Nick Benton's Corner: The UCC's New President
Whither the role of religion and spirituality in the current roiling cultural soup that is America today? The Obama grass roots revolution of progressive values and the faith-infused notion of "hope," and the pushback from the still-solid religious right are at odds in an economy where one out of six are unemployed or underemployed, when a third of homeowners are sacked with mortgages that cost more than the value of their homes, and a third of households have at least one person residing within it that is out of work.
It is a social context that makes a little clearer the options that are out there regarding the public's yearning for overarching meaning and institutional bonding. They are broken into two basic camps when it comes to churches, synagogues and mosques.
At the risk of oversimplification, it can be asserted that, on the one hand, there are the institutions that appeal to duty, obedience and exclusion, and, on the other hand, there are those that are grounded in notions of community, connectivity and inclusion. In anxious and insecure times, both offer elements that appear appealing.
The former type, often demanding obedience to special knowledge bound up in sacred books or traditions, because of such demands, deny the validity of the latter type, altogether. The latter types, on the other hand, are open to and often attract refugees from the former who come to find them stifling. Also, the latter tend to attract more open-minded, questioning people who are looking to connect with something that is responsive to their spiritual needs and desire for community.
As a major representative of the latter type, the mainstream 1.2-million member Protestant denomination known as the United Church of Christ (UCC) made big headlines outside the religion pages of the major news media the last few years for the stand of its National Synod in unqualified support for gay marriage and later for being the denomination of choice of President Barack Obama.
The Obama story, of course, wound up centered on his provocative Chicago-based UCC minister, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, whose colorful comments made amid fiery sermons were carefully divined out of context and blown up on the national media platform by Obama's political enemies.
But in the context of Obama's historic victory last fall, and in the on-going push for genuine health care reform and other progressive causes, combined with the ongoing economic crisis, the UCC is now enjoying a revival of its own.
This comes in the context of the installation of a new national president of the UCC, the Rev. Geoffrey Black, last summer. The Rev. Black embodies the primary focus and thrust of the UCC in his own person: as an African-American, he was invited into the predominantly-Anglo UCC in the mid-1970s to serve as a pastor despite the fact he was, at the time, a member of a different denomination.
The welcoming of minorities of all types, and despite the religious traditions they come from, if any, is at the heart of the UCC's mission. The denomination took on major TV networks recently that refused to run its commercials suggesting that gay couples, for example, who are not welcome in some other churches, are welcome in the UCC.
The Rev. Black was in Washington, D.C. this week to meet leaders of the denomination's efforts in the nation's capital, and an exclusive interview with him on Capital Hill was offered to this writer.
During a lengthy conversation, he underscored the UCC's appeal to refugees of other theologically and socially-more unbending religious institutions, and to the "un-churched" who come looking for a spiritual connection and community.
Real community is especially in short supply in the current society, he noted, and the appeal of the UCC and its members can be found in their non-judgmental, open and affirming dispositions that acknowledge and touch the spiritual dimension connecting persons to not only a congregation, but to the spiritual grounding of all creation.
"We offer inclusion, hospitality and welcome to a public that may or may not know who we are yet, but if it did, would want to participate," he said