A Place Where Jesus Weeps – Guest Blogger, Melanee Hamilton

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Graffiti on the Palestinian side of a partition wall

My first trip to the Holy Land was one year and five months ago. It was a trip that absolutely enthralled me. When I returned home, I knew I had to go back. From February through May of this year, I lived with a Palestinian Christian family in Bethlehem. I came away more captivated by the region than I had thought possible.

You see, Palestine has a distinctive way of enchanting those willing to expose themselves to the tragic and beautiful reality that is the Holy Land. She is warm and welcoming, but at times remarkably tense to one unaccustomed to perpetual hostility. The stunning sight of the rolling hills of Bethlehem and the sharp, stony mountains of Wadi Qelt near Jericho are enough to mesmerize even those oblivious to the convolution of the region. The true exceptionality of Palestine, however, is found in the beauty and complexity of those living in Bethlehem, Jericho and the rest of Palestine.

The too-short experience I had in Bethlehem was humbling. It required me to forego the place of comfort I had the privilege of enjoying in the United States. At once, this distant region I had been reading about in books and hearing about in podcasts became familiar as I grew to love the family who hosted and cared for me. Palestine was no longer made up simply of statistics and newscasts. The stories of Palestinians’ homes being raided in the early mornings had, overnight, become stories of my neighbors. When something like this happens, staying removed from the raw realities of people’s lives becomes impossible.

A young girl swings in Bethlehem

I could spend this short space listing the statistics of life under occupation in Palestine, but it seems better spent painting a picture of the people I lived among in Bethlehem (although I highly recommend that you take a look at Human Rights Watch: Israel/ Palestine and UNICEF- State of
Palestine for information regarding the occupation). As a seminarian, this picture is painted unashamedly in light of my theological perspective as a follower of Jesus.

Days before boarding the plane to Tel Aviv, I began to feel anxious about my quickly approaching adventure. I prepared to leave for a place whose native language I did not know, to live with a family I had never met, and to navigate a culture with strict guidelines for women. But I knew all of these anxieties had to be confronted. Not because I needed to prove to myself that I could do it (well, maybe that was part of it), but because the convictions I had as a Christian compelled me to take this step of faith. If I believe that the crucifixion and suffering of Christ is an invitation for us to stand opposed to suffering, then how could I not expose myself to the oppressive realities in which people live?

About a month into my stay in Bethlehem, I witnessed my first protest. The Wi’am Center where I was interning is located beside an Israeli watchtower and the separation wall. The Center had decided to close early because of the protest. I stayed back to observe part of it with my friend, a young Palestinian woman. Within a moment, the peaceful protest erupted with tear gas, sound bombs, rubber bullets, and rocks. My friend grabbed my arm and told me to run. I followed her down a side road into a shoe shop. After attempting to leave the shop only to rush back in the building when the armored truck came plummeting down the road greeting us with more tear gas, the shop owner graciously offered to give us a ride up the street where things were calmer. When we were outside the range of chaos, my friend and I hopped out of the car. Without a second thought, my beautiful Palestinian friend looked at me said, “I’m hungry. Let’s get shawarma!” Despite my entire body trembling from what I had just witnessed, I had to laugh at how utterly unmoved she was by the entire experience—by the tear gas and bullets being shot at us moments before.

Irish Palestinian Solidarity

Later that day my Palestinian brother and sister got a good laugh out of how severe I found the protest: “On a scale of one to ten, that protest was a two,” they said. It was—and is—jarring for me to consider how drastically different our lives are, despite being so close in age. The reality, however, is that this is their life. Palestinians are strong and resilient, though. They laugh, play, sing, and dance—despite most being trapped by a wall and checkpoints.

Since being home, I have struggled with feeling angry at how Western Christianity has largely overlooked the plight of those living in the land where our God was crucified. I watched as thousands of Christians from around the world joined the Palm Sunday procession from the Mount of Olives to the Old City of Jerusalem. I watched them turn their faces away from the Palestinians in the procession being harassed and arrested. With heads turned, they sang “Hosanna, Hosanna!”

As I processed this event, I pictured Jesus standing with those Palestinians being harassed—weeping with the child whose uncle was arrested, standing firmly with the priests trying to help their parishioners. Jesus weeps over these events. And he weeps every time his people turn their faces away.

Visiting the Holy Land is more than just seeing where Jesus walked 2000 years ago. To truly experience Jesus in the Holy Land is to be with the people in the region. It’s to sit and listen to their stories, to laugh with them and to cry with them.

This message I bring home: To those able to visit Palestine, go! Experience the beautiful and heartbreaking place that she is – and listen. Bring back your own stories to share with the world. And to those unable to go, listen the stories of people who have been there. Don’t just hear what they have to say. Truly listen because the memories of those who have been there will undoubtedly overflow with incredible passion.

Originally from Ohio, Melanee Hamilton currently lives in Massachusetts where she studies Religion and Conflict Transformation at Boston University School of Theology. While in school, Melanee, a Brethren PK (pastor’s kid) interned with On Earth Peace, a CoB affiliated nonprofit organization, where she revised the Matthew 18 Workshop on congregational conflict and reconciliation.

Image Credits: Melanee Hamilton

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Wading in the Water Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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This blog post is the second in a two-part series. For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/08/08/wading-in-the-water-pt-i-guest-blogger-sarah-ullom-minnich/. What follows is a continuation of Sarah’s story about her experience studying abroad in Ecuador.

My washing complete, I slip back into the welcoming water. I swim out several meters and try to hold my own while swimming against the current. I manage it for a few minutes, but then begin to tire and make my way back into the shallower water. My feet find purchase on the sandy bottom of the river. I close my eyes and let myself feel the rush of the chill water against my arms and legs.

The Church of the Brethren, my community, has a particular historical connection with resistance against a hegemonic system and a river. The story of the original brethren entering the Eder River to be baptized, undertaking a resistance against what they felt was a moral injustice as a community, is one with which I have grown up. The church has a rich heritage of resistance to injustice, and living in Tzawata has helped me feel that heritage more present within me. But it has its ties to racist and colonial systems, ties that here are impossible for me to ignore. I feel a calling in Tzawata, a place very different from my community, to reconnect with the Brethren idea of radical justice – the life courageously lived in the example of the radical love of Jesus, simply, peacefully, together. It is easy back home to let my modern, United States, middle-class, materialistic lifestyle make me comfortable. But living on this side of the bridge, where there are only a few hours of generator electricity and no clean running water (the government has done its best to discourage human habitation here), provides the opportunity to see beyond it.

A couple of small girls swim out to me and hold on to my back. I swim around with them for a while, and we all laugh when one of them lets go briefly to slip under the water, then pops up again and grabs on tight. They, like all the children here, speak in Spanish to one another.

Even as the adults of Tzawata continue a long legal battle against the government and the mining company, their youth are coming of age in a globalized world. One in which speaking Kichwa is looked down upon, and in which the language of power is Spanish, or even English. These youth have their struggles, that of managing their identity in a changing world, without losing their connection to their culture and community. Many leave to study in big cities or find work on the other side of the country. Some become ashamed to speak Kichwa, even with their families. Others invest themselves in preserving their language and culture. All have to negotiate a complicated relationship with the community they have grown up in and the hegemonic culture that pervades their world. When I think about growing up as a Brethren youth, I feel a resonance between our experiences. We live in complicated worlds, affected by complicated systems. Like the toxic laundry soap seeping into the beautiful river we hope to protect, there are parts of our identity that conflict with other parts, parts of the culture we live in, breathe in, that are oppressive, and that seek to smother our less-mainstream values.

The gathering place where the Rehearsing Change cohort meets for classes. About 100m beyond it is the Anzu River.

I check my watch and realize that it is almost time for class. Today we will be working on some of the theater pieces we have been creating in small groups that deal with the struggles faced by Tzawata. Our final presentations are coming up, where our group of local and international students will have the opportunity to share all that we have been working on this semester. I take one last dip to say goodbye to the river, then gather my things and carefully climb back up the rocky bank. The heat of the Amazonian sun on my skin already makes me miss the cool, clear water behind me.

The community of Tzawata will continue their struggle and their negotiation of the many cultural pressures they face. While I have had the opportunity to learn alongside them for half a semester, I will be only a tiny part of the story of their struggle, and they of mine. But if there is anything that I have learned from this semester, it is the power of story to empower and transform our identity. And just as we as a class have been working with the story of Tzawata, the story of Tzawata has been calling to my own story. The story of how the church of the Brethren negotiates a changing world is one with significantly lower stakes. We are not at risk of losing lives, of losing thousands of years of culture, of losing a language, or of losing our homes. But our stories are interconnected, because “Peacefully, Simply, Together,” also calls for resistance against a system that seeks to assign everything a dollar value, including life itself. Our shared humanity interconnects them, and our desire to see a juster world. And for me, they are also now interconnected by human relationships, by friendships and shared experiences.

I finish hanging up my clothes and walk to the roofed area where we have class. One by one, international students and local counterparts trickle in. Around me float the sounds of jokes and laughter, of the giggles of children as they chase one another in and around our group of 13, and of the barks of excited dogs as they romp around the perimeter. As class starts, I feel a twinge of excitement as we split into our groups to rehearse and prepare to reimagine our stories, to reimagine our realities, together.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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Wading in the Water Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Sarah Ullom-Minnich

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<Hola amigo, como está el agua?> <Mojado!>

 

Class exercises in movement and group cohesion.

The typical response still makes me smile even after five weeks of living in the community of Tzawata. I pick my way down the rocky bank towards the wide Rio Anzu. We’re lucky today, it didn’t rain yesterday, and the river is a clear green-blue. The friend I had greeted is out about twenty feet, swimming against the current. On the rock about 30 feet away, in the middle of the river, three children are perched, enjoying the sun. Another woman is washing her clothes down the bank from me, in a rocky area. The slap of the shirt she swings persistently against a rock punctuates the clear sound of a sunny day. Another group of children upstream has seen me coming to the river and is now letting the current bring them down to say hello. I slowly step into the water up to my knees. Despite the heat of the day, the cold still makes me shiver. With a deep breath, I throw myself into the water, taking the plunge all at once.

The Rio Anzu, and the large, old, metal bridge that connects us to the other side, are two of the most iconic parts of Tzawata’s identity for me. An indigenous community of Kichwa Quijos, Tzawata has a long and harrowing story since the time of colonization. Their ancestors had lived around this river for thousands of years, but upon the arrival of the Spanish they were forced to move up into the mountains and made to work as slaves on their ancestral land. The deed to their land eventually made its way into the hands of a Canadian mining company, where it legally remains to this day. Several years ago, when the company briefly had to leave the country for legal reasons, some of the women of made the decision to journey down the mountain and take back their land. They left Tzawata Alta, as the mountainous part of the community is called, and formed what is now Tzawata Baja, which we refer to simply as Tzawata. Since then, the community has engaged in an often ugly struggle against the company and the government branches whose cooperation it has been able to buy. At one point, the police entered and burned down all of the wooden houses. Many community members lost everything they owned, but they refused to move back up the mountain. In a particularly iconic encounter, the police attempted to cross the bridge to forcibly evict the population. The entire community of Tzawata met them on the narrow bridge, blocking the way. Women and children stood at the front and the men in the back with spears. After a long and tense standoff, the police turned back.

Class response to the instruction: create an image of “power” with your bodies.

After the initial plunge, the icy cold of the water is refreshing. I wade back to the bank for my sack of dirty, smelly clothes and laundry soap. I wet the first shirt in the river and begin to lather it with soap. It’s the same kind of non-biodegradable soap that everyone in the area uses to wash their clothes in the river, but still, I feel the familiar twinge of guilt as I watch the suds disappear downstream.

The community of Tzawata articulates their struggle in many different ways, but the most common ones include their desire to protect their identity and their land. They still cultivate in the traditional way, with many different crops sharing the land, rather than raising one specific crop to sell, which would objectively be more profitable. They also wish to protect the land, and the river which is home to the fish and so much other life, from the inevitable destruction and pollution brought on by mining. They live out this philosophy on top of a literal gold mine.

Presenting a movement piece on the banks of the Anzu River as part of a final project.

I make my way through the shirts and move on to socks. The children splash in the water around me, calling to one another and me. Some ask me to watch them playing in the river; others just want to talk to me, to have me ask them about themselves. A few run up the bank and throw themselves recklessly off the edge of the bridge, whooping during the 20-foot drop into the water, and surface triumphant, excited for another round.

The international students, often affectionately referred to as “las gringas,” though not all of us technically fit into that category, are always a huge source of entertainment and attention for the children. That is one of the reasons the community has continued to invite back the “fair trade study abroad” program Rehearsing Change, which brings in international students to take classes alongside community members, around subjects that are useful to the community. No matter how much we make an effort to put all of us on an even playing field, however, the hegemonic structures of globalization never really disappear. Those of us with a little blue book that has our picture in it have access to privileges and resources that the members of this community will most likely never have access to independent of outside assistance. Those of us with light skin, hair, or eyes have access to cultural resources and preferential treatment, in and outside of Ecuador, which our local counterparts never will. To the best of its ability, Rehearsing Change strives to put these advantages at the disposal of the community, giving them the decision-making power to decide how our presence can be used to further their goals – to use the system’s problems against it. But even on this side of the river, across the bridge, there is no fully escaping a white western hegemony. There can only be a consciousness of it, and an effort to resist.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series.

Image may contain: 1 person, outdoorOriginally from Kansas, Sarah Ullom-Minnich currently lives in Pennsylvania where she studies Peace and Conflict at Juniata College. Her involvement as a leader in the Church of the Brethren has included interning with On Earth Peace, volunteering with Brethren Voluntary Service, and being featured on the Dunker Punks podcast. She recently returned from a study abroad trip to Ecuador.

Image Credits: Rehearsing Change

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On Hospitality: Banquet of the Absurd (Luke 14:12-24) Pt. II – Guest Blogger, Scot Miller

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This blog post is the second in a two-part series adapted from a piece originally published on Scot’s personal blog (link below). For part one, visit http://www.brethrenlifeandthought.org/2017/04/21/on-hospitality-banquet-of-the-absurd-luke-1412-24-pt-i-guest-blogger-scot-miller/. What follows is a continuation of Scot’s story about serving the water distribution effort last year in Flint, Michigan.

Over the next few weeks, we distributed water, fed children of all ages, homeless persons, and drug addicts, treated a heroin overdose, and began delivering food to folks who were marginalized to the point of being afraid of coming to the church (some distribution points were asking for photo identification). I was able to do outreach and wellness checks to families who made their only income illegally, thus preventing them from seeking some services for fear of opening excuses for home visits from authorities. We served refugees and immigrants who did not know English, and could not get help, or were scared to seek it out. The Church of the Brethren building on Stocker Avenue was a church, and it was contributing to its neighbor’s lives in many ways. The building was truly a place of welcoming and affirmation of all folks from any and every background. We were the church. We were practicing radical hospitality.

We continued to talk about the Bible and what the stories of the Bible meant to us. We also talked regularly about how the church might be relevant in the lives of our neighbors. I also believe we wanted the church to be more relevant to us spiritually. Sometimes, our church experiences left us longing. Sometimes, we felt spiritually malnourished. Mary Lorah-Hammond and Jennifer Betts had been dreaming of doing dinner church, and they also knew that the water crisis brought new nutrition needs to the forefront of everyone’s mind. It was decided that we extend our hospitality to folks at the farm market and our Facebook friends, activist, and professionals who were serving the city to share dinners on Tuesday nights. Flyers were made and distributed, invitations were extended, and preparations were made for a messianic banquet we called “Feeding of the Flintstones.”

Parker4

And nobody came.

But we had been reading the text.

The text had answers.

While Mary and Jennifer cooked, I went outside and walked around the neighborhood, inviting every individual or family I came across to come to the church on Stocker Avenue and share a meal. I believe we had 12 that first evening, certainly a number appropriate to our shared narrative. This continued every Tuesday night. Some folks followed up on the invite. More often than not, all of our guests came as the result of someone going out into the neighborhood who embodied the text of Luke 14, which invites all and sundry to experience fellowship without regard to status or ability to contribute to the “potluck” that is a staple of Midwestern hospitality for “those who belong.”

One warm evening, my son Micah and I left Mary and Jennifer to cooking and walked around the west side neighborhood looking for folks to invite for meal sharing. As we walked down Arlene Avenue, I noticed two women in a van parked on the corner of Mann Avenue. I approached the van to invite them to dinner and saw they were both crying. I asked if I could help, and they indicated to Micah and me that one of the women’s family had just moved into an abandoned house, and they had lost their food benefits card, had no cash, nothing to eat, and no electricity. I told them to bring everyone to the church for a meal.

That Tuesday evening, we had more than 20 folks eating with us, eight of them belonging to the woman sitting in the car. As everyone was enjoying food and conversation, Mary and Jennifer were talking with the women; I tried to reach out to the father of the group. He was less than interested in communicating and seemed to feel patronized by me as I served him bread and soup. He was not enjoying my presence, or anyone else’s.

As Now Ministries worked to get the whole family set up for food delivery the next day, it was evident they needed some things that night. I asked the father if he would like to go with me to Kroger to pick some things up, and I could foot the bill. Reluctantly, he made the decision to go. As we drove by ourselves to the grocery store, he began to open up just a bit. When he found out that we shared some experiences of city living, we were able to begin a conversation that, within 15 minutes, turned into a warm experience of friendship.

The fact of our hospitality was the result of reading the text and then trusting that our living out the stories would lend credibility to our actions. In fact, we acted in faith, and our faith was vindicated. But the vindication is by no means represented in a growth of church membership, or big publicity regarding our worship services, or even in miracle funding for more outreach. For the text states that it is of no use to provide hospitality to those who somehow repay you or invite you in return, but rather we are to invite and serve the poor.  We will be vindicated for our faithfulness at the Judgment, but salvation comes immediately to those in need. They are liberated from the bondage of facing the crisis in isolation. Everyone knows that sin is evident, but the opportunity to respond in new ways with new outcomes is what the church is to reveal to those in need. The apocalypse is the unveiling of how the church responds to sin that has not been properly identified as sin. If the economics of food are unjust, the church calls this sin and offers an alternative.

In fact, we are sharing or extending the blessings of faith in a manner that makes the kingdom of God a credible alternative to systematic corporate sin for those most in need of God’s grace and mercy. It is our voluntary sacrifice of privilege and our sharing of resources that makes our claims of the Kingdom of God credible. We embody faith at our expense, and not for reward. This is faithfulness. This is apocalyptic witness. This is the eschatological “end-times” that marks not the end of the world, but more importantly, the end of an age that witnesses the collusion of the so-called Church and State to promote wealth and power rather than the victory of the Lamb over the devil, sin, and death.

An apocalyptic unveiling is not God’s new response to sin, but the church’s identifying and uncovering the fact of corporate sin which has been sold to Christians as conservative religion. Civic Christendom is far from conservative. Rather, it is liberal democracy costumed as Christianity in order to the hide selfishness, racism, and exclusivity that has victimized those who need the church the most. The church has not only colluded with the State, but indeed has colluded with the Accuser. We accuse those left behind as being responsible for the products of our own economic, racial, and militant sin. This heresy is a Satanic reversal of the Gospel call to love one another as ourselves.

The folks of Flint have been left behind, but they have not been left behind to suffer through some apocalyptic Armageddon. They have simply been left behind as “the least of these.” Flint and other places like it have been left behind by Christians who keep promising that heaven awaits them, preaching that if the victims of sin don’t clean their act up, God will leave them behind just as the economy, the judiciary, and education has left them behind.

Indeed, if these so-called spiritual warriors read Revelation more closely, they might see passed the plank in their eyes to see that Christ judges them. The biggest sin of Christendom is the Laodicean error – the error that Jesus would not overlook.

Revelation 3:15-20 (HCSB)

15 I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth. 17 Because you say, ‘I’m rich; I have become wealthy and need nothing,’ and you don’t know that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, 18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire so that you may be rich, white clothes so that you may be dressed and your shameful nakedness not be exposed, and ointment to spread on your eyes so that you may see.19 As many as I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be committed and repent. 20 Listen! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and have dinner with him, and he with Me.

10271482_694810043912301_8536081974303114262_nScot Miller, of Hastings, Michigan (by way of Flint and Detroit), is a passionate and tireless worker for justice – passions that led him to seek degrees in social work. Having been a member the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 15 years, he now serve as Pastor of Education and Outreach for Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids. Scot spent most of 2016 ministering in Flint, Michigan, as a responder to the water crisis there. He served under the auspices of Common Spirit at First Church of the Brethren in Flint, in the neighborhood of his birth. He served as an adjunct professor of social work at Kuyper College for four years, and more recently served as an adjunct professor at the Earlham School of Religion during the 2017 January intensives. He is particularly drawn to Anabaptist theology as well as apocalyptic expressions of early Quakerism. You can read more of Scot’s work at http://www.gospeloftheabsurd.net/.

Image Credit: 2×2 Vital Church

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On Hospitality: Banquet of the Absurd (Luke 14:12-24) Pt. I – Guest Blogger, Scot Miller

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If the end-time fallacies of Tim LaHaye have any interpretive value, I propose a compare and contrast exercise with the city of Flint, Michigan. Flint is home to a people that have been “Left Behind.” While LaHaye’s apocalyptic lack of theological imagination is little more than a lie, the opportunity for the church to recognize our error and reorganize into a truly apocalyptic assembly is fully represented in the reality of living in Flint. The Body of Christ has been lost in the violent maladaptive literary world of dragons and super-whores for far too long, failing to recognize our obligation to embody the gospel in a manner that reveals something far more important than the end of the world; that being the rebirth and a restoration of God’s creation to wholeness.

Flint is the place where the sins of unjust economics, whiteness, and electoral politics have come home to roost. In the midst of a water crisis that has had a catastrophic effect on residents of the city and resulted in corporate trauma, the failure of the church is as evident as the failure of the water system. The residents of Flint were left behind to suffer the consequences of state-sponsored sin, when their water was poisoned, and and when this poisoning was denied by authorities. The people of Flint were left behind to suffer the consequences of institutionalized racism. They were left behind by a changing economy that no one prepared them for nor explained to them, despite promising them new jobs and new prosperity every election cycle. The people of Flint were left behind by the very people who promote Heaven as a reward for worldly suffering while reaping the benefits of wealth accumulated in the midst of such suffering. Flint is far more indicative of the end-times than LaHaye fans want to admit – it marks the end of the church as a relevant institution as we know it in the here and now.

I felt a call to return to Flint, the hometown my parents were forced to leave behind when the recession of the late ‘70’s drove us to Detroit so they could find work. When I heard about the water crisis and thought of the biblical call to deny privilege and serve the least of these, I turned a deteriorating job experience into an opportunity for ministry. I made a decision to go to Flint three days a week and contribute resources to the water crisis response. I was welcomed by First Church of the Brethren in Flint to work with their congregation and the African-American congregation they shared the building with, NOW Ministries.

13466190_1124814794245155_6074803376173933832_n
B.B and Scot taking a brief reprieve while serving in Flint.

Working with First CoB and Now Ministries, we went from distributing three pallets of bottled water a day to 18 pallets of water a day, three days a week. We also found the resources to provide fresh food to our neighbors, diapers and hygiene products, and provide neighbors with up-to-date information about the water crisis. Along with the work that was being done at the church, we shared with one another our understandings of God and the Bible and talked about what it is that we must do to reflect the love of Christ to our neighbors.

Importantly, the number of folks volunteering allowed for the church to keep its doors open almost every day of the week. As such, the building on Stocker Avenue became much more than a place to pick up water. It became a central location for adults and children alike to experience community. The building’s social significance became evident one night when my 70-year-old water distribution partner B.B. and I were struck with a dilemma. We were the only two folks (left behind) at the church one afternoon, waiting for hours for a water delivery that never came. The state was not sending enough truck drivers to help with water distribution, and deliveries were being held up because the food bank drivers were pressed into double duty. They delivered loads of food to locations around the east side of the state, and then came back to Flint to deliver pallets of water. We received our delivery at 5 pm.

Importantly, the number of folks volunteering allowed for the church to keep its doors open almost every day of the week. As such, the building on Stocker Avenue became much more than a place to pick up water. It became a central location for adults and children alike to experience community. The building’s social significance became evident one night when my 70-year-old water distribution partner B.B. and I were struck with a dilemma. We were the only two folks (left behind) at the church one afternoon, waiting for hours for a water delivery that never came. The state was not sending enough truck drivers to help with water distribution, and deliveries were being held up because the food bank drivers were pressed into double duty. They delivered loads of food to locations around the east side of the state, and then came back to Flint to deliver pallets of water. We received our delivery at 5 pm.Cars were lined up for water, and B.B. and I were having great difficulty keeping up.We were two men over the age of 50, we were wearing down, and our instructions at that time were to not leave water outside. The line of cars grew deeper, and we were exhausting ourselves. As the sun was setting, our neighbors were not unaware of what was happening. First, one teen came over to the church to volunteer help. Then a second. A third came with his sister, who set up a candy and Kool-Aid stand, using bottled water to make the drinks with sugar from her house. It was this evening that we recognized we were making an impact on our block. We had folks from the block, ages eight to nearly 80, distributing water and having fun. Together, we had a purpose.

Cars were lined up for water, and B.B. and I were having great difficulty keeping up.We were two men over the age of 50, we were wearing down, and our instructions at that time were to not leave water outside. The line of cars grew deeper, and we were exhausting ourselves. As the sun was setting, our neighbors were not unaware of what was happening. First, one teen came over to the church to volunteer help. Then a second. A third came with his sister, who set up a candy and Kool-Aid stand, using bottled water to make the drinks with sugar from her house. It was this evening that we recognized we were making an impact on our block. We had folks from the block, ages eight to nearly 80, distributing water and having fun. Together, we had a purpose.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series adapted from a piece originally published on Scot’s personal blog (link below). 

10271482_694810043912301_8536081974303114262_nScot Miller, of Hastings, Michigan (by way of Flint and Detroit), is a passionate and tireless worker for justice – passions that led him to seek degrees in social work. Having been a member the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) for 15 years, he now serve as Pastor of Education and Outreach for Common Spirit Church of the Brethren in Grand Rapids. Scot spent most of 2016 ministering in Flint, Michigan, as a responder to the water crisis there. He served under the auspices of Common Spirit at First Church of the Brethren in Flint, in the neighborhood of his birth. He served as an adjunct professor of social work at Kuyper College for four years, and more recently served as an adjunct professor at the Earlham School of Religion during the 2017 January intensives. He is particularly drawn to Anabaptist theology as well as apocalyptic expressions of early Quakerism. You can read more of Scot’s work at http://www.gospeloftheabsurd.net/.

Photo Credits: Scot Miller

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God’s Green Earth Recap – Chibuzo Petty, Social Media Editor

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Webpage-MastheadLast week, I had the joy of participating in Bethany Theological Seminary’s joint Young Adult and Presidential Forum, God’s Green Earth: A Call to Care and Witness. The event included great presentations from students, faculty, and invited guests from the national stage. We’ll be featuring some of the speakers in the coming weeks on the Brethren Life & Thought blog. Some of the speakers will also have pieces featured in the fall issue of the print journal. For the next few months, we’ll be focussing the blog’s content on eco-theology while continuing to share a variety of posts on our Facebook page.

I, like many of the planning committee, found myself confused and frustrated, though not entirely surprised, by the comparatively low turnout and by some of the negative pushback received. With so many prominent evangelical organizations working toward environmental justice, it’s more than a bit perplexing, and, quite frankly, vexing, that so many conservatives in the Church buck at the mention of creation care. During the opening panel, we discussed one email response from a Brethren pastor who said we should be more concerned with saving souls than saving the planet. While that assertion alone deserves a whole blog post, I’ll simply say, here, that I, like Bethany, strive for a both/and approach.

The Forum included a wonderfully diverse lineup of speakers. Age, gender, racial, and theological diversity were are present. This makes it even sadder that the audience was almost completely white. This is an issue with which Bethany, and the Church of the Brethren more broadly, really struggle. By my count, of the 75+ in attendance, there was only one person of color who was not also speaking. Even so, those in attendance were able to hear from three black speakers. (I, for instance, had the opportunity to speak several times during the Forum.)

I shared about food justice alongside senior Bethany MA student Jonathan Stauffer. Jonathan shared from a rural perspective and his presentation dealt with the changing economics and politics of agricultural. I shared from an urban perspective and focussed on the ways diet and inaccessibility contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline. One of the most intriguing presentations was from Rachel Lamb of Young Evangelicals for Climate Action (YECA). Lamb spoke of her experiences in Washington D.C. working toward environmental justice. YECA, which can be found here at http://www.yecaction.org/, have committed to one hundred days of prayer to coincide with the first one hundred days of the new Trump administration. They are also actively praising and supporting the bill introduced by seventeen Republican legislators on March 15 that seeks to find conservative, market-based approaches to combating climate change. Lamb seemed to receive the most questions after her presentation, something I found to be hopeful.

Another highlight was the promotion of Green Circle, Bethany’s chapter of Seminary Stewardship Alliance (SSA). SSA, which can be found at http://www.blessedearth.org/featured-one/seminary-stewardship-alliance/, co-sponsored the Forum. Readers of the blog will recall Jonathan Stauffer’s recap post from our trip to the national SSA conference in Portland, Oregon last fall. A.J. Swoboda, director of SSA, will be featured on the blog April 6. Green Circle, led by Bethany professor of theology, Nate Inglis, coordinates annual creation care-focused worship gatherings, encourages sustainable practices within the institution, and much more. All four Green Circle members who attended the national SSA conference, me, Jonathan, Nate, and Liz Swenson spoke at the Forum. Green Circle member Katie Heishman spoke as well. Katie will be featured on the blog March 30 and Lize will be featured April 27.

In addition to our Green Circle members, we’ll be featuring several eco-theology themed blog posts in the coming weeks. Until then, I invite you to reflect on these words from Psalm 8 (NLT).

 

1 O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!

   Your glory is higher than the heavens.

2 You have taught children and infants

   to tell of your strength,

silencing your enemies

   and all who oppose you.

3 When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—

   the moon and the stars you set in place—

4 what are mere mortals that you should think about them,

   human beings that you should care for them?

5 Yet you made them only a little lower than God

   and crowned them with glory and honor.

6 You gave them charge of everything you made,

   putting all things under their authority—

7 the flocks and the herds

   and all the wild animals,

8 the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea,

   and everything that swims the ocean currents.

9 O Lord, our Lord, your majestic name fills the earth!

 

Image/Photo Credits: Bethany Theological Seminary

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Reflections on Rooted and Grounded at AMBS – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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Are human beings given free dominion of the land, or does God care what we do with the creation? Participants explored these and other profound questions at the Rooted and Ground conference held at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Indiana. Six students, from Bethany Seminary and Earlham School of Religion, and two Bethany professors attended the creation care conference from Thursday, October 1 through Saturday, October 3rd.
Around 140 participants brought a range of ecumenical perspectives to address a variety of environmental concerns. Activities at the three-day conference included presentations, worship services, and immersion experiences. From the assorted presentations and conversations, participants envisioned a variety of Christian responses to the ecological crisis.

The bulk of conference events centered on a multitude of presentations. Several papers and workshops focused on biblical, theological, and ethical principles in relation to creation care and social justice. Nate Inglis, Assistant Professor of Theological Studies at Bethany Seminary, presented “Conversion to the Community of Creation: Bridging Anabaptist Theological Anthropology and Ecology” on Thursday afternoon. Scott Holland, Professor of Theology & Culture at Bethany Seminary, and Bethany MA student Kristy Shellenberger presented a workshop about theopoetics and creation care on Friday morning.

Presentations also featured practical suggestions that care for the land and local communities. Farmers described their methods of organic production. At the urban level, pastors shared how gardens were employed in liturgical practices and served the food needs of marginalized communities. “As demographics continue to shift in this country, it is important that the Church adapt and be equipped to minister in these new realities,” remarks Shayne Petty. He continues, “It is crucial that we expand the conversation about eco-theology to include the voices of those, demographically, not typically associated with agriculture. It can be incredibly empowering for persons of color, most of whom, especially Blacks, living in urban areas to be given theological language to reflect upon the beauty of God’s creation in the city.”

Worship services employed rich liturgical themes of creation’s praise to God through hymns and responsive readings. Three keynote speakers presented thought-provoking messages for conference attendees. 2015-10-02 12.14.53

Wilma Bailey, Professor Emerita of Hebrew and Aramaic studies at Christian Theological Seminary, spoke at the Thursday night worship service. She explored various Hebrew terms found in the creation accounts of Genesis 1-3. Bailey also reflected on the wildness of creation. Lions and other predators caution us humans that we are not as fully in control of nature as we like to assert.

Our Friday night speaker provided even more profound reflection. Sylvia Keesmat, an organic farmer and adjunct professor at Toronto School of Theology, interpreted from the Letter to the Romans, particularly between chapters 1, 8, and 12. She claimed that the apostle Paul expressed profound grief over the Roman imperial occupation – an occupation that degraded both social and ecological health – and explored how that grief still pervades in our present global crisis. “It was humbling,” notes Katie Cummings, “to lament together our shortcomings and to confess our idolatry.” Keesmat also professed an inspiring hope, following Paul’s message, that God’s love for all creation will prevail and includes faithful acts of earth care.

Ched Myers, biblical scholar and activist theologian, spoke as keynote for Saturday morning worship. He explained the principles of “watershed discipleship,” a recent model of Christian community formed by natural bio-regions and local economies. It recognizes the sacredness of the land in providing not only for human needs, but also for all processes that God created to sustain life.

Before the conference began, participants selected between options for immersion experiences scheduled on Friday afternoon. Four Bethany Seminary participants, myself included, went on the “Trail of Death” tour near Plymouth, Indiana. A Potawatomi tribe once inhabited two sites around the Twin Lakes area until they were expelled in September 1838 by military force. For the next three months, the tribe marched west under oppressive conditions. The survivors settled in Oklahoma territory in November. As we walked between sites, I took time to reflect on the plight of the Potawatomi tribe and what true reconciliation with American Indian communities would look like. We then made a brief tour of the Indian exhibit at the Fulton County museum and headed back to AMBS.

The Rooted & Grounded conference reminds us that the whole creation knows God as Creator and is eagerly waiting for God’s people to return to this understanding. Oscar Lugusa Malande, a student at the Earlham School Religion, states this insight well: “At this conference, it occurred to me that the revelation of children of God is being fulfilled. [For a long time] the creation has been groaning for this revelation.” Compelled by this humbling truth, Christians must allow God’s priorities to inform our role in becoming responsible stewards for the health of the land, of our communi2015-10-03 11.07.40ties, and of other living creatures.

For more background information about activities and speakers, go to the Rooted and Grounded conference website: https://www.ambs.edu/news-events/Rooted-and-Grounded.cfm

 

 

 

JPS_Tweed_Ride14Jonathan Stauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. He is currently a student at Bethany Theological Seminary and beginning his second year in the Master of Arts program with a concentration in theological studies.

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Stop Serving!

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This video from Homeboy Industries came across my Facebook timeline the other day. If you don’t know about this amazing ministry in Los Angeles started by Father Greg Boyle, you can check out their website.

In his thought of the day, he dropped this fantastic quote. “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those one the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”

At some point we need to drop all this talk about service. For Brethren, I am probably nearing the line of outright heresy, but hear me out.

For the early Brethren, the idea that we care for one another was not based in the language of service, but in mutual aid. Sure, this made sense in the days of our more sectarian past. We did care for our sisters and brothers of faith. It wasn’t until the 20th century that this core idea shifted into the language of service. In my more generous moments, I can see how this shift in terminology helped the Brethren claim a role within the world. Talking about service in essence broke us out of the me and us view of care for others.

However, we must come to terms with how the language of service continues to separate us from others. Basically, those who “serve others” are often working from a significant position of privilege. Whether it is economic or social privilege, those who can take time off for service projects locally or around the country do so because they can. While we rightly acknowledge that those who have privilege should use it to care for others in need, the very idea that we serve them has an overtone of condescension. We literally come out of our privileged social location so that we can minister to “those in the margins.”

An interesting thing happens, however, as people go on service trips. Inevitably, they return with a bit of cognitive dissonance. I hear it most often expressed like this: “I went there to offer something to them, but they gave me so much.” In the midst of the relationship building with those whom we “serve” the lines between those in need and those from privilege blur, and uncomfortably so. Here we are, the ones who are to care for others and we find ourselves ministered to.

This is why we must finally let go of the service interpretation of feet washing. Put another way, washing feet is NOT about serving others. In John’s account, Jesus does name the roll he takes as a servant, but that is only half the story. When Peter chastises him for doing what is not appropriate for teacher, the conversation turns to washing, and alludes to baptism. “If I don’t wash your feet,” Jesus says, “then you have no part with me.” Brash as always, Peter responded that if that is the case, then he should be completely washed. “You have bathed,” Jesus said, “and are thus clean except for the feet.”

This exchange with Peter is a clear reference to baptism, sin, and grace. And when Jesus says that we are to do this for one another, he highlights the priestly role we offer one another. There is no privileged place since all must wash and be washed. All must confess to one another and all must receive grace from others.

This is why I think people are so put off by washing feet. Some say that it is the idea of feet alone that turns people off. However, when we talk about “serving others with the basin and towel,” it is much easier to kneel down and wash another person’s dirty feet. It is when we must receive the grace of having our feet washed that we get weirded out. In the language of service, it is always better to give than to receive.

This is why we don’t know what to do with the gifts we receive when we are on a service trip. It is why we feel so guilty about coming away with so much more than we actually give.

If we can finally recover the mutuality of feet washing I think we can finally move towards what Father Boyle called “kinship with those on the margins.” We can go out from our houses of privilege and finally enter the cycle of grace upon grace where we finally see Jesus in one another.

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A Beacon in the Night – Guest Blogger, Sue Mock

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My journey with the Death Row pen pal project began with a seminar led by Rachel Gross at our church about four years ago.  Prison ministry was something that was drawing my heart, but I wasn’t sure how to get involved until Rachel opened the door.  There were so many disturbing facts that she shared that I knew this would be a part of my life in a very meaningful way.  I first shared with her that I would be interested in having a pen pal that might have difficulty with writing, as I was a learning disability teacher and understood students who have some challenges communicating.  Alden Harden was who I was matched with, and he has been an extremely articulate man with a beautiful way of expressing himself especially through poetry.

Our letters went back and forth from North Carolina to Indiana at least once a month.  We began with getting to know each other through our daily routines, likes, and dislikes.  It is surprising how many common things can be found even with such different surroundings.  The common threads throughout our written conversations were respect, genuine interest in each other’s lives, mutual concern, and a deep belief in God.  We have shared about our childhood, siblings, parents, youth groups, joys, daily routines, jokes, sermons, disappointments, frustrations, and more.

My husband enjoys photography as a hobby.  This has opened up a window for Al that has turned into a blessing for both men.  Max searches his pictures, finds several that go together, and writes a little about them with each letter I send.  Al has a chance to see, through Max’s camera lens, a whole different world than the confines of the North Carolina prison walls that surround him.

About a year ago Al started sending poems that he had written.  I love poetry, and his poems were beautifully written from his heart.  I thought he might enjoy seeing them in print, so I typed them and sent them back in my letters.  More and more came.  Some were very soulful and filled with life-lessons learned, and others were light and whimsical.  But all were a beautiful expression of a delightful, loving, caring, dear man sharing himself though poetry.  An idea sprang up that we could put these together in a book.  Al  was so excited about that idea that I began the work of creating a poetry book, using my husband’s photographs of our church worship centers as the illustrations for each piece.  Another friend, who had created many books of vacation destinations, shared her work with me,  which greatly increased my enthusiasm.???????????????????????????????

Several hours of editing and rearranging produced a lovely book of Al’s poems with Max’s photos illustrating each one.  I purchased two copies.  One was sent to Alden Harding at Central Prison in North Carolina, and one went to me in Indiana.  Both of us were thrilled with the results.  As soon as Al received his book, he asked how he could get more copies, as several folks were interested.  For his Christmas gift this year, I sent six copies to his loved ones.  It was such a rewarding way to honor this man who had written such amazing work and to provide a way for him to share himself with his family.

A couple months have passed, and more copies are wanted for more folks.  I am not sure what shape this project will take, but I do know that I am so grateful to be part of this journey with Al.  God can join together two unlikely people with such different backgrounds and create a beautiful friendship and an amazing book of poems.

Where is God in all of this?  God is in the stirrings of a heart wanting to serve and connect in an upside-down way.  God is giving courage and opening spaces for individuals to share faith stories and personal insights.  God is providing respect and honor to the worthiness of each of us and giving opportunities to share with others.  This project is connecting the dots of God’s love in action.  It is a story about changing lives, attitudes, and hearts into the essence of New Beginnings and touching the fabric of the Easter message.

I would like to close with one of Al’s poems.

Dear……..Penpal,

Thanks for making my heart smile.

It’s a real pleasure

It’s no way to really measure.

Things you put in print makes me grin.

You’ve become quite the friend.

No, I don’t have many,

Yet your rigorousness has proven plenty.

I love our in-depth talks.

They’re cozy like moonlit walks.

The way we share so many things,

Hurts, pains, future dreams,

Thoughts of you can engulf me for hours.

Capture my mind in translucent powers.

The way you virtually hold my hand.

In this crazy and barren land.

When I lay awake in the bleak of night.

Alone with my thoughts and all wound up tight.

It’s rereading your thoughts

That seems to make all things right.

Thanks,

Dear Pen………….Friend.

by Alden Harden

Sue Mock is a member of North Manchester Church of the Brethren (South/Central Indiana District) and an elementary special education teacher in Warsaw, Indiana.

Learn more about the Death Row Support Project at their website, and sign up to get involved here.

After Sue wrote this article, she received the following words in a letter from Al: “Yes, [the copy of the poetry book Sue sent him for his birthday] actually got here on the 19th, so it made for a lovely gift.  Funny, most times, the legal mail person comes around to the pod cell for or rather with our packages such as this.  They actually called me to the sergeant’s office to sign for it.  Then the sergeant asked to check it out.  The lieutenant then got whiff of it and asked to check it out.  Said that he thought it was really good and asked if I had another one in the makings.  Another sergeant on this rotation actually has hold of it now.  I can hardly believe folk think it’s truly good.”

 

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