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The General Synod of the UCC meets every two years and its meeting dates often extend over the fourth of July. Many years there is jubilation on that day as the Synod winds down its business and we all look back, and some years it is more sobering, but always, there is beautiful diversity, a variety of faces and opinions and voices. Every Synod includes wonderful worship shared and courageous resolutions debated, and the ones that pass ring out prophetically and challengingly over time, speaking truth to culture and to church. There was the year, before it was the law, when we became the first mainline Protestant denomination to pass a resolution naming marriage equality for all as a central social and spiritual justice issue. There was that year when the then Senator Barak Obama spoke and the year when Martin Luther King spoke and the year when the UCC General Synod suspended business and went to stand in solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the grape workers in California as farm owners unleashed a campaign of violence and beatings against them for striking for living wages. This year…well, this was the year when some invited international Synod guests were denied visas by the US government and so were not able to be at Synod, the year when the denomination gave the Movement Makers Award to the Tribal Youth Council water protectors of Standing Rock—the year when the entire house rose in solidarity and ovation as the young people responded to their award with hope and determination and said together: We stand! With our brothers! With our sisters! We stand! With our people! For one nation! We stand! For water! For life! We stand! We stand! We stand!
This year youth also led the way in passing a resolution of witness urging the recognition of gun violence as a public health emergency. The entire Synod listened in tears as 16 year olds from Chicago asked for prayers of strength and wise action from us–their church–to stop the slaughter in the streets.
This year was the one when our denomination voted to become officially and consciously what we’ve always been in practice, an Immigrant Welcoming Church and as its first action took to the streets to protest the detention of Guillermo Recinos Morales, an artist seized on his way to work and held for the past three months by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In front of the ICE office and beside Guillermo’s family, our church called on the chief counsel to reopen Guillermo’s case so he can apply for asylum from the real danger waiting in his native El Salvador and so that he may remain with his wife, children, and grandchildren in Annapolis where he has lived and worked for many years. As our Justice and Witness Minister, Traci Blackmon addressed the crowd, she pulled no punches: “Jesus was an Afro-Semitic-Palestinian Jew, and his family took refuge in a foreign land. The way we are running things now, if Jesus was among us, we would put him in detention, too. This is our country and we must demand better of our government. There is room and space for everyone who wants a better life. We must rise. We must resist. We must repent. Not just for Guillermo, but for the sake of our own souls.”
This was the year when a resolution passed resoundingly entitled, “The Earth is the Lord’s and not ours to wreck” and included this statement: “Now is the time for clergy to speak from the pulpit about the moral obligation of our generation to protect God’s creation. Accepting that it is up to us – we the people – whether in the streets, at the State House, in the halls of power, with our phones and emails, by committing our time, financial resources and prayers – let us pour ourselves out to bend the moral arc of justice, with joy in our hearts, beauty in our sights, and hope for the children.” The Boston Globe picked up the resolution and wrote that “It appears to be the first formal action taken by a major denomination in response to the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate agreement.”
This was the year when one of our keynoters was Aaron Mair, the immediate past president of the Sierra Club, the first African American to serve in that capacity. He remembered that year, 1987 when the UCC Council on Race released its research findings in a document entitled, “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. He said, “This document was trans-formative,” he said. “For the first time, a national organization lifted up a data analysis to show how institutional racism was being played out in civil policy. That study asked the question: Why are toxic waste dumps placed in the neighborhoods of people with the least power to fight back? Why do the parks and preserves go to the affluent middle-class neighborhoods where they increase the value of the homes?” Mair’s personal story of environmental awakening and activism began when he settled his family in a working class neighborhood in Albany. N.Y., in the 1990s only to find that his home was “upwind from a trash incinerator,” which spewed particulate waste.”We saw increased rates of asthma, cancer and autoimmune disease, and my two oldest children developed symptoms of environmental asthma. I had to step forward into that breech.”
Mair reached out to major environmental organizations for help, but when he went to the Sierra Club of NYC, he was asked had he checked with the NAACP for help and they turned him away. He said, “They didn’t see anything but the color of my skin. They couldn’t see the issue as something they wanted to address.”
Nevertheless he persisted and went on to launch a successful protest movement against the waste incinerator, and eventually won a $1.6 million lawsuit and promptly gave the money to his community. After being elected president of the Sierra Club, Mair continued to work from the inside to help Sierrans and many others to come to grips with the fact that the roots of the North American environmental movement are hardly free of racism. To create John Muir’s beloved Yosemite National Park, he noted, Native Americans were moved from their ancestral lands. And then there was scientific racism, eugenics, that codified the idea that whites were better stewards of the land and some of its biggest proponents were the founders of the Sierra Club itself. Mair urged us–the UCC to continued to work to dismantle racism and to care for the environment. To thunderous applause, he took a selfie with the General Synod body, “You are a cutting edge of justice and inclusion. I pray you continue this investment in humanity. I stand here because you connected the dots.”
This was the year when our denomination stated that it has 3 great loves upon which the focus of our ministries as a denomination will center over the next two years until we meet again. Love for children, love for neighbor, and love for the environment. It reminded me of our three year plan—we here at UCG have stated that we have three great loves, too: love of spiritual practice, love of health and love for justice–racial, economic, and environmental. And it seems clearer every day that synod’s three great loves, our UCG three great loves and Micah 6:8’s three great loves are all of a piece, different shades of practice for a full and abundant life for all. For the Scripture asks: what does God however known require of us–but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly–three great loves. For we cannot honor the health and welfare of the most vulnerable or the spiritual formation of all who seek meaning as well as affordable housing and safety and racial equity without also caring for the Earth and the waters and the life of all—and we are called not just to look after humans and not just to look after Earth, but to grow spiritually so that the social and cultural beauty and particularity of the human family are understood and included as integrated aspects of the great love of the environment. “The wound of racism has resulted inevitably in wounds in the land, the country itself,” Wendell Berry posits. In short, there must be no wall of separation between our commitment to the environment and our work to dismantle racism and exclusion. Critical to our work as spiritual community is to speak courageously and prophetically to ourselves and within our culture to require equity for all humans and protection for the environment upon which rests the life of all.
There is something inherently hopeful in remembering that we are the people of the comma—that as disheartening as this time is for our world, we persist in faith and in celebration of the beauty of life and the possibilities for rebirth that remain when the community unites. The comma logo has long been the brand for the United Church of Christ–from that beautiful saying attributed to Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma. God is still speaking, A recent re-envisioning of the comma was unrolled at the Synod and here is what it looks like. I love that within that one comma symbolizing the continually unfolding revelation of grace that is God however known are three smaller sections within the one greatest Love–three great loves.
Ralph Waldo Emerson calls our oneness “the oversoul,” when he writes, “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty to which every part and particle is equally related, the eternal one. And this deep power and mystery, the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree, but the whole, of which these are shining parts, is the soul.” You and I may experience our oneness in the great oversoul when we are enjoying natural wonders in our environment, but we also may experience the depth of the oversoul when we consider that we are one and that the injustice of people drinking the water in Flint, Michigan, or the loss of native lands and waters that will be destroyed by a pipeline in Standing Rock, or the persons in our own town being threatened with violence because they live in brown or black bodies or our springs being threatened by pollution, climate change, and other human activities is done also to us. John Muir famously said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” But I was reminded at Synod as I looked around at our wonderful quirky, diverse and dedicated denomination, that of all the many great loves that you could say are held in the heart of God, there are perhaps a particular few that are placed before my path or yours in any given time and that invite us to respond–the next right thing–the person, the part of the environment, the spiritual practice– that tiny simple kindness or smallest gesture that calls to me to say courageously yes–right now. What about you? What keeps you up at night? What declaration of possibility can you make that has the power to transform the community and inspire you? Three great loves… three in one, and one in the many. Our calling and our opportunity. Amen.