Earlier this summer I had the privilege of joining the Iowa delegation to the Twenty-Ninth General Synod of the United Church of Christ. More than two-thousand delegates and visitors gathered in Long Beach, California to practice being church together. If you’ve never been to Synod before and seen the full diversity of our denomination on display, maybe you underestimate how much work being the United Church of Christ really is!
After all, we aren’t just a church full of Midwestern Congregationalists as I’m prone to think when I’m not in touch with the Wider Church. As a teacher of UCC history and polity I know the diversities in our church better than most people do, but even I was surprised on the Synod floor to witness a vigorous debate between the Samoan churches of Hawaii and the Samoan churches of California. I felt like I’d walked into the wrong house and interrupted a domestic dispute. And then was asked to cast a vote on which party was in the right! The truth is that in the United Church of Christ we have a great variety of people and congregations that betray any simple stereotypes.
Sure, we have Massachusetts liberals. But we also have churches that read scripture pretty literally. They’re called ECOTs, which means that they identify themselves as Evangelical, Conservative, Orthodox, or Traditional. Who knew? They fed me dinner one night. We have Latino congregations in North Carolina. We have Black churches in Chicago, Illinois and Athens, Alabama. We have Pentecostals speaking in tongues on the West Coast (and, yes, a good number of Unitarians out there too). We have entire parishes full of LGBT people. Native American congregations in South Dakota. Nordic congregations in the other Dakota. UCC churches in Florida and Arizona full of Methodist snowbirds.
Going to General Synod and expecting to meet a bunch of snooty Congregationalists is like going to the Iowa State Fair and expecting only to find farmers. Walking around the convention hall amazed at the great multitudes, I thought often of that phrase that we repeat every Sunday here at Plymouth Church, where I am a minister, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey you are welcome here.” It occurred to me that it was just a new way of saying what we’ve been saying since the UCC was created in 1957. The church exists “that they may all be one.” Praise be to God.
–Cameron Barr, Minister at Des Moines Plymouth Congregational UCC