Our Common Life

I am sitting in the cafeteria of Elmhurst College drinking coffee and talking with a young woman about her experience as a second-year seminarian. I’ve been here at Elmhurst for two days attending the National Gathering for the UCC Coalition for LGBT Concerns and I have to say– I am beginning to overload on inspiration. For example, the young woman I am talking with right now is on the staff of a new church start in Philadelphia. Her fledgling congregation just moved from the abandoned liquor store they were renting to a two room storefront. She talks of her church with an energy and enthusiasm that makes you think it was the Crystal Palace (before foreclosure, of course). Several tables away from me are two transgender women. Sometime in their mid-fifties they each made the perilous journey from the gender identity that wasn’t theirs to the one that was; one can only imagine the difficulty of that journey. At another table is a young man who spoke vehemently in my workshop yesterday. His tirade was that UCC churches had to do a better job of promoting ethnic diversity. I asked where he was from. “Riverside UCC in New York City,” he said with pride in his voice. I told him that I agreed with him about ethnic diversity but he needed to pastor a church in rural Iowa before he got too carried away about it. You could tell he wasn’t sure what I was talking about. We later had a wonderful conversation about the differences in congregations across the country.

Gathered here at Elmhurst are about a hundred people all with one focus– embracing a worldview of radical inclusion.  Although we are a typical UCC gathering– a little disorganized, painfully conscious of our liberal theology, and occasionally insisting on breaking into verses of “This Little Light of Mine”– we are gathered as people who take seriously the words of Jesus “love one another as I have loved you.”

Perhaps the love one experiences in a group like this is the kind of love Jesus was actually talking about– a fierce love that never gives up. There are many people here who have never given up: the transgender individuals, the pastors who can’t marry LGBTQ couples in their churches, the openly gay pastors turned away in their search-and-call process. And yet, the atmosphere is one of optimism and hope and humor.

The young seminarian I was talking with has hurried off to another table. I can see her talking animatedly– no doubt sharing her boundless enthusiasm for her new church. Like I said, I am overdosing on inspiration. Not a bad thing, really.

Jane Willan, Moderator of Board of Directors of Iowa Conference UCC and Pastor of Burlington Zion UCC

4 Responses to Our Common Life

  1. John says:

    Increasing ethnic diversity seems a very appropriate goal to pursue where there are communities with diverse ethnic groups. Where such community diversity is absent or only minimally present, however, it is meaningless. I and my spouse grew up in essentially white homogeneity in a rural Midwestern state, only very rarely meeting Native Americans or African- Americans, and then certainly never back in the white, Northern-European descended communities we resided in. Ethnically diverse persons were mostly the focus of missionaries visiting to raise funds.

    I fancy that in many rural churches, despite our lofty goals and best efforts, that the occasional ethnically diverse visitor would sense being out of place as a curiosity or alien. Perhaps to prepare to pursue ethnic deversity, one must experience visiting a church in which one is virtually alone as an ethnic representative amidst a homogenous majority. The situation can be similar for persons with handicapping conditions.

    • Jane Willan says:

      it’s true–those of us who want to “pursue ethnic diversity” really have no idea what it feels like to be on the minority side. Gaining experience as “the only one” might be a requirement for any pastor who wants to create a congregation that welcomes all people.

  2. John Chaplin says:

    Thanks Jane for giving us a dose of the National Gathering for those of us “back home”.
    I haven’t been in attendance for eons…but have fond memories of past gatherings.
    I especially miss the humor segment that is so prevalent during those events!

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