Our Congregations Are Our Pope

by Jeanine Elliott, Bethel Congregational UCC, Beaverton, OR

be_the_change stand upThe recent death of theologian Marcus Borg saddens me, because I have appreciated his voice as a liberal New Testament scholar and faithful Christian.  Another important current voice is Pope Francis, who courageously speaks about issues of justice.  His voice sometimes startles, sometimes challenges, and occasionally I don’t agree with him.  As head of the Catholic Church, he uses his authority to call for justice.  The pope is making a difference.

In the UCC tradition, we don’t have a pope. Authority is vested in the congregation.  If we don’t speak out and act for justice, who will?  The November 2014 gathering at First Congregational UCC Vancouver, “Stoking the Fires of Justice:  A Revival for Social Change,” brought together local churches and folk from the national UCC Justice and Witness office.  The intent?  To strengthen justice advocacy work in the UCC congregations of the Pacific Northwest.  The meeting raised a question for me:  “What issue does my congregation care enough about to develop a public voice on its behalf?”  Will our church speak like the pope?

My congregation is caring, especially good at caring for each other in need.  We care about those in our community who are in need of food and shelter or who are in temporary crisis.  We remember in our communal prayers the crisis points of world pain—Ferguson, kidnapped girls in Nigeria, mass shootings, and natural disasters.  We are usually glad about those in the congregation who actively advocate for social justice issues, and we usually don’t get in their way.  But can the congregation as a whole become an advocate for an issue?   Can we become known as a social justice church for at least one concern?

Our congregation, along with many other UCC churches, did just that when we became “open and affirming.”  We announced publicly our intent to welcome all people, whatever their sexual orientation. We talked about it, put it in our literature, signed petitions, attended meetings, and welcomed people into our congregation. We are seeing change and justice in action.  While LGBT issues continue to need the UCC’s support, our congregation can draw on what we learned from this advocacy to prepare us for other issues.

The January 12, 2015 Rolling Justice article by Aleita Hass-Holcombe (First Congregational UCC Corvallis) calls us to consider becoming Just Peace congregations.  In addition, congregations can pursue other significant paths.  A review of the UCC webpage offers resources and assistance for these possibilities:

Accessible to All (A2A) Congregations

Economic Justice Congregations

Green Justice Congregations

Just Peace Congregations

Open and Affirming Congregations

Becoming an Immigrant Welcoming Congregation

Global Mission Congregations

Local congregations have many opportunities to find their own paths to advocacy.  Service projects like food and housing ministries might lead to speaking out about inequities in food distribution and affordable housing.  A congregation might advocate for education and watch out for decisions that affect low-income children.  Countless issues await our attention.  We can’t address them all, but we can find at least one.

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