Simplify Recap – Guest Blogger, Jonathan Stauffer

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This week, we take a break from our four-part series, “The Bible As…” by Jon Prater, to welcome back frequent Brethren Life & Thought blog contributor, Jonathan Stauffer. Stauffer writes about his experience attending Brethren Woods Camp and Retreat Center’s recent Simplify Conference. Stauffer accompanied two current Bethany Theological Seminary students as part of a partnership between Bethany’s Peace Forum and conference organizers, (also) current Bethany students, Katie and Tim Heishman.

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Nestled in vibrantly-colored trees above the Shenandoah Valley, I attend a weekend retreat at Brethren Woods Camp and Retreat Center located a few miles northeast of Harrisonburg, VA. The retreat, aptly entitled “Simplify,” explored a Christian witness through simple living principles largely drawing from the Anabaptist traditions. Beginning on Friday night, attendees watched a video called “The Story of Stuff,” which described the harm a hyper-consumerist culture places on God’s earth and its inhabitants. Later that evening, several small groups discussed how simple lifestyles could alleviate such harm and steward toward the healing of all creation.

Displaying 20171111_094450.jpgAfter a good night’s sleep, Saturday provided a full day to explore simple living and creation care principles further. The first keynote speaker, Sam Funkhouser, grew up Church of the Brethren but as an adult joined the Old German Baptist Brethren New Conference.* Sam accepts the socio-economic concerns presented by climate change and global capitalism as a needing a Christian response. Yet he also appreciates the tradition of nonconformity, a form of simple living practiced by the Old German Baptist Brethren. Motivated by their sectarian faith, Sam and his wife, Stephanie, make their own clothes and have modified their car to become as fuel-efficient as possible. Both topics were expounded during smaller group sessions later that day.

Displaying 20171111_104638.jpgOther workshop sessions were offered later on Saturday. Yakubu and Diana Bakfwash, Nigerian-born Brethren members, are ministers at GraceWay Church located east of Baltimore, MD. Using the example of Jesus in washing the disciples’ feet, Yakubu and Diana talked about service leadership in a Displaying 20171111_115449.jpgcontext that acts beyond the church walls. Nancy Heisey, a professor of biblical studies at Eastern Mennonite University, facilitated a workshop on the role of technology in our lives. Spending some time to carefully reflect on the gadgets we use daily, Nancy says, helps one decide when technology is an effective tool or becomes a distraction in light of our faith values.

Displaying 20171111_134604.jpgThe afternoon keynote speaker, Jenn Hosler, presented a biblical call to creation care and simple living. Starting from Genesis, Jenn outlined the instances of God’s care towards creation in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. She went beyond the first chapters of Genesis and the Gospel of John. The Prophets, wisdom books, and New Testament letters also reveal a cosmic order to the Heavenly Kingdom, one that blesses and desires to renew creation. In terms of simple living, the Bible raises up God’s blessing in those living responsibly and compassionately rather than idolizing material possessions (Mark 10:17-25 and James 4:1-10 are a few examples).

Between thoughtful speakers and rich group discussions, there was a lot one could take away from this event on simple living practices. The question remains: what is the first step for one to live more simply?

Jonathan SJPS_Tweed_Ride14tauffer is a member of the Polo (IL) Church of the Brethren congregation. Currently a substitute teacher, Jonathan is a recent graduate of Bethany Theological Seminary, receiving an MA with a concentration in theological studies.

*The New Conference formed out of the Old German Baptist Brethren in 2009. Interestingly, the split was largely centered around the church’s authority over internet use. More details can be found in the following article: Mast, Gerald J. “The Old German Baptist Brethren Church Division of 2009: The Debate over the Internet and the Authority of Annual Meeting.” The Mennonite Quarterly Review 88, no. 1 (January 2014): 45–64.

Image Credits: Jonathan Stuaffer

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For Courage and Healing: A Reflection on Training with Christian Peacemaker Teams – Guest Blogger, Jennifer Keeney Scarr

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I turned off my car and opened the driver’s side door, stepping out onto 21st Street. After five hours driving from my home in Ohio, it was a relief to stretch my legs and breathe in that Chicago city air. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous, this journey was a long time coming.
I looked up the street toward the Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) offices and training center – my home for the next 31 days.

With a deep breath, I slung my purse over my shoulder and pocketed my keys, “Here goes nothing.”

Jen studies training material on Kingian Nonviolence.

Christian Peacemaker Teams (CPT) is an organization building partnerships to transform violence and oppression across the globe with teams based in Colombia, Palestine/Israel, Iraqi Kurdistan, Canada, and Greece. In 2013 I was lucky enough to join a delegation to Palestine/Israel to meet not only the CPTers working in the city of Hebron but also the Palestinians and Israeli partners using creative nonviolence to transform the oppression of the Israeli Military. By the end of my time there, I felt the call to join the work of CPT and began asking questions about how to do just that. After four years of delays, conflicting schedules, major life changes, and lots of prayers I finally found my way to Chicago, Illinois to participate in the month-long intensive training for the CPT Corps.

In one sentence, training was an intense journey toward strengthening my capacity for courage and awakening to what peacemaking looks like in motion.

The first days of training I felt small and unprepared. These feelings typically accompany my engagement with something bigger and beyond myself. I especially feel this way when I read the news both local and global. That small and unprepared feeling kept me silent, hidden, and willfully detached from the painful effects of racism, sexism, and heterosexism in our world. Those are big words. The weight of them is suffocating.

Jen listens to a presentation on public witness in preparation for later action drawing awareness to the 50th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

Our training cohort, a group of people from Canada, Brazil, Colombia, Czech Republic, the United States, and Germany most of whom had backgrounds in social justice, hit the ground running immediately. In just four days we were asked to plan a fully fleshed out demonstration to take place in downtown Chicago at noon that Friday. Given the 50 year anniversary of the Israeli military’s occupation of Palestine, our trainers felt this was a timely topic. After speaking with Palestinian partners on the ground and receiving input from experienced CPTers, we poured our hearts into the project sacrificing sleep and downtime to bring this action to life. It felt so big and nearly impossible, but we did it. The action we planned was a success. One week down.

Our second week was focused on Undoing Oppressions and Conflict Transformation. Meaning our trainers deeply challenged us to come to terms with those big “isms” I mentioned earlier: sexism, racism, heterosexism. Each day we focused on a different “ism” unpacking the effect each one has on our personal lives and the lives of others. Each day we sat with the heavy impact of those “isms” and each day we committed to be part of the force that heals them. We ended the week with a crash course in becoming an ally, concluding that undoing these oppressions is a lifelong work which takes dedication, courage, and endless amounts of listening.

Jen with some of her cohort-mates resting near Lake Michigan.

The remaining two weeks focused more specifically on preparation for being in the field on a CPT team all the while talking about self-care. Self-care is so much more than making sure a day off is honored or remembering to drink water, though both of these are essential. Self-care is discovering that which gives life and energy to your soul and inviting that into the rhythm of your life even while in the field with CPT. For many on our training team, this energy and life was time spent with beloved people over a beverage or good food. It was exercise on nature’s trails or getting lost in the rhythm of music. It was spiritual and faith-based, it was different for each of us. Self-care is that which sustains us for the hard work we do.

This was never more clear to me than on the day we talked about kidnapping, torture, and death. These are the three worst things that could happen to a CPTer in the field. Thankfully these worst case scenarios are not regular occurrences, but they have happened. On this day we were asked to write a statement of conviction stating why we are committed to the work we do. These statements are kept on file at the CPT office to be pulled out and given to family, friends, or the media in the event we are kidnapped or killed. It was strange to write a letter I pray no one will ever have to read. Writing the letter, was also incredibly important. It forced me to think clearly and concisely about why I’m willing to risk my wonderful life for the opportunity to be part of the work CPT does. This is an excerpt of the statement I submitted:

“I’ve come to understand that the holy lands are not the lands on which Jesus walked, but the lands on which he is still walking. The holy land is the place where people of faith stand in resistance to all that seeks to destroy. Not just in Palestine but also in Colombia, Iraqi Kurdistan, Lesbos, Canada, and your hometown. I am called to walk this holy land faithfully with our partners, and I am deeply humbled to be able to do so.”

The final day of training arrived with a whirlwind of music, celebration, Chicago-style deep dish pizza, and way more tears than I’m comfortable admitting. To the tune of “For the Healing of the Nations,” each of us walked down the graduation line receiving certificates and some of us receiving invitations to join the corps. When that beautiful red hat covered my head, it felt like an anointing. I was a CPT Reservist. Finally.

 

Jennifer Keeney Scarr is pastor of the Trotwood Church of the Brethren and a newly minted Christian Peacemaker Teams Reservist. The daughter of two pastors, she lived in Southern California before moving to the Midwest to attend Bethany Theological Seminary from which she earned an MDiv in Peace Studies Conflict Transformation. She now lives in Trotwood, Ohio with her husband, Jonathan Brumbaugh Scarr. Pastor Jen is also an active leader among Progressive Brethren, most recently moderating the Womaen’s Caucus’ women in ministry panel at the Church of the Brethren’s Annual Conference this past summer in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Image Credits: Jennifer Keeney Scarr and Leia Tijou

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In A Reunion Like This We Can Share – Guest Blogger, Anita Hooley Yoder

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The following originally appeared on the blog Anabaptist Historians and was republished here with the permission of the author. For more on Anabaptist Historians, check out https://anabaptisthistorians.org/about/

History matters in the church. It matters what kinds of stories are told about our past, and who gets to tell them.

This was obvious at the recent Mennonite Church USA convention in Orlando, where a timeline exercise brought up some past events and issues but left out others. (See Joel Nofziger’s recent post)

As I worked on a book on the history of Mennonite women’s organizations, I found myself especially captivated by stories I had not heard before, and did not fit neatly into a typical understanding of Mennonite women. I was specifically fascinated to learn about the activities of Black and Hispanic Mennonite women, which began in an organized way in the 1970s and, to some extent, continue to today.

These activities are narrated in just one chapter in the book, but I hope the chapter I wrote is just the beginning of more writing and sharing about what happened at these events and the way God continues to work through Mennonite women of all kinds of backgrounds.

Below is an excerpt from Circles of Sisterhood, about the start of the Hispanic Mennonite women’s conferences. To read more, purchase the book! You can order online from Mennonite Women USA or MennoMedia.

Seferina De León speaking at an Hispanic Mennonite women’s conference in the 1970s

The first Spanish-speaking Mennonite women’s conference was held in April 1973 in Moline, Illinois. Maria Bustos, wife of pastor Mac Bustos, coordinated the gathering, along with Lupe Bustos and Maria Rivera Snyder. Several reasons were given for the one-day event, which was called a servicio de inspiración. Seferina De León described it as an opportunity “to have a group of our own to listen to each other and figure out how we can help each other.”1 The organizers specifically wanted to gather women whose husbands were involved in church work and spent much time traveling, so the women could have a meaningful time together while their husbands stayed home.2 In a Voice article about the conference, Lupe Bustos wrote that the gathering arose from a concern for women who could not speak English and had never had the benefit of participating in the WMSC [the Mennonite Church women’s organization].3 As a woman of “American-Spanish descent,” she had been encouraged by attending WMSC meetings and wanted to provide similar encouragement for Spanish-speaking women.4

At the first conference, about sixty women gathered from churches in several Midwestern states as well as New York and Texas. Lupe Bustos’s article described the event as having women’s marks of creativity and care: hospitable overnight hosts, corsages for each participant, a craft project fashioning crosses out of a variety of materials. But the most memorable aspect of the event was the spiritual presence that pervaded it. The Spirit-led singing, prayer, and testimonies came to a climax when the women gathered to take communion. Mac Bustos wished to join the group for the communion service, which was led by pastor Mario Bustos. Suffering from leg pain and other health complications so severe that he was planning to give up his pastoral work, Pastor Mac was assisted into the sanctuary. Women nearby laid hands on him as they prayed and praised God. Suddenly, Mac got up and said, “Praise the Lord, all pain is gone!” He began going up and down the steps to show his increased mobility.5 “Tears just streamed from all of us,” Lupe Bustos wrote. “We realized that God still performs miracles; and a miracle happened to all of us there, because we were renewed again in Him.”6

The conference’s leaders viewed the miraculous healing of Mac Bustos as confirmation of God’s presence with them and as encouragement to continue their gatherings. At the October 1973 Minority Ministries Council meeting, they made plans for another conference and also adopted the name Conferencia Femenil Hispana Menonita (Hispanic Mennonite Women’s Conference). This is the name the group uses today, after a several-year period of using the name Sociedad de Damas Cristianas en Acción (Society of Christian Women in Action).

A 1974 gathering was planned for Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first gathering was presumably paid for by the women themselves; Maria Bustos lists “faith” in the finances column on a chart showing figures for the early conferences.7 To help with the second conference, the Concilio leaders wrote to the WMSC requesting a grant of $3,000 for “las hermanas.” The WMSC executive committee decided to make the money available, even though it required some temporary reallocation of funds. Beulah Kauffman, WMSC director, wrote a letter to the WMSC district presidents explaining the move and reminding them of the WMSC meeting at the 1973 MC assembly. . . . At that meeting, women had expressed that they would “stand ready to help in whatever ways possible” when “clearly defined” needs of Spanish-speaking members were presented. Kauffman described this request as just such a need and expressed hope that women across the denomination would consider making the Hispanic women’s conference their annual giving project.8

The WMSC money was apparently the only outside funding received for the 1974 conference. Women from many Hispanic churches contributed through offerings, craft sales, and other fundraisers, either to support the conference in general or to fund the travel of their own members. Lois Gunden Clemens attended the gathering as a WMSC representative. She reflected in a July 1974 Voice article: “It has been good for me at various times to be a minority within a Christian group representing a cultural heritage different from mine. My heart has been strangely warmed in sensing the oneness I could feel with them. This was true again when I joined our Spanish-speaking sisters gathered together in their Lancaster meeting.”9 Enriqueta Diaz summed up her sentiments about the conference in an August 1974 Voice article: “It is marvelous that in a reunion like this we can share with each other ideas, emotions, and thoughts, all in our own language and in a cordial environment. Praise God for His love!”10

Excerpt and photo are from Circles of Sisterhood by Anita Hooley Yoder. © 2017 Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Va. All rights reserved. Used with permission. www.HeraldPress.com

Anita Hooley Yoder works as Campus Ministry Coordinator at Notre Dame College in South Euclid, Ohio. She and her husband live in the Cleveland area and attend Friendship Mennonite Church. She is also the author of the recently published book on Mennonite women’s organizations, Circles of Sisterhood. Anita serves as secretary of the Brethren Journal Association Board.

  1. Quoted in Felipe Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites: Civil Rights, Faith, and Evangelical Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press), 152. Maria Bustos is often referred to as “Mary Bustos” in publications, since there were many other “Marias” involved with the organization. I follow Hinojosa in using “Maria.”
  2. Ibid., 152–53.
  3. Lupe Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” Voice, April 1973, 5.
  4. Ibid.
  5. This event is also written about in several other places, including Hinojosa, Latino Mennonites, 153.
  6. Bustos, “Historic Women’s Assembly,” 5–6.
  7. Mary Bustos, “Report to the Executive Committee,” November 10, 1978, box 1, folder 3, WMSC Partnerships Records, 1973–1992 (IV-20-008), MCUSAA– Elkhart.
  8. Beulah Kauffman, letter to district WMSC presidents, April 3, 1974, box 4, folder 19, Women’s Missionary and Service Commission Executive Committee Records, 1917–1997 (IV-20-001), MCUSAA– Elkhart.
  9. Lois Gunden Clemens, “Editorially Speaking,” Voice, July 1974, 2.
  10. Enriqueta Díaz, “Hispanic Women’s Conference,” Voice, August 1974, 11.
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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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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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Theopoetics Conference Recap – Guest Blogger, Evan Underbrink

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A man, masked in the guise of some immortal earth spirit, rumbles in his deep baritone a song as he comes onto the improvised stage, to an audience of some fifty theopoets and scholars. His hair is moss; his eyes shine through the hip-bone holes of some vernal skeleton, the mind’s eye being born from mother earth. His hands hold a basket, or womb, or crib, redolent with the leaves and needles of trees. He sings:

            I am stretched out, on your grave
            and I’ll stay there forever.

This begins the “acceptance speech” turned performance from the Rubem Alves Award for Theopoetic excellence. This award, in honor to a giant within our field, was given to Tevyn East, director of Holy Fool Arts, who would shortly join her husband Jay on the stage, in the dress of Mother Nature, which had been formed from dumpster finds. She and her husband Jay were performing a small portion of their “Carnival de Resistance.” In their act, they deftly stitch together dance, song, stagecraft, Bible verses and allusion, poetry, and social activism:

            Did not your prophets tell of the burning of the cedars of Lebanon?

The award winners were well-chosen, as the themes of art and activism would be a unifying strand throughout all the papers, workshops, and panels which studded the conference.

It all began, however, with Jillian Weise, and her poetry reading. Having time for a brief refreshment and some introductory remarks, the poet and scholar was introduced to a room she was very shortly to own. Her pieces touched the intersection of art and the embodied life of the person with a disability, a term which she presented with no small ambivalence, preferring instead to call herself a “cyborg.” She first read “The Amputee’s Guide to Sex,” which proffered this advice:

            to create an uninhibited environment for your partner,
            track their hands like game pieces on a board.

Continue reading below after enjoying this song. Reflect on the lyrics and meditate on the music’s movements.

In the Q&A that followed, Jillian talked provocatively about her activism, her body as a place where the battle for the rights of the disabled – a term she adopts with great ambivalence, preferring to call herself a “cyborg” – was waged. The community applauds, celebrates, and breaks up into talk and refreshments. Outside, a simple blackboard sign, facing the street, reads, “Poetry & Party Tonight. All Welcome.”

The first-morning panel held Scott Holland, a theopoetic scholar and regular in the field, the Transgender Social Justice Educator and writer J’Lissabeth Faughn, Lisa Hess, a scholar of interreligious learning, conscious feminine leadership and Christian spirituality, and the black theologian and scholar Adam Clark. They danced with questions of aesthetics and activism, with what is this thing theopoetics, and offered the reflections of their own fields and selves they each saw therein. An argument slowly unfurled itself over conceptions of gender, the purposes of art, the failures and benefits of preaching. As one witness later put it, “by the end, I thought it was about to go down!” And yet, we seemed to have found some peculiar gift which allowed for deep disagreement to coexist with deep connection. No small feat, given the seemingly inevitable sacrifice of one or the other in most communities.

The panels kept the discussion going, each session stretched with wide spaces for conversation, connection, and honoring of disagreement and divergence. These stretched the gamut of topics, from the esoteric nature of resistance to be found in the figure of Herman Melville’s Bartleby and expressed by Daniel Boscaljon, to the quiet and profound poetry of Jeff Gundy, under the title “Beauty is Something to Love”, to the joy and laughter of Jan Voigts “The Bible through a Comic Lens.” Beauty, activism, connection, and hidden in the corners of our conversations was some love of that surplus necessity; the idea that the best of what we were doing were the things which could not be captured in our speech, theories, and arguments.

Before our final meal together, and the Holy Fool’s performance, Troy Bronsink, the founder/director/spiritual director of The Hive led us in an embodied, contemplative grace:

            Allow yourself to feel gratitude,
            starting from the top of your head, and moving down…

Some would have called it worship. Others meditation. Some would refrain from putting that time in strict categories. Regardless of our words, we were together, in an expression of gratitude for our bodies, ourselves, our community, our weekend together, and that time we had to cherish that time.

The next day, a smaller group of us would gather at the local Bed and Breakfast to try and name those things, to keep some expression of them in the next conference. Words and concepts were offered, considered, and appreciated from all around the table:

17103594_1461965687171127_3646029071182532306_n
Callid Keefe-Perry, as Evan puts it, is one of the Saints of Theopoetics.

            “Connection.”
            “Not like other academic conferences.”
            “A place where artists and scholars meet.”
            “I saw respectful disagreement.”

In the end, it was Callid himself, the founder and head of our theopoetic group, who named the darker elephants in the room. With impassioned, reddened eyes, he said: “At this time, when there is so much fear, and some many things falling apart, we need this. Everything is falling, and we need to be here, building something up.” Looking around, at the faces of hopeful artists, thoughtful scholars, and perhaps one silly lover of Dante, I have to agree.

 

img_04772Evan is a published short story author and student of Theopoetics at Bethany Theological Seminary in Richmond, Indiana. Evan‘s editor has told him that he has to write a more human bio than he first submitted. This has turned out to be a daunting prospect, as writing about himself in the third person seems a rather artificial act, leading to inevitable self-calumny. Evan feels in this moment as if he is doing the equivalent of standing in front of a mirror, that most sacred of contemporary artifices, and attempting to describe himself in writing to someone with very little point of reference. Dürer’s “Rhinoceros” comes to this mind. Therefore, Evan would like it known that he is most certainly not a rhinoceros.

 

Photo Credit: Evan Underbrink

“Gungor – “Late Have I Loved You”,” YouTube, April 04, 2010, , accessed March 16, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3WoCwuPXhvM.
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Road to Selma – Guest Blogger, Sarah Bond-Yancey

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The following poem was written as the author reflected on receiving her level 1 trainer certification in Kingian Nonviolence Conflict Reconciliation at the Selma Center for Nonviolence, Truth & Reconciliation. A Pagan, she nonetheless weeps for those whom Jesus weeps and actively seeks a day when justice will roll like a river (Amos 5:24). How do her compassion and action challenge our often safe and lazy faith? – C

Road to Selma

First thing I notice is16999128_10102948986529423_7131485732795198647_n
Greyhound –
Those famous Freedom Rider lines? –
Don’t run here anymore

Only way to get here
Now?
Seventy-five bucks to Uber
After five hundred bucks to fly

An economic ebb and flow
Drains the rolling Alabama River
Robbing the nameless
To feed the faceless

Another rusting facet on the
Pipeline
of Economic Genocide

Priced out of
Existence
Mapped out of
Deliverance

A white moderate nation says
Not my fault
Not my problem

But

Blacks killing blacks
Is still lynching
If the city’s soul is strung up
In the freshly bleached cords of
White
Supremacy

Doc sits quietly to the side,
Eyes glimmering in the amber sun rays,
Tells us of a time:

These empty streets
Once were filled
These tender prayers
Once were willed

But

The searing summer of Whiteness ended,
Biracial autumn waxing,
White flight
To some other unsuspecting summer
Left these faithful streets
To wander themselves
In search of feet
To warm them

Left these faithful lights
To shine themselves out of oblivion
In search of another sun
To call their own

May I remind you –

It is still called segregation
When white and black
Are seasons
Are timelines
Are zip codes

It is still called segregation
If the buses stop running
When the whites stop riding
And the Freedom lines no longer stop in
Selma.

10547461_10101430233053563_8814039422811650982_nSarah Bond-Yancey is Volunteer Coordinator for Habitat for Humanity and Impact Planning & Analysis Coordinator for On Earth Peace.  She lives in Bellingham, Washington with her partner Brian. When not working toward justice, she has been known to make alpaca crafts.

Photo Credits: Sarah Bond-Yancey

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Four Reasons Why People Attend Church: Socialization & Transformation in Today’s Church Pt. III – Guest Blogger, Brody Rike

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Reason #3: To Commune

The third reason that many attend churches is the desire to be a part of a community of believers, or perhaps a more shallow way of putting it, “a desire to make new friends.” There is no question, whether we are talking about socialized or transformed individuals, this is clearly a more mature step in a journey through church life. Entering into new relationships always has a risk factor. It is risky to allow others to know you and to take steps toward new people, engaging yourself in their lives. New relationships always have the potential to create strong bonds as easily as they can create new conflicts. People who are willing to take these steps are willing to make some form of sacrifice. When this kind of sacrifice is happening, it can bring great vitality to the social culture of a congregation.

CommunityCommunity through Socialization
I once believed that longing for community is a void that everyone had, and that it was a high priority in the lives of most people. From my experience as a minister, I conclude this simply is not true in the American culture in which we live. I do believe people still long for community, but their scope of what community is has become much smaller while the overall burden for it as a whole has decreased. For many people, the immediate and extended family is enough scope for a community. One or two good friends are often enough community, a few closer acquaintances at a workplace or even regular interaction on Facebook and social media can fill the void of a community. Sure, most would love to be known by many and even have many close friends, but when it comes to making decisions to move toward new and closer relationships, it is just not something that most will do, or even know how to do. As such, people coming to church for others is a good thing. Socialized people that pursue community are pursuing relationships, but not necessarily pursuing relationships to foster their spiritual growth or contribute to another’s spiritual growth. They are willing to take the risk of making new friends and developing more engaged relationships, but the only spiritual prerequisite for these relationships is that they attend the same church.

Community after Transformation
When one who is being transformed begins consuming the things for God and makes a commitment to a church community, they recognize that there are other Christians in the congregation that they need to engage to grow spiritually, just as they notice that there are relationships that they should pursue to help others grow spiritually. A key point of validation to determine whether one is pursuing community for transformation or socialization is the content of their dialogue outside of worship or Christian education settings. People in socialized church relationships will never speak of the Holy Spirit, sin or victory when they are together in non-programmed moments, except maybe for a prayer request from time to time. But those who are being transformed will look upon a brother or sister in Christ as one of the only people that they can talk to about such things. Sure it will not be the only topic of their interactions, but when these matters of the heart conversations are happening, spiritual growth is happening.
My call into ministry began with a moment like this. When I was 19 years old, I had a transformative moment when I had an encounter with Jesus Christ. A month before this experience I had just moved into an apartment near my college campus with four other guys so I could have the full “college experience.” When I became a Christian not only did I not know anyone else my age that was living their life for Christ, I didn’t even know if these types of people existed. Within weeks of this transformative experience, the Lord led me to about 15 other young adults at a church right around the corner from my apartment; with whom I soon wanted to spend all of my time. This desire was so strong that I joined the program they were in and began training for ministry; when I actually just wanted to have Christian community. My relationships with these young men and women were based on the common bond that we all had, to love God with our lives and to sharpen and encourage each other to grow closer to Christ.

Reason #4: Calling

A final reason why just a few attend churches is a sense of calling, purpose, and responsibility. living-a-life-worthy-of-the-calling-650x487Transformed people who are giving their lives over to the will of God will begin to have a sense of mission and destiny. They will begin to recognize that there are few coincidences when we walk with the Lord and that there is something sacred about the opportunities that they have been given to build the church of Christ. When congregation members begin to see themselves as called to a body, they no longer speak of a church as “this church” but rather “my church.” Called members have a sense of ownership in the congregation, but ownership is really only the first indicator, and it is one that can be easily confused with a socialized commitment.

A better indicator is when someone who is called begins to talk about challenges in their congregation; you will not hear them pointing a finger in the other direction, but rather asking or finding a way to be a part of the solution. Transformed, called people see their church as a spiritual mission, that they are responsible for. A final indicator that we will mention is found in consideration of transition. Those who don’t see their church as part of their calling as a Christ-follower can easily find reasons to leave the church. These reasons usually come in response to a new void that is found in one of the previous reasons why they originally attended; they don’t like the new pastor’s sermons or the new kid’s programs (consuming), they no longer want to serve in the capacity that they have been serving in or have been asked to serve in a different way (commitment), or there is just too much conflict in their relationships at church (community). A transformed person who is called, will not transition from a congregation for any of the above reasons, because they recognize that they are not at their current congregation on their own terms, but rather the Lord’s. The primary reason why someone who is called would transition from a congregation would be that they get a genuine sense that the Lord is leading them in a different direction. This leading is far beyond their own personal preferences, but a moving of the Holy Spirit in their life.

This last reason of calling was not placed in two categories as all the others, because the final reason is a rare reason why one would attend church and one that is hard to socialize. For the lay member, it would take the work of cult-like manipulation to be socialized into attending a church because they are called. Paid clergy, on the other hand, can in fact slip into a mode where they can socialize their own calling from the Lord. I would guess that if you ask 99 out of 100 clergy if they felt called to their congregation, they would say yes, and express many of the feelings and language of calling. However, the socialization creeps in when they see themselves in the role as “sent from God,” but are no longer working hard to produce spiritual growth in their congregations and rather begin to go through the motions, keeping the peace and making others feel good about themselves while collecting a paycheck. It is in the hands of severely socialized clergy that the church begins to be in danger of removing the transformative power of the Gospel from their church.

A Way Forward
As a minister who has now journaled my assessments of my current congregation along with experiences in different congregations, I will conclude with my convictions and a commission that is a way forward for all churches in the middle of this tension between the socialized and the transformed. First, ministers who are being transformed or have at once been transformed must return or draw near again to Christ seeking his plan and his will for the church they pastor. They must be burdened with love for the spiritual growth of their people. Secondly, they must realize that transformed people are the hope of their congregation. They must begin to focus on some key relationships within their church and not be afraid to ask them the tough questions about their faith. This task is truly spiritual, which is why much of the burden must be placed on the work of the Holy Spirit through prayer. This description is of person to person discipleship, which must be passed on from clergy to lay members and lay members to other lay members and/or the unchurched in their communities. I do believe that the Church of Jesus Christ is the hope of the world and the Church will fulfill its mission when lives are being transformed by the Holy Spirit.

This blog post is the final installment of a three-part series based on a paper written for Russell Haitch’s Educating in the Spirit class during the fall of 2016.

brBrody Rike is Pastor of West Alexandria Church of the Brethren in West Alexandria, Ohio, where he has served the last four years. Brody is a current MA student at Bethany Theological Seminary and holds a BA in Biblical Studies. At 36 years-old his ministry experience includes ministerial roles as a senior pastor and youth pastor with the Assemblies of God. Brody also has experience working in Christian education as a Bible Teacher, Athletic Director and Principal. He is happily married and a father of three, who remains active in his community, coaching varsity basketball and coordinating ministry programs in local public schools.

Photo Credits: Doing Life Better and Center for the Advancement of Christian Education (CACE)

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