Inspired CHHSM Annual Gathering Focuses on Justice and Grace — Together

Blackmon was the preacher during the closing worship service.

From a pre-conference visit to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel — where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — to the Rev. Traci Blackmon’s stirring words during the closing worship, the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries’ 82nd Annual Gathering left attendees moved, inspired, and recommitted to their ministries.

The Gathering, held March 3-5 at the Guest House at Graceland in Memphis, drew CHHSM members and friends from across the United States. For CHHSM Board Member Chris Cox, executive director of Hoyleton Youth & Family Services, the Annual Gathering gave him “a sense of energy that I haven’t felt in other gatherings.” Cox attributes much of that energy to the number of first-time attendees “getting the experience for the first time of the family of providers, and what CHHSM is, and why it’s so important.”


The museum set the tone for the Annual Gathering: Justice and Grace — Together.

The visit to the museum on the afternoon of March 2 focused participants on the Annual Gathering’s theme, “Justice and Grace — Together.”

“The pre-conference visit to the National Civil Rights Museum, and reflection on that experience, set the tone for the Gathering,” says Stephanie Franklin, senior vice president of UCAN in Chicago. “Dr. King’s legacy is justice and grace. We learned; then reflected; then, the following day we served [in a service project] and then worshiped together,” a perfect combination to “set the mind and spirit.”

The Rev. Brenda Booth, executive director of Isaiah 58 Ministries in St. Louis, agrees. “I was so grateful for the opportunity to reflect on the experience as a whole group” following the museum visit, “respectfully listening to and sharing with each other our own reactions and experiences,” she says. “This reflection time was a crucial part of the experience, and one that was both necessary and appreciated.”

The morning of March 3 included the service project — cleaning common areas, delivering personal hygiene products, and sharing lunch at Woodhollow Glen, a United Church Homes affordable housing community in Memphis — and options for attending CHHSM’s Child and Family Services Affinity Group or Affordable Housing Affinity Group.

Inspiring Worship, Workshops, and Plenaries

Opening worship included a reaffirmation of baptismal vows.

Opening worship March 3 was at First Congregational UCC in Memphis, with the Rev. Ginny Brown Daniel, conference minister of the UCC’s regional Missouri Mid-South Conference, preaching.

“The sermon by the Rev. Dr. Ginny Brown Daniel and our reaffirmation of baptismal vows linked the waters of baptism to the waters of justice — our calling as Christians is to do justice,” says the Rev. George R. Graham, CHHSM vice president. “The sanctuary provided gracious space, and the contemporary gospel music renderings by soloist Kesha Cook fed my soul.”

One of the highlights of the Annual Gathering occurred the morning of March 4 during the “If It Weren’t for the Women: Women’s Leadership in Social Justice” all-women panel discussion. The panel discussion — featuring Moderator the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson, the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo, and the Rev. Loey Powell — centered around the stories of each panelist, and how they became who they are today.

“The conversation with the panel of women was inspirational,” says the Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, executive director of the Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging of United Church Homes. “The thread that has reverberated for me in the days since revolves around the idea that justice is born from the seed of hope. And women, our mothers, are the bearers of that hope. We need to remember how important this message is when we remind the children they are called by God. This is the heart of that hope.”

The panelists: Blackmon, Powell Jackson, Jaramillo, and Powell.

“As I listened to the panel, I was aware of how those women on the stage have served as the bearers of that hope for me in my own faith journey,” Long-Higgins adds. “And how grateful I am for their witness as ordained clergy in the world.”

All four panelists stressed the need for more such discussions throughout the UCC. “I was inspired and humbled just to be sitting next to three courageous sisters. A common theme emerged as we each acknowledged and honored our own mothers … women need women to build our confidence and strength for the journey,” says Jaramillo. “Obviously, there has to be more of these opportunities.”

“One young woman said she started thinking about the generational aspect of leadership and how we learn from one another across the years” from the panel, says the Rev. Loey Powell. “If seeds were planted that will produce new growth in CHHSM leaders and organizations in the years to come, thanks be to God!”

The Rev. Richard P. Ellerbrake, former director of Deaconess Health System in St. Louis, found the panel discussion to be “a rare treat. I appreciated the opportunity to see and hear all four of these distinguished women on the same panel at the same time,” he says.

A series of workshops on a vast array of subjects were held on March 4 and 5. Workshops included presentations and discussions on such topics as leading with a justice lens, framing the aging process at the intersection of justice and grace, CHHSM and local church partnerships over time, and faith-based advocacy for the 2020 election, among others.

Sorensen, Berry, and Ellis.

“Be A Voice: Faith Based Advocacy for the 2020 Election” was run by the Rev. Elyse Berry, CHHSM associate for advocacy and leadership development; Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC’s Washington, D.C., office; and Essence Ellis, CHHSM Scholar and a student at Yale Divinity School.

“Having the chance to present with Elyse and Sandy was pretty awesome,” says Ellis. “I’m fairly new to the game. Having the chance to not only watch them present on work they’ve been curating together, but be a part of the presentation and collaborate with them was a great opportunity.”

The Rev. Bruce Roller, executive director of United Church Outreach Ministry in Wyoming, Mich., appreciated “that all the how-tos I was seeking were carefully wrapped in a spiritual frame of mind. My passion is stirred to go back and be the person I want to be, doing what I am called to be, a person who is receiving and channeling grace — seeking justice for all people.”

One of the most impactful workshops, held March 5, examined historical trauma and the impact it has on persons of color and other disadvantaged persons. The workshop presenter was Niquanna Barnett, an individual and family therapist for UCC-related Orion Family Services in Madison, Wis., who, as a recent graduate of the Nollau Leadership Institute, is a CHHSM Diakonal Minister.

Niquanna Barnett presents the historical trauma workshop.

Barnett’s introduction “was so thorough and she was so generous with her sources that I will be studying her notes and researching her sources for weeks,” says UCOM’s Roller. “Soon, I hope to introduce our staff at UCOM to this concept that gives a whole new perspective to some of the behaviors we see in people with whom we work every day.”

Kyle Zanker, chief development officer at Crossroad Child and Family Services in Fort Wayne, Ind., found the session “eye opening,” adding, “This was the first time I had heard a presentation about historical trauma, and I felt a very real shift in my understanding of those who experience it.”

A second plenary in the afternoon, sponsored and run by the Annual Gathering’s presenting sponsor, Ziegler, focused on finding common ground. The interactive session focused on ways to honor faith-based identity and values while reaching out to form partnerships in order to undergird organizational mission. Led by Steve Johnson, Ziegler’s manager director, and Tom Meyers, senior managing director, the session ended with a discussion on such generative topics as how faith-based affiliations and founding principles can be maintained in interfaith partnerships and how changing demographics impact the faith-based culture and mission of an organization.

Nollau Leadership Institute Class Shines

The Nollau class discussed their projects with attendees.

Throughout the Annual Gathering, the capstone projects from CHHSM’s Nollau Leadership Institute class were on display. “These projects were designed by the participants in order to create a specific resource for their organizations — something that they needed but never found the time to create until now,” says Michael J. Readinger, president and CEO of CHHSM.

Attendees were able to hear presentations from Nollau class members, and each project included a scannable QR code leading people to more information on the project. The class members were consecrated as Diakonal Ministers during the closing worship service.

“The Diakonal Ministers gave me more than my fair share of practical wisdom in the capstone projects they completed,” says Roller. “Thanks to a great app developed for the Gathering, I was able to scan the QR codes and take their whole projects home with me.”

“It was uplifting for me, being part of the ‘old guard,’” adds Hoyleton’s Cox, “to see the younger generation and their passion and energy — like my own passion — and to know that they will carry on this work, that this work will continue for generations.”

The New Ballet Ensemble.

A performance from the New Ballet Ensemble and School in Memphis was the highlight of a Memphis-themed dinner March 4. The ensemble performed ballet, modern dance, and jookin (a Memphis-based hip hop style) in inspiring, creative numbers. New Ballet “put together a Memphis-based show to highlight our culture and inspire the audience,” says Noelia Garcia Carmona, associate artistic director. “We honor our past, embrace the present, and dream for a better future, and we do it through the arts.”

“This year, building on the theme of justice and grace together, I was struck by the bookending of the Civil Rights Museum and the dance company during dinner on Wednesday night,” says the Rev. Joanna D’Agostino, senior minister of Lakewood (Ohio) Congregational UCC and an Annual Gathering workshop leader. “That will stay with me for a long time.”

Toward a Future of Possibilities

The final day of the Annual Gathering included a plenary presentation by Dr. G. Scott Morris, founder and CEO of Church Health in Memphis, which provides quality affordable health care for working, uninsured people and their families.

G. Scott Morris during the final plenary.

“I was especially impressed and invigorated by keynote presenter Dr. Scott Morris as he talked about his creation and development of the Church Health Center in Memphis,” says the Rev. Cindy Bumb, vice president of spiritual care at Emmaus Homes in St. Louis. “What a bold vision, to compassionately and thoroughly serve the medically underserved, without government support, in the name of Christian witness and mission!”

Also on March 5 was a session on CHHSM’s Vision 2030. The collaborative and generative conversations during the session examined what CHHSM’s future might look like, and what a world of transformational changes might look like. Attendees were asked for personal responses to such topics as the CHHSM value proposition of inspired leaders with shared values and bold vision; what the CHHSM vision statement — together we create a just, caring and compassionate world — really means; and what the future holds for faith-based associations like CHHSM and their own member organizations.

“The Vision 2030 presentation and discussion was a great jumping-off point for future work,” says Readinger. “The task force will now take the ideas generated at the session in order to adapt to our changing world and remain a relevant and meaningful leader in health and human services into the future.”

The discussion was co-facilitated by the Rev. Monica Dawkins-Smith, pastor of First United Church of Bloomington, Ind., and a CHHSM board member. “I was pleased with the energy, engagement and enthusiasm from the members and attendees,” she says. “Additionally, 15 people volunteered to serve on the Vision task force. Sessions like this create opportunities for membership engagement — one of CHHSM’s strategic goals.”

CHHSM also held its annual business meeting during the event. In addition to recognizing retiring board members and new officers, it welcomed two new CHHSM members: Doorways, based in St. Louis, an interfaith non-profit organization that provides housing and relative supportive services to individuals and families affected by HIV/AIDS; and Generations Care Partners Foundation in Chicago, which works with congregations to help them become effective change agents in their communities.

CHHSM staff with the Nollau graduates and newly consecrated Diakonal Ministers.

The Annual Gathering closed with worship featuring Blackmon as preacher, and the Diakonal Minister consecration.

“Being consecrated as a Diakonal Minister with my class was very meaningful to me,” says CHHSM’s Graham. “In a very real way, it affirmed our common call to be serving leaders.”

Attendees to this year’s Annual Gathering left with a renewed sense of energy and purpose.

“It was heartwarming to hear people’s comments and curiosity about the location of next year’s meeting,” says Dawkins-Smith. “They were already looking forward to the next annual gathering!” The 2021 Annual Gathering takes place March 1-4 in Louisville, Ky.

Crossroads’ Zanker says that one of the most valuable aspects of the Annual Gathering is “the opportunity to sit with colleagues who are not competitors and talk about what is ‘keeping us awake at night’ and what is improving lives in our organizations. I learn something new to take back to my mission every time we meet!”

As a local church pastor, D’Agostino makes it a priority to attend the Annual Gathering. “When I went through the Nollau Leadership Institute in 2016-2017, I learned so much about what these agencies are doing to further the mission, vision and values of the UCC, and I believe that not enough of my colleagues know what is happening within CHHSM, and that we are missing an opportunity to amplify our voices together,” she says. “So I committed to attending CHHSM gatherings, to be a voice for the local church, and to build bridges.”

“When all is said and done,” she adds, “the networking opportunities are always what I’m most grateful for. I have CHHSM colleagues I reach out to for advice on staffing, financial planning, long-range planning, and other nonprofit leadership support.”

For the Rev. Laverne Joseph, president of Retirement Housing Foundation, based in Long Beach, Calif., the entire Annual Gathering was an enriching experience. Joseph says he was “inspired by the women’s plenary and how our UCC leaders have led the way on so many important social justice issues which changed the church and the world.”

“I always enjoy meeting with colleagues from UCC organizations to discuss what we are all doing to address the growing health and housing needs in our nation and world,” Joseph says. “As our Annual Gatherings conclude, I always look forward to our next one, because each one seems to get better. I believe this is the church in action, which makes a huge difference in the lives of so many persons.”

Browse through photos from the Annual Gathering.

Save the Date: The 2021 Annual Gathering will be held March 1-4 in Louisville, Ky.

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