My life has been a complex journey surrounded, supported, and challenged by the life of Christ as I have found it in the church. I went to nursery school at Bushnell Congregational Church in Detroit, and continued in Sunday school. The first time I heard a link between the biblical perspectives I was learning at church and the scientific world I was discovering in school was in our seventh-grade class (in the kitchen). The teacher was an amateur astronomer, who talked about the confluence of comets which occurred in 6-4 B.C.E., just at the time the Magi were said to have followed a bright star to Bethlehem. It was earthshaking information. Bible stories might be about real people who had lived on the same planet I inhabited. I could be a Christian and live in the "modern" world, two cultures that spoke very different languages.
I continued in church school, walking each Sunday the many blocks past my grandmother's house on the way to church. Junior and senior Pilgrim Fellowship followed, as well as city-wide and state-wide Pilgrim Fellowship. I was Fellowship Commissioner. Girls could not be president in school or church those days, but we could help foster community. In 1959, I participated in a life-changing ten-clay pilgrimage to colleges and schools for slaves and freed people founded in southern states by the American Missionary Association during and after the Civil War.
The late 1950's were Jim Crow, the Montgomery bus boycott, whites-only bathrooms and drinking fountains, church bombings, shut-down public-school systems, covert FBI surveillance of Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Council and the Nation of Islam's Malcolm X, voter-registration drives, and lynchings. Mack Charles Parker was taken from jail, beaten, and hung from a tree in Mississippi the month after our pilgrimage.
In the midst of this swirling, deadly, hope-filled turmoil, white kids from Detroit were being welcomed to school dances we could not tell our occasional white hosts about, lest we endanger our "Negro" hosts, welcomed into homes and churches in Black communities in southern Indiana, Tennessee, and Alabama, and discovering the challenging history, strength, and gifts of Fisk University, Tuskegee Institute (now University), and Talladega College. I discovered a complex, strong, extended, and oppressed culture, a world about which my white public schools had taught me nothing. My church, however, was part of the Michigan Congregational Christian Conference, which thought it essential that white kids know something of Black culture and community in order to work for justice in our society. The culmination of that leg of my journey was my time as a youth delegate to the Second Uniting General Synod of the new United Church of Christ in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1959.
I knew nothing then of the long preparations for the church union and its deep roots in the conciliar ecumenical movement, but I remember clearly the arguments at Bushnell about whether organic union with the Evangelical and Reformed Church (horror: they had bishops!) would dissolve our local independence as a congregation. Yet, Bushnell voted to join the new United Church of Christ, and they and the Michigan Conference of Congregational Christian Churches sent me to Oberlin, where the new church's Statement of Faith was adopted.
Two years ago, during the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Faith and Order in the United States, I sat in the Finney Chapel in Oberlin, hearing the rafters echo the "Gloria" when the new Statement of Faith was confirmed. In its fiftieth-anniversary year, and in recognition of the broader ecumenical journey that gave birth to the United Church of Christ, it seems appropriate to use sections of that Statement to address the church's unity in mission.
Church unity appears in the second paragraph of the Statement: "You bestow upon us your Holy Spirit, creating and renewing the church of Jesus Christ, binding in covenant faithful people of all ages, tongues, and races. …