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UUA and UCC consider being ‘Partners in Justice’

In historic Boston meeting, denominations plan closer public witness ties, collaboration in other areas.
By Christopher L. Walton
12.3.12

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UUA President Peter Morales and UCC President Geoffrey Black

UUA President Peter Morales (left) and UCC President Geoffrey Black held late November talks at the UUA headquarters in Boston. (Dea Brayden)

Leaders of the United Church of Christ spent two days in Boston at the end of November exploring ways to collaborate with the Unitarian Universalist Association and its congregations. It was the first time a delegation of UCC leadership had come to Boston to discuss how the two liberal denominations might partner with one another.

The UCC plans to join the UUA in promoting the Standing on the Side of Love campaign's "30 Days of Love" initiative, and the two denominations agreed to extend the Our Whole Lives comprehensive sexuality curricula, which the UUA and the UCC developed together 15 years ago. They also discussed the possibility of collaborating on programs promoting literacy and combating climate change.

"We have common values, and we come out of a common tradition," said UUA President Peter Morales during a chapel service he led Tuesday, November 27, along with the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, general minister and president of the UCC.

In his remarks in the chapel service, Black alluded to that common tradition in the congregational churches of New England, which split into Unitarian and orthodox Congregational denominations in the early nineteenth century. "We're turning a journey away from each other to a journey toward each other," he said. "Our hope is to discover what we might share as partners on our journey.” Six senior staff of the UCC, a liberal Protestant denomination with 1.2 million members, traveled to Boston from the UCC's Church House in Cleveland, Ohio, for the November 27–28 meetings.

The meeting was part two of a dialogue begun in February 2012, when four UUA leaders visited the UCC in Cleveland. In June, Black accepted Morales's invitation to attend the UUA Justice General Assembly in Phoenix, Ariz., joining UUs in worship, touring the Maricopa County “Tent City” jail with religious leaders, and speaking at the candlelight vigil outside the jail.

At the Boston meeting, some of the collaboration took the form of peer-to-peer information sharing. For example, the UUA's ministerial education and settlement staff described tools used to evaluate ministerial candidates. The Rev. Holly MillerShank, UCC team leader of Ministerial Excellence, Support, and Authorization, expressed interest in the recently completed "UUA Strategic Plan for Professional Ministries" and a tool the UUA has developed to measure ministerial competencies. The UCC team was also interested to learn about the UU Ministers Association, a professional organization that has no analog in the United Church of Christ.

UUA staff asked about the UCC credentialing process for ministers ordained by other faith communities, acknowledging that there are UCC ministers who seek positions in federated, multidenominational, or UUA-affiliated congregations. They also expressed interest in the UCC leadership development programs described by the Rev. Loey Powell, newly appointed UCC executive associate to the general minister and president for Leadership Development and Diversity Initiatives.

UCC leaders described their "Mission 1" campaign, an 11-day social justice initiative in November 2011 to feed the hungry and raise money and awareness about food injustice. The success of the campaign—which engaged more than half of the UCC's 5,600 churches, raised more than $370,000, collected nearly 1.5 million food items, and generated 37,000 letters to Congress about food justice—has energized the UCC, reported the Rev. Dr. J. Bennett Guess, executive minister of Local Church Ministries.

The initiative was appealing, Guess said, because it was concrete, time-limited, directly related to something the churches were already doing, and transparent: real-time tallies of donations collected and letters sent appeared on the "Mission 1" website, inspiring engagement. The online tallies meant that the success—or failure—of the campaign would be immediately evident to participants.

The UCC now plans a similar all-church campaign related to one of its long-term justice commitments every 18 months, with a 50-day "Mission 4/1 Earth" environmental stewardship campaign scheduled to launch April 1, 2013, running from Easter Monday to Pentecost Sunday.

The UCC offered to plan a joint campaign with the UUA for Fall 2014, possibly around literacy.

Plans to collaborate

After meeting with Public Witness and Resource Development staff from the UUA, the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, said the UCC plans to participate in the UUA's "30 Days of Love" campaign in 2013, which the UUA's Standing on the Side of Love program sponsored last year between Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Valentine's Day.

Jaramillo said the UCC and the UUA will seek a scientific evaluation of the Our Whole Lives sexuality curricula with the American Public Health Association. UUA Curriculum Director Judith Frediani will travel to Cleveland next year to meet with UCC leaders to review the agreement that launched OWL 15 years ago, and the two denominations will seek ways to extend the program further into secular educational settings.

Jaramillo also said that the UUA and UCC are looking at sharing a social justice intern focused on climate change.

The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson, minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, said the UCC plans to join the UUA as a member of Religions for Peace, one of the UUA's longstanding interfaith partner organizations. She also said the UCC would explore working more closely with the UUA's United Nations Office.

At the end of the November visit, the leaders of the two denominations agreed to keep in touch with regular phone conferences and discussed an annual in-person meeting. The UCC has invited Morales to attend and speak at its General Synod in June 2013, in Long Beach, Calif.

Thompson, who manages the UCC's ecumenical and interfaith partnerships, told UU World that the UCC has a variety of models for its work with other faith groups. The UCC is celebrating a 25-year ecumenical partnership with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), with whom it freely shares ministers. It is in "full communion" with three other mainline Protestant denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Reformed Church in America. And it participates in "dialogue tables" facilitated by the National Council of Churches with Roman Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, which enable faith groups to learn about each other without any expectation around reconciling their differences.

A relationship with the UUA falls somewhere between an ecumenical partnership and an interfaith partnership, Thompson said. There are already more than two dozen federated, union, or multi-denominational congregations that have ties with the UUA and the UCC.

Guess, who said he hoped the emerging partnership between the UUA and UCC would eventually include a public statement defining the partnership, suggested that the two denominations might declare themselves "partners in justice."

During a conversation with the UUA's Leadership Council—the senior staff of the UUA's staff groups—the UCC and UUA leaders described changes in each denomination's governance models. Near the end of that conversation, Black told the group, "I don't know whether we can have this same kind of conversation with anyone else—people who really understand what we're struggling with. It's wonderful to be sitting around a table with people who get our blues!"

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