Compassion, Economy, Mission, Poverty, The Great Commission, Whole Community

The Worthy Poor

The following is a guest post from Eric Schubert, a provisional member of the Iowa Annual Conference, serving as lead pastor at Greenfield United Methodist Church in Greenfield, IA.

I recently gave a sermon series in my church based on the Scriptures about being citizens of heaven (Philippians 3:20) and ambassadors for Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20 and Ephesians 6:20). During that series we talked about what it means to belong to Christ and the Kingdom of God and represent that Kingdom on Earth. One aspect we discussed was how easily ideas of the world come to seem natural or even Christian when in fact they are not. One idea we discussed was that of the worthy poor.

The idea of the worthy poor was firmly established in Western thought by the philosophers of Greece and Rome (especially Plato in ancient Greece, reinforced by the Stoics, such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius in Rome) as well as by the economic systems of the pagan Roman Empire. The economic system during the time of Jesus is known as patronage. Patronage is a wealthy or powerful person taking care of less wealthy or powerful people. These (strict) levels of power and wealth were determined by familial, political, financial, or national relationships. The idea of the “poor” or “needy” as we understand it now did not exist in Roman pagan thought. Instead, a person with money was obliged to financially support those within the rich person’s patronage expectation.

So what did one think about those in need outside of a patronage relationship? Frankly, they rarely thought about them. When someone in need outside of a patronage relationship was thought of the view of those in need was quite negative. Plato, hundreds of years before the time of the Roman Empire, stated the idea of the worthy poor perfectly when he wrote, “it is not the starving as such or the similarly afflicted who deserve sympathy, but the man who, in spite of his moderation or some other virtue or progress toward it, nevertheless experiences some misfortune.” Plautus, a famous comedic playwright who lived in Rome around 180 BC, developed a character role for beggars in his plays which derided and mocked them. He wrote it was better to let beggars starve, since “he does a beggar a bad service who give him meat and drink, for what he gives is lost, and the lives of the poor are merely prolonged to their own misery.” Seneca, the great Roman leader and Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, believed one should only assist those who were deserving. “The good leader and judge ‘will not avert his countenance of his sympathy from anyone because he has a withered leg, or is emaciated and in rags, and is old and leans upon a staff; but all the worthy he will aid and will, like a god, look graciously upon the unfortunate.’ ” And thus, honestly, ends the writings found about those in need. This lack of record is in itself telling, but what has been found is all negative.

The Christian record of the time, from the earliest recorded writings leading into the Cappadocian period of St. Basil, St. Gregory of Nazianzus, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and in Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, is very different than that of the pagan leaders. The Bishops worked very hard to introduce the concept of the poor and needy and attempt to drastically change how people thought of those in need. Early Christians led radically different lives than those around them, both in economic and physical relationship. A part of weekly worship in the time of St. Justin Martyr (150 AD) was the collection and distribution of funds so “the president, who succours the orphans and widows and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word take care of all in need.” There are examples of Christian care for the sick throughout the second and third centuries from Syria to Rome. Though unable to build institutional structures, early Christians served the sick, poor, and otherwise distressed to the best of their ability.

The Cappadocians (Basil, Nazianzus, and Nyssa) and Chrysostom publicly and directly challenged the Stoic and cultural views on how to treat those in need. They did this in several different ways. By embracing the many and various Biblical texts from the Old Testament through the New, the Bishops re-described the poor as kin (that they were sisters and brothers, related by the blood of Christ, and therefore to be cared for in a reinvented patronage system), argued the poor share the Image of God and as bearers of the image deserve help, that Matthew 25 really means what it says and the poor person you help truly is Jesus, and taught that acting like Christ makes one more like Christ (how Wesleyan!). Along with these teaching principles, the Bishops lived a life which practiced what they preached, doing all they could to help those in need.

Basil, after being elected Bishop in 370, took his families’ seemingly large land assets and used them to care for the poor and needy. This place came to be known as the “basilias” in honor of its founder and served as a poorhouse, hospital, and hospice for anyone in need for several hundred years. Chrysostom “reduced expenditure on the bishop’s palace and transferred it to a hospital. He founded new hospitals, including one for lepers.” The four also established an incredible theological foundation for these acts, and for the encouragement of others to care for those in need.

In expanding the concept of kin, the poor and sick were named by Nazianzus “brethren,” “brothers,” “your own member,” “equals and kindred,” “equal rank with us and of the same race,” and “one common reality.” These terms would be shocking to a pagan raised in the patronage system and an incredible expansion of the obligation of the converted Christian. Nyssa stated “Do not tear apart the unity of the Spirit, that is to say, do not consider as strangers those beings who partake of our nature…You see a man and in him you have no respect for a brother?…For you yourself belong to the common nature of all. Treat all therefore as one common reality.” The Bishops were working with language the Roman people understood (kinship language used in the patronage system) but completely redefined that language to help people understand what it meant to be a Christian.

Another important facet of the Bishops’ beliefs and teachings about actions toward the poor was that of the Image of God. For the Bishops the text about being created in “our image” (Gen. 1:26) and the implications of the incarnation were very important. If people were created in the image of God, and if when God the Son came to earth Christ put on human form, this human form is incredibly important. So much so that anyone who shares that form needs to be treated accordingly. Nazianzus addresses this issue by saying “Our brothers of God…born with the same nature…compounded of nerves and bones as we are; more than this, they also have received the same divine image as we have, and have perhaps guarded it better…They have put on the same Christ and have been made sharers with us of the same.” Notice the use of the term nature. This term that was being used by these same Bishops in when talking about Jesus’ relationship to God: they are both divine and both of the same nature, of the same substance. In the same way all people share the human nature of Christ and deserve the respect of that nature no matter what economic place they may be. Nyssa supported this, stating “Don’t despise these prostrate one as if they merit no respect. Ask who they are and discover their worth. They have put on the face of our savior. The Lord has given them his own image that they might be the stewards of our hope, the guardians of royalty.” For these Bishops the incarnation had tremendous consequences for how we treat all of fellow humanity.

The Image of God ties into a very close and literal reading of Matthew 25. To help a poor person was to literally help Christ, and to not help was to turn away from Christ, with all the concerns that would come from such an action. Nazianzus preached to his people:

“I honor that purse of Christ which encourages me to the care of the poor…I am fearful of that ‘left hand side’ and of ‘the goats’…because they have not ministered to Christ through those in need…[W]hile there is yet time, visit Christ in his sickness, let us give to Christ to eat, let us clothe Christ in his nakedness, let us do honor to Christ, and not only at table, [or] with precious ointments [or] in his tomb [or] with gold, frankincense and myrrh…but let us give him this honor in his needy one, in those who lie on the ground before us this day…”

Chrysostom states that “Jesus is alive in strangers, in the naked, the poor, the sick. Whatever has been done for those in need has been done to Jesus,” as well as “it is Christ who is clothed and fed in the person of the poor man.” There is not leeway in what they said. Help the poor or abandon Christ.

Finally, the Bishops taught that to help the poor was to act like Christ, and to act like Christ was what discipleship is all about. This aligns with Wesley’s understanding of perfection, though the Christians at this time (and still in the Orthodox Church) understood this idea as the process of divinization. As one grew closer to Christ one acts more and more like Christ, becomes more like Christ, and hence, becomes more divine. Though not exactly the same as Wesley’s understanding of perfection, both beliefs strongly rely on an understanding that the life of the Christian is a participatory one. We as Christians bear the fruit of Christ, and the more we participate with Christ (Wesley would say through the means of grace) the more we become more like Christ.

Nyssa talks about this process in relation to how to treat to the poor: being merciful as God is merciful. “Mercy and good deeds are works God loves; they divinize those who practice them and stamp them into the like of goodness that they may become the image of [God].” Nazianzus based part of his belief on right action regarding the poor in Matthew 5:45, “Resolve to imitate the justice of God” whose gifts are “equally upon all, the just and unjust alike, upholding the dignity of our nature by the worthiness of his gifts.” To state this in a Wesleyan way, since God’s mercy is over all His works, so we should be merciful to all we meet, and this mercy is demonstrated by service.

The theological foundation given us by the Bishops helps us avoid two major issues in our care for the poor today: a vision of the worthy poor taken straight from Stoic thought, or a paternalistic view that “we” can and should come save “them” from their present condition. On the first hand, we have seen that any view of “the worthy poor” is theologically unsupportable. On the other hand, if the poor are not only our sisters and bothers but Christ in the flesh, we would not approach helping someone in need without anything but grace, love, respect, and even a holy fear and trembling. Then we would serve not to “fix” or “bring them up to our level,” but instead to be with someone whom Christ is present. When we serve others this way we realize we will learn as much about Christ from whomever we serve as we bring to them, since we are serving Christ when we serve another. Looking at the writings and example of the Bishops gives us a different way of approaching the poor than many current perspective, one which I believe will do a much better job of truly being ambassadors for Christ and representatives of the Kingdom on Earth.

Children, Immigration Reform, Mission, New People, New Places, Poverty, Prison, Response to Violence, Social Action, Social Justice, Transforming the World, Whole Community

Immigrant Children from Central America — Who are the Parents?

Grace Des Moines Peace

Guest Post from Dr. Jan L. Flora and Rev. Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz

Our chickens are coming home to roost with the large numbers of unaccompanied Central American children making the life-threatening journey from Central America through Mexico and across our southern border.  Perhaps a better metaphor would be to say that we fail to recognize our collective paternity of the children undertaking this dangerous trip.

Some readers may remember the Contra War under Reagan, but the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala by the Eisenhower Administration is little known here.  The CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Arbenz’ elected Guatemalan government in 1954 and replaced him with Col. Castillo Armas.  Arbenz had sought to peacefully change the extremely unequal land ownership patterns in that country.  Our support of right-wing governments triggered a 36-year insurgency. When indigenous peasants joined the fight a quarter century later, General Rios Montt’s regime (1982-83), according to Amnesty International, massacred 70,000 civilian women, children, and men. Although the U.S. wrung its hands at these grizzly human rights violations, military aid continued to flow to Rios Montt.  The current president Otto Pérez Molina was the general in charge of the army unit in El Quiche responsible for genocide in that area.  Currently, Guatemalan communities opposing mega projects (e.g., mining, hydroelectric dams) are being repressed when they opt instead for local and sustainable development.

U.S. support of the Somoza dictatorships in Nicaragua (1932-1979) and right wing governments in El Salvador and Honduras led to insurgencies in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, and pervasive human rights abuses in Honduras.  Only Costa Rica, which never had such unequal landholdings and which had a mild-mannered revolution in 1948 which resulted in the elimination of its military and regular democratic alternations in power of competing political parties to the present day. The Sandinista movement in Nicaragua came to power in 1979, prompting our fomenting of a bloody civil war there to forestall another Cuba in our hemisphere, though neither the Soviet Union nor China provided support to the guerrillas in any of the three countries.

Once the U.S. and its rightist Central American allies brought the insurgent groups to the table to negotiate a peace agreement in 1996, our development aid plummeted.  Our narrowly defined interests had prevailed, which somehow absolved our government of any need to build more just societies.  Formal democracy returned and has been unbroken in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, but the four Central American countries we “aided” in the 1980s are as impoverished as ever.  Absent significant economic development, right-wing regimes in El Salvador and Honduras offered an ideal setting for narco-traffickers to operate.  El Salvador, after a series of right wing governments, has finally elected progressive governments twice in a row, but inequality remains great. The deportation of Salvadoran gang members from Los Angeles has strengthened gang violence in that country.  President Obama, to his credit, ultimately decided not to block the election of a former FMLN guerrilla leader and his party to the Salvadoran Presidency earlier this year.

Honduras, from which the U.S. coordinated its Central American anti-guerrilla operations in the 1980s, had an abysmal human rights record. As a member of a Central American human rights task force of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA) in 1986, the first author visited Honduras with two other LASA scholars.  We verified the Honduran government’s human rights shortcomings and corroborated U.S. knowledge of those violations. Missionary friends recently returned and currently in Honduras indicate that that record remains problematic.  In 2006, Manuel Zelaya was elected President. He came to be modestly progressive, raising the minimum wage, aiding small farmers, and offering free public education.  The U.S., in contrast to most Latin American countries, ultimately gave its blessing to a bloodless coup in 2009, which stopped progressive government action.  Add the gang activities and it is not so surprising that child migration from Central America (especially Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador) is on the upswing.  This year, 75% of the unaccompanied children arriving on our southern border are from these three countries; most of the rest are from Mexico.  The Pew Hispanic Center analyzed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data showing that thegreatest number of unaccompanied children come from San Pedro Sula, Honduras’ second city, where the homicide rate is 38 times that of New York City!

The UN refugee commissioner (UNHCR) recently interviewed a representative sample of 400 Central American and Mexican unaccompanied children ages 12-17 apprehended in the U.S. Forty-eight percent of the youth recounted being personally affected by organized violence from drug cartels, gangs, or state law enforcement personnel.  Twenty-two percent indicated having experienced abuse or violence by their caretakers at home. The UNHCR estimates that some 58% of the unaccompanied youth merit protection from returning home.  The DHS examined the origins of unaccompanied Central American children who came during the first 4 ½ months of 2014.  They concluded that “…many Guatemalan children come from rural areas, indicating they are probably seeking economic opportunities in the US.  Salvadoran and Honduran children… come from extremely violent regions where they probably perceive the risk of travelling along to the US preferable to remaining at home.”  The Center for American Progress shows that lax border enforcement (the mantra of Sen. Grassley and Rep. King is “secure the border first”) is not a factor, since the amount spent on border interdiction has increased along with numbers of unaccompanied minors apprehended.  The numbers of such minors doubled from 2011 to 2013 and likely will double again from 2013 to 2014.  Border Patrol agents doubled between 2002 and 2013.  The $18 billion we spend annually on immigration enforcement dwarfs what we spend on health and development assistance ($198 million in FY2014) in all of Central America.

We provide military aid to Central America ostensibly to fight the drug wars.  A failed U.S. drug policy (failed because it has neither slowed drugs from south of the border nor reduced demand in the U.S.) strengthens the Honduran National Police with a suspect human rights record.  The Los Angeles Times on July 9 reported that an elite unit of the Honduran national police trained by the U.S. Border Patrol Tactical Unit to interdict drugs and arms, is currently assigned to keep Honduran children and families from crossing the border into Guatemala on their way to the U.S.  This immigrant interdiction program, “Operation Rescue Angels,” and has been in effect since VP Biden’s trip to Central America.  This aid is part of the $642 million spent since 2008 on security assistance to all seven Central American countries. $176 million was proposed for FY2014.

How have our public officials responded to child migration?  Not well. President Obama seeks additional funds for Health and Human Services to house unaccompanied minors, but proposes to change the 2008 law that prevents summary deportation of unaccompanied children all countries but Mexico. The Administration is now working on a proposal to grant refugee status to a limited number of Honduran children and youth in Tegucigalpa, but that is not likely to stem the tide of unaccompanied child immigration. The Administration seems to be as embarrassed by the appearance of these refugees as Republicans should be for failing to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the single most important factor in unauthorized migration to this country.  Reps. Latham and King and Sen. Grassley have stood up for “strict” adherence to immigration law, while blocking comprehensive immigration reform. Such reform would diminish problems generated by and for the youthful sojourners who risk life and limb to escape an intolerable social situation in their countries of origin and/or to be reunited with parents they may have not seen for many years. It does appear that – in the short term — the Pharisees speak louder than those who embrace the parable of the Good Samaritan.

Governor Branstad has steadfastly refused to collaborate with other Iowans in helping Iowa’s share of these brave, ragged children to be housed here while it is sorted out which have relatives where in the U.S., which should be eligible for asylum, and which could safely be deported back to their home countries.  Governor Branstad seems determined to take an anti-Obama stance, when he should be taking a pro-Governor Ray stance – welcoming refugees from troubled parts of the world.  Governor Branstad distinguishes the child refugees from Central America and those who came to Iowa from Southeast Asia in the late 1970s, by saying that the latter came legally.  That is a distinction without a difference.  The bill proposed by the Senators from Arizona to allow a modest number of child refugees from Central America, also proposes to immediately turn back all those who would continue to arrive at our borders.  The irony of the anti-immigrant hysteria among certain of our political leaders is that immigrants who have arrived in Iowa since the 1990s, first mainly from Mexico, now increasingly from Central America and other war zones around the world, have enriched our culture, stabilized the population of certain declining rural counties, and expanded Iowa’s youthful population as Iowans of European descent continue to age.  Those of us who will one day qualify for social security should be thankful for the young families – and indeed the unaccompanied children – that have migrated to our country and will pay the taxes that keep us healthy and happy in our retirement.

What to do?  The most humane way of dealing with these unaccompanied children is for the U.S. to “harmonize its immigration law with domestic child welfare and international law by … requiring U.S. officials to consider the best interests of the child as primary in all … decisions regarding immigrant children.”  (Center for Gender & Refugee Studies and Kids in Need of Defense 2014).  The study, A Treacherous Journey, financed by the McArthur Foundation, further recommends:

  • No child should appear in immigration proceedings without legal representation; the Attorney General should appoint counsel skilled in child immigration matters.
  • An independent child advocate should be appointed for all children wanting to stay in the U.S.
  • A new form of immigrant relief should be enacted to prevent children from being deported when returning home opposes their best interests.

Our government over the years has helped create conditions that make these children refugees – by supporting the right-wing dictators who fought savagely (often with weapons paid for by us — U.S. taxpayers) to maintain the privileges of the military and the landowning class over and against another group of children, women, and men who committed the profound error of being born into a system that was rigged against them.  Should we not demonstrate Iowa values once again in welcoming the stranger as we did in the aftermath of the Vietnam War? Come on, Governor Branstad, have a heart.  After all, THEY ARE CHILDREN!

Dr. Flora is Professor Emeritus at Iowa State University.  He worked for the Ford Foundation in Spanish-speaking South America and in Nicaragua from 1978 through 1980.  He published a paper on “Roots of insurgency in Central America” (1987) and a book on the same topic. Rev. Alfaro-Santiz a U.S. resident, is the Immigration Specialist for the Central District of Iowa United Methodist Church and a Pastor of Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community. He is a native of Guatemala. References used in the paper are available from the first author (floraj@iastate.edu).

Jan L. Flora

1902 George Allen Ave.
Ames, IA 50010
floraj@iastate.edu
Cell:  (515) 451-9693
 Alejandro Alfaro-Santiz
Las Americas United Methodist Faith Community 1548 8th St Des Moines, IA 50311
aalfarosantiz@iliff.edu 
515-450-1621 cell 515-288-4056 office

 

Discipleship, Faith, Mission, Police, Psalms, Reconciliation, Response to Violence, Social Action, Social Justice, Suicide, Transforming the World, Whole Community

Drop the Script

ServiceShirtMason City, IA hosted this year’s Pyrotechnics Guild International convention. Our house is about 2 miles from the North Iowa Events Center and this week has been one long percussive symphony of pops, cracks, and sizzles as the various fireworks demonstrations have lit up the night sky.

This has also been one long week of bad news and violence. War, suicide, and another few names on the litany of those who have died via inflamed passions mixed with the trigger of a gun, those bigger deaths, publicized and amplified, seeming to drown out the more intimate personal violence which claimed the life of someone close here to home.

Media responses to these situations have been exactly as one would predict; reinforcing stereotypes, pointing fingers, and insisting that there is some sort of alignment we can choose to cover all situations: as though your geo-political, social, and familial relationships are simply blanks to be filled out on your voter registration card.

As the fireworks shows started to sound more and more like anti-aircraft fire, I wondered when my imagination stopped seeing strobe lights and loud noises as entertainment and started feeling them as the specter of violence which seems to be hanging over the world.

Friends, we are not swimming in safe water. It is pretty poisoned and polluted, and it may even be toxic to the skin. The way we don’t talk with one another, but instead allow facebook, twitter, CNN, Fox News and AM Radio to carry our messages back and forth for us is bad.  They don’t have the capacity to carry complications, and it is to believe in a lie if you believe that these situations and experiences we face are easily conquered, or can be simply realigned into the appropriate categories of Black, Purple, Brown or White.

Our lack of trust in one another is bad. I am not saying that trust will necessarily be rewarded, but mistrust breeds only evil and spawns hells in our neighborhoods.

Its other name is fear, and we are called to cast out all fear. It is bad to build walls around ourselves and create or uphold laws and ordinances which oppress the widows, aliens and strangers living amongst us. Instead, Jesus’ Disciples practice generosity and openness of heart, hearth, body and soul. Even naïve Peter says to us, “Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good?  But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. ‘Do not fear what they fear; do not be frightened.'”

While “common sense” may be telling us that we must take up arms against a sea of troubles, over and over again, our Great Book tells us to “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the LORD your God goes with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.”

To be a witness to faith in this time means to drop the script that has been handed to you. You have an opportunity to turn down the part, to improvise yourself out of the bad lines, even to walk off the stage in the middle of the performance and refuse to refund the ticket.

God asks better of us, believes better in us. The Lifegiver has endowed us with such gifts with which to encounter one another and this good creation in which we are blessed to live, I cannot comprehend why we are so happy to go along with the story we are being fed.

Life is not you against me or us against them. Life is all the parts knowing themselves to be irreplaceably precious members of the Whole.

Survival is not being the last living contender standing on this planet. Survival is letting go of your power so that others might live.

Joy is not in finding the originator of the wrong. Let’s face it,that blame goes all the way back to the beginning of time. It is in regaining that which was lost.

We will not become righteous by choosing the right opinion to have. We will not win a war. Ever. We will not be able to vote back the bullet which killed Michael Brown or reform Robin Williams back to life. You and I know that. It is time we started to speak and act like we do.

Abundant Life, Conversations, Discipleship, Domestic Violence, Education, Faith, Gender, Global United Methodist Church, Health, Mission, Sexuality, Social Action, Social Justice, Solidarity, Transforming the World, Under 18, Wellness, Whole Community, Women

The Sacred Worth of Women and Girls

Katey ZehGuest Post from Katey Zeh, Director of Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Initiative of the United Methodist Church:

When I began writing this piece, I was stopped abruptly by the amazingly weird sensation of the right side of my belly leaping upward.  I’m currently thirty weeks pregnant with our first child, a daughter. For years I’ve dedicated my ministry to advocating for women and girls, but now as a soon-to-be mom of a daughter, my passion has deepened in ways I never imagined.

Very early in my pregnancy I was reflecting on the story of Hagar (Genesis 16).  The slave of Sarai and Abram, Hagar has no agency over her own body. When her owners struggle with infertility, she is used as a surrogate, and Hagar becomes pregnant with Abram’s child. Sarai becomes so abusive toward Hagar that she runs away, risking everything in search of sanctuary back at home in Egypt. In the midst of my own pregnancy-related nausea and fatigue, I thought about the enormous amount of inner strength Hagar must have had to venture out alone into the wilderness.

But Hagar is never really alone. Along her journey an angel of God appears to her, calling her by name and assuring her that she and her child will survive. Strangely he also tells her to return to her masters’ house, but he does not do so without first delivering a message of hope and survival.

Hagar is the first person in the Bible to give God a name, “El-Roi” meaning the God who sees. Perhaps for the first time in her life, Hagar knows that her masters do not define her identity.  Ultimately she is not a slave; she is a precious child of God.

In our world today there are so many women and girls like Hagar who are objectified, reduced to meeting the needs of others and at the expense of their physical, sexual, emotional, and spiritual health.  How many of them are waiting for a voice of hope, an assurance that God is with them in the wilderness? How many have dreams of escaping but have no way out? How many simply wish to be seen, to be heard, and to be called by name?

The question that I ask of each of us is: what would the church look like if women and girls were seen as children of God with sacred worth? This question is not meant to be rhetorical or theoretical. It is a call to transformation! Our calling as the body of Chris is to follow the example of the one who reached out with hands of healing and compassion; who saw women as full human beings worthy of his time and attention; who came that all might experience abundant life here and now.

In my work as director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet project of the General Board of Church & Society, I work to ensure that women’s sacred worth is honored through the experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Tragically every two minutes somewhere in the world a woman loses her life while bringing new life into the world, Most of these deaths could be prevented with basic medical care and access to safe, voluntary family planning methods.

The Church is called to respond to this needless loss of life by ensuring every woman and girls has the tools and information she needs to experience the life of abundance that Christ promised all. One place to begin is ensuring every girl and boy, every woman and man has information about their bodies, sexuality, and how to care for one another with respect and dignity. I invite you to join Healthy Families, Healthy Planet and the General Board of Church & Society on August 27th for a webinar focused on the intersections of faith, sexuality education, and your congregation. Please visit the registration page to sign up and for more information.

Through the power of Christ’s spirit, all things are possible. We can become places where all are affirmed as children of God with sacred worth. As I prepare to birth a baby girl into this difficult, beautiful world, I could not hope for anything more.

Katey Zeh, M.Div is an advocate, organizer, and writer for global maternal health and family planning. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, she currently serves as the Director of the Healthy Families, Healthy Planet initiative of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society. Katey has written about maternal health for the Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches, Feminist Studies in Religion, and Mothering Matters. She was named one of “14 Religious Leader to Watch in 2014” by the Center for American Progress. For more information about Healthy Families, Healthy Planet, please visit umchealthyfamilies.org

Conversations, Discipleship, Faith, Mission, Northwest Iowa, Social Justice, The Great Commission, Transforming the World, Whole Community

To Be Disciples

ServiceShirtOn a recent trip across the Northwest portion of Iowa, Pastor David Hobbs, Nathaniel Mason and I visited a number of United Methodist Churches. We simply stopped in for a quick word (or two hour conversation, here and there), and to get a sense for the churches and the communities they serve. I was impressed by the variety of buildings, sanctuaries, and ministries we encountered. One church was having its sanctuary ceiling painted so we talked with the painters and offered them a prayer for safety, which they found rather amusing as clambering like monkeys across sky high scaffolding is a “simple” job for them; no gold leaf, murals, or ceiling art for them in this United Methodist Church-just a few brush strokes and wooden beams to refinish.

Now, I have been reading a lot of books about church health; books about evangelism, worship, and programming; books about the trends of worship attendance and the difference between churches which grow and churches which seem to fizzle out and die. I have been reading about leadership styles and ways of organizing work so that . . . yadah, yadah, yadah. Yet, this trip offered me an interesting puzzle.

Because, there were churches that were getting everything right, and yet they were empty.

Passionate leaders with a vision and lion’s heart for ministry: Check

Visible and cohesive messages of welcome for visitors: Check

Open and inviting gathering spaces which are accessible: Check

Brightly colored and updated Sunday School rooms: Check

Modern sanctuaries with flexible A/V and chancel spaces: Check

Quality musical instruments and musicians capable of playing them: Check

Connections to the school district: Check

Obvious opportunities to serve both within the church building and outside in the wider community: Check

Stories of radical hospitality and generous giving: Check

Evidence of ministry with people who are not current members or active participants in the church: Check

So, why were these particular churches echoing, while others were bustling with life and activity? What does it mean to get everything right and to still be disappearing week by week and pastor by pastor?

In one particular church, I felt such sadness because there was so much potential there. There was so much love, care and faithfulness on display, it made my heart hurt to think it was for nothing-that the people whose lives could be so enriched simply by stepping inside this church’s doors will never know what they are missing.

So I stopped, right there in the gathering space just inside the main entrance and I asked God, “Why? What’s going on here that this church is sputtering out?” And, like a whisper across the top of my brain I heard, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14: 26)

I have been puzzling on these words and that particular church, ever since. I wonder how to share what I heard. I wonder what it means. Is there some relevance for the other churches I have visited that just can’t seem to do more than simply hang on, even though they are applying all the best ideas? I wonder what to do with the sadness and futility that plagues the staff and volunteers whose hearts are giving out because they have been trying so hard for so long, but have not seen their efforts rewarded by flourishing Christian witness and community.

Why, at times, must the Gospel be so hard to hear, and what are we, as disciples of Christ,to do when the words it whispers tell us it is time to give up all we hold dear-our mothers and fathers, our sanctuaries and our memorial gardens, our programs and our histories-and come, and follow him?

Abundant Life, Agricultural Community, Social Justice, Southwest Iowa, The Great Commission, Whole Community

MUMMs the Word

MUMM logoI’ve had a hard time sleeping this week.  It started on Monday after a long drive from North Central Iowa to Southwest Iowa and 3 hours of Vacation Bible School in the Coin United Methodist Church. I was spending a couple of days with Cherie Miner, the new director of MUMMS (Mobile United Methodist Missionaries), and my sleeplessness started with the excitement and passion which Cherie brings to her position.

She brims and bubbles with love for the rural churches MUMMs serves. One of the things she and her Senior Summer Assistant, Alison Engel, do is bring Vacation Bible School supplies, curriculum and support to churches in the three southern United Methodist Districts of Iowa. The VBS in Coin was a joint venture of a seven-point charge under the pastoral leadership of James Buckhahn, or Pastor Buck as he is known in the Iowa Annual Conference.

Using Cokesbury curriculum and providing the supplies for arts, crafts, service, and creative learning projects allows MUMMs to help jumpstart Vacation Bible School, after school meals and activities and other programmatic outreach to the sparsely populated towns and counties it serves.

Another way in which these Mobile United Methodists are in Mission is to supply and coordinate volunteers for “hammer and nails” projects for churches across the region. Especially as hail, floods, and storms have taken their toll on these counties, this mobilization of United Methodist resources is particularly needed. Cherie is looking for someone with both passion and expertise to help design, implement and manage work projects throughout the three Districts. If you sense this may be a niche you are called to fill, you should drop Cherie an email.

Yet, the work  MUMMs is doing is not really what kept me jazzed up for the few days I got to spend in Elliot, Coin, Clarinda, Corning, and Grant dodging road construction and learning songs in the Workshop of Wonders. It was the white hot energy of Cherie Miner, passionately describing all the directions in which MUMMS outreach can grow. It was the no-nonsense assessment of church longevity and mission potential given by the kitchen volunteers and the lay leaders who showed up to support VBS. It was the power that School for Lay Ministry has to stoke a fire in people. It was the humble gratitude of a pastor whose call was finally recognized by the United Methodist Church, a gratitude which gives thanks for part-time employment and three churches who were willing, for a time, to join as one in worship to give her the time she needed to heal.

United Methodist mission is mighty in this Southwest corner of Iowa. Age, gender, population, distance, and local affiliation play no role in peoples’ willingness to serve-to be available to serve-whether as musicians, cooks, chauffeurs, preachers, knitters or visiting messengers of peace and good will. Connection is flourishing-as people roll up their sleeves and step up to the challenges of dwindling populations, physical limitations, and resource scarcity; as people decide they are the ones who have to do a thing if it is to get done.

So, I had a hard time sleeping this week because I was so energized by the people I met, the places I saw, the possibilities laid out before us, and the absolutely monstrous amount of work it is going to take to get it done; the hope we will need to reach out to the people in our communities who are not us; the faith it will require of us to believe in ourselves and the good will we have to share; the call that is upon us United Methodist Christians to not only serve, but to transform; and the deep concern I carry that economics drives more of our decisions than it should.

 

Faith, Health, Poverty, Reconciliation, Social Justice, Transforming the World, Whole Community

Hard Peace

Grace Des Moines PeaceI keep coming back to this idea of a “hard peace.” Maybe it is because I am a hard-headed person that I am dissatisfied with the ways people talk (write) about peace and conflict within the United Methodist Church. There are all these “family” metaphors. We are told to rely on our “unity of spirit” and also there is a kind of playground dialogue which ends, “I am taking my toys and heading home. So there!”

While I often wish I was the kind of person who can say “Look! We are going to end malaria. We are feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Isn’t that good enough? Isn’t that all the proof we need of the Holy Spirit fire igniting this church?” I simply am not.

I don’t think the most important question is how much service work are we doing as a church  but rather, how are we doing that work? Who is being ground down, beaten up, cast aside and left to die in the ditch while we are so focused on ending “poverty;” a concept with which we start to divide people into opposing groups of rich and poor, have and have not, hungry and fed, check-writers and service receivers, fit and broken, able and disabled. We are definitely doing our best to alleviate hunger and disease, but still, there is no peace.

I think we have to work for the harder peace-the peace of justice. It is not a peace that says “Can’t we simply get along?” It is not a peace that says, “Oh, never mind him, that is simply Crazy Uncle Zee.” It is not a peace that says that families are safe, open, affirming, caring, loving, capable, and simply organized places in which to grow, but recognizes that first families are often the places where we learn how to hit, hate, deny, degrade, and destroy.

When Paul tells us we are brothers and sisters in Christ, he is not suggesting that we Christians get along with people the way we relate to our own siblings. In my family that looks like an awful lot of wrestling, name-calling, door-slamming, practical jokes and hand-me-downs. Instead, Paul is telling us we participate in a different kind of family, one where we have to get along with one another the way Christ gets along with us.

And that means we have to work at kindness, gentleness, peacefulness, faithfulness, joyfulness, loveliness, patience, goodness, and self-control. But those fruit are hard to nurture. They are hard to water and they are hard to grow. They don’t come naturally, simply, or easily, and evidence of their existence can be in short supply.

So, I don’t buy it. I don’t think there is a really a way for us to simply ignore our very real disagreements with others while we go about the service work of the church. Because, Christ didn’t really plant us here to provide services for those poor unfortunate souls. Instead, he tried to cultivate the soil of our souls, and he planted the seeds of God’s Mercy and Rightness, and he watered those seeds with Faithfulness, his own belief in us, that out of those souls might grow the Garden of God in the midst of a ground left salted and sere by the warring passions of people estranged from Love.