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Norma Chavez-Peterson: Sounding a Clarion Call for UCC

By Mary Domb Mikkelson, Connecting Voices editor    

     When Norma Chavez-Peterson dreams, she dreams big.  Then she gets to work. 

     Her current dream?  Insuring that EVERY person in her Chula Vista, California bailiwick (from San Diego’s Barrio Logan to the north to the Mexican border on the south) knows about the United Church of Christ (UCC) and what it has to share – diversity and progressive theology wrapped in warm, extravagant welcome for all.

     A tall order, perhaps, especially for an only-four-months-into-the-job Associate for Community Outreach at a church of aging members and dwindling population.  And, yet, exposed to the excitement of Norma’s enthusiasm for her pet project, you sense – and celebrate – the possibilities for her church (Community Congregational UCC) and her community.  “Getting everyone on board, getting them to embrace the vision, to commit themselves to moving forward, will be a lot of work,” she acknowledges, “but nothing is impossible.”

     Born in a rural community in Michoacán, México in 1974, Norma and five of her six siblings were brought to the United States in 1979 by their mother, who took whatever jobs came her way (packing avocados, janitorial work, etc.) to feed her family.  “We were undocumented,” Norma reports,” a situation remedied when they were granted an opportunity to access legalization under the1986 Immigration Reform Act (Simpson-Mazzoli Act).  Legalization opened many doors for them, as evidenced by their academic and professional accomplishments in education, community organization, law enforcement and other areas. 

     After graduating from San Diego State University with a major in Political Science and a minor in Chicano Studies, Norma began a sixteen year career with various non-profit organizations serving low-income communities, working for affordable housing, community development, etc.  “This,” she says, was but a continuation of where my passion for social justice had led me since my junior high days when I was involved with Chicano/Native American groups in encouraging young people to learn their history and embrace their indigenous identity.”

     The transition to church work (and faith-based activism) followed a growing involvement in and commitment to the UCC.  “I was raised Catholic, drifted away from the church and remained away for several years, until a friend who shared my social justice values invited me to visit Christian Fellowship UCC in San Diego, pastored at that time by a strong advocate of social justice, Art Cribbs.  Both he and another active, involved UCCer, Carmen Samuels, played major roles in the direction my life was to take.”  Carmen’s work with JOB (Justice Overcoming Boundaries) and other organizations showed Norma what could happen when people from various denominations worked together.  A single mother at the time (she has since remarried and is the mother of three daughters), Norma, who like the people she dreams of helping, hadn’t known what UCC was or stood for, soon joined the church by re-affirmation of faith.

     Community Congregational hired Norma to “build relationships and expand its wider mission to the community,” which is 80% people of color.  “While I already knew the community well, I needed time to get to know the church and its people, to understand its structure and relationships, to ‘wrap my head’ around how we could best live out the purpose of that mission.  That’s how I spent my first months on the job.

     “I have found that, at the end of the day, this job is much like my secular ones, a matter of connecting with people, building bridges, tapping into people’s dreams and passions, providing opportunities for growth.  “

     What now?

     “I’m working to inspire members, including the youth of the church, to be vital parts of the mission, figuring out how to tap into their gifts, to inspire them to dream along with me and to make those dreams come true.   A recent visioning (‘What would you like to see in our church?’) retreat resulted in a list of six goals/areas of concentration – youth and children, young working families, worship, building community, welcome and caring and social justice.   Serious questions were discussed, among them:

–          Young families, in which both parents work, have needs different from ours.  What can be provided to strengthen their journey?

–          What form should worship take to “speak to” the unchurched, the young, those of different cultures and background?

–          How can we make it clear that ALL are welcome?

–          How can we bring church to shut-ins?

–          What are we doing in the world?”

     In addressing all of these, Norma sees special need for improved communication – an exciting, comprehensive church newsletter and extensive publicity to make Community Congregational and UCC a household word – and is taking steps to involve church members in the work (“I have my eye on a possible newsletter editor already.”).  “God gave different people different gifts and I plan to find those in our church and develop them!  After all, as a Mexican saying points out, ‘We can all contribute our own little grains of salt!” 

     Here’s to a well-salted stew of passionate, empowered cheerleaders for the church – and to the fulfillment of Norma Chavez-Peterson’s dreams!

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