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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This made my week

In a recent note to the families involved in the youth ministries at the church I serve, I wrote this about Church Conference:

Church Conference is the United Methodist term for what other denominations might call its Annual Business Meeting, or what a corporation might call its Annual Shareholders meeting, or what a leading tech company might call its Keynote Event.

That is, Church Conference is where we do business such as electing church officers, consider the successes and challenges of the past year, and cast the vision for who we want to be in the new year.

Prognosticator that I am, all three of those things happened Wednesday night. Plenty of good ideas were shared, but two moments far outshine all the rest:

The District Superintendent’s dinner with the youth and our newly adopted Hospitality Statement.

I don’t know how often this happens at other churches, but I know that in the last 20 years at WUMC, the District Superintendent has never shared a meal with our youth. That changed Wednesday night. The interaction between the youth and Rev. Dick Wisdom, Superintendent of the Aurora District, was so fun to watch and participate in. Our young people prepared ten questions for Rev. Wisdom, and he responded to all of them with grace, humility, and, well, wisdom.

But what really made the night was a little later when Rev. Wisdom declared that the questions from our youth were the highlight of his year. I couldn’t be prouder of our amazing teens! What were those questions that so moved our DS? Glad you asked…

  1. Do you have children? If so, how old are they?
  2. Were you in youth group in High School? What was it like? Did it influence your vocation? Did you go on mission trips?
  3. What does a District Superintendent do?
  4. What did you do before becoming DS? Before you were a pastor?
  5. What made you want to be DS?
  6. Why did you assign Pastor Danita to WUMC (not complaining)? How did you come to decide this was a good fit?
  7. Is swearing considered a sin?
  8. One of my best friends is Muslim.  What can I do, as a Christian/Methodist, to make sure that she doesn’t feel scared or bullied? What if I am too scared to stand up for her?
  9. What do you think of UMC’s “democratic” nature? Is democracy the best way to run a church of Christ? In democracy, majority rules, but is the majority always right? What do we do when the majority is wrong?
  10. Is the UMC too influenced by the political process in our country? Does it interfere with us responding to God’s will?

 

The other highlight was the historic moment when our congregation unanimously adopted the Hospitality Statement. Our Administrative Council worked on the statement for months, approving it at our November meeting and thus bringing it to Church Conference for a vote. While almost everyone who visits WUMC says they received a warm welcome, and we’ve long tried to be welcoming of people no matter what, this statement marks the first time our congregation has officially declared that all people are welcome.

It is written in three parts:

We are an open and loving United Methodist Community who are:

Welcoming to all;

Uniting in service toward greater social justice for all;

Moving forward with understanding and acceptance of all peoples;

Creating disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

We invite others to join as we live our Christian faith together.

***
Our purpose is to offer a safe place and community to all races, cultures, religions, genders, sexual identities, ethnicities, age groups and other beliefs.
***
We expect everybody:

  • To accept imperfection in one another;
  • To respect that we are all on unique and valuable spiritual journeys;
  • To recognize that we are all worthy of God’s love;
  • To acknowledge there is no room for hate.

 

See, I wasn’t kidding when I said in my November 27th sermon that you would want to be in attendance for this.

Jesus’s words, actions, and love show us that there is no “other,” there is only us. Now the same can be officially said about Woodridge United Methodist Church.

All that is left now is for us to live up to our words.

Live blogging Sleep Out Saturday 2016 #HomelessNoMore

As I have the last couple years, I’m attempting to live blog this annual event to raise awareness about homelessness in DuPage County — and to raise funds to help neighbors experiencing homelessness. Bridge Communities puts on this event to aid their efforts to end homelessness. 

6:30am The view in the light of day:

3:30am I’m extremely grateful for all the dedicated adult volunteers who love God and love our youth enough to spend the night monitoring our Sleep Out area. 

12:15am everyone is finally in their boxes or tents and settling down to sleep. 

10:00pm Small group discussion post simulation:

-So many ways to become homeless

-so unfair how veteran was treated

-rage! It wasn’t fair! I was first at Section 8 but never got in when everyone else did. I think it was racist. 

-hard to know how much info to share at each spot. Should I tell them I’m 45 yo with mental illness 

-I’m under poverty line but turned away for making too much

-felt frustrating, disappointing getting the run around, felt judged, 

-pens became scarce. Some stole, some hoarded, some shared. 

9:00pm  As we attempted to enter the church building we were met at the door, told to line up, asked to sign in agreeing to some conditions, and our cell phones were collected. 


It was the beginning of a threefold simulation game. First,The church building was our shelter. 


Then, each one received an identity, complete with backstory of how we became homeless. Our task was to find a place to stay for the night. Others played the role of apartment manager or women’s shelter or public housing employee. We had to navigate the various systems trying to gain housing. 



The final portion of the simulation was food distribution. Each of us received an envelope of money with which we could purchase a snack. Turned out not everyone had the same amount. 

8:30pm Couple reflections shared during the bus ride back to church:

It would be helpful to hear more about the programs that the funds raised provide. The mom who shared tonight mentioned some life skills classes, the most interesting of which was “How not to Date a Jerk or Jerkette.” 

Learning about those classes helps our kids make better connection between sleeping out & Bridge Communities. 

We also thought it would be cool to hear from someone who finished the program, say, 5 years ago speak about where they are now. 

8:00pm Couple facts we learned during the rally:

  • In 2015 Bridge helped 131 families 
  • 750 families self supportive after Bridge
  • This is the 13th year for SOS. Almost $2 Million has been raised in that time. 

7:40pm We heard from a few sponsors and Bridge employees, including a nice tribute to one of Bridge’s founders who died two weeks ago. Next,  the emcees read through the list of communities represented by the groups sleeping out. Always an easy crowd-pleaser. 

Finally, we heard from a family who is a Bridge Community client. I think most years we heard from families already finished with the program, so that was different. The mom spoke about losing the home she was in with her three kids and the 6 months it took to get into a Bridge apartment. But what I found most compelling was when the mom shared the terrible anxiety that accompanies not knowing how she would house her children. 
7:15pm In a new twist, a group called Power Brain yoga led some body movements to help keep the blood flowing and have a couple laughs as well. 
7:00pm Next up for musical entertainment and testimony-sharing is Savannah Whitaker, who is the winner of “Rising Stars Singing Competition sponsored by PulseFM at the World Pulse Fest.” I admit I’ve never heard of that competition, but Ms. Whitaker has an amazing voice!

6:30pm Troy helped our bus driver navigate the downtown Glen Ellyn traffic and so we’ve arrived at the Rally! It has to be twice as warm as it has ever been in our 5 years with this event. It’s a little discombobulating, honestly. We’re used to just wearing ever layer ever. Tonight? People are in shorts or t-shirts. So. Weird. 

Anyway, the Rock Out for Sleep Out by School of Rock is in full swing. Or rather in full rock, I suppose. 


Not a huge crowd yet, despite the nice weather. On the plus side, that meant we are here in time to receive a t-shirt. So we’ve got that going for us…which is nice. 

6:00pm  Our final participants arrived at church and we’re on the Rally Bus headed to the, well, to the Rally. We expect to hear music from local student bands and hear testimony from families helped by Bridge Communities’ programs.