Inspiring Opening Worship Sets Tone for CHHSM’s 85th Annual Gathering

The Rev. Traci Blackmon

The mood was both celebratory and purposeful as CHHSM members assembled at Kirk of Bonnie Brae UCC in Denver on March 7 for opening worship of CHHSM’s 85th Annual Gathering. While the gathering’s theme, “Together Through Mountains and Valleys,” echoed throughout the conference, the focus on justice and advocacy in health and human service ministries became key, starting with the beginning of worship.

Following a spirit-filled welcome by Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM, attendees were invited to participate in a special service project after worship: writing notes of thanks on provided cards to some of the 88,000 front line service workers in CHHSM organizations and agencies across the country. The sermon was delivered by the Rev. Traci Blackmon, the UCC’s associate general minister and vice president for Justice and Local Church Ministries.

Jamar Doyle

“The entire opening worship service, reflecting on our theme taken from Isaiah 40, provided a spiritual grounding for our time together at this Annual Gathering,” said Jamar Doyle, president and CEO of CHHSM. “It was a meaningful service of thanksgiving and advocacy.”

Throughout the worship service, that emphasis on thanksgiving, advocacy, and justice was felt, from the Special Blessing — Beatitude for Essential Workers — led by CHHSM Board Members Michelle Just of Beatitudes Campus in Phoenix and Jay Biere of Plymouth Place Senior Living in LaGrange Park, Ill., to the heartfelt sermon delivered by Blackmon.

Michelle Just

The Special Blessing was authored by the Rev. Elyse Berry, CHHSM’s associate for advocacy and leadership development, originally for the UCC Health and Human Service Sunday resource materials. “I really appreciated the way that the liturgies that Elyse created wove together elements from the Health and Human Service Sunday materials — the Beatitudes for Essential Workers — as well as poems by Bobby LeFebre, Colorado Poet Laureate,” said the Rev. George Graham, CHHSM vice president.

Before beginning her sermon, Blackmon remarked, “Coming to CHHSM’s Annual Gathering is one of the hottest tickets in the UCC! I thank CHHSM and Jamar for the opportunity to preach.”

Blackmon also gave special recognition to CHHSM Board Member Sandy Sorensen, director of the Washington, D.C. office of the UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries, who retires at the end of March after 32 years of advocating for justice for all people.

In her sermon, Blackmon reviewed the current state of justice in the United States, enumerating the ways in which we are not caring for people and creation. She noted that currently, there are 124 bills restricting the freedom of LGBTQA+ persons, and especially trans persons; that Walgreen’s will no longer dispense abortion pills in 21 states because those states’ Attorneys General have forbidden it, leading to increased state control over the lives and bodies of women.

Blackmon highlighted statistics: half a million people in the U.S. alone are unhoused; 20 states have introduced anti-protest legislation, making it more punitive and costly for the people’s voice to be heard; and as the climate is ignored, natural disasters are occurring with greater frequency.

Traci Blackmon\

But, she said, she noted that over the past several months, “I am continually hearing the same message for my life — to trust God. In the midst of everything — to trust God.”

Blackmon added that this is probably the simplest idea, but the most difficult to accomplish, yet it is a key factor in the maturation of our faith.

Turning to the reading from Isaiah 40, Blackmon noted that the emphasis is on the people’s actions and God’s response. ‘Through it all, God never abandoned them,” she said. “God never loses sight of us.”

“I know that sin is a bad word these days, but sin is still sin, and has consequences,” Blackmon said. “Our action towards others, or inaction towards others, has consequences. But the people still belong because God is faithful and we trust God.”

She noted that “the valley is for God. The way being made smooth [is] not for the people to have a way out, but for God to have a way in. Suffering will not cease, but some of us may be called to be messengers of a declaration that others may find hard to fathom. Life is filled with both hope and horror at the same time. The terrain is rough, and yet God promises a way will be made.”

The message of the passage, said Blackmon is that even when the people do wrong, God commands that they be comforted. God identifies them as God’s own.

“At times, we’ve been unwilling to forfeit our comfort for the justice of others,” she added. “And yet the God we claim still claims us, and treats us with compassion, and promises we will go through the mountains and the valleys together: not just you and I, but us and God! God chooses to be at work with us in our future.”

“No matter how challenging things may seem in the present, I just stopped by today to remind you that God can still be trusted,” Blackmon concluded. “I trust God. I pray that you do as well.”

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