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

by Mary Domb Mikkelson

     Ever been mesmerized by the constantly-shifting rose window images in a kaleidoscope?
     Mirrored repeatedly, shards of jewel-toned glass; sequins; beads of assorted sizes, shapes and colors; pebbles rough and smooth; even utilitarian paper clips and random bits of scrap metal or plastic coalesce into stained glass beauty.

     So it was with Annual Gathering 2010’s rainbow of iridescent memory moments:

Water cascading into a basin from glasses held high…baptism reaffirmed…
“Veni Sancte Spiritus” lingering in the air…
Prayer knots being tied in a quilt…
Coming together…old friends and new…
Meals shared…along with hopes, dreams and plans for realizing them…
Workshops…resolutions…discussions…the BIG election…
And, of course, people – wondrous in their diversity…
Supple, black-clad liturgist Phil Porter bringing the word – and the congregation – to life…
The Samoan choir, traditionally garbed in white – with touches of red, lifting their voices in praise…
Also favoring red, the teens of the Youth Round Table – “Amazing Grace” with a lively new beat…
Delegates (188 of them) and visitors (104) – representing 78 churches.
And, everywhere, greeting and being greeted, embracing and being embraced, talking and listening, teaching and learning – the candidate – Rev. Félix C. Villanueva, Senior Pastor of the United Church of Christ of La Mesa (CA), soon, by resounding acclamation, to become Conference Minister Elect of the Southern California Nevada Conference (SCNC) of the United Church of Christ (UCC), and his wife Sherry.

     Spinning, shimmering images, merging into a memorable whole.

     The two-day Gathering, convened at the First Congregational Church of Santa Ana, CA, started quietly enough with the mechanics of registration and a look through the display booths (from Cokesbury Books to Claremont School of Theology, from carved wood treasures to hand-crafted stoles), blossomed into conversation over coffee then segued into the sanctuary for Opening Worship centered around water and baptism. 

“God of the waters, water of birth,
 Moving us from safety into the world.
“God of the waters, water of connection,
 Immersing us in the challenging Creator, in the passionate Christ, in the playful Spirit.
“God of the waters, water of trouble,
 Journeying us from here to there, from the known to the unknown.
“God of the waters, water of life,
 Sustaining, quenching, cleansing.
“God of the waters, bless this water and through it,
 Birth us, connect us, trouble us, live in us.”

     And so began the journey.

     After lunch the people of the Gathering settled down to business – introductions first, then reports, resolutions and the budget followed by the presentation of the Conference Minister candidate, the candidate’s speech and a question and answer session.

     “If you think you hear an accent, it’s your imagination,” Puerto Rico-born Villanueva began.  He then read a letter beautifully reminiscent of the classic complaint about the ways of youth – you know, the one “obviously” written recently but actually attributed by Plato to Socrates.  This one reported on the trials and tribulations of trying to bring God to the “essentially pagan civilization” of Southern California where money is spent to get people to come to play, not to live; where the idea that one church is as good as another (or than none are good) prevails and cults and Oriental philosophies are rampant.   Part of pre-UCC church history, it was written January 6, 1936.

     The more things change…

     From this springboard, Villanueva, a retired U.S. Navy Captain, launched his vision of the SCNC’s future.  Commenting that churches, many still “living in the 1960s,” often, like the military, fight previous battles rather than preparing for the future, he declared that if ministry becomes irrelevant, it will disappear but that “when people believe in the ministry we do, funding (to carry it out) will appear.”

     Among his vitalization goals:

  • A primary objective – “to re-energize our mutual ministry…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…expanded use of technology to connect, to stay in touch     “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.”
  • Paying attention to churches in cycles of decline, remembering many were instrumental in shaping what we are, celebrating their ministry and inviting them to share their legacy with us     “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.”
  • Mentoring renewing churches and new church starts     “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!”
  • Supporting youth ministry 
         “…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… 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 working together in the development and implementation of a strategic plan.”
  • Making church meaningful to young families“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.”
  • 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.“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 as those whom we criticize.  We believe ourselves 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 with and supervise clergy from a variety of faith groups.  It was quite amazing to see Baptists of every flavor –  Pentecostals, Mormons, Presbyterians, Methodists, UCC, Disciples of Christ, Roman Catholics, Jews 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… seeing Baptist minister making arrangements for his Mormon or Roman Catholic counterpart showed me that we can truly minister together regardless of our diversity.”“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?

     He spoke, too, of what it means to be a member of UCC, to realize that “God is still speaking” means being led into uncharted waters, to know that we have a unique voice and are asked to commit ourselves to using it, to making it heard.

     Plunging into those waters, Villanueva declared himself ready to begin the journey.

     A standing ovation was followed by questions and answers, one of which produced the comedic highlight of the Gathering.

     “What’s the funny story told about your accent?”

     From the audience Sherry Villanueva cued her husband, who grimaced, saying, “I still can’t pronounce that word” and called her to the pulpit.

     “Félix was being deployed to Iraq,” she explained, “so we went shopping for items he would need.  One, he insisted, was a ‘wheezil.’  Not having a clue, I wandered the aisles, hoping to figure out just what a wheezil was.  No luck.  ‘I’m sorry, Félix,’ I said, ‘but I can’t find one.  What exactly is a wheezil?’ 

     “‘I need it for security,’ he explained, which didn’t help.

     “I finally asked him to show me how one was used.  He put fingers to his lips and blew…
     “We bought the whistle.”

     The day was far from over.  Workshops – on topics ranging from Immigration to Rethinking Women in the Gospels; an opportunity to “meet and greet” the candidate; an international dinner followed by a reception for Interim Conference Minister, Jane Fisler Hoffman; hearings on proposed resolutions and a budget question and answer session took till 8:15pm, when evening worship  – a Taize Service of Prayer – began.  A Taize service with a special twist – a prayer quilt on which were a myriad of threads.  Worshipers were invited to come forward at any time during the service to offer a prayer and knot one of the threads.  Led by cantor John Hansen-Tarbox, “Sing Praise and Bless the Lord,” “Bless the Lord,” “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” “Jesus, Our Christ” and “In the Lord” filled the sanctuary with peace, a peace carried with them as worshippers departed into the night in silence.

The end of Day One.
Saturday’s Morning Worship celebrated newness.

Gathered from every nation, we share one foundation in Jesus Christ
We are Christ’s new creation!
In love, Christ comes to set us free.
We live in the new creation shaped by God out of our brokenness.
Our God makes a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
We are new creations, and Christ is our foundation!

And, excerpted from the call sermon of the Conference Minister Elect (based on Isaiah 43:15-21 and 2 Corinthians 5:16 – 6:2):

      “…Today, as in the days of Isaiah, we live in anxious times.  From the economy to racial and gender discrimination, we seem to join in with those who seem to proclaim that there is not enough and that we better watch out for those who don’t look or speak like us.  Recently, a friend of mine shared with me a conversation she had with a lifetime member of the United Church of Christ.  This individual was concerned by the fact that the UCC is welcoming too many people from other denominations into our fold.  The argument was that by doing so, we are “watering down” our identity as a denomination.  In my book that sounds a lot like “denominational purity.”  In addition, it seems to me that, although a lifelong member of the UCC, this person doesn’t seem to know that as a denomination we don’t have a set theology or worship style.  Sometimes we forget that the “all” in “that all may become one” includes everyone!

     “…Anxiety is also present in our local congregations as we struggle with our budgets and for some, as they struggle to keep their doors open.  We are anxious about our present and our future…most challenging for me is that we who call ourselves Christians and who are supposed to be bearers of hope more often than not join in with the rest of the anxious voices.  “There is not enough!  There is little hope!” …Yet, in the midst of anxiety and despair Isaiah raised a voice of hope that rings true to us today.
     “…Isaiah asked the people to remember the past and how God has been present with them from the beginning.  Then he said, “Don’t remember the former things or consider the things of old.”  Quite a contradiction, don’t you think? Actually, I don’t think this is a contradiction at all.  For me, faith and hope are always about the future but our future is based on God’s faithfulness in the past.  My guess is that Isaiah’s warning meant for us not to get stuck in the past, but to remember that if God was faithful then, God will be faithful in the future.  The truth is that no matter how hard we try, we cannot re-live the past, but we can draw strength, faith and hope from it.  Isaiah calls his people and each of us to let go of the past and to focus on a future of hope, renewal and life.  Isaiah’s message is that what God is about to do is greater and better than what God has done in the past.

     “The Apostle Paul picks up the same theme in our New Testament reading.  A few words and phrases jumped at me as I read the text: “new creation,” “reconciliation,” “ambassadors,” “now is the acceptable time.”  Like Isaiah, Paul believes that we need to have hope.  Hope provides the transformational energy we need to become a “new creation.”  Think for a moment about the last time you were anxious or afraid.  I suspect that most of the decisions you made during that time were based on survival.  And that’s perfectly natural.  Psychologists tell us that when we feel threatened we respond in one of two ways: we either fly or run away or we stay put and fight.  Both responses are fueled by our sense of self-preservation.

     “However, the texts this morning challenge us to a new response.  In the midst of anxiety and fear we should be hopeful.  If we want to be a beacon of hope in our Conference, Associations and congregations, we must first become new creations.  The questions we should be asking ourselves are:  When someone walks through our doors, when someone hears us speak, do they hear a message of hope?  Or, do they hear a message of desperation?  And, when we speak a message of hope, do we believe what we are saying?  Are we genuine?

     “One of the challenges of becoming people of hope is that as Paul says, ‘everything is made new.’  This means that we might start looking at our approach to ministry from a new perspective.  You are familiar with the definition of insanity: ‘doing the same things over and over again, expecting different results.’  We tend to believe that if we do more of the same things and work harder at them we might get a different result.  But logic tells us we will only get more of the same thing.

     “Being a people of hope begins by understanding who we are and why we are here.  At the Conference level that means looking at the reasons why our office was created in the first place.  So many times organizations tend to forget why they were created.  If renewal has not been made part of its “ethos,” eventually an organization will become a bureaucracy whose goals are maintenance and survival.  Its mission and sense of purpose take a lesser priority.  I am not saying that that’s where we are as a Conference office.  As a matter of fact, I know that our Board of Directors, together with our Conference staff, has been hard at work at providing a clear vision for our ministry together.  What I am saying is that if we are not careful and we don’t continue to reflect on our mission, we could easily end there.

     “This is not only true at the Conference level.  It is also true at the local congregational level.  A congregation whose main goals are maintenance of facilities and membership has lost sight of its vision and mission.  During this year’s UCC Vitality Event the Rev. Michael Piazza reminded us that the church’s main goal is not to meet the individual needs of its members.  Being church is not about consuming the best products but about serving others.  He said that we don’t go to church to feel good, but to be equipped…In other words, church is not an end in itself, but the beginning of our missionary work.

     “Church is the place where we practice the Good News, our training ground, so to speak .  I find it fascinating that we often speak about “going to church” or about what happened “at church today.”  The challenge with that concept is that in doing so we identify church as the sum of what happened in the sanctuary one hour a week, rather than as who we are as a community of faith.  If I recall correctly, Jesus did not commission his disciples saying, “Go into all the world and gather for an hour a week in a large room apart from everyone else.”  No. Instead, he sent those on the inside to love and help those on the outside.  Church is going out into the community and the world to transform it with God’s love!

     “To become a new creation we must re-examine and re-evaluate who we are and whose we are.  We are a church with one foundation -the Risen Christ!  We are energized by the fact that God’s creating energy is active among us and that the Holy Spirit breathes within us winds of faith and hope.  And, if Christ is our foundation then our ministry together should reflect Jesus’ life and ministry.  Again, the apostle Paul sheds some light as to what that looks like.  We are to be a source of reconciliation and ambassadors of Christ’s love.

     “As I read the Gospel stories, I notice they all have something in common. Jesus is presented to us as someone who cared for those around him.  He connected with those in need and made sure that those who were marginalized and ostracized were given a place at the table and in the community.  What I find most striking is the fact that the only individuals Jesus had problems with  were those who thought that because they were religious they could exclude others, could discriminate and spread religious intolerance around.

     “…If Christ is our foundation and we are the United Church of Christ, then we should be a refuge to those who are in need.  We should be a friendly place where everyone is accepted and welcomed, a place where language and cultural diversity are celebrated, not frowned upon, and a place where we listen to the rushing wind of the Holy Spirit as it moves and touches all of us.  If Christ is our foundation then we should be the place where God’s language of love is truly spoken and lived.  This is a love that knows no barrier and that makes no exceptions.

     “If Christ is our foundation and if we are a new creation, our congregations, our Associations and our Conference should be places of hope, encouragement and good will.  We should together join in the struggle for justice, regardless of the consequences.  If we are a new creation and Christ is our foundation, then we should be a place alive with the Holy Spirit!

     “We are God’s new creation…called to be ambassadors of Christ, messengers of the Good News!”

     Closing with the hymn, “This is a Day of New Beginnings,” the Gathering moved from worship to the business of election.  After sending the candidate and his wife from the sanctuary to, appropriately, the church’s Bride’s Room, Villanueva’s “new beginning” was quickly made official and the celebration began.  The photographers had a field day and handshakes hugs and high fives were de rigueur.  The SCNC had a new Conference Minister.

     Following a short break attendees divided into groups – some participating in the Open Marketplace (lively discussion groups on a variety of topics), others taking part in the SCNC Board of Directors Meeting or a workshop sponsored by the Youth Round Table.   Lunch came next then further business, including voting on the budget and the election of officers, directors and committee members.

     Worship  – communion, the presentation by representatives of SCNC’s four Associations of the Prayer Quilt to Rev. Villanueva (who was soon wrapped in it), the singing of “The Church’s One Foundation” to the beat of a Puerto Rican Danza and a final blessing closed the gathering.

     Another successful Annual Gathering, another kaleidoscopic mélange of wonderful memories!

Note:  Read more about Felix Villanueva in “Knee Deep in the Trenches” in the Leading Today’s Church section of Connecting Voices.  Also, read his first Connecting Voices article as Conference Minister Elect, “The New Jerusalem!”

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