The United Church of Christ Has Made a Difference!Posted: June 7, 2015
The United Church of Christ Has Made a Difference!
SLIDE 3: ORDAINED JUNE 5, 2015
On June 5th of 1975 I was ordained as a minister of the United Church of Christ. Next Saturday and Sunday we will commemorate that event with a “roast” and communion. But I don’t want this celebration to be about me, but rather the 58 years of ministry and witness of our United Church of Christ.
SLIDE 4: MERGER 1957
In 1957 the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Churches entered into a merger that formed the United Church of Christ. This was a truly historic occasion, that two denominations with very different ethnic backgrounds could manage to come together to form one Church. From our beginning, the United Church of Christ has been in the forefront of a prophetic ministry advocating for peace and social justice.
SLIDE 5: BILL GREEN’S VISION OF A UCC CHURCH IN THE TENNESSEE VALLEY
Bill Green as a very young man from a small United Church of Christ in East Central Alabama was invited to a conference on race relations held at the Florida Conference Center of the United Church of Christ. One of the presenters at that gathering was a young African American Pastor Andrew Young. If you haven’t heard Bill’s story I encourage you to ask him to repeat it to you. But as Bill testifies, that Conference opened his eyes and changed his life. And that is why, when he moved to Huntsville with Sara, he very much wanted to participate in creating a United Church of Christ in the Tennessee Valley. Indeed, our celebration this coming weekend is a tribute to Bill Green’s vision and perseverance.
SLIDE 6: RAY AND SHIRLEY BERRY
I also want to take this time to lift up the witness of our founding Pastor Ray Berry. Ray grew up in a small Christian Church in L.A., lower Alabama, and then he attended seminary at the Hartford Seminary Foundation, where his roommate was Andrew Young. I also want to note that Shirley received a degree from Hartford Seminary in Christian Education. When I was attending Trinity College, I became the legislative-aid to State Representative George Ritter, in whose District Hartford Seminary Foundation was located. In fact the Seminary and its faculty were major supporters of George and many progressive reform movements in Connecticut.
SLIDE 7: RAY WE NEED YOU IN SELMA
Ray Berry and his wife Shirley came to Huntsville to serve as the founding Pastoral couple of United Church. In 1965, fifty years ago, Ray received a phone call from his former roommate, Andrew Young, who had become Martin Luther King’s chief lieutenant, saying, “Ray we need you in Selma.” So Ray went, and he was on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, as a religious witness for Civil Rights and racial justice. Ray and Shirley finally left Huntsville to go serve as missionaries among the Lakota Sioux in South Dakota.
SLIDE 8: LAKOTA QUILT
And Shirley very generously donated a lovely quilt to United Church made by ladies of the Lakota Sioux. We auctioned off that quilt, which Beth bought, and now Beth would like to donate that quilt back to United Church, have a cabinet built, and put the quilt on display as a tribute to the ministry of Ray and Shirley Berry. Ray and Shirley represent a part of the history and witness of the United Church of Huntsville we do not want to lose.
SLIDE 9: WE HAVE COME OF AGE
The merger that formed the United Church of Christ was not without its rough patches. In 1970 I was sitting in on a national meeting of the Stewardship Council, and at lunch several of the people at the table were discussing the rivalries between the CC’s and the E&R’s during the merger. During a lull in the conversation I mentioned my interest in their conversation about the rivalry between the CC’s and E&R’s, because I had been confirmed after the merger, and all I could remember was the United Church of Christ. Several people at the Table looked at each other and asked, “Has it been that long already?” I believe that the United Church of Huntsville, founded after the merger, and my ministry of forty years in the UCC represent a milestone for our denomination. We have come of age.
SLIDE 10: ADVOCATE FOR JUST PEACE
Of course Civil Rights and Racial Justice have not been the only prophetic witness of the United Church of Christ. During the Vietnam War, our denomination was in the forefront of advocating for a just peace. And allow me to relate a story that might become lost, if it is not repeated and shared. On November 15th of 1969 the New Mobilization to End the War was sponsoring a march on Washington. They were expecting a half a million people, however, a week before the giant demonstration, they had run out of money to pay their phone bill and the Nixon Administration was putting pressure on the phone company to pull the plug on the phones. A potential disaster was shaping up.
The United Church of Christ stepped in with a loan to the New Mobilization to keep the phone bank open. It seems like a small gesture, but witness to the way of Jesus is often made up of small gestures. And the Nixon administration apparently thought it was a very important gesture, since the White House ordered the IRS to investigate the United Church of Christ with a view to taking away the church’s tax exempt status. A prominent Washington law firm stepped in to defend our denomination gratis, and the IRS backed off.
SLIDE 11: REV. DR. WILLIAM R. JOHNSON
<img Meanwhile the Golden Gate Association of the United Church of Christ made history on June 25th of 1972 by ordaining the Rev. Dr. William R. Johnson, the first openly gay minister in a mainline Church. This began a long struggle in our denomination for recognition and acceptance and finally affirmation of LGBT persons.
SLIDE 12: MARRIAGE EQUAITY
And then in 2005 at the General Synod in Atlanta, Georgia the United Church of Christ became the first mainline denomination to embrace equality in marriage. I remember at the time I said to myself, I probably won’t live long enough to see gay marriage accepted as the law of the land. But I think the action taken in Atlanta helped to move the rest of the nation to change our collective attitudes toward gay persons. And surprise, surprise on February 9th of 2015 here in the sanctuary of the United Church of Huntsville we made history, even here in Alabama, by celebrating the marriage of Joseph Parker and Brian Inzer. The United Church of Christ has made a difference!
SLIDE 13: HAROLD WILKE
There are many, many more ways our Church has made a difference in the world. And I think we have time to mention one more centered around the life of one of the great saints of our church, Harold Wilke, that I am just beginning to fully appreciate.
SLIDE 14: COULD DO EVERYTHING WITH HIS FEET
The Rev. Dr. Harold Wilke was born in 1905 without arms. His mother made the decision at the time that her third son would be able to do everything that his older brothers could do, who did have arms. A story is told of his mother that when Harold was about three he was down on the floor struggling to get into a shirt. A neighbor said to his mother, “Oh why don’t you help the poor dear.”
His mother through clenched teeth responded, “I am helping him.” Harold went on to learn how to do everything with his feet. He could do everything his older brothers could do except cut meat, and button his top collar button. Bill Green will testify that he sat at the dinner table with Harold Wilke, and watched him eat his dinner with his feet. He learned to drive a car, and he pastored a church. I have heard accounts of Harold baptizing babies with his feet.
SLIDE 15: AMERICAN DISABILITIES ACT
Harold was arrested during Civil Rights demonstrations in the 1960’s and that inspired him to become an advocated for the Civil Rights of the disabled. His work advocating for the disabled was so important, President George H.W. Bush invited him to the White House of the signing of the American Disabilities Act of 1990, a landmark piece of legislation that has paved the way for accommodations for disabled Americans. The United Church of Christ my friends has made an incredible difference in the life of our nation and the world.
SLIDE 16: THE UNITED CHURCH OF HUNTSVILLE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
As much as we discount the church for being irrelevant and slow to change, our denomination and even our congregation have been important in changing the culture around us. And allow me to share one last story from our recent vacation. I was checking into the Hotel on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, and the check-in clerk addressed me as Robert Hurst. A woman standing in the line next to me said, “Oh you’re Robert Hurst from the United Church in Huntsville, Alabama?”
Some what taken aback, I said, “Yes?”
“Oh I live in California, but my father was a scientist in Huntsville, and I’ve read all about you and your church, and your sermons on the internet, and it is such and honor to meet you.”
I was speechless, except to say, “Thank you.”
SLIDE 17: PROUD TO CLAIM UNITED CHURCH AND 40 YEARS OF MINISTRY
Now I know it is important not to let that kind of experience go to your head, but I want you to know that the United Church of Huntsville, and the United Church of Christ do make a difference in the world. And I am proud to claim this congregation, and I am proud to have given 40 years of my life in ministry in our beloved United Church of Christ. Together we make a difference in our world following in the way of Jesus.