Praising with a Piano

Some women don’t just speak in church. They play. They minister. They love. They be.

One of our friends, Delores Fisher, Minister of Music, is one such woman. Delores holds at least one Master’s degree and is a lecturer with the Africana Studies Department at San Diego State University and is also a Dance Studio Ballet piano Faculty/accompanist. In the spirit of Psalm 150:3-6

3 Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
4 Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
5 Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
6 Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!

We share with you her latest YouTube production.


She Who Calls

Michelle Obama was speaking at the Convention about how adults within the community influence the young people and look after them, even when the adults in question are not their parents. The point was the important role that all members play in shaping the lives of the growing generation…. And then my phone rang.

I did not hear the end of the speech.  But I heard the voice of our church secretary passing on the news to me that one of the members of our church, I’ll call her Antonia, had died about an hour previously.  It is not news that most people want  to hear. It was not unexpected. Our pastor had told me the Sunday before that the time looked more like numerous hours than days. Antonia had beaten cancer before. I remember when she gracefully stood before our congregation to tell us all how much she sincerely loved each and every one of us, and how she now had stage four cancer and was not expected to live more than two years. It tugged on me. I knew that she had loved the life she had lived, and was continuing to do so. I hated the news. I loved seeing her children move closer to be with her and the joy on her face as her grandchildren became involved in activities at church. But as a hospice chaplain, I knew it was unrealistic to expect a single soul to face cancer and win twice. I think she knew I saw the same writing on the wall that she did. But we never talked about it. Instead we carried on our relationship as it always had been only with more hugs and words and glances of affection.

I was not her pastor or her chaplain. I, however, was also not just another member of the congregation either. I grew up in this particular congregation. I had known Antonia probably since I was six months old–my entire life as far as I am concerned. Antonia, you see, had been one of those adults who makes a profound affect on the growing generation. She had been a teacher, I am sure she affected the lives of many youth. But this about she and I. She defended my mother’s right to be a single mother, in the days when that was not quite the trend it is now. She was one of my first Sunday school teachers. She was one of the “proper and successful” adults to remark on my maturity and confidence as I grew through adolescence. She and her husband danced at my wedding.  As a young adult trying to establish a life she made it known to me, very intentionally, that I was never alone, that she was there. And somewhere in between there was that day she called me….it went something like this:

Me: Hello?

She: Hi Kelli. I was meeting with the Trustees. We are trying to fill the church leadership positions for the next year. And well, we decided that since you are already teaching the Sunday School that you could take on the role of Christian Education Director.

Me: What does that mean, what do I have to do?

She: Don’t worry you’ll be great. Thanks! (end of conversation).

I should probably also say that Antonia’s skill as a successful member of the nominating committee pretty much went down in the history books after this stunt. She was just not a woman I would say no to, about anything–and she never exploited that, so I always simply trusted her.

Little did I know, when I hung up the phone that day that Antonia had set my life on a path that would change me and my path forever. I ended up being the Director of Christian Education for two or three years, and only left it  for a required internship with another congregation (whom I also loved). But, it was during my time as Christian Education Director that I came to realize that six of the ten children in my Sunday School class had siblings or parents with disabilities and that this affected all of them–and that somehow I was called to address this. It was during my time running the Sunday School I came to learn that I loved teaching and wanted to teach in the church in some capacity for the rest of my life. It was in the time after Antonia called to tell me  that I was not only needed but was GOING TO do THIS work, that I finally embraced the call to seminary and ministry. Yes, there have been several literal phone calls that have vaulted me into new forms of ministry, but this was one of the firmest and the one to which there was only one answer.

I am not the pastor of the church that Antonia and I shared for thirty-five years, but I am a chaplain in part ordained by this congregation to the work I do. And I must admit its been hard to know my place, in this situation, at all times these last several months. Wanting to run to her, as the youth I have always been in relation to her and to tell her how much she has influenced me. Wanting to embrace her with all the love I could, and the skill surrounding end of life care I have acquired, and simply not knowing what role to play. In the end I was simply a member of her church congregation, and perhaps that is as it should be. But knowing how Antonia had embraced me with her genuine love and simple concern throughout my life, it was nearly heart-rending to know it was not my place to get into the car and drive to her home and sit with her family the night she died. Dinner had already been provided by the congregation and the pastor was there; and as a chaplain I know that more people often create more chaos in the hours just after death, I did not feel it was my place to impose that night.

I had already planned to be out-of-town the day that was scheduled for Antonia’s memorial service, so I did not get to share the impact she had on my life with her family at that time. I was in a grove of grand Sequoia trees at the time of her memorial. Minutes after I expected her service was over I felt the undeniable feeling of her hug surrounding me and I knew I had made the right choice in not changing my plans–that I needed to be surrounded by trees that were growing when Jesus walked the earth to continue my path of ministry. She knew this and knew right where I’d be.

The greatest saints who call and nominate the members of the church to ministry never really leave us. I think in even in death part of them remains with the church and the clergy they have called, whether as cheer leaders, challengers, or  simply out of pity and remorse I can not yet say. I have decided that I may still have to thank Antonia for that call so long ago. That I may still need to express the many effects it had. But  for now, I think I’ll continue to wait. I think I’ll just have to thank her when I know how it all works out …just to be sure …she didn’t have the wrong number after all.

Ecumenical Disability Advocacy Network – Day 2

Today was the second and final meeting day of EDAN North America. There is so much to think and process that there is surely more to this day than what will be included in this blog. I would have to say that key words for today were pioneers, power, process, and voice.

As we sat around the conference table today brainstorming about how to assist the churches and religious institutions be more inclusive of people with disabilities (PWD) there was much said and much felt that was not voiced in the space given our limited time together and the need to complete task oriented goals. Nonetheless this was a very fruitful day and I believe our work done today will multiply in the time ahead.

There was recognition today that the work that we do as professionals with disabilities, and all that goes on behind the scenes in relation to our professional development and even our  professional being is in so many ways pioneering. We may not always have the accommodations we like, we may not find the world as kind or welcoming as we would like but in some ways just by being who we are by advocating for change where we find the need to do so we are pioneering a way for PWD who come behind us. How can we institutionalize our work so it becomes a legacy rather than a path that gets grown over when we move on professionally?

In all institutions, but particularly in the church, there is also the issue of power. Who holds power, who grants access to power, and how to get invited to the table. That’s a big issue, these are big questions. Questions that I think may Christians do not like to think come into play in the structures of the church. But we are not so nieve. There are church and ecumenical power structures to work with, and around. I found the need to mention the fact today that even Jesus, at times challenged the status quo in unexpected ways–if someone takes your cloak as collateral for a debt, give them your shirt also  so you are naked…for in Jesus’ context it was not shameful to be naked but to see another naked. So yes there are processes and power structures to gain access to, to share our stories and unique lens of the gospel with, but neither are PIONEERS WITH DISABILITY willing to sit passively by in the churches forever, having our human right to inclusion within the Body of Christ continually ignored. We are educated, articulate, armed with the gospel and we expect a seat at the table, along with an Aaron-like interpreters when needed. We are a part of the body and we have the agency that we need to make our part known.

The Inverting Incarnation

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

—Luke 2:1-20

Have you ever felt as though the world was upside down? In the reading for today, we begin with a decree from the most powerful person in the world. He wants to number all who live in his empire. People gather up their children and make arrangements to begin the journey to be counted. I imagine it was no easy task—especially for Mary.

Joseph and Mary are among the travelers. She is pregnant and about to give birth to her first born child at any moment. Can you imagine traveling like that? There is no room at the inn for them when they seek shelter for the night. Their situation is much different than Emperor Augustus, who compelled so many people to travel by simply saying a few words.

Some distance away, there were shepherds in the fields watching over their sheep. Perhaps they were keeping count of their flocks to ensure none were injured or strayed away. When the angels appeared and shared the good news, the shepherds were frightened. The angels told the shepherds to not be afraid because a savior is born. The phrases the angels use echo phrases often used to describe Emperor Augustus: “god,” “lord,” and “savior.” Can you imagine how upside down this might have seemed to the shepherds? How odd would it have been to hear that a lord and savior is coming as a baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a dirty old manger. The angels describe a king born in a situation that is quite the opposite of the current emperor’s way of life. The angels were announcing the birth of one who would turn the world upside down with his teachings and way of life.

The shepherds found the child, Mary and Joseph and shared what the angels told them. The scene is full of meaning. The child was wrapped in bands of cloth—foreshadowing his death. He was laying in a manger, a food bowl for livestock, foreshadowing the spiritual food he offers both in his teachings and in the bread and wine we receive in remembrance of him. Everyone around was amazed that a king was born that night, but Mary’s reaction was different. She knew her son’s story would hold so much more meaning than they could comprehend in that moment. And our lives were forever changed.


Angela Henderson, M.Div. currently serves as the Unitarian Universalist campus minister at UC Davis. She graduated with her Master of Divinity degree from Claremont School of Theology in 2010 and is a candidate for ministry.

The Unholy Family of Christmas

As long as it’s Advent/Christmas season and you’re over here to read encouraging and uplifting articles on this special season, let me bring one more thing to the table.

Over at Jubilee Economics Ministries, another site I do extensive work for, Lee Van Ham has now posted two complete series of blog entries that take some interesting looks at Christmas as told in Luke (from 2010) and Matthew (this year). You can find them within a category called Unwrapping Christmas. The series on Luke explores the cosmological breakthrough of Christ into a world that would be Caesar’s. (Lee gives the grown up Linus answer to Charlie Brown’s question.) This year’s series, dubbed The Unholy Family of Christmas, is actually rather much a topic that should be on this very site for the way it looks at the women of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus.

Lee is a retired pastor of 32 years (Presbyterian) and brings not only his clergy background to explaining the texts, but also his post-retirement passion for helping people open the Bible and to discover the economic themes that bind it together. He is working on a book about “One Earth” economics and the stories that get us there, i.e., the Creation-centered stories of the Bible, in contrast to the Civilization story of empires and superpower nations, which have done much to diminish the former. In this Advent series, Lee looks at the notable women that preceded Jesus, and found how their stories harkened back to the Creation story, and their actions were rejections of the systems that would see them hemmed in by patriarchal laws that might even lead to death if not for the bold life-saving rejections that made these women notable.

While much would be familiar to you as clergy, and as women, for many folks, this is a great new way to unhitch Christmas from the commercial extravaganza it has become, or even to put some power back into the story, leaving the tame little pageant imagery behind. Feel free to share it around as an extra resource with your friends and congregations.

While you’re looking into Jubilee Economics, why not subscribe to The Common Good Podcast too?

Calling Forward the Ways of Church: A Woman Named Virgina Kreyer

Today is “Access Sunday” in the UCC, a day for celebrating the inclusion of people with disabilities in our congregations and denomination. In honor of this day I am posting this bio of Virginia Kreyer which I wrote some years ago for a polity class. Here is to all those who work to widen the welcome of our churches.

a photo of Virgina Kreyer

Rev. Virginia Kreyer was more than a pioneer of her time; and today she is one of the heroes within the UCC tradition. As Kreyer would likely urge me to point out, she is not a hero because of the circumstances of her life, rather she is a hero because she called upon our denomination to examine its own participation in unjust systems and in so doing, called the UCC itself to change. Kreyer was a social activist, and the UCC would not have the same social commitments that it does today if she had not spoken from her unique perspective for change. To speak about social issues in her own voice required not only great courage from Kreyer but that she also use her own story as a tool for explaining the need for and way to change. For this, Kreyer has been called a pioneer as well as a prophet (“Virginia Kreyer Award” and “Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”).

Virginia Kreyer was born in 1925, and “[d]ifficulties at her birth . . . resulted in cerebral palsy at a time when the condition was little understood” (“Alumni Books: Virginia’s Story”). At that time, cerebral palsy (CP) was not a disability often seen openly in society; yet, rather than hide Virginia and cater to her needs, her family was bold in their approach to raising her. It has been noted that: “Virginia’s mother was pivotal in how Virginia became who she is. She never allowed her daughter to use her disability as an excuse. Believing that a disability is not something you hide, she imbued Virginia with her quality of dogged persistence” (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”). While Kreyer had family support, it often requires more for those with CP to thrive in a world that does not understand what it means to live with the challenges CP. Gay McCormick, UCC DM representative to the Office of General Ministry, has pointed out that “[t]o know the importance of [Virginia’s] qualities it is necessary to understand that she required years of physical and occupational therapy as well as extensive speech therapy, and, that as a child, she was perceived as mentally retarded because of her speech” (Ibid). Fortunately, this perception was one that Kreyer would surpass as she grew physically, intellectually, educationally, and professionally.

Kreyer thrived in her life and her education. However, it was not only Kreyer’s family who inspired her to thrive. Kreyer’s “faith in God inspired her as well. She once said, [that] ‘those who have accepted their handicaps and triumphed over them are those who have learned to look beyond themselves for help and learned of the ways of the spiritual world’” (UCC Vitality). It was a spiritual lesson she learned early, yet that would not make her journey any easier. In Kreyer’s “high school and college days she had felt God’s call to work in the church. It was a call to make this world a better place in which to live, but ‘Who would ordain a ‘handicapped” woman?’ the writer of her nominating letter said” (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”). It was a good question in the 1940 and 1950’s. It was a question that Kreyer would answer. “A year after Virginia graduated from college she became a student at Union Theological Seminary in New York, but not before her first application for admission was rejected. With the assistance of clergy and Union faculty who supported her, she was admitted as a full-time B.D. (now M.Div.) student” (Ibid). As a disabled woman, Kreyer had to fight to even get into seminary.

Kreyer was ordained first, in a denomination other than the UCC (unclear which one), after her graduation from UTS. At that time, she went to work, hoping to be a chaplain, for the Nassau County (NY) Cerebral Palsy Center where she worked until 1984. However, it is said this center had intended for Kreyer to be a role model to others of what was possible for persons with CP; Kreyer was not happy with this and started a Masters of Social Work program, which she completed in 1960. (Ibid.)

In the ten years between 1967 and 1977, Kreyer would begin to step into her call to a ministry that would make the world a better place to live. “In 1967 she began attending Garden City Community Church, a UCC congregation, becoming a UCC member in 1971. Then she began a long process of being ordained in the UCC” (Ibid). It was during the process of transferring her ordination status to the UCC, that she commented to her ordination committee in New York on the need for “beginning of a committee for persons with disabilities called handicapped / physically challenged” (Ibid).

Kreyer may not have been asking for a new job, but she had it. After five frustrating years of trying to get her association to address the needs of people with physical disabilities, it was suggested to Kreyer that a resolution be presented to the New York Conference at their next meeting. Not only did the New York resolution pass in 1976, but it was forwarded for action to the 1977 Synod (Ibid). Both Rev. Virginia Kreyer and Rev. Harold Wilke (born without arms) gave moving speeches urging the 1977 Synod (UCC Vitality) to endorse “ministry to and with persons with disabilities” (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”). It was a defining moment for both Kreyer and the UCC. Kreyer accepted the 1/5th time consulting position with the denomination that this resolution created; in this position, she assisted local churches in learning how to become accessible and welcoming to people with disabilities. This work made Kreyer the first leader of what has come to be known as the UCC Disabilities Ministries (UCCDM).

Kreyer’s advocacy for people with disabilities was not limited to the UCC. “In 1991 she attended the Consultation on the Disabled in preparation of the World Council of Churches (WCC) and then served as a UCC delegate to the World Council, working on issues of disability rights”(Ibid). Kreyer also served as  “a member of the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCCC) Committee of the Disabled, and then a member of the Board of Directors, 1977-1995” (Ibid). Kreyer retired from service to the UCC in 1995. (Ibid).

Kreyer’s work within the UCC will be long remembered. At the Synod in 2001, a new award known as the ‘Kreyer Award’ was announced to recognize persons who “have shown a pioneering spirit in the work of the UCCDM” and “leadership inside and outside the church and furthering the day when persons with disabilities will be full partners and contributors within church and society” (“The Virginia Kreyer Award”). Kreyer was the first person to receive the Kreyer Award. In 2007, Kreyer was given the high honor of the UCC’s Antoinette Brown Award, reserved for distinguished and ordained UCC women (“Reverend Virginia Kreyer Named Antoinette Brown Woman”).

Rev. Virginia Kreyer’s work in advocating for the opening of all the churches to all of God’s children with disabilities has been felt and discussed, literally, around the world. Kreyer not only sent out the call for the UCC to change but she used her own journey-story, to create the change that she needed to see in the denomination and the world. It has been said that Kreyer was “a rare human being whose faith and witness has inspired the UCC to extend an extravagant welcome. Her welcome embraces all people, but especially those with disabilities of any kind” (UCC Vitality). Doors have been opened, that cannot be shut. The UCC will never be the same, thanks to Rev. Virginia Kreyer, the woman who did!