by Erik Kendall
If you would have asked me how General Synod was prior to writing this, you probably wouldn’t have gotten the best response. Things weren’t going as I expected. There were amendments being proposed to do away with the Collegium of Officers, in which the General Minister and the Executive Officers are peers, and change it to a CEO model, where everyone reports to the General Minister and President. There was much discussion on how we are already living into this model, but we just needed to vote on the changes to make them official. This bothered me the most because this proposal was voted down at the 30th General Synod and they implemented it anyways. There were a few snafus along the way that upset many, and the responses from the National Church were mostly “Thank you” with a smile, with an apology in one situation that seemed insincere and like it was just to get things moving along. After four days of this, I felt very discouraged and disconnected. I was so distracted by this disconnection that I really didn’t get much from the keynote speakers or the worship services, which were all really very good. Then something happened. After leaving worship on Monday night, we stepped out of the Plenary Hall to take the escalators up and the Catawba College Singers were out in this lobby area singing “He Never Failed Me Yet.” This caught my attention and I couldn’t walk away. I had goose bumps and I felt all of the heaviness lift away. It was at that moment that I realized it was an impromptu intervention. Spirit had found me when I least expected it and when I need it the most. I was away from all the screens and talk of resolutions and church business and planned worship. I stood there, with many others, and listened to them sing about 5-6 songs. This was a turning point for me.
Now that I’m back home, I’ve had time to reflect. I realize that as I look back, maybe it wasn’t meant to be the experience I wanted, but what I needed. It was a reminder that the work we have to do is hard work, but it’s meaningful and necessary. It’s not always going to be fun and uplifting and we will not always get instant gratification. Sometimes the reward comes later. One example is when Aaron Mair of the Sierra Club spoke about Environmental Racism. There was a study in 1987 that was released by the United Church of Christ on Toxic Wastes and Race. This study demonstrated a direct correlation between the placement of toxic waste facilities and communities of poverty and/or color. The information of this study has been used in legislation and court cases to make positive change for these impacted communities. He even mentioned that he would not be where he is today and he would not have been able to make the impacts he has without this study that was commissioned by the 14th General Synod in 1983.
During this General Synod, we passed many great resolutions that we hope have meaningful impact. In all, we voted on 18 resolutions and amendments, and all but 2 were passed. As delegates and representatives of the General Synod, we speak to the churches and conferences of our denomination to live out what is being called “The 3 Great Loves”… love of children, love of neighbor, and love of creation, and to build a Just World for All.
For love of children, we passed resolutions on things like advocating for the rights of children living under Israeli military occupation, and speaking out against corporal punishment of children in schools, juvenile detention centers, and child-caring facilities.
For love of neighbor, we passed resolutions on things like ending the US Embargo on Cuba, becoming an immigrant welcoming church, supporting adult survivors of child abuse and neglect, affirming the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ boycott of Wendy’s, advocating for a $15 minimum wage, living wages, and job creation, and recognizing and studying gun violence as a public health emergency.
Since we’re on the topic of loving our neighbor, one resolution spoke towards the injustices that persons with disabilities face. In this country, we allow persons with disabilities to be treated differently. Our minimum wage laws allow persons with disabilities to be paid a tiny fraction of what others make, sometimes low as $0.75 per hour. They are sometimes denied a free and appropriate education. Not all of our camps in the UCC are welcoming to persons with disabilities. Many disabled people cannot get affordable and equal healthcare, and many rely on Medicaid for their medical care. Current pending legalization looks to punish those with preexisting conditions and/or strip the Medicaid system. There are many health disparities, one that causes persons with disabilities not to be eligible for organ donations. Many people experience situations with police brutality and death by police force due to the to the intersectionality of race and disability and/or mental health issues. To address these issues, we passed a resolution calling for disability justice in our churches and for our churches to work towards disability justice in our communities.
For love of creation, we passed a resolution calling on the church to raise its prophetic voice regarding the urgency of healing the climate of the earth, our home and God’s gift for the future of all life, both human and all other life.
We also realize that as we work to build a multiracial, multicultural church, we have some work to do of our own. It’s time to admit and do something about the fact that many of our clergy do not take the necessary training to understand cultural diversity and sensitivity, and institutional racism; and the fact that many congregations in the United Church of Christ exclude candidates to authorized ministerial positions on the basis of race, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, and gender expression. To address these issues, we passed resolutions to establish procedures for racial and cultural diversity training for authorized ministers, and to affirm and support the authorized ministers of under-represented clergy in local congregations.
What was most inspiring was the involvement of the UCC Youth. They were extremely active in voicing how things impact them and why certain resolutions were so important. There was one instance where multiple groups of youth were speaking about gun violence and their experiences. A group from Chicago was sharing how gun violence negatively impacts them on a daily basis. One young lady stated that she has lost 5 or 6 friends due to gun violence, her most recent loss was because her friend was in a car and someone drove up and shot her friend in the head. A young man explained that he has to take the city bus because he’s too afraid to walk home from school and they can’t even play outside in their neighborhood because the gun violence is so bad. These stories were absolutely heart wrenching. There was another group that was explaining the active shooters drills they have to go through at school and how that impacts them. A delegate went up to the mic shortly after and dismissed her experience saying that her explanation of the active shooter drills would have never happened because there are rules in place to prevent those experiences. It bothered me that someone would discount her experience simply because they hadn’t experienced it. Sometimes I feel that I overthink things, so I am apprehensive to speak up, and this got the best of me. But worry not, Spirit was at work. The following day another delegate went to the mic and called him out on it and spoke up for the youth. Then another youth went to the mic and firmly scolded us for treating them like children and trying to correct them. She demanded that they are not just the future of our church, but they are the church right now. People across the entire Plenary Hall leapt to their feet in applause for her bravery and courage in speaking out. It was at that moment that I realized that our beloved church is in good hands, but we must pay attention. As this young lady put it, we can’t just listen to them, we must hear them. It is my hope that in future General Synod sessions, the UCC Youth that are not already delegates will be given voice without vote privileges to ensure their voices continue to be heard.
It’s no secret that the greater church is working with a structure that no longer works for us and is facing financial struggles, like many of our local churches and conferences. We implemented changes to address the reporting structure of the national church. These changes will make it so that our General Minister and President and the Executive Ministers will be able to more easily fine tune and adjust things in the National setting as our denomination continues to adjust to an ever-changing world. These changes also setup a new framework for covenantal giving and implementing fundraising best practices as the National setting of our denomination continues to work on an ever-shrinking budget.
We also passed resolutions so that we are in full communion with the United Church of Canada, and on enhancing support of the churches and institutions that were founded as a result of the anti-racism work of the American Missionary Association and the Afro Christian Churches.
So… General Synod has spoken, but it cannot make all of these actions happen, and that’s where we come in. What do we do now? Do we continue doing what we have always done? Or do we put these words into action? That is the decision we will need to make. We have an obligation to look at these resolutions and decide which ones we will move forward with. We should pray and discern and let the Spirit guide us. It is up to us to live out the call of General Synod to the 3 great loves of children, neighbor, and creation, and to build a Just World for All.