“Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.”

-Martin Luther King Jr. (Strength to Love, Harper & Row, 1963, p. 14)

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Supia, Colombia, Part 3

The Union Misionera Church building in Supia sits straight along a small inclined street in a busy section of town.  Most of the building is comprised of worship sanctuary of about 30 by 40 feet with small classrooms, restrooms and a very nice, recently finished, kitchen all in the back.  But the Union Misionera de Supia congregation is not the building, it is all about it's people who are engaging the world around them.  In fact, even the building is clearly designed to serve the people which is seen in the little fish storefront connected to the building (in the picture right, we are standing in the shop door).  One of the ministries of the church is in the area of micro-business.  They are keenly aware of the need to be about developing opportunities to sustain families.

The congreation's biggest entrepreneurial endeavor to date is an investment in one family's fish business.  This family farms fish for eating and for aquariums.  The family has grown to the point of operating a number of sites where they farm the fish, a restaurant where they serve fried fish (very delicious), and the little store selling fish and aquariums.  They are starting to handle tropical birds also.

There is a clear sense of pride on the face of Pastor Jhon Fredy when he speaks of the people of the church and their involvements in the community.  From the award-winning coffee farmer, to the young man who came into the church after serving in the military, they each have a story and their pastor is not shy about telling it.

In the back end of a Land Cruiser we rode around the mountain side community of Supia visiting fincas, eating and hearing the stories of the beautiful people of Union Misionera de Supia.  We were accompanied at each stop by a farm truck loaded in back with the young adults of the congregation.  It is clear to me that while these folks enjoy their gatherings for worship, however, the true stuff of the church is in how they are living in the world.

On the first day of our visit Jhon Fredy took us to meet the town's mayor, a kind-faced, older catholic man who was very willing to tell us about his role and responsibilities.  Actually, he spent a lot of the time apologizing for what he has not yet been able to do since he is struggling to bring some integrity to  finishing someone else's term.  As the conversation in the mayor's office was concluding, Jhon Fredy asked me to offer a prayer for the mayor, and I did.  I have to wonder, if the shoe was on the other foot, and he were visiting my congregation, would I take him to meet and pray for Mayor Kauffman?

Our visit with the mayor of Supia indicates the expected scope of ministry for Jhon Fredy and his congregation.  Because of Jhon Fredy and his congregation's lobbying with the mayor and city council, the town now celebrates an annual day of peace complete with a peace parade (Pan y Paz) which coincides with United Nations International Day of Peace.  Might it be that we in North America have, in our lust for separation of church and state, forfeited our voice?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Supia, Colombia, Part 2

Anabaptists have a growing presence in Colombia, from the three denominational groups (Mennonite, Mennonite Brethren and Brethren in Christ), to Mennonite Central Committee which has workers in Bogota and around the country.  Then there are people like Union Misionera Pastor Jhon Fredy Cardona who is not in an Anabaptist congregation yet both he and his wife, Beatrice, have been members of Anabaptist congregations in other cities.

A few years ago I traveled to Colombia with John Driver, and that time it was Steven Abernathy that was my in-country guide.  Steven is now married but still working for MCC out of the Bogota Office, but this visit my guide was a wonderful young woman from Goshen, Indiana (if you can believe that) named Becca.  On a one year assignment and working as the Sister Church Coordinator for Justapaz, Becca joined Ben and me for the trip to Supia (her first trip there as well).

Becca, Ben and I seemed to be the center of attention for congregation in Supia - we were the "personas especiales."  Let me illustrate.  We were told via e-mail that there would be a wedding in the church during our visit and we should bring clothes suitable for the occasion.  When the three of us arrived for the wedding, we were told that we would be sitting on the platform with the pastor and the Bride and Groom - so we did.  It was a beautiful wedding.  It was a long wedding (about two and half hours).  I am guessing that it was a typical wedding for this congregation.
It began with the groom and his parents meeting the bride and her parents in the middle of the worship space to be "brought together" for this occasion.  Then after opening words and the couple had been seated on the center of the platform, Pastor Jhon Fredy said something like, "Now our guest pastor will come and offer greetings..." and I realized at that moment that he was the master of impromptu.  I wish I had recall of what I said, but I was not prepared and very nervous - I haven't a clue.  At least I had a formal role in the wedding.  Poor Becca and Ben conspicuously shared the platform with no role other than being "personas especiales" (the picture on the right was taken by Ben from his seat).

Then again at the wedding reception, Pastor Jhon Fredy got me again: "The bride and groom asked for you to offer the first toast."  We were drinking a cold sweet coffee with a hint of liquor when I toasted the couple with "God's love in the good times and forgiveness in the difficult so that Christ's way would be clear in their home."  Then I quickly slipped off to the side where Jhon Fredy found me once again and invited me to be the first to dance with the bride after the groom.  They weren't just throwing around the title "personas especiales," they saw us as personas especiales.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Supia, Colombia, Part 1

I have heard good faith stories before and I did expect to meet people with experiences of hard life when I got to Supia, Colombia.  I'm quite sure that in the mix of meeting people, experiencing another culture and carrying greetings from my church, hearing people's stories was the essential thing that I was after in this trip.

A young adult from my congregation (Ben) and I flew to Bogota, Colombia last week.  We stayed our first night with a wonderful older couple I had met on my first visit to Colombia, three years ago, named Luis and Fanny (pronounced "Faa-nee").  Early the next morning we took a taxi to another airport and flew to Pereira where we were met by Jorge, our driver for the week.  From Pareira, we traveled by Jorge's taxi/bus on two hours of mountain highway to Supia.

Supia is a small town (about 25,000 people) nestled in a valley of mountains in the department of Caldas, the heart of the Colombian coffee region, and in this town is Iglesia de Union Misionera, my congregation's sister church.  We were joined in this relationship to Union Misionera de Supia through the peace church program of Justapaz, a grass roots Anabaptist justice and peace organization. (I recommend you check out the Justapaz web link above - this is a remarkable organization).

Let me share a story of faith from a woman I met...

Just a few years ago the people of Colombia experienced one of the most confusing and ugly human rights violations of the recent past, they call it the El Esc├índalo de Falsos Positivos.  This scandal, which came to a head in 2008, involved the Colombian military (or some faction of it) kidnapping and killing innocent citizens, and taking their pictures as guerrillas killed in armed conflict, thus offering "proof" of their success against the armed groups.  Many Colombian military officials were removed from their positions when the false positive incidents came to light from around the country.

This woman's husband was collected right off the streets of Supia by soldiers and taken to a holding center.  Those who were taken with him were killed as false positives.  He was seventy years old and so was released when they realized he did not fit the profile of an armed rebel.  He has since passed away, but the glowing story of God's passion for her community is displayed in this woman as she teaches the congregation's youth what it means to trust God and follow Jesus.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Formative Church Visit - Silverwood Mennonite Church

I began serving as associate minister at Silverwood Mennonite Church about the same time as I entered seminary studies full-time.  This was a period of deep pastoral formation in my life and Silverwood proved to be the right place for me to develop a professional understanding of pastoral vocation.  In the interview process I was impressed that the congregation planned a major ministry responsibility for me to be youth ministry - particularly since there were only four high school age youth in the congregation.  It was the congregation's goal to be "ahead of the curve" in building a youth ministry for the many young children who were growing up at that time.

Our years with Silverwood were sweet and our leaving was difficult, so there was a bit of nervous apprehension for BJ and I as we walked the few blocks to worship Sunday.  But what a blessing it was for us to be welcomed so warmly.  It is awkward for a pastor from across town to drop in for a visit and people did want to know why we had come.  However, the embrace we received on Sunday felt the same as the one we received two decades ago.

Following a rather disappointing video commemorating the events of September 11, 2001 in which we were assured that "one nation under God" will always find the resolve to rally in the face of crisis, the act of worship was clear and inviting.  I looked through to the other side of the sanctuary (designed in a way I still appreciate) and recognized Linda looking unchanged in the 14 years since I saw her last.  Then I noticed two young women next to her who bore a striking resemblance to her and I realized that her little children are nearing young adulthood.  Then the congregation's 9th graders were invited forward for a presentation - a very large group with some named who could not be present!

Twenty years ago, the congregation was predominatly young adult professional.  Now, it is indeed growing up.  What a blessing to see the congregation maturing as a vital community of all ages.

May God bless Silverwood Mennonite Church with the gifts of discernment and grace as they grow in diversity and wisdom.  May God bless Ron, Janice, Aimee and Jeremy with harmony and strength as they continue to lead in the way of Christ.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Formative Church Visit - Ninth Street Community Church

I was not always excited about worship as a child.  Still, when it came time for our family to make its monthly trip to Saginaw for worship at 9th Street Mennonite Church, I was ready.  It was not so much for the Sunday School because the teacher often kissed my face.  My attraction to Ninth Street was the way they expressed so much enthusiasm for praising God - it was so different from all my other experiences of church.  In my my memory still plays the recordings of people offering spontaneous prayers, constant sermon affirmation ("Amens" and "Yes, yeses") and testimonies of God's goodness from the congregation.  The memories may be over-sentimentalized. Yet, there is something in me that longs to worship in a congregation that that believes their participation is essential.  It wasn't until I was in high school that it occurred to me that the Ninth Street Mennonite Church was predominantly African American.

On Sunday, I was full of anticipation as BJ, Andy and my Mom and Dad drove to Saginaw for the worship that begins "sometime after 11:00 a.m.," as we were told.  We parked in the back of the building like we always had, but then decided to enter the building in front since we were, after all, guests.  "Oh come on into the sanctuary, there's still some time left for Sunday School," we were told, so we did...awkwardly aware of how out of place five white people were finding seats mid-way through Sunday School.  The teacher stopped teaching and the class of about twenty turned and applauded - just their way of saying "welcome."

Immediately following Sunday School ("sometime after 11:00 a.m.) the reunion began.  A number of people from Delores to Pastors Bill and Rex, to my former Sunday School teacher Geneva came over to say hello with handshakes and hugs.  Geneva claims it was her sister Grace that liked to kiss my face when I was a child, but I really think it was Geneva since she went down the row of us kissing each one down to Andy (he seemed uncomfortably ok with it).

With a little Sunday School report and music, worship was underway and we were all called to join in.  As typically ill at ease I am with being vocal and physically active in worship, at Ninth Street the worship atmosphere is naturally hospitable.  The theme of Bill's sermon ("If God makes sure birds have enough to eat, what do we have to get all worked up about") matched my memory of the congregation's focus.  Clearly, this is a congregation whose financial picture has been set in the frame of a rusting city, so Bill's statement that  "the rich people have as many money worries as the poor" called us all to recognize the care of God in our lives.

There is a rich stream of gratitude flowing through this little congregation.  They exemplify the healthiest people I know, whose lives express a deep gratitude for everything and everyone that has reached across a boundary and border to enrich and embrace them.  Their gratitude is offered to God for every simple grace in life ("I thank God for the gift of living another day") to appreciation for relationships with other people.

Thank you, Ninth Street Community Church for your witness to me of life lived with a faithful God.  Thank you for offering the way of following Christ to your community as shown in the welcome of Michael, a new believer, on Sunday morning.  May the peace of Christ sustain you and strengthen you as a community of the Gospel of our Lord.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Where do you go to church?

[The following is a conversation I had with a man I met today.]

"Where do you go to church?" 

I fumble for words to tell the guy about my congregation and, at the same time, correct the idea that church can be fixed to a place or contained in a service.  Now, I know that this fellow did not mean to enter a theological conversation with me; however, his question ignores the real and radically necessary essence of the church in our world.  If "church" is as innocuous as a place or even an activity, then our witness, our life together, is very small.  

"I am a part of the East Goshen Mennonite Church," I responded.

"Where is that?"

 Now, I am stuck.  How can I dismiss the core nature of our faith community by restricting it to an address definable by Google Maps?  No, really...  If he can find my "church" with his car's GPS, then it is so much less than I thought it to be.  

"Our building is on Lincoln Avenue, just east of town."

"What time is your church service?"

We are drowning in a sea of misunderstanding.  God save us from defining ourselves by place, time or even gathered activities such as singing from hymnals or communion by intinction.  Jesus himself, who shook off established religiosity to define himself as the proclaimer of a kingdom without a throne, is the clearest model of the Christian community.  If Jesus characterized the kingdom as "the way" of liberation and abundant life, then I had better find a new way to introduce people to my part of it.

"We worship at 8 a.m. and 10:30 on Sundays... we often eat together, and attempt to follow Christ in all of our living."

"Ahh... Oh."  [Conversation ended.]

We need to find a new language for identifying what it means to be followers of Christ.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Church Visit - North Goshen Mennonite Church

For the last couple of years I have served the North Goshen Mennonite Church as an Overseer - a title which will likely be changing soon, but a role which hopefully is retained within the conference.  It has been important to me to be a resource to the congregation's leadership in times of leadership review and transition, but the most rewarding aspect of this ministry for me has been walking with the pastoral leadership of the congregation.  Specifically, my connection with Dean Linsenmeyer, NGMC's Lead Pastor, has been a rich blessing for me (hopefully, it has been for Dean as well).

It is with some anxiety that I began my sabbatical knowing that Dean is preparing for retirement from pastoral ministry at the end of this year.  Still, I am on sabbatical from my pastoral ministry at East Goshen Mennonite, not North Goshen, and so it seemed important to stop in this past Sunday at North Goshen.

Dean is a sincere and committed pastor who has been a very good pastor for NGMC.  His sermon on Sunday was clear and thoughtful as I expected.  Because NGMC's worship is bi-lingual (Spanish translation for everything) Dean uses video projection in English and Spanish which must take a lot of preparation. I noticed many people around me, both English and Spanish speakers, who were writing notes and nodding in affirmation to Dean's sermon.

As I observed the congregation in worship and Dean in leadership I wondered how he (and his wife Bek) would discover their next calling as they move from congregational ministry.  Likewise, what does their stepping away from North Goshen mean for the congregation?

It was a pleasure for me to see the diversity of people of NGMC engaged in worship from longtime "ethnic mennonite" members, to my good Brazilian friend Josede who along with her family are relatively new to the congregation.  When people come together before Christ as sisters and brothers unified as one family, it is a most beautiful thing.

May the grace of Christ lead Dean and Bek in their ministering future.
May the grace of Christ continue to shine through the people of North Goshen Mennonite Church.