The Great Divorce: Tension and Schism in the UMC

dreamumc-one-yearThis blog post is part of a synchblog today on the topic of schism in the UMC. Please share your thoughts here, on the DreamUMC website, on your blog or facebook page, and tonight at 9 pm eastern on Twitter as we chat together.


Sadly, I have recent experience with splitting up.

It’s not easy, and it hurts more than anything I’ve experienced– a profound loss akin to the death of a loved one. A complex and roiling issue, filled with technical, procedural, emotional, psychological, and spiritual transformation: this is the road of divorce. It’s not an experience I’d wish on anyone.

At the same time, I can attest that sometimes a relationship becomes unhealthy, un-fulfilling, unloving. Sometimes, separation, while painful, brings new life and more beautiful, vibrant hope than either party has known.

I’ve never been a huge supporter of the idea of schism in The United Methodist Church. I recognize that there are many times when I exclaim “I’m done!” or “I’m getting out!” I see the efforts for inclusion thwarted again and again, and the uniquely Methodist understanding of grace eroded away. I hear my ecumenical colleagues lament struggles within their denominations, but talk openly about their sexuality, or see them tagged on Facebook, officiating weddings for their gay or lesbian congregants, and want to weep (okay, sometimes do). But I remain. I recognize that this urge to quit is born out of anger and pain, not my best place of discernment. I stay because I believe history is too full of schism over people of color and women, and I want this to be the time we learn to embrace God’s children as they are. I stay because I want to leave no one behind. I stay because there is much I love about the UMC, not the least of which is the love that binds us together, a deep commitment to engage in struggle together.

I suppose I say to myself, in the words of the Indigo Girls: “I still believe, despite our differences, that what we have’s enough. I believe in us, and I believe in love.”

I wonder, though.

I wonder, because my ability to minister effectively in my community and my context is being severely undermined by words in the Book of Discipline that do not offer love and grace, but condemnation and dehumanization. Even while my local church welcomes and embraces all persons, and even while I have vowed to officiate weddings based on the love, maturity, and commitment of the parties and not their genders, even so, simply calling my friends, loved ones, family members, congregants and community members “incompatible” makes it nearly impossible to extend the love and blessing of Christ. I wonder because so much time, effort, and resource goes into trying to change the Book of Discipline in a handful of paragraphs, or to stonewall any changes, that our witness and mission as a global denomination is hampered if not completely halted. Most of all I wonder because we cannot even agree that we are in disagreement. We can’t acknowledge our differences openly and with vulnerability (by saying, for example, that people of good faith disagree about homosexuality). If we can’t say we have differences, how can we believe Love is enough, despite them?

Weeks like this past one have me thinking maybe schism wouldn’t be so bad. But then I think about how it would play out. It starts to feel like arguing over china. But sometimes plates have sentimental value, and sometimes people need a way to eat. How would agencies and committees be allocated? Who “gets” the Board of Discipleship and its work? Who “gets” the Committee on Relief? Oh, we’d figure it out, I’m sure. But if the publishing house and the Board of Global Mission are plates and cups and wedding gifts, what I really worry about are the children.

I worry about people in local churches.

Take my local church. We are not a reconciling congregation, although every so often, the background conversation begins that we should do the work to search our beliefs and values and make a statement about sexuality and inclusivity. It would not be unanimous, but there would be large support. Mostly, I think folks haven’t’ done it yet because they don’t want to leave any loved ones out. So where does that leave this small but vibrant, progressive but cautious, inclusive of queer people and of traditionalists, congregation of beloved children as their parents argue and split and divide the shared property? I can’t answer that question, but it makes me heartsick.

There are a couple of reasons why I think we can remain together, and should at least try:

becca-at-protest1. Our strength is in our diversity. The nearest United Methodist Church to the one I serve is six miles away. It is a more conservative, traditional congregation with a more conservative, traditional (male) pastor (until July 1 anyway). My colleague and I can be found at the Vermont State House on marriage equality days, wearing our clerical collars and standing on opposite sides of the demonstrations. But on days when there are rallies for workers’ rights, economic justice, or health care access, we can be found side by side, partners in the religious and spiritual task of seeking justice. When someone comes to my office, expressing dismay that the church where I serve– or I myself– is too liberal, I gladly give them the contact information for the church in Barre. Every so often a person comes in to Trinity, having tried the church in Barre and finding it “too conservative,” and finds a happy home in our congregation. Together, these two United Methodist Churches serve the needs and build the gifts of people who are and may be United Methodist in this area. We need each other.

2. When I worked on the reproductive rights subcommittee at General Conference, we found that a great number of people from a huge variety of contexts, backgrounds, and beliefs could come to the table and discuss abortion in fruitful ways. We reached an impasse every time we tried to proscribe what doctors and patients should and should not do. But every time we refocused on who were were as United Methodists and how we were called to be in ministry before, during, and after crisis pregnancy, we were able to reach a closer consensus despite our vast differences. When we listened to each others’ stories and asked what our proactive, loving, spiritual response should be, we could live in harmony. Despite our differences, Love was enough.

Here’s what I think we should do.

1. I think we need– right now, at the next General Conference– enabling legislation to create a United States Central Conference. This will allow The United Methodist Church to hold some things in common– our articles of faith, our boards and ministries, our local congregations, and yes as of this most recent General Conference, our Social Principles. It will allow every Central Conference to amend the rest of the Book of Discipline, and the way is is lived out, to take into account their local context. I think Jurisdictional Central Conferences could work, but that leaves a lot of southern progressives in a tough spot, in strange solidarity with northern conservatives. It is the only way I believe we can remain united, however, allowing us to hold essentials in unity, non essentials in liberty, and all things in deep grace and love. This change necessitates a second, no less important one…

2. We need to remove all proscriptive language from the Social Principles. As the UMC tries to make the Discipline more global, this is the only way forward. As a positive example, this is what we found about discussing abortion. We could all mourn the circumstances that might cause individuals to consider abortion, but we could not make any statement with consensus about calling for an end to practices, supporting or not supporting organizations that provide access to medical care including abortion, and so on. Let that be a local, contextual response. So, while paragraph 161 of the Discipline says “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” and I imagine we would keep arguing about that, it cannot further state that “self avowed practicing homosexuals shall not be appointed to serve as ministers in the UMC.” See the difference? The latter is proscriptive, and is more rightly a conversation for a more local context.

3. Consider this a trial separation. Can we give one another the space to live and serve in love in our contexts, equipping each other but not constraining the ministry that needs to happen? Or has too much damage been done? Can we live with or change the “incompatibility” language? Can we live with the liberty of our siblings in the movement? Can we heal the pain of the past? If not, can we use this breathng space and the time and space we need to more amicably consider how we would move forward together and apart?

Today, for now, I hold on to hope. Love is my favorite name for God, and so when I consider our divisions, I have to hold out for the power of Love. Despite our differences, what we have is and can be and I hope will be enough. I believe in Love.

Diary of a Delegate: rebuttal – Some More Equal than Others

I received a comment on my last post (and have received several mentions on Twitter) decrying my efforts with my colleagues as overly political, pushing an agenda, and even Machiavellian or Orwellian. My commenter wrote: “The only totalitarianism is the ‘progressive’ caucus forcing their will on the rest of the church. Disgraceful.”

Let me be clear: this was indeed a wild, crazy, political, how-the-sausage-gets-made, messy jumble. But if you’re looking for the “some are more equal than others” agenda, you are barking up the wrong side of the barn, my friends.

Make no mistake: the progressives were not the only ones caucusing, strategizing, and trying to make sure their “agenda” made it to the floor. We were not the only ones who huddled at the 4:15 break or the dinner hour. We were not the only ones who had been working for ten days to try to mold the United Methodist Church into the vision to which we believe God has called it.

We may be the only ones willing to blog about it, however.

I will not accuse my colleagues from differing theological perspectives of nasty politics. I will say however, that they had meetings out on the floor and behind closed doors. They were organized. They had powerful people and blocks of voters on their sides. They were, for nine and a half days, unstoppable. Their agenda– an agenda of silencing dissent, whitewashing minority voices, consolidating oversight (which we have learned is patently unconstitutional) and solidifying power in conservative demographics– was very clear and very much in force.

Let me share with you my agenda, particularly in the final evening, but really throughout the General Conference. I can only speak for myself, but I believe it was and is shared by many:

1. Provide for the ministries of the United Methodist Church to function well for the next 4 years. This includes equipping the general boards and agencies or whatever their successor bodies are with the resources and people they need to continue to be a vital voice and resource for our church.

2. Protect the voices of women, persons of color, the GLBTQ community (such voice as it has), and any others pushed to the margins. This includes advocating for a strong and thriving GCORR and COSROW.

3. Propose legislation that does no harm or mitigates harm. Oppose and try to prevent legislation that does harm.

4. Maintain a space in the United Methodist Church for social justice and prophetic preaching.

5. Whenever and however possible, cultivate space for all voices in the conversations, so that people are engaged in the process and the shaping of the future of their church. This includes a commitment to transparency and the honesty with which I blog about our process.

6. Stay within the proposed, smaller quadrennial budget, so as not to harm local churches in their ability to do ministry. Because…

7. In all things, remember that what GC does and how the UMC is formed matters only in so far as it equips local churches for the vital, transformational, contextual ministry they do. We have to help and not hinder churches in reaching more and more diverse people, lifting up principled and equipped leaders, being in ministry across socioeconomic, political, ethnic, gender, etc divides, and reaching out in mission to meet the needs of our global family. Or, you know, make and nurture disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the church and the world.

Diary of a Delegate: in Opposition to Disaffiliation

… or, Why I Remain United Methodist

General Conference logo, United Methodist Communications

In the midst of my preparations for Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday this past week, I received a mailing sent to delegates of General Conference. It was a pamphlet entitled “In Support of Disaffiliation for Reasons of Conscience,” speaking to a particular piece of legislation that arises in one form or another every four years.

As we know, the United Methodist Church is deeply divided over its own position on homosexuality, with many of us seeking to overturn the church’s policy that homosexuality is not compatible with Christian teaching, and that the church cannot officiate marriages/unions for gay or lesbian couples, or appoint and ordain pastors who are in relationships with a person of the same gender. And so, in response to this division, the question arises each General Conference: are we really the “United” Methodist Church? Should we split along lines of opinion on this matter? Can what we have in common hold us together when compared with the depth of our disagreements?

This particular legislation would give local churches the right to disaffiliate from the denomination, becoming, I presume, non denominational churches (something with which I have whole other levels of issue– much as I may resist over-focus on metrics, accountability is a very good thing!), and would allow clergy to withdraw from the denomination (something I thought I could do anyway), all based on whether or not we agree with the church’s stance on homosexuality.

Personally, I don’t find this a compelling course of action. It suggests that the depth of Methodism is agreement with the Book of Discipline in whatever its current iteration is, or even worse, agreement with a handful of paragraphs.

I am often asked, given the outspoken passion with which I disagree with my denomination’s policy on this point, why I don’t withdraw my status as a United Methodist clergy person and affiliate with a denomination that I find more agreeable.

The reason is that there is so much more to being United Methodist to me than our current language about gay people.

Don’t get me wrong; how we treat others is vitally important, and as I have said, our language and position on homosexuality represent, in my opinion, our gravest sins of commission. However, I did not choose the UMC as my denomination based on whether or not I agreed with the Discipline.

I grew up Roman Catholic, and so upon feeling called to pastoral ministry, I went denomination shopping, learning as much as I could before intentionally affiliating with one denomination that I felt was most faithful to how I understood the call to live as the Body of Christ. I chose the United Methodist Church for four reasons:

  1. An understanding of grace that gives voice to both the journey and the love that surrounds us before we even know it,
  2.  Mission that does not seek conversion, but empowers people by working side by side, and a historical commitment to social justice in all levels of mission and minsitry,
  3. “The quadrilateral,” which is a misnomer, but for me means that we are never asked to check our reason or experience at the door, but continue to engage with the history and context of our faith as we understand and apply scripture, and
  4. Strong support of women in pastoral leadership. This includes the fact that, because Bishops make appointments, women cannot be refused as pastors by local churches, based on their gender. Neither can persons of color. One day, when we ordain gay and lesbian clergy as I believe we will, neither can they.

I now add the itinerancy as something I find invaluable about the UMC. I hate it when it’s time for me to go, but I do honestly feel that the Methodist practice of having clergy appointed by the Bishop for a shorter (ie less than 20 years) period of time keeps congregations and clergy fresh, promotes congregational identity that is separate from the pastor (resists cult of pastoral personality), and frees clergy to preach, teach, and administer with sometimes difficult words and actions without fear of direct retribution from the personnel committee (now, whether one can critique the denomination or conference without reprisal is another matter… 😉 ). And, above all, I love the people called Methodist.

So I remain. The United Methodist Church is not perfect. We are slow in “moving on to perfection” in trying to be who we say and envision we are. Still, I believe we are on the path to being as faithful a people as we can be. We engage difficult conversations, and it takes us time to resolve them, because we are a global and diverse body. We are a deeply passionate people, and we care far more about following and serving Christ than perfecting doctrine, so we quibble incessantly, because following Christ is hard to figure out faithfully.

Reuters photo-- but we all know it's just cool to text with Methodists.

I believe there is room for everyone in the United Methodist Church.

Dick Cheney is United Methodist. So is Hillary Clinton. So is Rush Limbaugh. So is Sandra Fluke.

So am I.

And as strange as it may be, and as hard as it is to see sometimes, I believe there is more that keeps us together than can keep us apart. We believe in Christ. We strive to follow. We believe that social justice is vital to ministry and mission and theology itself. We walk grace as a journey before we even know it and long after we have had our “hearts strangely warmed.” We sing. We pray. We eat potluck like nobody’s business. We value relationship and connection– with God and with each other. We confess our sins of racism and discrimination, and try, albeit imperfectly, to repent. We have a network of mission across the face of the earth in more places and in longer deployments than nearly any other charity in the world. We say our hearts and minds are open, and we pray it might be so.

We have split in the past (over slavery), and there are those who have walked away because of matters of conscience (over homosexuality or discrimination, or other reasons we may not know). We will continue to wiggle and wrestle and fragment, I am sure.

But I’m not leaving until and unless we lose what holds us together, or until and unless the day comes when the church no longer wants me because the denomination sees not enough in my ministry that keeps me Methodist when compared to the areas of my disagreement. When I criticize my church over homosexuality or idolizing metrics or anything else, I do it because I love it, and because I believe my voice matters– in the pulpit, in the committee rooms and on the floor of General Conference, and yes even on this little blog– when it comes to engaging the church as it is and calling it into what it needs to be.

We are a great denomination, but I believe we can be yet more faithful. I want to be part of that conversation and growth, as we are made perfect in love and witness by the one who calls us to life, to faith, to work.

What’s wrong with this picture?

UMNS photo by Heather Hahn

A friend of mine on Facebook pointed out this telling picture from a recent United Methodist News Source story, and the way it captures the heart of the problem with the restructuring proposals coming out of the Call to Action (which I’ve critiqued here and for which I offered a different approach). The flip chart reads “Denominational Goal: 1. Stop Decline. 2. Encourage Growth.”

Now, I’m going to grant that there are times when we need to have strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth, and thinking and praying about planning about how to do those things is not wrong. It’s probably better described as the goal of this particular brainstorming session, but the title “denominational goal” is particularly telling in a Freudian sort of way.

That’s what we’re worried about.

And that’s what we’ve made our focus.

When I came to my current church, this is the exact question that was presented as the congregation’s central concern. We are losing members. We are not growing. Help us stop losing people and encourage growth. Of course in a way, that’s what needed to happen, and we measure our success in those efforts by counting how many people come in or out of the church. Fine.

But we did not develop a church growth strategy around stopping decline and encouraging growth. We did one very simple, very difficult thing.

We refocused on our mission.

No numbers. No statistics.

We did our ministry, and let go of the numbers for a little bit.

The decline stopped almost immediately, because there was something about which people were passionate, and they wanted to be a part of it, so they stuck around. The growth is slow and patchy, I admit. But it’s there. Not because we have a goal to increase in number, but because we have a goal to be as faithful as we can be to our mission. Do you know what helped us do that? The strength and connection of the UMC denomination; consultants from the Annual Conference, resources from the Board of Discipleship, connecting back to mission through the Board of Global Missions, the list goes on and on. But that’s what kept us going: our mission.

It reminds me of a story entitled “Panic” in the fantastic book Friedman’s Fables. To paraphrase, a ring of dominoes finds itself in a pickle, as one by one, the dominoes fall. Each domino tries to hold its neighbor up, to stem the tide of crashing dominoes, but to no avail. Finally, one domino manages it; the crashing stops and the dominoes right themselves. The others ask how in the world that one domino was able to stay up, and it replies, “while you were all busy trying to keep others from falling, I just focused on keeping myself from going down.” This one domino held fast to its own strength, its own principle, rather than reacting to the instability around it.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. What if we really tried to figure that out and commit to that? What’s a disciple? How do you “make” one? How do you know you’ve got one?

Instead, we are focused on stopping the crashing around us, on preserving our institution. Has survival of the institution become our denominational goal?

It seems to me that if we are so busy trying to save our (institutional) life, we are sure to lose it. Only when we are willing to die, really die, when we are ready to lose our lives for the sake of the Gospel, will we find our life saved and worth saving. Death is not a restructuring, and certainly not a consolidation of power. Death is a surrender, a release, a return to those things that have birthed us and carried us, a loss of self in the wholeness of God.

And if we can’t hear that story, today of all days… well, then perhaps we are already entombed.

Inspiration and Hope: Why I am part of MFSA

I am part of the Methodist Federation for Social Action because it both inspires me and gives me hope. For me, MFSA lifts up the greatest strengths and addresses the greatest areas of weakness in my denomination.

One of the biggest things that drew me to The United Methodist Church as a college student was the denomination’s commitment to mission work that equips and empowers, and never uses assistance as a bait-and-switch conversion tool (read more about the UMC’s values with respect to relief work here). So many times, I hear people who are skeptical about organized religion say things like, “Christians talk a good game, but they don’t actually try to live like Jesus.” I believe that the UMC and MFSA stand in counterpoint to this view. Although not an official board or body of the UMC, for me MFSA has functioned as the heart and soul of our denomination, inspiring us to continually seek peace and people’s rights, to address systems of poverty, promote progressive initiatives, and work for justice in our own church. Foremost for me, I appreciate a strong witness for pacifism, as I believe that organized religion has too often been used to sound the drums of war.

MFSA inspires me by holding my denomination to a high standard in seeking peace and justice, which I understand to be at the heart of the Reign of God as Jesus proclaimed it. That witness calls the UMC to be the best representation of Christ’s body that we can be.

And yet, we are far from perfect.

Like any human institution, my beloved denomination struggles to be a faithful witness to the vast and encompassing love of God. We fall short in our pacifism; we do not stand strongly enough in defense of the natural world, which we have been told to care for; we botch our inclusivity. We have not fully broken free of– let alone repented of– the racism and Anglo-North-American privilege that saturates so much of our movement. We cut couples off from the blessing of the church and deny the call of God to ministry in persons based on sexual orientation. And we spend so much time arguing about these things– particularly the last– that we neglect our call to be Christian community and extend the love of Christ to the world for its (and our!) transformation.

There are days when that list of shortcomings makes me want to give up.

But for the witness of MFSA, which reminds me that I am not alone. I am not the only one who wants to see a stronger pacifist stance. I am not the only one who weeps when I have to tell a couple I can’t marry them.

I am not the only one who believes that we cannot tend souls without tending bodies, and we cannot preach a just and inclusive Reign of God unless we work for a just and inclusive human society.

MFSA gives me hope by naming the places where The United Methodist Church needs to become more Christlike, and building community to lovingly call us to that work. None of us needs to carry the weight of our brokenness alone, nor shoulder the burden of our need for healing as a denomination.

And that’s why I’m part of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. Why are you?

Pastors only work on Sundays, right?

Today was one of those days. One of those wonderful, glorious days when it may have looked like I did very little to edit a church bulletin or craft a brilliant sermon, but the church and the people of God were foremost on my mind.

I began the day with a meeting in Barre (next town over) with a couple dozen people who are looking into some sustainable and long-term means of providing housing and shelter for people who need it, both in emergency cases, and more importantly, in transitional and long-term independent settings. I may have mentioned that this is a burning passion of mine, and has been for most of my life. This group, while still in the very beginning stages, is looking at the intersection of emergency shelter needs, long-term housing goals, employment opportunities, and sustainable independent living for the approximately 250 persons without housing in Washington County (according to the Vermont Point In Time study conducted to count the homeless [~190] and precariously housed [~50] people as of January, 2010). Once again, it is wonderful to be with so proactive and empowering a group of people. We have a long way to go yet, looking at some big questions, to try to determine where to focus time and resources, assuming financial resources can be made available in these days of shrinking budgets all around. Still, to have a room full of people, some who provide food, some who provide shelter, some who provide job opportunities, some who provide state services, some who have been beneficiaries of some or all of the above, all committed to tackling these multi-faceted issues, it does my heart worlds of good. It may one day (soon we pray) do the community worlds and worlds of good.

I returned to church, to one such sustainable and empowering ministry (our community meal) already in progress, to take a lunch together with the directors of two other meal programs as we made progress in discussing ways to make our shared structures more efficient, accountable, and legally sound through seeking some sort of joint incorporation, all to ensure that people who need food get it, and maybe the systems by which foods are distributed can become more just and sustainable. Or at least, for the time being, the programs in place and function smoothly, effectively, and in ways that keep the IRS and the Secretary of State happy with us.

I thought about my sermon for a little bit.

I ended the evening with a half-hour finance meeting followed by a two-hour church council meeting (but, as we’re not meeting in July, it is my last until after maternity leave ends in October!). Over the course of these meetings, I witnessed incredible excitement (and only moderate frustration) about the vast number of programs Trinity is doing, and almost frenzied discussion of keeping all of the pieces in place amid the many events on the horizon. And I saw one congregation make a commitment to be gracious, generous, and deeply loving to another, beyond what I’d even hoped or imagined they might do. It literally brought tears to my eyes, and I don’t think it was just hormones.

There are days when ministry is frustrating, draining, pushing-a-rock-up-a-perpetual-mountain exhausting, when I end the day more frustrated and distant from God and my own sense of calling than when I started (yesterday was one of those days!). There are days when I not only fail to do good, but when I question whether I have actually done harm in my broken attempts to be who I am called to be. There are days when I am sure that I should chuck it all and go tend bar somewhere, because I can still lend a listening ear, but the drinks flow more freely and the tips are better, and no one is going to pester me about the color of the hymnals or the fingerprints on the banisters.

But then there are days like today. They are rare, to be sure, but they are special, and one of them can make up for months of the others. I live for days like today, days when I feel like I made a difference, days when I am surprised by grace and joy and the way God works in and through people in ways I didn’t anticipate because maybe it’s not all about me and whether or not I make it happen. These are the days I blog about, to remind me of why I do what I do, to tell you why you might consider doing it (or something like it) too, and to give thanks to the One who does make it happen, through and despite my best efforts.

I’ll sleep well tonight, thanks to some passionate people in Barre, some committed foodies in Montpelier, a congregation excited about its ministry and open to sharing its blessings, and the Spirit that spoke to me through all of them for the past fourteen hours.

Local Press, and Pressing Issues

photo by Jeb Wallace-Brodeur, Times Argus

I recently attended a meeting in Montpelier that gained some local press attention. A group of team and agency members, local residents, and interested activists gathered to talk about the problem of lack of affordable housing in the Montpelier area, and the large and growing number of persons who are without housing, are marginally housed, or are in significant danger of losing their housing.

I left the meeting feeling more hopeful about addressing the housing problem than I think I ever have. Here was a group of people who had good and realistic ideas and who are willing to work with the programs that are in place and are working, and build new ones to fill the gaps, and willing to engage the problem from a variety of angles. And while most at the meeting write off the idea of Montpelier having its own emergency homeless shelter as unfeasible, they discussed many other ideas that signified their commitment to seeing solutions come to fruition in the long run, and having something in place to keep people from freezing to death by next winter. There was a lot of support for ideas like a day shelter with access to computers, telephones, laundry facilities, counseling, and resource connections possibly even with caseworkers or peer volunteers, and the need for long-term housing, whether in transitional housing, boarding housing, or ideally single-occupancy units at low cost, so that the emergency shelter could truly be used for emergencies.

No committee or team or round table or think tank is perfect, but some are more functional and less frustrating than others. This particular group of people came from a wide range of the Barre-Montpelier community, and represented social service agencies and organizations, program directors, city council members, housing task force members, at least one person who had actually lived without housing (a demographic almost always, tragically, missing from conversations about how to help homeless people– I dunno, you think we should *ask* them what they need?), and at least one representative of the faith community. Some, obviously, wanted more help for the existing programs (particularly those working in them), and others wanted to add new programs. Some wanted to concentrate efforts in Barre, where housing and public property space are less expensive and more available, while others were passionate that Montpelier needed its own separate methods of addressing homelessness and housing shortage. But all were committed to understanding and addressing homelessness as a complex issue involving employment, physical, emotional and psychological needs, mental health status, family status, addiction and coping strategies, and plain old real estate availability, while at the same time recognizing that the surface level problem is phenomenally simple: give people a place to take shelter already. My understanding leaving the meeting was that we agreed to get together again, and also to have a separate group gather just from those within Montpelier to talk about what that city in particular can do.

And, as always, members of Trinity UMC have been passionate about addressing this issue with compassion and with the input of those who are without housing or marginally housed. We’re not interested in any solution that doesn’t actually work for people who are homeless, that doesn’t help people who can be housed obtain and keep safe housing. We’re most certainly not interested in any solution that does not respect and value the persons who are in need of housing, because then justice seeking becomes patronizing and dehumanizing, and the whole point is lost. I’m proud of my church and my town, and hope that we can get enough political will and public activity to begin to find some true solutions and make some sweeping changes.

Here’s the sort of “list” of what’s needed from what I’ve gathered/discussed so far, in a sort of progressive order from band-aid to social justice. Please add or comment with your thoughts!

1. Emergency contingency plans. When the winter temperature drops to deadly levels, a process to open space simply so people don’t freeze to death.

2. Emergency overnight short term shelter for singles and families in a safe environment.

3. Communication and transportation to get people to the shelter/overflow site when they need it.

4. Day programs for people who utilize overnight shelters, for the purposes of having access to resources that might help them attain a more stable and sustainable situation.

5. Longer-term shelter (transitional/boarding housing) for those who are not yet in a sustainable enough place to afford their own housing, but need to stay some place longer than a couple of weeks.

6. Better communication, matching, and utilization of programs like home sharing, that help people be housed middle-term lengths of time.

7. Better communication, volunteerism, and paid staffing of programs (good luck in this economy!) that help people obtain access to assistance and navigate the bureaucracies surrounding housing, food access, utility assistance, recovery programs, and so on.

8. AFFORDABLE, SAFE, AVAILABLE HOUSING. We just don’t have it. Not for seniors. Not for middle-income families. Not for singles. Not for young professionals. So it’s no surprise that we don’t have it for people whose definition of affordable is very low indeed. But this is the problem, and the heart of the solution, and no one I know has enough access to the real estate market to be able to help me understand how we make it better.

9. A more just economy. Someday.

When doing the right thing is wrong

photo by The Independent

Perhaps you may have read this week about the group of American Baptist volunteers arrested in Haiti for trying to take 33 Haitian children out of the country (a longer article here).

I confess that I’m of several minds about this, and don’t really know what to say. I’d love to hear your thoughts. Mine are scattered:

First, I am inclined to believe that the group is speaking the truth– I think they were trying to do the right thing, trying to get children to a place where they could offer them medical attention. They were frustrated with the system and so tried to circumvent it, and that was in a word, stupid. But traffickers in children are a little more organized and sneaky than church volunteers in a minibus. I think they saw children in pain, and they had means to try to help, and they were frustrated by the slow progress of the Haitian government and relief volunteers to do anything about it. So they thought hey, why not do something ourselves?

Because doing something themselves was illegal. It is in fact a crime to transport someone else’s child, particularly across national boundaries, without permission. Even for medical attention. I had to sign a form at my kid’s day care so they can take her 3 miles to the hospital should she need medical attention. They have to have that form on record to move her anywhere. Duh. Some of the 33 children had living parents and other relatives. Maybe the volunteers tried to determine that and were hindered; maybe they didn’t. Doesn’t matter, because what they did was wrong. They took already devastated children away from their families and diminished the possibility of those families finding them.

It’s one of the frustrating truths that helping others, even in lifesaving ways, can often get bogged down in red tape. And while we rage and scream and rant against bureaucracies, especially ones buried under rubble, they exist for a reason. Sometimes those reasons seem foolish, like the survival of their own institutionalism, but sometimes those reasons are dreadfully important, like trying to keep families torn apart by disaster together. For those who want to help, it is vitally important to work with the systems in place as best we can because, as in this case, our well-intensioned muddling might do great harm.

Of small but not irrelevant note to me are the thousands upon thousands of families in the US, probably millions around the world, who have gone through process after process, home visit after home visit, hoping to fill their hearts and their homes with an adopted child, just waiting to hear back from an agency somewhere. For these parents-at-heart, who have raged against the red tape for so long, the careless actions of 10 volunteers in Haiti wound them too, making it that much harder to trust those who want to adopt or foster the children orphaned by this disaster or any other circumstance around the world.

And yet, all that said, I doubt a bit.

What if some of those 33 children die, waiting for the care that the volunteers were able to provide?

I myself was tempted, during my trips in Ecuador, to bring home some of the children I saw there, even jokingly packing the 3-year-old into my duffel bag to take home with me, while we all laughed and cried at my impending departure. I know what it is to love a child you’ve never seen before, and if that child is hurting, is starving?

Taking this to the hypothetical, I ask myself: if I were in a place where no help was coming, or was very slow in coming, and if there was a child that I believed was orphaned, and I observed was hungry if not starving and in need of medical care, and I had the resources to help, but not the means to move those resources to the child, would I take the child to the resources? And depending on the severity and immediacy of the need in my hypothetical scenario, I can imagine that I would. I would do so knowing that I was breaking the law, several of them in fact. But I would perhaps judge a law that condemns a child to death unnecessarily to be an unjust law. I would willingly go to prison for the crime, and if it saved the child’s life, I would consider it worth the price.

What this group did was wrong– well-intentioned maybe, but foolish, uniformed, and wrong. But I wonder. Did they save lives, even by bringing these children to the attention of the authorities? Because some times the wrong thing is right. And some times the right thing is wrong.

How do you wrestle with this moral dilemma?

Sermon: Many Gifts/The Greatest Gift

“Many Gifts/The Greatest Gift”

(January 17, 2010) Much as I attempted a segue between the two– right about 12m30s if you’re looking for just the second half, this recording really contains two sermons, or one sermon and one ‘special comment.’

Each of us has a particular way in which we live out our spirituality, unique to us. We can, however, try to learn more about our spirituality type and so celebrate and strengthen who we are as spiritual people (rather than beating ourselves up for not being as spiritual as we think we should be!). Do you experience your faith with your thoughts and words, with your emotions, with your being, or with your actions? What are the things that move you and help you feel more connected to the Holy?*

Although there is no one right way to be a spiritual person, there are some wrong ways (like blaming victims of natural disasters for their plight), and there is one ‘greatest way,’ the way or the gift of love. This past week, we have seen powerful examples of those who gave the greatest gift, some of them with their lives, and we give thanks to God for their love and witness.** (1 Corinthians 12:1-11)


*The tool I’m inviting my congregations to use to reflect upon their spirituality types comes from Discover Your Spirituality Type by Corrine Ware. Her work (particularly not the inventory of questions) is not reproduced anywhere online that I can point you to, but a couple of places have some resources based on her model, which may help illustrate what I’m describing. I will not, however, upload the specific tool I am giving the congregations, to protect Ms. Ware’s intellectual property.

**In my comments I mention the death toll in Haiti as 50,000, which was the American Red Cross estimate as of Sunday morning. Since then, especially since the likelihood of finding survivors has been drastically reduced, that estimate has at least doubled or tripled. Likewise, the confirmed North American victims have increased in number since Saturday night. Finally, I mention volunteer Jean Arnwine of Dallas, TX and Rev. Sam Dixon, head of the United Methodist Committee on Relief, having lost their lives. They were joined on Sunday by Rev. Clinton Rabb, leader of the United Methodist Church’s volunteer programing, who was in the same hotel as Rev. Dixon, meeting to discuss health care in Haiti. Rev. Rabb was rescued from the rubble on Friday, but passed away Sunday as a result of his injuries.


It’s a big word in the United Methodist lexicon: connection.

We believe that our connection (or as we like to say, connectionalism) makes us stronger, helps us do together what one person, or church, or regional body could never do alone. Making decisions as a global body is a pain in the butt, and doesn’t always (or perhaps even often) result in the greatest ministry and justice for all people. But actually doing that ministry together, actually working for justice and health and blessing in a connectional system, that is when we shine.

Oh, just go read this. Jay Voorhees says it much better than I do.

Being connected also means that we have contacts all over the world, and through them and the way we are touched by them, we are broken open by tragedy, we experience it not as someone else’s loss, but as our own. We are more aware of our one-ness as a human family.

Several of my colleagues have sister-church partnerships with churches in Haiti, and have been receiving updates about losses and survivors. Our denomination as a whole mourns the loss of three brave souls: volunteer Jean Arnwine of the Highland Park UMC, Dallas TX’s mission team, who died of injuries she sustained in the collapse of the Petite Guave Eye Clinic– a woman who is being remembered especially today as her loved ones gather for her memorial service; The Reverend Sam Dixon, leader of the United Methodist Committee on Relief and The Reverend Clinton Rabb, director of the UMC’s mission programing, who died last Saturday and Sunday, respectively, resulting from the collapse of the hotel where they and other relief agency leaders were meeting to plan ways to improve access to health care in Haiti. Their stories personalize the almost numbing tales of injury and death still pouring from Haiti as aftershocks and the passage of time make rescue of further survivors all but impossible.

Being connected, in any case, means we can do more, surely. But it also means that we sometimes have to feel more because we can’t ignore our relationship to one another. And feeling more hurts. It hurts a lot, sometimes. But it keeps us human, and so that makes it worth it.