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Wallingford First is One of General Synod's Imagine What's Possible Winners

contributions from J. Bennett Guess

WALLINGFORD (04/13/2011) -- The First Congregational Church UCC of Wallingford has been named as the New England Region honoree in the "Imagine What's Possible" contest, which will recognize six United Church of Christ congregations who imagined a possibility and worked to make it a reality. Each of their stories will be shared at General Synod as part of an "Imagine What's Possible Music Celebration" on Saturday evening, July 2, in Tampa, Florida.

When the General Synod planning team invited UCC churches to tell their stories, more than 150 congregations jumped at the chance to enter the "Imagine What’s Possible" contest. The friendly competition, however, proved so lively -- and meaningful -- that choosing the winners became a difficult task for the contests’ judges, who needed an extra 10 days to reach consensus on their final choices.

First Congregational in Wallingford is recognized for its nearly five-year-old project "Holy Joe's Cafe," which has supported the ministries of U.S. military chaplains overseas since Pentecost in 2006. Under the leadership of Thomas Jastermsky, a deacon when the effort began, the church solicits donations of coffee and coffeemakers, receives requests from chaplains, and ships the supplies. At over 75 bases, many in or near war zones, service members find a casual, homely atmosphere to rest and find spiritual support.

"It's very humbling to be presented with this award," said Jastermsky, who praised UCC churches in Connecticut and around the country for their support. Thanks to the Rev. John Gundlach, the UCC's Minister for Government Chaplains, and Jan Resseger, Minister for Public Education and Witness, Holy Joe's was able to quickly make connections with chaplains, UCC congregations, and the Equal Exchange coffee program which aids poor coffee farmers.

"My hope is to provide a place," wrote chaplain Jeff Smith just a year into the project, "where they can come and get some coffee, tea, hot cocoa, treats, and be reminded of God's love for them." In 2010, Holy Joe's Cafes around the world received 18 tons of coffee, enough to serve 3.6 million cups, bringing a sense of comfort and of the concern of strangers on the far side of the world.

"That's what it's about," affirmed Tom Jastermsky, "ministry and caregiving." In his email box each morning, he receives the chaplains' thanks. "They're all so grateful for the prayers in different settings."

The Rev. Dean Warburton will join Jastermsky in accepting the award at the presentation on July 2nd in Tampa; both look forward to sharing the ministry's story, and continuing the work.

All Entries to be Shared

"The judging was tremendously difficult because every church’s story represents a huge investment of passion, ingenuity and commitment," said Edith Guffey, associate general minister and administrator of the UCC’s biennial General Synod. “I consider myself blessed to have been able to read many of the congregations’ moving stories before they were passed along to the Synod moderators.”

The contest was judged by 2011 moderator James K. Roberton, an attorney and member of First Congregational UCC in Watertown, Connecticut, and assistant moderators Carolyn Belson, an attorney and member of Waiola UCC in Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii, and the Rev. Patricia Aurand, pastor of First Congregational UCC in Mason City, Iowa.

"These stories certainly bring to life our 'Imagine What's Possible' General Synod theme in a powerful way," Guffey said.

The stories were so inspiring that Guffey has decided to compile a descriptive list of all the congregations’ entries to be shared online and as part of the Synod’s program book.

"I think UCC members everywhere will be blown away by the incredible depth of creativity and leadership that our churches have offered to meet the challenges faced in their congregations, communities and around the world," Guffey said. "At a time in which we are prone to doubt our own impact, at times, all of these 150 stories — and not just our six winning entries — need to be lifted and celebrated."

Imagine What's Possible General Synod logo

General Synod 28: July 1 - 5
Tampa, Florida

Wild, Attainable Dreams: the Winning Entries

Western Region:

In spring 2007, Everett (Washington) UCC found itself without a pastor, no money, poor communication, and a broken spirit. Today, it is a vital, growing and serving congregation, thanks to a faithful remnant that formed a church development committee with financial assistance from the UCC’s Pacific Northwest Conference.

Once a largely disconnected UCC congregation, it now embraces its UCC identity with a new website, letterhead, signage, and sanctuary renovations to upgrade its sound system and make the chancel accessible to wheelchairs. Twenty new members have joined, and a weekly feeding program for the homeless and unemployed has doubled.

While income generated from renting worship space to a Pentecostal congregation once provided much-needed resources, the church made the difficult, but faithful financial decision to end its lease agreement when it was learned that some of Everett UCC’s own were being harassed with anti-gay taunts. In turn, the church has become recognized as the region’s safe space for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons and organizations.

Everett UCC refused to give in to despair and decline, and renewed hope now abounds.

Great Lakes Region:

After learning of violent raids by customs officials and local police against Latino immigrant families in 2008, First Congregational UCC in Ypsilanti, Michigan — a small boldly progressive congregation — responded quickly to meet urgent human needs, including caring for children whose parents had been detained. With less than eight hours of notice, the church gathered 50 concerned citizens representing 20 faith-based and human-rights organizations and soon launched the Washtenaw Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights (WICIR).

Today, the church serves as WICIR’s fiduciary sponsor and is active in providing a full range of services — political advocacy, legal aid, community education, fund development, employer assistance and immigrant peer support — on behalf of their Hispanic neighbors. This UCC-inspired coalition now includes 35 churches and organizations and an email list-serve of more than 400 people.

Mid-Atlantic Region:

In early 2006, New Covenant UCC in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, decided it was time to CONNECT, the program it developed to engage town leaders to determine an unmet community need that the church could adopt and make its own.

When it was deciphered that Williamsport had limited housing for homeless families with children, New Covenant UCC purchased a large adjacent apartment building — long a community eyesore — and worked in partnership with the Family Housing Alliance, a coalition of 17 community service organizations, including the church, to renovate and repurpose the building as a four-unit living space. Combining grants, fundraisers, community labor and church-backed faith and financing, Journey House was dedicated in late 2007, providing two years of transitional housing and comprehensive services to those actively seeking to become self-sufficient again.

To date, 14 families — 20 adults and 20 children — have benefitted from Journey House.

West Central Region:

Zion UCC in Burlington, Iowa, is a downtown church in a town with a failing economy. When the pastor and congregation were feeling as if they were offering token assistance only to those who asked for help, the church sought a $20,000 federal grant to redesign and strengthen its capacity to respond to their neighbors' significant financial struggles.

The grant was not money to hand out to the needy, but seed money to fund the development of a sustained, long-term strategy. Today, Zion UCC’s comprehensive program, “Bridging the Gap,” offers a complete line of services to help the unemployed, including job training, resume writing, interview coaching and clothing, transportation, life coaching and budgeting, and GED tutorials.

A welcoming and growing congregation of 300 people, the church also has a commitment to meeting the needs of those beyond their hometown. Each year it gives 25 percent of members' pledges to Our Church’s Wider Mission, which funds the UCC’s connectional ministries regionally, nationally and globally.

Southern Region:

They once were two churches with vastly different cultures, neighborhoods and histories yet their buildings sat only four miles apart. But after Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005, Central UCC and St. Matthew UCC, both in New Orleans, began to hold joint services and deep friendships formed.

Since that time, they have decided to become one church with two campuses, devising a plan that allows each church to remain faithful to its roots while igniting new vitality for the merged congregation. Central UCC, in turn, decided to donate its insurance settlement to support a child-care organization, a critical need in the hurricane’s wake.

Just this month, they welcomed the first installed pastor of the combined congregation, a face well known in Connecticut: Canton native the Rev. Chris Mereschuk, most recently associate pastor at the First Church of Christ Congregational UCC in Glastonbury. "I was so inspired by the resiliency, the effort to rebuild, the determination, the hope that's there," he said in a recent interview on CTUCC.org. "It's a living and ongoing model of the resurrection."

Today, Central St. Matthew UCC in New Orleans is a diverse multi-racial, multi-cultural expression of UCC unity, one that shares blended traditions, spirited worship and new-found trust: “White and Black with no gray skies!” the church sings together.

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