Sunday, June 19, 2022

Churches of the Silver Valley: United Church of Christ, Congregational, Wallace

(Part two in an ongoing series.)

If you're driving past the unassuming-looking brick building across the street from the Wallace Post Office, you wouldn't know it's a church -- unless you happened to notice the skinny steeple peeking out from between two tall evergreens on the west side. 

"Come as you are," proclaims the sign outside the United Church of Christ, Congregational. And Rev. Alice Ling appears to take it upon herself to make sure that slogan means something, preaching a message of inclusiveness that strives to meet people where they are. 

The UCC has had a presence in Wallace since 1898, but the current building was erected in 1957 -- and it looks quaintly like a product of its time inside, with its abundance of bare blonde wood and its dramatically vaulted ceiling. Behind the altar is a massive stained-glass window depicting a nature scene filled with trees, rocks, water, and mountains, not unlike the lovely everyday view around Wallace itself. Rays beam out from behind a mountain in the background, suggesting, no doubt, both the light of the sun and that of the Son.

The inside, in fact, reminds me a lot of the Catholic church I grew up in, back in Michigan. It came from the same era, having been built in 1959. The only giveaways that my daughter and I weren't sitting in a Catholic church were the lack of a crucifix and kneelers -- and the fact that there's a female minister. Rev. Ling was there to greet us as we walked in, and we took our place among the 10 or so congregants who came out to worship today. Rev. Ling said a busy day brings out maybe 20 people. It's a sleepy little church community, as are many around here these days.

The view from in front of the altar.
During the service itself, Rev. Ling led us in a few songs and responsorial prayers, but the central focus, as in most Protestant gatherings, was on the sermon. Those accustomed to a formal church service would welcome the altar, the pews, Rev. Ling's vestments, the communal recitation of the Lord's Prayer, and so on. But if, like me, you were raised Catholic, the absence of communion would be notable. The service was far more formal than, say, a typical evangelical gathering, but looser and more personable than the average Catholic Mass. Semi-liturgical is an adequate description of how the UCC appears to roll, I think. 

Once known as the denomination Barack Obama belonged to, the UCC has a decidedly leftward theological tilt. A quick glance at the UCC's official website leaves you with no doubt about which side of the culture wars the denomination falls on. There is much talk of social justice and the need to do something about firearms violence. There is advocacy for reparations. A UCC leader speaks out in support of abortion rights. A call for “justice for trans and nonbinary people” stands front and center on the news page.

Rev. Ling herself, however, didn't strike me as somebody you'd think of as a strident activist, but rather as someone who gently advocates for those on the outside looking in. Some of her advocacy is so subtle you probably wouldn't notice, as in the way she sidesteps using masculine pronouns for the Supreme Being. Some of it is more overt, as in her sermon today that riffed on the passage in Galatians in which Paul tells us that "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." She related a couple of anecdotes to illustrate the work to be done in living out the challenge of this verse, both in relation to some gay folks who had once notably seated themselves as close to the church door as possible, fearful of retribution and poised to make a quick exist if necessary, and to a man who told Rev. Ling, at a funeral she was conducting, that he didn't "believe" in female ministers.

The irony is that people who oppose women in ministry usually take their cue from Paul himself. Likewise, if gay folks feel uncomfortable in church, you can mostly point to Paul. I could go on at length about my personal distaste for Paul, whose caustic language and long self-proclaimed lists of people who will get locked out of heaven are things I always found at odds with the comparative open-heartedness that Christ himself preached. After all, quoting Paul's inclusive-sounding "neither Jew nor Gentile" passage means you have to reconcile it with his blunt condemnations of homosexuality and his assertion that it was disgraceful for women to speak in church. And yet the paradox of Paul is that we can't just ignore or dismiss him, because if not for his ministry to the Gentiles, it's very likely that no one today would remember an itinerant preacher who spoke of the imminent Kingdom of God two millennia ago. This, to me, has always been the double-edged sword of Christianity -- separating Jesus from Paul to make the teachings of Christ relevant to us today.

And I think that's what churches that lean into an emphasis on "inclusion" attempt to do. The Quakers I sat with for a couple of years did that. Likewise for the Episcopal church, at least in America. They try to move people away from focusing on the hidebound rigidity of dogmatic rules and regulations to open their hearts to charity and compassion toward "the least of these." But I think the bigger challenge for all churches, both liberal and conservative ones, is to resist the temptation to become an echo chamber for contemporary political tribalism. How do you authentically follow in Christ's footsteps without sounding indistinguishable from wokeism on one hand, or Trumpism on the other? If your church becomes a mere reflection of everyday politics, I don't see how people will feel compelled to get up early on Sundays and head out to worship. It seems the church would have to set itself apart from the culture in some way to remain relevant. After all, for mainline Protestant churches that try to be all things to all people and reflect shifting cultural mores, attendance is in freefall

There's a fine line to be walked, and I think Rev. Ling -- at least based on my spending one Sunday morning with her -- tries her best to do so. But Rev. Ling is retiring soon, and that will leave the tiny congregation with a choice to make about the future. UCC membership has declined from more than 2 million at its peak to less than 825,000 today, following general trends in American church membership, and such steep drops are felt more acutely in small towns like Wallace, where the local Methodist church building is leased out to a nondenominational prayer group and the Episcopal church is now a museum. Far more people in Wallace visit the UCC's social hall when it serves as the local voting center than attend services in the actual church sanctuary. So it could well be that the UCC building will suffer a similar fate to its church neighbors when Rev. Ling steps down.     

This side of the church, probably better known to most locals,
is where Wallace residents enter to vote.
In a pretty conservative part of the country, a UCC church may face even more of a struggle to hang on than if it were located in a more progressive community. I can only hope for the congregation that those rays of light on the stained-glass window serve as a symbol of hope for their future.  

No comments:

Post a Comment