It is 2016, going on 2017…

[Note: This is an end-of-the-year letter I wrote for our congregation, Woodridge United Methodist Church. I’ve adapted it here for, hopefully, appealing to a wider audience.]

I am often asked about that weird word in my title. Koinonia is a Greek word used in the New Testament. I’m not a Greek language scholar, but those that are write that koinonia means community. The way the term is used in the New Testament (e.g. Acts 2:42-47) suggests community that is formed through worship, fellowship, and living together justly. It seems to fit as my title, as my main areas of responsibility are youth ministry, outreach and justice projects, and worship.

Of course each of those areas also have a full committee working on them. Instead of telling each of their individual stories, I focus on an event that brought all three areas together in a vital, beautiful, inspiring, Spirit-filled way — creating community. Or, if I may dare to say it, creating koinonia.

With input from Youth Council and our youth themselves, we decided to go to Birmingham, Alabama for our summer youth mission trip. Immediately, our leadership team knew we needed to spend as much time as we could learning about the civil rights movement before our trip and as much time as we could visiting the movement’s special sites once we were in Alabama. Studying The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” was a key component of our preparations.

But first we read the letter to Dr. King which prompted his now-famous epistle. Most of our group was surprised and disappointed to learn that two Methodist bishops were among the eight signatories of the letter accusing Dr. King of being an outside agitator who had no business being in Birmingham. With the context set, we dove into the letter itself.

I am fond of quoting the portion of King’s letter that reads,

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

While that first sentence is oft-quoted, the final two sentences seem to me even more vital. For they remind us that no matter how independent we think we may become, each of us is dependent upon others. We need each other and so we need to look out for each other, help each other, speak up for each other. Reading through Dr. King’s letter together transported us back those 60 years, evoked questions and concerns, and helped us consider our present time: In what ways is our society better? How can we better live into the ideals of the letter? What is the role of the Christian community in this? What is WUMC’s role?

The letter and all it provoked made us uncomfortable. Which is probably why it is so powerful and still relevant.

One of our members provided another milestone in our preparations. Thanks to her connections, the mission trip group was blessed with an evening with two leaders in the civil rights movement: the Rev. Dr. Stanley L. Davis, Jr. and the Rev. Dr. B. Herbert Martin, Sr. The duo shared stories of their experiences, suggested some sites to be sure to visit in Birmingham, and encouraged us to be faithful witnesses of God’s love for all people. Then Dr. Martin offered a closing thought that transfixed us and became our prayer for our time in Alabama:

Hate no one no matter how they have wronged you.

Live humbly no matter how wealthy and privileged you become.

Think positively no matter how hard life gets.

Give much even if you have been given little.

Forgive all, especially yourself.

Never stop praying for the best for everyone.

Always forgive. Forgiveness upsets, interrupts, and distorts the plan of Satan to defeat you. Always be forgiving.

Love is of God and God is love. Love is bigger than the past, our pain, our anger, fear, our scars, and yes, bigger than this whole world with devils filled.

There is somebody bigger than you and I. Behold the universe — the only thing bigger than you — walk there, live there in.

Do not worry about thinking outside the box — there is no box!!! There is no fence! There is no border!

Live free in God.

Thanks to one of the families on the trip, each member of the mission trip had those beautiful words laminated on a card along with Dr. King’s words that I quoted above. Our trip included meaningful work with community organizations, fun conversations on the road, vehicle mishaps, moving worship, laughs, tears, and lots of pictures. The attending youth were fantastic. They are why we do this.

I can never say this too much: our mission trips would literally be impossible without the dedication of and sacrifices made by our volunteer adult leaders. THANK YOU Lorie, Alma, Glenn, and Kevin.

As amazing as all that was, our time at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute was, at least for me, the most moving experience of any of my 20 mission trips. God’s Holy Spirit is in that place. God’s Spirit is at work in the people who are continuing the story of Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus by working tirelessly for all people to be truly free. I want to be part of that story.

So that is on my mind as I consider plans taking shape and ways we might show better hospitality in our church and our community in 2017. For some time now, our lighted sign reads, “We stand with Standing Rock.” I hope we will further our lines in God’s ongoing story of freedom by renewing and increasing our connection to the Standing Rock reservation, and finding ways to support their efforts to protect their water supply against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Our young people return to South Dakota in June 2017 for mission in Martin, South Dakota.

We look forward to confirming into full membership 15 young people in May, should the whole Confirmation class choose that path. Regardless of the final outcome, the families in that class are already deepening their connections with each other, with the congregation, and with the community — and, ultimately, that is why we have the program.

One way I hope we will expand koinonia in 2017 is through fuller participation with Northern Illinois Justice For Our Neighbors. If even some of the president-elect’s campaign promises are fulfilled, our neighbors who are recent immigrants could be extremely vulnerable. We can help JFON care for them. That is a way to love our neighbors we have left largely unexplored. I hope we begin to correct that in 2017.

To paraphrase the great Maya Angelou: As we work for justice for all God’s children, whatever challenges and roadblocks 2017 brings, I know that with God’s Spirit, like a song, still WUMC will rise.

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