Guilford Community Church will receive recognition from the national United Church of Christ for their “radical inclusivity.”
Any church in rural Vermont has to work pretty hard to the embrace kinds of diversity others in urban areas may take for granted, acknowledges the church’s pastor, Rev. Lise Sparrow. Nonetheless, and perhaps because of the challenge, Guilford Community Church was notified this week that they will receive national recognition. The award is one of seven awarded this year as part of the national United Church of Christ “BE THE CHURCH” campaign, which exhorts churches to express a series of themes: “protect the environment,” “care for the poor,” “forgive often,” “reject racism,” “fight for the powerless,” “share earthly and spiritual resources,” “embrace diversity,” and “Love God,” all modern-day expressions of Christ’s message.
The church, one of over 5,000 congregations worldwide, was nominated because of its racially and ethnically diverse congregation, its active support of the local LGBTQ community, and its long held commitment to accessibility.
According to Rev. Lise Sparrow, the Guilford church was the first of local churches to provide a lift for congregants to access both its sanctuary and chancel area. For years the church has offered hearing devices for the hearing impaired, the services of an interpreter for its deaf members, and large print bulletins for the visually impaired. More recently, young differently abled adults have become members and taken roles in the services.
Worship services include congregants of all ages and of different abilities as part of the congregation, as musicians, candle lighters and leaders of prayers.
The congregation is itself diverse demographically, welcoming ninth generation farming families as well as immigrants and international students and staff from the School for International Training. The choir is led by acclaimed folk and classical musicians, yet has an open door to singers of all ages and abilities as long as they participate in the choir rehearsal before the service.
Sparrow acknowledges gratefully the past efforts of the Austine School and the current work of Families First to integrate deaf and differently-abled adults into the local community. The Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity and the Root Social Justice Center also work locally against racism in Vermont, and Guilford Cares and Groundworks Collaborative work to fight poverty in Vermont.
Leaders of those organizations are at home in the church and bring their passions and commitments as opportunities for the congregation. Sparrow reflects: “We strive to feed the souls of community leaders so that they can do their work, and as they become members, their constituents also begin to see church as an essential part of their lives and community—as a place of comfort, but also as a place to focus their own efforts for change, not only in their lives but in the larger community as well.”
Through the Brattleboro Area Interfaith Youth Group which was originally founded in collaboration with All Souls Unitarian Church but has gone on to flourish with youth now participating from the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community and many local churches. Dr. Cheri Brodhurst, a local ObGyn, who has been a youth organizer on trips to St. Croix and Kenya, affirms that “youth are at the heart of the church’s mission.” Young teens of the church begin by volunteering locally but also strive to reach beyond Vermont. The church has partnered since 2006 with a rural community in Kenya, where they have helped build a high school to support children orphaned by HIV/AIDS, who attend for free. The group, led by Sparrow, has traveled to New York City, Mississippi, St. Croix, Texas, Kenya, and more recently, to South Dakota to work with the Cheyenne River Sioux through the Simply Smiles Organization.
“Diversity has become a source of fascination, joy, and awareness in all of us,” says one lay leader, Bev Langeveld. “And this, in turn, has created a context in which we can examine our differences and develop the skills necessary for conflict transformation both among ourselves and, hopefully, as we go forward into the larger world,” adds Dunham Rowley, the church moderator.
The church will be given a “BE THE CHURCH” rainbow banner as an award and will be given publicity nationally and locally as United Church of Christ Church of the Month for January 2017.