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.
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!
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
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.
Yes, MOVEMENT is indeed what is happening in our Conference when it comes to providing “Sanctuary” for immigrant families facing deportation.
The Sanctuary Movement traces its roots to the 1980’s, when many congregations were led to provide housing and other assistance to Central American refugees who were being denied asylum by the United States. Today the movement is experiencing a resurgence. In 2016, 400 congregations of various traditions were “sanctuary congregations”; since the Presidential election, that number has increased to 800 nationwide. UCC congregations participating in the movement have gone from 15 last year to 50 most recently.
Several congregations in the MN Conference are among that number. At least 5 congregations have already voted to be either a Sanctuary Church or Sanctuary Support Church. Several others are in discernment about the possibility. On February 18, the Minnesota Conference Immigration Team led a forum on Sanctuary and Becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation. There were 45 people in attendance that represented 13 churches. The Immigration Team will be offering another forum at Pilgrim Point in the spring (details available soon). In the meantime, they are always willing to do a presentation in your congregation. Simply contact Diane Haines to arrange for that.
Here’s what some of our churches said about their journey in discernment about becoming either a Sanctuary Supporting or Sanctuary Church:
- Rev. Eliot Howard of Linden Hills UCC, Minneapolis was interviewed on Minnesota Public Radio yesterday (listen to the entire interview and their story on this topic here) and he said “I personally felt the tug of conscience and faith and got out ahead of things by declaring Linden Hills church a sanctuary congregation.” He had heard stories from teachers in the congregation about Latino students afraid to go to school or worried for their parents’ safety. “That frankly, overruled the decisions and attention to process,” he said. There is also a lead story in the Star Tribune today on this topic with their own interview with Eliot. You can read that article here.
- Rev. T. Michael Rock of Robbinsdale UCC says: We became a Sanctuary Congregation in December 2014. We took this leap of faith with the support of Rev. John Gutterman and the MN Conference Immigration Team. We heard the stories of two families in our congregation who lived through a deportation experience and we vowed to do what we could as a congregation to not let that happen again. We feel blessed with many resources and relationships and feel that becoming a Sanctuary Congregation was central to our faith and understanding as people of Radical Hospitality in the United Church of Christ.
- Rev. Todd Smith Lippert in Northfield shared: On December 11, 2016, First UCC declared itself a sanctuary, a place of refuge for undocumented immigrants facing an immediate threat of deportation. We made this declaration because we feel that current immigration policies are a violation of Christian values. This is one way we can love and stand with our immigrant neighbors. Our Sanctuary Team has created a living space in our church (see photo). We invite other congregations to become a part of the sanctuary movement.
- Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries says “Mayflower Church became a Sanctuary Supporting Church by a vote of our Church Council this spring and announced this to the congregation on Easter Sunday to much applause. We partner with Robbinsdale UCC, in the event that they host someone we would be right there providing support and amplifying the story of immigrants’ struggles in the fear of deportation. A year ago, you may remember the primary force driving the need for Sanctuary was the Obama administration’s raids – often targeting people who had actually come to the US seeking asylum during the summer. Our congregation hosted two listening sessions to hear feedback, which followed an intensive and well-attended series of educational offerings on immigration issues. The main concern we heard was, what if the need becomes even greater after the coming election? That question seemed far-off at the time, but it guides us now in discerning how to respond to this human rights crisis in these days. We encourage other churches to join in this movement.”
- Rev. Robin Raudabaugh, pastor at Union Congregational UCC in Elk River, shared: “Union Congregational UCC is immersed in the process of how to move toward becoming ever more immigrant welcoming. Our goal is to declare ourselves a sanctuary church by first being a sanctuary supporting church as well as encouraging our members and friends to participate in vigils, conferences, being early responders to churches who may be further in the process than we are. Elk River is a community with a relatively large population of Central American and Mexican folks – many who come to work in potato fields. We are currently as church deep in learning, conversing, and moving toward declaring our inclusion and hospitality to all who need it.”
There are several resources that can help inform and guide congregations’ discussion on the Sanctuary movement.
- ISAIAH, a faith-based coalition of more than 100 member congregations in Minnesota, is a leader in organizing these efforts to provide support to immigrants facing deportation. Read about their efforts here. https://isaiahmn.org/2016/12/faith-communities-across-minnesota-declare-their-place-of-worship-sanctuary-for-immigrants-seeking-refuge/
- sanctuarynotdeportation.org provides a rapid response toolkit and a wealth of other information
- UCC statement on becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Church
- UCC statement on the sanctuary movement
- MNCUCC Immigrant Welcoming Resolution
- Memo from UCC’s General Counsel about legal considerations: Legal_Risks_Sanctuary_2017
The Conference holds in prayer those who are ready to serve as Sanctuary or Sanctuary Support churches and those who are in discernment on this question. And we hold in prayer also those who today live in fear of being deported and separated from their families. We remember holy scripture: “When an immigrant resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the immigrant. The immigrant who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the immigrant as yourself, for you were an immigrant in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)
FAITHFULNESS IN THESE DAYS
How is God calling me right now? How can I be most faithful?
I have had countless conversations over the last few months that have all contained some version of these heartfelt questions. Even in ‘normal’ times, these questions are important ones of faithful discernment. These days, though, there’s an urgency that is markedly different. Whether these questions are being asked by clergy, lay persons, Conference Minister colleagues, or national staff members, all of us seem overwhelmed with what feels like social upheaval to many of us. It’s causing us to carefully examine how we are being called in new ways in “such a time as this”. And we really want to get it right.
I celebrate this kind of intentional discernment of our individual and collective calls to service and discipleship. It’s deep, important, faithful work in which all of us should engage. Especially now. Because this is indeed a time that needs us to bring our best and whole selves.
Less than two weeks into a new administration in the White House, we are being bombarded by new policies and attitudes that assault many of the bedrock values of our nation and core tenets of our faith. It’s enough to make your head spin……..and your heart literally ache.
So what are we to do? How are we to respond as people of faith in this time? And how can we tend to our souls along the way?
Here are some things to consider:
- Choose your issue(s) and be steadfast about them. None of us can be passionate and authentic advocates on every single issue that touches our hearts. We can try, but exhaustion will quickly get the best of us and we’ll inevitably fall short. Figure out what you’re most passionate about, or what most deeply affects your community, and concentrate your efforts there.
- Don’t try to go it alone. This is a time for all of us to strengthen our networks, build new collaborations in our communities, and leave our “lone ranger” selves behind. Who else in your community cares about the same issue? What other church can you partner with? Who are the colleagues you can turn to for strength and encouragement along the way? And how can the Conference and our staff support you? This is a perfect time to strengthen your connections to colleagues and the wider church. I’d love to hear from you about the ways you need the Conference to accompany you in your work.
- Dig deep spiritually. Remember as you engage in whatever issues you choose that you are a person of faith. Our Facebook post recently listing Biblical references to immigrants and refugees got a huge amount of attention. That tells me that you’re hungry to meaningfully connect your faith to your passion for justice. Rely on the lessons of our faith and the disciplines of our faith to sustain your spirit over the long haul. Call on God’s wisdom and help daily, remembering that you are a partner with God in the work. Attending to your spirit is essential to remaining healthy and grounded in the life-giving but daunting work of doing justice and loving kindness. Don’t forget the third part of the equation: walk humbly with God. (Micah 6:8)
- Build some bridges. These are tumultuous times. Acrimony seems on the rise in our country…and perhaps we see that close-up in our churches, our communities, and families. Find ways to make connections with those whose opinions differ from yours. Seek real understanding. Reflect in your own relationships the kind of community and mutual respect you long for in the world. Let it start with you.
Let us hold each other in unwavering prayer, as each of us discerns how it is that God is calling us in this unique and challenging moment. Be faithful. Be brave. Be loving. Be the Church!
With you on the journey,
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister
Shari Prestemon, our Conference Minister, released the following statement at a press conference the morning of Monday, January 30, 2017:
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.” (Psalm 122:6-9)
In just a few days, I will depart for Israel-Palestine with 11 others from the Minnesota Conference. Together we will embark on a sacred journey to that cradle of three Abrahamic faiths…and a region riddled with conflict and complexity.*
While there, our days will be filled with visits to the holy sites of the land: Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Galilee and Nazareth, Jericho, the River Jordan, and much more. But as important and inspiring as these experiences will be, I suspect the most transformative moments will come from our interactions with the “living stones” of Israel-Palestine: Jews, Christians, and Muslims who are the people of this complicated, beautiful, and divided place, and who daily navigate a twisted web of political, social, and religious realities. Peace in that “holy land” is far distant; security is a mirage built by walls and check-points. And true justice for many there is still just a dream.
The prayer of Psalm 122 for peace and security within the hallowed walls of Jerusalem is still a poignant one today for those who claim Israel and Palestine as their rightful home. It is also a prayer, it strikes me, that we in the United States would do well to pray in these times for our own nation and peoples.
As a new leader prepares to step into the Presidency, our nation is sorely divided…by politics, by fear, by clashing world-views and stark racism. Genuine and deep peace eludes us, as well. The path to our security is a constant source of disagreement, one that often comes at the expense of our neighbor’s justice. And the common good is often sacrificed on the altars of greed and self-interest.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem. Pray for the peace of our nation and world. Pray for the sake of all those who our faith demands we love as our neighbor. And strive to seek the good of all. These seem like ample prayers to ground and guide us in the new year now before us.
Shalom. Salaam. Peace.
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister
*Read the resolution passed by the 2015 Annual Meeting of the MN Conference about Israel-Palestine [here]. Please hold our Conference’s Sacred Journey participants in your prayers as they travel January 9-20.
Last month, I gathered with 500 other faith leaders from 20 diverse faith traditions to stand alongside the Water Protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota. At issue was the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which was routed to cut through sacred burial grounds of the Sioux tribe and underneath the Missouri River. It was a threat to the water supply of the area, and one more grievous offense in a long, historical string of them against our nation’s Indigenous peoples.
As first dawn broke that day, hundreds convened at the Oceti Sakowin camp, hunkered down in a crowded circle around the camp’s central fire. Amid songs and prayers and presentations, there came an invitation to the women to participate in the Women’s Water Ceremony, a daily ritual. About 20 of us lined up behind three tribal women, who led the small procession down to the distant Cannonball River, one of them carrying with her a golden pitcher of water.
As we moved along the dirt road, flanked on each side by flags of the various tribal nations represented in camp, we would stop seemingly at random. Toward the back of the procession, I couldn’t see why we were stopping at first, and found myself impatient with the slowness of our progress. Then I realized that we were pausing to provide a blessing… People who were just emerging from their tents and teepees for the day would approach us to request a blessing, and be splashed with water from the golden pitcher. And then we would proceed, blessing given, our steps marking a path made more holy by the encounters.
At last we reached our destination. One by one we stepped down a small, rickety dock perched out over the river to toss tobacco from our left hand and pour water in with our right hand. Each of us lifted prayers of our hearts, thanksgiving for God’s Creation. And then we lined ourselves up along the river’s bank, faces to the water, hands raised to the heavens, to offer final prayers before making our way back to camp.
I realized something that morning that I confess to you today: I am often too hurried and impatient to make room for the sacred along the way. I hasten from one thing to the next, eager to finish my tasks, too seldom taking pause to recognize the blessings all around me. But for our Native brothers and sisters at Standing Rock, it’s all about honoring the inherently sacred nature of everything and everyone around us .
The struggle at Standing Rock is an environmental fight, to be certain. But for our Native brothers and sisters, it is first and foremost a matter of deep spirituality. This fight at Standing Rock is about protecting what is thoroughly sacred to the Native peoples, in a way that most of us outside Native spirituality find it difficult to fully comprehend. But on that day last month I experienced what it’s like to see each step, each bit of ground under our feet, each drop of flowing water and each interaction with the other as the truly sacred opportunity each represents. And I was blessed along the journey.
We progress in these weeks through the holy season of Advent, stepping ever closer to the miracle of God’s birth among us. My prayer is that we might move more mindfully and prayerfully through these days, taking time to honor all that is sacred in our lives and in our world, making room for the holy to break into our hurried routines along the way. And may you find profound blessing and abundant hope at each step of the journey.
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister
Note: We give thanks for dozens of MN Conference UCC clergy and lay persons who stood with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock over the last several months. Read an update about what’s happening at Standing Rock here: http://www.ucc.org/news_standing_rock_water_protectors_celebrate_victory_stay_vigilant_12052016
This morning we awakened to the news that Donald Trump is our nation’s President-Elect. The reaction of many has been a visceral one. For some, this election result feels like a capitulation to an anger and fear and hatred in our country that is unfathomable and unacceptable. And yet for others this election marks the beginning of a time they hope will “make America great again”. Both views are now undeniably part of this nation’s worn and tattered fabric. Both views will be present in our church pews across the Minnesota Conference this Sunday.
Last week I reflected on the stark divisions this campaign season has clearly revealed for us, and the jagged social wounds we as Church must address:
We have a moral and theological imperative to be fully engaged in the healing, restorative work our nation now so desperately needs. As a prophetic church, we must be willing to name and confront the social sins — racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc.—that this campaign season has so harshly laid bare. But at the same time we as Church have to find a way to make real our own theological language of grace, forgiveness, and redemption. We need to call upon that extravagant love we proudly profess to begin stitching the gaping wounds of our nation back together. And while doing it we need to be willing to see the sacred and inherently good image of God in every single person we encounter, even and especially when the person in front of us is the person with whom we have adamant disagreement.
The time for this sacred work is now. Whatever else may have seemed to radically shift overnight, this much remains…Our God is a God whose love excludes no one, whose power and possibility are timeless, whose care for us endures. Our God is a God who sees each and every one of us – immigrant, LGBTQ & straight, black and white and brown, differently-abled, male and female, rich and poor, conservative and liberal – as precious beyond measure. Our faith is a Resurrection Faith that proclaims stubborn hope amid the deepest despair, a faith resilient enough to navigate the peaks and valleys of our lives. And our United Church of Christ is a multi-racial, multi-cultural, anti-racist, open and affirming, accessible to all, justice-loving, peace-making, extravagantly loving kind of Church.
That is exactly the kind of Church we must fully and passionately be now. A verse in the lectionary assigned for this Sunday warns us to not be idle and offers this commission: “Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.” (2 Thessalonians 3:13)
And this is my prayer for us all on this day. Let us not be weary. Let us not allow our anger, our despair, or our fear to squelch our passion or to dim the light we must dare to shine on injustice and wrong. Let us work daily to embody the kind of vision for our world and for our neighbor that our scriptures call us to boldly build. Let us be the Church that Christ implores us to be— yesterday, today, and tomorrow. And let us overwhelm the light of day with unquenchable love, undaunted purpose, and unbounded grace.
With you in this sacred work-
Reverend Shari Prestemon, Conference Minister