Near the end of Synod, CHHSM member ministries pose in the selfie booth.

Part family reunion, part education and information session, part network building … and a lot of fun and hard work. These sentiments express the overall reaction of CHHSM members participating in CHHSM’s first-ever presenting sponsorship of the UCC’s General Synod, held June 21-25 in Milwaukee, Wis.

As presenting sponsor, CHHSM’s Synod presence helped introduce the full breadth of member ministries to attendees. Activities included several “fireside chats” on a plethora of topics, more than a dozen spotlight presentations, successfully sponsoring a resolution on the opioid crisis, and cosponsoring the Valerie Russell lecture and the health and human services luncheon.

“CHHSM is the church, too,” says Michael J. Readinger, president and CEO. “Our many activities together combined to touch more people than any other General Synod I’ve attended.”

The Work of Synod

The CHHSM resolution on the opioid epidemic was overwhelmingly approved by Synod delegates.

For the third time in the past four General Synods, CHHSM sponsored an important health care-related Resolution of Witness. “On Recognizing Opioid Addiction as a Health Epidemic, Ensuring Access to Treatment and Pharmaceutical Corporate Responsibility” was introduced to delegates by Katie McCloskey, director of social responsibility for United Church Funds.

“CHHSM organizations … have a ground’s eye view: These organizations work to treat addicted patients, rehome displaced family members, and navigate coverage for treatment,” she told delegates. “If you or someone you love needs help, seek CHHSM out.”

After McCloskey reiterated UCF’s support of the resolution, some 97 percent of voting delegates approved the resolution. Previous General Synods have passed CHHSM resolutions on affordable housing (2013), and naming gun violence as a health care epidemic (2017).

Attendees Realized What CHHSM Does

Lee Syria and Joy Cline explain CHHSM’s Passport to Travel program during a fireside chat.

Readinger says that CHHSM member participation at Synod was key in helping attendees realize the mission and ministry of CHHSM organizations across the country. “People came to our booth seeking information about our member ministries, and we were able to show them locations and email them links right on the spot,” he says.

Joy Cline, chief marketing officer of United Church Homes and Services — based in Newton, N.C. — agrees. “I thought the opportunity for all of us to showcase as a group gave much more presence,” she says. “It also helped us to learn about one another and pitch in if someone at our booth really needed a product that another CHHSM member offered.”

For the Rev. George Graham, CHHSM vice president, CHHSM’s participation in such a centrally-located exhibit hall space contributed to its success. “I think the sponsorship really raised the visibility of CHHSM,” Graham says. “For many people who did not even know what ‘CHHSM’ stood for before General Synod, it helped them learn not only what the initials stand for, but what we stand for as an organization, and how what we do is the work of the church.”

Often, small conversations created the largest impact. During a fireside chat on CHHSM’s Passport to Travel program, for example, “one person commented that she did not think she was ready for retirement living,” says Lee Syria, president and CEO of United Church Homes and Services. “But after hearing about the program, she thought she might be more interested in living in a senior living community!” Another chat attendee was seen looking up CHHSM communities in the exhibit space.

Large Exhibit Space Was a Benefit

The art exhibit in the CHHSM space was a hit among Synod goers.

In addition to renewing acquaintances, putting faces to names, and handing out information, CHHSM representatives from 15 organizations worked together with national staff to create an educational, creative space for Synod goers. Not only did the exhibit space provide each CHHSM member with a booth for literature, but the CHHSM space featured a presentation area, a place to look up CHHSM providers, and a selfie booth for creating memories.

The exhibit hall space also featured an art installation of works created by residents of many of CHHSM’s communities. Featured works included pieces from Charles Hall Youth Services in Bismarck, N.D.; Retirement Housing Foundation, headquartered in Long Beach, Calif.; Emmaus Homes, based in St. Charles, Mo.; Abernethy Laurels, a United Church Homes and Services community also in Newton, N.C.; Cedar Community in West Bend, Wis.; and Fairhaven Community, a United Church Homes community in Upper Sandusky, Ohio.

“Emmaus clients were proud to have their sculptures included in the art show,” says Shauna O’Toole, Emmaus’ director of development. “The exhibit was a unique way to showcase the wonderful things that are produced from people that society often views as ‘takers’ of community resources, but who really are vibrant producers who have a lot to contribute. This goes for people with disabilities, but also for children experiencing trauma, senior citizens, and others.”

CHHSM’s Paula Barker assists visitors to the Synod exhibit space.

Cline found the art exhibit to be a popular with visitors to the space. “I felt very proud to have a piece of art in the exhibit from one of our special assisted living residents, and will let her know how much we appreciate her sharing her art with us,” she says.

As executive assistant for events and administration, CHHSM’s Paula Barker kept her finger on the pulse of all the arrangements and details of the exhibit hall space. “I think the best part was seeing the CHHSM member ministries working together to help attendees find the perfect CHHSM member to fit their needs,” she says. “It was pretty awesome every time I overheard a member direct an attendee a few steps over to another CHHSM booth.”

Occasional concerts also highlighted the presentation area. Gayla Sherman, co-executive director with Gayle Klopp of Charles Hall Youth Services, used CHYS’ harp therapy program to entertain and enlighten Synod goers.

Gayla Sherman plays the harp while Gayle Klopp looks on.

“Interested persons would stop outside the exhibit space and listen, with many then coming in and taking a seat,” Sherman says. “Many commented that they ‘heard harp music’ from across the exhibit hall and wondered where it was coming from: they explored and found it! We had handouts about our programming using therapeutic harp. Gayle Klopp talked with passersby while I continued to play.”

Many of the youth Charles Hall works with are from Native American communities, and Sherman adds that it was invaluable to make additional connections during the Council for American Indian Ministry Synod luncheon. “These relationships will continue to be nurtured in the months ahead, as our ministry work together is important in the Dakotas,” she says.

Supporting Other UCC Entities

Ruby Sales addresses the audience during the Valerie Russell Lecture and Luncheon.

One of the highlights of General Synod was the Valerie Russell Lecture and Luncheon, cosponsored by the UCC’s Justice and Local Church Ministries and CHHSM. Ruby Sales, the nationally-known human rights advocate who participated in the three historic Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights marches, delivered the lecture June 22.

“It was one of the most significant talks I have heard,” says Readinger. “She is a brilliant and inspirational theologian — wise beyond belief.”

The Rev. Kenneth V. Daniel, president and CEO of United Church Homes based in Marion, Ohio, concurs. Sales is “a wonderful speaker who continues a deep tradition of witness,” he says.

Michael J. Readinger addresses Synod delegates.

CHHSM’s history of witness and advocacy was palpable throughout the five days, not only during Sales’ talk and the work of the various CHHSM members, but also when Readinger took to the Speak-Out microphone during the final Synod plenary to express his thanks and to encourage UCC members to remember their courageous history. In a Synod that saw difficult delegate debate over leadership decisions, Readinger’s final words reminded attendees of the UCC’s unique and innovative voice in the religious landscape.

Lifting up both the UCC’s 62nd anniversary and the 47th anniversary of the ordination of the Rev. William R. Johnson — the first openly gay man ordained into mainline Protestant Christian ministry in the modern era — Readinger implored delegates to be the UCC. Using the UCC’s vision statement he told delegates, “Let’s forgive each other and let’s keep working together to create a just world for all.”

Final Thoughts

The Rev. Beth Long-Higgins answers questions during a spotlight presentation in the CHHSM booth.

The Rev. Beth Long-Higgins, executive director of United Church Homes’ Ruth Frost Parker Center for Abundant Aging, says that many people picked up materials in the various CHHSM member booths. “The literature that people were most interested in taking included a special reprint of some previous articles about our Open and Affirming and SAGECare [LGBT aging training to foster a more welcoming community for LGBT older adults] processes, and our current edition of the [UCH magazine] Spirit with the cover story about the LGBT Horizons on Aging Summit,” she says.

But most important was the way CHHSM members worked together in the space, she says, adding that “it shows others that we collaborate, are in covenant.”

“When one of my clergy colleagues came over to our table and began talking, I knew that as she dreams of retirement, she might want to learn more about a couple of other providers,” Long-Higgins says. “I walked with her and introduced her to the staff from another organization that might be able to meet her needs.”

Daniel agrees.“As a church founded institution and member of CHHSM, United Church Homes uses the Synod experience to tell its continuing story to the wider church family.  Being part of the CHHSM exhibit hall area gave us extra exposure. As delegates and visitors came around, they had a chance to interact with our reps and learn about our various services, our history, and programs we can offer to congregations today — like our educational work with LGBTQ older adults through the ‘Gen Silent’ documentary and the Older Adult Ministries curriculum we helped developed with CHHSM,” he says. “We also got to bring energy and support to our sister CHHSM members in highlighting the breadth of CHHSM’s presence around the church and how it connects to the justice and witness work of the UCC today.”

Bonnie Condon, vice president of community health and the head of the Faith Outreach program for Advocate Aurora Health, talks with a Synod goer.

Many CHHSM member representatives singled out the one-on-one communication with visitors and old friends. “What is most meaningful for me was visiting with our co-exhibitors and friends who I have known for decades,” says the Rev. Laverne R. Joseph, president of Retirement Housing Foundation. “I had some nice chats with old friends.”

RHF provided the Synod volunteers with t-shirts and plastic water bottles, which “seemed to get good attention,” Joseph adds. “CHHSM got good attention during Synod.”

Barker noticed the amount of time some attendees spent in the CHHSM space. “One of the most memorable visits to our booth was a woman who stopped by late on Sunday and wanted more information on Age-Friendly Congregations. She was in her 70s and is one of the youngest members of her congregation. At that point, we had given all of our Age-Friendly Congregations workbooks to other attendees, but we were able to give her a bit of information and invite her back,” Barker says. “She came back eager to hear from Beth Long-Higgins (United Church Homes), who was doing a Spotlight CHHSM presentation on age-friendly congregations the following morning. Then she sat talking to Bonnie Condon (VP Community Health and Faith Outreach from Advocate Aurora Health in Chicago) for about three hours afterwards. That type of personal interaction was priceless and so heartwarming to see.”

The CHHSM national team at Synod: Michael Readinger, Paula Barker, Tyler Hoffman, and George Graham.

The General Synod experience is staying with Tyler Hoffman, CHHSM’s digital solutions consultant, too. “We need the spirit of General Synod every month, every week and every day,” he says. “The opportunity to gather the collective power of our church and our ministries in one place proved both inspirational and transformative. I particularly appreciated moments in which CHHSM members connected with those seeking care for themselves or for their loved ones. I look forward to advancing the Find a Provider network on the CHHSM website so that we may foster such connections all year long.”

For UCHS’ Cline, the hospitality of the UCC is what she’ll remember most. “Even being a bit of a fish out of water (a Southern Lutheran girl), I have never felt such a warm welcoming of people,” she says. “From the walk to the Convention Center to interaction at the booth, everyone had a smile on their face and engaged in conversation. Many people stopped by to thank us for exhibiting and supporting the event.”

Following Synod, the Rev. Arlene K. Nehring, former CHHSM staffer and currently the senior minister of Eden UCC in Hayward, Calif., sent these thoughts to Readinger: “I’m sending my heartfelt congratulations to you and the geniuses behind the CHHSM exhibit at GS32. You have done a marvelous job of bringing the resources of our diaconal organizations to Milwaukee in a manner that is fun, engaging, and very relevant for local church leaders.

“God bless you all.”