General Synod Reflection: Naleen Andrade
Expect the Unexpected: My Church Encourages Social Activism
I attended the General Synod as a member-in-discernment (MID) enrolled at the Chicago Theological Institute (CTS) to become an ordained UCC minister. My expenses were paid by a Brown Endowment scholarship from the United Church Funds, the UCC affiliated investment firm that manages the Brown endowment. In two weeks, I will have completed a year of serving as pastor to Kahikolu Congregational Church, where I have been a member since childhood. Yesterday, I shared with my congregation some of the highlights and conclusions of my experiences in Baltimore, much of which are contained in this article.
Attending the 2017 General Synod activities made me remember what I had almost forgotten: that the UCC is a progressive Church whose head, Jesus Christ, was and is a social, political and religious activist! It made me remember that in my youth, I had come of age in the 1970’s of South Kona, Hawai‘i, when institutional racism imposed upon working class Hawaiian families limited our social mobility. Back then, it was my belief in Jesus Christ that gave me the courage to defy the ethnic, cultural and class limitations that we confronted.
I learned in Baltimore that the UCC at its best is a Church whose influence, guided by the Holy Spirit, has the potential and promise to reach out into every household, neighborhood, community, city, society and nation on this planet. It showed me the multitude of ways that we as a Church, united by our belief and faith in God, Christ and the Holy Spirit can change the world into a place of justice, peace, and love. In the following paragraphs, I share some of the ways in which I saw power (i.e., the tool that God gives us) and influence (i.e., how we choose to use that power) transform lives, and bring Christ, the Holy Spirit and God’s world into being.
Worship Services that Linked us to God
Each day, I was a part of a worship service in which over 2,700 men, women and youth, who were filled with belief in our Triune God, lifting our voices, hearts, and spirits in praise, song, words of worship, and prayers of hope for fellowship and a new world. It was the first time I experienced worship on this scale, sitting beside a multitude of individuals whom Christ had called to be disciples, apostles, prophets and servant leaders to a multicultural humanity.
Hundreds listened to the words of the pastors who shared the word of God shaped by their life experiences and wisdom that replenished the seeds of faith and understanding of our God that grow within us. Each worship service was shaped by culture and ethnicity; history from the UCC, American and world history; and, personal testimonies of the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst that make the mundane sacred.
The music established a transcultural and inter-spiritual bridge within and among us and with us and God. It gave me a glimpse of the Divine pathos—the emotions of God that filled the prophets bringing us to edges of an almost incomprehensible joy, fear, awe, humility, grace and gratitude. Each service built on the previous music while introducing new cultural traditions. The pride and power of the bluegrass and folk music of the Appalachian Mountains and prairie lands swelled in my heart till it seemed it would burst with joy. The soulful pathos of the African-American gospel singing made me weep; wondering how such suffering could bring such resilience and hope. The joyful sensuality of the Mestizo rhythms in a Latin hymn of praise that generated images of family gatherings and la familia (“the family”) bonded by love of God. The faith-filled cadence of Hebrew Psalms set to music that rose out of our mouths and hearts to heaven beckoning God to bring forth the rivers that flow toward the City of God. For a moment, I think we could empathize with how David felt as he sang to the Lord.
Worship at the General Synod taught me that a worship service can be as creative as the people who are part of our Church; and each part—the scriptures readings, sermons, music, dance, and testimony—works in concert to bring us closer to God. Each worship service was paradoxically culturally unique, yet universal in its ability to move every believer into a state of grace with our God and with each other—God was the glue that enabled people to rise above their self-involved worlds and cultures to become children of God.
Governance and Polity in the UCC, and the Kuleana (“responsibility”) of Local Churches
How does our National Church generate policies that should govern our Conferences and Local Church—the 3 essential parts that make up the UCC: One National Church also called the UCC; the 38 State/Regional Conferences, and the hundreds of Local Churches that are organized within Associations and other organizational structures at the Conference and local level. For example, the Hawaii Conference is made up of 20,000 Christians within 130 local churches that are organized within 5 associations on 6 islands. The UCC is our national church. That simple organizational structure is one I did not fully understand, until I attended the General Synod. The understanding about polity—how the UCC is governed—was taught in an intensive week-long course, and in workshops and presentations throughout the week. So many of us who are licensed ministers and lay leaders needed to experience and learn this governing structure and process and teach it to our congregations so that they can begin to know and understand that we are not merely small congregations but part of a larger church, conference, associations and councils that can help every church—regardless of size—to attain its mission and purpose for Christ.
The early morning Conference Caucus meetings in which strategy, tactics and information was exchanged; committee meetings in which resolutions were debated, edited/revised, and finalized; and the 3.5 hour plenary sessions where resolutions were debated, new motions proposed, and final voting by several delegates showed the elegance of Robert’s Rules of Order and representative democracy in action. Said another way, the plenary sessions were led by a Moderator and Assistant Moderator who listened and guided every delegate so that every voice and message was heard. Remarkably, the process allowed the Holy Spirit to teach every listener a new and unanticipated perspective, new data, emotional testimony pro and con, and within the diverse voices emerged resolutions that were passed because they contained a framework within which each local church could choose its path to fulfill Micah’s prophecy. And, those resolutions that were not passed (e.g., the disclosing the names of birth parents of adopted children) fell to the challenge of new advocates and activists to discern more information to address the unanswered questions and concerns of this complex and complicated resolution. The governance of the UCC and its Conferences within the context of its Local Churches is imminently fair and faithful to one of its founding laws: the UCC recommends and the Local Churches accept, reject, modify and adopt, and ultimately govern. Within this principle, I learned a fundamental principle: To govern in this manner, every local church must fully understand the process of the General Synod Plenary Sessions and how the resolutions are generated and passed. If local churches are not aware of this information then they are creating local governance that is incomplete in its formation and subject to personal biases, devoid of the Holy Spirit’s process.
The 2 keynotes speakers were people who walked the talk and shared their wisdom by the testimony of their lives and the hard-won successes they gained through their struggles and shared their wisdom and inspiration with all of us. Glennon Doyle, a bestselling author of the book The Love Warrior, gave the quote that defined the social-political activism of the UCC. An activism that is sorely needed in our nation today. She was asked how does America deal with the divisiveness coming out of our national government to keep immigrants out with bans and barriers and a partisanship in Congress that has forgotten all Americans—especially the poor and vulnerable. She said that the UCC and other progressive leaders needed to begin getting as loud as the current leaders [in Washington DC] because, “In the absence of loud, loving leadership, people will follow a fool!” Aaron Mair, is the first African-American President of the Sierra Club, our national organization that fights to protect the environment and earth. He spoke of his 30 years of ecological activism with an elegance and erudition that made your heart swell with hope that among us are leaders with the ability to change the world and reverse the ravages that man and industry is continuing to inflict upon our planet. And, he framed it as a cause for Christ and God the Creator of all.
The UCC as a Church of Social-Political Activism
Hundreds of attendees challenged my senses with their walk-the-talk, in-your-face social-political activism. LGBT lifestyles were openly expressed with a conscious effort to make their existence not merely known and tolerated, but understood, familiar and accepted. A group of Native American youth who risked their lives to protect the water of the Dakotas and all the earth received their UCC Award with a muted passion that showed us, their elders, the dignity of their character and the courage of their actions. During all this activity, hundreds of UCC leaders and attendees marched in the city to protest the immigration ban. And, our youth were magnificent in their faith and energy to change the world for Christ. It gave me joy to see their leadership and faith that I know from experience will transform our future for the better.
Finally, a sacred moment on the morning of July 4, 2017, the final day of the conference. All of us who made up the Hawaii delegation led by our Conference Moderator and now Acting Conference Minister, Reverend Iese Tuuao, went onto the Plenary floor and performed an Indigenous Hawaiian and Christian blessing and release ceremony to honor our Conference Minister, Reverend Dr. Charles Buck, who was stunned not knowing that we had planned the ceremony. Pualani Muraki did the opening chant that asked permission and gave thanksgiving for us to perform the ceremony and explained our reasons to be there to honor Rev Buck. Then Kahu Ken Makuakane chanted Papahanaumoku in the kepakepa style naming our archipelago and the islands making up the Hawaii Conference that Rev Buck has served during his tenure. Delegate Isaiah Kaauwai then translated the chant for the 2,000 plus audience who were hushed from the moment Pualani began to oli. Finally, as all of us laid our hands upon Rev Dr. Charles Buck, Kahu Makuakane said the pule—a prayer of release that bonded us together with our Conference Kahu and his family with aloha and our immutable bond through Christ. When we said, “Amen!” there followed a moment of hushed silence, followed by a standing ovation in honor of Kahu Buck.
In sum, the 2017 UCC General Synod renewed my spirit of activism and reaffirm why the UCC was the Church that God let me be born into and the Church God chose for me to answer my call as a pastor. The General Synod opened my senses, mind, heart and spirit to a new kind and level of freedom and justice that I had not experienced. It showed me the possibilities yet to be explored and pioneered that could unlock the obstacles to justice so that we might find and sustain the path to peace. And, it revealed to me that while we begin at the level of our Local Church, if we who are ministers and lay leaders within our local churches can bring to every member the breadth and depth of our Hawaii Conference and our National Church—the extent of their aloha for each church and member, and the unharnessed power and influence that God has given us. Working in concert, our local churches, associations, councils, Hawai‘i Conference and UCC, which together make up our UCC denomination and Church bring to life the prophecy of Micah—
…To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly and completely with your God…Micah 6:8
- Naleen Andrade, Member In Discernment