“June 24, 2018 by Elizabeth & Tyler Cifu Shuster”
June 25th, 2018Click here to download
Bold text = Tyler
Standard Text = Elizabeth
Good morning. I’m grateful to be here and to see all of you. It’s good to be back here. Last week, we attended the Northern California and Nevada Conference of the UCC’s annual gathering and we’d like to share some of what we learned. We were there from Thursday evening through Sunday morning and attended the keynote sessions, business items, and breakout workshops. There was so much but we’ll try to summarize.
To begin with, I’ll recap “the state of the conference,” then our business meeting items, then Elizabeth & I will trade off discussing the themes of the whole weekend.
The Northern California and Nevada Conference of the UCC (I’ll say NCNC for short) contains 117 churches across northern California and one in Nevada. Of those, 73 were represented at the gathering. Altogether, 248 people attended with 80 ministers, 92 lay delegates, and the remainder presenters, vendors, visitors, or children. Three of those delegates were under 30, two-thirds of which you see before you.
This year’s gathering was smaller than previous years, which seems to be attributed to many churches being in transition. Quite a few churches have installed new pastors or are looking to find new ones. We learned that across the conference, membership is down 5% from last year, but total Sunday morning attendance is up 7%.
Of the 118 churches, 71 declare themselves “Open and Affirming.” One church recently discovered that it’s been open and affirming for years but never officially declared the results of their discernment session.
The NCNC has been doing some work at the conference level. First, it’s been doing “Racial Justice Training,” providing sessions for lay and clergy to recognize racial injustice, both systemic and instantial. They have a few upcoming sessions so if you’d like to know more we can put you in touch with the right people. The conference has also been doing a number of programs to help revitalize its member churches, two of which are titled “New Beginnings” and “ReVision.” There was also a significant amount of discussion both in keynote and breakout sessions about the Conference’s two summer camps, which we’ll talk about a little later. Finally, the conference has been raising money for the endowment fund.
At the business meeting on Saturday, we voted on five items, all of which passed with varying levels of support. The first was a resolution to amend the national UCC constitution which it recommends to its member churches. This amendment both changed the leadership structure of the church at the national level as well as accepted full communion with the United Church of Canada. If those two things seem unrelated to you, you’re not alone. We spent about an hour discussing this amendment with a good deal of contention about the seeming “pork barreling” of the Canadian addition. Eventually the motion passed with a slight majority, those dissenting not disagreeing with the proposed additions, but the format in which the motion was presented.
The second resolution was to propose a change in the recommended wording in the national UCC constitution. This was led by a proposal from a member church. The proposal was to amend the requirements for membership as stated in the constitution to accept not only a) those baptized and confirmed in the church, b) those reaffirming their confession of faith, or d) those transferring their standing from another church but also c) “those who pledge their commitment to follow Jesus.” This motion also generated a lot of discussion but also narrowly passed. In the interest of brevity I’ll leave off a longer discussion, but we can talk more after the service if you’re interested.
We also voted on three resolutions regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict. All three of these passed unanimously. These resolutions affirmed the conference’s position on separate pieces of legislature currently being discussed, and resulted in letters from the conference heads and a recommendation that member churches do the same, to mail their senators. The first resolution was to support bill 4391, the “Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children Act.” The second resolution was in opposition to an anti-boycott bill which would make it illegal for organizations to boycott companies for their involvement in the conflict. The third was in opposition to “The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018,” which would change the definition of anti-semitism to include sentiments supporting Palestine. Again, all three motions passed unanimously or near-unanimously and the conference recommends its member churches write their senators on these subjects.
So that’s it for business at the conference, and I know many of you were eager to hear some of those results. We very much enjoyed being a part of the voting process and learning about the statistics of our church’s wider mission. We were also very blessed to hear from three keynote speakers about the gathering’s theme, which was this year “The Three Great Loves – Love of Neighbor, Love of Children, Love of Creation.” Elizabeth & I came away with a lot to think about from this topic and we’d like to share that with you now.
The president of the Pacific School of Religion, David Vasquez Levy, was the keynote speaker for the theme “Love of Neighbor”. Having immigrated to the US from Guatemala with his family, he spoke on the importance of being mindful of those things we have in common with “the other”, and their struggle which goes beyond our understanding though not above our help. There are countless instances where we could apply this insight, though currently our social media newsfeeds and thoughts have largely been overwhelmed by a few. He referenced the abandoned Wal-Mart in Texas that serves as a detention center for some 1,500+ children that have been taken from their families at the US/Mexico border. It’s difficult to know what to do as a church body when we see injustices around the world being committed. I know I often feel powerless when figures of authority make these decisions. I think one reason I feel powerless is that I’m not actively looking for ways to effect change, or at least not looking hard enough. It’s much easier to feel sad about something than it is to do the work of finding ways to help. I think help has a very wide spectrum. It can be something as small as speaking up, respectfully, when I hear insensitive or disrespectful statements. It can come in the form of donating money to support lawyers who are able to fight for immigrant families, separated or not. I find myself often speaking about injustice only with those people I agree with. And I find myself justifying holding back donations because of finances, but then later going out to dinner with my husband or planning a vacation. I don’t think I’m alone in this sort of behavior. I ask God to forgive me for so easily settling with blindness or sadness rather than taking on the burden or the risk of helping in a meaningful and potentially visible way.
Of course, this doesn’t just apply to people and issues that seem distant from us. David reminded us of those in our communities that we see every day struggling to survive. Those people we avoid looking at much less talking to who have never been invited into our churches. We settle with giving them money, which is not to say giving money to people or causes is wrong or unhelpful, but it does to some degree separate us from having to look at and engage with the problem at hand. The question was posed to us at the Gathering, “Is our neighbor in church with us? And if not, why is that? Are our worship spaces and services structured in such a way that the least of these would feel welcome?” These are things that I believe every church needs to constantly be mindful of and willing to effect change accordingly.
As we move from our concern about global or national events to the question of what we can do in our communities, we need to have a strategy and tools to effectively partner with others in our community who are concerned about the same issue. This especially includes those who are not a part of our church. Sandhya Jha spoke on the topic of “Love of Children,” which she interpreted as our commitment to making this a better place to live for our children. Sandhya lives in Oakland and has been a community organizer for decades. She runs the Oakland Peace Center, which operates out of a UCC church building whose membership declined to about 10 people before they resolved to use their building as a place for community organizations to gather — organizations that might not otherwise have a place to.
Sandhya talked about “Faith-Rooted Organizing,” a term distinct from “Faith-Based” or the more general “Community” organizing. Whereas community organizing is about finding what irks people by talking to them and addressing those issues, faith-rooted organizing is about asking “What happens in our community that breaks God’s heart?” While this may include issues that irk people, like “homelessness” or “drug use,” it also includes things that sit deeper, like the systemic injustices and social attitudes that lead to these symptoms.
While it’s not within the realm of general community organizing to analyze and contemplate the spiritual reasons behind systemic injustice, those of us in the faith community who yearn for justice have a unique gift and opportunity. Sandhya said a quote that stuck with me: “If you think you can do social justice without theological groundwork, you should join a union.” Faith-rooted organizing brings faith to a movement, not skills that we don’t have. We leave the law-making to the lawyers and the statistics to the statisticians, and we bring those skills which we have. So what are those?
A primary and obvious gift is the physical space we have been granted to use. I look to Sandhya’s example of using her church building as a space for community organizing.
In addition, our traditions give us some very helpful skills. The first of these is ritual. People crave ritual in this world sorely lacking in it. For example, Sandhya told us a story about volunteering her group to help with a protest. The organizers knew they were from a church and asked “You’re Christians, right? Well…would you like to…pray?” Sandhya was able to lead the group in prayer before protesting, which cleared a psychic space for the protestors and grounded them in hope, not anger. That is another gift of our community: the knowledge that the God’s love wins in the end, which bolsters our hope. Hope is our goal and when we see this, the policy victories or losses themselves are less consequential because we are grounded in eternal truths, not the despair of suffering from day to day.
Sandhya told us a story about how she joined an anti-home-foreclosure movement and told the organizers “I’m on your side, but the bank manager is not my enemy.” Another gift of our faith community is the knowledge that this struggle is not against flesh and blood. We fight systems and forces beyond the physical world and we do not wish to hurt the humans who have been used by those systems, no matter which side they’re on.
There were 9 youth in attendance. This is much lower than other Annual Gatherings that I’ve attended. This shows the work that is needed not only in our church, but also churches across the UCC. I thank those who have recently revitalized the opportunities for Fellowship for our Youth at Pilgrim, and I challenge this congregation to earnestly support that effort. Pastor Casey Tinnin who is currently the pastor of Loomis Basin Congregational Church made the statement at the Gathering that people often think of our youth as the future of the church, when in fact they are the present. We need to prioritize them and support them. <pause> When the opportunity arises to support Children & Youth Ministries we should be jumping at the chance to give of our resources, whether that be time or money.
In that same vein, a woman who is a Member-in-Discernment at another church said that she attended a UCC camp when she was younger, and currently she is the only person from that year of camp still involved with the UCC. We need to ask ourselves why that is. With the astounding number of young adults who want Open & Affirming communities and who care so much about social justice work, why are young adults in the UCC church so few and far between? And what can we do about it? I don’t have a cure-all for this issue, and I don’t suspect there is one answer, but I think it is possible to look at what we’re doing as a congregation and as a larger Christian community that obstructs engagement with youth and young adults. One thing to consider is that when Tyler and I first joined this church, we were unable to attend any of the regular meetings here such as Faith Forum, Men’s Breakfasts, and L Club Luncheons because of the standard work week. These are valuable events that provide opportunities for fellowship and discourse, and I can tell you that youth and young adults want to be a part of the conversation. I think we all want to be a part of the conversation, and I certainly think we are able to facilitate that. I think this church WANTS to do what is needed to create a space for everyone and voices of all ages.
Continuing Elizabeth’s question about how we can make our church more connected to the issues that young people are concerned about, and make it a more welcoming and useful space for them, I want to talk a little about the fact that today is “Open and Affirming Renewal Sunday” within the UCC. If you’re not familiar, this refers to the fact that our church as well as the majority of others in the UCC have pledged that we accept without judgement people of all gender and sexual identities and affirm that they too are valued within the church.
Being Open and Affirming is one of the largest reasons why I joined the UCC, and rejoined the Church as a whole. The UCC has made a lot of progress for the church pushing these issues, and it was reflected at the conference. There were quite a few pastors and laypeople who I don’t see in other congregations present there: queer folks, women in leadership, and people of color. I was proud to see such a wide swath of humanity accepted as the family of God.
But as I think about this question of what young people want in a church, I look at my own journey back and not just the concrete issues like queer and colored rights, but the larger movements which they represented. The new generation doesn’t just uphold the values of the last generation, but also pushes for new freedoms that work hand-in-hand with the old to promote God’s kingdom.
Within this church and denomination, advocating for queer and racial rights has become easier. You can see it in the unanimous vote on the Palestine resolutions and you can see it in this banner. But we want to also include to the younger generation which has grown up with the assumption that these are obvious, God-given rights. To them, to me, to deny those rights is a symptom of a passing age. We don’t just want a place where we can feel comfortable agreeing with people, although that is important. We want a place where we can discuss the issues that we struggle with and to bring our convictions before the church, much like our forebears did when they dared suggest the church take a stand on racism or sexism.
A quote I came away with from the conference was “We don’t need to educate; we can just bring up issues that we’re struggling with and say ‘Can we talk about this?’”
So in the interest of infusing this body with my energy, and the energy of my generation, here are some things that I struggle with. Most of these concern the third of the great three loves: the love of creation, and our responsible stewardship of the gift of this land.
One issue is the consumption of meat and other animal products. Another issue is the use of automobiles. Our lovely church bike racks have four sides and only three of them are ever used at a time…just saying. That said, I drove here so we have a lot of work to do.
A final, related issue that I think breaks God’s heart is our habit of exploiting foreign resources. The speaker Corina Gould noted the use of an abandoned Walmart, where clothes made in sweatshops were once sold, being used to house children in detention. That is no coincidence, I think.
I could lecture on each of these issues, but now is not the time for that. These are issues that I struggle with, have been convicted of my own complicity in, and bring to you, the church, so that we can continue in our work to be the children of God. I don’t have answers, but I want to start a conversation so that we can all move together. I’m grateful to be in this community.
To close, I’d like to bring it back home and report the events of our association, the Sacramento Valley Association, a smaller subset of the NCNC. The association has 21 churches. We made friends with a number of pastors from this association, and we’re exited to see how we can partner with them in the future. Elizabeth is on the council for this group as a representative of this church, and will participate in meetings. There’s a fall gathering of the association on October 13 in Loomis, and we’d like to go and invite any of you who are interested to go.
The association noted that they have scholarships of $75 available for campers at Camp Cazadero, which is a youth camp many of you are familiar with. A federation of churches in Alturas noted that they run a smaller camp in addition to the “official” conference camps and would be happy to discuss that.
While at the gathering, we made friends in Weaverville and Eureka and we’d like to be involved with these churches to whatever extent possible. The UCC church in Weaverville has an annual pie and ice cream feed on July 4th and we’ll be heading up there for the festivities and to help out. We’d love to see you there.
Speaking of places we’d love to see you, we were inspired by the efforts of our friends in the Sacramento area to start a weekly gathering. This is what we’re calling this “Wednesdays at Woody’s.”
We’re grateful to have represented this church at the annual gathering and look forward with talking to you more about it. Let’s join in our responsive hymn which we sang at the conference, “Touch the earth lightly,” out of the new century hymnal #569.