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A Woman of UCC Distinction: Meet Elizabeth Aguilar

By Susan Jakubowski-Weiner, Connecting Voices Editor

     Meet Rev. Elizabeth Aguilar—a UCC “first” AND a woman of tradition.  Liz, as she likes to be called, is the first Mexican-American woman ordained in the UCC, yet a fourth generation family member to commit to serving the Lord as ordained clergy!

     Liz was born in the “Little Village” area of Chicago into a family and local UCC church where her father was minister and her mom his church secretary. Millard Congregational Church was a bi-lingual, vibrant church.  “We ate, drank and slept church.”  Liz likes to say.  The youngest of four children grew up in a family where church WAS life.  She saw it as a place that identified with the needs of its people and assisted them in transformation.  ESL, Bible study, and college extension classes were offered on the church campus, as were music, dance and art classes, and classes leading to a high school equivalency certificate.
 
     Liz enjoyed wonderful summer time church camp experiences at Tower Hill Camp.  The summer before college while working at Tower Hill, she felt a calling, but knew it was not for parish life.   Perhaps theatre ministry, she thought.  That art had offered her enjoyable high school experiences.  Although Liz admired her father’s work she saw early on the huge sacrifices he made in his own life – church ministry is a 24/7 commitment.  She stayed in town for college, attending North Park University, majoring in both Spanish Literature and Communication. During her first year of seminary, Liz’s parents moved to California where her dad subsequently accepted a calling as a Presbyterian minister.  Her undergraduate studies went smoothly enough and after completing school, Liz worked for a year to save up the money to partially fund her seminary studies.  The following year, at the tender age of 23, Andover Newton Theological School, in Newton Massachusetts (near Boston) provided the venue for work on her M.Div.  The offer didn’t come without its challenges.  Liz relied heavily on scholarships, for which she was very grateful.  However, each offered the stipulation that she maintain a healthy GPA. 

     Liz did not have a typical seminary experience.  She also needed to work part-time to help fund her studies.  In addition, Liz volunteered on various UCC committees, including time with the former Office of Communications, the Restructure Committee, the Council on Racial and Ethnic Ministries, and became the seminary rep to The Board of Homeland Ministries.  She also became involved in The Council for Hispanic Ministries.  Liz was given a huge honor in 1991, during her second year of seminary studies.  She was named as a delegate to the World Council of Churches.  Little did she know then that many more fascinating years with the Council awaited her.  She traveled all over the world after being invited to become a member on two commissions of the Council; the Young Adults Ministry Team and the Sharing in Service Commission.  These are the folks who visit world venues in determining the recipients of funds dispersed through the Council from our OGHS gifts.   Liz spent time in Egypt, among many other countries, where she assessed micro-business loans for young women.  She was able to experience how some churches provide medical care for the elderly in hospitals, when there would have been no other option available to them.  Liz had the honor of meeting the Coptic Church pope during her work in Cairo. 

     Through this experience and as a member of The Young Adult Ministry Team, Liz was able to see how people lived and worshiped.   One moving experience in Brazil stayed in Liz’s mind.  While in Rio, she experienced extreme poverty for the first time and was blessed to interact with the children abandoned to grow up on the streets.  While there she asked women volunteers who themselves had nothing, how they were able to keep their commitment in view of such an atrocity, one perhaps even instigated by the government.  They shared that faith in God kept them coming back each day.  During this time Liz also saw her leadership potential growing.  While spending those two weeks in Rio, she was the only one in the group who spoke Spanish in a country where  Portuguese was spoken.  She was able to adequately communicate with the abandoned children and workers, and felt connections being made in her heart.  She was also able to minister to those children.

      Since Liz was being compensated for this work, she would often miss 2-3 weeks of seminary as she traveled around the world and to the Council’s main office in Geneva and other meeting locations.  School papers were faxed in from all over! 
Liz had the honor to participate in The National Council of Church’s Young Adult Ministry Team, and when finally back in Boston was active in the Hispanic Community Church of Boston (UCC).  There she taught Sunday school and adult education and participated in youth ministries.  Then it hit; Liz was suffering from burn out!  Right before graduation she “took a break” and moved to California to be near her parents.  There, in L.A., Liz met Rev. Lynne Smouse, minister at then-Immanuel UCC Church.  There was a youth pastor opening available, was Liz interested?  She eagerly accepted, and began a fun, wild ride.  This church had its share of tough kids, as churches do, but Liz soon found they were looking for support and acceptance.  This multi-racial, bilingual church felt so normal—so like the one Liz experienced growing up.  She started assisting with worship.  One day in the sanctuary Liz had an “aha” moment and knew that parish ministry had snagged her!  She served briefly as the interim in that church after Lynne moved on.  Andover called about that degree….
 
     Liz returned to Massachusetts for her last class, and then the Hispanic Community Church of Boston called her as its associate pastor.  Liz was ordained in 1998 with the calling but not long after the pastor, who she knew well and enjoyed working with, left.  Liz picked up the pieces from this loss and pastored alone for a brief time.  She met the Senior Pastor at The United Church of Christ in Medfield (Massachusetts).  He encouraged her to apply for an open associate position.  This was a suburban, entirely Caucasian church, and she the Latino woman!  When she walked into the room for her interview Liz felt the silence.  She was tapped for the position, fell in love with the entire congregation, joined and stayed put for ten years.  The church boasted Sunday attendance of 400-450 covering two services. 

     During her time there Liz saw success and church vibrancy in three distinctive ways:  mission ministry exploded, adult education ramped up to 7-8 Bible study groups each year, and worship became very lively.  Liz enjoyed her role in these revolutionary changes within the church.  Sadly, during this time there were a number of untimely deaths among worshippers.  Liz felt a comfort and draw in ministering to the loved ones left behind.  She felt it was a privilege to be allowed into families’ lives as they went though their grief process.  During these years Liz also served (from 1999-2005) on the Executive Council of the UCC – “a great experience!”

     After ten years Liz felt that she had outgrown her role.  It was time to move on.  She left for Chicago and her roots, joined Christ Church of Chicago (UCC) near her native North Park area, and was soon assisting in worship with this now-mostly Asian congregation.  Through her many contacts within UCC Liz heard about an acting associate minister opening at Claremont UCC in California.  She applied, and came on board in September 2010.  Claremont has been a wonderful, enlightening experience, and this time around has confirmed for Liz that she is now ready for her own pastorate or perhaps hospice or chaplain work.  Oh, and during her “free” time, Liz accepted a chaplaincy at Pomona Valley Hospital, and was on the Worship Planning Team at the recent Tampa Synod, where she also taught a church polity class!  She is also currently co-teaching an on-line UCC Polity and History Class for the Southern California and Nevada Conference.  Rev. Liz is particularly proud of a special award she received from COREM (Council on Racial Ethnic Ministries) for her leadership within Latino Ministries.
 
     Current prayers are being offered by Liz for that direction to become known to her.  Wherever this exciting young minister ends up, WE know she will be a gift to those receiving her ministry!  Best wishes, Rev. Liz!

Comments

One Response to “A Woman of UCC Distinction: Meet Elizabeth Aguilar”
  1. I am a recent arrival here at Pilgrim Place and am privileged to convene Claremont UCC’s Kitchen Table Theology Cafe at 9 on Sunday mornings, a format in which I have been involved in adult religious education in my churches for decades. I am also a philosopher, pastor, and theologian, and I ask our readers to read my simple website and give me a feedback on how they would like to see the site improved. I sit through Rob’s and Liz’s and Lorraine’s sermons every Sunday here at the church and am blessed by having come to know them. Lorraine is the seminary intern. Last Sunday Lorraine’s sermon about alienations and divides was particularly notable. Thank you SCNC for being here for us all. Ken Stephens

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