Conference News

April COMMAnts from the Conference Minister

The Walls We Build”

I remember the feeling of the place like it was yesterday.  Oppressive.  Scary.  Dangerous.  It was 1986 and I was in Berlin, moving through the checkpoint to pass from West to East, from free society to Communist society.  I was one of a group of youth and young adult members of the United Church of Christ traveling through Eastern Bloc countries that summer.  We audaciously called ourselves a peace delegation, connecting with peace groups and local (mostly “underground”) congregations in that Cold War era when peace and organized religion were both scarce.

The Berlin Wall through which we passed that day stood 12 feet high and 96 miles long, a bulwark of bricks and barbed wire and stern soldiers with guns at the ready.  The East Germans built it in 1961 to staunch the tide of Eastern Bloc defections to West Berlin and western Europe beyond it. But still people fled, over the wall and under it, at risk of their lives, in search of freedom and new possibility for their lives.

Thirty-one years later, I stood at the foot of another wall with eleven other members of the Minnesota Conference in January of this year.  The “separation barrier”, as the Israelis refer to it, snakes through this Holy Land, separating the occupied West Bank from Israel.  This concrete wall stands as high as 26 feet, and will be 440 miles long once completed.  The State of Israel began construction on this wall during the Second Intifada  (late 2000) as a security measure to stem the surge in violence.  But the effect of this wall has been far more complex.  Its checkpoints daily diminish the dignity and rights of Palestinians.  It separates Palestinians from precious access to water, from their fields, from essential services like medical care, and from loved ones.  And this wall largely prevents normal, everyday interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, thereby further eroding the possibility for healthy relationships that could lay a stronger foundation for peace.

Now in our own country, there’s talk of building a wall at our southern border with Mexico.  The stated plan is to build a wall 1300 miles long  and 40 feet high (at least 600 miles of fencing already exists along our border with Mexico) at an estimated cost of at least $10 billion, or about $7.4 million per mile.  The intent of this wall would be to keep out illegal immigrants, a costly reaction to increasing xenophobia and irrational fears. Whether it gets built, who will pay for it, and what the real and human costs of such a wall would remain to be seen.

Walls.  The world is apparently obsessed with them these days.  A New York Times article (Tom Vanderbilt, “The Walls in our Heads”) reported back in November that there are “actually more border walls [today] than during the most tense periods of the Cold War… According to the geographer Elisabeth Vallet, there are more than 50 border walls in the world today; 15 were built last year alone.”

Walls, it seems, are an increasingly popular response to intensely complex social and political realities.  But what can we say about walls from the perspective of our faith?

Our own scriptures give us evidence that societies have always been fascinated with walls.  The walls of Jericho were purportedly built to provide safety and security, to keep out unwanted foreign elements, especially those fleeing unrest and harm in other places.  Then there were the walls of Jerusalem, Nehemiah’s great building project, part of a larger work to restore Jerusalem to a place of strength and vigor, in part by keeping out foreign aggressors.

But the walls of Jericho came tumbling down, and Jerusalem remains a conflicted, unsettled place to this day.  Those ancient walls turned out to be inadequate responses to anxiety-filled times, symbols of power and might that failed to effectively address deeper problems and questions.

Walls are designed to keep people out, to send a message that those outside of our walls are not welcome while those inside the walls have all we need. And yet we’re called by our faith, from the prophets to the example of Jesus and the words of the apostles, to welcome the stranger and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We’re commissioned not to build walls but to break them down.

Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Ephesians:  “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” (2:13-14)

The politicians will wrangle about their dreams of high and mighty walls.  But let us, as people of faith, persist in our own dreams of a far more excellent way……….a way of hospitality and welcome and unobstructed love.

Your partner on the journey,

 

 

 

Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister

The Earth is the Lord’s

Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical and Orthodox Christians unite around this core proclamation. We recognize that unity around this foundational awareness, that the earth is the Lord’s, is important, consequential, and faithful. The same recognition brings together Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, Native Americans and so many more.

It is time to join our voices and our bodies as we witness on behalf of the thousands of climate scientists whose findings over the past 50 years have led to the unassailable conclusion that climate change is real and is caused by humans. Our generation will either embrace profound change or life as we have known it will be unknown to our children’s children.

In 2013, the United Church of Christ became the first religious organization to call for the divestment of funds from companies that primarily profit from fossil fuels. We believe this to be a theological imperative, a faithful response to a theological emergency. We believe that the current rate of fossil fuel consumption is a death trap from which we will not escape without deep commitments to significant changes. The modest steps taken by the previous administration to comply with the Paris Accords were helpful and necessary. Recent actions by the Administration to rollback environmental protections and responsible measures to address climate change are seen by us as a crime against humanity – an act that ensures the ongoing destruction of the planet and endangers future generations on whose behalf we are charged with stewarding God’s creation.

The response of the faith community must be proportional to the threat. Because climate change makes all other injustice worse, now is the time for us to step up.

We call upon the authorized ministers and leaders of our denomination to raise their voices in support of the faithful stewardship of creation, and against the actions of a government that doesn’t see environmental protection as its mandate.

We call upon the members of our denomination to write their elected representatives and express their concern and outrage at the Executive Order signed yesterday that rolls back commitments to protect and preserve the environment; and to urge them to put pressure on the President to reconsider this action and to continue to support the Paris Agreement.

We call upon the church to embrace Jesus’ assurance that the truth will set us free by learning about the science of climate change, the jeopardy of our current situation, and the actions we can take to assure that our progeny will have a livable planet. This crisis requires every person of faith to be informed, engaged, and committed to preserve God’s creation.

We call upon the people of faith to advocate for policies and laws that will increase our commitment to renewable energy and to oppose any additions to our fossil fuel infrastructure.

We call upon people of faith to demonstrate in voice and in action the core belief that the Earth is the Lord’s, and that we are charged with stewarding creation in ways that ensure it will be here to care for future generations.

What does it mean to live with privilege?

At a recent gathering of the Conference Ministry staffs of the West Central Region (Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Northern Plains, South Dakota, Missouri-Mid South, and Kansas-Oklahoma), these 7 Conferences agreed that each would submit an article on a topic related to racial justice over the next several months, for publication in each of our Conference newsletters.  This reflects our shared commitment to keeping the struggle for racial justice “front and center” in the lives and ministries of our Conferences.  This article is written by Rev. Gordon Rankin, Conference Minister in the South Dakota Conference.

I propagate the evils of racism.  Let me just name that from the beginning.  It is not intentional.  Usually it is the result of my own lack of self-awareness or laziness.  I support companies that take advantage of people from other countries and cultures.  Yes, that propagates the evils of racism.  I elect public servants who pass “whites first” policies that harm those of other cultures and races.  That too propagates the evils of racism.  I preach of loving all but don’t explicitly name that loving people means celebrating all that makes them unique – their culture, their language, their history, their spirituality.  Too often the evils of racism are perpetuated by my lack of clarity, consideration or courage.  I name that and own it.  And I work daily to repent of it.

But there is a whole other aspect to racism that I believe needs to be addressed.  We need to be talking more about historic racism.  One of the blessings and challenges of serving where I do in South Dakota is that it has stirred a lot of soul-wrestling within me about where my faith asks me to stand with regards to historic racism.

Here in South Dakota the historic racism that I come face to face with most every day is the history of colonial oppression towards our Lakota, Nakota and Dakota sisters and brothers.  But let me make it even more clear.  If you are my age or older, and you lived on one of the South Dakota reservations, you at some point were removed from your family and sent to a boarding school.  Of course, these boarding schools differed from one another.  I have heard tales that some were not all that bad.  However, the explicit purpose of most of their boarding schools was assimilation.  Boarding schools existed to strip Native youth of the language and culture and make them “civilized” like us white folk.

The late Reverend Sid Byrd spoke powerfully of his time at a boarding school.  He would share of the deep pain he felt when, after a couple of years, he was allowed to visit home.  He found that he was no longer able to speak to his grandparents as they could only speak Lakota and he could only speak English.

Let me draw an even finer point on this.  One of the chief builders of boarding schools in South Dakota, cooperatively with the United States government, was the American Missionary Association.  The American Missionary Association has significant historic ties to the United Church of Christ.  The church that I love, the church that I serve, is a part of this ugly, ugly history.  Moreover, those who wore my face (a white man’s face) and held similar roles to the one I do were intricately involved in this harmful, racist history.

I have already named my own complicity in propagating the evils of racism.  But what am I to do with these acts that occurred generations before and yet I find are so intertwined with who I am and what I do today?  I know there are those who would say these are not my sins to worry about.  But if not me, then who?  If I am not willing to be present to our Native sisters and brothers and say to them that my church…our church…was wrong, then who will?  I have come to see that it is my responsibility and calling to name this historic sin, to repent of it (and call others to repentance), to seek restoration in all ways possible, and to find a different way to be in this world.

But this is not just about me.  It is about all of us.  When, in the face of historic racism, are we going to stop worrying about whose sins are whose?  When will we let go of our need to not be the cause and fully embrace the responsibilities of being healers and builders of beloved community?  I fear that until we do we will continue to live under the weight of historic racism.

Gordon Rankin
South Dakota Conference


 

At a recent gathering of the Conference Ministry staffs of the West Central Region (Minnesota, Iowa, Nebraska, Northern Plains, South Dakota, Missouri-Mid South, and Kansas-Oklahoma), these 7 Conferences agreed that each would submit an article on a topic related to racial justice over the next several months, for publication in each of our Conference newsletters.  This reflects our shared commitment to keeping the struggle for racial justice “front and center” in the lives and ministries of our Conferences.  This article is the second in that series, written by Rev. Ginny Brown Daniel, Conference Minister in the Missouri Mid-South Conference.

What does it mean to live with privilege? I have been consciously wrestling with this question ever since the White Privilege curriculum was introduced from the United Church of Christ. But if I am honest, I have been unconsciously wrestling with this spiritual question my entire life. Growing up in Alabama in the 1980s, I wrestled with our communal sin called racism. I was fortunate to grow up in a progressive college town, where education for all was the bedrock of our community. In high school, I worked at a drug store, where James, an African-American in his 50s, taught me what subtle Christian racism looked like as an older customer entered the store with a nice smile and James whispered the customer’s 30-year old sins of beating him for going to the “wrong bathroom.”

The more personal expression of racism took many more years to process and confess: my family’s sin of paternalistic racism. They disagreed with Governor George Wallace, who stood in my dad’s high school doors, emphatically pronouncing segregation. Years later my family bemoaned Wallace’s shrill actions when they could have worked toward a more peaceful resolution (which was a stalling tactic just as sinful as Wallace’s doorway demands). They eventually fled their hometown when African Americans rightly boycotted my grandfather’s business. But they did so because they had the financial means to leave and move to another town. Privilege.

I have privilege. I am a white, middle-class, middle-aged southern, educated woman. For many years, I was reticent to identify my privilege lest it sound like bragging in a terribly superior manner. But if I don’t name my reality, I cannot breathe God’s goodness and peace into my reality. I have been poor, but I have always known that I had a safety net to protect me from imminent financial danger. I have experienced sexism, but I have always had enough power to pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.

When I named my privilege, it was as if I was finally open to healing within my body, mind, and spirit regarding my privilege and my racism. My spirit sought the stories of Jesus and how he interpreted and lived out his privilege. Jesus indeed had privilege. He was a man. He was Jewish. He was a rabbi. And he was educated enough to know, recite, and preach from the scriptures. In Jesus’ privilege, he listened to the stories of the oppressed (Samaritan Woman), he gave his privilege away (healings on the Sabbath), and he spoke truth to the powerful (turning the tables in the Temple).

Recently I asked myself how I live out my privilege. How do I listen, give away my privilege, and speak truth to the powerful?  After the Executive Order banning entry into the United States for Muslims from seven particular countries, I really wrestled with my privilege. What do I do with the power, prestige, and privilege I have been given as a UCC Conference Minister? And what is my spiritual obligation with this privilege? And so I decided that my Lenten spiritual practice would be to wear a hijab, or head scarf, to spiritually reflect on who God created me to be while giving my privilege away. I sought to stand in solidarity with my Muslim sisters and brothers, who are unfairly being judged and discriminated against because of how they worship God.

And so on Ash Wednesday, I donned a head scarf and began my journey. To be honest, wearing a hijab has been an eye-opening experience. Watching those who look past me, when they normally greet me warmly. Listening to people processing their own privilege as they admire my “courage” for this practice. And receiving racism in verbal and non-verbal expressions especially when I am at the airport. Last week, as I entered the St. Louis airport, there was a woman with a head scarf on and we looked at each other with big smiles on our faces. Talk about extravagant hospitality! There were people who were extra nice to me, and even a flight attendant who winked at me! Her wink lifted my spirits because, not 15 minutes earlier, a man gave me an ugly stare as we boarded the plane. At first, I forgot about my hijab and wondered what I had done to cause such an ugly stare. And then I remembered. And I stared at him right back as if to dare him, “Bring it on, you mean man! I’ll take you down!” (Not quite the loving spirit of Jesus but I’m being honest). In my wearing a hijab, I have also committed to reading books by Muslim American women about their spiritual lives. I am currently reading “Threading My Prayer Rug,” by Sabeeha Rehamn (here is a youtube interview with Ms. Rehman) to hear the story of one Muslim-American woman.

I have learned more about my white privilege wearing a hijab than ever before in my life.  I am more concerned when I walk through the security line (even in the privileged TSA Pre-check). I am more aware that, as they say in the broadway play Avenue Q, everybody is a little bit racist. I am more aware that discrimination stems from other people’s own fears and has  nothing to do with the person being judged. I am more aware that there will always be compassionate people willing to stand with the powerless and oppressed. I am more aware that my privilege is not granted because of who I am as a child of God. I am more aware that I have a deeper spiritual responsibility to give my privilege away by listening to the heart of others, by giving my privilege away, and by speaking truth to the powerful.

I, like all of you, have been created in God’s image. Our spiritual work will always be to live into who God created us to be while we give our privilege away. This indeed will be a just world for all!

MN Conference UCC Chaplain Network Meeting

MN UCC Conference Chaplain Network

Tuesday, April 25, 2017 11:30-1:00

MN Church Center

122 W Franklin Ave, Minneapolis

 

“Medical Aid in Dying—The Facts”

Rev. Kevin Bradley, MDiv

Chaplain, Heartland Hospice

Founding member of Interfaith Clergy for End-of-Life Options (ICELO), Compassion & Choices Minnesota

Compassion & Choices is the largest national organization educating the public and working with legislators to make Medical Aid in Dying legal. The mission of ICELO is to promote understanding and acceptance of diverse spiritual beliefs related to end-of-life decisions.

Come to learn what Medical Aid in Dying is and what it is not and how this legislation is working in several states. Both sides use religion to support or oppose this bill. Kevin has testified at a MN Senate committee hearing for the 2016 version of the Death with Dignity bill sponsored by Sen. Chris Eaton. He will bring his passion and expertise to our discussion of this important topic.

This event is open to all UCC authorized ministers who are currently serving in chaplain ministry.

Lunch will be available for purchase in the cafeteria, bag lunches are not allowed in conference rooms by building policy.

Questions?

Contact Kathryn Morin at kmorin@stcroixhospice.com

or Catherine Duncan at catherine@duncanfamily.com


 

MN UCC Chaplain Monthly Coffee Gathering

The MN UCC Chaplain Coffee Gathering continues to meet each First Friday of the month, 8:30-10:00 AM at Turtle Bread in Linden Hills.  Come for a cup of coffee, good conversation, and colleague support.

St. Anthony Park UCC, St. Paul

St. Anthony Park UCC is located in St. Paul, near the State Fair grounds and the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus. The church was founded in 1886, so we’re 130 years old.  Our tagline is:  “Christian Tradition, Progressive Faith, All Are Welcome”

Our church members represent all ages, every decade, from newborns to our oldest member who is 106 years old.  We have more than 50 children and youth, so we do A LOT of intergenerational ministry. We have hosted an All-Church retreat at Pilgrim Point camp.

We concentrate on building amazing disciples/followers of Jesus, not an amazing church. We take action as public witnesses:  marching in the Gay Pride parade, serving on a phone-bank for marriage equality, and taking part in the Service of Lament and Prayer after the Philando Castile shooting. We attend the Prayer Vigil at the Ramsey County Detention Center where immigrant detainees are held, and we are in the discernment process about becoming a Sanctuary Supporting Church.

We are a financially generous congregation (we’re 5 for 5! among other giving) and are fiscally strong. Our church recently hosted two benefit concerts to raise funds and awareness – one for the ACLU of Minnesota, another for the Center for Victims of Torture. We try new things, such as sponsoring a refugee family from Syria, going on a Mission Trip to Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, renovating /”greening” our building to be more energy efficient .

We open our building to the Schubert Club-Music in the Park Series, St. Anthony Park Co-op Preschool, Boy Scout Troop 17, and the Full Moon Meditation Group. Members of the church march in the classic small-town St. Anthony Park 4th of July parade.

The church sponsors three ongoing support groups:  Caregiver, Bereavement, and Depression. We enjoy one another’s company.  We love one another. We carry each other through the river of life.

At St. Anthony Park UCC we prioritize our connection with the Minnesota Conference UCC and all UCCers with whom we are in covenant.

Minnesota Conference UCC Welcomes Lori Alford as Pilgrim Point Program Director

Lori Alford has been hired to serve as the Pilgrim Point Camp Director. In this new role, Lori will be the primary onsite program staff at Pilgrim Point Program Camp throughout the camping season, providing spiritual leadership, program direction, and support for congregation and conference sponsored camps and retreats. She will work closely with the Associate Conference Minister for Faith Formation for Children & Youth to develop and lead Conference-sponsored youth programs and will help coordinate the development, planning, and leadership for other Conference-sponsored programs at Pilgrim Point.

 

Lori is eager to get back to the UCC after a brief hiatus serving in the PC(USA). Her past involvement includes working at various UCC churches in the Twin Cities, and even once on Conference staff as an assistant to Wade Zick. In the past year, Lori also began the Marriage and Family Therapy program at St. Mary’s University, inspired through her work with Our Whole Lives to work with individuals and families experiencing a wide variety of issues around sexuality. She will begin an internship with a clinic in Edina in the fall of 2017. Lori has a career goal of blending together her three passions: Pilgrim Point Camp, OWL, and work as a therapist, as they represent the spiritual, relational, and healing arts she has been crafting for many years.

 

Pilgrim Point is a place of connection for Lori, as she grew up in the Alexandria area and feels at home at the camp. She is passionate about the ministry that happens at camp and feels Pilgrim Point is a deeply sacred space. She is thrilled to be starting in this new role and can’t wait to welcome you all to camp this summer!

 

Lori will begin her ministry with the Conference on April 4, 2017.  Please join us in providing a warm welcome to Lori as we begin this adventure of ministry together!

Anti-Hate Letter

The UCC Palestine Israel Network Steering Committee, (a committee of the national UCC) has issued a statement regarding its rebuke of hate and stereotyping directed towards our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers. That statement is available here.

Lay Leadership Development Initiative Launched in Minnesota Conference

What is one of the most important challenges for the Church looking forward?  Some say it is ensuring that competent, trained leadership remains accessible to congregations of every size and location amid dwindling resources.

In the Minnesota Conference UCC today, 65 of our congregations have either ordained or licensed part-time pastors. That’s fully 50% of our congregations that can no longer afford full-time pastoral leadership, and that number is likely to increase. At the same time, a growing number of people who feel a call to ministry cannot entertain a traditional path of seminary education and training for a variety of reasons. The combination of these factors and much more is creating a mounting concern about the future leadership capacity of our Church.

The Conference Board of Directors has approved a new effort to address these challenges and concerns. In recent month, it authorized resources to develop a program that “will grow lay leadership capacity across the Conference, provide for multiple paths to ministry, and equip the church for the future.”

Reverend Vicki Wunsch has been hired by the Minnesota Conference to serve as our new Director of Leadership Development. This part-time position will guide our new efforts in this arena, including working with the Wisconsin Conference to develop a new, joint lay leadership development program and preparing for the Conference to host a multi-church Young Adult Service Community.

Vicki’s breadth of work experience will serve her well in this new Conference position. She has worked in non-profit organizations and churches for nearly 20 years. Her experience includes working as a national trainer to help churches become welcoming to the LGBT community, training congregations on faith-based community organizing, engaging faith communities and training clergy in supporting families effected by violence, and curriculum development. She has most recently provided pastoral care and grief support at Fairview Hospitals chemical dependency services. Vicki received her Master’s Degree in Adult Learning and Development from the University of Minnesota, and her Masters of Divinity at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. She is ordained in the United Church of Christ and a member of Mayflower UCC in Minneapolis.

“I am excited to be part of this initiative that will strengthen and grow our church by creating new ways we can engage and develop lay leaders from around the Conference,” Vicki says. She has begun her work with the Conference as of March 1.

Stay tuned for news about how this major initiative is unfolding, and for opportunities for you to provide your input into the planning process!

COMMAnts from the Conference Minister – March 2017

THE LENTEN PATH
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

These are the words that usher us into Lent, a season of repentance when we are asked to dig deep inside ourselves to reflect on the substance of our faith.  We begin with a reminder that we are mere mortals, birthed from dust and destined for dust, removing from us any illusion that we are all-powerful or indestructible.

Today some will attend a simple, quiet worship service and have gritty ashes imposed upon their forehead.  Others may make a quick stop at an “Ashes 2 Go” station, where pastors meet the penitent on sidewalks and in parking lots to bestow those ashes with a few words of blessing.

And then some will begin their journey of Lent by choosing to give something up: a vice, a bad habit, some temptation we have succumbed to far more often than is good for us.  There have been times I’ve taken that path and given up something I loved — pizza and chocolate have made frequent appearances.  But it never seemed to me that giving those things up actually did anything to bring me closer to God or to deepen my faith. They were just things I should have given up anyway, and Lent offered a convenient prompt to do so.

This Lent, there are no doubt several things I’d be well advised to give up.  But what my heart really longs for is to draw nearer to God.  I want God to walk with me, guiding my discernment about what it is God needs of me and helping to illumine all the hope God carries for my life and for our ministry together in the Conference.  I want to know that God’s love for me is steadfast, even on my least lovable days.  And I want to trust more fully that new life and radical possibility are always just a bit further down the long and winding road, just as the Resurrection promise will emerge once again at the end of this ash-strewn Lenten path.

What will your Lenten journey look like this year?  Will you give something up?  Or will you give yourself TO a more full-hearted search for God’s presence and purpose in your life?

May God bless your journey,

Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister

 

Global Ministry Partners Don & Maryjane Westra Visit Minnesota

Don and Maryjane Westra have called Minnesota home since 1990.  They are members of Federated Church, United Church of Christ in Fergus Falls. Their faith and values led them to join Global Ministries in 2009. The Westras’ first assignment was in the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe.

In 2013 they moved to Honduras. Don worked with the students and teachers at the Center for Vocational Education of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (CEVER). Maryjane assisted in the administrative department of CEVER. She also counselled students with family problems.

Don’s ministry was supported by One Great Hour of Sharing. Don and Maryjane are planning to spend time with the MN Conference April 2- May 7. They would enjoy sharing their experiences with us.

Maryjane and Don would love to come to as many Minnesota Conference Churches as they can to share their experiences.  Sundays have been booked, but they are happy to come any time during the week to meet with any church group, meeting or simply a weekday or evening.  The Westras have quite the story to tell and it is a wonderful opportunity to see the United Church of Christ Global Ministries in Action.  To schedule a time for Don and Maryjane to visit your church, please call Rev. Steve Boorsma at the Conference office:  612-230-3367 or the Rev. Ava Adams-Morris at 507-243-3891.