A Church Called Community
Rev. Phil Campbell, former pastor, 1982-1986
Community United Church of Christ, Boulder, CO
on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the Congregation
1 Corinthians 12: 24b-31
24… God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, 25that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. 26If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.
27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 28And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. 29Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? 30Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? 31But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.
How to Build Community
Turn off your TV. Leave your house. Know your neighbors, Look up when you are walking; Greet people; Sit on your stoop; Plant flowers; Use your library; Play together; Buy from local merchants; Share what you have; Help a lost dog; Take children to the park; Garden together; Support neighborhood schools; Fix it even if you didn't break it; Have potlucks; Honor elders; Pick up litter; Read stories aloud; Dance in the street; Talk to the mail carrier; Listen to the birds; Put up a swing; Help carry something heavy; Barter for your goods; Start a tradition; Ask a question; Hire young people for odd jobs; Organize a block party; Bake extra and share; Ask for help when you need it; Open your shades; Sing together; Share your skills; Take back the night; Turn up the music; Turn down the music; Listen before you react to anger; Mediate a conflict; Seek to understand; Learn from new and uncomfortable angles; Know that no one is silent although many are not heard. Work to change this.
Described as The Syracuse Cultural Workers’ bestselling poster ever, “How to Build Community,” the words from which comprise our second reading, debuted in 1998; the poster can still be ordered from the organization’s website. Do you know this group? It was founded in July 1982 to further "a culture that honors diversity and celebrates community; that inspires and nurtures justice, equality and freedom; that respects our fragile Earth and all its beings; that encourages and supports all forms of creative expression." Syracuse Cultural Workers gives artistic voice to an array of progressive causes and concerns that resonate with the spirit of Community UCC. In learning something of its origins, I discovered that it was incorporated the same month I that I began my pastorate here!
How to build community. The narrative for the poster was developed by Syracuse Cultural Workers’ founder Karen Kerney who is also an organic farmer, artist and activist. What do you think of her prescription for community? Does it speak to you? I particularly like, “Sing together” and “Learn from new and uncomfortable angles.” Overall, I believe it taps into a yearning that many have. A hunger for connection, a desire to break out of the insulation of consumer culture isolation and reach out and relate to each other, a longing to get to know our neighbors, to establish relationships, to acknowledge our mutual destiny, and to realize that what affects one affects all. Community; it is something that Community UCC knows quite a bit about.
Community is now a popular notion in church well as society. If you ask members of the church I currently serve in Juneau, or the Park Hill congregation in Denver where I pastored for 16 years, the first thing most of them will tell you about what they like about the church, and what they are wanting more of in their lives, is community.
But today I suggest that this hankering for community has not always been as prominent in our collective rhetoric. Have you ever heard our denomination, the United Church of Christ, described as an early church? It means that often it has often been ahead of its time. The UCC or one of its predecessor denominations was the first to ordain a woman, an African American and a gay man. Our communion was at the forefront of the abolitionist and suffragist movements. In more recent years it has been a leader for civil rights, women’s rights, glbt rights, environmental justice, interfaith respect and cooperation, peacemaking and alternatives to violence, appreciation for the ways science and religion can complement rather than contradict each other, and so on. These stances do not have universal affirmation, but support for them is much wider now than when the UCC took early positions in their favor. In like manner, I want to suggest to you that Community UCC is an early church – in many of these same ways as our denomination, and also with regard to its name – Community.
It was twenty-nine years ago, when the congregation became an adult, when it turned 21, that it took this new name, “Community United Church of Christ.” As you likely know if you were around back then, or if you have been following the buildup to the 50th anniversary, the church used to be called Southern Hills United Church. “Southern Hills” is a place name. Since I have been in Juneau I have become more attuned to the importance of place for indigenous cultures, and the way place names can convey that importance. I respect the traditional names of places and in Juneau this means thanking the original occupants of the Auk Wan, the place of the Auk clan of the Tlingit people, for the permission to live there as a guest. Too often, the Europeans and European Americans who have migrated to Juneau have not honored Tlingit Ani, the land of the Tlingit people. Fortunately, this is changing. There is still a long way to go, but it is better than it was in past generations since European contact. In some places, traditional place names have been restored.
Unlike in Tlingit Ani, the issue in Boulder, as near as I could tell, was that the designation, “Southern Hills,” had no traditional, cultural or historic meaning. Rather, as the growth of city of Boulder took a sudden turn south, and this part of the city opened up for houses and businesses, the developer of the new area dubbed it, “Southern Hills.” Not only was it a made up name, it is one that never caught on with the public. Instead, at least in those days, the southern part of town was referred to by the name of its major road, the one on which the church sits – “Table Mesa,” which is a name, of course, with its own curious origin. “Mesa” is Spanish for “Table” which means in effect, the neighborhood around the church is “Table Table!” Pretty weird if you ask me.
The point is that the church’s name, Southern Hills, was not a particularly helpful one since it was a place name concocted by a developer and nobody even knew where it was! It also conveyed nothing of the essence of the church’s identity. To address this, in its year of majority, as the church became an adult, the congregation decided to change its name. As churches as wont to do, the congregation formed a committee! Discussions ensued, potential names were proposed, and finally a congregational meeting was called to vote on a new name. All sorts of suggestions were considered, and everyone had their favorites. But what a name on which everyone could agree was the one by which the congregation is now known – Community. (The congregation also decided to embrace its denominational identity as a United Church of Christ, rather than a United Church, thus taking the name, Community United Church of Christ.)
If I am right, as I suggested previously, that everyone is clamoring for community, why do I suggest, Community UCC, that you were an early church when you changed your name in 1985? I say so because that same year, a prominent sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah, and his colleagues published what was to become a widely discussed book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life. What their research revealed was that for white, dominant culture America, people, “in spite of their [other] differences…share a common moral vocabulary,” which the researchers dubbed “the ‘first language’ of American individualism…” What they found was that as the 20th century unfolded, individuals were becoming increasingly autonomous and isolated with regard to moral decision making. “In the course of our history, the self has become more detached from the social and cultural contexts...the current focus of a socially unsituated self from which all judgments are supposed to flow” had become the starting point for dominant culture reflection on what it meant to be human and how make decisions about the meaning of life. But, Community UCC, you were not satisfied with being a collection of socially unsituated selves. Amid the rampant individualism of the 80s, an early church in Boulder made a bold claim for a counter cultural and more communal understanding of human vocation by declaring itself, “Community United Church of Christ.”
Like the early Christian community, Community UCC, you know God created us for relationship. We are the body of Christ, not the individual, disconnected parts of Christ. We need each other. Together we can do more than any of us can do alone. The whole is greater than the sum of our parts. And when we are hurting, confused, uncertain, afraid, or in pain, the community of God’s people weeps with us in our distress, and somehow we find the capacity to make it through. In like manner, when we are happy, rejoicing, achieving accomplishments and passing mileposts, we know the value of others joining with us in our celebrations. As we rejoice together, our joy is made complete. Community. What a great name for a church. How to build community? To the Syracuse Cultural Workers poster, I would add, go to church! If you are in Boulder, join Community UCC!
This is the point in the sermon that if I were wiser, I would sit down amid the feel good proclamation of the church’s understanding of itself as a community. But despite all that is positive about your name, I confess that I also had some reservations about the new name at first. Yes, a sense of community was what so many hungered for. Yes, community conveyed much about the essence of the congregation. But what I feared was that the name, at least unconsciously, might encourage us to be inward looking. It might foster a comfort that would insulate us from the world, as we reveled in the good feelings of congregating with the likeminded. If truth be known, there were two names proposed that I liked better -- “Faith-in-Action,” and “Spirit of Peace.” Community was and is great, but it is also important to remain aware that if it is Christian community it must always be outward looking. It must always embrace diversity and resist being too comfortable. As a church, you are a community that does not exist primarily for yourself, but for God’s world that you serve.
As more and more people are attracted to you and your sense of community, I know you are struggling with this. The good news is that you are growing, but you might also worry, “what if we lose that special feeling of community as we do?” It is an envious problem to have, but one that cannot be ignored.
From the outset, the calling of all of us as church, and your particular calling as Community UCC, has been to be a community that is diverse, global and outward looking, with a particular concern for welcoming for those historically marginalized and excluded. This is what I believe Paul was getting at with his reference to the so-called “inferior members,” an unfortunate image, in my view, which nevertheless conveys an important truth. As the Syracuse Cultural Worker poster reminds, we are called to be a community that cares for those whose voices too often go unheard. This commitment has been present in Community UCC from the beginning, even before the name change, of course, and we tried to capture some of this idea in the original Community UCC logo. It was a stylized version of the UCC symbol with a multi-hued gathering of humanity holding hands around the globe.
A community that is worthy of the name church, that is committed to just and progressive participation in society, is a community for others. A community committed to ever widening the circle of community. It is community that is diverse, not just for its own enrichment as important as that is, but as a model and a witness to a world in desperate need to learn how to navigate difference. Together we can discover the ways of community where everyone has a place. Community UCC, your subsequent 29 years, like the 21 before, give testimony that you know that this is the kind of community to which God calls us.
How to build Community. Community UCC, you know how. You have been doing it for 50 years, inclusively, caringly, inwardly and outwardly, locally and globally, and I know you will continue to do so in your next 50. I am confident that you will persevere in your early ways, taking the lead in deepening and broadening the ties that bind to the end that the world and all who dwell herein will know they belong in community with all of God’s creation. Will know it and will experience it. May it be so. Amen.