General Synod 2019, Day 1

From the 2019 ONA National Gathering at General Synod

A Reflection by Ugena Whitlock

The National ONA Gathering is the biennial meeting of the Open and Affirming Coalition in the United Church of Christ. Members of conferences and churches—ONA or not-yet ONA—are welcome to attend, and I proudly attended as a Southeast Conference member. Much of this year’s National Gathering focused on how ONA churches can act faithfully in crisis. And, as is always true at our Gatherings, we examined the intersections of our movement with other movements for social, racial, economic and environmental justice.

Plenary sessions included a wide variety of justice-related topics: White Privilege in LGBTQIA+ Communities, led by Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel, author of Carnal Knowledge of God: Embodied Love and the Movement for Justice; Millennials and Post-Millennials in ONA Churches, led by an ecumenical panel of LGBTQIA+ millennials; and Mental Health and Disability in LGBTQIA+ Communities: UCC Disabilities Ministries and UCC Mental Health Network presented by Rev. Dr. Sarah Lund, Minister for Disabilities and Mental Health Justice. The ONA Coalition is working on becoming A2A, and Welcoming, Inclusive, Supporting, and Engaged (WISE). The goal of disability justice: remake the world so that it is actually built for the rest of us.

Rev. Dr. Karen Georgia Thompson, gave a special greeting to the Gathering. Rev Thompson is the Minister for Racial Justice with Justice and Witness Ministries, and nominee for Associate General Minister of Global Engagement and Co-Executive of Global Ministries, the common overseas ministry of the UCC and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Her message to the group reinforced themes of intersections of justice advocacy: Dismantling systems of white supremacy. Decolonizing our welcome. Decolonizing our witness.

This year’s Gathering concluded with the General Synod ONA Banquet, one of the signature events at Synod! This year our keynoter is the Rev. Justo Gonzalez II, Interim Conference Minister of the Illinois Conference. Rev. Gonzalez has worked to establish sanctuary churches in Michigan, Buffalo, and Wyoming for immigrants who fear being deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Open and Affirming means that we work together as a church for racial, immigrant, and environmental justice.

Coalition Executive Director Andy Lang offered closing comments, reminding us inclusion is not enough, for at its root it is related to the word “enclosure.” It is not enough to move boundaries and replant them. Instead, we must destabilize boundaries. The UCC has over 5,000 congregations, and the 1,610th has just been designated ONA. We celebrate this new addition, yet it means that only about a third of UCC congregations are ONA; put another way, over 60% are non-ONA designated congregations. “To hear this will not make us comfortable, but given these numbers, the UCC is not an open and affirming denomination.” As a reference, in the SEC, 23 of 56 congregations 41%, are officially designated ONA. I am happy to share more information about ONA and the ONA process; please contact me at