National church leader finds local and global issues interconnect
By Gen Heywood
Karen Georgia Thompson, associate general minister and vice-president for Wider Church Ministries and co-executive for Global Ministries of the United Church of Christ (UCC), brought her expertise to the 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches in September.
Having served the national UCC since 2009 as the minister for racial justice, then for ecumenical and interfaith relations and since 2019 as one of its three elected officers, Karen Georgia's education and experience engages and strengthens the denomination's ministry.
Her insight guided the church as the world entered the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic, even though she felt like she was "constantly in the weeds."
During these uncharted times, she envisioned something new, helping create the UCC's online General Synod in 2021, moving national staff to a hybrid model, and packing up and letting go of the former Church House to move into a new, smaller location, also in Cleveland, Ohio.
Karen Georgia sees the dust of COVID settling and the door opening for visionary ministry, considering how best to do UCC wider church ministries in this time of change.
"I envision global ministry moving us beyond the walls we create. Our mission is both local and global because those levels are connected," she said.
"For example, for the issues we have at home—homelessness, racism, discriminations of all kind, women's and children's issues—there is a global component. These are not isolated nor unique to us," she pointed out.
"So, our ability to name the things in concert with what is happening overseas empowers us to do a better job of connecting the dots," Karen Georgia said. "Recognition that what is happening here is happening in the wider world moves us to become global advocates."
In Wider Church Ministries, the UCC has more than 290 partners in more than 90 countries. These partners are on the front lines of what is happening with global conditions that have no borders.
As an example, Karen Georgia raises climate change issues happening in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa that affect the whole Earth.
"When we talk about climate issues in North America, we see how South and Central America experience impact from overuse of resources by the United States and Canada," she observed.
Part of Karen Georgia's work supervising ecumenical and interfaith relationships includes rebuilding the UCC's presence at the United Nations.
Global Ministries also deals with partner relationships, many of which are from historic ties.
"This means we need to re-imagine what ministry means in the 21st century," said Karen Georgia. "We are all in the image of God, so God's people are one.
"The issues we face converge with the struggles of our partners. Our mission partners all over the world are facing sustainability issues," she said.
When Karen Georgia visited Bangladesh in February 2020, climate change was affecting rain cycles and eroding the coast. The sea water was pushing inland over farmland. The soil had become so salinated that it could no longer support traditional crops.
"The realities on the ground mean people don't have the food they had before," she said.
Considering what she sees on the global scale, Karen Georgia reflected on the UCC campaign, "A Just World for All," commenting: "If we are going to talk about a just world for all, we need to mean a just world for all. Our ministry must have an intentional global component, so we need to be actively involved with the United Nations (UN)."
The U.S. relationship with the UN was severely weakened by the last U.S. President, she said.
"After George Floyd's death, U.S. advocates and activists could not join with ease UN hearings where they were invited to see the U.S. human rights violations, because racism is a major human rights violation," she said.
Karen Georgia believes faith communities can be part of global advocacy to make people aware that U.S. poverty and racism are human rights violations. UN reports documenting that truth do not make it into U.S. media.
In his 1964 speech, "The Ballot or the Bullet," Malcolm X said African-descended people in the U.S. went to Washington D.C. expecting change, but found that the people telling them "no" at home were the same people sitting in the seats of power in Washington D.C.," Karen Georgia said.
"Malcolm X said that if we are going to get anywhere, we need to be talking about human rights and appealing to the UN, not civil rights and going to Washington D.C.," she said.
Karen Georgia said the most difficult part of her work is not the long days and hard work.
"I'm a Black woman and the most challenging part of doing this job has been living in this body," she said, explaining how people, especially white people, even those in churches, make a judgement when they see her enter a space. Her skin color and gender trigger questions about her expertise and authority.
What keeps her committed to her ministry is the certainty that God is bigger.
"The faith component allows me to get up every morning and step back into these places of trauma," Karen Georgia said. "Because living itself is traumatic, no one cares how educated I am or that I am a wonderful person, they just see me coming, and the color of my skin triggers the thought that this person doesn't know anything.
"The church has work to do. We have the work of confession and owning where we have gotten things wrong," she asserted.
Karen Georgia sees a future where faulty theology is overcome not just through the works of liberation theologians and others from the margins, but also from white people doing their own theological work to take responsibility for the abusive theology of the past and present, and do the work that will bring a healed church of the future.
Before joining the national UCC staff, she was a pastor in Florida and minister for disaster response and recovery for the Florida Conference.
She has a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College in New York, a master's in public administration from North Carolina Central University in Durham, a master's of divinity from Union Theological Seminary in New York and a doctorate in ministry at Seattle University. She also studied public policy at Duke University and worked 10 years in nonprofits.
For information, visit globalministries.org/about-2.