From Foster Child to Ministry: DiPina to Bring Powerful Message to CHHSM Opening Worship and Consecration of UCC’s Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being in St. Louis
When the Rev. Toni DiPina begins her sermon during the service consecrating the United Church of Christ-related Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being in St. Louis, she will be — in one sense — coming full circle. But, as she often stresses, it will be the beginning of a new important phase, not only for her, but for the ground upon which the center was built.
In May 1963, DiPina was found abandoned by two boys playing football in a vacant lot: the lot upon which the new center now stands.
“It feels surreal to return to the very spot where I was abandoned to bless the work that God has ordained for his beautiful children, who will be blessed by the work of this ministry,” DiPina says. “I am so honored to be given the chance to bless the spot where my life changed forever.”
The consecration takes place March 1 during the opening worship of the UCC Council for Health and Human Service Ministries’ Annual Gathering. The Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being will house a grant maker, child advocacy organization and youth service provider under one roof, thus providing the setting for community meetings and collaboration. It will be a community action take to help strengthen alliances for child-friendly public policy and child advocacy.
“We want to cultivate a movement for child well-being in St. Louis,” Deaconess’ President and CEO the Rev. Starsky Wilson told the St. Louis American. “Movements need activated individuals, creative ideas, and institutional expressions. This will be a place where they all come together for kids.”
Wilson says that DiPina’s story became an inspiration for the entire project.
“Her story became an inspiration for the building project that kept our staff, trustees, task force and building team focused on why we were doing this work,” he says. “It became clear to me that in the Deaconess Center for Child Well-Being, God was reclaiming ground made sacred by movement in the life of one of God’s own daughters. We knew … that when the time came to open the space, she would have to be a part of it.”
The Road to Ministry … and the UCC
DiPina crystalized her call to ministry while at UCC-related Andover Newton Theological School in Newton Centre, Mass. Growing up Lutheran, she says she “felt called to ministry as a young adult, but there were very few examples of women ministers … I’d never come into contact with a female minister, and so I rejected God’s call and worked towards escaping poverty.”
When the call returned “stronger than ever,” DiPina entered Andover Newton, where she was introduced to the UCC. “I knew scripture and I could quote Bible verses, but it wasn’t until I connected my faith with justice that a fire was lit inside of me,” she says.
Ordained in the American Baptist Church, a denomination with theology similar to the UCC, DiPina’s work since ordination has been in UCC congregations. Currently, she is pastor of Rockdale Congregational UCC in Northbridge, Mass.
“The UCC’s desire to welcome all people, and its desire to let all people know that God welcomes them, snagged my heart and soul,” she says. “The UCC has a long way to go to make that a reality in their churches, but the fact that they have publicly and unabashedly made this their call attracted me and has held me.”
“I pastor an all-white UCC congregation, and I’ve learned from this experience that people do want to connect to and learn from others who look differently from themselves,” she adds. “I love my UCC congregants, and my congregation loves and supports my teachings … We are living out the UCC aspiration to welcome all!”
Returning to Where It Began
The two boys who found the infant DiPina might be surprised to learn of her life’s journey so far. Indeed, her road has not always been smooth, and the message she will bring CHHSM members attending the opening worship service will be rooted in her life experiences.
“I grew up in foster care, and my voice was often dismissed. When I spoke out about abuse, I was not believed or heard,” she says. “I want my UCC health and human services colleagues to hear that children’s voices need to not only be heard, but affirmed.”
The message is important, she says, because she has never forgotten the people who did hear her voice when she was a child. Teachers, friends, and mentors, she says, “allowed me to grow and survive.”
DiPina says she also will be bringing a message of hope: hope that the new center’s ministry “will disrupt the messages to poor children and families that their lives are irrelevant; but instead let them know that they are, indeed, God’s beloved” so that they can “flourish and live into who God has created them to be.”
“It is knowing that I was and am God’s beloved that has allowed me to live into who I am today,” she says. “I feel as if God has turned this ground from a place of shame and guilt for whoever abandoned me into holy ground, where God’s goodness, grace, and compassion will spill over into generational healing.”
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