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Cathy Kay: 10 years is a long time. How old were you ten years ago when we called the about to be ordained Vicki Kemper to be our pastor here? Think about what you were doing then? Maybe you weren’t even a member of this church. Maybe you didn’t even live in the Amherst area. Maybe your family looked different, you had a different job, a different apartment. Perhaps you were a part of the church 10 years ago. Think about what the ways in which you were involved in the church then; who you worked with at the Fair; who you sat next to in church meetings. A lot has happened; much has changed over these 10 years. It’s a good time to look back at some of the highlights of our ministry together with Vicki. We can’t touch on everything, but we hope what this sampling will remind you of even more of the full life we have had together at First Church.
Nancy Haffey was the Search Committee Chairperson. She’ll set the stage for how this all got started.
Nancy Haffey: Once upon a time, Vicki was not our pastor. She was a daughter, a sister, a friend, a journalist, a writer, and a hiker, but she was not yet our pastor. I first met Vicki over ten years ago, when we as a congregation were seeking a new pastor, and Vicki was seeking a congregation. The UCC General Synod was in Hartford that year. Barak Obama (not yet president) was scheduled to speak there and Vicki planned to be there also. It was a perfect opportunity to meet, which we did.
It took the rest of the summer, though, for our committee to do our “due diligence” and decide whom we wanted to know better. When Vicki provided copies of some of her sermons and her poetry, the committee decided we definitely wanted to hear more. We arranged for her to come to Amherst in October, where she joined the search committee for a potluck at Shawn Trivette’s house, and she preached a sermon at Edwards Church.
Soon after that, it was time for us to make a decision, and the search committee was unanimous in recommending to the congregation that Vicki be chosen as our settled pastor. I called Vicki and fortunately she was pleased with the call, and was eager to meet the congregation. We prepared quite a weekend for her. Vicki spent five days with us: attending gatherings with church members, hiking at the Notch Visitors’ Center, getting a tour of downtown from the young people, participating in the Cranberry Fair, and leading worship. If nothing else, we learned that she had a lot of stamina, and the congregation voted unanimously to call her as our settled pastor. Fortunately, she accepted the call.
Not long after that, several of us on the Search Committee went to Washington for Vicki’s ordination. Vicki arranged places for us to stay in the homes of church members and we enjoyed their hospitality. We had a chance to meet her parents and friends, and we listened to her father sing at her ordination.
Freddie Manning, who was the chair of the previous search committee, once told me that the chairs of the search committee often have a unique relationship with their pastor because the relationship started when she wasn’t our pastor. We were all seeking something important and we were taking a leap of faith into the future. It’s kind of like bungee-jumping.
Cathy Kay: We have grown in our faith as individuals and together.
Marylou Sullivan: How on earth do I talk about my spiritual journey over a decade in 2 minutes! I’ll have to use a lot of short hand.
Two Sunday services in particular were powerful in the beginning of my journey here – first, Vicki preached about God doing a new thing – motivated in part by the new structure just voted in… I had no idea that “new thing” was going to include work on me.
A few months later there was sacred a conversation on race. Card tables were set up in the lounge and the chapel and the bulk of the service focused on us, in groups of four, sharing when we first became aware of race or our earliest memory of racism. I found it incredibly moving.
These moments were the first steps in experiencing such a direct tie between my private, mostly inner focused practice and a challenge to see myself acting in the world based on the foundations of my faith. I think of it as “coming out” as Christian. Here’s what I can tell you:
Church for me had been a Sunday self-care habit, also part of my constant quest for self-improvement – that can be a trap for me, a burden I unnecessarily put on myself.
It’s been teasing out the yin and yang of reflections and quiet discernment with active participation in trying to create more love and justice in the world. It’s fed my work life and my home life and led me to pursue paths I’m not sure I would have considered.
It’s a journey of mystery – I didn’t and don’t know where I am going. There are frequent surprises. Some open wells of emotion I can’t explain. I feel more open.
It’s also about trust – Feeling safe to be challenged and vulnerable. Trusting I won’t be destroyed by this unearthing of deep meaning. And I am participating in an experience of community so rich and deep – beyond anything I experienced before or even imagined.
Thank you, Vicki, and all of you for the gift of this shared ministry – especially in such a time as this.
Sara Aierstuck: In January 2014, after seven busy years of ministry with First Church, Pastor Vicki gathered a group of church folk to plan for a time of sabbatical. Together we crafted a sabbatical proposal called: “Blessed To Be a Blessing.”
“I will bless you… so that you will be a blessing”. These words are God’s enduring promise to Abram from the Hebrew Scriptures and also the inspiration and grounding of our sabbatical plans. The idea was that both Pastor Vicki and our busy, social justice-oriented congregation would use sabbatical as a time of renewal; a time to more intentionally connect with God’s Spirit; a time to learn new practices to experience our blessedness, and a time to connect with our spiritual core as a blessed community.
Vicki had also recently started a street ministry by offering “Blessings to Go”, a spiritual practice of simply standing in front of the Black Sheep Deli in Amherst or at a Pride March, with a sign saying, “Ask Me For a Blessing.” When people asked, she would look into their eyes, lay hands on them, and tell them they were blessed and beloved by God. Many found this to be a powerful experience and Vicki wanted to offer this ministry in other places.
To our utter delight, the sabbatical proposal was accepted by the First Church congregation, and then fully funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment National Clergy Renewal Program. The grant provided financial resources for the congregation to have a sabbatical pastoral care and for Vicki to find renewal, inspiration and to reconnect with her own blessedness through travel, writing, and recreation.
In late April 2015, after more than eight years as our pastor and a joyous send-off party, Vicki went on sabbatical: filled with creative and adventurous plans. She first went on a silent spiritual retreat, then took a very long pilgrimage walk with a dear friend on the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and visited sacred sites in Turkey.
She then bravely took her ministry of “Blessings to Go” to the streets of Jerusalem and Washington D. C., choosing these cities because they are sites of religious, political, economic, and racial division and conflict.
The sabbatical ended with a time of renewal, relaxation and writing before she returned back to her busy life as our pastor. We were blessed to have this time of renewal made even more rich and full through the leadership and creative energy of Pastor Vicki.
Cathy Kay: We have taken care of each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Cynthia Wade: I don’t remember the exact date that the Caring Companions came into being. But I do remember the Call that went out from you to form a new specially trained ministry to be your right hand (or maybe your left hand?) team meant to not be the Pastor, Social worker, Psychologist or Taxi Driver but to assist you in ways we were yet to discover.
The invitation spoke to me. The 10 or 12 of us who answered the call not only ministered to members of the congregation but we ministered to and supported each other, having each other’s backs as you had our backs.
We visited the sick, held hands with the bereaved and the lonely, delivered people to doctor’s appointments, spent hours talking on the phone when we couldn’t visit people in person and fielded questions when you were unavailable. We even had the honor and challenge of ministering to you when you had your accident!
Unfortunately, as time passed we began to lose our Caring Companions to aging, illness, death, changing life circumstances and locations. I miss those who are gone or have moved on in other ways. I treasure the friendship and special bond we had.
Though the Caring Companion Ministry dissipated, the needs of the church family and your needs did not go away. It is a Ministry Team worth rebuilding in the next ten years with new energy and commitment. Thank you, Vicki for mentoring our team into existence and for giving me one of my most meaningful experiences in the last ten years.
Although this formed a small part of your ministry at First Church, it is one aspect that was most meaningful to me. Bob was supportive of the work I chose to do. I brought him along (virtually) with me for the ride!
Best wishes for your ministry in the years to come.
Cathy Kay: We have heard God’s call and lived our faith out loud.
At some point early on in her ministry here, Vicki crafted the statement that we now recite each week as we light the Peace and Justice candle. Later we adopted it as our congregation’s Mission Statement. Sometimes I worry that reciting something week after week will render it meaningless. My experience with this statement is just the opposite, however. Each week saying these words instantly re-grounds me, instantly reconnects me to the spiritual foundation of my work in the world as a legal aid lawyer.
These words are so rich. There is so much here to explore. Each phrase could be the basis of a discussion group or sermon series. I realize that from week to week, a particular part of the statement might grab my attention. For example, recently I’ve been focusing on the phrase, ”empowered by God’s spirit.” I’m trying to be more intentional about invoking the power of the Spirit in my daily life and work. I’ve taken to silently praying as I sit down at my desk and turn on my computer at the start of each day. I ask for God’s guidance in the day’s work. When I remember to connect with Spirit, even briefly throughout the day, I feel that assurance that I’m not doing this work on my own, but can rely on the strength of one much more powerful than I. I find I am more able to be compassionate with my clients and more resolute in my advocacy for justice.
Our mission statement is changing the way I work and live in the world.
Russ Vernon-Jones: We have lived out our faith as a congregation in so many ways! I’ve been asked to say a few words about our anti-racism and sanctuary ministries. Vicki arrived in February of 2008, during the primary campaign in which Barack Obama was a candidate for President. In May the national UCC called on all congregations to have Sacred Conversations on Race. Vicki convened a group of us and we soon had worship services with sacred conversations on race within the service, an Anti-Racism Ministry Team, and transformative learning sessions. Over 50 members of our congregation read and discussed the book “White Like Me” by Tim Wise.
In January of 2009 we unanimously agreed to a covenant to continue our explorations of contemporary racism and to stick together whether we agreed or disagreed. After another year of study, prayer, drafting and revising together we adopted, by consensus, a commitment to be a proactive force for the elimination of racism and white privilege. That included the statement “We know that the call for racial justice is a call to heal ourselves, to support the healing of others, and to repair the world, and that this is made possible through the love of God.”
We have sought to be faithful to this commitment through Vicki’s preaching and praying, services led by the ARMT, and countless actions and conversations within and beyond our church in which a great many of you have been engaged.
The week our current President was inaugurated we displayed a banner on the front of the church saying, “Welcome immigrants and refugees.” By early June we adopted a covenant in which we declared ourselves to be an Immigrant-Welcoming Congregation. Although we had not planned to offer physical sanctuary, in mid-September we learned of the plight of Lucio Perez and in an atypically quick process responded by taking the leap of faith to offer Lucio sanctuary in our building.
It has been stressful at times and taken a great deal of work, but we have been blessed to have Lucio with us and to learn from his model of faith and courage. Our action has led to well over 100 people in our community stepping up to support Lucio, and a coming together of people of many faiths to manifest the love of God as we challenge injustice together. Thanks be to God!
Cathy Kay: We have put our treasure where our heart is.
Ralph Faulkingham: I’d like to speak about Project 275 –our recent capital campaign and building project — and what that experience says about our walk with Pastor Vicki.
After we learned of the White bequest of over $1 million back in 2010, we took a long, long, long time to discern what to do with it. I admit I was impatient; I often felt that we were dragging our feet and might lose faith in ourselves that we could actually do something. Over those many months, however, Vicki counseled practices of listening thoughtfully, prayerfully, and lovingly to each other, and she preached inclusiveness, both of identities and of points of view. And we listened. We have had many, many congregational meetings since the White bequest, and I think we have come out of that with a great deal of practice, skill, and confidence in making smart decisions together. Yes, we have a completed construction project, but we also know how to make decisions consensually as a loving, inclusive community of faith, and for that we owe a lot to our walk of faith together the whole way with Pastor Vicki.
In early 2014, Cathy Kay and I put together a fantastic team of 42 individuals here at First Church to develop and implement the entire capital campaign. No one we invited said, "No, I can’t." Now we look back and see that over the past three and one-half years our Project 275 capital campaign brought in $570,000 in gifts from 97 donors. You all gave that commitment to our God, to each other, and to this beloved community, literally, to widen our welcome.
I think Vicki’s preaching and spiritual advocacy were foundational to our success. Again and again, Vicki reminded us, whether it was as a member of the Project 275 team or from the pulpit on Sunday morning, how our generous God has wondrously made us and pours out so many blessings on us. She asked us to turn away from the culture that says, "I am not good enough; I can’t do it; I might fail; I can’t share because then I won’t have enough." To that mindset, Vicki challenged us to trust in God’s promises of continued blessing, and in turn to be outrageously generous in our own giving. My key take away from Project 275 is a renewed trust in a loving and generous God and a confidence that when we give generously of our time, talent, and treasure, we open hearts; we answer prayers; and we find a bit of heaven right here on earth.
Cathy Kay: We have shined our light brightly from our church on the hill.
ivy tillman: Let me say, first, that i do not believe this community ever cared what people thought of us as a worship community. After all, this church community has been together for more than 275 years; after more than 250 of them, we had, in the face of some threat to property, moved forward with a declaration of, for the time, extremely radical welcome. In response to the MACUCC becoming ONA, our communion table, which still speaks radical welcome to all, was broken, but we went ahead anyway.
NBA began because a member saw a need and called us to address it, and the Cranberry Fair was not just a way for us to clear our closets, but also a way for us to invite folk in to see what we were like. And even though this faith community joined with others on the corner of Main and South Pleasant to stand against all armed conflict, and with others to DC to fight climate change and to VT Yankee to stop proliferation of nuclear power plants, i think some of you might agree that we tended to do much of our worship in the pews and our mission work with our money.
And to be fair, we took a good long look at how we wanted to move forward as a church before our Pastor arrived. In the ten years since Pastor’s arrival, we have made a little bit of noise in our community. We are a raucous presence at NOHO pride parade, a now established presence offering uplifting and affirming swag as well as Pastor Vicki’s—and others’–Blessings to go whenever we find ourselves at public gatherings; we haven’t done one for a while, but for a time, we were causing quite a holy ruckus with our Flash mobs, popping up in malls and other public events, standing for justice for all and proclaiming quite boldly our mission as God’s hands and feet.
Our ministry teams make very public—and sometimes unwelcomed—statements of our commitments to social justice: our banners across South Pleasant Street and on the front of our building attest to our being a church for everyone, regardless of ethnicity, gender expression, sexual orientation, race, age, or immigration status—being a church that will not sit still, stay safe behind locked doors. In fact, we are a fairly open-door church, offering shelter from the cold to many who don’t have it, and i hope, sincere and genuinely extravagant welcome to folk, including offering sanctuary, love and care to our brother Señor Lucio and his family.
Long before Pastor’s arrival, we connected with our interfaith neighbors, and those partnerships have only flourished as we sponsor and host benefits for the building of their communities, encourage participation in helping us offer sanctuary to our friend/brother/neighbor Lucio Perez, and initiate public gatherings with all of our faith communities when our grief is almost too much to bear.
Members of this congregation happily serve with the Hampshire Association, the MACUCC and the National church to provoke the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We stand up and speak out. Pastor Vicki writes some of the most heart-grabbing devotionals I’ve ever read. Finally, but not the least of it—and yes i know I’m leaving out important bits—is Pastor’s involvement with our children, from campouts at her house to gatherings on the Cape to mission fields away. You will almost always find our Pastor where you find our children, standing with them, modeling for them how to be God’s hands and feet.
This summer at General Synod 2017, we received the new iteration of the UCC core values, Three Loves: Love of children, Love of Neighbor, and Love of Creation. i believe we’re hitting the mark, and are even ahead of the national church in our practice. How thankful i am that we have a Pastor, a leader, who is not afraid to start and sustain a holy ruckus. PTL church, that God is still speaking and Pastor Vicki is listening and acting.
Cathy Kay: We have so much more to learn, share, and give. What is God calling us to do in the next 10 years?
Skyler Keiter: As I embark on my last semester at UMass and prepare for what comes next, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my time in Amherst these last three and a half years. Unsurprisingly, First Church is often a key theme in these reflections, but many (if not most!) of my First Church memories also feature a prominent character – Vicki.
From the very first time I sat in worship at First Church in 2014, Vicki, I was captivated by your preaching, your warm and welcoming invitation to the communion table, and your obvious love and care for this church. You’ve been there with me through thick and thin, through grief and overwhelming fear with wise words and compassion, and you have fielded phone calls from my anxious parents on multiple occasions. We have laughed and shared dog stories on weekdays in the church office and worked on many projects for the ELT and other various ministry teams. No matter what has been going on in my life, you have been a constant supportive presence, always checking in and making sure things are going okay. Two of my favorite memories of the last few years are when we affirmed my baptism and the day we marched together in Boston the week after Charlottesville. It was so special to create a service that honored my journey and my chosen name and to have my baptism affirmed with water from special places in Maine and in Amherst. On that day in Boston, I was so proud to be marching next to you, even though part of me was absolutely terrified about what could or might happen. I treasure these memories and more. You have also become an incredible mentor to me and you embody so much of who I want to be as a pastor someday with your dedication, attention to detail, eloquence, deep faith, and profound ability to love and care for others.
This is the story of how you’ve changed my life, but you have touched so many more lives than just mine or others who have spoken today. You’ve impacted hundreds of lives and touched the hearts of countless people during the last ten years of your ministry, from strangers you’ve blessed on the sidewalk, to those sitting here in the pews every week. That’s one of many amazing things about ministry, getting to touch the hearts of so many of God’s beloved children.
I know this not just based my own experience, assumption that others have similar feelings, or inferring it through casual conversation, but because over the last few weeks I’ve gotten to hear about it firsthand from so many people.
When planning this service, the ELT knew that we wanted to give something to you to mark this very special milestone in our ministry together. So, over the last two weeks I have gathered memories, photos, and stories of people whose lives you have changed and those whose hearts you’ve touched and put them together in a scrapbook for you. My hope is that these sweet memories will comfort you when times are tough and bring renewed joy as you reflect on your ministry here. May you always know that within these pages is a whole lot of love for you. Vicki, you are so, so loved.
Thanks be to God, for First Church Amherst, and for you!