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by Mike Stroud
Eighteen years ago this month, the Southeast Conference reached perhaps the pinnacle of its 39 years of being when Atlanta played host to the 25th General Synod of the UCC, conducted at the Georgia World Congress Center. It was not only a highly memorable occasion for the SEC faithful, but it made national headlines as well. For during its proceedings on Independence Day, the United Church of Christ became the first major Christian body to endorse the right of Americans to marry those of their choosing, whether the partner be of the opposite sex or the same one.
Numerous people from throughout the Conference provided volunteer help to make every event and amenities flow smoothly. And several figures long associated with the SEC received special honors. Among them were two clergymen: Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann of the Atlanta-area Columbia Theological Seminary and former Ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young. Both were in good standing with the now-defunct Georgia-South Carolina Association.
But the highlight of all the festivities for many was the release of a long-awaited book about the American Missionary Association, On the Heels of Freedom. Written by then-Associate Conference Minister Joyce Hollyday, it dealt with the origins of the AMA in the Amistad slave revolt incident of the early 19th century (the subject of a movie) and its subsequent efforts to bring Christianity and education to emancipated slaves in postbellum times. Interviews were also conducted with elder members of the several African-American congregations deriving from this heritage. The release ceremony was further bolstered by a moving Sunday morning testimony by the Rev. Milton Hurst, who related stories of his Alabama upbringing by his grandparents, who remembered the oppression of slavery as children. Hurst impressed everyone with his operatic-quality voice singing an old spiritual.
All in all, it was a wondrous experience for all involved, and ten years later, same-sex marriage would become permitted throughout the U.S. in a Supreme Court ruling. That was something few if any gathered in Atlanta thought was even a possibility in the near future. It was a Synod, in short, that embodied the renewed Southeast Conference and invigorated existing churches and brought new ones into the fold, most of which are still with the SEC today.