An historical first in the United Church of Christ will be the centerpiece of CHHSM’s 82nd Annual Gathering, to be held March 2-5 in Memphis. On the morning of March 4 at 9 a.m., a panel discussion in the opening plenary will feature five renowned UCC women leaders in justice advocacy. Coming on the heels of the gathering’s March 2 visit to the National Museum of Civil Rights at the Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, “If It Weren’t for the Women: Women’s Leadership in Social Justice” will be a poignant and deeply personal look at the unique role women continue to play in the fight for equality and justice.
Led by the Rev. Traci Blackmon, associate general minister of the UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries, the panelists include former UCC justice executives the Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk (Office for Church in Society), the Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson (Commission for Racial Justice and Justice and Witness Ministries), the Rev. M. Linda Jaramillo (Justice and Witness Ministries), and the Rev. Loey Powell (Coordinating Center for Women).
The panel discussion will include conversations among the panelists and with the audience, including time at the end for the panelists to offer what they see as a hopeful look into the future.
“I think it’s really important to stop and recognize the critical role that women have played in the UCC’s history of bearing witness and doing justice,” says Powell Jackson, who currently serves as pastor of First UCC of Tampa. “These include women who have served our national staff, but also include women who have served as clergy and lay leaders and have been in the forefront of our justice commitment. We are looking forward to speaking their names, but also to recognizing the women of the present and future who will move us forward one step at a time.”
In addition to their time with the national offices of the UCC, each of the panelists has spent decades in the faith-based fight for justice and peace, often at a personal cost rooted in societal racism and sexism. Blackmon, who also is pastor of Christ the King UCC in Ferguson, Mo., continues to a prominent leader in the struggle for justice, as she was following the murder of Michael Brown. Delk, who at 81 has spent the past 60 years working on justice issues, led the UCC’s former Office for Church in Society from 1981 to 1990. Each of her experiences has informed her ongoing advocacy work and her life.
“1981 began an amazing journey of women serving [in justice leadership],” Delk says. “Much has happened in our church and our world. We have each brought our gifts, our passion, our visions to the task. In many ways, we each in our ministries have been resourced by both the challenges we have faced and the foundations we have helped to create. It is my hope that we will share our stories of both the challenges that we have faced and the impact we have had on the UCC, as well as our hopes for the future.”
Jaramillo, who led Justice and Witness Ministries from 2005 to 2013, believes the trip to the museum will set the tone for the entire Annual Gathering, whose theme, appropriately, is “Justice and Grace — Together.”
“At a time when our nation is deeply divided and the sin of racism and the practice of sexism so blatantly evident all across the country, it is important to be reminded of our need to repent and repair the breach,” she says. “My hope is that CHHSM attendees will listen to our stories so that they have a better understanding of our experiences, individually and collectively. However, listening is only the first step to change, as we return home to our own communities and recommit to confession and boldly speaking out in the public square.”
The event marks the first time an all-women panel of justice advocates has intentionally gathered for a presentation at a national UCC meeting not geared specifically for women.
“Sadly, the voices of women in the movement are often muffled or ignored, but that has not deterred us from speaking our truth from the power of our individual experiences,” says Jaramillo. “I look forward to being with these sisters and powerful justice warriors again.”
As Powell — who served as executive director for the UCC’s former Coordinating Center for Women from 1997 to 2000 and, later, for JWM focusing on women’s justice and peace — says, “When you look into the people who were intimately involved in social justice movements, it’s usually the men who get the credit, but it’s the women who actually were holding things together, often behind the scenes. We understand intimately the importance of coming together as women in a still predominantly patriarchal society, including our own church.”
“Rev. Delk, Rev. Powell Jackson, Rev. Jaramillo, and Rev. Blackmon are faithful ministers within a predominantly white denomination and know in the cells of their bodies what has been at stake here and what the cost has been,” Powell adds. “I have been out as a lesbian since 1974, long before the Open and Affirming Movement, and I know in the cells of my own body what has been at stake and what the cost has been. But we also know the power of faith and the power of women across the church when we come together in common purpose to name, challenge and remove those -isms. It is what gives hope.”
But perhaps Delk’s thoughts best sum up the goal of all the panelists: “I hope that our input will not only be informative and inspirational for those at the CHHSM Annual Gathering,” she says, “but that it will be shared with the larger church as a way of not only remembering the past, but also for the affirmations and understandings that will shape the present and future directions of the UCC.”