Thursday, March 3, 2016

UCC Parker Hilltop Achieves National A2A Designation

There's a reason why Rev. Tracey Dawson of UCC Parker Hilltop is smiling: On January 11, her church became just the fourth in the UCC to achieve the A2A Designation. (It's worth noting that First Congregational UCC of Boulder is one of the four other A2A churches, making the Rocky Mountain Conference a leader in Accessibility and Inclusion.) 

Rev. Dawson stands at the wide double-doors to the church's sanctuary.

What is A2A, exactly? From the UCC Disabilities Ministries website

A2A stands for “Accessible to All." A2A is the terminology used within the United Church to refer to congregations that have completed the Accessible to All process and thereby made the commitment to be physically and attitudinally welcoming of people with disabilities.

Tracey will be the first to tell you that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

​Their story of Radical Inclusion began in 2012, even before Tracey's tenure there. When member Tom Lewis passed away, he left a generous gift to the church, with the stipulation that it be used to improve the church building. Two years, a new pastor, and a reunited congregation later, they began seriously looking at all the ways in which the church needed to be updated to be fully accessible. Their inquiries were solution-focused. "We didn't ask whose fault it was. Instead, we asked what was missing," Tracey says. 

The most obvious gaps in accessibility had to do with physical accessibility. Church entrances, bathrooms, staircases, and sanctuary aisles were all redone, and large-print bibles were purchased to accompany existing headsets for the hard of hearing and removable pews for those in wheelchairs. 

But that was just one facet of making the church truly accessible. In our conversation, Tracey pointed out that there are several groups who are not always accommodated at church, even though we preach their inclusion in our sermons. Children with special needs (some of whom are nonverbal), those suffering dementia, those with severe food allergies; we are just now beginning to understand what it takes to make them feel fully welcome. 

Tracey also highlighted another important fact for any other church that wishes to achieve the A2A designation: It costs money, sure, but it's 99% intention. As UCC Disabilities Ministries points out: "The A2A process allows for churches to complete the A2A process, even if they are not fully physically accessible provided they have identified changes and created a plan to address those accessibility issues within the coming five years." 

Since UCC Parker Hilltop began their A2A journey, the landscape of their church community has changed rapidly. People who had stopped coming years ago have now returned. Members are more excited about inviting friends to church. The church has a transportation program that ensures everyone can make it Sunday morning. And while it's due to much more than their commitment to accessibility, their membership has increased significantly over the last two years. 

Tracey emphasizes that the moral of the story isn't just that their church is awesome: It's that, with some passion and elbow grease, every church in the RMC (and UCC) can become A2A. While it's flattering to be an early adopter of A2A, they want everyone to join the club. 

To this end, UCC Parker Hilltop is offering a special Access Sunday worship on October 9, 2016. The event is open to everyone, and will feature guest speakers and information on how churches can become A2A designated. 

"Being A2A or Christian isn't a designation; it's a verb," Tracey says. "We are removing the conditions to the phrase 'You are Welcome Here'." 

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Accessible to All—Inclusive of All

The following is a guest blog by Faith Vidrine, member at Wash Park UCC, with an introduction by Nadyne Guzmán, PhD, Communications Coordinator for the RMC's Conference Inclusion Team. 

Dr. Nadyne Guzmán

Washington Park UCC in Denver has worked for several years to become a designated A2A Congregation. One member of the A2A Team is Faith Vidrine, who is also a member of the choir, on the Program Ministry Team, and a constant presence in Sunday Celebration. One of Faith’s goals is to help others with disabilities discover what it’s like to be part of community, so she has chosen to share this story with the Rocky Mountain Conference.

Many Families Support Us
Faith Vidrine

My name is Faith Vidrine and I have a disability. I’m lucky because I have a family that supports me all the time. My family is my mom and my dad, my older sister, my brother, and my younger sister. They always watch out for me. I know they are always there to help me, even when life gets hard. I have learned that when they kid me or tease me it means they love me very much.

Some people don’t have a family like mine. But I’ve learned that there are other families around that can help too. One kind of family is friends. I have a best friend named Jenny and she has a great family who I love dearly. They feel like my family, too. They always support me and love me for who I am. I have other friends, too—and their families are also wonderful. When I am with them I feel like part of their families.

I also have a group of friends called the Wayfaring Band. We travel together, and when I travel with them I feel like I can make my dreams come true. They felt like a family to me the very first time I traveled with them because one of the boys opened up his arms to me at the beginning and said “You are officially one of us now.” And everyone else was nice to me too. 

When we are traveling I feel like I never want the trip to end because it is so much fun seeing new places and sharing with my friends. All of us in the Wayfaring Band have different kinds of disabilities and we help each other out as we travel together. Being part of the Wayfaring Band means we get to be who we are and we know what to do.

We make sure everyone is safe and we are all together like one big family. I want to be the kind of person who does things right and knows what’s safe for me and for my friends. And being with the Wayfaring Band has helped me change from being nervous and afraid to being confident wherever I go. I have one friend who was very inspiring to me and gave me good advice. I felt like I could trust him and felt safe with him. He saw that I was nervous and he said he knew I was going to be okay. And when I learned how to engage with people, he noticed and told me I was doing a good job. That felt so cool!

I have learned we can always belong where we are. Different kinds of families help me feel like I belong. And I know I am the kind of friend who others can lean on. I am there for my friends the way they are there for me. I have a provider that I admire and I want to be just like her.

I know other people with disabilities can find families like these, even if they don’t have a family of their own. That’s what I want for everyone—to learn how to find the kind of love and support I have found by being brave and reaching out.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

UCC/DOC Youth are Radically Connected!

The following is a guest-blog from Robbie Carlson, Director of Children & Youth Ministries at First Congregational UCC, Loveland.

Last September, First Christian Church of Loveland (a Disciples of Christ church just a few blocks up the road from First Congregational UCC in Loveland) was in the process of discerning the next chapter of youth ministry in their congregation. After some intentional conversation and the movement of the Holy Spirit, the youth groups of First Christian DOC and First Congregational UCC combined to form a joint Youth Fellowship!

This merger of youth groups then sparked the conversation of what other opportunities could be offered for the wider UCC/DOC community along the front range. Out of this conversation came the idea to host large-group events for UCC and Disciples youth at various locations throughout the year (particularly on 5th Sundays).   

In November and December of 2015, middle- and high-school youth from DoC and UCC churches all over the front range gathered for combined, large-group activities to build friendships and awareness of our wider church communities. Our first event was held at the Loveland Laser Tag Fun Center, where nearly 40 youth gathered from First Congregational UCC in Loveland, First Christian DoC in Loveland, First Congregational UCC in Longmont, Faith UCC in Windsor, and First Congregational UCC in Boulder.  

Our second event was a youth hangout night and dinner at the famed Casa Bonita restaurant in Lakewood, bringing together youth from Loveland, Boulder, Lakewood, and Ft. Collins.  

We are thrilled at the response from these gatherings, and look forward to future events where we can also incorporate elements of team building, service, and mission.   

If you are interested in joining and/or being a part of the conversation, please let Robbie and Eli know!

Eli McCutchen—Director of Youth Ministries, First Congregational UCC, Boulder 

Robbie Carlson—Director of Children & Youth Ministries, First Congregational UCC, Loveland

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

"That's Just the Way It Is..."

"...Some things will never change."

I am quoting Bruce Hornsby for a reason here, I promise. 

"Thanks for the shout-out, Cory!"
Everyone I know, including me, likes to think big around the New Year. We recognize that the New Year is symbolic and not a literal new beginning, but we've built enough ceremonies and rituals around New Year's that it's now part of our culture. Our sense of renewal is very real. 

When it comes to making resolutions, we like to go big. For example, going from almost no exercise at all to hitting the gym five days a week. Or, quitting a vice we've held for decades, cold turkey. Or, most irrationally, deciding not to eat butter, even though it's the most important meal of the day. 

"Dinner is served!"
With this caliber of resolution, it's no wonder we fail. Maybe we visit the gym regularly for three weeks, but then we realize that five days a week isn't sustainable, so we cut down to three days, then two days, then none.  

And then we feel bad. But we shouldn't. It's ambitious and admirable but totally insane to make such a big decision about the rest of our lives, especially when the proposed lifestyle change is so monumental. We might as well say, "From now on, I will play in the NBA." 

I think we should start thinking smaller. I'm all for bettering ourselves, but when people make "overnight" changes in their lives, these changes usually seem to be the product of several smaller changes that slowly happened over time. Someone who is 100% sedentary doesn't just wake up one day and say "Now I run marathons." They wake up one day and say, "I'm going to go for a walk." Then, they wake up the next day and say the same thing. Then, six months later, they might wake up and say, "I think I'll try running." 

"This is great fun!" said the LIAR.
Making personal changes isn't a sprint, or even a marathon; it's a crawl up a steep hill, with your old habits grabbing at your ankles, trying to pull you down. When it doesn't work out like we'd hoped, we feel that we've failed. But, if we learn even one thing from our journey, I'd call it a success. 

We also give ourselves unrealistic timelines. What sounds more reasonable: losing 100 pounds this year, or eating a healthy meal for lunch? When we set the bar too high, we are sabotaging ourselves. We need to think in terms of today. Not eating Doritos for the rest of my life is impossible, but I can avoid them today, and that is a victory. 

Maybe just one.
One final thing I've noticed about resolutions: They often come from a place of self-judgment, rather than a place of self-love. We think, "I'm terrible at money so I am going to quit being such a slacker!" instead of "I deserve to be financially stable, so I am going to treat myself right." It's semantic, sure, but we believe what we say about ourselves. 

This New Year's, perhaps the most important resolution is to love yourself without condition, failures and all. Cut yourself some slack. Make changes out of respect for who you are, not loathing. 

I know it sounds impossible. I'm terrible at it, too. But we deserve it. 

Monday, December 14, 2015

Blue Christmas

The holidays are fickle. 

As we celebrate Advent, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Eve, we are stressed, broke, exhausted, overbooked, and anxious. We attend church and celebrate, and when we go home, we are reminded that we still need to go Christmas shopping and arrange our holiday travel. After a decadent and delicious meal with loved ones, we promise ourselves that going forward, we'll finally watch what we eat and cut back on wine. 

We begin imagining our ideal selves, which will somehow materialize in the new year. It's a lot of pressure. We're only human, and yet, we say, "I made mistakes and failed in 2015, but 2016 is going to be different. That's going to be my year. In 2016, I am going to spend more time with family, eat right, and quit my vices. I'm finally going to muster up the courage to take a risk and move past what's been holding me back. Then, I'll be happy." 

We think this way, and in doing so, we set ourselves up to be disappointed. 

Our feelings of inadequacy are only amplified by the spirit of the season. The holidays are a time for gratitude, celebration, and love. So why is it that a group of angelic kids singing a Christmas carol makes us downright resentful of ourselves? "What's wrong with me?" we wonder. 

We don't know the full extent of others' struggles and demons; we only know our own. We look around and see people who seem to have it together--way more than us, anyway--and we wonder why we can't get our lives in order. "Why can't I be healthy like Jason? Why can't I afford to go on vacation like Amanda? Why does Eric's family seem so stable?" 

Of course, when we do this, we are comparing our actual, flawed selves to others' superficial selves. It's the same thing we do every day on Facebook. We have a rough week, perhaps filled with heartbreak and sadness, and we log into Facebook, only to see that our attractive, successful, and insufferably kind friend has taken yet another vacation to Spain, and it's just not fair. 

What we don't take into account is that our friend is recently divorced and feeling lost. They're dealing with the death of a parent. They've been trying to have kids for years, and it's just not working. 

"I think that tree is making me feel better!"
It's tempting to avoid all of this nastiness during the holidays. Who wants to bum everyone out at the office holiday party? Who wants to expose themselves for the messed-up, insecure human they actually are? Why would you want to reveal to your kids that it was a huge struggle to purchase them modest gifts this year, for reasons they wouldn't understand? 

But to avoid confronting these realities is to further magnify our perceived feelings of failure. 

The better thing to do is to name it. It won't make our problems go away, but it opens up the door for honesty and empathy. I guarantee you that, if you told any one of your friends that you were having a tough time this holiday season, they'd be able to share with you that they, too, were feeling overwhelmed or sad or empty. 

When we call our fears and shortcomings out, we take away their power. We make them commonplace and manageable and unmysterious. When we hold them in, they become big scary secrets that thrive in a vacuum. Admitting them makes them normal--almost boring. 

Wrong kind.
Our wise and loving churches and pastors know all this. Your pastor would be the first to tell you that during the holidays, the number of people who need extra pastoral care skyrockets. Our churches aren't in the business of assuring and downplaying; they're in the business of naming and discussing. And a number of churches are taking it one step further. 

If you are especially in need of God's light during a bleak holiday season, consider attending your church's Blue Christmas service. If they're not holding one this year, consider asking them to put it on the list for next year. Consider driving to a nearby church that is holding one of these services. If nothing else, consider talking to your pastor. Send them an email or drop by their office. Through empathizing and opening up with one another, the light grows brighter within ourselves. 

This holiday season, consider cutting yourself some slack; consider loving yourself, flaws and all, instead of trying to be perfect. It's not your job, and it never will be. Do your best, and take solace in the fact that you are loved. 

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Vista Grande's Radical Welcome

You may have read recent articles about what's happening at Vista Grande UCC. Their story (in particular, the story of member Patricia King) has been featured by the Colorado Springs Gazette, National Public Radio, and most recently, the New York Times

King is a parent, a member of the US Army (infantry), and a transgender woman who came out earlier this year. She joined Vista Grande this past summer. 

Rev. Clare Twomey (left) and Patricia King grabbing dinner
Her story is fascinating, especially considering her circumstances. Colorado Springs is home to several conservative religious organizations and mega-churches. Add that to the fact that she's in the military, and there's some serious bravery involved here. 

Fortunately, she found a spiritual home at Vista Grande. Even though the church is Open and Affirming, it had little previous experience with transgender members. When Patricia joined the church, it gave them an opportunity to walk the walk--and they did, magnificently. 

In the articles linked above, Patricia's story is told beautifully. Coming from a place of strong faith, she wasn't sure she'd be accepted in any church as a female. But, when she attended Vista Grande and felt radically welcomed, she knew she'd found a home. "The goal is to be accepted and celebrated," she told me. 

About a month ago, I reached out to Vista Grande's pastor, Rev. Clare Twomey. What began as a 20-minute phone call evolved into an hour-long conversation. She offered so much helpful information, but after we talked, I just felt more curious. 

Clare graciously invited me to attend Vista Grande's Thanksgiving service so that I could meet Patricia and the rest of the congregation. I was honored to accept. (They also held a Thanksgiving potluck that day, which was amazing. I'd like to think they made those carrots just for me.) 

During my visit, I experienced amazing community. Rev. Twomey tempered her warm and authentic message with wonderfully dry humor. The service was interactive; she asked the congregation non-rhetorical questions and wanted honest answers. The choir and accompanist were stunning (there are some serious pipes down there in the Springs). After someone answered a question of Clare's, Clare laughed and responded, "How am I not surprised you would say that?" 

The potluck that followed was the highlight for me, because we had a chance to interact with members of the church. I met with new and familiar faces alike, one of those new faces being Patricia. 

Something surprised me when I spoke to Patricia: I didn't think about her gender much at all. I'd like to say that it's a positive reflection on me, but it had much more to do with the fact that Patricia, like anyone else, speaks about herself as a human being first.  

While we talked about her career in the army, her children, her decision to come out and transition, and her relationships within the church, I didn't think about the bravery it must have taken to come out, and about the adversity she must face every day. It didn't occur to me until later that she likely gets stared at and judged, all the time, everywhere she goes. She was so kind and honest, and the environment was so natural, that I forgot about the harsh realities that exist outside of the church's walls. 

Her bravery isn't lost on me today. She was the first openly transgender army infantry soldier. Think about that for a second. That's insane. But when we talked, she spoke about her relationships with the people of the church and her passion for her career. She talked about loving the after-church social every week, because that's where she experiences community the most. She talked about how much she loves Clare and her sermons, and about the people who've recently joined Vista Grande because of Patricia's story. She also talked about food in Louisiana, which made us both hungry. 

All of this is to say that Patricia's narrative is powerful and inspiring, but her gender is simply a fact about her; the real story is about Patricia the person, and about all of the other people at Vista Grande. 

Before we left, Patricia said to me, "I know that you're writing a story about me, and that's fine, but this is really about the church." If I had to extrapolate on that further, I would say that Patricia and Vista Grande have experienced parallel journeys. Patricia's was personal, Vista Grande's was communal. 

It's easy to imagine a church that would have suffered division and splintering because of Patricia joining. This kind of happens all the time. But instead, Vista Grande became stronger and even more radically welcoming after Patricia arrived, and Patricia was affirmed in the process. That's pretty incredible. 

Monday, November 23, 2015

Sacred Marriage: The Green Man and the Black Madonna (Part III of III)

The following is the third and final part of a three-part guest blog from Rev. Todd Smiedendorf, Sr. Pastor at Wash Park UCC in Denver. If you would like to contribute a guest blog to Radically Connected, please email Cory at

The Black Madonna is a timely and powerful symbol because she offers us, as a revered image, not only a straightforward rebuke to racism and the denigration of people of color, but a rebuke to the pale and practically disembodied images of the feminine presented in too many Virgin Mary depictions. She is black and beautiful. The black Madonna offers us a powerful invitation into the darkness in order to be creative. She will not let her fear stop her from looking at what is in there. She knows that there is a path, ultimately creative, that leads through the darkness of grief and loss, of self-examination, and sometimes of sweat and blood. 

This black Madonna is compassionate, but not shallow or weak, and will not hesitate to overturn the empires of the world, or the dominating structures within ourselves that keep us from living and serving life fully and joyfully. This black Madonna has no patience for the glaring full solar patriotism of Fox News, which only wants to see our nation as “awesome,” and justified in our nation’s use of force on the streets or in secret prisons. 

This black Madonna can walk through the deep self-examination of our nation’s shadows in its history and present. She knows how to bring creativity to bear as we walk into the shadows of our racism, of our violence, and of our injustice. She knows how to explore our own shadows, and trusts that healing is found in there for our addictions, our depressions, our old wounds, and our "reactivities."

The Black Madonna has depth and strength. She represents mature feminine archetypal energy, one that has integrated the masculine archetype’s strength of focus and present purpose while maintaining the profound feminine power of compassionate nurturing and presence, of sensual creativity, and deep response to life.

I bring these images because I believe they are, over time, capable of guiding and inspiring our faith into wisdom and passion. Their reclaiming represents an act of creative appropriation of our tradition, a drawing forth of that prophetic imagination which is needed to meet our moment faithfully, to resist the powers of death and embrace the power of resurrection. 

As we place the mural in our sanctuary, the invitation is to note the issues of the day that are touching your heart, be they social issues or personal challenges, and to begin to let the image and voice of the Green Man and the Black Madonna enter the conversation. 

What does this sacred marriage say to us? How can it sustain and inspire us to keep keeping on? How can we let their energy flow through us into the world?