The 39th annual meeting and conference of the Union of Black Episcopalians (UBE) is set for July 2-6 at the Hilton Americas Hotel in Houston, Texas. An estimated 300 Episcopalians will gather under the theme "Telling Our Story: Hearing God's Call for Reconciliation" for a time of reflection, renewal, and some re-visioning.
"Our theme of reconciliation provides an opportunity for us, as black people living in these times, to indeed walk with God," said Dianne Audrick Smith, annual meeting coordinator. "It is a family reunion time in the church where we see old friends, get caught up, and have an opportunity to stretch our minds theologically."
The five-day intergenerational assemblage, hosted by the John Dublin Epps Chapter of UBE and the Diocese of Texas, will celebrate the lives, contributions, and sacrifices of people of color and women clergy.
"It [the conference] is a chance to better understand some of the key issues facing the church in general and the black church specifically," said Smith. "We are treated to times of meditation and then jump into the fray of the church as a political animal."
In addition, a video developed and produced by the Texas Commission on Black Ministry will be shown on Texas' black Episcopal history. It chronically contains a narrative listing of prominent blacks (lay and priests) who have been active in the Diocese of Texas.
Although each conference is unique, there are elements that have become a constant.
"There will be spiritually uplifting Eucharist, wonderful music, opportunities to share with family and friends, active participation by young people and thoughtful and sometimes inciting sermons that will serve as reinforcements of the marvelous ways in which we as Black people contribute and indeed lead this Episcopal church of ours," said Smith.
Youth will have an integral role in all aspects of the conference including leading a special youth Eucharist service on July 4 and spending time with Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori.
Jefferts Schori will be the preacher for the reconciliation Eucharist on the morning of July 4. Her investiture, said Smith, was a signal to the Episcopal Church and to the Anglican Communion of the power of God "to work through women in the church and to work with diligence to bring us all to God's reconciling love and acceptance of all of our gifts."
In describing the Eucharist, Smith said, "In many places the Episcopal Church is seen as a homogeneous body with very little diversity. I think in the Eucharistic celebration we have the opportunity to say that we rejoice in our diversity, not just as a byword but as part of the rich heritage of the church."
Referencing Ephesians 3:20 -- "We are strengthened by God whose power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine" -- Smith said that it is vital that Jefferts Schori speak to "the reign of God and God's work in the world."
"Her life is about working in God's abundance, a message that UBE and indeed the church must hear," she explained. "We will celebrate with her in this abundance and continue the work for social justice that God has called us to."
Bonnie Anderson, president of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, will also be present for a portion of the conference.
Honoring women clergy
The conference will also recognize the 30th anniversary of women's ordination in the church.
"This was one of the key social justice issues that we supported in our early history as an organization and this year we will celebrate the ordination of women by recognizing bishop's who are African American, Latin, Asian, Native and Anglo," said Smith. "As a body, we will have an opportunity to thank them all for their ministries to us in the name of Christ."
In addition, women "across the generations" will be asked to briefly provide their perspectives on their lives as priests.
"I'm sure that in some of their comments, they will call us to actively pick up the mantle and fight against all of the isms -- sexism, homophobia, racism, classism," said Smith.
Honorees will include Bishop Barbara Harris, retired suffragan bishop of Massachusetts; Bishop Gayle Harris of Massachusetts; Suffragan Bishop Bavi Edna "Nedi" Rivera of Olympia; Assistant Bishop Carol Gallagher of Newark; and Suffragan Bishop Dina Harrison of Texas.
Change of leadership
During the meeting portion of the conference new leaders, including the president and youth representatives, will be elected to take a "revisioned UBE" into the future.
"This has been a tremendous experience for me," said the Rev. Canon Nelson W. Pinder, president of UBE. "Serving as president of UBE for the past three years gave me a chance to minister to a number of people who were looking for a ministry to take place in their life. It's been a healing and reassurance ministry."
Pinder said the vision he has for UBE as he steps down is one of continuing the partnerships, new initiatives and growth experienced during his tenure.
With him at the helm, six new chapters of UBE were started and a partnership, formally announced at the 75th General Convention, was formed with the Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) enabling them to assist and empower UBE to develop financial, informational and leadership resources for its mission and ministry. The union is reciprocal in that UBE assists ECF in connecting with multicultural Episcopal congregations and in developing leadership resource tools.
"We are now about to go into the new promised land and so the Moses people of my generation need to turn it over to the Joshua people to see the new light," he said. "However, in doing so we must be a counsel of advice to guide them."
'Uplifted and edified'
"I want people to leave this celebration uplifted and edified in breadth and length and height of all that is this wonderful church of ours," said the Rev. Deon Johnson, chaplain for the conference. "I want people to go forth 'rejoicing in the power of the spirit' at work in the church and in their lives."
Johnson said he will incorporate Ezekiel's vision of the valley of the dry bones [Ezekiel 37:1-14] into the theme for the service.
"It is a reminder that sometimes, like the people of Israel, we feel as though our bones are dried up but God is able from the four winds, from the breath of the Holy Spirit, to breathe new life and new hope into God's people," he explained.
UBE encourages the involvement of Black people in the life of the Episcopal Church -- mission, stewardship, evangelism, education, liberation, leadership, governance, and politics. Its goal is to eradicate racism within the church.
For more information on the conference visit: http://www.ube.org/.