Immersed in the UCC General Synod 27
presented in service July 12, 2009
Good Morning. I'm Robyn Stellman, a Deacon of Pilgrim and I bring you greetings from the 27th General Synod of the United Church of Christ at Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I'd like to thank Rev. Reynolds for allowing me this opportunity to take a few moments to share with you some observations and reflections on my experience at GS27 (as the cool kids call it) as part of the History & Polity Institute I attended that is usually offered in conjuction with a General Synod.
Because the Grand River runs through the host city, the theme of GS27 was "Immerse Yourself." I'm going to share with you a few of the ways the UCC is immersed in the work of the Spirit.
I'd like to begin by saying that everyone in the UCC should experience one General Synod at some point in their congregational lives. It is a powerful and amazing experience to see how the national setting works and is working throughout the US and the world. I also encourage everyone to go to ucc.org and look around the Synod postings. There are recordings of speakers and events captured there in the video gallery.
And in case you didn't know, our own Bennie Whiten & Sue Sporte were honored guests.
First, the UCC immersed itself in sharing its gifts with the greater Grand Rapids community.
An entire morning of one Synod day was reserved for anyone wanting to do service projects within Grand Rapids. The UCC instituted doing service projects at Synods to give back to those communities hosting our meetings. In Grand Rapids these included organizations working with seniors, habitat for humanity, environmental concerns and community services.
We were immersed in Youth and Young Adult perspectives. Are you aware of an initiative to have 20% of clergy in the UCC be under 40 years old by the year 2030? This project is a testament of the UCC that we want to celebrate and encourage younger clergy to be a part of our wider church, and to show the world we are not a denomination of only people over 50.
Youth and young adults also had a voice during plenary sessions, publicly pointing out their disappointment after all the nominees for various national setting leadership positions had been approved and none of them were of the 2030 movement. There were youth and young adults in delegate roles and as committee chairs, which was inspiring to witness.
Youth also participated in the various worship services, including leading responsorial readings during the closing service, and an 18-year-old violin virtuoso that wowed us all in his solo performance during Sunday's worship. So if you think youth and young adults have no place in the national setting, think again. The UCC has an active and inspiring youth and young adult contingent, and is actively working to keep it moving forward and growing.
We were also immersed in worship - worship that was inspiring, poignant and uplifiting.
We started with a pre-Synod service of healing, with a praise choir and heartfelt community prayer led by Rev. Yvonne Delk, a true treasure of the UCC. Many of my fellow travelers felt this was the most personal of the worship services we attended.
Friday we were immersed in the Trinity UCC Chicago experience with Rev. Otis Moss III and their Choir and Dancers leading worship. If you check out nothing else on the UCC website, check out his preaching at the Friday evening service. His sermon had everyone in attendance buzzing for days.
Sunday we were treated to the Rev. John Thomas, soon-to-be-former General Minister and President of the UCC. I have to say I had no idea what to expect from him, and anticipated an old white-guy administrator's perspective. But I was moved and inspired by his legacy, which was celebrated as he retires, and his comments during his sermon about the baptismal waters symbolized in an actual wading pool incorporated into the stage. His statement "there are no crocodiles in this water - why are so many afraid of it?" is something I'm still pondering today.
There were many different worship types and an amazing array of musicians and performers. Some worked and some didn't. It felt odd to hear honest-to-god organ music in a huge convention center, with words to the hymns displayed on the big screens for all to sing along. But it still worked. The movement worship experience Monday night fell flat, and I'm not sure if that was because it occurred at the end of a long plenary day or because the worship leader sounded like a bad imitation of Robin Williams doing John Gielgud.
We were certainly immersed in church business - both in focusing inward and focusing outward. In case you're not aware, there are two types of Synod Resolutions brought forward - Prudential Resolutions and Resolutions of Witness. Prudential Resolutions pertain to business within the church. There were quite a few of these, including provisions to create a process for a UCC congregation to be recognized as an Earthwise Congregation, sacred conversations on race, and the most hotly discussed item, the resolution on single governance. You may have heard about the tension surrounding this on NPR. Without going into too much detail, the UCC is trying to streamline its four boards and executive council, whose total membership now stands at 300 or so, into one board made up of three subgroups or committees, with a membership of about 80. This will save a tremendous amount of money due to the reduction of folks travelling to and staying in Cleveland twice a year. But many people are afraid they will lose their voices in the new structure. This is especially true for those considered Historically Underrepresented Groups. The resolution concerning a unified board passed, and now it will be interesting to see how this new organization is constructed, to be voted on at GS28 in 2011.
Paling in drama but no less important, Geoffrey Black was elected the next General Minister and President of the UCC. He will be the second African-American head of this denomination, and between falling membership numbers and orchestrating the new organizational structure, has a difficult road ahead of him.
We also were immersed in resolutions of Witness, a face of the UCC to the outside world. These included offering friendship to Iran, calling for better treatment of Iraqi refugees, denouncing the practice of trafficking in persons, and several others. In my class's Synod debriefing, we discussed why anyone may care about these resolutions, using the previously passed marriage equality resolution and what the Pope thought about it as an example. One of our instructors pointed out that the Resolutions of Witness target audience is actually "average Joes and Janes" who, when they come to the UCC and hear about these resolutions, are inspired to be part of a community that holds these types of values in high regard.
Another immersion was into the history of the UCC. One of the amazing people in the UCC is Barbara Brown Zigmund, or BBZ as most know her. She has documented numerous aspects of the UCC and kicked off a new project at this synod to try to preserve the history of the "Christian" stream of the four streams that came together to create the UCC in 1957. People brought in several artifacts and documents from Christian churches around the country. BBZ wants to get this rich history documented before all the individuals who have any sense of that history are lost forever.
And if you want an awesome 3-minute history of Christianity and the UCC, view the end of Rev. Moss's sermon from Friday night's worship on the website. This is the most rapid-fire, upbeat, amazing church history lesson you could ever experience. It should be required viewing in Explorer's and confirmation classes everywhere. Yes, it really is that good.
We were immersed in plans for our future, including the intentional strategy of growing new churches, with a goal of 250 new churches in the next 5 years, and 1600 new churches by 2021. This is an impressive goal and the national setting has laid out a very aggressive plan with coaching and funding available to make it a reality. We saw a parade of members from new churches started since the last synod and it was a sizable crowd. Two or three of these grew out of Trinity here in Chicago.
One of the biggest immersions of the experience was the vast array of diversity represented at this gathering. There was such a GLBT presence one of my straight female classmates dispaired that she had no chance of meeting any single straight men. There were contingents of many Historically Under-represented Groups. There were many differently-abled persons, including Ken Medema, a blind musician who made up songs about the events of the Synod, sign language interpretations of all the plenary and worship experiences, and the most moving liturgical dance I've ever seen performed by a group called Dancing Wheels, consisting of walking and rolling dancers. Many people were touched deeply by the beauty and imagination of this group.
But the biggest immersion on diversity surrounded the Sacred Conversations on Race. There were 11 different conversations that took place on Sunday morning, all with different perspectives. I attended the one facilitated by Rev. Yvonne Delk, a true treasure and a fountain source of African-American experience of the UCC. She gave a moving and passionate commentary on her experiences in both the national and local church settings and how to best move forward in our denomination on this topic. I won't list her six points now, but know that the UCC is very committed to making all feel welcome at our table, and is making a concerted effort even though we will make some mistakes along the way.
One interesting comment that came out of the small group discussions where I participated was that if we are indeed all one - which "one" is that and who does that look like?
And finally, we were immersed in perspectives from outside the UCC. We were encouraged to participate in "River City Saturday," a day full of speakers, performers, bible study and workshops that provided a welcome break from resolutions and points of order. Speakers ranged from the keynote address given by Eugene Robinson from MSNBC, other media personalities and writers, and even a couple of engineers to give science perspectives. Performers included the Cathedral of Hope's chorus and orchestra, Jason & DeMarco, Paul Winter, Dancing Wheels, and the Western Michigan Gay Men's chorus. Workshops touched on topics of congregational growth, diversity, evangelism, worship, and music.
I want to share two stories that have stayed with me from the speakers I heard. First, author and editor Rev. Jim Wallis told a story about a Boston church who found a victim of youth violence at their door and struggled with the question "Are we responsible for what happens on our front steps?" And they discerned that not only were they responsible for their front steps, they were also responsible for everyone in their geographical area. So they gathered with other area churches to take back the concept of "parish" and reach out to everyone in their neighborhood, whether or not they belonged to any church. The tangible result of this was a 70% decrease in youth violence and death in that area.
The other story was shared by author and educator Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor. She mentioned a young woman in one of her classes who sported a new tattoo of the word "and" in large Times New Roman font, as if it had fallen out of a book and onto her shoulder. It was such a unique tattoo that Rev. Taylor's curiosity got the best of her and she inquired about it. It turned out a young man had published a novel, and through the magic of social networking and the internet got a group of people to each have one word from his novel tattooed on their bodies, and then planned to have them all gather at once to be put in the order of the novel's words. The young woman mentioned that what was interesting to her in this process is that that tattoo encouraged a number of discussions around the novel with random folks, most of whom had never read that book. Relationships were built by this woman based on a tattoo and a story.
This made me think about the UCC comma and how it could be used in the same way as that woman's tattoo (without the permanence and pain of getting an actual tattoo). What if UCCers wore that comma pin and it encouraged folks who haven't "read the book" to engage in dialogues and build relationships and bring them into our churches?
So in closing, I encourage you to immerse yourself in the UCC, whatever that means to you. Immerse yourself in worship, in music, in youth, in "the business of the church," in being a living witness to diversity or justice or environmental issues. Immerse yourself in taking back the idea of parish, in planting new churches, or just in having random conversations with people who have never "read the book" but are looking for that missing piece only you can give them.
Immerse yourself - there are no crocodiles in this water.