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(RNS) When it comes to hot-button political issues, the United Church of Christ is anything but wishy-washy.
Its new general minister and president, the Rev. Geoffrey Black, has delivered 17,000 petition signatures to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, urging health-care reform — including coverage for all and access regardless of ability to pay.
Its outgoing president, the Rev. John Thomas, was arrested at the White House two years ago, trying to deliver 100,000 petition signatures against the war in Iraq.
“The church has a long tradition of being involved in the large public issues of the day,” said Thomas, 59, of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
“Going back to the 19th century, we supported women’s rights and the abolitionist movement. Today, we’ve been active in issues ranging from rights for gays and lesbians to ending the war in Iraq.”
The 1.1 million-member United Church of Christ, nationally headquartered in this city’s downtown, is regarded as one of the most liberal mainstream Protestant denominations in America.
It is fundamentally pro-abortion rights, pro-gay rights and anti-war.
And although the church is 90 percent white, it chose Black, who took office in October, as its first elected black president. Joseph Evans, who was black, served as president in the 1970s to fill out the term of a white president who had died in office.
“This church had a strong interest and investment in the civil rights movement,” said Black, 61, who was raised a Baptist before he was drawn to the United Church of Christ.
“I am a product of the success of that movement. I am indebted to it,” he said.
Despite the church’s liberal leanings, Black elects not to use the “L” word when discussing the institution’s political positions.
“I would use the terms progressive and unabashedly Christian,” he said. “Jesus was not about excluding people. He reached out to those who were marginalized and oppressed. Gay and lesbian people, just as Africans who were enslaved, have been marginalized and oppressed in our society.”
Black acknowledged that the church’s political positions and social actions can be costly.
In 2005, the church leadership endorsed same-sex marriage, resulting in the exodus of hundreds of members.
But the UCC — the first mainstream Protestant denomination to ordain blacks, women and openly gay people — is not unfamiliar with controversy.
In 2004, the church made national headlines for airing TV ads showing bouncers at a church door turning away gays and people of color.
“That was edgy,” said Black.
During last year’s presidential election, the church was in the headlines again when the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a pastor of a United Church of Christ church in Chicago where President Obama used to worship, was accused of spewing anti-American, white-hating rhetoric.
Black defended Wright, saying his words were twisted by the media.
“I never felt the whole body of his preaching and his ministry was ever examined thoughtfully, comprehensively, or with an intent to understand the real religious experience of many African-Americans in this country,” Black said.
Black, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, is now faced with running an organization struggling financially and trying to build its membership.
Between now and the spring he will be on a 10-city tour, visiting member churches. “I’ll be preaching, but mostly listening,” he said.
The United Church of Christ traces its roots to the Congregationalist Pilgrims of New England. It boasts of its 11 forebears who signed the Declaration of Independence and of its role as an agitator in the Boston Tea Party.
Those early American roots are obvious today by the church’s governmental structure, which allows congregations to function independently and democratically.
“We’re not a church that has a top-down doctrinal set of rules,”
said Thomas, who will be teaching at a seminary in Chicago. “We rely on the consciences of our members and the leadership of our pastors to shape the theological direction of the church.”
Black added: “Democracy is part of our denominational DNA.”
Black, who is married and has one grown daughter, has been living with friends in Lakewood, Ohio until he finds permanent housing.
His election as president marks his second move to Cleveland. He had worked here for six years on the national staff before moving to the church’s New York office.
“I’m happy to be back in Cleveland,” he said.
(Michael O’Malley writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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