Iowa Falls UMC

I visited an adult class at Iowa Falls UMC on Sunday, December 15th. The class has been using A Place at the Table as a guide to really look at poverty and food insecurity in Hardin County, IA. They asked me to come share about ministries other churches are doing which “go deeper” than meeting direct needs through food pantries and the Food Bank of Iowa’s Backpack Buddies program.

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Because the Iowa Board of Church and Society has identified hunger, obesity and other diseases of poverty as key points for world changing mission in Iowa communities, I invited a couple of board members, Jane Edwards and Rev. Brian Carter, to join me. The new Social Action Mission Coordinator for United Methodist Women, Rita Carter, also came along.

Iowa Falls is a town of around 5,200 residents and is home to Ellsworth Community College.  It’s downtown area has large stone and brick buildings, many built in the late 1890’s and early 20th Century.  Google directions will try to send you the wrong way down a one way street to get to Iowa Falls UMC, but it is still fairly easy to find on the corner of Hickory and Main Streets. It is a large building, with an easy drop off and awning for the main entrance.  Cars were parked for about 2 blocks in all directions from the church, so I parked in front of a neighborhood house and walked in.

Walking in the front entrance,  you are met by a large, open space with round tables, and people serving coffee and taking coats to hang along the walls.  Directly to the left is a ramp, which I assume leads to the Sanctuary.  A man in a grey suit gave me a friendly nod and smile as I walked through the fellowship hall. The first service was just ending, so I saw acolytes exiting with their candle tapers, and recognized from their robes and the robed adult leader with them, that the early service is a formal worship setting.

As I moved into the space, more church members were leaving worship and I saw several men in suits, while most women were dressed in very nice clothes. I did not see a lot of sweaters, jeans, or even khakis on people I passed.  This worship crowd was old-school.   There were clear signs indicating where restrooms, offices, and classrooms were. I entered a washroom which was modern in style, though small.

I then headed upstairs toward where my directions said the class was meeting. Up two flights of stairs into an older hallway of yellow-painted concrete block, and I had found the Sunday School area of the church. School tile floors and smallish rooms were quite a bit less modern than the lower levels of the church. The class was meeting in a room at the very end of the hallway.

The room looked like many youth group spaces look with two distinct sections: an open space just inside the door, and a conversation space at the far end made up of several couches lined up along the walls, a white board, windows looking out over town, and a coffee table. My colleagues had already arrived and we spent some time introducing ourselves to one another.  The class was multi-generational and included a high school student with blue-dyed hair, as well as professional people in their mid-30’s or40’s, and some folks who were retired. There was at least one member of the choir who attends the class.  As we waited for others to arrive, the class members shared that there had been an issue with the boiler overnight and so the upper rooms of the church were not yet warmed up.  That meant we kept our coats on for the conversation.

Rev. Carol E. Myers got the class rolling by summarizing the study the group had been doing, and then introducing me.  I opened by sharing a little about myself and then invited Rita, Brian, and Jane to share about themselves.

For the next 45 minutes, members of the class shared their concerns about the number of people they encounter in their day-to-day lives who quite simply are not making it. They shared about hungry children, and adults who seem to lack fairly basic life skills such as an ability to do arithmetic or to cook.  There was a kind of painful intensity to the compassionate awareness of need expressed by people in the room.

The class members agreed that the church was doing all right when it came to meeting direct needs, but this group is hungry to do more than that.  They want to become part of ministries which help people help themselves, and they want to educate the wider Hardin County community about the very real shortfalls of social services, education and employment opportunities county-wide.  One woman is even ready to start doing advocacy work with the local government.  One member of the class, who is also an administrator in the School District, raised the question of meeting spiritual needs as well as physical and financial needs.

I kept thinking, I hope we can find a way to turn all of this loose.  There was so much energy, and so much awareness of missional possibility, people literally had a hard time sitting still.  They would lean forward to talk with us.  A couple of people tried to speak at once about their experiences with clients at the food pantry.  Jane was able to share about Food@First, Good Neighbor Emergency Assistance and AMOS in Ames-about the different models of engaging with issues of hunger, homelessness and community organizing that seem to be working best there.  Brian and Rita shared from their experiences serving churches about different ministries for addressing issues of poverty.  There was no lack of ideas nor of issues that could be addressed.

I could tell that the people in the room had been turned on.  They had been motivated and awakened by the leadership of Rev. Myers, the different kinds of expertise shared in the group, and the A Place at the Table curriculum.  My colleagues and I were encouraged to hear that others in the Conference are looking at and thinking about the same kinds of issues we have been looking at and thinking about.  Connections were made: emails and phone numbers exchanged, names added to the lists of people who are interested in pursuing social change for the sake of the Gospel.

As Rev. Myers closed the conversation, she mentioned that, beginning in January, the class would spend time discerning where God was calling them to take action.  As she prayed for us, I was praying for the group that it will start to bring its vision into focus; that it will be able to distill its call from the huge range of possibilities being broadcast.

As my mother says, “Don’t try to eat the whole elephant at once.  You have to take it a bite at a time.”  The size, scope and yeast-like nature of poverty in our neighborhoods is daunting.  It can be discouraging and defeating to try to take on the whole thing.  Instead, it is better to take one step at a time in one direction, and to address the challenges as they come.  Spiritual discernment is a great and a necessary very next step to take.  Also, finding friends to join you in your mission and lend their support and aid never hurts.

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Income Inequality

Church after church, pastor after pastor, and layperson after layperson name poverty as the most significant issue facing their communities and the world.  Yet poverty is not so much an issue as it is a web of intersecting issues, originating from different sources, yet coming together in a recognizable pattern of violence, insecurity, aborted potential, mental turmoil, disease and fear.  In this video, President Obama speaks to one of those issues, the issue of income inequality:

Abundance

On this Sunday before Christmas, I would like to reflect out to you that as I have been roving and listening these last few weeks, the social concern that seems to be on everyone’s mind is economic scarcity. There is this almost universal sense that we and the people around us do not have enough.

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However, in this season defined by the exchange of gifts, I have been singularly struck by our lack of poverty. Rather than having too little, I have been feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of that which we have.

Here are some of the gifts I have seen which belong to the churches and individual people I have met:

Passion, education, organization, public spaces, kitchens, clean bathrooms, running,  water, friendship, associations, schools, neighborhoods, roads, internet, smartphones, trained clergy, compassion, time, willingness to serve,  tons of gleaned food, enough money to purchase an extra pair of socks to give away, jobs, wisdom, more volunteers than programs, financial strategies, parenting, grand parenting, joy, committees, heat, Superintendent of Schools, international student mentor, retirees from social service organizations, teachers, principals, children, farmers, organs, organists, jazz musician, entrepreneur, nurses, food pantries, warehouse space, automobiles and the ability to drive them, cooks, gardeners, UM camps, curriculum, facebook, disposable income, spirit of generosity, recyclable goods, imagination, UMVIM, expertise in a variety of professional fields, extended family relationships, scripture, studiousness, furniture, artwork, hospitality, dishes, refrigerators, coffee machines, cabinets, cupboards, 50-yr. marriages, offices, grass, yards, administrative assistants, Imagine No Malaria, hundreds of Christian hearts . . .

And these gifts are just a surface riff.  I haven’t taken the time to tighten up on the specific people I have met or their unique and particular gifts, skills, talents, and goods.

I keep thinking, and maybe this is just a Christmas miracle kind of thought, that if we could just find a way to give these gifts away, to share them outward with all whom we meet, that all those social ills which seem to plague our nightmares, would find themselves met and transformed into something else altogether.

When Giants Pass

This year has seen the death of giants. Earlier this year, Rev. Bob Williams passed away. Just this last week, South Africa lost Nelson Mandela, and the Iowa Annual Conference lost Bob Crandall.

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I did not know any of these men well, but I have met people they touched. I have been in rooms made uncomfortable by the questions they raised. I have met people they inspired and encouraged. I have started to hear stories of the ways in which their witness to social justice changed the lives of the people and the nations around them.  And now, they are gone.

When people die, it is our custom to spend time remembering them. We read narratives of their lives. We share memories of our time with them. We describe their corporate and their personal meaning to the community. We claim them as part of our family and name them so future generations won’t forget them.

Talking about the radical nature of the Psalms, Walter Brueggemann describes them as powerful tools for remembering. Over the coming weeks, I invite you to remember those giants of Biblical justice we have lost, whether that be a public figure like Nelson Mandela or a close and intimate friend like Bob Crandall or Bob Williams. I invite you to search the Psalms for their story, and then I invite you to send me those remembrances. You can email or mail me a story and a Psalm. You can put together a quick video remembrance or even a simple audio recording. If you are an artist, I encourage you to send me poetry, dance, drama, or music which somehow connect you to that member of the family of Christ.

Because we don’t want to fall into nostalgia. We don’t want to retreat into the convenience of amnesia. Instead, we want to keep alive the examples of hope, faith and love that they provided for us and share those stories to raise up our next generation of giants.

Psalm 72:1-19

16thstreetbaptistchurch“Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to a king’s son. May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor. May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more. Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may his glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen. (NRSV )

In this season of festivity and gift-giving, of parties, purchases, and family celebration, may we be mindful of peace. May we look for connections between economic distress and injustice; between poverty and war; between need and slavery; between famine and greed; and between oppression and fear.  May we look for ways, not only to lift others from a moment of hunger, but to end the conditions which make starvation possible.  May we look for ways, not only to lift spirits for a season, but to free spirits from the chains which weigh them down.  May we look for ways, not only to celebrate the good news of Christ’s birth, but to share that good news with all whom we meet-a Gospel of peace, freedom, compassion, generosity, goodwill, justice, and joy.

Be A Well

well2Wellness has been a topic of discussion over the last weeks.  Physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, and societal health have all been on the table.

One pastor puts it this way:  “The connection is frayed,” she said.  Elders and deacons on disability are falling through the cracks.  Deacons and elders supporting children and spouses with mental illnesses do not have a supportive system to lean into.  There is an experience of ostracism among those living with disabilities.  “It is as though we have ceased to exist.”

One man I spoke with was deeply concerned about the loss of civic dialogue in the church and in society.  He remembers when there was a good working relationship between our identities as United Methodists and as as American citizens with voice and vote.  Over the years, he has seen those identities become fractured and has seen divisions, similar to those between political parties, arise within local churches such that we don’t seem capable of trusting one another’s faith.

He sees the church as a power which can change the culture, but believes it has stifled its prophetic voice because it fears for its own survival.  Instead, it evidences a willful blindness to the connection between the violence in our lives and the violence in our culture.

I had lunch with a small group and the topic was wellness.  What does it look like?  How do healthy people, couples, families, churches, communities, and institutions maintain balance? What do they hold on to?  How do they let go?

People are suffering from too many hours on the clock, not enough friends to rely on, and an almost pathological inability to say “no” even when schedules are full.  We are not eating well, sleeping enough or choosing to believe the best of one another. We have forgotten how to spend time with ourselves.  We have forgotten how to experience Sabbath.  We have forgotten what it is to play.

And our life in Christ becomes a stone we are pushing up a hill alone.

In John 10: 10b Jesus says, “I came so that they could have life-indeed so that they could live life to the fullest.”  Among the social principles of the United Methodist Church are these statements related to health and well-being.  “Stewardship of health is the responsibility of each person to whom health has been entrusted. Creating the personal, environmental, and social conditions in which health can thrive is a joint responsibility.“ (The Social Community, subheading V)  “We recognize the opportunity leisure provides for creative contributions to society and encourage methods that allow workers additional blocks of discretionary time.” (The Economic Community, subheading C).

As I have thought about wellness, I have thought about the difference between wells and conduits.  Conduits are vessels through which power flows.  Wells are vessels which fill, and when they have reached capacity, overflow. Maybe we have gotten so addicted to the currents of power we have chosen to be conduits rather than wells. Yet, Jesus, the Messiah of the Well, promises us living water, a flow of joy and sustenance which has no end.  This Advent season, I encourage you to let yourself fill.  Take time, find space, say no, and turn off the power switch for a while. Be a well.

Flowers Blooming in the Desert

I visited with Pastor Anita Bane in the office of the Rockwell City United Methodist Church. It was a blustery, yet beautiful day to drive West of I-35 on Hwy. 20.  The sky was robin’s egg blue, and there was still a little bit of green in the gold of harvested fields.

Coming in to Rockwell City, I saw grain elevators against the horizon, and I noticed a sign for the North Central Correctional Facility. I passed the Rockwell City welcome sign and the St. Francis Cemetery. Almost immediately, I turned south to get to the Rockwell City church.

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The Rockwell City UMC is a modern church.  There are no steps to navigate to get in the front door, and there is a wide and well-lit walkway which leads directly to a large foyer and lobby area with tile and carpet.  The bathrooms are set up to conserve energy and water resources, as well as being well-lit and family and wheelchair or walker friendly.  Right across the street from the church is a newer elementary school. I stopped to take a couple of pictures.  I could not capture both the cross and flame and the bell in a single frame.  I imagine that these two pieces of sculpture are ties to the church’s history.

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A small agribusiness community with people employed by the Iowa State Correctional System as well as the families of both prison employees and those incarcerated, I get a sense that Rockwell City has a long memory and a changing demographic structure.  It seems like it could be a town where identity is a bit dislocated: those whose families are rooted here, and those who are new to town; long-held traditions of governance and behavior encountering new rhythms of life and community activity.

Pastor Bane serves two churches: the Rockwell City UMC and Jolley UMC, which is a country church.   She sees poverty as the biggest mission and justice issue in Calhoun County.

She shares stories from the Jolley UMC where the people, according to Pastor Bane, take Jesus seriously when he says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself.” (Luke 10:27).  She says that the church has decided that they are going to love one another and this is evidenced by the fact that they include one another across stereotypes.

-A young, single mother finds aunts, uncles, moms, dads and cousins there who are willing to overlook a checkered past and current economic difficulties.

-A musician, losing her way in a hymn, receives encouragement and applause.

-When Pastor Bane lifts up Imagine No Malaria after Annual Conference and suggests “a hundred” [dollars] as a modest offering the church could make, they misunderstand her to mean “a hundred nets,” and give $1000 to the campaign.

Pastor Bane says she just sits back and watches this church go.  Both she and her office assistant describe the Jolley UMC as a little blooming flower.   Both their spirits visibly rise at the simple mention of that church.   They light up a little as though reflecting the love, joy, peace, faithfulness and hope clearly present there.

Though both Jolley and Rockwell City act to meet direct needs through food and clothing drives, Pastor Bane would like to see her churches respond with something more.  As we talked, I kept getting a sense that time and relationship are the greatest barriers to that deeper engagement with issues related to poverty.

The circles of relationship in local churches can be closed at times.  Differences in socio-economic class are highlighted by worship language and structures that presume an upper middle-class background.  Invisible barriers are erected out of fear that the problems people see in the community may invade the church.  Church becomes something scheduled on a calendar, and people simply show up, rather than living Christ.

Pastor Bane sees in both the local church and in the wider Annual Conference an exhaustion born of doing.  She wonders what it might mean if we started sitting down with one another to ask, “How did you get to believe what you believe?”

What if each of us were to spend more time sharing ourselves with those we meet?

What if we invite the children in the elementary school across the street to tell us their story?

What if our goal in getting to know the people whose lives are entwined with the local correctional facility were ultimately to get to a place of identity and honoring our differences?

Would we be able to forge better alliances for facing the chaos we fear?

Would we be able to move past our stances of defense and open the circle of our embrace to those we distrust?

Would we, in fact, stop drowning in a sea of needs and start encountering greater gifts than we imagined possible?

I think these are great questions.  I know Pastor Bane is not alone in wondering these things.  I know she is not alone in wondering how to help her churches make the shift.  If you have stories or would like to connect with Pastor Bane in order to share ideas that work, please leave a comment or share resources here.  You can also reach out to Pastor Anita Bane via her profile at iaumc.org.