Why pride month matters

Two United Church of Christ “God is Still Speaking” rainbow banners were found burning in an alley behind an LGBTQ-welcoming bar in St. Louis just before midnight June 3. Both almost certainly came from a theft at Kirkwood UCC, an Open and Affirming (“ONA”) congregation about 12 miles away, where a security camera recorded a young man cutting down and stealing two such banners at 10:55 p.m. that Monday.

While police investigate, the congregation is responding with courage and love.

A special message went up on the church’s sign board Thursday, June 6, next to the frame that held the banners: “God loves you if you are queer and even if you stole a banner from here.” Two members of the LGBTQ community who belong to Kirkwood UCC, Heather Arcovich and Barb Black, suggested the message, said Pastor Betsy Happel.

The congregation prayed for the thief in Sunday worship June 9. Happel will wear a stole she made from shredded remnants of the banner found on the church lawn after the theft. “This is a young person who is very troubled,” Happel said. “It’s a violent act to carry a banner to a specific place and burn it. There’s something troubled about this person’s soul. I have a lot of compassion for that. I wonder if it’s someone who’s wrestling with their own sexuality and doesn’t know what to do with it, especially in today’s environment. There’s a lot of brokenness in this world and a great deal of misunderstanding about the LGBTQ community, sexuality and gender identity. So we will pray for this person, and give it to God.”

The banners hung outside Kirkwood UCC for seven years without being defaced. The only opposition they attracted until now were occasional visitors who stopped to argue with Happel about LGBTQ openness.
– Written by Hans Holznagel

Praying against your enemies

On Thursday will be the 75th anniversary of D-Day. A day on which President Roosevelt prayed for the success of Operation Overlord. The stated goal was to crush the Nazi regime. So praying to God in this situation must be a prayer against the enemies, right?

Absolutely not. Great people pray for all God’s children, never against any of them. The last paragraph of Roosevelt’s prayer sums it up nicely:

“With Thy blessing, we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogancies. Lead us to the saving of our country, and with our sister Nations into a world unity that will spell a sure peace a peace invulnerable to the schemings of unworthy men. And a peace that will let all of men live in freedom, reaping the just rewards of their honest toil. Thy will be done, Almighty God. Amen.”

The operation was intended to overcome racism, to ensure peace, freedom and justice. But not even those were really requests, Roosevelt makes of God, but “Thy will be done”. Like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane the Allied Forces were offering blood, sweat, and tears. Nobody parachuted behind enemy lines or landed on the shore in order to get injured or killed. But they all accepted it the way Jesus accepted the fact that God’s will may just mean death on the cross. Jesus did not want to go to Golgotha: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done.” The more than 160,000 Allied troops did not set out to kill their German counterparts. The goal was to make this world a better place. In times of epic injustice, that may require great sacrifice.

What courageous actions are you taking to overcome racism, to ensure peace, freedom and justice in our day and age?

No Car No Gun

Over the past five years, the congregation that I serve has experienced one suicide per year. They only have 180 members. In my church, the suicide rate is 1 out of 180 every year. Why is that?

Research indicates two main contributing factors:

I remember one church member who had a lifelong career in law enforcement. As his dementia grew worse, he got angrier and angrier at his wife who was his main caregiver. One day he shot her as well as himself to death.

Another church member is – at least to my knowledge – not diagnosed with a mental health problem. But his wife as the primary caregiver is concerned about his passion for his rifle, shotgun, and pistols. At one point, church volunteers were able to help the wife secure the weapons. But by now, he has gained access again and her anxiety is on the rise again.

What these two men have in common is that both had given up driving a long time ago. In their 80ies, they simply were not fit enough to operate machinery that can endanger lives at a significant scale. I wish their families had used that time to also have the gun talk. I propose the following policy for families, caregivers, religious institutions, healthcare providers and anybody who helps manage the lives of senior citizens:

Or: when it’s time for grandpa to give up the truck, he also needs to give up the rifle.

This is not an infringement upon second amendment rights. Obviously, there is no age limit on constitutional rights but this is a voluntary action. Gun owners usually are concerned about their safety and the safety of their loved ones. Those difficult conversations occur around driving when it does not appear safe anymore. Firearms like motor vehicles have the potential to cause significant harm to the user and the people around them. When you have the “car talk” with a loved one, it is good practice to also ask them to surrender their guns.

New beginnings

On Easter Sunday 2014 by unanimous vote of the congregation I got elected to be the new pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ in Rosenberg. For the following five years we have done some great things together. We started a new Children Church’s program, we took on the sole responsibility for Vacation Bible School which we used to share with our Presbyterian and Brethren friends. We invited the German language community to a variety of annual events. Family ministry expanded its outreach activity by not only bringing communion to members in long-term care facilities but actually hosting all-facility worship services there. I was blessed to baptize and confirm your children, to get couples started into their married lives, and to lead funerals for those whose time had come. There has been some amazing forward movement and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to serve alongside all of y’all here for five years.

Honestly, we have not sustained our progress over the last couple of years. That’s why I decided to step aside. St. John’s responds well to new pastoral leadership coming in. You are good at building excitement about a fresh start. I hope you will do that again and make it to the next level in your congregational development. There was a reason church council decided to publish my letter of resignation. We wanted to get ahead of the rumor mill. That worked for the most part. The top two most awkward rumors that have come to my attention since were:
– St. John’s is closing its doors
– Rev. Haas is going back to Germany

I don’t have that kind of power. My resignation can hardly shut down a congregation that has existed since 1941. Quite the opposite: Your church leadership is hard at work coordinating with the Houston Association as well as the South Central Conference to plot a path into a prosperous future for this congregation. I am not going anywhere but I am delighted that I have the opportunity to continue ministry locally as a full-time chaplain for Compassus Hospice. Mirjam continues her thriving pastorate at St. Paul’s Presbyterian Church in Needville, and our kids get to keep their familiar environment of home, neighborhood, school, and sports.

I have consistently received a lot of praise for my weekly reflections. I will miss writing them. This is my last one for St. John’s. The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.

Where is your Ground Zero?

Yesterday was one of those days where we had the TV turned to the news for hours. The cathedral of Notre Dame was engulfed in flames. We visited just this past summer and now the place is in ruins. Glued to the TV, I was taken back to September 11, 2001. Is this a terrorist attack? If so, was there going to be a follow up attack? Is the Eiffel Tower next? None of that that happened. Nobody claimed responsibility. While I’m writing these lines, everything points toward an accident.

Somehow this fire struck a nerve, not only with me but at least the people I am connected to on social media. #NotreDame was trending on Twitter and still is. What is so important about this church in a country half a globe away? Three churches burnt much closer to home “on March 26, April 2 and April 4. The first was at St. Mary Baptist Church in the Port Barre; the two others were at Greater Union Baptist Church and Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in the small city of Opelousas, the parish seat. “

More than anything, France, with its history of absolute monarchy, perfected the centralization of state power, authority and administration. Everything in France focuses on Paris. Wherever you drive on French highways, signs will show you the distance to Paris. That’s where Notre Dame plays an even more special role. The precise point the distance is measured from is called “Kilometre Zero ” and it is located right in front of the entrance of Notre Dame Cathedrale.

Notre Dame is literally Ground Zero. So it’s okay to leave the TV on for longer than usual. But it raises an important question: Where is your Ground Zero? It’s good to know that about yourself. The three churches that burnt in Louisiana where “black” churches that were specifically targeted by a racist. This injustice cries to the heavens. Where the margins of justice are violated, people cry out. When orientation gets lost, like the one point an entire era focused on, people get irritated. Those so-called world affairs always have a deeply personal effect. They trigger something in you and me and I invite you to think that through and talk about it.

Holy Week Worship Schedule

Jesus said the temple would be torn down. Jesus got into trouble with those who were in power – both in religion and politics. If you want to hold on to power, Holy Week is not for you. The beautiful sanctuary that has served the people for generations will be destroyed. Grandparents and great-grandparents were proud founding families and everyone had a story to tell, whose ancestor laid which stone and made such and such contributions. Access to this sacred space was strictly limited by cast and influence, and money. If you are not here to bring your tithe, what are you here for then? Pay up or go home.

Jesus came to Jerusalem and right from the start he didn’t fit in. He was supposed to come as the mighty king who re-establishes King David’s glory – with class and power and authority. Instead Palm Sunday is the celebration of a rag tag bunch of underdogs sneaking into the city on the poor side of town. Please join us for this humble experience on Sunday, April 14th at 10 am.

Church is not a place for the strong. Remember how Jesus shared his last meal with his disciples: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” The people who come to church know that they mess up. They are the ones who understand that they can’t get it all right. We fail. We are the communion of saints, not the communion of the perfect. We gather in holy imperfection. Join us for a sinful meal on Maundy Thursday, April 18th at 6pm. The church council will provide appetizer and main course. You are invited to share desserts.

This week before holy week, our congregation has two funerals. Death is a constant companion in our lives. Good Friday stands as a powerful reminder for that. God Almighty has not shied away from the gruesome experience of human dying. God has experienced the pain and agony and loss just like we do. That’s what Good Friday is all about when we retell the story of Jesus’s crucifixion. Join us for lunch on Good Friday, April 19th at 11:15, followed by the service at noon.

The tables in parish hall are decorated with Easter bunnies. They are a symbol of life. Easter is the hope that death does not have the final say. That is best expressed through symbols like bunnies and eggs. Bunnies produce new life quickly. Eggs look like dead rocks rolled in front of the grave but eventually a little beak comes out announcing new life. Join us for the celebration of resurrection joy on Easter Sunday, April 21st for breakfast and egg hunt at 9 am, followed by the service at 10 am.

All Church Read – Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

Written by Connie Larkman
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Matthew Desmond, winner of numerous awards for his book which chronicles the lives of several families in the poorest neighborhoods in Milwaukee, will be the keynote speaker at the the United Church of Christ General Synod 32 in June. Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, a New York Times Bestseller, will also be the subject of the denomination’s 2019 All Church Read.

Evicted, based on years of embedded fieldwork and data, points to eviction as a root cause of poverty. Desmond’s keynote address will take place in the same city as his book, on Saturday, June 22 at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee. UCC congregations throughout the country are encouraged to organize book discussion groups around Evicted in ways and at times that best suit them and participate in the All Church Read. Everyone is invited to register to attend General Synod to hear Matthew Desmond’s keynote or tune in to the live stream and listen to his address as a group or on your own.

“It’s a deep honor that Evicted was chosen for the UCC All Church Read,” Desmond said. “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

His book introduces readers to eight families struggling to make ends meet. Arleen is a single mother trying to raise her two sons on the $20 a month she has left after paying for their rundown apartment. Scott is a nurse consumed by a heroin addiction. Lamar, a man with no legs and a neighborhood full of boys to look after, tries to work his way out of debt. Vanetta participates in a botched stickup after her hours are cut. All are spending almost everything they have on shelter, and all have fallen behind.

The fates of these families are in the hands of two landlords: Sherrena Tarver, a former schoolteacher turned inner-city entrepreneur, and Tobin Charney, who runs one of the worst trailer parks in Milwaukee. While they are fond of some of their tenants, as Tarver puts it, “Love don’t pay the bills.” She moves to evict Arleen and her boys a few days before Christmas.

“The UCC has led on issues of homelessness and hunger,” said Desmond, “and now I think we’re at a time when we ask ourselves what we can about families that are facing exorbitantly high rents and evictions.”

Desmond, the Maurice P. During Professor of Sociology at Princeton University, focuses his teaching and research on poverty in America, city life, housing insecurity, public policy, racial inequality and ethnography. In 2018, he received the Stowe Prize for Writing to Advance Social Justice, awarded by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center to authors whose work shines a light on critical social issues.

“Welcoming Matthew Desmond to Synod will provide us a meaningful opportunity to engage with his work on poverty in America,” said the Rev. John Dorhauer, UCC General Minister and President. “Let’s join together as a denomination in an All Church Read of Evicted. The Rev. Velda Love, UCC minster for Racial Justice will host a group discussion of the book both online and in-person on May 16 at 1:00 p.m.”*

Last year, Desmond’s Eviction Lab at Princeton University published the first-ever dataset of millions of evictions in America, going back to 2000. He and his team launched the Eviction Lab in 2017. They collect national data on eviction to help answer fundamental questions about residential instability, forced moves and poverty in America. Desmond and his team believe that stable, affordable housing can be an effective platform to promote economic mobility, health and community vitality. They hope their findings will inform programs to prevent eviction and family homelessness, raise awareness of the centrality of housing insecurity in the lives of low-income families and deepen our understanding of the fundamental drivers of poverty in America.

Using the Faith-based Reading Group Guide [available here as a PDF], UCC churches can delve into these issues through book discussion groups. The guide prompts readers to consider questions like this, “Faith-based organizations have traditionally had a special responsibility to help the poor. For some people, the less fortunate can offer a unique opportunity to demonstrate the power of their beliefs. Do you believe that your organization can provide support—whether financially, spiritually or socially—to those facing eviction in your community?”

CROP Walk 2019

Thoughts and prayers are not good enough! When it comes to human suffering action is needed. And you have a great opportunity to act in two distinct ways: You can walk and donate! The CROP Walk has raised awareness of hunger in our communities since 1969. By joining the West Fort Bend County CROP Walk you make our voice bigger and louder. The more people join the walk the harder it is to ignore hungry children in our communities. On Saturday, April 13, please come out to Harvest Park, 3001 Violet St., Needville, TX 77461 . Registration is at 8:30 a.m. and the walk begins at 9:00 a.m. It is a short, easy walk.

Besides your feet, you may also bring your wallet. Funds raised benefit Helping Hands, Needville Food Pantry and hunger projects around the world through Church World Service. Together, we can help end hunger in our community and around the world! You may donate even if you can’t make it on Saturday. Please donate online here.

Over the last 37 years St. John’s United Church of Christ has consistently been among the top fundraisers. This year let’s also be among the largest walking groups! In recent years we had extra support from Boy Scout Troop 309. This year Physical Therapy in Richmond has again pledged to bring additional walkers. Join our team and give hunger no chance!

Rev. Daniel Haas resigns as pastor of St. John’s UCC

Today, March 18th, 2019 the Church Council of St. John’s United Church of Christ received the following letter:

Dear brothers and sisters,

I hereby give 90 days’ notice of my resignation as pastor of St. John’s United Church of Christ according to our call agreement. My last day will be Sunday, June 16, 2019.

Over the past five years I have attempted to work with the people of St. John’s to turn things around for this shrinking church. I am grateful for the opportunity to build profound pastoral relationships, start new and end old ministries. Going forward it is my assessment that St. John’s needs a person with a different skill set who can challenge you in different ways. This congregation deserves another chance to chart a new path into a new future and over the past five years we have laid some groundwork for that. I am not the leader you need in this season of church life. St. John’s still has a few years of financial viability left and you should make the best use of this window of opportunity.

The South Central Conference of the United Church of Christ will assist you with the search and call process. Please rely on our siblings in the Houston Association in this time of transition. I plan to stay local and pursue ministry in specialized settings.

May God bless you on this journey.

Rev. Daniel Haas

More Than We Can Imagine – One Great Hour of Sharing 2019

It may seem a weak word when compared with all the need that we see daily in the world. We hear the word “imagination” and we may think to ourselves “fantasy.” We hear the word “imagination” and we wonder if it is truly helpful in a world where some would say, “clear-eyed realism is what is needed to face the challenges before us.”

Yet far from being a light, weak, or un-real thing, imagination is actually one of the most powerful engines for change that human beings have! Long ago, the philosopher Aristotle said that “Thinking itself begins in wonder, begins in imagination,” and he was right. Imagination, particularly when it is fueled by a vision of God’s hopes for all humankind, can keep us energized to do the good that is possible.

The theme for the 2019 One Great Hour of Sharing Special Offering is “More than we can imagine!” The theme, based on Ephesians 3:20, reminds us that we are not alone in our imagining a better world for all of God’s children. For it is God’s imagination that fuels and empowers ours! You see, God imagines a world where:

  • No one is left to face the ravages of natural disaster alone – neighbor helps neighbor, stranger helps stranger – for we are the church together
  • Even if things will never quite be the same after a disaster, God can work through all events to bring new life, new hope, and even more resilience
  • Clean and abundant water and ample sanitation facilities are available to every person;
  • Work brings security from hunger and the land is treated with respect
  • Families displaced from their homes are able to build new lives
  • Women are no longer subject to discrimination and gender-based violence
And God also imagines Christians of many traditions, coming together to help make these things ever more a reality for more and more people! For you see, our imagination of what might be is founded and grounded in what God envisions and hopes for. We can help – through our gifts of treasure and talent, prayer, and presence to make this world ever more like the way God imagine it would be!

On Sunday, March 31, 2019, please, give generously to the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering, so that your imagination might indeed be ever more joined with God’s!