Bishop Yvette Flunder
Photos by Eric Anderson
by Eric Anderson
SHARON (09/26/2012) -- Bishop Yvette Flunder challenged and inspired seventy of her Connecticut UCC clergy, musician, and Christian educator colleagues during the two days of General Association September 24-25. She told her own story, the story of the church she founded among some of San Francisco’s most marginalized people, and the story of how she came to love and to be part of the United Church of Christ. Coming to Silver Lake Conference Center from a variety of backgrounds -- Midwestern farms, Southern hills, segregated urban neighborhoods, and even the narrow valleys of New England -- many of the participants found the courage to recover the roots of their particular faith and the summons of their particular call as they returned to their ministries.
Bishop Flunder was raised in the exaltation and the strictures of the Church of Christ, a branch of the Pentecostal movement known for charismatic worship and rigid social roles. Though she felt a distinct call to pastoral ministry at a young age, there was no route to ordained leadership in her church, and she felt increasingly oppressed by its condemnation of same-gender relationships even as her heart would sing with its music. She took first one step, then many, to bring the facets of her life into a diamond.
At City of Refuge UCC, the church she founded in San Francisco, measuring success by the customary standards is difficult. There are people who come to worship. There are other people who come to the food pantry or the clothing bank. There are others who come to meet with case managers or to find shelter or help with medical care for HIV disease. Most of these, said Flunder, never come to worship, but they would all say, “This is my church.”
It is not easy to meet the needs of a diverse urban population, many of whom have little in the way of material resources, many of whom labor under the burdens of social ostracism and economic deprivation, and some of whom suffer the effects of drug and alcohol addiction. Part of the challenge, Flunder said, is to learn as much as possible about the needs they seek to address.
|Ministers listen to Bishop Flunder|
In one heartbreaking story, she described the death of a newborn, whose parents were both addicted to crack cocaine and whose mother had used the drug while carrying the baby with the result that his lungs never developed. It was only in preparing the funeral, Flunder realized, that the parents were able to find a way to finally “do things right” for the child they had truly loved, but been prevented from caring for properly by their addiction. So she gathered a group of knowledgeable people, many of them former users, and asked them to tell her about it.
It finally clicked, she said, when one of them told her that after using crack, the other pleasures in life no longer make the addict happy. Cocaine becomes the only means to feel good. With that knowledge, she was able to redirect her own efforts as a pastor and with treatment centers, so that today both of the parents are clean, and they have two healthy children.
A similar question arose when transgendered people began to show interest in City of Refuge, and Flunder again gathered some of them together and asked the question, how can we show you welcome? Among the surprising responses was that gender-labeled restrooms – marked for male or female – caused stress and angst for people in transition. The solution, one that meets city building codes, was to renovate them and mark them as handicapped accessible, and then the gender signs could be removed.
She stressed as well that caring for the marginalized requires resources, and that they are often beyond the means of those traditionally called church “members.” City of Refuge regularly seeks funding from other philanthropic organizations, businesses, and government at the city, state, and Federal level. She herself served on San Francisco’s Parks and Recreation governing board, and church members are active in government and community organizations across the city. The commitment to service and the connections made with people in power make the ministry possible.
Flunder reflected further on the story of the Good Samaritan, who dared to cross so many boundaries to meet the need of the man before him. But she asked as well, what about the road which allowed the traveler to fall into the hands of robbers? Who is going to fix the road?
She encouraged the leaders present to go to the heart of their spirit and to look and see the need around them. She urged them to take risks on behalf of the poor, marginalized, and oppressed, and praised the United Church of Christ as a denomination that has been willing to take risks, and has paid the price for it.
She quoted a conversation with Bishop Carlton Pearson, who said, “The question is not really what will we live for, but the question is what do we believe in enough that we would die for it?”
“What do we believe in enough,” she asked the preachers, “that we would say what we need to say, move in the way we need to move, in the way we know we need to move, if there was a cost that would completely change our life?” There are many deaths, she noted, from the loss of comfort through the sting of failure to the one that ends life.
“And how much do we believe in the resurrection principle? And if I do put myself in harm’s way, is God God enough to see to me?” In the UCC, she said, she’d found a church that would pay a heavy price, in the loss of members and money, for her and for people like her. It made her more determined to extend the church’s ministry and love.
In his moderator’s address, the Rev. Ken Peterkin, pastor of the Essex Congregational Church UCC, asked his colleagues where they find refuge. He shared that, after many years of faith and ministry, he found solace and strength in going literally to his knees for prayer. Since he began the practice, he said, his spiritual life had deepened and grown; when you imagine me in a safe place, he told them, imagine me on my knees.
Interim Conference Minister the Rev. Charles L. Wildman shared news of the Conference and denomination in his address, including comment on the Board of Directors’ recent announcement that they will recommend that the Conference retain a larger share of Our Church’s Wider Mission Basic Support contributions from local churches. Search Committee Chair the Rev. Gordon Rankin urged those who might still be discerning whether they have a call to be Connecticut Conference Minister to make up their minds quickly, as the application deadline is September 30. The Search Committee, he assured the body, is very excited about the quality of the candidates. He expected that the review and interview process will extend into the new year.
General Association is the oldest annual gathering of clergy in the United States. Originally founded as part of the system for governing the Congregational church in Connecticut, it has served for many years now as a renewal, educational, and spiritual retreat for professional leaders of the state’s UCC churches.
The Rev. Eric S. Anderson is Minister of Communications and Technology for the Connecticut Conference UCC.
Photos from General Association 2012, Sept. 24-25
Photos by Eric Anderson