CHHSM’s 85th Annual Gathering Filled with Renewal, Justice, and Hope
Connection. If one word can sum up three days of worship, workshops, keynotes, meetings, and social gatherings, it’s connection — at least in terms of the 85th Annual Gathering of the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries, themed “Together through Mountains and Valleys” and held March 7-9 in Denver.
“The 85th Annual Gathering was filled with tears and laughter, learning and reflection, community and individual moves of the Spirit,” said the Rev. Donna Smith-Pupillo, executive director of Deaconess Nurse Ministry in St. Louis. “Many of us need time to reconnect, to see each other and be together in meaningful ways that allow us each to be touched by the Spirit.”
Chris Cox, president and CEO of Hoyleton Youth and Family Services, agreed, commenting that the Annual Gathering showed “the importance of the relationships, the importance of being present with one another.”
Cox, who has been attending Annual Gatherings since 1991, continued, “I simply have not been able to get that same feel and connection off of a video call. Sharing ideas that are being done around the country helps us understand that we all have struggles and issues, and they’re common in the health and human service sector.” He stressed the “importance of being together and being able to share and connect. I have struggled to find this in any other setting.”
Darlene Sowell, president and CEO of Unleashing Potential in St. Louis, called the Annual Gathering “just what I needed.”
“The Annual Gathering is always an opportunity for me to rejuvenate my spirit and recharge my battery to lead the mission of Unleashing Potential. It is refreshing to see like-hearted friends who are doing God’s work in their communities,” Sowell said, adding that it’s “the chance to share the valley and the mountain top highs that have happened over the last year in my day-to-day work. The beauty of CHHSM is being able to do so with laughter, listening and love!”
The Rev. Andrea Asselmeier, chaplain at Emmaus Homes in St. Louis, also mentioned connection. She cited CHHSM’s annual business meeting, held during the gathering. “I am always moved by the membership report,” she said, “which highlights the board and impressive impact that we have together. It reminds me of the importance of doing whatever good I can even when it doesn’t feel like it makes a huge impact, because when we all do this together, our impact is much more significant.”
The CHHSM Annual Gathering is “how I get re-grounded in the fellowship of agencies and institutions that share a legacy of services putting faith into action to serve people,” said the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Daniel, president and CEO of United Church Homes. “It’s a time of developing friendships and networking with peers across the country.”
Mingling at Montview Manor
The event kicked off with a pre-event Mix and Mingle at Montview Manor, one of Archway Communities’ affordable housing communities in Denver. As the local CHHSM agency, Archway played a special role in hosting this year’s Annual Gathering, including the Mix and Mingle and a special Denver Art Museum experience that closed the event.
“The opening event at Montview Manor was a wonderful chance to showcase our work and provide our UCC guests with a great view of the city and the Rocky Mountains from our 13th-floor meeting space,” said Sebastian Corradino, CEO of Archway. “I found this to be a nice chance to get to know some new faces from within CHHSM and the UCC world in general.”
The Rev. George Graham, vice president of CHHSM, expressed gratitude to Archway for its hospitality. “Besides enjoying the view and the food, a number of attendees commented how meaningful it is to be able to visit onsite at a member community and hear about the great work they are doing,” he said.
Worship Set the Tone
As with past Annual Gatherings, this year’s opening worship service set the tone for the entire conference.
“From the opening of the sessions throughout the closing, there was an attitude of celebration and hospitality,” said the Rev. Dr. Jamesetta Ferguson, senior pastor of St. Peter’s UCC and president and CEO of MOLO Village in Louisville Ky., and a newly-elected CHHSM board member. “Celebration for being able to be together without the looming darkness of COVID and the hardship that we experienced over the past three years. Celebration because of the meaningful and God-centered work of all the missional partners of CHHSM. And yes, celebration for being present ‘Together through Mountains and Valleys’ of life’s journeys.”
The opening worship preacher was the Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister and vice president, UCC Justice and Local Church Ministries, whose sermon focused on trusting God. Blackmon “delivered a message that challenged us to consider how God clears the path before us to bring us closer to the divine so that we may in turn use our blessings to clear the path for others fighting injustice to bring us closer to a world as right and just as God intended it to be,” said Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM. “This message and indeed the entire opening worship service provided spiritual grounding for our time together at the Annual Gathering.”
Lee Syria, president and CEO of EveryAge in Newton, N.C., concurred. “The opening worship service at Kirk of Bonnie Brae UCC with the Rev. Traci Blackmon’s sermon was a highlight and set the tone for the Annual Gathering,” she said. Syria added that she appreciated “the way each of the worship and plenary leaders stayed true to the theme of the gathering. I’ve been to many Annual Gatherings and typically the theme and scripture reading are not as present throughout each day and message.”
Keynotes Deliver Powerful Messages
The Rev. Dr. Ben Sanders III, currently strategic advisor, Office of Internal and External Affairs for the Denver Department of Transportation and Infrastructure, delivered the keynote address to open the first plenary on March 8.
“I most enjoyed Dr. Ben Sanders III because he spoke authentically about his journey,” said the Rev. Dr. Sheila Harvey, CHHSM board member and senior minister of Union UCC, West Palm Beach, Fla. “He intentionally opened up so that we could see him not only as a black man but also as a human being. He allowed us to journey with him into his childhood, advanced education, professorship, fatherhood, and into his current role as a city executive. By doing so, we experienced his life’s mountains and valleys as a black youth growing up in American and how this experience has formed who he is today. The opening plenary session was a wonderful example of the importance of trusting God in every season of life.”
Stephanie Franklin, senior vice president, family and transition services at UCAN in Chicago, also found Sanders’ message inspiring. “When Sanders said that we are ever hearing, but never understanding, and ever seeing, but not perceiving — Whew! — that hit me in relation to how some of the young people I work with feel. They are up against multiple systems that ask for their feedback … but are we really listening?”
Sandy Sorensen, retiring director of the UCC’s Washington, D.C., office, talked about Sanders’ framing the challenge this way: “How do we stand together when the stories that shape us are so different? We have to tell the truth about suffering and let it speak. One way I believe this can happen is through the powerful partnership between CHHSM and the UCC justice advocacy work,” Sorensen said. “I see it as a way of amplifying and connecting the voices in our communities that are speaking the truth and naming the pain to the places and spaces where policy decisions are made. I celebrate that this partnership continues to grow and expand.”
The March 8 afternoon plenary keynote took the form of a panel discussion moderated by Lisa McCracken, director of senior living research and development for Chicago-based Ziegler, a privately held investment bank, capital markets and proprietary investments firm specializing in the healthcare, senior living and education sectors, and platinum sponsor of the Gathering. Panelists included the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Daniel, president and CEO of United Church Homes based in Marion, Ohio; Christa Hamilton, president and CEO of UCAN in Chicago; and Bethany Johnson-Javois, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis.
The discussion focused on ways that ministries can find balance between fulfilling mission while being responsible stewards of increasingly limited resources.
“The energy and camaraderie is always contagious at the CHHSM Annual Gathering, and this year was no exception. It is clear that the CHHSM membership is not only looking to advance their individual missions, but are collectively working to make the world a better place,” McCracken said. “We need to learn best practices from one another, we need to use our collective voice to drive meaningful change and we need to not be afraid to make hard decisions that will ensure the perpetuity of the organization. What worked in the past or the services provided in the past may not be what the future looks like. We need to be open to change and pivot as needed to ensure we can continue to support the work we do.”
The panel discussion “was the most meaningful session for me and my organization,” said MOLO Village’s Ferguson, “as it covered the complexities of funding for nonprofits and the need to find alternative funding sources other than the traditional models of philanthropic fundings or service reimbursements. We were challenged to dream and imagine what is possible for our organizations if we get outside the box.”
The discussion “showed how many common issues there are across sectors — whether affordable housing, services to older adults, or children, youth and families,” said CHHSM’s Graham. “I appreciated the fresh take that Bethany Johnson-Javois offered on philanthropy and suggestions she made for organizations to work together to request foundations make changes in funding patterns.”
The Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, vice president of engagement and director of the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging at United Church Homes, agreed, noting the positives of a “conversation that included three very different types of agencies — aging services, children and youth services, and a foundation. We are usually very siloed in other conference settings with organizations in similar service lines, and I find the interchange of mission to be helpful and refreshing.”
Rounding out the keynotes was a presentation by the Rev. Tracy Howe, team leader, Faith Education, Innovation, and Formation, UCC Justice and Local Church Ministries, and founder of Restoration Village Arts.
“I very much enjoyed the Rev. Tracy Howe’s keynote as she spoke to life that exists in the midst of the desert,” said the Rev. Brenda Booth, executive director of Isaiah 58 Ministries in St. Louis. “The imagery of the desert flourishing after a heavy rain made me realize personally that although my work may feel dry and pointless, there is life existing below the surface, just waiting to bloom at the right time.”
MOLO Village’s Ferguson concurred, calling Howe’s message one of “hope and togetherness … as she spoke of our own understanding of spiritual transformation as we journey through life.” Howe also spoke “of her personal battle of the oppression of ‘whiteness’ and we as God’s people and communities need to allow the truth to speak so that transformation can happen.”
“I was blessed to be present at the event. I left the event energized, ready to try some of the new ways of doing mission in my community,” Ferguson added.
Workshops and Affinity Groups for Everybody!
Much of the Annual Gathering was given over to workshops, small group sessions on a variety of topics that included resources and information attendees could take back to their own organizations.
One of the workshops was co-presented by board members from the UCC Mental Health Network on “Becoming a WISE Organization” (Welcoming, Inclusive, Supportive, Engaged). “I enjoyed the generative discussion we co-created together in the WISE congregations workshop,” said Bethany Johnson-Javois of Deaconess Foundation. “I was able to hear about common struggles, things we’re trying to get ahead of crisis, and brand new information I wasn’t aware of.”
“I am really glad that board members from the UCC Mental Health Network were able to present the workshop,” added Graham. “CHHSM and a number of our members are exploring processes to consider this designation.”
For UCAN’s Franklin, “[CHHSM Scholar] Dr. Zaria Davis’ restorative justice in the workplace workshop was an ‘a-ha’ moment. We have restorative justice in schools, in the court system, but it makes so much sense to have it in the workplace. We spend eight-plus hours per day with colleagues, and our relationships help move the work. When those relationships are damaged by microaggressions or misunderstandings, the people that we support suffer. We must care for and respect each other as colleagues to help others.”
Hoyleton’s Chris Cox said he thought the workshop on active shooter preparedness and workplace safety “was excellent.”
Cox said that the workshop, presented by a representative from Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency, Region 8, of the Department for Homeland Security, raised the questions of how to concentrate on workplace safety and still maintain a therapeutic environment for Hoyleton’s clients. The workshop provide state of the art tools and resources, which Cox said he will bring to Hoyleton as well as the child welfare organization in the state of Illinois.
Faith Community Nurse’s Smith-Pupillo attended a workshop outside of her field, which she deemed one of her favorite moments of the conference. “While I am not a senior housing provider, while attending the philanthropy workshop that Plymouth Place presented, I heard the message of telling your story with passion and conviction, sharing what you do with excellence,” Smith-Pupillo said. “That’s something I can relate to even in my ministry.”
Like Franklin, Smith-Pupillo also found the restorative justice workshop meaningful, leaving her with the questions, “How do I, as a leader, put restorative justice in policy and action? What must I do to bring healing into the space or work, and even my own life?”
Several of CHHSM’s Affinity Groups — clusters of CHHSM-member executives and staff that commit to meeting together regularly — also met during the Annual Gathering, including the groups for long-term care providers, child and family services, affordable housing, and small member organizations. Others met informally over meals, including Illinois South and Missouri-Mid-South attendees, who “reconnected and recommitted to gathering throughout the year,” according to Emmaus Homes’ Asselmeier.
Archway’s Corradino particularly enjoyed the Affordable Housing Affinity Group meeting because it “afforded those of us interested in this subject a nice opportunity to connect and better understand the different housing organizations associated with the UCC, and explore ways we might collaborate.”
Closing Worship, Diakonal Ministers in Denver Art Museum
Closing worship took place at the Denver Art Museum. Among its highlights were a moving sermon by Dr. Miguel De La Torre of Iliff School of Theology in Denver, with service music provided by keynoter Howe. The culmination of the service was the consecrating of this year’s Nollau Leadership Institute class as Diakonal Ministers.
“The service was a celebration of the week’s events as well as of our graduating Nollau class of 2023,” said CHHSM’s Doyle, “and De La Torre’s sermon reminded us how our foot washing savior’s service to others was often an act of righteous rebellion against the oppressive forces of the time, a fitting message as a new class of Diakonal Ministers were consecrated and presented with foot washing bowls and towels as a symbol of their service ministries in their various settings and communities.”
Earlier in the Annual Gathering, the class’ Capstone Projects summing up their views on leadership had been on display in the Annual Gathering meeting space.
“I found the reflections on leadership offered by Nollau participants deeply moving and instructive,” said the UCC’s Sorensen, “making space through equity and inclusion, being present, being relational and collaborative, being willing to embody vulnerability and courage, lifting up a shared vision.”
New Diakonal Minister Maria Soto, member services manager of the UCC Pension Boards, found everything about the day meaningful — “seeing my Nollau family again, their hugs and laughter; reading their capstones on leadership and learning more about them.”
“But most of all,” she added, “our ceremony, being presented and becoming consecrated as Diakonal Ministers during closing worship was so meaningful. I got emotional and teary-eyed. Best class ever, Nollau class of 2023!”
For new Diakonal Minister Jonathan Paredes, associate pastor at Church of the Apostles UCC in Lancaster, Pa., the Annual Gathering was a culmination of his entire experience in the Nollau Leadership Institute, “because I was able to connect the work of CHHSM agencies with the great people actually doing the work. It’s one thing to just read a blurb about a company, but to sit and share with individuals about their lives and ministry is formative, and now I have a real divine tether to them as we build a kin-dom.”
“I always enjoy the closing worship and graduation of the Nollau class,” said Nicole Pretre, CEO of Cedar Community in West Bend, Wis.. “To hear how the program has impacted them personally and professionally, and to see the joy and sense of accomplishment in the graduates, is fantastic.”
Following the worship service, attendees had the chance to tour the Denver Art Museum, renowned for its collection of indigenous art from the Americas. With collections of more than 70,000 diverse works from across the centuries and the world, it is one of the largest art museums between Chicago and the West Coast.
“One of my takeaways and what will stay with me is that after all of the meetings and worship, the visit to the galleries in the Denver Art Museum spoke to my heart about who is telling the story,” said Smith-Pupillo. “The one gallery had art and story from indigenous people and the gallery above it was art from European artists depicting Middle Eastern and indigenous people. The juxtaposition of those two galleries brought that message right to my heart that I will never forget. It will forever change how I listen to others and respond to them, letting them tell their stories.”
Renewed and Rejoicing
During the final day of the gathering, CHHSM staff — with the help of various St. Louis CHHSM agencies — announced St. Louis as the location of the 2024 Annual Gathering. The moment provided additional reasons for rejoicing.
The 2023 Annual Gathering was one filled with joy, inspiration, and also awareness of the work still ahead.
“I am so appreciative of this year’s attendees and the energy each person brought during our sacred time together, said Michelle Just, CHHSM board chair and president and CEO of Beatitudes Campus. “From the opening worship to the consecration of this year’s Nollau class, the theme of “together through mountains and valleys” was powerfully felt.”
The Rev. Darrell Goodwin, CHHSM board member and the executive conference minister of the UCC Southern New England Conference, found meaning in the emphasis on justice. “I was heartened by all of our keynote speakers and their ability to connect scripture and our faith to the ‘why’ of inclusion. CHHSM has really positioned itself as a leading voice around diversity, equity, and inclusion in the health and human services space. It’s important as faith-based institutions to note that our commitment to justice is not in spite of our faith, but is a direct outpouring of our faith.”
Reflecting back on the activities at the Annual Gathering, the Rev. Shari Prestemon, conference minister of the UCC’s Minnesota Conference, said, “CHHSM leaders are incredible examples of leadership excellence rooted in passionate commitments to living and inclusive care, justice, and community. CHHSM is truly a precious gift to us in the United Church of Christ.”
Hoyleton’s Chris Cox said he enjoyed getting to know CHHSM President and CEO Jamar Doyle better during the gathering. “CHHSM is in good hands under Jamar’s leadership,” said Cox. “He understands the important role we all help him play, and the uniqueness of the faith-based connection to our work and how it drives our social justice work.” No matter our background or opinions, Cox added, “we’re called to care for all of God’s children.”
New CHHSM Board Member the Rev. Dr. Lee Berg, pastor of Washington Park UCC in Denver and chair of Archway’s board, found the Annual Gathering “a wonderful learning experience for me, and an opportunity to meeting new friends who share a sense of calling in the work they do.”
“Part of what I enjoyed most was learning the depth and breadth of the impacts CHHSM affiliated ministries and organizations have across the country. The uniting of such organizations in doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly for the past 85 years as CHHSM is awe inspiring,” Berg added. “This Annual Gathering of CHHSM served as an invigorating reminder that we are not alone in the work to which we are called.”
Or, as UCAN’s Stephanie Franklin put it, “The Annual Gathering provides partnership opportunities that may not otherwise be there. We are a beloved community of service people, and we need each other to move mountains and clear valleys.”
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