The United Congregational Church of Holyoke, Massachusetts, is developing an annual, three-day spiritual reflection and study conference that will draw together lay and clergy participants to fuel the fires and engage the passions of faith.

Our mission is to create a feast for the head, heart and spirit. The conference will bring together leading-edge thinkers, musicians, artists, and religious professionals in order to promote individual and collective listening, learning, exploring, sharing, and responding.  Each year’s conference will encourage increased understanding of our spiritual dimension and restored enthusiasm for life in the Christian Church. It is our hope that participants will expand their vision of what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century, and how to embrace life’s journey with all God’s people.

Our goal is to create an event where people will be filled and transformed by the Holy Spirit.  We expect attendees to be nourished and inspired so they may be renewed for the daily work of the church, as well as their personal life journey.  We also anticipate that the conference will have an impact on the wider regional church as people return to their communities with new life and vision.

The Awakenings Conference Series will take place the last weekend in April each year. It will convene on Thursday afternoons and close following a Sunday afternoon concert.  The time will be filled with keynote presentations, workshops, singing, musical performances, art, worship, meditation, building and renewing relationships, taking tours of the area and browsing through a conference bookstore.  The first annual conference will assemble Thursday, April 26, 2012 – Sunday, April 29, 2012.

The Conference Planning Committee of the United Congregational Church envisions a conference of 500 participants, blending the beliefs, viewpoints and spiritual practices of laypersons, clergy, faculty and students from the hundreds of seminaries, colleges, universities and churches located within a radius of 150 miles, as well as the greater Northeast.  This area is rich in diversity and religious tradition.  The historical roots of the American Christian Church are part of the fabric of church life.  The harmony of many distinct voices coming together to reflect, share, and exchange ideas can affect the future of the church during this challenging time.

The church will work collaboratively with the Massachusetts Conference of the United Church of Christ, other area churches, other denominations, and the Holyoke community in establishing this conference.

Holyoke, an old New England industrial town located in the Pioneer Valley, is in the heart of New England at the Crossroads of The Mass Pike (90) & Interstate 91. Cities like Boston, Hartford, New Haven, New York City, Albany, and Schenectady, are within 150 miles.  It is easily accessible (within an 8 hour drive) for people throughout the Northeast from Washington, D.C. to northern Maine.  Bradley International Airport is about 25 miles away, and AMTRAK routes stop in nearby Springfield.  Revitalization is coming rapidly to city-center Holyoke: MIT, Boston College, and U Mass have committed to build a 100 million dollar green energy computer research center on the canals; an old Broadway-style theater is being restored; and productions featuring International artists are taking place. New England’s largest mall and several fine hotels are also in Holyoke.

The United Congregational Church of Holyoke, a large Gothic style structure in the city center, is accessible to persons with disabilities.  The facility offers two formal worship spaces.  The main sanctuary has ample seating for over a thousand and features an historic, four-manual E. M. Skinner organ which dates to 1921.  The chapel seats about 220 and also houses an exceptional Skinner organ.  Both worship spaces have excellent acoustics for music.  There is a large assembly hall with a commercial kitchen, and several break-out rooms.  A church parking lot is located across the street and additional parking lots are available within two blocks.

The congregation continues a more than 200 year history of ministry and service to the people of Holyoke and the surrounding area.  Today the members administer Rebekah’s Closet (help for babies of mothers in need.), a Concert Series, a Multicultural Youth Program, dances twice monthly for community youth, and bell, sign, intergenerational and senior choirs.  A Puppet Ministry adds to worship, and delights nursing home residents.  Many community groups utilize the facility for meetings.  Past ministries include establishing a mission church, an Open Pantry, a Friendship Line, hosting major regional conferences, as well as numerous musical, social, and administrative gatherings of the church community.

The vision for this spiritual reflection and study conference grew out of the faith and passion of many individuals.  The current pastors, having been moved and inspired by the experience of the Epiphany Explorations Conference in Victoria, British Columbia, have been dedicated to bringing a similar conference to the eastern side of the continent.  Members of a Bible study group meeting at the church for more than two years have deepened their faith and understanding through several DVD/Discussion series:  “Living the Questions,” “Saving Jesus,” “Eclipsing Empire,” and “First Light.”  These piqued the interest of the participants with the desire to share critical thinking and reflection with others on spiritual journeys.  In addition, the members of United Congregational Church have initiated ministries that have been a beacon of light and hope for many years.  Continuing that rich tradition creates meaning and purpose for the current church.

The keynote speaker for the first conference in 2012 will be Marcus J. Borg, nationally and internationally known in both academic and church circles as a biblical and Jesus scholar.  He has authored 17 books including the best-sellers Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1984), Reading the Bible Again for the First Time (2001), and the Heart of Christianity (2003). He has been described by The New York Times as a “leading figure in his generation of Jesus scholars;” he has appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” and ”Dateline,” PBS’s “Newshour,” ABC’s “Evening News and “Prime Time” with Peter Jennings, and NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross.  Borg has lectured widely overseas including many countries in Europe, the Middle East, South Africa and North America.

The Awakenings Conference Series will gather a diverse community of participants to share inspirational speakers, thought-filled presentations, and compelling experiences that will provide a beacon of light and hope for the future of the Christian Church in North America.

January 28, 2010