The book series, “Where’s Waldo?” asks children to locate the title character engaged in various activies in a number of different crowds.
Miguel Angel Alvarado– hearing that my Puerto Rican parishioners in East Harlem called me pastorcito (I was “the little pastor” vis a vis the congregation’s still-present founding pastor)– refers to me likewise, making me feel younger and thinner again.
I announced last Sunday, I would be out of town from Wednesday to Saturday. With too many Advent announcements, I did not elaborate. But congregations need to know where and what their pastor is doing not only in order to be able to get in touch. It is also basic to accountability.
But this e-pistle is more about identity… about the denomination we belong to: in my what and where there are two glimpses of what it means to be UCC.
I am at the convocation for Ministers for Racial, Social & Economic Justice, known as “Mrs.EJ.” The UCC’s only clergy caucus, founded in the midst of mid-60s civil rights struggles, it intends even today to strengthen the impact Black clergy have within the UCC and in their local communities. Mrs.EJ has made significant contributions for justice and equality in the church and beyond, including:
~resourcing UCC justice efforts like freeing the Wilmington Ten;
~advocating for increased racial equality in our cities and work places, like the city of Cincinnati and the Hilton Hotel chain, and
~helping to organize UCC clergy and lay leader groupings among Asians, Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans.
I am attending the convocation with a mixed white and Black group of Philadelphia clergy. We hope we can help Mrs.EJ set its sights wider, on some pressing social issues, rather than getting consumed by internal denominational politics.
We are in Whitakers, North Carolina, at the “Franklinton Center at Bricks,” a UCC conference, retreat and educational center. A former plantation where “unruly” slaves where sent to be broken, it became, after the Civil War, a school where African American people came to be “broken in” — not as slaves for a slave state, but as free women and men for a place of service in a free and democratic society.
The Franklinton Literary and Theological Christian Institute was founded by the Black Christian Church of Franklinton in 1871. The Christian Churches was one of the four denominations that merged between the 1930s and 1950s, to become the UCC. Later known as Franklinton Christian College, the school educated primarily, poor rural African American students. After closing in 1930, it was resurrected as the Franklinton Center, a broad-based educational and justice center.
Nearby, in 1895, the Joseph Keasbey Brick School had founded when a widow from Brooklyn, Julia Brewster Brick, a white woman and member of the Congregational Churches (another of the four denominations that has become the UCC), heard that southern Black children were not being educated. She purchased a plantation that had been insolvent since the abolition of slavery (a telling indictment of the exploitation of free and underpaid labor) and donated it to the American Missionary Association (AMA).
The AMA was established in 1846 as an interdenominational abolitionist organization, though it eventually became a part of the Congregational Churches. Until the end of the Civil War, the AMA served as the best financed and most organized and active force for abolition in the United States. After the Civil War, the AMA’s mission-focus changed to creating educational opportunities for former slaves and later other African Americans in the south. It was responsible for the founding of over 500 schools and colleges.
After deeding the property to the AMA, Julia Brick continued to be the school’s primary benefactor, and spent millions of dollars on buildings, maintenance and programs. The Brick School, later known as Brick Community College, unlike some of the other traditional Black colleges that catered to students from prominent and affluent family backgrounds, served primarily poor black children, until it closed in 1933. After that it was used by the state of North Carolina as a high school for black students and by the AMA as a site of agricultural, home economics and other civil rights era necessitated adult education for tenant farm and sharecropper families.
In 1954, the Franklinton Center and the former Brick School were merged with the former relocating to the latter’s property. Re-envisioned as a gathering place for people dedicated to addressing the struggles of the marginalized, oppressed and the poor, the Franklinton Center at Bricks became in the 1950s and early 60s, one of the few places in North Carolina that Blacks and Whites could meet, live and work together.
Beloved, we stand in a long line of Christian people who have had done wonderful things, changed the God’s world in constructive, committed ways. Like those who came before us, we too have to decide what contemporary faithfulness looks like. What are today’s challenges God’s calling us to take on?
Who are the people waiting on God’s healing hand through you and me? How can our church be relevant, even transformative, when it comes to the problems that face real people and our world today? And, once we discern that much about our vocations, how we are going to organize and dedicate our resources to make that difference God wants from us?