I didn’t know much about Milwaukee when I made plans to visit the city for the 32 General Synod of the United Church of Christ.  I booked plane tickets and hotel reservations a couple of months ago and hadn’t given the city much thought until I arrived. But, I confess, I didn’t expect much.  Everything I knew about Milwaukee I learned from Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, so I didn’t have much to go on.

I’m not that great with geography and upon my arrival to the city I was surprised to learn that it sits on the shores of Lake Michigan.  My hotel was only about a mile and a half away from the lake so last Thursday morning, I set out on a walk to see what it was like. As you might imagine, the lake was pretty great.  It was a beautiful morning and I sat in the park feeling a cool breeze over the water and enjoyed the sun.

I walked to and from the lake a few times last week which gave me the opportunity to explore a little bit of downtown  Milwaukee. At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Early on a Thursday, there wasn’t much going on: I didn’t see much traffic, the streets seemed pretty empty and were easy to cross  even against the lights. There’s some great architecture with a variety of elaborate styles but many seemed empty or run down. I passed a restaurant called Karl Ratzsch that had painted crests and stained-glass windows representing the German heritage of many in the areas.  But the paintings were all faded and the windows were dark.

There were signs that the city was attempting a revitalization: some of the older building, though empty, appeared to be under construction – emptied out of the old and awaiting the new.  Signs advertised coming loft apartments and seemed to be attempting to lure residents and new businesses into the empty spaces. The city wasn’t perfect but it was trying to be better.

It was interesting to walk around the city and observe but that’s not really why I was there.

The General Synod is the biennial meeting of representatives from the conferences of the UCC.  It’s an opportunity for delegates to bring forth and address resolutions about the business and vision of our denomination.  I was attending as a visitor so I didn’t have to attend committee meetings or votes – which is why I was able to spend a lot of time walking around the city. 

Fortunately, the plenary sessions where the business was being discussed was live streamed on social media.  For many of my walks, I took in the sights of Milwaukee while listening to the discernment of our denomination.

Delegates discerned and voted on a variety issues ranging from how we do business as a denomination to proclaiming a Christian witness to issues that effect our nation and our world.  They declared support for the Green New Deal, called on congress to investigate rising violence in our country, denounced religious bigotry, neo-nazi and white supremist violence, called for an end to private for-profit prisons, for the nation to pull back from the brink of nuclear war, and for a dedicated effort to address the opioid crisis.

General Synod sought to lift up diversity as well.  The week began with a ritual request with the Ho Chunk people – the Native American nation on whose ancestral lands we were gathered.  The ritual included admitting that many of us are descended from colonizers and confessing our church’s complicity in the systems of injustice that keep the land from being restored to them.  Leaders of the UCC requested and were given permission from leaders of the Ho Chunk nation to gather there.

Scripture readings, songs and prayers were shared in a variety of languages; resolutions created an ecumenical relationship between the United Church Of Christ and the Iglesia Evangelica Unida De Puerto Rico, and acknowledged Latinx ministries and the mental health network as “historically underrepresented groups,” ensuring them a voice at our tables.  Voters also approved a call for the UCC’s bylaws to be re-written using non-binary gender language. And throughout the week, voices of the youth were lifted up as we listened to their views on the issues before the body.

Not all of the discernment and discussions were easy or straight forward.  62 years ago the United Church of Christ was formed by the joining of four fairly diverse historical denominations with the call to be in covenant together, looking for Christ’s guidance to keep us in relationship even when – especially when – we disagree and struggle to find common ground.

Our denomination continues to be made up of local churches that don’t always see eye-to-eye.  It’s always heartening to be an event like General Synod and to be around so many folks who are “just like me.” But it often also highlights the differences.  During this Synod, there was discussion about the re-nomination of John Dorhauer as General Minster and President for another four years. Rev. Dorhauer has been a great advocate for justice over the past four years but many also feel that 62 years is too long for our denomination to go without a President who is not a man.

Another resolution called on General Synod organizers to deny exhibit space to the Faithful and Welcoming churches, a group that encourages folks who identify as Evangelical, Conservation, Orthodox, or traditional to remain in the UCC to give voice to those ideologies and theologies.  For some, that means resisting or actively working against the denominations Open and Affirming welcome to the LGBTQ community.

The discussion around this topic was painful.  There were many who spoke of the hurt that they have experienced through homophobia and transphobia while others focused on the UCC’s proclamation that all are welcome.  Some felt that remaining in covenant with Faithful and Welcoming churches was the best way to shine God’s love and to help them understand what it means to be ONA.

Ultimately, the resolution was tabled and a call was made for the Board of Directors to create a behavioral covenant for anyone requesting space in the exhibit hall and to ensure that voices of those who have been hurt are lifted up and heard.  It was a difficult conversation and one that was not well suited to Robert’s Rules of Order. Perhaps that was the biggest lesson learned: we need to find ways to have Christ-like, loving conversations without parliamentary procedures and standing rules.

Listening to the business of the church often reminded me of walking around the city.  There were times when the state of our denomination felt like sitting on the shore of the great lakes:  sunny, cool, and breezy. Sometimes, it felt like seeing the faded murals on that German restaurant or the dingy architecture of abandoned buildings.  Christianity is in decline worldwide. 

The UCC is discerning where God is calling us.  Like the apartments and stores under construction, we’re seeking visions of what we are to become while trying to also stay grounded in our traditions.  Like many cities, Milwaukee runs the risk of gentrifying – pushing out older folks, poorer folks, or people of color – and believing that will bring revitalization.

I believe that the United Church of Christ knows that’s not how the reign of God looks.  Our hearts are being drawn to the diversity of God’s world and we are hearing the call to let others in, to listen to voices different from our own, not calling down fire from heaven but to and to stay in relationship with each other to create the kingdom of God.

The UCC isn’t perfect but we’re trying to be better. I hope that we can learn from others within our denomination and outside of it to help us discover the Divine truth, to proclaim God’s love everywhere,  and creating a home for Christ in our hearts.

May the Holy Spirit guide us to what’s next for the United Church of Christ, for Memorial Congregational Church, and for our own lives. Amen.

Milwaukee and Me and the UCC