; charset=UTF-8" /> 2010 Annual Gathering Candidate Speech : Connecting Voices
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2010 Annual Gathering Candidate Speech

by Rev. Felix C. Villanueva

    Mary Alice and Vance Geier, in the publication “We Got Here from There: A Reflective History of the Southern California and Southwest Conference of the United Church of Christ, 1887-1987,” quote the following the letter:

     “… I feel persuaded that no one who has never worked in Southern California can truly understand the church situation in this locality … The shifting population of these beach cities is a problem. But that is nothing compared with the fact that you have an essentially pagan civilization in this part of the United States … Southern California is peopled by individuals who have run away from something or other.  Some from debts.  Others from irksome jobs. Still others from wives or husbands or families. And yet others from the Eastern and middle—Western climate. When people run away from anything, they try to leave behind all associations which might remind them of the thing they are fleeing. Therefore the church has to be left behind along with everything else. People … many people, dare I say, a majority of the people who live here, have come with the avowed intention of living a life of individual freedom, if not of actual self-indulgence. They want to be let alone. They do not want to assume ANY responsibilities. Trying to get people in this locality interested in the church is hard, desperately hard, unbelievably hard.

      “… We are dealing with pagans and back—slidden Christians who are harder to deal with than heathens. We are doing missionary work here in the extreme sense of that term. We are trying to develop a Christian civilization on pagan soil. The work will be as slow and painful as that on any foreign field.

     “… And the reason for the people’s attitude? … I do know that many people are disillusioned with the church. They realize the folly and the fallacy of the business pursuits that the churches have in the past been addicted to. They laugh at the church because it has not given them Christianity and Christ and a Christ—like life …

     If you ask me for specific practices that have produced this disillusionment, I point to two: our frenzy to get members and our unconscionable methods of raising money … “

     “Other people are bewildered. In Southern California there are more sects and isms and denominations than anywhere else on the face of the globe.  There are oriental philosophies and cults here by the score. People are attacked from every side. And the more “respectable” denominations are at constant war with each other. … People early get the idea that any one of these many churches is ‘as good as another’, or that ’none of them is any good’!  … Generally it is easier not to choose at all. And the Southern California atmosphere is productive of the indolent state of mind which makes choosing too hard a task to be worth the effort. The play spirit is rife here. It is encouraged by every Chamber of Commerce on the Coast. Money is spent to get people to come here and play, not to live.”

     “Now you are asking just where our church fits into this sorry scheme of things … A year ago I would  have been ready to say that it does  not fit. I would have been tempted to say there is no place for our church here. I would have been inclined to recommend that you save the funds won through such heroic effort as is required to raise our Synodical budget …

     “And even now I see our church as a misfit. But a different sort of a misfit. A glorious sort. I see it as a Christian Church in the center of a heathen landscape. I see it as one church that has cast off the shackles of schemes for making money. I see it as a church that is catering to Christians. I see it as one that is trying to build upon the only Foundation that is laid … I see it as a church that is rational in the midst of all kinds of mental aberrations. And yet as one not lacking in evangelical warmth and fervor and sincere piety. I see it as the one church (along with a very few others) that is stressing important things at the sacrifice of large numbers and public acclaim. Such a church as ours does not fit into the California situation. It will, however, remake that situation if given enough time and adequate support.”

     “… This church has a distinct contribution to make to the spiritual life of this community. We must touch the lives of more and more boys and girls. We can give them a training and an outlook on life that many another church would not be able to offer. Gentlemen, I am proud of the Evangelical Synod because of her liberality, her progressive spirit and her newly awakened sense of social responsibility. Such a church can help build the Kingdom of God in Long Beach.”

     This letter was written by a Zion Church missionary, January 6, 1936.  It’s amazing how “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

     I believe that in order to envision our future as the Southern California Nevada Conference, we must first define our present. Richard Hamm, in his book “Recreating the Church: Leadership for the Postmodern Age” says, “Military organizations often devote themselves to preparing for the previous war rather than for current threats. Church organizations tend to serve the needs of the previous cultural context.”  Some of the challenges we are currently experiencing in the Southern California Nevada Conference are due in great part to the fact that our churches are not preparing for the cultural and theological challenges of the future.  The truth is that some of us are still living as if it was still the 1960’s.

     As I look at our Conference I see many challenges. At the same time, I see many opportunities.  Tomorrow we will vote on our budget.  We are all aware of the financial challenges we face.  However, those of you present during our budget presentation heard Keith Clark shared with us some good news as they relate to the financial health of this Conference.  We also know that many of our local congregations have faced with budget cuts and deficits.  Many of our members have faced job loss, foreclosures and mounting debt. Those who know me are aware that, although very much aware of our financial reality, I tend not to focus my ministry on finances.  It has been my experience that when people believe in the ministry we do, the funding will appear. 

     It always amazes me when a disaster strikes, how quickly money is raised, regardless of the current economic situation.  We respond to those disasters, because we believe that they are worthy causes. By the same token, if our ministry becomes irrelevant in the eyes of those whom we minister to, funding will dwindle and eventually disappear.  One of my primary objectives as Conference Minister will be to re-energize our mutual ministry.  There are some efforts already in place, which Gary Roberts, our Associate for Church Development and Renewal, will be sharing with you this weekend. But that is only one side of the equation. 

     The other side of the equation has to do with getting to know each other and engaging in conversation as to what your needs are and what our Conference Ministry Team can do for you.  Although surveys and needs assessments are important, personal contact is of equal importance. Now, let me be clear, it would be humanly impossible for me to be able to visit each and every one of your local congregations.  However, there are other ways in which we can get to know one another. Area-wide events and Search and Call are but two of the ways we can connect.  Together with Keith Clark, we are exploring ways to use technology more effectively. We are also looking to expand the ways our office stays connected with you.  Jane Fisler-Hoffman has effectively used the “Quick News from Jane.” I will probably do something along the same lines.

     Let me say something about technology.  If you don’t know how to send a text message, you can’t communicate with anyone under the age of 20.  If you don’t know how to use social media such as Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, you will miss communicating effectively with anyone under 40.  If your church is not on the internet, you miss telling your story to those age groups.  My brothers and sisters, the Yellow Pages in the phone book are obsolete if you are attempting to reach out to the younger generations.  One of my goals is to bring our churches into the computer age, so we can use technology more effectively.

     Another challenge we face is the number of churches within our Conference that are in a declining cycle.  Gary Roberts tells me that in the last decade, eight of our Conference churches have closed.  Currently, another 27 churches are congregations of less than 30 (average worship).  Gary believes and I tend to agree, that unless something happens, many of these congregations are likely to close in the next decade.  I believe we need to pay attention to these churches.  Many times we just look away and ignore the fact that some of our congregations are in need of hospice care.  In the process, we forget the fact that many of these churches have been instrumental in making this Conference what it is today. At the very least, we should celebrate their ministry and invite them to pass on their legacy.

     As the United Church of Christ we believe in resurrection and in hope.  As a former hospice chaplain I have witnessed how people can be transformed through death.  We don’t need to wait for churches to close their doors. What we need is to strengthen our mutual covenant by envisioning the future, together.

     On the other hand, we have various vibrant, growing churches.  These churches have discovered ways to be re-energized.  If you are a member of a renewing church, I would like to have a conversation with you.  Maybe your congregation can be a mentor to another congregation that wants to begin the renewing process. We have various new church starts and new congregations are in the process of becoming part of our covenant. My friends, in spite of all the challenges we face, the UCC in the Southern California Nevada Conference is alive and well!

     Some time ago, our Conference defined three mission priorities:
          1. Church Development and Renewal
          2. Youth and Young Adults Ministries
          3. Building Community in Diversity

     Most of what I have touched so far falls under Church Development and Renewal.  I don’t want to say much more about that, since that’s Gary Roberts area of expertise. 

     I think you will agree with me when I say that youth work is one of the most demanding ministries in the church.  The Conference has only a part-time Youth and Young Adults Ministries Coordinator.  To those of you who might not be familiar with ministry, let me tell you there is no such thing as part-time ministry. A person might be paid part-time, but the work is full time.  I know for a fact Neil Washburn gives a full-time performance and gets paid part-time for the work he does for this Conference. 

     Youth ministry is also very taxing and often times goes unappreciated.  One of my goals is to offer an annual youth leader/minister retreat. This will be an opportunity to build community and to be re-energized.  In addition, we will continue to find ways to engage our youth in the ministry of the Church. I envision our Youth Roundtable and the local congregation youth leadership, work together in the development and implementation of a strategic plan.

     Another area we need to examine is our young adult ministry.  I see other churches all over the place reaching out to twenty-somethings, but I don’t see much of that in our local congregations.  One challenge presented by this generation is that, for the most part, they place little emphasis in congregational life or attachment.  However, they will respond to social issues and service projects.  This means that we need to rethink our outreach programs in order to make them feel at home.  We will need to find a way to become relevant to young adults.
 
     Our last priority is that of building community in diversity.  This is self-evident in Southern California and Nevada.  I often say that the concept of the “melting pot” is not the correct way to explain who we are as Americans.  The “melting pot” concept attempts to make each of us look and talk the same.  In a melting pot, we lose our identity and form.  The term I like better is that of a “salad bowl” or as Marty Steinman, a member of the Search Committee calls it, “a fruit salad.”  You can taste each individual fruit in the fruit salad. However, when all the fruit comes together, a new flavor emerges.

     Cultural and language diversity are not a curse, but a blessing. At the same time, they give us a distinct flavor.  The challenge here is how we can build community when we are so different.  But our diversity is not only evident through culture and language, but in our theology and in our worship.  Can a progressive Christian build community with a Christian from the right? What about those who are in the middle? Where do they belong?

     Do we really mean what we say when in the United Church of Christ we say, “That all may be one?”  Is that possible?  Sometimes, those of us who label ourselves as “progressives” are as guilty of the same religious fundamentalism of those whom we criticize.  We believe to be “enlightened” individuals, yet we have very little room for tolerance.  Can we respect each other’s diversity and at the same time work together?

     As a U.S. Navy Chaplain I had the opportunity to work and supervise clergy from a variety of faith groups. I was quite amazing to see Baptists of every flavor, Pentecostals, Mormons, Presbyterians, Methodists, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholics, Rabbis and Muslims do ministry together.  To watch a Rabbi make sure that Muslims had a place and time for worship, was the closest thing I have seen to making the realm of heaven a reality here on Earth. Or, to see a Baptist minister, making arrangements for his Mormon or Roman Catholic counterpart showed me that we can truly minister together regardless of our diversity.

     Finally, we need to define who we are as the United Church of Christ in the Southern California Nevada Conference.  Some time ago, I had the opportunity to preach at a Unitarian Church. After the fellowship hour, the congregation asked me if I could spend some time answering some questions.  One of the comments I heard during that session was that most of the members present there felt that as Unitarians they defined themselves by what they don’t believe rather than what they believe.

     As the United Church of Christ in this place and in this time, what do we believe?  What does it mean to belong to the UCC? We say we believe in equality and justice, but do we? Is it justice for me and not for others?  Are gay, lesbian and transgender rights, immigration and building accessibility, issues of justice? If I believe one is, can I say the others aren’t?  Who is included or excluded when we say we welcome all of God’s children?  Or like the pigs in the “Animal Farm” fable, do we believe that there some of us that are more equal than others?

     We say that “God is still speaking.” What does that really mean?  How open are we at the stirrings of the Holy Spirit, especially when God seems to lead us into unchartered waters? 

     So what is the good news?  The good news is that Southern California is a field ready to be harvested.  The United Church of Christ in Southern California has a very unique voice—a voice of justice, equality and hospitality—that many other churches lack. In addition, we our members are deeply committed to this message. 

     I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I am willing to begin the journey and discover new paths in our ministry together.

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