About a year ago I was freshly married, freshly crowned a “Master of All Things Divine” (that’s what we call the M.Div, to ward off depression), and about to start my first job. Yep, this small church in Hyde Park had called me to be their senior minister – a risk for all parties involved.

“So why University Church?” they often ask (“they” being everyone who knows I grew up disinterested in church at all, then active in the black church, then a rapper, and a lot of other things that seem disjointed with pastoring in Hyde Park). I appreciated the feigned curiosity that hid genuine concern. Most of all, I appreciated that they never said out loud what they had to be thinking: “J, do they know you’re not an old white man?” I’m guessing so…but I’ll send a picture ahead of me, just in case.

It’s like a relationship. Mallorie and I talked on the phone for hours before we decided to start dating. Even after reaching a certain level of comfort, being exclusive was a scary thought for both of us. But we liked each other, we saw potential, and moving forward was worth the risk. When people ask, “Why did you want to be at University Church?” I say, “Because we like each other.” I could say, “God sent me to you,” or something else super-mystical (and borderline arrogant), but quite honestly, I like you, you like me, and we both see potential. The Spirit has created an opportunity: what happens from inception to termination (because all relationships are terminal, like Life itself) depends on how faithfully we engage one another, our community, and our God.

So far, so good. New energy in the pews. A more solvent financial situation. All press coverage has been positive. I’ve even rapped. But I’ve also danced (and very uncomfortably so, this past Easter). The influx of new and old members, new and old programs, new and old ways of being church, affirms that the Spirit is among us, breathing new life into our future and past. It affirms that we are moving in the right direction, and it all began with risk. The risk of hiring a young, black, first-time pastor. The risk of joining a church with “multiple opinions,” and, “a myriad of ways of expressing said opinions” (understatement?). Risk and Hope.

Every move we make is about risk and hope. Every change in worship. Every new program. Every cup of coffee we pour. We are continuously risking ourselves in saying we want to be a people who are compelled by God to change this world. When we pray during Prayers of the People, we risk. When we change the format of Prayers of the People, we risk. But we press forward in hope that something greater than us is calling us to aim higher, and will catch us when we fall.

Take a risk this November. That will mean something different for each of us, but think about what it means for you. Think about something that has huge potential, and how you can help make that happen. So yes, send in your pledge card, but also go deeper in a relationship: take a risk in your emotional life. There are a lot of ways to translate this, but by all means, take a constructive risk (read: Stay Safe).

What we find — whether in the ministry of Christ, our own personal lives, or in the life of this church — is that it’s okay to risk. Dare we call it a spiritual practice? What we are afraid of almost never occurs.

In fact, the opposite. We’re starting to learn that a few faithful risks and a lot of hope can make things come alive. So take a step.

Happy Anniversary! (to us)

—Pastor Julian

Angola Partnership Update

University Church has a long history of commitment to international partnerships that reflect our mission “to act for justice and to respect creation” by reaching out to brothers and sisters in Christ beyond our immediate community and nation. For a decade now, University Church has been in partnership with the Evangelical Congregational Church in Angola (IECA), a relationship that will be celebrated during the month of February.

For newer members of our Church Family, we share a bit of background to place this partnership in the context of the life of University Church.

Our Angola Partnership Group was formed in 2000 as an outgrowth of historical and personal connections with IECA. Our own Tucker-Reed Family had missionary connections there that extended over three generations, and Nancy Tucker-Reed lived in Angola as a “missionary kid” for ten years. The relational network was enhanced by another family connection: Samuel Dansokho, a former Christian Development Director at University Church, and his wife Selma Chipenda Dansokho connected us with Selma’s parents, Rev. Jose and Eva Chipenda. Rev. Chipenda was at that time the General Secretary of IECA and had a long history of international ecumenical work, including being the Executive Director of the All Africa Council of Churches and racial justice work within the World Council of Churches. In 1998, when he retired from ecumenical work, he and Eva returned to live in Angola and started many projects including a school and training center in the city of Lobito, a coastal city. It was around their work in Lobito that University Church created a formal partnership with IECA in 2002.

As an extension of our local-church partnership, University Church was joined by Trinity UCC in placing a resolution before the Illinois Conference – UCC to form a statewide partnership with IECA. Just as Rev. Chipenda was retiring as General Secretary of IECA in 2004, the official partnership between the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ and IECA was formally approved and celebrated at the Illinois Conference Annual Meeting, an event shared by an official delegation from Angola that included the incoming General Secretary of IECA, Rev. Augusto Chipesse, Rev Chipenda, and Luis Samacumbi, the General Director of DASEP, IECA’s Department of Social Assistance, Studies & Projects.

Since 2004, many churches and individuals have joined hands on both sides of the Atlantic to share faith, challenges, and resources in growing this partnership characterized by mutual respect and a common commitment to peace and justice. This has included two official Illinois delegations journeying to Angola. The first delegation went in August 2005 and included Zuberi Badili, convener of University Church’s Angola Partnership Group. An August 2009 delegation included Nancy Tucker-Reed and her son and daughter-in-law, Matthew Tucker-Reed and Angela Arnold, former members of our church and currently advocates for partnering with Angola as members First Congregational Church of Berkeley, CA.

In addition of delegations, Donna Dudley, a member of University Church, was a missionary in Angola during 2008 and 2009, putting an “on-the-ground” face on our Partnership. She went to Angola through Global Ministries, the joint international mission arm of the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but she also represented our own Angola Partnership Group and the Illinois Conference’s Angola Partnership Team. Donna’s presence there involved working with DASEP, IECA’s community outreach / justice witness arm, and represented Global Ministries’ perspective of mission as “critical presence” – seeking to stand in solidarity with people in terms of their spiritual, emotional, physical, and economic needs and agendas that they define as important.

And, by any viewpoint, there is much room for critical presence in Angola as IECA participates in stretching out an ongoing process of reconciliation in a country that was under oppressive colonial rule by the Portuguese for 500 years followed by 27 years of violent civil war, which only ended in 2002. The impact of the dual legacy of colonialism and civil strife is evident everywhere – in ruined infrastructure, uprooted agricultural efforts, dysfunctional educational and health care systems, and a growing economy that does not benefit the overwhelmingly poor majority of Angolans. Although Angola has vast natural resources in oil and diamonds and one of the highest rates of economic growth in Southern Africa, it also has one of the worst levels of poverty, estimated to be as high as 68% of the population, with figures approaching 90% in some rural areas. It also has a life expectancy of age 40 for men, 41 for women, an infant mortality rate of 154 for every 1,000 live births, and one in four children die by age five.

In the face of these challenges, people’s faith reassures them that God will make a way for them to find healing, both personal and societal. People within IECA are committed to encouraging reconciliation among former combatants and various sectors of society and are eager to share ideas about how to live in peace and reconstruct shattered lives and infrastructure. Clergy and lay leaders are attempting to grow IECA’s impact through: evangelization and community-building projects; education that prepares people for citizenship and employment; development of leadership skills within the church and community; and advocacy for human rights.

Within this context, hope is real during this sustained period of peace through local efforts and international partnerships that encourage and build upon the re-emergence of traditional strengths like strong commitment to community. One of these signs of hope is a project that is the current centerpiece of University Church’s partnership support – the Canata Pre-School Program, founded by Eva Chipenda with strong support from her husband, Rev. Jose Chipenda. Initially the program engaged nearly 100 three-to-five year olds in art and recreational activities and exposed them to pre-reading skills in a caring, nurturing environment that starts them on a good track for learning and for life. Currently, the number of children enrolled has reached almost 200 youngsters who are getting a head start on education that can help them achieve a better life.

“A journey of 1,000 miles begins with one small step,” according to Mao Tse-Tung. The children in the Canata Pre-School Program have stepped through the door and our Angola Partnership means that they will not continue the journey alone. In the next Messenger we will offer another update on our Angola Partnership, with hope that many of you in our faith community will continue to support – and others will step forward to join – the efforts of our Lobito partners who are Spirit-filled, justice-seeking people doing God’s work in Angola!

—University Church Angola Partnership Group

Imagine the Unimaginable (a Poem)

By Colleen Patikas

Can you imagine?
Can you speak the words that have not yet been spoken?
Can you keep a bond that can never be broken?
Like handcuffs that could never be opened
Imagine the possible
The possibility that
Holds the key 2 fantasy
And fantasy holds the key to
Cuz if you have real eyes
You’ll be gin 2 realize
That part of fantasy is fiction
Part of fiction is non-fiction
Which is the truth
The truth though is hidden
You have 2 sit and think
And hear your heart
2 hear the truth that you’ve been missin’
It’s always there but no one bothers to listen
Your heart is tellin’ you that
Killin’ someone 4 just breathin’
Is never a reason
That standin’ on the wrong block will get you shot
See people that kill are far too deep in their heart 2 see
Love me forever
They plugged their reality into their dreams
Cuz in Dreams everything is not as it seems
They go 2 deep
They go 2 far
And in the end
4get who they are
Ever go 2 deep in your Dreams
And 4get what it means 2 be a human being.