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Pioneering Spiritual Leader Of United Church Of Christ To Retire

Melissa Pionzio

April 26, 2010

Before a large audience of lay and ordained delegates, a young Davida Foy Crabtree spoke passionately during the General Synod of the United Church of Christ about the rampant use of the generic masculine in church publications. Change it to more inclusive language, she urged the 1973 gathering in St. Louis.

Ultimately, a majority of the group agreed to change the church's constitution, bylaws and literature to language that avoids gender, racial or age discrimination.

Crabtree's speech that day, say those who know her, was typical of many that she would deliver over the years fiery, heartfelt and unyielding, especially on issues of social justice, women's rights and the role of the church.

In 1996, when Crabtree became spiritual leader of the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, an organization of 253 Protestant churches, she was able to draw people in through her enthusiasm and ideas.

"She had a unique gift of being able to take her passion for justice and channel that into becoming, really, one of the most respected leaders in the UCC," said the Rev. Ron Brown, associate minister for clergy concerns at the Connecticut Conference. "She turned that prophetic voice into an articulate voice for justice for everyone."

Crabtree has experienced the joys and struggles that come with preaching and teaching, and she has helped shepherd congregations through such challenges as 9/11, the economic downturn and the moral and ethical challenges the state has faced. But personal challenges, including her own and husband David Hindinger's battles with cancer, have led Crabtree to the decision to retire from active ministry.

"To have both of us go through this experience with cancer has really made it clear that now is the time for us to claim time with each other," said Crabtree, 65, who officially retires in May. "I have given my life to the church, and David has given up so much. Now it's our time together."

Proud Moments

Crabtree will have plenty of memories to ponder, including her membership on the board of Amistad America Inc. and the launch of the Freedom Schooner Amistad in 2000 an experience she is especially proud of because of its historic connection to the state's Protestant churches.

"Their story is our story. It was the Congregationalists who stepped forward to save the captives," she said of the enslaved Africans aboard the ship in 1841, who were eventually aided by local churches. "To tell that story is a story of African Americans and European Americans collaborating to end slavery and to look forward and work on racism today."

Another moment was the conference's hosting of the 2007 General Synod of the UCC in Hartford.

"What a powerful, wonderful, gratifying experience to give that as a gift to Hartford," she said. "It was meaningful because this is the place of my birth, and I have a strong connection and feeling of responsibility to the city."

Through the conference's international ecumenical partnerships in Korea and Colombia, Crabtree experienced the power of faith in the urban and rural parishes there. One group of Colombian villagers, who had been driven from their homes by drug violence, eventually rebuilt and renamed their farm Villa Davida.

A Calling

Crabtree's calling to the ministry occurred during one of her many summer sojourns to the UCC-sponsored Silver Lake Conference Center in Sharon. Enveloped in the camp's woodsy splendor, the young woman found a spiritual kinship with her fellow campers, and the idea that she might serve the church more fully began to grow. Upon the completion of her studies at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts in the early 1970s, however, Crabtree found her employment options limited.

"I couldn't immediately find a parish," she said, "because at the time, parishes were not willing to hire a female."

She took a yearlong position as campus minister at Central Connecticut State College (now University) in New Britain and later helped form the Prudence Crandall Center. Initially the center, one of the first to offer support and refuge to abused women, was in the basement of South Congregational Church.

"She did a great job getting this thing started," said the Rev. Hugh Penney, then minister of South Congregational. "She was just exactly right. If we'd brought in a white, Waspish minister, male type, it wouldn't have worked."

Nearly 37 years later, the center serves about 10,000 people annually through domestic violence services and community outreach, and it recently developed a supportive housing program at Rose Hill, a former orphanage. A period of unemployment followed her work at Prudence Crandall, which enabled Crabtree to take a mission trip to India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Japan with a group of national executives of the UCC. While in India, she participated in a session with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. "I really wanted to understand life in the Third World and other churches," said Crabtree. "And that was absolutely foundational in my relationship with the church."

Returning home, Crabtree took part-time positions as the liaison between the Connecticut Conference and the legislature on public education issues and was campus minister for several Hartford-area colleges.

A Global View

Colchester Federated Church hired her as its senior minister in 1980 and through her leadership, the congregation grew in spirit and membership. Her experiences are chronicled in her book, "The Empowering Church."

"My focus was to help them understand that each of them were called to ministry, that it was not owned by the ordained," she said. "We went great guns there. It was a wonderful experience."

Although content in Colchester, Crabtree accepted the position in 1991 as conference minister for the UCC's California- Nevada Southern Conference.

"I had had all of these global experiences and California is a global place, it's the Pacific Rim, but has much Hispanic immigration. That was a part of what drew me there," she said. "Little did I know that we were going to get hit with [ Los Angeles Police Department] issues, and the wildfires and earthquakes and mudslides," she said. "But when you are conference minister and those things are happening, your role is to help churches respond."

After five years in California, Crabtree returned to serve as conference minister for the Connecticut Conference, which was undergoing a reorganization.

Crabtree reconnected with people, rebuilt the reduced staff at conference headquarters in Hartford and visited churches to learn about their concerns and needs. Her beloved Silver Lake Conference Center was also in transition. Crabtree and her staff inspired local congregations to raise the funds to build new cabins and renovate existing structures.

"We've turned it into a place that is focused on environmental sustainability as stewards of the Earth," she said. "Last summer, the camp served 1,100 kids in seven weeks and 9,000 during weekend guest days."

Another significant moment during her tenure as conference minister was the evolution of the understanding of same-gender relationships, she said.

"When I was going through chemo for breast cancer in 2008, the decision for same-gender marriages came down," said Crabtree. "Love Makes a Family [an advocacy group]asked me if there were any way I could come and join the celebration, and I did go, and it was with tears in my eyes that I was able to be there."

Under Crabtree's leadership, UCC congregations have grown in their abilities to work together to be a voice of hope, said the Rev. David Spollett of First Church Congregational in Fairfield. Her departure will leave large shoes to fill, he said.

"When Davida became conference minister, she helped us find our bearings again and recapture a sense of mutual purpose," said Spollett. "She was the right person at the right time."

A celebration of Crabtree's ministry will be held on May 2 from 3 to 6 p.m. at the Old State House in Hartford. Call 860-233-5564 for more information.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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