A Retrospective on Iglesia Congregacional Unida

Looking back over 100+ years of history, this is a reflection on the church that I serve as pastor.

A congregational rerflection was held on June 6, 2010, using a timeline as the pint of departure.  The time chart had been prepared ahead of time.  Early ICU history (1892-1950) was reviewed, and then as the mid-20th century came up, the older long-term members began to reminisce.

From the remembering process, values and mission were distilled at the close of the exercise.  These came from the experience of being founded from ecumenical mission efforts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries among the Hispanic people of South Albuquerque and growing into a church that has served the community in many ways.

Values that have prevailed through much of the ICU church’s history are as follows.

  1. Basis in the Word of love and justice, which alone is sufficient (“bastante” in Spanish) to the calling and faithfulness of the church in its mission.
  2. Reflection of the cultural, linguistic, ethical context of the church, in embodying the love and justice of God as made known to us especially in Jesus, who we believe is the Christ.
  3. Service to children, to those in need of food and medical care, and to those who are forgotten or marginalized, defending their human dignity.
  4. Autonomy of the congregation, in keeping with the Congregational polity, but also as a minority ethnicity in relationships of unequal power within the denomination and the society.
  5. Collaboration and unity of action with other entities and communities of good will.
  6. Lay leadership in worship, music, and programs of service.

 

From its beginnings as a formally established church in 1926, Iglesia Congregacional Unida has received its pastoral leadership largely from the diverse communities variously called Spanish, Hispanic, Latino/Latina, Chicano/Chicana, or Latin American.  The governance leadership of the lay members has also been drawn largely from this same cluster of ethnicities and cultures.

There have been about 13 installed pastors who have served for significant periods of time, in addition to interim pastors and supply preachers. Three of the installed ICU pastors have been ethnically distinct from the majority of the congregation, and one of the three (the current pastor) is bicultural, having been born and raised in Mexico of North American (“Anglo”) parents. Two of the 13 pastors have been female – one Anglo and one Hispanic.

(One side benefit of the congregational exercise was to clarify for some newer members that here have been two pastors surnamed Hernández, and two pastors surnamed Ávila. This situation had provoked confusion when older members would reminisce about “Pastor Hernández” or “Pastor Ávila” in completely different decades!)

A pattern in the latter half of the 20th century was that the departure of a pastor brought about a crisis in ICU.  In one case, a pastor died in the parsonage and his body was not discovered for several days.  In another case, the congregation ended up boycotting a contracted interim who they perceived as trying to take the church out of the denomination. He departed after his six-month contract expired, and the congregation re-occupied the church building.

In the past 30 years, few pastors have come to ICU through a regular process of search and call.  Instead, circumstances and availability in a time of need have resulted in appointments (United Methodist-style) or contracting of pastors and in one case has led to the lengthy service of a supply preacher over several years.

Because of limited Spanish-speaking pastoral leadership available within the UCC denomination (and previously, the Christian Congregational Church), ICU has been served by pastors of many backgrounds — United Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, and non-denominational.

Nevertheless, strong and visionary lay leaders have held ICU on its mission course within the UCC through the ups and downs.  Both collaboration and confrontation have occurred over time between the church and other more powerful congregations in the UCC. Some memories still rankle over joint projects in which ICU seemed to be considered a second-class player (for many years the church was officially called “Second Congregational Church”).

One sore point for ICU leadership was the perceived treatment resulting from being a mission-supported church.  The sense was that in many settings ICU was presented to the other churches of the Conference in patronizing and demeaning ways because it was partially funded from outside.  A milestone for ICU was the economic independence achieved in the last two decades of the 20th century.  Although unable to pay a full-time pastor, ICU stands on its own financially and contributes a high proportion of its budget to church-wide and conference-wide offerings.

A key component of local mission is the church annex, bought and paid for by a visionary council and pastor in the 1970’s.  From its beginning, this building was dedicated to service of the community.  It has in its history housed a pre-school, a day care center for children whose families are homeless, a center for unwed teen mothers, an economic project for immigrant survivors of domestic violence, a community economic development project, and a center for immigrant rights and community organizing. Several of these projects, launched in this building, have outgrown it and gone on to prosper in other locations.

Outreach to children goes back at least to the mid-20th century, when many members were very poor and at times depended on food supplies from the church for good nutrition of their families.  Medical services furnished through War on Poverty programs helped many children develop in healthy ways. The church pre-school and the day care (Cuidando los Niños) gave way to youth outreach programs in the 90’s with support from United Methodist and Roman Catholic youth leaders and to the work of the current pastor and one church member in mentor programs for adjudicated youth.

Music plays an important role in worship and outreach both to un-churched populations and to fellow-Christians.  Until his death several years ago, a dedicated pianist-choir leader provided most of the music for worship.  The current guitar group plays at special events of other churches such as pastoral transitions or choir festivals – or even rummage sales.  New members have been brought into the church through participation in the guitar group.

The replacement in ICU of exclusively piano-based music (and, more recently, electronic keyboard music) with a broader range of expression is emblematic of the change in the past 15 years to an emphasis on outreach and service to immigrants.  The historical struggle of ICU members for recognition by the majority society has given them the perspective to recognize the current disenfranchisement of immigrants, especially those who are Spanish-speaking.

With changing contexts, the church looks to its core values and the inspiration of the Spirit as it takes new steps into the future.  The departure of the Centro de Igualdad y Derechos from the church annex (again, as it has outgrown the facility) raises again the question of how ICU shall be faithful in this new generation.  Perhaps the annex will next serve as a refuge for families that are fleeing the draconian treatment meted out to them in the neighboring state of Arizona.

The increasing number of non-Spanish speakers (immigrants and others) who begin to identify ICU as their faith community raises the challenge of re-evaluating the mission of the church in the new decade while still retaining the commitment to “the least of these”.  For the pastor and people of Iglesia Congregacional Unida, the Time Line Exercise has been at the very least a chance to look back, look forward and say “Ebenezer – thus far has God helped us.”

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2 Responses to “A Retrospective on Iglesia Congregacional Unida”

  1. Amanda Says:

    Admirable piece

  2. home for veterans Says:

    I couldn’t think you are more right

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