Notes from Our Pastors

First Congregational United Church of Christ, Appleton, Wisconsin

A Part of Something Bigger

March 18th, 2018 by Kathryn Kuhn in Fellowship · Lent · Mission trips · Social justice · No Comments

First of all, THANK YOU. I’m learning that when something is asked of you, First Congregational, you don’t mess around! Your response to the request for protein bars and toothpaste for our Back Bay Mission trip was over the top, as was the response to the hygiene items drive for the homeless. Literally, your contributions far exceeded the space we made available.

I’m grateful not only for the contributions, but for the ways the generosity doesn’t stop there. This week, 10 of us from our congregation (and 3 others from Wisconsin) will immerse ourselves in the work of Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, MS. We’ll deliver protein bars and toothpaste, but we’ll also do whatever is needed to be of help and support for Back Bay’s work. That might include carpentry, sorting items in the food pantry, cleaning showers at the day center, or any number of other tasks.

We’ll be taking items and offering service while we’re there, but I’m certain we’ll also bring something back. The most exciting part of a mission trip for me is never what I do or what I offer, but what I learn from the experience, and how my heart is opened just a little bit wider for having made the journey. It’s hard to predict what that will look like. I do know it will involve other peoples’ stories, learning about the history and culture of a place I’ve never visited before, and likely feeling challenged to venture outside of what is familiar and comfortable for me.

The request for protein bars and toothpaste came about because others who went to Back Bay last year realized there was something specific we could bring with us this year that would be useful. (Thank you, Nancy Brown-Koeller, for identifying this need!) And so the cycle will continue. Ideally, what we bring back with us this year from Back Bay (and other opportunities for outreach through our congregation), will keep the cycle of generosity, gratitude, servant leadership and spiritual growth moving forward.

Thank you for being a part of something bigger and greater than you now know.

Your friend and fellow traveler on the journey,
Pastor Kathryn Kuhn

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Raising a Child of God

March 11th, 2018 by Steve Savides in Humor · Lent · No Comments

There was a trick I taught our oldest child – line up the center line of the waist band of your pants with your belly button. She was totally disinterested in symmetry and wearing pants askew seemed perfectly fine to her. Similarly, her bedroom always looked like the aftermath of an explosion – of toys, of clothes, of stuffed animals, pillows and bed clothes. She seemed to have no instinct for order or neatness, no appreciation of an aesthetic other than chaos.

Imagine my shock when I caught our second child at two years old sitting on the carpet in her bedroom, arranging her socks and shoes in neatly matched pairs. It’s as if she were a different species from our oldest – an alien from a far-off planet where children have an appreciation of symmetry, of order, of fashion even.

This pattern continued as they grew older. During the morning ritual of laying out the day’s outfit, for instance, the oldest child was totally disinterested. Pants, fine. I don’t care. Shirt, got it. Whatever. And socks – they’re the ones that go on your feet, right? But the next one – well, the morning dressing ritual was a lengthy and complex negotiation, sometimes even a battle of wills. This shirt – no. Wrong color. Those pants. Never! Too baggy. Leggings, maybe, if it goes with this dress and those socks and this hair band and those sandals and on and on and on…

Just when you think you have this parenting thing down, then you have a second child and have to learn a whole new set of parenting skills and styles. And that’s to say nothing of the fact that children CHANGE and grow up and are more than happy to lecture you on what they do or do not need you to do and be as a parent.

I wonder if our parenting experience could be instructive to us as we think of our faith life. What guidelines/rituals/spiritual practices have you followed in your faith life? And when they haven’t worked, have you thought to change or add to those practices? Perhaps the child most difficult to raise is the child of God that is YOU. Don’t hesitate to be the kind of parent you need to be.

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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We Have the Children

March 4th, 2018 by Kathryn Kuhn in Lent · Social justice · No Comments

I’m writing this on my way to St. Louis for the Annual Gathering of “CHHSM” – the United Church of Christ’s Council on Health and Human Service Ministries. CHHSM is comprised of 70+ member agencies offering services ranging from adoption and child daycare, to affordable housing, healthcare and senior services. Each of these agencies has its origin story in the commitment of a particular local church, to address the needs of its immediate community. Many of these agencies are leaders in their field of service. They are the church, truly at work in the world around us. (see for more information about CHHSM ministries).

Rev. Louis Edward Nollau is often considered the “forefather” of health and human service ministry in our UCC tradition. He arrived in St. Louis in the 1800’s from Germany. When his plans to travel west for missionary service were thwarted, he became pastor of a local church. An epidemic of cholera struck the region. Many children were orphaned as a result. Nollau appealed to his church leadership to take these children in. His church council responded, “But we don’t have the resources for that.” Rev. Nollau replied, “Yes, but we have the children.” It wasn’t long before the church found a way to serve those children and many more in their community.

Nollau’s spirit of willingness, persistence and innovation was exactly what was needed in what must have been a very anxious time and place. I’m reminded of Nollau’s reply, “…we have the children,” as we listen for the voices of high school students in Parkland, FL. after the most recent mass school shooting, the voices of students in the Kerio Valley crying out for intervention against tribal violence, the voices of those who speak out against sexual abuse and the mistreatment of women, those who persist in the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and many others. Their voices are rising up, too often met by the “we can’ts” and “we won’ts” of those in positions of power.

What about the church? How might Nollau’s persistence inform our response to those around us? It gives me such hope to see what our UCC ministries are accomplishing across this country through CHHSM, even as many of you inspire me with your commitment to mission and outreach in the Fox Valley. We may not always have the resources we wish for, but we do have the children. May God bless us with open ears, open hearts and open minds as we listen for their voices.

Your friend and fellow minister,
Pastor Kathryn Kuhn

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The Legacy of Billy Graham

February 25th, 2018 by Steve Savides in Lent · No Comments

Billy Graham liked to tell of a time early in his ministry when he arrived in a small town to preach a sermon. Wanting to mail a letter, he asked a young boy where the post office was. When the boy had told him, Dr. Graham thanked him and said, “If you’ll come to the Baptist Church this evening, you can hear me telling everyone how to get to Heaven.” “I don’t think I’ll be there,” the boy said. “You don’t even know your way to the post office.”

I’m sure your prayers join with mine for Rev. Graham to have found his way to heaven as he died this past week at age 99. It was estimated that he preached to over 215 million people over his career, introducing so many to the basics of Christian faith. And he did so without a breath of the scandal or financial self-interest that has afflicted so many “televangelists” in the last seventy years. That is and should be the main legacy of Rev. Graham’s distinguished and faithful career.

We should also acknowledge that in our UCC tradition, we have had some struggles with Rev. Graham’s theology, particularly through Reinhold Niebuhr, the distinguished scholar, preacher, and teacher. As Graham’s influence began to spread in the mid-1950’s, it became clear that the two men had very different interpretations of sin: Niebuhr focused on the complexities of individual and social sin, while Graham focused almost exclusively on individual sin. Niebuhr had little patience for what he referred to as Graham’s “pietistic individualism,” which asserted that the solution to the world’s problems was individual regeneration. Graham, Niebuhr believed, provided “simple answers to complex questions of social order and justice.”

While celebrating Graham’s amazing ministry, it’s also worth noting that Rev. Graham was completely absence from the Civil Rights marches of the 1950’s and 60’s, was a tacit supporter of the Vietnam War, was revealed as a cozy confidant of President Nixon through the Nixon tapes, made no positive mention of women’s rights in his sermons in the 1970’s and 80’s, and clearly opposed civil rights for people in the LGBTQ community. Could Billy Graham’s theological blind spot to issues of social sin and justice have contributed to what many in our UCC tradition would consider as his failures in religious leadership?

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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I Have Set You An Example

February 18th, 2018 by Steve Savides in Lent · No Comments

A laywoman from one of the churches in our Wisconsin Conference told a story about her grandson. Her little grandson has been receiving treatment for leukemia but his cancer, thank God, was in full remission. The three-year-old boy had a routine check-up at the doctor’s office. He sat up on the examining table, his little legs hanging over the side, while the nurse got a stethoscope. “What’s that for?” the little boy asked. “I’m going to listen to your heart,” the nurse told him as she held it up to his chest. After a moment of silence, the little boy quietly asked her, “Do you hear Jesus?”

Sometimes our faith, so often difficult and confusing, is simple – “Do you hear Jesus?”
We begin the season of Lent acknowledging that we desperately need those who would speak the Gospel by following Jesus’ example. In our present culture of greed and violence, we need an example of selfless service rather than self-serving greed. We live in a one up/one down culture – where we want to divide people and situations into winners and losers. And yet here is Jesus, the one whose name is exalted above all others, who ties the towel around his waist and goes down to his knees; who washes and heals; who acts as servant. How different an example Jesus provides us from those who surround us in our culture.

I remember UCC pastor and scholar Douglas Meeks commenting on the lack of young people in our churches by saying the problem is we are not different enough from the world to interest our children. What kind of example do we set? When our children listen to us, do they hear Jesus? When they watch us, do they see Jesus?

Will we faithfully follow the example of our Lord and Savior and devote ourselves to healing, to serving others? In us, will others hear and see Jesus?

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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A Pastor’s Message

February 11th, 2018 by Steve Savides in Epiphany · Fellowship · Social justice · No Comments

Last month, Pastor Kathryn and I sent a letter to our Christian partners in the churches of the Kerio Valley in Kenya in response to a comment from our President denigrating the people and nations of Africa. The following is a note we recently received in response from our Kenyan partners:

Dear Friends of First Congregational United Church of Christ,

Greetings to you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We heard about your president’s remarks and also an animal farm in Wisconsin where somebody was highlighting, saying that the people who are working in the animal farm are those from other nations. The person was stressing much on what will happen or who will be working in those farms if those people are sent away. We were indeed worried about the visitation but our hearts are relieved now after receiving your e-mail. Thank you very much for your concern and for the way you have been holding us in your prayers because of the problems of insecurity in the valley.

It is through your prayers and others that we are safe. We are very excited to meet you all in April and we really love to sleep in your homes and share ideas and experiences together. The blood of Jesus Christ that has bound us together as friends and as well as partners is so great and nothing can separate it. Please know that we hold all of you in our hearts and prayers.

Yours in Christ
Jeremiah Kibor, Chairperson
Mildred Chepkonga, Secretary
Kerio Valley

The Psalmist writes, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers and sisters sit together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). Jeremiah and Mildred, our Kenyan brother and sister in Christ, remind us that through Christ that we are granted such unity. The words and actions of others might seek to divide us, but the binding force of Christ’s love is stronger. The despair and resignation of those who have given up and given in might seek to disengage us, but the persistence of Christ’s Spirit fills us. The greed and violence that bedevil us in all nations may seek to defeat us, but the victory won through Christ’s Resurrection will not be denied! We praise God for this reminder from our friends in Christ from Kenya. And we look forward to “sitting together in unity” when they visit us here in April.

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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True Community

February 4th, 2018 by Kathryn Kuhn in Fellowship · Social justice · No Comments

Last week I joined a hearty group of volunteers for the Point In Time Count. At least 4 of us from First Congo joined dozens of others as we did our best to survey the Fox Cities, on foot when possible, seeking out those who might be sheltering in their cars, in parking ramps, or in local parks. On a cold night in January, 12 individuals were discovered on the streets. Combined with those already in area shelters, the total count for the evening of those known to be homeless was around 350.

My group encountered only one individual, but the experience of walking the streets of downtown Appleton between 2:00 AM and 5:00 AM was truly enlightening. Our group leader was a young man who works with homeless veterans. When we encountered an elderly gentleman on College Ave., our group leader gently encouraged him to accept the offer of a warm meal back at the Salvation Army office. We gave him a pair of gloves and a blanket while we waited for his transportation to arrive. As we moved on, our leader shared that this was one of the veterans he had helped over the past several years, to the point that the man had transitioned to a stable housing environment about a year ago. But circumstances changed, and that stability didn’t last.

What impressed me most was the compassionate care offered without question or judgment by the younger man, and later the conversations I saw unfold with staff from other agencies at the end of our shift. It was clear these staff members from Homeless Connections, Fox Valley Warming Shelter, COTS, Salvation Army, Housing Partnership, etc. really know and care about the individuals they serve. I was reminded in a new way that thinking about those who are homeless as one community, and those who provide resources as one community, is wrong thinking. We are all one community. We have so much to learn from each other.

This week, I had the privilege of serving alongside several First Congo volunteers at the Fox Valley Warming Shelter. The 30+ individuals who came through the line included a few I had seen a week ago. I’m so thankful for those of you who give so much of your time to our community, and the ways you inspire me to think differently and more compassionately and inclusively about this life we all share.

Your friend and fellow traveler along life’s way,
Pastor Kathryn

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Dignity and Respect/Appleton

January 28th, 2018 by Steve Savides in Uncategorized · No Comments

It was my privilege to attend Appleton’s kick-off last Tuesday night of the Dignity and Respect Campaign. Appleton is the 101st U.S. city to embrace this campaign, seeking to spread a new and inclusive spirit in our community. As they told us, “Every day we have the opportunity to test our commitment to dignity and respect through our behavior.”

There were about a hundred of us gathered – it seemed like about a third of those present were from First Congo. (How proud did that make me feel?) The effort was spearheaded out of the Mayor’s office and our city’s Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator. On this church’s behalf, I was invited to be one of the first twenty or so community leaders to sign the pledge, to promise to live out my own commitment to Dignity and Respect. You’re going to be hearing a lot more about the campaign both from me and from other leaders in the community. You’re going to be challenged to make your own pledge.

For now, consider what a change it would make if everyone in our community lived out such a commitment. To learn more about the campaign, go to Maybe you’re already prepared to take the pledge!

Your friend and fellow minister,
Rev. Steve Savides

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Letter to our Kenyan Partners

January 21st, 2018 by Steve Savides in Fellowship · Recent events · Social justice · No Comments

Sometimes the political controversy of the week sparks little more than verbal jousting and public posturing; more like a sporting event than something that effects real people and influences important events. The recent reported statement of our President, made while consulting Congressional leadership about immigration policy, could have easily fallen into that category. Yet when we received word from those involved in our Kenyan partnership, brothers and sisters in Christ from one of those African nations reportedly denigrated, we believed a counter word needed to be spoken to our partners. Below is the letter that Pastor Kathryn and I wrote together and have sent to our partners on behalf of our church.

Pastor Steve

Dear Friends of the Kerio Valley, dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ! We hold you in our prayers every day, lifting up the burdens of violence and injustice that you face, and celebrating with you the many triumphs of your ministry; the divine miracles worked through your churches and its members! You are an example and inspiration to us of the courage granted to the faithful through God’s strength and Christ’s Spirit. It is our privilege to be in partnership with you in mission and our joy to be in loving relationship with you through our partnership.

We write with a sense of fear and shame that you might have heard about our President’s words directed towards the nations and people of Africa. These thoughtless remarks do not speak for us or for many in our country. Through our relationship with you, we have come to love Kenya. We see the love you hold for the people and homeland that is your mission field so that it fills our hearts as well. So too do we love our own country of the United States because God has called us to spread the unconditional love of Christ here among this people and our homeland. Please know that we will continue to pray for Kenya and for all the ways in which Christ is working through you. We ask your continued prayers for us, and for the challenges faced by our nation and our ministry. We are reminded of the Apostle Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:1-2: “…I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity.” Surely God will work through our prayers and bless our nations and our world with peace.

We recently received the joyous news that some of you are planning to be with us here in Appleton in April. On this cold and snowy day in Wisconsin, let us assure you that all the snow will be gone by the time you come to visit us. We will be blessed by your presence as you are blessed by the early flowers of Spring and the warming days of Eastertide. Until then, God’s peace be with you!

Yours in Christ’s love,
Rev. Dr. Stephen Savides and Rev. Kathryn Kuhn

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Making Magic Happen

January 14th, 2018 by Kathryn Kuhn in Epiphany · No Comments

This week’s gospel lesson tells the story of a miracle. Jesus, his mother, and the disciples were at a wedding, and the wine ran out. I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how Jesus draws on resources close at hand to breathe life back into the party. He instructs the servants to fill some jars with water. They do as he says, and somehow when the chief steward takes a sip of it, it’s the best wine he’s ever tasted.

As I scan the online preacher blogs this week, I see lots of pastors scrambling to figure out how Jesus did it. I’m more interested in why he did it, and what happened as a result. It’s a strange miracle, really. No one is raised from death or healed of a seemingly incurable disease. Jesus takes water, a couple of jugs, some willing servants, and in the end – people have a good time. This miracle results in JOY.

Last night, the Mission and Service Team met. We talked about the number of mission partnerships we have in this congregation. Are you aware of how many ways our congregation makes a difference in this community and beyond? We provide meals, build houses, plant seeds, support mental health awareness, present prayer shawls, advocate for justice, make bunk beds, sponsor students, and more. The resources we use might be financial at times, but they also include simple things like work gloves, 2×4’s, foil casserole pans, and donated yarn. The most precious commodity might be the hours we give – but that time usually brings as much joy to us, as it does to those who benefit from our gift. We haven’t solved homelessness (yet), or hunger (yet), or cured any diseases – but I like to think we’re following Jesus’ lead in the gospel. We use what we have on hand, to make joy possible for others. Many, many others.

Did you ever think of yourself as a miracle worker? You are!

If you have an interest in making a difference in this community, or even beyond, there’s a chance our congregation is already at work making miracles happen, and we’d love to include you in that work. If you have ideas for partnerships we might explore in the future – let us know. The world could use a few more miracles – or at least a little more joy. Thank you, for all the ways you make a difference for others.

Your friend and fellow servant,
Pastor Kathryn Kuhn

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