Speak Up. Speak Out.

One of the reasons I am excited about my job as leadership development minister for social justice and mission, is that speaking up and out is a vocation of mine. It is a calling. I know it is because, even when I want to, I simply cannot keep my mouth shut.

I remember a time when I was a Junior in high school. There was an all-school assembly and the student body of ~650 were gathered in the gym. I remember vividly that it was a presentation by the Colorado Shakespeare Festival Company because Shakespeare is one of my passions. Throughout the whole presentation, the students were noisy and restive. Maybe the feeling started there.

Anyway, the man who portrayed William Shakespeare for the Company had one arm which was significantly shorter than the other. Also, that arm had a peculiar palsy. Wil (I never did learn the actor’s name) stood in front of the entire student body and shared his art with us. He did not draw attention to his arm, but neither did he try to disguise it.

At the end of their presentation, there was a question and answer session. A girl in the bleachers behind me asked a question designed to draw attention to Wil’s arm and its palsy. It was a mean and inappropriate response to the gift the Company had shared with us. I remember feeling anger and shame like a lightning bolt.

I did not think. I raised my hand. My friends tried to stop me. They were whispering things and tugging on my shirt. To this day, I have no idea what they said because my mind was a white-hot clarity of intent. When a teacher called on me, I stood up, in my school gym, in front of half a thousand of my peers, and I opened my mouth.

I first thanked the Shakespeare Company members, and then I apologized to them for the rudeness of my classmates. I turned around and faced those classmates and I told them I was ashamed that I was a part of them. I called into question their manners.  “What is wrong with you?  Were you raised in a barn?” I remember saying something about the fact that we didn’t even have to be at the assembly and that there was no excuse for treating people with that much disrespect.

I sat down-shaking. My friends shrank away, but I have never once regretted speaking up.

Recently, our United Methodist Church has found itself in the newspapers: a church on trial. Do we mean what we say in The Book of Discipline about the sacred worth of every single human being, or are there some we believe we can live without? Do we mean what we say in our Social Principles when we claim war and homosexuality are incompatible with the teachings and example of Jesus Christ? Are we serious about the requirements we have for ordained elders both in their performance of duties and in their evidence of Christian character? What happens when the execution of one leads to the compromising of the other?

People are standing up,and people are tugging on shirt tails.  People are drawing lines and people are crossing lines.  People are calling out and people are calling on.  People are shouting, “Peace!” and people are whispering, “Peace, peace.”

I am reminded of Luke 4:14-30, where Jesus speaks up and speaks out: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. “

I believe the Holy Spirit empowers us to preach and proclaim. We are neither bullying nor disrespectful when we voice our complaints. God does not invite us to sit silent when we harbor unease or disagreement with the decisions or actions of our peers. Giving voice is a process by which, if we choose to believe in the Holy Spirit integrity of our brothers and sisters in Christ, we may be able to somehow understand one another’s tongues.

So when your head says, “Sit down, you’re rocking the boat,” but your heart says, “Even if you keep silent, surely the very rocks will cry out,” I hope you decide to trust your heart over your head.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that speaking up and speaking out is without serious cost.  I am sure in that synagogue long ago, Jesus’ friends tugged on his shirt tails in a futile effort to get him to sit down and shut up.  By the end of it, his own synagogue drove him out and tried to kill him.  By the end of it, his own followers fled.  By the end of it, he was left naked and dying, keeping company in the cross with no one but a murderer and a thief. And yet, never once, have we regretted the day he decided it was time to speak.

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Of Love Feasts and Resurrection

Last Tuesday, I visited a bible study at Plymouth First UMC in Plymouth, Iowa.  It was dark by the time, I arrived, and I could barely see the little United Methodist Church sign with its arrow assuring me that, yes, my directions did say to take a right two blocks north of the stop sign.  I drove up to a large, rectangular brick building on a quiet, dark street corner.

I could see lights on in the basement of the church, and I knew I was going to be meeting people downstairs, so I felt confident I had found the right place.  There was caution tape and recent excavation telling me that the church is undergoing some sort of improvement.  Before I had gotten around the corner, a man in a Mustang rolled down his window and said, “Colleen.”  I had just met Jerry Avise-Rouse, pastor of the Shell Rock Valley Parish. Plymouth First UMC is one of the four churches he serves in the parish.

We walked in to the church together, but I entered the fellowship hall alone.  There were 8 people seated at a round table in the middle of the room.  As I came in, someone caught my eye, and I was invited over.  The group broke open, grabbed a chair, and made room for me.  It was done with such ease,  I assumed they were expecting me.  As I sat down, the woman to my left introduced herself and the naming worked its way clockwise around the table.

Meanwhile, there was a bustle of activity in the kitchen as the group welcomed Jerry, refilled coffee cups, made sure everyone was comfortable and continued with catching up on the events of their lives since Sunday.  I was at the church’s weekly Bible Study.  Suddenly, Bibles came out of bags, flew open on the table, the attention of the group turned to Jerry and it became clear that the time had come to get to the business of studying Scripture.  And that was when I discovered that the group had not been expecting me at all.  Pastor Avise-Rouse said something to the effect: “You can listen to me ramble on about Isaiah, or you could listen to what Colleen McRoberts, the Leadership Development Minister of Social Justice and Mission, has to say.”

And, all eyes in the room were on me.  Luckily, the group had already made me feel like I was one of them, so I jumped right in.  “Tell me about justice and mission,” I said.  They did.

Ingathering, Hawkeye Harvest Food Pantry, service at the North Iowa Community Kitchen, visits to the ill and isolated with Communion and devotions, the planting of a community garden with produce being given to those without food, and being sold to those with a little bit of extra cash to help raise funds for mission trips.

Sock It to You Sunday, where socks gathered for the Salvation Army are launched at the pastor as part of worship, bell ringing for the Salvation Army, and the Soup Supper Auction held on the first Sunday of December.  Mission trips to Women at the Well UMC and Minot, North Dakota, Christmas Eve in the Barn, and this year’s first time attempt at a community-wide Thanksgiving Dinner.

They said some of this ministry got started after a group study of the book Simple Abundance.

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Jerry shared that after first arriving at Plymouth UMC, he and Wendy (Wendy Johannesen, Associate Pastor of the Shell Rock Valley Parish) heard the mantra “We are dying!” so much, they decided to preach about it.  They launched a series of sermons: “So you’re dying.  Now what?”

A woman named Deb said, “This is what changed us from the dying to the living: there is a positive support group.There used to be a negative support group.  Now there is a positive support group.”

The members started sharing stories about how isolated and small they felt while they continued to worship in the upstairs Sanctuary.  They were afraid to try too much change because people had left the church when the pews were shifted so that they faced inward and people could see one another’s faces.  Now, the church meets in the Fellowship Hall every Sunday, around tables like the one we were seated around that night.

Something that was done out of necessity in the winter months to keep heating bills manageable has become the way that Plymouth First UMC worships.  Apparently, the fellowship goodies are set up before church starts and people eat before, during, and after worship.  There was lots of laughter and teasing back and forth about the noisy, clamorous, extended fellowship time that has become worship.  Perhaps seeing the questions in my eyes, I was assured that when people got up for coffee during “the sermon” that the atmosphere is actually quite subdued and respectful.

“So, weekly worship here is something like a Love Feast, then? “ I ventured.  There were nods and smiles all around.

Occasionally, the pianist, a Seventh Day Adventist, cannot make it to lead music, so the church is learning how to sing songs unaccompanied.  There is no elevator to the fellowship hall, so they are limited as to who can come, but they have decided that they are not going to spend their “dying” breaths trying to get an old building up to code. Instead, they wear t-shirts which say “The church has left the building,” as they place flyers inviting people to the community-wide Thanksgiving dinner in doorjambs around Plymouth.
Plymouth, Iowa
“Obviously, you see a need for food in your community.  What drives that need?”  I asked.

“Inequity.” “Transportation.” “Quality employment.” “Childcare.” “Being a bedroom community.”

ME: “What are the barriers, for the church, and for the wider community, to really addressing some of these larger issues?”

-We don’t know people because they work and play elsewhere.  They only come to Plymouth to sleep.  You don’t even see children playing or adults out working on their yards during the day.

-Labeling and Association (people have reputations to protect)

-Apathy

-Reprisals: local employers will push back on people who “make noise.”

-What difference can I make?  It is too big.

-Too many different issues in the United Methodist Church.  I wish we could all get behind something together.

ME: “How do the mission trips and ministries you have all shared connect to your faith?”

-Taking action helps strengthen faith when talking about it gets one down.

-Real connection to one another  is built around projects and trips together.

I wish I could share the laughter and play that were alive in that room.  By the end of the evening, there were about 12 of us around the table.  The conversation had moved from the ministries the church was doing to ministries it was thinking about beginning, as people discussed the closing of local restaurants, schools,and post offices.  How they could fill the gaps by providing breakfast one Saturday a month or by opening a local restaurant of their own.  One woman shared that they just try things, and if they don’t work, that’s OK.  They will just try something different.  They “fail forward,” and they are loving it.

Plymouth First United Methodist Church has a weekly attendance around 23 people, and they would love it if you would stop by some Sunday morning.  I guarantee that if you do so, you won’t feel like a stranger or an alien.  You will feel like a long-time friend.