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Church leaders gather to pray, discern, and strategize during this unprecedented time of challenge, change

The Governing Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) met Tuesday, April 28, for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to discuss critical issues facing the nation and indeed, the entire world.  In another first, the Council met by videoconference. Matters surrounding the global pandemic dominated the agenda with the Board issuing a statement that envisioned a just and bold new future for the United States. 

“There was a committed effort to pull together. We really do recognize how much we need each other.”  

Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, Chair of the Governing board

“I felt the Board pulled together and accomplished a great deal in a short time,” stated Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, Chair of the Governing Board. “We affirmed a statement on white supremacy, approved a statement to the Church about facing the challenge of a pandemic, deliberated about the future of our meeting protocols, made commitments to continue to have virtual meetings, dealt with reports about our finances, and about a dozen other matters.”

The Board also heard reports of how churches, civil and human rights organizations, and institutions that work on behalf of the incarcerated are all adapting to protect the most vulnerable.

“While many have said the virus knows no boundaries, the fact is that it has had a grossly disproportionate impact on communities of color, with African Americans and Hispanics suffering far more than white communities,” said Jim Winkler, President and General Secretary.  

One highlight of this meeting was an informative presentation by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in which the board, comprised of the heads of the Council’s 38 member communions, received up-to-date information on the COVID-19 pandemic.  The impact of the pandemic on communities of color was especially emphasized.  The board showed particular concern about how plans to reopen businesses would impact churches and the most vulnerable, citing instances where the virus spread rapidly in congregations before social distancing guidelines were put in place. Representatives from the CDC also asked the NCC Governing Board members for their help with disseminating accurate information about the novel coronavirus and ways to stay safe to their congregations and others in their networks.

The Governing Board statement entitled, “Now is a Time to Imagine a Bold New Future,” carried a hopeful message in the midst of the crushing despair that follows this pandemic.  While the meeting was taking place, the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the United States crossed the one-million mark with nearly 58,000 deaths recorded. According to the statement, “Many workers considered essential are treated as expendable,” which is one way the response to the pandemic is making racial and economic disparities already present much more pronounced. “Now is a time to imagine a bold new future, and a way forward that considers the best interests of all of God’s people,” the statement continues.

“The data that COVID-19 is revealing is like a microscope on germs, highlighting the many ways that racism is systemically woven into the fabric of our society”

Rev. Aundreia Alexander, ESQ.

At the same time the Council issued this note of hope, Rev. Aundreia Alexander, Esq., Associate General Secretary of Action and Advocacy for Justice and Peace, reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has exploded inequities already present in our society.  Of particular concern is how the nation’s jails and prisons are being neglected during this crisis and are indeed becoming breeding grounds of fear, sickness, and death.  “The data that COVID-19 is revealing is like a microscope on germs, highlighting the many ways that racism is systemically woven into the fabric of our society,” she said, urging the Council to take bold action as these injustices are addressed.

In addition to issues surrounding the global pandemic, the Governing Board also continued its work in the fight to end racism. During the 2019 Christian Unity Gathering, each of the heads of communion of the predominantly white churches of the NCC was invited to appoint persons to a working group with the task of developing a shared definition of white supremacy.  Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), reported on this group’s work.  The following definition was unanimously approved by the Governing Board: 

Through colonization and slavery, the United States of America helped to create and embrace a system of valuing and devaluing people based on skin color and ethnic identity. The name for this system is white supremacy. This system deliberately subjugated people of color and Indigenous people for the purpose of material, political, and social advantage.  White supremacy creates, sustains and protects a culture that structurally and ideologically privileges whiteness in virtually all facets of society. Racism is the continuing legacy of white supremacy. It is counter to the Gospel, anathema to core tenants of all major religions and people of good will. Racism is a sin that we must confess and seek to dismantle in our own lives and institutions.

This definition will guide the Council’s ecumenical work and witness in the future and will be the basis for NCC’s ongoing anti-racism efforts through its A.C.T. to End Racism initiative.

The Council’s signature event, the Christian Unity Gathering, set to take place in October 2020, was also discussed in the context of spring event cancellations and the likelihood of continued pandemic concerns in the fall. Among the many possibilities, it was decided that the most responsible option is to hold a virtual Christian Unity Gathering at the time originally scheduled.  This exemplifies the Council’s desire to be creative and adaptive during this time, as a virtual event holds the possibility of including increased global participation with more diverse voices. Details about this event will be released in the near future.

At the same time as key programs are having to be re-envisioned, the update of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which began in 2018, is proceeding on course without delay.  The work of the translation team, convened by the Society of Biblical Literature, has since its beginning been a model of collaboration made possible by videoconferencing technology.  The work has continued unheeded, and the National Council of Churches is proceeding on schedule with this exciting work.

The Governing Board completed its meeting with a note of gratitude during a time which is putting unprecedented pressure on faith communities. “What felt good was the spirit of cooperation and collaboration,” noted Rev. Dr. Dorhauer.  “There was a committed effort to pull together. We really do recognize how much we need each other.”  

The National Council of Churches remains deeply committed to its priorities of ending racism, ending mass incarceration, and interreligious dialogue with a focus on peace.