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The land of the free is filled with more incarcerated citizens than any other country in the world.

General Colin Powell speaking at United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC

General Colin Powell speaking at United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC

General Colin Powell, speaking at an America’s Sunday Supper event in Washington, D.C., presented this hard fact along with a challenge: focus on what we want our nation to become…and back up those dreams with the education required to achieve our goals. America’s Sunday Supper is a nationwide movement to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., through dialog about social issues followed by action. The D.C. event focused on education was held at the United States Institute of Peace, and featured Powell and his wife Alma who founded America’s Promise Alliance, dedicated to providing the essentials that children need to succeed and make our communities better. Those invited to this event were asked to focus on ways that their organizations could participate in increasing the graduation rate in the U.S., where one child drops out of school every 26 seconds. I was asked to attend on behalf of The United Methodist Church because of my leadership role in America’s Sunday Supper.

The Methodist tradition includes an historical reverence for education which has been expressed through the building and maintaining of educational facilities and institutions throughout the world. We adopt schools locally, and we enhance the quality of education globally with technology and human development projects. We have institutes of higher learning that are world renowned and credited with producing graduates who do amazing things with their lives. It is part of our essence as United Methodist Christians to promote the full use of one’s mind, which leads to a better life and improved communities.

As a deacon whose secondary appointment is in a church-of-the-poor setting, I see the difference that mentorship & tutoring can make – in children’s lives and for parents whose own education may be lacking. I left the event with these inspirations for our denomination:

  • After-school tutoring programs held at United Methodist churches herald the spirit of commitment to education long ago established in Methodism. These programs build bridges within community – getting volunteers from local colleges and universities involved in the lives of children and families. What if all United Methodist churches worked together to offer after-school tutoring?
  • Support groups are needed to increase parental commitment to schooling. Poverty self-perpetuates – with generation after generation remaining stuck in cycles that can only be broken through education within a greater community. What if United Methodist churches worked together to offer once-a-month listening sessions facilitated by social workers/community organizers? Then, the needs of parents could be heard by those closest to social services who could aid and encourage them.
  • With each year, school supplies become increasingly expensive and when children go without, they suffer from embarrassment and cannot meet school expectations. A partially-used Sunday school room or closet could be renovated and stocked with the help of local businesses. Parents could make donations as they’re able, pay what they can, and assist in managing the store. What if United Methodist churches offered the tools kids need to succeed?
  • Kids know what to do to get punished, but often don’t know what to do to get rewarded. Incentivize students to attend school and make good grades. For students who have perfect attendance, offer a pizza and movie night, bowling adventure or some other reward based on their likes. What if United Methodist churches helped to build pride in students to use their intellectual gifts fully?

General Colin Powell said, “Education is the civil rights struggle of our day.” After further research, I learned, “Dropouts are far more likely to become unemployed, receive public assistance, commit crimes, and become incarcerated. At the same time, they are less likely to receive job-based health insurance and pension plans, to stay healthy and live full lives, and to vote and make other kinds of civic contributions.” (Rouse 2005, Waldfogel et al. 2005, Muennig, 2005, Moretti 2005, and Junn 2005)

Methodism has been a very present force in social struggles through the years, and we can be part of the solution in high dropout rates in the U.S. Doing so will not only decrease incarceration rates, but bring forth the beloved community – the embodiment of our faith.

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America’s Sunday Supper is promoted as an annual Rethink Church event happening in January each year during the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Day of Service. Learn more about Rethink Church events at www.umcom.org/rethinkchurch.

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Many local churches feel squeamish about leading mission efforts – thinking they will be drawing upon the same overtaxed leaders one too many times and may fall short of their goals. But then there’s Sixty-First Avenue United Methodist Church. This congregation of about 100 members (most of whom live in poverty) know obstacles – but they have one strength that many small-sized, non-denominational churches don’t have: connection. It’s the connectionalism of The United Methodist Church that makes them strong – and that connectionalism has now made a big difference in the lives of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan.

Connecting with Rev. Jodi McCullah of Austin Peay State University’s Wesley Foundation and SAFE (Soldiers and Families Embraced) Network, we learned of a need to encourage troops deployed to Afghanistan by sending care packages. Lay Leader and UMW co-chair Brenda Hix began notifying the United Methodist churches who have ongoing relationships with Sixty-First Avenue so they could contribute to the collection of socks, crossword puzzles, candy and more. Jackie Shields of Brentwood UMC said, “My interest in facilitating donations of items for the deployment kits was a response that embraces John 13:35, plus a long time personal association and respect for the military members, their service and their needs. I also wanted to connect members of my Sunday School class to America’s Sunday Supper, our conference and national ministries. This is a way to demonstrate first hand we are The UNITED Methodist Church and what that looks like real time.”

Lucille Jackson adds handwritten notes to care kits.

Lucille Jackson adds handwritten notes to care kits.

Roger Parker, retired elder from Franklin First UMC, regularly organizes a “Lunch and Learn” for senior citizens in the Sixty-First Avenue community. So at the “Lunch and Learn” on Monday, January 21, we concluded the session with packaging items for the deployment care kits. Lucille Jackson was one of the senior citizens who participated in the activities. “We’re feeling the happiness now that the soldiers will feel when they open this package!”

Delivering the kits to the SAFE Network.

Delivering the kits to the SAFE Network.

A total of 49 care kits were assembled that day and driven to Clarksville (along with an additional 31 previously packaged at United Methodist Communications) where they were accepted by two Army wives of husbands who will receive the kits and a staff sergeant from the same platoon. “With this war having gone on for over 10 years, many people have moved on and forgotten about those still fighting.” said Sergeant Longest.

In addition to the support from the connection, we also had strangers who learned about what we were doing online and participated in a variety of ways. A young woman from Texas passing through town, delivered over 100 handwritten notes to encourage the troops; an elderly man from a close by retirement home brought a bag filled with treats; and a student from Vanderbilt Medical School came to help assemble the kits. Sixty-First Avenue’s youth group donated treats to the effort – giving from their own stock.

Faith as small as the grain of a mustard seed can still yield results – especially when it’s watered by the connection and has the light of Christ shining on it. Local churches are never too small to make a big difference.

This effort was part of America’s Sunday Supper – a nationwide effort to honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., through dialog and service, which Hicks promoted as part of her work at United Methodist Communications. Learn more at www.sundaysupperumc.org or http://www.pointsoflight.org/mlk

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No Social Security, no Medicare, no retirement account. What is life like when you can’t work anymore and there are no safety nets? For United Methodist pastors in the Central Conferences (Africa, Philippines & Europe) there is reliance on God providing daily bread, and on the generosity of strangers. In a way, it’s a life put into reverse…while they spent their lives caring for others, they are now living at the mercy of those who will show God’s love to them.

Rev. Karmah Early, Liberia, heard God’s call to ministry when she was a little girl and says she was “happy” to be a pastor. She has been blind for several years.

In these parts of the world, local communities provide what they can for one another, and simple gifts of shared grain may prompt a celebration of how God has provided. But when the body aches from aging, and there is no Tylenol or Advil, no affordable or free clinics, these pastors just suffer. There’s nothing much that the local community can do when so many are also living in poverty.

I remember once seeing a commercial about starving children, and my mom angrily saying, “If there is a god, why would he let children suffer like that?” I think God might say the same about us. God has given creation enough for everyone to have what they need.  Either we don’t like to share, or we don’t know how best to share with those who need it the most.

CCPI (Central Conference Pension Initiative) is addressing the pension crisis for pastors in Africa, Asia and Europe problem in a just, equitable and compassionate way. I don’t give that much but because of automated withdrawal, it’s consistent. I think of it as if I’m taking a couple of these pastors out to a restaurant monthly. If each U.S. pastor who has a retirement plan did something similar, together we could make a huge difference. Some facts about CCPI:

“The Initiative has two objectives. One is to provide pension support to central conference clergy and surviving spouses already retired or when they retire. The other is to help define and establish long-term self-funded sustainable pension programs, so all future retirees will receive support. There are now ten CCPI-sponsored pension projects approved across the central conferences (Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Russia, Nigeria, Philippines and East Africa), and three more programs currently in development. By the end of 2012, all thirteen pension programs will be operational – two years ahead of schedule. CCPI is focused on helping these conferences create pension plans they will fund themselves so that, over time, all pension plans will be self-funded and self-sustaining.”

It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve made creation a better place…to those who’ve increased the world’s joy through weddings and baptisms, at the birth of children and the milemarkers of life that without ritual would go unnoticed. It’s a blessing to give back to those who’ve helped the world bear its sorrows – in death both natural and death from war, poverty and disease; in hardship that if suffered in isolation may have blanketed the light that God still shines. It’s a blessing to give.

Watch this video,  donate online or get resources to share CCPI with others.

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Yesterday I attended the memorial service for Elizabeth Michelle Smith…a member of 61st Avenue UMC. “Liz” as we all called her died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago. The last time I saw her was three days before she passed. She excitedly told me that she had finally gotten a disability hearing scheduled – hopeful that she’d start getting disability pay.

She was one year younger than me, but she had illnesses that took away her vitality. I remember the time when she had her first amputation and I was with her at the hospital. She leaned over and touched my foot to show me what they were going to remove from her foot. That hit me hard –it made me feel her pain a little deeper.

When Liz got off the streets, she was so happy – not simply because she would have a place to stay, but excited because she was going to take in all of her friends who didn’t have a home. It was her way of living! If she got something good, she had to share it with other people – whether it was information or her “own” things. In the end, a few of her street friends spoke at the service – one of them calling Liz his godmother, and saying that it’s because of her that he enrolled in barber school and is living into her belief that he is “too smart” to not better his life.

In attendance at the service was another lady who is so dear to me – Linda. Linda is intellectually disabled and her appearance is one that I’ve written about before. Linda came to me after the service and said that even when she passes she will pray for me every day. Because of her looks and disabilities, she’s gotten ridiculed and put down all her life. She told me that she loved me, Pastor Paul, and Brenda because we’ve been kind to her. I thought when I left there that I feel more privileged being loved by someone like her than if I were loved by a superstar.

Leaving the church, there was a man lying by the side of the road – in the opposite direction from where I was going. The weather here in Nashville was 109 yesterday! I drove to him and got out of the car. He had collapsed and couldn’t walk, so I called 911. People from the church all walked down the street once they knew so they could be there for him as well. He was treated with care and taken to the hospital accompanied by his girlfriend.

Just a little while before this incident, I’d heard the medical caseworker at Liz’s service say, “No one is a nobody in Christ Jesus.” Truer words could not have been spoken in a church where the down and out are received and welcomed as loved guests. This is my church home. This is where I’m planted and growing in faith because I come face to face with some pretty hard stuff every day. So when I write about my support of “Obamacare,” equal rights for gay and lesbians, the right to vote for those who do not drive and have no home, immigrants, etc. you’ll know why. I sit amongst people who are rejected by society because they may not contribute to the financial growth of this country. But for a country of so many citizens who claim we are a Christian nation and that we should be pro-life, I say, these lives are worthy of fighting for as well…they are worth listening to and letting their opinions count.

Christ said that when we serve the naked, hungry, thirsty, poor, those in prison, we serve him. Yesterday I got a good taste of Christ’s presence, in the broken hearted and outcasts. The taste was sweet…God was touchable and real among those who embody the scriptures:

Matthew 5 (The Message)
When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:
“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.
“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One most dear to you.
“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
“You’re blessed when you get your inside world—your mind and heart—put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
“Not only that—count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit me. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens—give a cheer, even!—for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.

So, rest in peace, Liz. We’ll do our best to care for those you loved. And say a prayer for the rest of us, ok? We need it.

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King's Montgomery Kitchen

Photo by Leslie Clagett.

Years ago, I visited an art museum in Memphis, Tennessee – meandering about until I found an exhibit on the civil rights movement. I still remember how I felt reading about Dr. Martin Luther King’s “kitchen table” experience and how it set me on a path of striving to live with greater purpose. This is a story from his life that many haven’t heard.

In January of 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King struggled for courage to keep up the fight that would later become known as the civil rights movement. After having his life threatened, King went to his kitchen table and had a conversation with God – expressing his doubts as a leader and asking for guidance.

“I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me, I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward…The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory. ‘I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid…I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.’

At that moment, I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced God before. It seemed as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice saying: ‘Stand up for justice, stand up for truth; and God will be at your side forever.’ Almost at once my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared. I was ready to face anything.” (Stride Toward Freedom)

The art exhibit featured a kitchen table with a coffee cup humbly displayed along with those words.  The table was simply made, but it echoed the holiness of communion – Christ at the table – feeding one who was hungry with something more than physical sustenance – the power to go on.

King’s table experience empowered him to feed others – to share a vision of something much larger than any one life – and to inspire others to fight for that something more. Elsewhere in the exhibit were pictures of lives lost and maimed, exposing the ugliness of humanity’s bent toward oppression. Yet that ugliness was diminished and overshadowed by the power to overcome, and it was that power that dominated my experience.

As I walked through the museum, I read another quote of Dr. King’s – one that is reflected today on the monument in Washington, DC:

“If you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice; say that I was a drum major for peace; I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter. I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind.”

I left there thinking about life differently – I felt challenged to live a life that’s not as much concerned over personal welfare as much as leaving the world a better place. If you’ve ever had to clean out someone else’s stuff after they’ve died, you know that it’s not their material leftovers that matter – it’s the other leftovers of their life that count. These may be their ideas, their love, their way of being in community –  all things you can’t measure with money. Kind of like crumbs of the soul left behind to feed generations to come. A committed life echoes and informs future generations to make life better – for the whole of creation.

King’s life showed the power of not just letting things lie, but that by taking risk together we can create the beloved community intended by God. There’s still so much to do in the world today – things that need to be discussed and acted upon by people committed to leaving leftovers from their lives that are worthy of consumption.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been working on “America’s Sunday Supper” supported by Rethink Church and HandsOn Network. It’s a way for people to come together on January 15, 2012 (the day before the King National Day of Observance) and talk about issues over dinner – then follow with a service project. This project work is what’s made me think back to King’s kitchen table experience. What if we were to go to the table with angst over today’s issues of injustice? What might God say to us? How might we become the leaders who still inspire future generations?

Hosting a Sunday supper isn’t like taking to the streets and putting my life on the line. But if it creates an opportunity for me to meet God at the table and eat in the communion of saints (and sinners), I’ll be there.

For more info about America’s Sunday Supper, go to www.sundaysupperumc.org or email sundaysupper@umcom.org.

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We all are strangers. We are known and loved by some but if we go to the right (or wrong) places, we may be feared, harassed or rejected because of our stranger-ness.

I’m from Irish descent and wanted to know what my ancestors faced when they first immigrated. I googled “anti-Irish sentiment.” What I found were pages of references that had somehow escaped our family’s neatly kept genealogy. Harsh racial stereotypes were there, exposing pre-conceived notions of a people not yet fully encountered in America. The Irish were labeled “drunkards,” “lazy,” – some of the worst terms I cannot bring myself to type. A song, “Irish Need Not Apply,” described the common experience of someone earnestly looking for work, yet being rejected because of heritage.

“Fear of the other” is a part of humanity. We are tribal-based – making us comfortable in some places and on high alert in others. Years ago in Panama, I got to know two tribes who’d lived beside one another for generations. I had the naïve notion that they must all get along – they had to share everything. Yet I learned pretty quickly that one tribe had long judged the other as dirty and unsophisticated. Division abounds.

Our better selves arise when we are driven by love rather than fear…when we are willing to go to the unknown places to understand people rather than taking the easy way out by letting statistics and divisive newscasters rule our thoughts. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear…The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18, CEB) Being made perfect in love is tough work…you just can’t shut out the strangers if you want God to be continually at work within you.

There’s a story I’ve come upon in my work at United Methodist Communications. A story about a teenage girl born and raised in America, whose family was torn apart by a broken immigration system. No matter where you stand on the issue, the way this case was handled will make any person of compassion cringe.

We can take the easy way out and not explore the issues that are breaking apart families who, like our ancestors, came here because they yearned for more than their native lands could provide. It’s a challenge, isn’t it? It’s so much easier to remain comforted in the narrowness of our own thoughts. If you’re daring enough to step into Jasmine’s story, you may find love pushing you beyond fear.

Generations later, here I am. A fully assimilated, contributing member of society who is remembering her own story and learning the stories of others. What’s your story?

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Have you heard of the “two wolves” story? Inner wolves at war within us? Here is a very personal look at this struggle within me – in light of what is going on in Washington.

“They should just go to the banks to worship on Sundays . That’s where their god is.” The words of my friend Wafa still echo in my mind all these years after her death. Having moved to the U.S. from Syria, she was tired of being evangelized by clients whose lives seemed to resonate more with goods than with the good of humanity. I’m certain she would have a colorful commentary today on those who so loudly proclaim that this is a Christian nation, all the while cutting benefits from those who can least afford it.

I can’t reconcile the two – being Christian and not caring enough to create a just and equitable system for the economically disadvantaged.  I just don’t get it. So I’m trying to see another side….to hear another argument…another solution – one that involves limited government with vastly reduced social programs. Here goes.

Social Security goes away and becomes a self-guided, saving program. We Americans have proven in the recent recession how well we save for a rainy day. We don’t need government bailouts. If we invest in Wall Street and it crashes, well, stuff happens. To each his own. Squirrelling money away in the mattresses worked for our ancestors.

Health insurance goes back to what it was pre-health reform. If someone has a pre-existing condition, they will just have to pay for their own treatment. If they can’t afford treatment, maybe it’s just “their time.”  The poor have always had to make decisions like this. There was a young woman at church who died this year from such an event.

No more government housing programs…shacks are an acceptable way to live in (so long as it’s not in my neighborhood). It’s how people lived in the olden days (and how people in tent cities across the U.S. still live). I’ve been to plenty of countries where the government doesn’t help with housing. People can survive in tin homes and lean-to’s. I’ve got some great pictures from Africa to show what it could look like.

Let each family decide how its children should be educated…no interference and no government funding. The school system is broken and private corporations will deal with it much better than legislators. Other countries don’t provide free education. I’ve helped pay tuition in Honduras and Zimbabwe before…I could do that here as well. Children who can’t afford to go to school could be eligible for labor pools (the best parents could learn from Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal.”) They’re adding beds at the new privatized prison down the street in expectation of new “clients”….so still there’s still a chance they’ll have a bed and a roof.

I’ve thought this through and yet it still doesn’t feel right to me. Maybe after a while, I can just get numb to the sadness of it all and quit caring. Does the bank have Sunday morning hours?

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