"We asked churches to tell their stories. We wanted to hear not only about the impact of pandemics on their congregations, but also about the impact the congregations have on their communities and the world," said committee chair Kari Nicewander. "We have churches doing incredible ministry to dismantle racism, live God’s love and justice, and care for their communities, walking in the ways of Jesus. We asked churches to demonstrate their commitment to living out the values of our conference, and they sure did!"
The Conference Board last fall voted to make $1 million in accumulated assets available to support congregations in doing bold new things to adapt their ministries during these challenging times. Find more about the program here. A recoverable grant means that the church enters a covenant to return funds to the Conference as the congregation is able, potentially far in the future, thereby allowing the funds to be redeployed to support the mission and ministry of the Conference.
Nicewander, senior pastor of Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford, CT, and a member of the Conference Board of Directors, said there are other congregations that the committee is continuing to work with, as they make modifications to their applications, who will also receive grants in the near future. Additionally, the committee plans to offer another round of grants, likely starting in the fall.
The following churches are receiving grants in May:
First Congregational of Ashfield, MA
This rural, western Massachusetts congregation intends to use its grant to launch the Ashfield Community Action Ministry, which will have three priorities: to build peer-to-peer and community-to-community relationships with faith and activist organizations in Springfield and Greenfield; to open the sanctuary and meeting rooms to neighbors and surrounding communities to study, lift up, and grapple with the rural poverty, racial discrimination, and income inequality in the hilltowns; and to professionalize the church's communication and proclamation.
"We recently called a young part-time minister, the Rev. David Jones, to serve our congregation. He did not grow up in the church, but joined the United Church of Christ because he believes the UCC is uniquely positioned to connect and serve the enduring struggles of Black liberation and economic inequality in our country. Prior to receiving his call to serve our rural community church, Rev. Jones, a Canadian, served a small Open & Affirming church in Jacksonville, Florida, with a focus on community outreach and activism for police accountability. He also worked as a rank-and-file union activist and organizer in a warehouse job at a major logistics corporation," church leaders wrote in their application, "Rev. Jones’s experiences align well with our church’s long held concern for social, racial, and economic justice. We believe the multiple pandemics of systemic racism, economic inequality, and climate crisis now call on us to be bold and to gamble on the future."
United Congregational Church of Bridgeport, CT
Located in one of the poorest cities on the Eastern Seaboard, and yet surrounded by some great wealth, this church has a history of creative outreach to neighbors, The church's pastor, the Rev. Sara Smith, founded nOURish BRiDGEPORT - an independent non-profit entity that serves as the mission arm of the church, and which provides groceries, diapers, coats and English classes to those in need. In 2016, the church sold it's building to the Bridgeport Islamic Community Center and moved to a new, rented location.
The church intends to use it's grant to launch X-Celebrate Bridgeport, to be housed in a largely empty YMCA. This will be a "Hub of Good" providing collaborative space for spiritual communities, non-profits, for-profits with a mission, direct services and events. The church currently has six non-profits ready to be part of the venture, two other faith communities, and several for-profit enterprises that are interested in moving into the space. The for-profits include a pay-it-forward café, a food market, a brewer and a microgreen farm. They will be staffed by neighbors who are currently clients of the food pantry and soup kitchen, who will receive training and financial education.
West Gloucester Trinitarian Congregational Church, Gloucester, MA
This church, on the North Shore of Massachusetts, plans to use its grant to overhaul an outdoor space so it can be better used for and by the community. Before the pandemic, the church had only used the space for Easter sunrise services. But in 2020, the church used it to host a pumpkin patch fundraiser, a month-long food drive, a diaper drive, and a live nativity. Now, they want to make the "Sacred Grove" more useable and accessible by leveling the ground, smoothing two large tree trunks to create a pulpit and communion tale, building a retaining wall and large fire pit, installing solar lighting, planting an arborvitae hedge by a nearby highway to act as a sound barrier, and purchasing lightweight weather resistant seating.
"The Covid-19 pandemic has forced our church outdoors, which has allowed us to connect with our neighbors in new and faithful ways; gathering to bear witness for racial justice; collecting resources for mission; bearing witness to the power of our “Still Speaking God’, even in times of conflict and pain," church leaders wrote in their application. "Our vision is to create an accessible outdoor space to use for worship and education; to share with 12-Step Groups and other health and recovery programs; and to provide a visible, accessible location for local social justice groups to meet, offer educational programing and hold gatherings where all are invited and there is ample space for everyone who wants to learn about and advocate for racial justice."
Faith Congregational Church, Hartford, CT
The pastor of this church, the oldest African American church in Hartford, retired just before everything shut down last March, which caused much of the membership to lose its connection with the church. The church nested with Immanuel Congregational Church in Hartford from March to November, 2020, holding joint virtual worship services online. Then a new designated term pastor was called, and attendance and giving began to increase. Prior to the pandemic, the church had identified a need to reach out beyond is walls, opening a warming center by providing overnight housing and meals for people. The pandemic forced the housing to close.
The church now is looking to expand its offerings, learn new ways to worship, upgrade its technology, and find personnel who can communicate in more modern ways. "We continue to have FAITH in OUR FUTURE as a congregation," the church leaders wrote. "God is not finished with us yet!! We are called to spread the Gospel in our community, which we have done for more than 200 years. We welcome the opportunity to strengthen our congregation and expand our mission in partnership --and with the support of the SNEUCC!"
Hope Central Church, Jamaica Plain, MA
Since 2011, this Boston new church start has nurtured and ordained 27 people to the learned Christian ministry. Leaders write: "they are Black, white, queer, straight, poor, rich and all are in congregations or in the academy." For 10 years, the church has had a commitment to racial justice and racial equality, and recently has focused on asking each family to explore its own generational wealth or impoverishment. In January, the church began to make material reparations - offering $1,000 to each person in the congregation descended from enslaved people. This project has been partly funded by a Boston University School of Theology Lilly funded project, and partly through directed donations and the church's mission budget.
"The reparations we offer and receive come with no expectations or obligations to the congregation or to anyone. The reparations are not based on current need but are given because reparations are due. Our folks who receive this cash reparation are free to use the money in any way they choose," church leaders wrote. "What we hope we will all share by the offering and receiving reparations is the spiritual experience and blessing that can come from the work of repair."
Melrose Highlands Congregational Church, Melrose, MA
"We see the grant allowing us to engage the greater community around MHCC in anti-bias/antiracism training and discussion," this urban church's leaders wrote in their application. "We envision a sequential series of Anti-Bias Learning Sessions for Members of the Melrose Community. Various anti-bias areas of focus would be selected and adapted to the sequential learning sessions (including the ADL’s anti-bias framework Explore Identity, Interpret Differences, Challenge Bias, and Champion Justice, as well as targeted sessions on Developing a Common Language, Bridging Cultural Divides, and Action Planning to Create Personal and Systemic Change)."
The church also plans to host other events, such as speakers, films or musicians, to help the community explore antiracism and to provide a platform for educators and performers of color. "We envision the impact of this work will build a network for long-term cooperation within Melrose and surrounding communities to combat racism, champion equity, and work together to become allies for BIPOC in our community," they wrote.
Dixwell Avenue Congregational UCC, New Haven, CT
This church, the oldest African American Congregational Church, was founded in 1820 and has been an institutional leader in the social justice ministry of the United Church of Christ. Dixwell serves as a center of information and best practices and diversity of thought and membership. For example, the church in 2019 partnered with the Department of Psychiatry at Yale Medical School to offer a behavioral health drug treatment program for members of the community with a spiritual component supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Health.
The pandemic hampered the church's ability to host such programs and, of course, to hold in-person worship. The church, therefore, is intending to hire a webmaster and videographer, and to buy an array of hardware and software that will allow them to expand their online worship and other programming to reach more people.
First Congregational Church in Randolph, MA
This church, located in a very diverse Boston suburb, has just entered an interim time after having engaged with a consultant to look at their mission, which revolves around serving the community. That has included a youth ministry and a vibrant music program that connects with many youth and young adults from the community, including a summer theatre program. The church intends to deepen its commitment to that mission, and revisit it with an eye toward the realities of racism that have been so harshly revealed in the pest year.
"In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, the church reacted immediately by co-signing a statement made by Randolph’s churches decrying racial injustice and by hanging a Black Lives Matter banner on the front of the church. Along with these outward-facing statements of support, we examined and educated ourselves. We sent out a church-wide survey about our experiences with and attitudes towards racial injustice and held a three-session virtual seminar for the congregation on the history of racism and on becoming anti-racist. Should we receive this grant it will enhance our support of staffing and development of racial justice programs that will enable us to listen and learn and network in new ways with the community," the church leaders wrote in their application.
Agape Spiritual Community, Waltham, MA
A relatively new church start, Agape see itself as a community dedicated to fostering spiritual practices. Through it's part-time pastor, Agape has offered free mindfullness and meditation programs through the Waltham public library, senior center and a variety of other local non-profits. Agape is now providing virtual meditations to the wider community, as well as weekly mindfulness sessions for children all over the country, which includes storytime for the children to integrate self-care lessons. Agape has also been involved in outreach to the homeless, partnering with Chaplains on the Way to collect and distribute personal care items and to advocate for those with no access to shelter, food or even bathrooms during the pandemic.
The small church has been supported through a variety of grants and donations since its founding, and four years ago began stewardship campaigns. However, with a drop in contributions during 2020, Agape has had to cut its part-time pastor's salary and make other reductions. Leaders wrote in their application: "As a new church start that embraces our diverse membership and thrives in the intergenerational nature of our community, we believe our example is the change we want to see in the world. Whether it’s working to slow the hurried and harried pace of the typical modern family, or the vegetarian meals we offered before COVID and during our online zoom auction, we live out what we believe ... We imagine this program will help us find our way over the hill of sustainability that we are trying to climb. We are so close to transitioning from a church with bibs to a church with aprons, yet COVID has put our climb over that hill into slow-motion."
Tiffany Vail is the Director of Media & Communications for the Southern New England Conference.