIDS concerns during the synod “Speak outs”, advocated continued commitment to the UCBHM AIDS Program, made and hung a banner in the Synod arena declaring “The Body of Christ is Living With AIDS” and made available UCC AIDS Memorial Panels on which delegates and visitors were invited to inscribe the names of loved ones living with HIV/AIDS or in memory of those who had died.  UCAN members also engaged in many hours of pastoral and educational conversations with GS17 delegates and visitors. 

In his closing remarks, retiring UCC President Avery D. Post observed that although the two resolutions were the only AIDS-related items on the Synod agenda, AIDS was clearly the most important issue at GS17.  UCAN’s consciousness raising efforts were also reflected in the synod’s spontaneous decision to institute a one-day blood drive among delegates and visitors to replenish the blood supply in Fort Worth which had reached dangerously low levels because local citizens feared they would contract AIDS by giving blood.

UCAN Develops a Plan

In September 1989, a new Ad Hoc UCAN Leadership Team was constituted to design and implement a UCAN development plan.  The Development Plan identified all members of the United Church of Christ as its constituents under the reasoning that, whether conscious of it or not, all are affected by the Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS) pandemic.  The plan said,

While UCC members with HIV/AIDS and their loved ones are most directly affected, many UCC members are involved in HIV/AIDS care-giving, counseling, education, service provision and public policy advocacy. Those UCC members whose only awareness of HIV/AIDS comes from the public media have been affected by that awareness.  As the pandemic continues, United Church members who think they are not affected will become aware of countless ways the HIV/AIDS pandemic is having an impact on their lives as citizens and as members of the Body of Christ called to respond to the imperatives of the Gospel.  UCAN, therefore, seeks to unite in covenant:

  • People living with HIV/AIDS
  • Families and Friends
  • Lay and Pastoral Caregivers
  • Health Care and Social Service Providers
  • Educators, Concerned Parents and Youth
  • All United Church members committed to HIV/AIDS Ministries.

The plan recognized that if the UCC was to effectively respond to the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic, it would need to find a way to mobilize the whole church, empowering the centers of ministry, namely, local congregations.  It called for UCAN to meet with leadership at all levels throughout the church, focusing their attention on key Conference, Association and local church leadership, clergy and lay.  UCAN worked collaboratively with UCC Resource Centers to create a library of HIV/AIDS related resources that could be easily accessed by local church leadership.   It worked to create Conference and Association based networks of mutually supportive persons committed to ministering to one another, respecting the autonomous decision-making of each entity.

UCAN also endeavored to bring together already existing UCC HIV ministries, such as local Task Forces to become part of the UCAN covenantal community as UCAN Partners in Ministry.  UCAN became a clearinghouse for resources developed by these Task Forces, sharing them throughout the UCC.

The concept of an ad hoc nature of the Leadership Team was also intentional. Each Leadership Team was constituted for a time and purpose appropriate to the tasks needed to be done.  The ad hoc leadership design was intended to minimize entrenched, ineffective or uncommitted leadership and to allow individuals, already under the stresses of the pandemic, to be supported, guarding against “burn out.”  It also allowed for the equally important emergence of new people and new ideas. 

As a UCC national, covenantal community, UCAN worked to break down barriers that caused persons affected by HIV/AIDS to experience isolation from their sisters and brothers in the community of faith.  It consistently broke the silence about HIV/AIDS wherever it existed within the church, with words and deeds that increased understanding, nurtured hope, offered encouragement and provided comfort.

UCAN Implements the Plan:  1990-2002

From 1990-2002, UCAN built its membership, led retreats for people living with HIV or AIDS, created resources, developed training modules, initiated education and prevention efforts, conducted workshops, hosted exhibits, provided leadership at ecumenical and interfaith tables, advocated for strong public policy and kept the work of responding to the pandemic ever before the UCC.  It was during this time that the UCC’s HIV/AIDS curriculum, Affirming Persons, Saving Lives (1993), was published by UCBHM.  UCAN was instrumental in its development, promotion and implementation.

General Synod and National Youth Events

Much of the visible work of UCAN throughout the 1990s took place during General Synod meetings.  UCAN was present at each General Synod (1991 – 2001), where they consistently had a table/booth, which included safer-sex products, CDC brochures and many other supplies.  UCAN also facilitated workshops on sex and AIDS education, held after-hours programs and social gatherings at these General Synod meetings.

At General Synod 19 (1993, St. Louis, MO), the newly published Affirming Persons, Saving Lives curriculum was enthusiastically promoted (see section below on Affirming Persons, Saving Lives curriculum).

At General Synod 23 (2001, Kansas City, MO), a resolution entitled, “The Epidemic of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome on the Continent of Africa,” was passed.  This resolution recommended information-sharing with local churches, Associations, and Conferences on how the United Church of Christ is responding to the AIDS crisis in Africa and how these groups may further assist this response.  It also encouraged advocacy and support for those affected by HIV and AIDS in Africa, and called for meaningful and prayerful dialogue concerning HIV and AIDS with our partner churches on the African continent.

In addition to General Synod, UCAN was also present at several National Youth Events, at which they led various workshops on safer-sex education.  David Kamens, a young adult living with AIDS, led many of these workshops at National Youth Events and General Synods.  

Affirming Persons, Saving Lives Curriculum

A significant part of UCAN’s work during the 1990s was the development of the Affirming Persons, Saving Lives curriculum.  Work began on this curriculum in 1990 and it was published in 1993.

Affirming Persons, Saving Lives is the first comprehensive curriculum for AIDS prevention published for Christian churches. With lesson plans for every age—adults, teenagers and children—the curriculum was designed to help churches become learning centers to protect lives threatened by the AIDS epidemic. It is intended for use in Christian education and other settings and includes Bible studies, prayers and theological reflections. With two videos and 1,000 pages of lesson plans and fact sheets, the curriculum is a complete resource for AIDS education. Teachers using the curriculum do not need any special training.

This curriculum was created by UCAN and the HIV/AIDS Ministry Program of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries.  Experienced AIDS educators, Cynthia A. Bouman and the Rev. William R. Johnson, Ed. D., are the co-authors.  United Church of Christ members living with HIV and AIDS, youth, Christian educators, AIDS ministers, parents, parish clergy and church school teachers also helped develop this resource.  Throughout its development (1990 – 1993), extensive field testing took place at national consultations, regional church meetings and in the church schools of several UCC congregations. 

The curriculum was launched at General Synod 19, with a big display at UCAN’s booth.  Initial promotion was also done through advertisements in the United Church News and through the United Church Resources Warehouse.  In addition, visits were made to Conference meetings and Youth Gatherings, encouraging its use. 

A Turning Point

By 2002 there were significant developments in the fight against HIV.  Advances in medical science offered treatment that could keep HIV from replicating in the body.  For persons living with HIV able to access these medications, they added both quantity and quality to their lives.  As more became known and treatments improved and were more widely available in the U.S., the sense of urgency and energy for response began to wane.  It became more difficult to raise funds and the national setting of the UCC experienced budget reductions, creating a funding gap.  At the same time, HIV continued to spread both in the U.S. and throughout the world, with the poor in developing countries, especially on the continent of Africa, hit the hardest.  In the U.S., infection rates were increasing at alarming and disproportionate rates in communities of color, especially in African America/Black and Latino/a communities.  UCAN had reached a turning point.

New leadership was welcomed in the Wider Church Ministries office for HIV and AIDS ministries (Health and Wholeness Advocacy,) in the person of the Rev. Mike Schuenemeyer, accompanied by an increased sense of urgency to work with people of color congregations and communities.  During this period of transition, The Rev. Yvette Flunder served as a special consultant, working with local congregations, Conferences and Associations on their outreach to communities of color. 

New Leadership with a Vision

In 2005, after consulting with several UCC local church leaders whose congregations had successful HIV/AIDS programs, a new initiative emerged, centered on the increasing number of HIV/AIDS affected groups within communities of color throughout the United States.  The UCAN “brand” was lifted-up again at GS25 with the first UCAN dinner, keynoted by the Reverend Adora Iris Lee, a Global Ministries missionary who was coordinating HIV ministry in southern Africa.  In August 2005, Rev. Schuenemeyer convened leaders from five significant UCC local church programs serving communities of color hard hit by HIV/AIDS.

The participants in this meeting began crafting a vision for a UCAN Faith Community Project which initially would develop a population based deliverable to address and promote HIV/AIDS outreach by UCC Congregations on behalf of people of color.  It was further determined that the Project would seek to build capacity for UCC HIV/AIDS outreach programs in the following population order:

  • African American/Black Congregations,
  • Latino/a Congregations,
  • Asian Pacific Islander Congregations
  • First Nation/Native American Congregations
  • Gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men (MSM)

The intention of the prioritizing is to work inclusively with all communities, even beyond the list above, but also to recognize that limited time and resources must be focused to enable critical presence at the point of deepest need.

The leaders at the August 2005 meeting agreed to serve as the new working group/leadership team for UCAN, in the style of the ad hoc leadership team model of the original UCAN development plan.  They began to promote awareness, and offer technical assistance workshops and consultation in February 2006.  In June of 2006, the new UCAN Leadership Team met in San Francisco for planning at which a new 4 year plan was developed.

Over the months since then, UCAN has worked to implement their plan.  They conducted a workshop at the United Black Christian’s meeting, produced and distributed materials for World AIDS Day, created visibility on a full page ad in UC News (October 2006), and provided leadership in HIV workshops at the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference.

UCAN Incorporates as a Nonprofit Charitable Organization

In April of 2007, in order to continue to increase its capacity in the most effective ways, the Wider Church Ministries Board of Directors approved a proposal to create a new 501(c)(3) for UCAN.  UCAN became incorporated as UCAN Inc. and in 2008, gained its official IRS 501(c)(3) non-profit status.  Since then, UCAN has continued to produce regular resources and communications, such as newsletters and World AIDS Day prayers, litanies, etc., and kept its commitment to lead educational workshops.  UCAN also participated in local events around the country, such as the New York State Department of Health Faith Forum, and convened other events, including the gathering of the Ecumenical Advocacy Alliance and National Black Leadership Coalition on AIDS (in New York).  In June 2008, UCAN demonstrated their commitment to the use of culturally/linguistically appropriate resources by publishing a Spanish language version of their HIV education cards, “Why Use Condoms”.  

UCAN has contributed to the rich legacy of the UCC and includes prophetic and courageous leadership at every stage of this disease.  It is a legacy of finding new ways to bring critical presence where it is needed most and working creatively and collaborative with others to realize a vision of health and wholeness.  That said, the pandemic demands resources and capacity that far and away outpaces what UCAN is currently able to do.  The mission is as urgent today as it ever has been—the work of enabling, empowering and resourcing local church leaders and their congregations, to build their ability and capacity to respond to HIV and AIDS in their own communities, as well as, participating in and supporting global efforts.