Talk Is Cheap

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” 
― Frederick BuechnerWishful Thinking: A Theological ABC

There are a lot of opinions out there. There are a lot of different ways to use our reason and our intellect to convince ourselves that we are OK, or that we are doing the right thing. There are myriad ways to read Scripture and interpret faith so that our own prejudices, biases, inclinations, and desires can be found comfortable, faithful and otherwise pleasing to our own sensibilities; to the sensibilities of our family, friends and neighbors, and can still conform to the tenets of our “doctrine” and  our “discipline.”

I can’t help but wonder, though, how our world might look if we each spent as much energy actually doing something about those things we argue about as we spend consulting our favorite gurus and posting our favorite memes to facebook.

For instance, in Iowa, there is a shortage of residential treatment facilities. There is evidence of human trafficking in both labor and sexual slavery. School food programs are all struggling, while students whose families are under physical, economic, and psychological distress continue to fall behind in the skills necessary to navigate an increasingly complicated world of credit lending and temporary employment. Youth mentorship programs do not have enough mentors to supply their need. People suffering from ongoing mental illness cannot receive the treatment they require. Air, land and water quality are degraded and deteriorating. Women in Iowa earn only 77% of what men make. Our churches, schools and neighborhoods are built more along the lines of separate and unequal, than along lines of an intentionally cross-cultural integration. Laborers work 16 and 20 hour days, while part-time employees without benefits are fired for refusing to work overtime.

And yet . . . there is a United Methodist Church in practically every community in Iowa. I find it impossible to believe that we, as a church, do not have the resources at our fingertips to actually provide a powerful and faithful response to the evil, injustice and oppression whose forms we meet on a daily basis. What if we decided to measure our faithfulness in lives transformed?  What if we looked to measure our righteousness such that every community in which we live is notably more compassionate than communities in which we do not live? What if we loved our neighbors so deeply and so radically we had no room left in our hearts for judgment?

There is a song by Casting Crowns with these lyrics,

But if we are the body
Why aren’t his arms reaching?
Why aren’t his hands healing?
Why aren’t his words teaching?
And if we are the body
Why aren’t his feet going?
Why is his love not showing them there is a way?”

Maybe we would get some things wrong. Maybe we would break some church rules and raise some eyebrows. Maybe our neighbors would look at us strangely and whisper about us behind our backs. But maybe, just maybe, our world would start to look a little bit more like the place God promises us it can be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What Do Social Justice Ministries Look Like?

QuestionsA group of you have been thinking and praying together about faith and ministry. As you look around the church, you and your friends have come to the conclusion that there is not a robust social justice ministry. You are starting to feel like that is a place your church needs to grow. You have become convinced that in order to experience a vibrant and vital faith life, you are going to have to reach more deeply into the significant needs of your community. What’s more, you have read the research and you realize that you are going to have to take a different approach to these ministries if you stand a change of actually connecting with the people you intend to reach. In short, you have decided that you want to start doing social justice ministry, but you have no idea what that looks like.

Here are a few examples of ministries:

Fort Washington Collegiate Church (CRC) calls their social justice ministries You Matter. It has identified health, equality and service as three issues around which to organize. It hosts a weekly fitness class, promotes and sponsors healthy living workshops and cooking classes. The church also has a performance advocacy group and commits members to volunteerism with groups such as Habitat for Humanity. To read more about how they have engaged with these issues, visit their website: http://www.fortwashingtonchurch.org/our-ministries/social-justice-you-matter.

In Iowa, Matthew 25 is a ministry hub born out of a vision of whole life ministry that left the church building. It describes itself as

 “an independent, local nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It exists to strengthen core neighborhoods on the west side of Cedar Rapids, and to provide opportunities for people to act on their values through service.

Matthew 25′s vision is to help create thriving, connected communities where all people are valued and talents are multiplied. It is a highly innovative and collaborative organization that partners with others to work in three program areas: Neighborhood Building, Youth Empowerment, and Cultivate Hope.”

From building renovation to an urban farm education center, Matthew 25 ministries are embedded in the local culture of Cedar Rapids. To see how they have organized around these program areas, visit their website: http://www.hub25.org/ You can also arrange to visit Mathew 25 directly by contacting them: 201 Third Avenue SW Cedar Rapids, IA 52404; 319-362-2214; info@hub25.org

First Unitarian Church of Cleveland has both a corporate and individual approach to social justice ministry. They work with local schools and Family Promise of Greater Cleveland to respond to the needs of families-from housing and education to intergenerational relationship building. Their menu of programs can be seen at http://www.firstunitariancleveland.org/pages/service-justice-social-justice-ministries.htm

Social justice ministries are issue and cause ministries. We can sometimes get caught up in our political and religious viewpoints and forget that at the heart of mission is intimate relationship with people. Vital ministries are born out of a passion for justice, a heart of compassion for those the world uses most cruelly, and a deep, relationship with Christ. They are ministries of solidarity with, not ministries of pity for. As you start to build your bridge into your community via social justice, lean into your heart places.

Love is the energy which will fuel a passionate ministry. Good works without faith are dead, to make a turn on James. Don’t simply choose a cause or an issue and hope that work on that will bear fruit. Cultivate relationships with people such that their burdens become your own. I guarantee you that in doing so, issues and causes galore shall arise to meet your longing to be a disciple, to make disciples, and to transform the world.

What Are We Going to Do About It?

Conversations

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)

Toledo, Tama and Montour

OLIVER-BRIAN-152_X82RBMY2I recently had the opportunity to talk with Rev. Brian Oliver who serves Christ United Methodist Church in Toledo, IA as well as Living Faith UMC which has two campuses, one in Tama and one in Montour. He called me because he was looking for some resources, answers, and support for the work he has been doing in trying to keep the Iowa Juvenile Home in Toledo, IA open.

Though, to say that it is work he has been doing is misleading. It is work which a large number of people in Tama County have been doing. The facebook group KEEP IJH OPEN has 9,100 members and that is just the online support community, and does not necessarily reflect the number of people in Toledo and Tama who are involved. When I talked with Rev. Oliver, he lifted up the large-scale support this effort has in Tama County.

I asked him about his churches, and he jumped right back. “They support this 100%.  IJH is not a house of horrors. Tama/Toledo are not child abusers. I do not know whether the rest of the state is seeing through the smoke screen. “

He said of his churches and his communities that

. . . they love these kids.We have hundreds of stories from people who have come through the Iowa Juvenile Home.  How their lives were transformed.  How they never would have made it without the services offered there.

As he talked to me, it became clear that he was in the middle of grass roots organized community activism. He described the bipartisan support of legislators Senator Jack Hatch, Senator Steve Sodders, Representative Mark Smith, and Representative Pat Murphy. He talked about the effort to gather names and stories from former residents at IJH. His voice gained energy and volume as he described the letter writing and petition signing campaign that has been waged, and he grew passionate as he shared that

People talk like this is just Tama County whining about losing income, but it is more than that. The IJH is a place of last resort for ‘the female delinquent’ to use the language of the system. These girls, and some young men, have not been successful elsewhere, and they say they are going to place these girls . . but many of them are going back to the places the came from, and they won’t have the support . . . We know these children. We love these children. Our schools and organizations, our volunteers. They know how to work with the problems and issues they have.

Rev. Oliver also shared concern for the reasons that the State of Iowa has chosen to close the Iowa Juvenile Home. Those activated around this issue believe that Governor Branstad targeted IJH for closure and used sensationalized media coverage of isolated problems to blacken the name of the home and to indict the people who work there.  There is concern that money and the interests of private service providers are winning out over what Heath Kellogg ,Tama County Economic Development Executive Director, calls

“fundamental spiritual things like caring and respecting people . . . qualities of love and trust, which together create the freedom for us to make the right decisions, to connect with others, to challenge and to innovate. “(1)

In my role as Social Justice and Mission LDM,  I have been asked to highlight the ministries of mission and justice with which our local churches are engaging.  Speaking with Rev. Oliver, I was energized and excited to hear his engagement with this issue and the support he has received from his churches. He was almost incapable of articulating the depth of meaning, and the richness of cost that this effort has asked of him.  I could hear conviction and surprise mingled in his voice as he talked about the meetings, the actions, the education, the conversations, and the coming together that this effort to keep the Iowa Juvenile Home open has created.  There was no separation of church from town, from the members of the UMC’s and the people of Tama County.

At one point he said to me, “I imagine that if you and I sat down and had coffee together, we would not agree on a lot of things, but this isn’t a political thing, its about people.”

* As of the writing of this post, a lawsuit has been filed with the hope of stalling the scheduled closing of the IJH on January 16

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.

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: