I just returned from the national meeting of the UCC (see plenty details about the meeting below). While at the meeting, I had drinks one night with two friends from seminary days. We each grew up in a religious landscape left desolate by the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. We attended a seminary filled with refugees--professors and students--from the SBC and wondered where there was a place for us in the church, since the tradition that had taught us about God's love no longer wanted us. Each of us in our own way, found our way into the UCC and discovered that the principles of freedom and faith we were taught about in Baptist life were actually lived out in the UCC. We toasted the denomination that welcomed us refugees in and gave us a new home. I remain proud to be a part of the UCC--the denomination that not only made room for me but actually wanted me and my beliefs--which to this day friends I grew up with consider heretical. Here are some experiences I've had in the last few months in the UCC beyond our local church that exemplify why I am so proud to be in this denomination.
At the beginning of June, the Missouri Mid-South Conference (the conference is all the UCC churches in MO, northern AR and Memphis, TN) held its annual meeting in Columbia, MO. I agreed to be on the planning committee, because one day out of the three-day event was to be spent on the conference's on-going "Sacred Conversation on Race." Such a dialogue is one of the things I'm passionate about--I have two bi-racial sons after all and I believe racism is one of the most pressing justice issues for our nation.
Thankfully, I was partnered with an African-American minister to plan this day and long before I got on board, arrangements had already been made to have Bishop Yvette Flunder as our keynote speaker and preacher. She was incredible. If you have never heard Flunder preach, stop whatever you are doing and watch this (she starts preaching at about 34:00) and this and this. She is an African American UCC minister, an out lesbian, and bishop for a fellowship of African American churches who fully welcome LGBTQ people.
With Bishop Flunder there, it was pretty hard for me to screw things up. Yet, I was still anxious--really anxious--about my part in leading a dialogue on race. I just knew that I would say the wrong thing or use terminology and despite my best intentions expose my white privilege. I could imagine very easily ticking off people who had not done as much study on racism as I have and simultaneously ticking off people who had done far more study on racism than me. I'm glad to say that neither happened that I'm aware of--either I didn't screw it up or more likely people were just gracious. It was a great day for our conference--a conference that is largely rural and overwhelmingly Caucasian--to reflect, learn, listen and be challenged about race. I was proud to be a part of it and proud that it wasn't a one-time thing but an on-going series of events designed to help our conference wrestle with racism.
At the conference meeting, we also overwhelmingly approved a resolution opposing the death penalty in MO and calling on Governor Nixon to place a moratorium on executions to study the many issues surrounding the death penalty. The resolution allows our conference to join its voice with other groups in the effort to end capital punishment in MO.
So many times in the past both here and at other churches I have served, I have hesitated to make an effort to get lay people to attend this level of denominational meeting. It is a lot to ask people to give up vacation days and spend their own money to attend such an event. Unfortunately, most of the time in my experience, conference-level meetings are hardly worth the effort. Usually, the meetings have to do with bureaucratic reshuffling and essentially rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. This time, however, it was exactly the opposite. The dialogue on racism, the death penalty resolution and many other things at the meeting were prophetic, challenging and inspirational.
I apologize for not urging my church folks to attend. I was consumed with helping with the planning, and frankly, it is hard enough getting people to show up to our own events given how people are so busy these days. It is much harder to ask people to drive across the state to attend another event. This one was well worth it, however, and I wish some of you had been there to share it with me. Next time, I will know better.
In addition to the conference meeting, I just returned from spending a week in Cleveland, Ohio at our national denominational meeting. It meets every other year and is called the General Synod. A synod is one of those church-specific words that means "assembly" or "council." Despite serving a UCC church before this one, my previous UCC church did not pay for clergy to attend the General Synod, so I never went to one. I wanted to attend but never had the money to do so. The church I served before coming to CCCUCC was a Disciples of Christ congregation, which did pay me to attend DOC national meetings. Now that I have finally been to a UCC General Synod, I can say what I suspected was the case all along, UCC national meetings are way, way, way better than Baptist or DOC ones.
You better believe on Friday we celebrated the SCOTUS ruling making same gender marriage the law of the land. A tent was set up in downtown Cleveland and UCC ministers began performing same gender marriages on the spot.
I attended as a guest which means I did not get a vote. Unlike in Baptist and DOC life--with which I have previous experience--attendees, even clergy ones, don't automatically get a vote. Each conference sends delegates who do the voting. The result is that the delegates are trained and educated on the issues beforehand. Also, they are assigned different committees or working groups on each issue to be voted on. Being a delegate is so much more work than just being a guest. I watched in awe as CCCUCC member, Rev. Stephen King, spent his entire trip working 12+ hours each day on the issues debated. Having delegates seems like a good way to ensure those voting on important issues are actually invested and educated on what they entail.
Boy did we discuss some issues! Some were about structure and process, but others were about the pressing social issues of our time. Here are some of them:
- The UCC approved a resolution calling on the Washington Redskins to change the team name and logo. If you think this is empty political correctness, I urge you tel tell that to UCC member Toni Buffalo of the Lokota Nation. Since we were in Cleveland, we also delivered almost 3000 petitions to the Cleveland Indians asking the same thing of them.
- A resolution was approved calling the denomination to divest from companies profiting from the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. This decision made international news. A second resolution calling the occupation "apartheid" failed.
- A resolution commemorating 100 years since the Armenian Genocide passed.
- A resolution calling on congregations to become "Wiser, Inclusive, Supportive and Engaged for Mental Health."
- At the last General Synod, the UCC voted to divest from companies who manufacture fossil fuels. At this one, they voted to support moving from fossil fuels and towards renewable energy.
- Keeping with the UCC's historical mission of ecumenical work, we voted to enter into "full communion" with the United Church of Canada--which means we have some acronym issues with two "UCC's" running around.
Plenty more resolutions were debated on a lot of other issues: mass incarceration, the "New Jim Crow," GMO's, incarceration of undocumented immigrant children and more. Most passed, but some did not. As an observer, it was a sometimes riveting debate, while, of course, there were times when it seemed some speakers just made their way to the microphone to hear themselves talk. Overall, I was so proud to be a part of a denomination that does not shy away from difficult issues of social justice.
Resolutions, or any action taken by the national UCC, are not binding on local congregations or their members. The UCC values freedom and diversity of belief, so there is no mechanism to require members to go against their own consciences as in other denominations. Yet, we do live in covenant together, so the resolutions are meant not only as a witness to the larger world but as a challenge to all of us who claim to be a part of the UCC.
Here are some other great things I experienced at the national meeting:
- One of the highlights of the event was when representatives of the Nebraska-South Dakota Conference formally gave back church lands to the Lakota tribe of South Dakota.
- We also lamented together the shootings at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston.
- Missouri's own Rev. John Dorhauer was voted in as the UCC's next General Minister and President. Dorhauer previously served on conference staff and as pastor of the UCC church in Mayview, MO. Despite disappointment being expressed that our new GMP is another white straight male, he was voted in overwhelmingly and his commitment to social justice, feminism, LGBTQ rights, etc. is not in question.
- There were also some great speakers and exciting worship at General Synod. Hearing Rev. Mitri Raheb, pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem speak was powerful.
- Hearing Native American environmental activist, Wynona Laduke speak was moving. She also showed this video about her people riding the length of the Keystone XL pipeline which is worth your time.
- Paul Rauschenbush, religion editor of The Huffington Post, gave a keynote--here's an edited version of his remarks.
- The high point for me was hearing a sermon by Rev. Molly Baskette from Massacusetts. It was so good and expressed so well what I want out of church that I had tears in my eyes. If you are interested, I highly recommend you watch the video of it. (The video is of the whole 3 hour session, so skip ahead to 2:06)
Whether at the conference or national level, I was proud to be a part of a denomination where women, people of all races, LGBTQ people and others could be not only in lay leadership but serve as ordained ministers. I experienced the joy of being among kindred spirits who make every effort to hear the voices of all. Every year at budget time, we always wonder if what we give financially to the church beyond our local congregation is worth it--I hope my words gave you at least a few reasons why it is.
Grace and Peace
You can read more of my thoughts and keep up with what I'm reading on my blog: www.revpeep.blogspot.com and follow him on Facebook and Twitter.