Tag Archives: United Methodist Church

An advent letter to my congregation

christmas eve candleDear Church,

This is our first Christmas together, and I cannot tell you how excited I am for Christmas Eve.  Every year, there are two moments I most look forward to at Christmas.  One is my daughters coming down the stairs on Christmas morning, pausing for a picture, then slowly making their way to see what magic transpired under the tree.  The other is singing “Silent Night, Holy Night,” as the lights are slowly turned down and the candles are lit in the sanctuary on Christmas Eve night.

I know that Easter is supposed to be the big day. Singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” with the throngs and the organ and the lilies and the spring air at Easter is pretty special, but it is Christmas that touches my heart like no other. I know that Christmas is wrought with commercialism, consumerism, and a secularity that some mourn.  Maybe that is why that moment is so special to me.  It is so needed.  It is that moment where nothing matters but joy.  I can block out the noise and the fear and the distractions.  Sure, “Silent Night,” has helped contribute to a falsely idyllic understanding of Christmas, but I’m okay with that.  It is a song that can end war, even if only for a moment.

I get a pretty special view for Christmas Eve.  I get to stand up front and look out at the faces of those gathered.  I can close my eyes and see it through the years.  I can picture each of the congregations I’ve had the awesome honor to serve.  I can see the faces of those who have supported me, shaped me, challenged me, and molded me into the man and pastor that I am today.  I can see the faces of young and old, woman and man, single and married, healthy and sick.

I can see the faces of people lit by the glow of a small candle as we sing those holy words, and I’m very much looking forward to singing it with you.  We haven’t been together very long, but things are going well.  No church is perfect, but I believe that I am right where I need to be.  Already we’ve laughed and cried together.  Already we’ve dreamed of a Kingdom future, and mourned the loss of pillars.  Already we’ve eaten too much, shared some of our scars, worried a little, and stumbled through some movements.   Already I can see the excitement and the energy.  I can see good things happening.  I can see people being fed without asking first if they deserve it.  I can see invitation that is born from joy, not fear.  I can see welcome.  I can see grace, and a desire to share lives,  not just small talk and pleasantries.  I can see the Body of Christ, redeemed by Christ’s love, reaching out into the world.

Incarnation.  That is what Christmas is all about.  It is the coming of light in a world of darkness.  It is God breaking through all of the barriers.  It is strength and power and might redefined in the form of a newborn baby.  Christmas is peace, love, joy, and hope.  And just as that candle spreads from the table in the sanctuary to those that are singing in the pews, Christmas is the light of Christ spreading into the hearts of the faithful, and being carried out into the world.  It is not about “happily ever after.”  It is about the presence of God in the midst of real life.

It is a reminder that right here in the world is a promise that God is with us.  Right here with the cancer is hope. Right here with the struggle and upheaval is peace.  Right here in the gathering of Christ’s people is joy.  Right here with our fellow humans, hurting, sinning, and falling, is love.

So I’m waiting for Christmas Eve, and not altogether patiently.  I’m waiting to wish you a Merry Christmas, and to see your face lit by the glow of a candle.  It’s my favorite time of year, and I’m so glad we can do this together.

In Christ,

Your pastor

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Two Rivers United Methodist Church

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Find your voice for mothers

Healthy Families Healthy Planet

Click on the logo to apply for a Healthy Families Healthy Planet training seminar in Peoria, Ill. on Sept 6.

There are two little girls that I pick up out of bed almost every morning.  One of them is sitting in my office, cradling a stuffed turtle in her arms.  She is giving it kisses and singing it to sleep.  Now she has another little toy that her imagination has transformed into a bottle.  She wants to be a Mommy.

It may happen someday, and when that time comes, I will be a worried, emotional, joyful, wreck.  I pray that for her, like her mother, the decision to become a Mom will be completely hers.  I pray that she becomes a mother at a mature age, with a loving partner, and has access to health care during and after her pregnancy.  I hope that when she gives birth, it will be in a clean environment, surrounded by experts, and access to emergency treatments.  I know that giving birth is one of the most dangerous things a woman can do, and I will never take for granted the loving care with which she will be surrounded.

I won’t take it for granted, because I know that there are millions of women worldwide that do not have such care.  They do not have control over when they will be married, or when they will become pregnant.  They are valued for little more than the children they can produce.  They are forced into pregnancy too young, and once they have a child, their only option is to become pregnant again.  They are misinformed about how to avoid and delay pregnancies, and once they do become pregnant, they have little guidance about how to have a healthy child.

Giving better education and access to maternal health and family planning is a moral imperative.  This is from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s page about maternal health: 

Every year, complications from pregnancy and childbirth claim the lives of nearly 300,000 women and permanently disable many more, mostly in developing countries. Mothers suffer primarily from hemorrhage, sepsis, obstructed labor, and disorders caused by high blood pressure.

In addition, more than 2.6 million babies are stillborn, another 2.9 million die before they are a month old, and many suffer neurodevelopmental disabilities and impairments. Most neonatal deaths are caused by preterm birth, asphyxia during birth, and infections such as sepsis, pneumonia, and meningitis.

Effective, low-cost interventions are available, but they are not reaching all of the women and babies who need them. In developing countries, many women deliver at home and rarely see a trained healthcare provider before or after the baby’s birth. Skilled providers in poor countries often lack access to current tools or do not use them. Families may not seek care or follow medical advice.

This is why I am an ambassador for the Healthy Families Healthy Planet project.  HFHP is a partnership between the United Methodist Church and the United Nations Foundation.  The mission of Healthy Families Healthy Planet is to give mothers a voice.  Far too many women have no voice.  They have no advocate.  HFHP is trying to change that.  Two years ago I went to a training in Ohio.  I sat in awe of the powerful women that I met.  I wondered at that meeting if there was a place for me in this project.  

When I thought of my girls, my wife, my sisters, my friends who have given birth and never once wished they had a plastic sheet to lay across their dirt floor as they went into labor, I found my voice.  As I learned about complications that women I know and love faced and survived that would mean certain death in other parts of the world, I found my voice.  As I practiced my elevator speech, learned addresses of Congressional offices, watched documentaries, and met with Congressional staffs, I found my voice.

I am one father, and I have big dreams for my daughters.  As I realized that my dreams were not just for them, but for the daughters of the world, I found my voice. I am one father.  I am one voice.  I invite you – father, mother, brother, sister, son, or daughter – to find yours. 

On September 6, there is a Healthy Families Healthy Planet training seminar in Peoria, Illinois.  Follow the link below (or linked to the logo above) to read a little bit more about the training, and apply to come.  There is no cost for the training.  It starts at 9 a.m. with breakfast and ends at 6 p.m. with dinner.  Come and pray.  Come and learn.  Come and share stories.  Come, and find your voice.

Apply here for the training in Peoria on September 6.

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There will be people there waiting for you.

I don’t think this was the exact motor we made, but they looked like these.

It was a hot factory in Elgin.  We were building electric motors that would be used in hospital beds.  Every morning at 7 am we would come into the factory and walk by the big thermometer.  It regularly read over 90.  My first job in the morning was to go into the huge walk-in ovens and take out parts that had been baking all night.  All of the jobs in the factory were monotonous.

Take part out of box. Sweat. Place part in machine. Pull handle. Put part in different box. Wipe forehead.  Repeat.

It was my first job out of college.  I found it through a temp agency.  I had a degree, but was going to start in the fall as a graduate assistant in Edwardsville.  The job was basically a filler.  I had left the world of college.  I had known that world well.  In that world I had a loving girlfriend, good friends, a familiar community, respect of my professors, and a good part-time job.  In the fall I would be entering a new world.

It was a strange new world with an unfamiliar city, a new boss and co-workers, and a strange roommate.  I was full of trepidation, and I had plenty of time with my own thoughts and worries.

One day I was sitting at table putting together the little motors, and started talking to one of my co-workers.  She was a tiny African American woman in her late fifties.  She had skinny fingers, with wide knuckles and big round glasses. She was the kind of person that was easy to talk to, easy to share with.  Or maybe I was just in need of an ear other than my own.

“In the fall I’m moving to Edwardsville, a city near Saint Louis,” I told her.

“Oh, there are lots of black people in Saint Louis,” was her bewildering response.  I wasn’t sure what to say, so I just said, “Oh, that’s good.”

Then she said something I’ll never forget.  “God will be with you,” she stopped what she was doing and looked at me.  “There will be people there waiting for you.”

Sarah and my Dad helped me move into my apartment in Edwardsville.  Their leaving was one of the saddest, most lonely moments of my life.  I cried that first night.  On the second night I bought a copy of a comedy to help me keep my mind off my sadness.  I cried that night too.

Eventually, things got better.  I adapted.  I liked my work.  I liked my classes.  I liked my boss and co-workers.  Then I tried to go to church.  I went to a Methodist church near my apartment.  It was my first time going to a church that was not the one I was born and raised in.  I was nervous. I felt out of place. I knew no one.

The hymns were familiar.  The order felt right.  The sermon kept my attention (though I have no idea what the topic was).  The pastor, Rev. Michael Smith, had a warm and gentle spirit, and I liked his humor and insight.  I sat next to a gray-haired woman who smiled at me at the greeting time.  She asked me if I was a student.  She told me there was a lunch downstairs after worship, and invited me.  I was a grad student on a tight budget, so I wasn’t going to pass up a free meal.

From the New Bethel UMC Facebook page

Soon after my first worship experience at New Bethel UMC, another older lady arrived at my apartment and handed me a loaf of bread.  She didn’t ask to come in, and didn’t stay to chat.  I went back.  I learned about an upcoming soup dinner.  So I learned how to make soup, and brought it.  I started going to choir practice and to a weeknight Bible study.  I discovered much about myself and the Bible in that study.  I learned that I had some insight into the Scriptures, and was able to help people gain understanding even while I was searching myself.

There was no one in that congregation that was my age.  There were no student ministries.  There was no praise band.  There were no brochures.  There was bread.  There was soup.  There were earnest people singing, studying, and enjoying each other.  When Sarah came to visit, we would go to church together.  When Sarah left, I would still cry.  That pain never left, but the utter loneliness melted away.

One night, while I was working in a gas station trying to save money for an engagement ring, my pastor came in.  We chatted for a while.  Somehow it came out that I had felt a call to the ministry many years before.  He told me we should have lunch, and he had a book to give me.  That was the official start of my ordination process that culminated 10 years later in a Conference Center in Peoria.

It wasn’t long into my time at Edwardsville that I remembered my friend’s words.  “There will be someone there waiting for you.”

It turned out she was wrong.  There was a whole church waiting for me.

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Prayer for Illumination

I’ve long said that the motto of the United Methodist Church is best read as a call to action.  It is not a descriptor so much as a call to action.  I take the word “open” to be a verb.  It is a call to action to do all that I can to open hearts, doors, and minds.  Including my own.

A prayer for illumination, to be read responsively in worship before the reading of the Scripture.

One: Open our hearts

All: That the Holy Spirit may move through the reading of the Word.

One: Open our minds.

All: That we may hear again the story of salvation.

One: Open our doors

All: That all may know the love and grace of Christ.

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I just added this to my bucket list (and I don’t even have a bucket list)

Cabinet, the board game.

Cabinet, the board game.

My friend and United Methodist colleague Gavin Lance Presley introduced me to this game, and my life will be incomplete until I play it.  It was created by Bishop Dan Solomon, I can only imagine his train of thought before creating this game.

“I’m so sick of people calling me to complain about the appointments I’ve made,” he thought. “If only I could show them how hard it is.” And in a flash of light, the greatest board game since Monopoly was created.  Though some might think that this game must be the parting gift of the worst TV game show ever, I feel like I have to play it.  Cabinet can actually be found at the library of Methodist Theology School in Ohio.  All I could think of is, “ROAD TRIP!”  I’m packing 7-15 of my favorite Methodists in a van and going.  Tomorrow.

According to the online catalog description, this game includes “1 director’s manual, 16 participant’s manuals, 2 lay advocate’s guides, 2 clergy advocate’s guides, 50 declension and data sheets, 16 name tags with 16 plastic holders, 10 envelopes for superintendents (2 sets of 5), 4 sets of color-coded file cards ; in box 24 x 31 x 4 cm.”

This is a game that is so beautifully Methodist, I’m almost in tears.  This is a game with not one but two different manuals, two kinds of guides, (my heart is aflutter) 50 declension sheets, and FOUR SETS OF COLOR CODED FILE CARDS.  I don’t even know what a declension sheet is, but I know I want one.  I’m guessing it is sort of like a Pastor’s pokemon card, with all of their stats and hit points on it.  I think mine would be ATTACK 68, DEFENSE 78, PREACHING 87, TEACHING 92, ADMINISTERING SACRAMENTS 87, ORDERING LIFE OF THE CHURCH 33.

I have to find this game for sale somewhere.  I think I would probably pay dozens of dollars for it.

The saga to find Cabinet has been updated

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Who gave you this authority?

ImageI walked by the chapel on my way to lunch.  “Come in,” my heart whispered.  It was still racing a little.  I didn’t want to stop.  The adrenaline was still flowing after meeting at three different offices on Capitol Hill.  At each office, I was with colleagues with the Healthy Families Healthy Planet project.  Surrounded by my sisters in Christ, we made our case on behalf of women around the world in front of two Senators and a Congressman.

We walked the halls of the Temples of Power, and strode purposefully across the Capitol.  We talked about the 222 million women that wish to delay their pregnancies, but cannot gain access to contraception.  We spoke for the 270,000 women that die each year from complications to child birth and pregnancy.  We spoke for the thousands of mothers that can be saved.  We reminded the staffers that funding international maternal health and family planning initiatives could prevent 54 million unintended pregnancies, 26 million abortions, and 7 million miscarriages a year.

In just my second trip to Washington as an adult, I gained access to some of the most powerful people in the world.  As I walked into the Dirksen Senate Office Building, I felt a sudden surge of desperation.  I knew my facts.  I knew the stories.  Yet I was suddenly faced with the grandeur of it all and doubted.  “Who am I?” I thought.  Surrounded by so much marble and glass, I could not help but feel the power of my own insignificance.  Then something funny happened.  Each meeting was a little easier than the last.  Each time I looked at my notes less, and looked into my heart more.

Image

From left: Rev. Carrie Carnes (a friend and colleague), Kelli Tripp (a member of Rep. Aaron Schock’s staff), and me.

Now back from the three meetings in 90 minutes, I was still in high gear.  Still breathing a little heavy.  My mind did not want to stop.  It wanted to keep going, keep talking, keep engaging. “Come in,” my heart beckoned.  I walked into the chapel of the United Methodist Building.  I stepped a few rows in, past another taking a similar pause, and sat.  I breathed.  My heart slowed.  My mind opened.  I prayed.

I prayed of exhaustion.  Exhausted by the three days of learning and training.  Exhausted by the walking and the waking early. Exhausted by the stories of the suffering women endure around the world.  I prayed of mourning.  Mourning despair of mothers who have lost children.  Mourning my brother in Christ at the training that talked about his own mother losing 10 infant children over the course of her life.  I prayed of celebration.  Celebrating the strength of so many women.  Celebrating the women in my life, and the women I was surrounded by at the training.  Celebrating the victories, and the chance to speak the truth to power.

I prayed and sunk deeper into my chair as the Spirit washed over me.  Then I saw the Bible, once again my heart beckoned, “Come.”  I opened the Bible, and read the first verse my eyes focused on, “When Jesus entered the temple, the chief priests and elders of the people came to him as he was teaching. They asked, “What kind of authority do you have for doing these things? Who gave you this authority?” (Matthew 21:23, Common English Bible).

Who am I to do these things?

I am a father.  I am a father who loves two daughters with all of my being.  I am a father who dreams of their future and wants to open every pathway to joy in their lives.  I am a father who wants to see my daughters grow to be educated, independent, powerful women.  I am a father who wants nothing less for all the girls of the world.  I am Papa Robb, who will stand up for the girls that no one else will stand for.

What kind of authority do you have for doing these things?

I claim the authority of the women that suffer needlessly.  I claim the authority of the the motherless infants, and the wifeless fathers.  I claim the authority of the communities that are stuck in the cycles of poverty that keep them from abundant life.

Who gave you this authority?

My authority lies in Christ Jesus, who came so that we may have life, and have it abundantly.  I am given authority by the one who raised the widow’s son, who let Martha sit at his feet and learn, who engaged the foreign woman at the well, and defended the woman caught in adultery.  I do these things by the power of the one who called out the most powerful men in the world, who defied their pomposity, and saw through their grandeur.  I am given authority by the one who suffered crucifixion at the hands of the powerful, who suffered in silence and grace, determined to fulfill his mission of peace, justice, and salvation.  I am given authority by the one who was Resurrected, and offers to me the same Resurrection.  I am given authority by Jesus Christ, who has already claimed the victory

I finished my prayer.  I thanked God for this moment.  I thanked God for beckoning me to come.  

And now I will go.  I will go with the strength of the women and men I have met on this journey.  I will go with the strength of knowledge.  I will go with the strength of love.  I will go with the strength of Jesus Christ, who came that all may have life, and have it abundantly.  I will go with the promise that the work we do is just, the promise of God is steadfast, and the victory is already won.

Related: Read about the Unnamed Miracle of Christmas

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Bullets on the Tennis Court, or Mission trip to East St. Louis, part 1

Lessie Bates Davis logoThere was a bullet on the tennis court.  Not a spent shell. A fired bullet. Among the mess of leaves, sticks, and broken glass, one of our youth reached down and picked it up, looked at it for awhile then said, “I found a bullet.”  I knew right away he wasn’t joking.  I looked at the little cone-shaped piece of metal.  I don’t know enough about guns and ammo to know anything about its caliber, what weapon it was fired out of, or any details.  There was probably something else we could have done with it, but all I said was, “throw it away.”  So he tossed it in the garbage bag and we went about our business of cleaning up the tennis courts at Lincoln Park in East St. Louis, Illinois.

We were a group of nine youth and three adults.  Some were inside the Mary Brown Center, working with some kids from the neighborhood.  Most of us were outside sweeping.  It was unseasonably cool for late July in Saint Louis.  It was a gray morning, and we were looking for something to do.  Miss Terry had told us that the tennis courts were unusable because of all the broken glass, so we decided to try and sweep it up.  We had some rakes, brooms, trash bags, and a dust pan.  We raked the sticks, leaves, and grass into big piles and swept the broken glass into the dustpan.  Even when we were joined by about a dozen youth from the neighborhood, most working for a few dollars an hour, we realized there was no way we were going to clean up the courts entirely.  By the time we finished though, I would have felt a lot better about kids playing there, as long as they had good shoes on.

Of course, it was entirely possible that once the sun went down, the park would be filled with young people with nothing better to do than throw their empty bottles into the courts.  Miss Terry hoped though, that the presence of people cleaning it up would discourage them.  We could hope.

The first day of the mission trip did not go exactly as we had planned.  We had planned to show up at the Mary Brown Center at 8:15 so we had plenty of time to set up our version of Vacation Bible School for the 25-30 seven to nine year old kids that would arrive at 9:00 a.m.  We had planned to spend the two hours with them in neatly divided groups so we could have 20 minute sessions of worship, devotion, Spanish, art, dance, and closing worship.  We had planned to stay to do some other kind of chores around the center until having lunch, and then going about the rest of our day in Saint Louis.  They say that if you want to give God a good chuckle, tell him your plans.

The Mary Brown Center is a part of Lincoln Park.  The geodesic dome houses a beautiful gymnasium.  The Center is also home to most of the youth programs of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.

The Mary Brown Center is a part of Lincoln Park. The geodesic dome houses a beautiful gymnasium. The Center is also home to most of the youth programs of the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House.

On the first morning drive to the Mary Brown Center, I got turned around.  I took the wrong exit after crossing the bridge.  I read the map, but the streets I wanted to drive did not go through.  After a process that included about four u-turns, our two minivans arrived at the Center at about 8:50.  We were welcomed graciously by Miss Terry.  She gave us a quick tour of the facility.  There are two main sections of the Center.  There is the beautiful domed structure that houses an immaculate gymnasium, and there is the education wing, home to a computer lab, a youth room, a dining room, offices, and a larger room with tables for seating and table games.

During the tour she told us about the pool, which would be opening for the first time in five years, and the tennis court, which despite having the money set aside for new nets, rackets, and balls, was unusable because it was covered in broken glass.  We unloaded the vans, started setting up our stations, and waited for the kids to start coming.  At about 9:30, there were about four kids.  That’s when I asked Miss Terry what else we could do.  I thought of trying to clean up the courts.

Some stayed inside with the kids that came, and as the morning went on a few more trickled in, and others swept the courts.  That is when I felt the futility of what we were trying to do.  We were invading this space, not sure of our place, unsure of our role, wondering what the mission of this trip was really going to be.  We had all the right plans, but the reality of the situation weighed heavily on my heart.  And then we found the bullet.

“What the heck are we doing here?” I wondered.  Then I kept sweeping.  I could pick up glass, and if that was all I was meant to be doing, then I was going to do it well.  We worked for about an hour and a half.  When we left, there were still young people sweeping in the courts.  There were others outside the fences, laughing at those that were foolish enough to pick up a broom.  Later I talked to our youth about the courage it took to remain there while their friends taunted them.  We agreed that those that remained there to clean up their park were among the bravest people we had ever met.

To Miss Terry’s enormous credit, she sat down with us for awhile before we left and taught us about what the Lessie Bates Davis Neighborhood House was all about.  She told us about her struggles as a community leader.  She told us about the kids on the corner with no hope.  She told us about the adult leaders that give their time and their energy so that they did not have to lose another kid to the street.  When I asked her, “What do you mean by lose them?” I knew that the only answer anyone needed was that bullet we found on the tennis court.

Part 1 – “Bullets on the tennis court.”

Part 2 – “You were made in the image of God”

Part 3 – “Not ‘goodbye,’ just ‘See you later.'”

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There will be no elephants at our Elephant Wash #ChangeTheWorld

On May 19, 2012, we’re having an Elephant Wash.  There won’t be any elephants (I asked the people at the zoo, and they said ‘”no”).  Instead, the elephant wash will be full of kids and youth reaching out to their community.  I’m hoping that there will be lots of cars and lots of generous people willing to buy lemonade.  The Elephant Wash is Riverside United Methodist Church’s entry into Change the World Saturday.

A few months ago the kids at Riverside United Methodist Church picked a community outreach project.  They decided that they wanted to help the local zoo build a new habitat for their elephants.  The kids of our church love the Niabi Zoo, and they really got excited about helping with the zoo’s efforts to raise $4 million for a new elephant habitat.  We are going to have a car wash and encourage people to make a donation.  Before the car wash, someone from the zoo is going to come and do an educational session with the kids and volunteers.  The zoo is also going to donate a painting for the silent auction.  The artist will be one of the elephant residents of the zoo.  Is an elephant wash going to change the world?

It depends on what you mean by that.  At the very least, it will help the zoo take care of two of God’s amazing creatures.  And it could do a lot more.  It could help our kids learn how it feels to serve others.  It could teach them to be disciples of Jesus by spending their time in fellowship and service.  It could start a conversation with someone that didn’t know anything about Riverside Church.   It could transform the heart of someone that thinks that churches aren’t interested in the community.

If you click here to search for a Change the World event, you can enter 61265 into the zip code, and see ours.  Or you can put in your own zip code and see an event near you.  You can register and volunteer right now, and your name and email will be sent to the organizers of the event.  It is easy to argue that one event at one church couldn’t make much of an impact.  What about 1500 events involving over 20,000 people?  As of right now, that is how many people and churches are getting behind this movement.  20,000 people are rethinking what it means to be church.  And that can indeed change the world.

Change the World weekend is a project of United Methodist Church across the connection coming together for two days of community action.  Many of the projects support Imagine No Malaria, an initiative to eradicate malaria deaths through education, treatment, net distribution, and training; but Change the World is not about a single cause.

Change the World is about churches coming together for a day to get out of the church.  It is about rethinking what it means to “do church.”  It is about helping people to think about church as a verb instead of a noun.  Church can be something we do, not just somewhere we go.

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“Welcome to beautiful West Point”

John Kofi Asmah School

These pictures of are of the John Kofi Asmah School in the West Point community of Monrovia, Liberia. On the left was the project as my group left it in February 2011. The picture on the right was taken by Michael Whitaker. He was a part of the IGRC group that went in March 2012 and saw the dedication of the completed school.

I went to Liberia last year as a part of newly ordained clergy from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Illinois Great Rivers and Liberia have had  a flourishing partnership since 2006.  Hundreds of clergy and laity have made the journey between the war-torn West African nation that is struggling with a fledgling democracy and the heart of Illinois.

During the last six years much has been built through this partnership.  Along with schools, wells, clinics, and churches, things like trust, friendship and community have been built.  The partnership between Illinois and Liberia is a strong one, and it has helped bring hope to the people of Liberia and Illinois.  There is hope that churches can rise up out of years of decline with the power that comes with reaching beyond the walls of the building.  There is hope that a nation can rise up from the ashes of civil war with the power that comes with education, clean water, and friendship.

I was forever touched by the people of Liberia.  One place that especially touched me was West Point.  I cannot properly describe West Point.  It is a small peninsula that juts off of Monrovia, and has two roads that enter it.  Once inside, the roads are so narrow that a car can barely pass, and only when the vast amounts of people get out of the way.  At its widest, it is less than a kilometer, and it is about a kilometer in length.  In this tiny land area, there are approximately 75,000 people.

Towering over most of the community of West Point is John Kofi Asmah School.  This school is one fruit of the partnership between the Illinois Great Rivers and Liberian Conferences of the United Methodist Church.  It is the only middle and senior high school in West Point.

When I was in Monrovia in February 2011, I spent two brief days on the third floor of the school, mixing mortar for the walls of the school.  During my brief time there, we build a couple of interior walls of the third floor.  The work I did there was almost insignificant.  It was but one thread to the larger fabric of this partnership.  We were told it could take another $50,000 to buy the materials and pay the labor to finish the project.  Most of us came back to Illinois with a very clear mission – complete that school.

In February 2012, another group of ordinands from Illinois traveled to Liberia (about 3-4 work groups a year make the journey.  Each group consists of laity and clergy.  They can work on a variety of projects, and there is one trip each year that is especially geared for teachers to go to train other teachers at the schools that have been built).  They came back with wonderful news.  In the year since my group left, the project has been completed.  They were a part of the dedication service.  I was told that at the dedication, some of the students thanked the people of Illinois for their help.  I wish I could return that thanks.

I am thankful for the partnership between Illinois Great Rivers and Liberia.  I know I am better for having been to Liberia.  I am better for working in the heat of the Liberian sun.  I am better for singing songs of praise with Liberian people.  I am better for knowing Sam.

“Welcome to beautiful West Point.”  That is how Sam Quarshie  welcomes people to his church and his school.  Sam is the associate pastor, but is known to the people of West Point as “Uncle Sam.”  Below, Sam is standing next to the cornerstone plaque on the school.  Sam is an inspirational man.  As amazing as that school is, my hope for Liberia does not rest in buildings.  Even though my own sweat is in the mortar, my hope is stronger than any concrete mixture.  My hope for Liberia and my hope for Illinois lies in people like Sam Quarshie.  My hope rests in the power of Jesus Christ to make all things new.

Associate Pastor Sam Quarshie in front of the cornerstone of the John Kofi Asmah United Methodist School in West Point, Monrovia. Photo taken by Michael Whitaker.

Click here to read more about Liberia and to watch a video about the 2011 trip.

Click here to learn more about the partnership between IGRC and Liberia and get information about how you can help or go.

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My hope rests

The United Methodist Church is dying. I have heard the numbers, and they don’t lie. I’m not going to quote them here, but trust me.  The numbers aren’t pretty.  And it’s not just the United Methodist Church.  In the United States, churches of all brands, denominations, theology, and politics are seeing decline.  There are some that celebrate the death of religion.

But I’m here to tell you that the reports of the death of the United Methodist Church have been greatly exaggerated.  Is it the same Church it was 50 years ago?  No – Thank God.  The numbers tell one story, and it is an important story that we need to pay attention to.  There are many reasons why churches have been in decline for the last forty years.  I was reminded this week that the United Methodist Church is about more than numbers.

Today I celebrated the wonderful and holy meal of Communion.  I enjoyed this meal in a conference room of the United Methodist Building in Washington DC.  It is a building that sits at a corner.  Across one street is the Supreme Court building.  Across the other street is the US Capitol.  I’ve spent the last few days amongst leaders in the United Methodist Church with the General Board of Church and Society.  It has been a full week.

It has been full of information, meetings, inspiration, prayer, walking, fellowship, and friendship.  I have met two Congressmen, and a General Secretary.  I have stood in awe of the great monuments dedicated to the history of this nation.  My greatest thrill however, has been the chance to meet the amazing young leaders that have dedicated their lives to serving Christ in the United Methodist Church.  I’ve met real people with hopes, passion, talent, and skill.  I’ve shared stories, ideas, and laughs.

This whole experience has been incredibly uplifting.  Today as I walked toward the bread and the cup, I was filled with hope.  I felt an amazing rush of power – Holy Spirit power.  I looked around at the faces of people that were once colleagues, and are now friends.  I saw Jordan, Becky, Chris, Beth, Chris, Bethany, Jessica, Ann, Andrew, and so many others.  I looked at the faces of these servant leaders, and I felt the power of hope.

I still know all the numbers.  I’m not hiding my head in the sand as the church is in decline.  Even while I’ve been here I have heard the stories of church decline, and of the struggles that we face across the United States connection.  This week though has been a great reminder that our church – the imperfect, troubled, struggling church I love – is about more than numbers.

My hope rests above all in the Jesus’ love and righteousness.  My hope resides also in the leaders that are working to open hearts, minds, and doors in the name of Jesus Christ.

 

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