Iowa Storm Response

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With reports of severe weather rolling in every day, I wanted to share this update from Rev. Catie Newman, Disaster Response Coordinator of Iowa. Click these links for a report on the damages in Iowa June 16 and June 18 . For contact information and information on how your faith community can best respond:

Suggested Action Steps for Iowa Response

1. Please pray for everyone affected by the water and flooding! We are expecting more rain and that means more runoff and that means more water everywhere!! Several more towns downstream are at risk if we get much more rain, AND because we are still “underwater” that there is not too much for volunteers to do at this time, we are however getting ready for when we can help.

2. We are collecting Clean-up buckets and clean-up supplies and getting them in place,

3. I anticipate that within the next week to 10 days we will begin needing volunteers to help clean outflooded homes, basements, businesses etc…after that we will have a time where things need to dry out and wait, after that we will need volunteers for longer term and rebuilding work.

4. NOW is the time to start planning when you can come and getting a team together. At this time we will want to have teams led by UMVIM Trained volunteer leaders (and yes!! we can get some trainings in right now!!) please contact Melissa Bracht-Wagner for scheduling(melisa.brachtwagner@yahoo.com)

5. There are UMC congregations close-by that you can contact for housing, please do not plan to stay in the town that you are volunteering in, really no space or useable water is available and we do not want to be a burden on top of the flooding. We would hope that teams will come prepared to be self-sufficient, food, tools, sleeping arrangements. If this interests you, send an email to me (Catie Newman, disaster.response@iaumc.org or johnstruckfarm@wiate.net) with the dates you are looking at and how many people on your team, we will put you in contact with the contact person in the town that needs your help.

6. Right now I need some help moving things around, delivering water and clean-up buckets and supplies and general assistance. I would prefer to have people volunteer with a partner, so that we always have a team. IF you have a vehicle that can pull a trailer (loaded with water, we have the trailer) and have a day to volunteer (in the next 14 days) please let me know 712-899-4067 phone or text, I can offer a church floor for sleeping and a place to shower.

Keep Alert, the weather forecasters are predicting, more and more serious weather systems. This can and will affect all of us.

Be Well

Catie and John Newman
IAUMC Disaster Response Coordinators
disaster.response@iaumc.org
712-899-4067 phone or text

It takes ALL of us to make a difference for EACH of us!

 

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What Are We Going to Do About It?

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A significant part of my job involves travelling long distances in my car, and I have found that I really enjoy listening to podcasts of TED talks during those times.  Here’s why: they expand my world, and they make me aware of the amazing capacity of human beings for doing marvelous things. The ideas and perspectives of the speakers can sometimes hurt because they are so different from my own. It is as if my own ideas have been running barefoot on a treadmill and suddenly find themselves out on Bear Lake Trail in Rocky Mountain National Park in the early Spring: the view is amazing, but it is steep, rocky, cold and their feet hurt.

Across Iowa, there is a sense that people are really struggling to make ends meet. Churches have seen increases in the number of people coming to food pantries and free meals. Food banks are asking for more donations. Especially in rural and bedroom communities, more of us are unemployed, underemployed or precariously employed. I don’t know the statistics. I am simply reporting what I have been hearing: “People are hungry and hardshipped, and my church can’t seem to get on top of it.”

So, what are we going to do to get on top of it? There are ideas out there. There are Bible verses and trained theologians that can help us out. There are connective structures in place so not one of us has to do it alone. There are city, county, state, and local agencies that want our help. So, what are we going to do about it?

I think it may be time we started expanding our world a little bit. Let’s start celebrating the marvelous ingenuity of God’s creatures in God’s creation, and look for the startling and unexpected possibilities in our midst. Can we challenge ourselves to reach beyond the narrow scope of the NRSV and steal the coolest ideas from disciplines outside the church: architecture, zoology, and biomendicine? Is there a way to transcend our own biases toward particular economic or political models to simply gather concerned people together and start having conversations? Asking questions? Discovering skills, abilities, and ideas for engineering solutions for our eroding economies?

What would that look like? Who would you invite to the conversation? Are we prepared for the discomfort and adjustment that may occur? What’s God got to do with it? What might it look like for something to change for the better, and what would we feel like when it did?

Youth Strike for Christ

YSfCThis weekend, I got to spend a few hours with a bunch of United Methodists between the ages of 13 and 18 along with various mentors, youth leaders, event planners and pastors. The event is called Youth Strike for Christ, and I was asked to lead a session titled “My Name is Justice.”

I have been reading and watching a lot of amazing things recently involving young people: an interview with Malala Yousafzai, a speech by Madison Kimry, a response to a culture of meanness and bullying by Jeremiah Anthony of West High School in Iowa City, and an amazing project by Katie Meyler whose foundation, More Than Me, is taking on child prostitution in Liberia. Like John Stewart, I am left with an idea of “I don’t know where you come from, but I am glad you are here.”

So I decided not to spend  time telling my groups about injustice, unfairness, and the United Methodist Social Principles. Instead, I invited them to speak from their own hearts and experience; to start imagining ways to respond, and to name the things that may be holding them back. Because the power to make change does not reside in the hands of others. It lives inside each and every one of us, and when we invite the Holy to inspire us, we can rely on that change to be good.

Issues they see in their schools, towns, churches and world: racial discrimination, judging attitudes, terminal illnesses among young people, a lack of respect for the gifts we have (taking abundance for granted and disregarding the cries of those who go without), loneliness and a lack of meaningful work and community building for young people, hunger, poverty, inadequate education opportunities, inability to dress for success, lack of clean, running water, war, lack of respect, rudeness, illicit drug use, alcoholism, misuse of aid offered in good faith, unprotected and premature sex, pregnancy among peers, drug dogs and security cameras at schools, cynicism about people (hard to have faith in others); strong pressure to participate in behaviors which are not good for us (social drinking, drug use, mean-spirited relationships), depression, suicide, potential violence (bomb threats and hit lists: wars and rumors of wars).

Some strategies they proposed: find friends to stand with you; take it one step at a time (don’t try to fix the entire situation); collect “nice” suits and shoes to offer to people who may need them for an interview, etc.; talk to everybody; don’t avoid personal interactions with people who say mean or judgmental things about you-directly address their behavior as it relates to you; overcome your own F.E.A.R. (False Expectations Appear Real); go to the Bible and see what is said there; grow deeper in your own faith so that you have hope, courage, and endurance for the “bad” stuff around you; use the lens of faith and the example of Christ to look for the positive transformations that are happening, rather than focusing on the “few bad people.”

Some costs to doing any of these things that they named: it is hard work and there are other things we may rather be doing; you may lose your friends; you may lose your life like Martin Luther King, Jr. did; you may have to give up family; by crossing the line and spending time with people [who are doing drugs], you might be pressured to behave like them, or teachers/parents/others might start distrusting you-think you are doing “bad stuff” even when you aren’t, what you try might not work

Some reasons why you would do something to change “the whole mindset” of a school, town, or church: you will be respected; you will have respect for yourself; you will reflect God out to the world; you will lose your fear; you wouldn’t have to be afraid anymore; people who are struggling wouldn’t have to work so hard; people could have dignity, people could have more choice 

Some of the gifts I witnessed: respect, caring, engagement with one another, willingness to make room for strangers, giggles, awareness of people who are weaker, poorer, hungrier than they are, supportive and positive interpersonal actions, desire to be of benefit to their community, diversity (of perspective, socio-economic class, and background), leadership, gentleness, shyness, patience, grace, energy, earnestness, confidence, knowledge of the Bible, personal relationship with Jesus, depth of commitment to their community and a desire to meet that commitment through their youth groups/church, readiness to participate in hands-on mission and service, knowledge of Imagine No Malaria, sophisticated opinions regarding economic and political realities, empathy, self-discipline, strong work ethic, positive and supportive family structures and connections, strong self identities, sweet dispositions, sense of set-apartness (Christian identity as a special identity they have in common)

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.

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.

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.
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“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.