Embracing Life Together in Togo, West Africa

Newlove is a name that has come up in our announcements and prayers. 
This is some of his story:

Newlove Atiso was born in Ghana, West Africa, the second of three sons,
who were followed by two daughters, five children in all. Newlove
received his name from his father Bob, and he later took a middle name,
Bobson, to honor his father.  His mother came from a village in the
neighboring country to the east, Togo.

When Newlove visited Togo as a tourist, he felt at home.  He decided to
move there and work for the needs of the poor.  In 2008 he learned about
People to People International, which was founded by Pres. Dwight
Eisenhower to foster personal contacts around the world.  Newlove and
his friends founded the PTPI-Togo chapter in the capital city of Lomé. 
Soon after that, Newlove asked PTPI for a sister chapter in the U.S.,
and the Los Angeles chapter answered the invitation.  (I was president
of the chapter then, and Leslie Kearney is the president now.)

Our first project together was to repair a school roof that had
literally collapsed onto children in a country village.  Half of the
money came from LA, and PTPI-Togo volunteers did all of the labor.  (The
school’s neighbors would not work without pay.)

In 2014 our members Joan and John spent a week in Togo, enjoying overflowing
hospitality.  Among many adventures, they saw the school roof, built back
better than new.  Beyond that, a Swiss official had recognized the
volunteer work and had caused the construction of a sturdy new building
with two much-improved classrooms.  Then, a Turkish foundation learned
what was going on and contributed a well and a water pump so that the
children always have clean water to drink.  All of this happened because
Newlove’s big heart had responded to children in need.

In the years since then, another member of PTPI-LA, Natalie Besse,
visited Togo and Ghana and personally underwrote a library and a water
storage unit.  Also, we heard from a PTPI member in Delaware, Ed
Tucker.  Ed visited West Africa on a cruise and, having only one day in
Lomé, sought out the PTPI chapter and became a friend and supporter of
Newlove.  The Delaware chapter raised $2,300 to buy school supplies and
pay school fees for poor children in Togo.

Newlove stays in touch by emails and short phone calls, although both
are unreliable and expensive.  He is a passionate advocate for
poor children, hoping that they can bring about a better time.

Searching for Normal

“Searching for Normal” is a poem by Rev. Susan Brecht
Rev. Susan reads her poem during Sunday Worship

A day in the park.
Masked man greets me.
Smiling eyes.
“Isn’t it wonderful,
all these people in the park!”
Just what I was thinking.
“It almost feels normal.”
I agree.



We’re searching for normal,
not the old normal.

We can’t go back.
A new normal?
What does that look like?

Hand shakes instead of fist bumps?
Hugs all around.
Time with family and friends –
no longer six feet apart.
New signs on empty store fronts.
But that is the old normal.

We’re searching for a new normal –
where oceans are clear of plastic,
solar panels and windmills dot the horizon,
electric stations replace gas pumps,
glaciers have stopped melting,
polar bears still have a home,
air is clear to breathe and water safe to drink.

We’re searching for a new normal –
where children no longer go hungry,
where no one lives on the street,
medical care is available to all,
and college students graduate debt free.

We’re searching for a new normal –
where guns are only used for hunting,
prisons rehabilitate,
restorative justice reduces prison population,
where wars are a distant memory.

We’re searching for a new normal –
where truth is the standard bearer,
fake news a relic of the past,
where honesty is worn as a badge of honor,
where all people are treated with dignity and respect,
where we see each other,
even those we disagree with,
with the eyes of God,

We’re searching for a new normal –
where acts of kindness are a daily occurrence,
positive stories out number negative ones
on the daily news cycle.
where walls have morphed into bridges,
not only on the border,
but in our daily lives,
where government officials reach across the aisle,
egos set aside,
to work for the betterment of all,

We’re searching for a new normal –
where churches are filled on Sunday mornings,
and throughout the week,
their work and message spilling out into the streets,
a renaissance of spirituality,
no matter your tradition.

A new normal, you say?
But how?
It’s up to each one of us,
who keep dreaming,
who have faith that a new normal is possible,
who keep hope alive,
who ground ourselves in love,
and each day, each one of us,
take steps to make it a reality,
for that is the only way
to a new normal.

Mental Health Sunday

In addition to celebrating Pentecost this Sunday, we will also be observing UCC’s
Mental Health Sunday.  

“The magnitude of mental illness in this country is staggering. According to the Surgeon General, one in every five Americans experiences a mental disorder in any given year and half of all Americans have such disorders at some time in their lives. These illnesses of the brain affect all of us, regardless of age, gender, economic status or ethnicity. Mental illness affects the mind, body and the spirit. It is a real, common and treatable illness. Mental illnesses are far more common than cancer, diabetes, heart disease or arthritis” (from Mental Health Ministries; http://www.mentalhealthministries.net). 

The UCC Mental Health Network exists “to reduce stigma and promote the inclusion of people with mental illnesses/brain disorders and their families in the life, leadership, and work of congregations.”  Their mission is to educate congregations to Widen the Welcome to all, just as Jesus reached out to those people who were marginalized, ostracized, and considered to be the outcasts of society.  Jesus brings comfort, love, understanding, support, and affirmation to everyone, and it is the Mental Health Network’s calling to help congregations be more like Jesus in Widening the Welcome to invite all who have been excluded from congregational life and ministry.  (See https://www.mhn-ucc.org/).  

Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness, and the need for continuing education, compassionate outreach, and loving support and encouragement for congregants and their family members, as well as our friends and community members, I envision us including mental health in our church’s Peace and Justice Ministry.  May our recognition of Mental Health Sunday be only the very beginning of including this very important aspect of our overall holistic health needs in our worship, faith formation, and spiritual nurture.

Know Justice Know Peace

We cannot be silent as one more black person is murdered unjustly, and the nation erupts with both anger and deep sorrow. We are called to recognize once again systemic racism, especially in law enforcement, by evoking the names of murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minn.; Ahmaud Arbery in Glenn County, Ga; Breionna Taylor in Louisville, Ky.; Eric Garner in New York City; and Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. … We cannot remain silent. God calls all of us to speak out. As Christians, Jesus tells us to love our neighbor as ourselves. God created and loves people of every color. And yet we create economic, political, and social barriers that oppress African Americans in every sector from housing and education to healthcare and criminal justice. The COVID-19 pandemic magnifies these disparities. We know that black and brown people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This moment calls us all together to speak up, stand up and show up.“And now, Lord, look at their threats, and grant to your servants to speak your word with all boldness” (Acts 4:29)This is our time to show our solidarity with all who live at the margins of our country because of their identities. We are called now to build a strong anti-racist commitment in our church so that we can show that Black Lives Matter in the kingdom of God. It is time to see ourselves as God sees us.  Jesus is risen and alive in each one of us. May we use that strength to be agents of change.”   

~UCC National Board, Rev. Stacy Thomas (in bold)


Resources for Standing Against Racial Injustice

We have highlighted a few resources below. For a more complete list visit resources.uccsimi.org.

NAACP- “We Are Done Dying ” Campaign


Anti-Racism Resources Document to Share with Family and Friends

This document is intended to serve as a resource to white people and parents to deepen our anti-racism work. If you haven’t engaged in anti-racism work in the past, start now. Feel free to circulate this document on social media and with your friends, family, and colleagues.


Your Kids Aren’t Too Young to Talk About Race: Resource Roundup

Podcast and additional resources for parents and caregivers.


26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets

This list is designed to celebrate all the ways that our communities can engage in liberation. By and for those in our communities who can’t be in the streets, we offer a list of concrete ways that we are in the movement, and that we are supporting liberation every day


NY Times Magazine “1619 Project”

According to the NY Times: “The goal of The 1619 Project is to reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year. Doing so requires us to place the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”


75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice

Corinne Shutack wrote an article on the popular platform Medium, outlining steps to “work to fix what we broke and left broken isn’t done until Black folks tell us it’s done.”

Connecting Through UCC Online Devotionals

While we practice physically distancing ourselves from others for everyone’s health and safety, we invite you to explore different ways of connecting socially, emotionally, and spiritually, with one another and with God. One option is to start reading the Daily Devotional provided by the United Church of Christ. Every day, a clergy person or lay leader in the UCC connects a verse of Scripture with a short devotion. In these challenging times, keeping your spirit connected with Spirit will help center you, calm you, redirect you, comfort you, motivate you, restore you, and deepen your faith. You may even want to make a phone “visit” with a church friend to read the devotion together and talk about it!

https://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional

Letter to the UCC Community on Coronavirus

Dear Beloved Community of the UCC in Simi Valley,

We are in the wilderness, an unknown, unfamiliar experience with regards to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).  Moment by moment we are learning new information. Please know, however, that you are our greatest concern, and we would like you to know that we are implementing health and safety precautions and measures to ensure the highest standards are in place in order to allow us to continue meeting, worshiping, and fellowshipping together.

As we continue to monitor and plan for the evolving situation with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and its impact upon our church, we will continue to provide you updates.  We appreciate your continued effort to read these e-mails so that we can best support congregants and visitors. We ask that you please make the necessary phone calls to those who don’t have e-mail access, so that they may receive the information as well.  We also appreciate your staying in touch with us directly with your questions or concerns.

We are trying to anticipate COVID-19 scenarios so that we are prepared and your input is helpful.

The Department of Health recommends those who are most vulnerable to the virus, namely older people, e.g. over age 65, or those with diabetes, asthma, or immune system compromises, to stay home. There is currently no such directive from LA County or Ventura County for mandatory closures.  

Council Meetings

Council met on Saturday, March 14, to discuss alternatives and recommendations pertaining to various mandates concerning the COVID-19, and have determined that our Worship Gathering on Sunday, March 15, will be our last in-person Worship Gathering until further notice.  As of Monday, March 16, the church building will be closed with certain exceptions (namely, Rev. Stacy and Wendy, our Administrative Assistant). If you need access to the building, you must make pre-arrangements with Chris White, our Trustee (she can be reached at (805) 750-5781 (cell) or (805) 499-5110 (home).  

 We will continue to meet as needed in order to reassess our decisions, reevaluate our recommendations, and make new considerations based upon new information as released from the Department of Health. 

Communications 

We will continue to utilize e-mail for more routine updates. We may institute a phone-tree, to allow for people who do not use e-mail to stay informed.   It is therefore of the utmost importance that you check your e-mail inbox regularly, and read carefully messages sent from Rev. Stacy, Rebecca Lirette, Wendy Sengpiehl (administrator; admin@uccsimi.org), and UCC Simi Valley (via MailChimp).  

Upcoming Events

It is always a difficult, sometimes painful, decision to cancel an event or activity, especially when that event has been heavily advertised and is valuable for the spiritual, emotional, mental, and intellectual health and growth of our community.  However, as of last week, nearly every organization, including faith congregations, have cancelled, postponed, or rescheduled events which have been planned for the months of March through May.  

Church Service

  • Please be aware that a number of churches in the U.S. have enacted coronavirus-related closures.
  • Please be mindful of the travel parameters and quarantine recommendations delineated by the World Health Organization (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/travel-advice).  Please notify us if you will be needing to quarantine yourself as a result of any traveling, by emailing Rev. Stacy.
  • We are especially concerned for our higher risk folks and ask that you create “physical  distancing” when possible.
  • We have been prayerfully considering the benefits of cancelling over the benefits of holding an event.  Please note that as of March 15, all in-person gatherings at the church building have been suspended until further notice. Such gatherings include worship, Beyonders, Women’s Gathering (second Saturday of the month), FFLUID, and Narcotics Anonymous.  Worship, FFLUID, Narcotics Anonymous, and all meetings (Council, Deacons, Mutual Ministry, Transition Team, and other meetings) will be conducted virtually.  Council is exploring various platforms to determine which one will best serve all the members of UCC-Simi. We will contact you as soon as we know how we will convene virtually, with all of the necessary details and information on joining us.  Again, we ask that you advise anyone who does not have access to the internet so that they will not be left isolated and alone.  

When any part of these plans change, we will notify you with as much advance notice as possible.   Remember, with this particular virus, changes can occur rapidly. Be on the alert for communication from us!  We don’t know what the coming days and weeks will bring.  

Other

Rather than practicing “social distancing,” it’s been suggested that we practice “physical distancing.”  In this way, we can remain socially, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually connected with one another, with our friends, and with our family members.  Phone calls, e-mails, text messages, and other communication forms will become even more vital in the days and weeks ahead. Stay connected! 

While it is important to be kept informed and updated, it can become overwhelming and terrifying.  If you are prone to excess worry, anxiety, or depression, take care of yourself and limit your news-watching and social media scrolling.  There is a lot of misinformation out there, and panic is widespread. Take time to breathe deeply, and to pray.  

I invite you to pray with me right now.  


Loving God, 
May your healing power flow
into a world consumed by fear
of sickness,
of powerlessness,
of pandemics,
of incompetence.
You hold all our times precious.  
Now we submit to you our 
seasons of despair and our seasons of hope 
for your safe-keeping and blessing.  
We ask your presence with us
and within us,
Now and forever.
Amen. *

Thank you for your support in helping our community navigate and plan for the novel coronavirus situation.

With grace and peace,
Rev. Stacy, Pastor
Rebecca Lirette, Moderator

PS:  Now, go wash your hands!  

*with thanks to Cameron Trimble and Walter Brueggemann

Remembering Borderline

The chill in the morning November air would remind most everyone of the onset of autumn and the busy holiday season. In Ventura and LA Counties, however, there are more painful memories. Last year, days before the annual California wildfires would cut their path of destruction in Simi Valley and Thousand Oaks, there was an act of unspeakable terror that took place at the Borderline and Grill. On November 7, 2018, twelve lives were lost, including the life of first responder Sgt. Ron Helus, during a violent mass shooting attack.

There was a hush over the congregation the following Sunday. Everyone had trouble focusing, thinking…even speaking. The thoughts we had and words we tried to speak didn’t even come close to articulating our trauma, our feelings of anger and our grief for those who lost loved ones. Within shouting distance of Thanksgiving, it seemed as if everyone knew someone who had lost someone or something.

No word or gesture could erase the evil of the attack or the pain of the fires, but in the wake of such tragedy arose an act of friendship, love and support. Our dear sisters and brothers at First Congregational Church in Santa Barbara took on a labor of love in order to show us that they stood with us in our hour of need. On Sunday, December 18, two representatives brought us a “tree” made of 1000 expertly folded peace cranes and a carefully crocheted prayer shawl.


It’s true, this single act didn’t fix everything…or even anything. But it allowed a seed of peace to be planted in a time of unimaginable pain. It’s a reminder for us, one year after experiencing such tragedy, that there are acts of loving kindness that can be as small as folding a tiny crane that can grow and multiply into an acts of peace. It’s not everything, but it’s something in a world that needs some seeds of peace right now.


The letter accompanying the cranes and prayer shawl follows in its entirety:

Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ of Simi Valley United Church of Christ,
“Peace I leave with you, my friends.
Shalom, my peace in all you do.
Peace I leave with you, my friends. I give to you so you can give to others too.”
Every Sunday morning we leave our worship singing these words directly to each other. Today we offer them to you.
We were heartbroken to hear about the act of violence that occurred at the Borderline in Thousand Oaks on November 8. We want you to know that our church is holding you in our hearts. We pray that God’s comfort will surround you and that you may find hope in this dark time. Since we heard about this tragedy, our church has been diligently putting together a flock of 1,000 peace cranes to hopefully bless and help you heal during this time.
As a community that has gone through its own journey of pain and sorrow after the shooting in Isla Vista near UCSB in May 2014, we stand with you in this difficult time. We know that God’s peace “that surpasses understanding” is within our reach as we hold each other close and lift each other high.
We send you this flock as a sign and testament to our hope for peace in our world and believe that violence does not have the last word. These cranes were folded by our church family over the past few weeks and carry on a legacy that started some years ago. After the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, a flock of cranes from Pilgrim Christian Church, UCC, in Chardon, Ohio, arrived at the Newtown Congregational Church. The Chardon community had been through its own tragedy, and during those dark days received cranes from Saron UCC in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. Newtown sent the flock off to Old South Church in Boston after the 2013 marathon bombing and then folded a new flock of 1,000 cranes that were sent to Santa Barbara after the Isla Vista shootings.

We have blessed this flock in worship and now send it to you. We pray these cranes will nest with you as long as needed, but also trust that you will let them fly away when another congregation or community faces an act of gun violence. As we send our flock to you, we continue our ministry of folding peace cranes. Together we hope that one day these cranes will no longer have to migrate for the cause of peace. Finally, “may the peace of that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of God.” May God protect you, watch over you, and sustain you on your journey toward healing. May you be the face of HOPE to your community, sustained by the Advent promises of HOPE, PEACE, JOY, and LOVE.


Holding you close and lifting you high!
Rev. Greg Davis, Acting Pastor On Behalf of Members and Friends of First Congregational Church, UCC, Santa Barbara

A Very Special Turtle

a very special turtle

from Ellen H. and Joyce S.
 Edith Miller was a member of our congregation until she died.   She had a second bout with cancer and did not make it through that one.   When she was unable to drive anymore, Ellen asked her what could she do to lessen her suffering in any way. Edith said that going to church and being among her church family was what she longed for and that doing that gave her a sense of peace.   She was the self- appointed social director of the congregation at that time.   She even planned her memorial service and made provisions for a champagne celebration.

She had a large collection of turtle figurines and anything else turtle which she treasured.  She felt a deep connection to turtles.   After she passed, she requested that her ashes be scattered at church.   We held an ashes scattering ceremony at which tine her family came down from northern California to attend.   They brought the turtle.  She also loved the color purple so a collection was made to buy and plant a Jacaranda tree.  Unfortunately, the tree died.

The plaque that goes with the turtle says,

      “And the turtles, of course
       all the turtles are free
       as turtles and, maybe
       all creatures should be.”

Turtles are highly respected by Native American and even play a part in some of their creation stories.  Having the turtle in the sanctuary not only honors the memory of Edith Miller but also reminds us of our deep connection to the Earth Mother as well, much as using the rain stick in our services does.