Little Balls of Grace

“Here, take one of these milkweed balls. We’re going to throw them in the ditches along the road. Please help us save the monarchs!” We were a few days into RAGBRAI, the annual mega-group bike ride across Iowa, and I hadn’t heard the instructions that were given at the previous stop.

“What is this?!” I asked Pastor Chad Jennings, one of my riding companions.

“This is milkweed. It’s a way to preserve monarch butterflies. With 20,000 riders all throwing milkweed balls into the ditches, we can really make a difference along this stretch of road.” I didn’t fully understand at the time, but I joined the crowd. Why, these milkweed balls are little balls of grace, I thought. And I remembered the words to Shirley Erena Murray’s beautiful hymn, “Touch the Earth Lightly.”

Touch the earth lightly, use the earth gently, nourish the life of the world in our care. 

Gift of great wonder, ours to surrender, trust for the children tomorrow will bear.

Butterflies are among my favorite creatures. In seventh grade, I bought a butterfly net and started my own butterfly collection. I kept the collection for forty years before deciding it was time to let it go. I love to watch butterflies flying freely, especially the colorful and beautiful monarch, perhaps the most recognizable and popular of all butterflies. They remind me that I would probably be healthier if I, too, were more carefree like a butterfly and less wrapped up with work.

What I didn’t realize when moving to Iowa a year ago is that the monarch butterfly population in Iowa had declined by 90% within the past two decades. The reason? The disappearance of the milkweed plant. Monarch butterfly caterpillars need milkweed in order to survive. Milkweed is the only plant upon which butterflies lay their eggs, and it’s the only plant they eat. In less than two weeks, the caterpillars grow to 2,000 times their original mass.

It’s September, which is the time of the great monarch butterfly migration. Have you heard of it? In the fall, millions of monarchs that are born east of the Rockies migrate three thousand miles from Canada through Iowa and the Midwest to Mexico, where they spend the winter in the Sierra Madre Mountains. It’s one of the most amazing wonders of nature.

Monarchs can travel at altitudes of up to 10,000 feet and are the only butterfly species to make a two-way migration of this length every year. They only travel when it is light and normally cover between fifty and a hundred miles a day. Did you know that the monarch migration includes several generations? No one butterfly makes it the entire way. Offspring return to the same winter destination and even to the same trees used by previous generations.

Unfortunately, in 2013 the monarch count in Iowa was lower than it had ever been since recording began, so conservationists became involved. In 2015, fewer than fifty million butterflies made it to Mexico when the number was once one billion migrating monarchs.

Contributing factors are illegal deforestation in Mexico and severe weather along the route. However, most devastating to the monarch has been the virtual elimination of the milkweed plant in the Midwest by the introduction of a very powerful herbicide. For decades, milkweed has grown amidst Iowa row crops, which make up two-thirds of the land. When Monsanto introduced their Roundup Ready Technology, where corn and soybeans were genetically modified to withstand the herbicide glycosate, the milkweed that is so necessary for monarchs to survive, was killed. Targeted herbicides, edge-to-edge planting, and development have all resulted in the loss of milkweed, preventing monarchs from laying eggs, and thus disrupting the annual monarch migration.

We who endanger, who create hunger, agents of death for all creatures that live.

We who would foster clouds of disaster, God of our planet, forestall and forgive!

Milkweed may be a weed to corn and soybeans, but it is life for a monarch butterfly. Because Iowa is at the center of the migration, milkweed is critical for maintaining the health of monarchs. Not only do monarchs lay eggs on the milkweed, and not only do caterpillars eat the plant, but adult butterflies also feed on the nectar from milkweed.

Within the last several years, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, along with conservation groups and researchers have formed a partnership to save the monarchs. The Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium and Monarchs of Eastern Iowa are both efforts to encourage the cultivation of milkweed in an effort to reverse the butterfly’s decline. Strategies include:

  • Monarch friendly weed management
  • Planting milkweed in gardens and fields
  • The introduction of milkweed “seed balls” (aka: little balls of grace)

In 2014, The University of Iowa College of Public Health decided to make two thousand milkweed seed balls with the help of volunteers and Girl Scouts. The “little balls of grace” are made up of milkweed seeds inside of a mixture of soil, clay, and compost. At twelve UI research farms, nine milkweed species were grown in order to determine their effectiveness in expanding the monarch population in Iowa. The most effective seem to be the common milkweed and swamp milkweed. Research is also being done into how and where milkweed and other butterfly-friendly plants can most effectively be reintroduced along the monarchs’ main summer breeding and migration routes between Minnesota and Mexico, including I-35 in Iowa.

Let there be greening, birth from the burning, water that blesses and air that is sweet.

Health in God’s garden, hope in God’s children, regeneration that peace will complete.

For the last several years, RAGBRAI cyclists have been asked to take milkweed seed balls and throw them into ditches and fields in the midst of their own cycling migration across the state. What a beautiful way to protect our beautiful monarch friends on their migratory journey back and forth across the continent! It’s just like handing everyone a ball of grace to spread near and far.

The plight of the monarch butterfly reminds me once again of how interconnected we are on this one fragile planet that we call earth. In the midst of disasters of huge proportions, such as wildfires, hurricanes, mudslides, and earthquakes, which cause monumental damage, our population of monarch butterflies has declined precipitously. In this web of nature, each one of us, including you and me, bears responsibility for treading lightly upon the earth, for God has given us this one planet to share and care for. As I look at my seed ball, I wonder. How can you and I be little balls of grace for our world this week?

God of all living, God of all loving, God of the seedling, the snow, and the sun.

Touch us, deflect us, Christ, reconstruct us, using us gently and making us one.




The Silver Lining

He’s a black high school quarterback.

5 of his teammates were pictured in white hoods. It may get worse.

(Headline from Des Moines Register, Saturday, September 9, 2017)

Last Wednesday, a photo on social media went viral. The photo shows five people with pointed hoods over their heads, resembling the Ku Klux Klan. Three of the people are wearing white T-shirts while another is shirtless. Two have their arms raised while a third appears to be holding a firearm. They are standing around a burning cross, and one person is waving a Confederate flag.

All five individuals are white and are on the Creston/Orient-Macksburg football team in Creston, a small, mostly white county seat town in southwest Iowa. The team’s quarterback is sixteen-year-old junior Kylan Smallwood, a football and basketball star who is African-American. After Creston Community High School administrators learned of the incident on Wednesday, football coach Brian Morrison dismissed the five teenagers from the team.

In an interview with reporter Kyle Munson from the Des Moines Register, Smallwood said, “I would see that kind of stuff like Charlottesville and think that’s pretty messed up… I never thought that would happen to our small town… I don’t want to be playing with kids like that… I thought these guys are my friends. I’ve been to some of their houses before. I’ve talked to them.”

Smallwood’s parents, Robert, who is African-American, and Danielle, who is white and was born and raised in Creston, decided to make their home and raise their family in Creston because it was a small, friendly Iowa town. Robert is a mail carrier and is very visible around town. Coming so soon after Charlottesville and the removal of Confederate statues, Danielle is choosing to be positive and grace-filled. “That’s the silver lining, I could say, about this whole situation,” Danielle said, “is how much our town has come together.”

While some believe the five students should be expelled from school, Danielle, says, “I think they should have to go and look at all the high school kids that they have hurt,” she said. “Whether they’re black, white, whatever, they hurt a lot of people, and I think they should have to go back and face that.”

In the face of possible litigation, an attorney for the Creston Community School District, Kristy M. Latta, issued the following statement last Friday, “The Creston Community School District is committed to providing a positive and respectful learning environment for students. As an educational institution, we strive to promote civil discourse and tolerance for differing views. However, when there is a substantial disruption of or material interference with the learning environment, it is appropriate for the District to take responsive action. We are hopeful that everyone can learn from this situation as we continue working to provide our students the best educational opportunities we can.”

Meanwhile, Jamie and Megan Travis identified one of the five individuals in the photo as their son and courageously issued this statement to the Creston News Advisor newspaper on Friday, “On behalf of the Travis Family, we sincerely apologize for the hurt and strife we have caused this community. We do not condone the behavior that was expressed in the recent photo that was disseminated throughout various media sources.

“We understand that our son has conducted himself in a way that is inappropriate and has caused disruption in the community. Our son recognizes his poor judgment and respectfully asks forgiveness from his classmates, the school and the community. The photo in no way reflects our family values. Our family strongly believes that all individuals are created equally in God’s eyes.

“We support Mr. Messerole, Mr. Morrison, the school board and other school officials as they impose the appropriate punishments on our son, including removing him from the football team. Additionally, we support the school as they educate our son and his classmates in helping them understand cultural diversity. As a family we have also taken measures to ensure that our son understands his actions and how they affect others.

“Our goal is a peaceful resolution. We want to move forward and embrace our community in eliminating racism in Creston.”

During this time of year, when high school, college, and professional football is an important part of our country’s culture, this unfortunate incident reminds us that a primary purpose of school sports is to build character. We are not done with racism, even in Iowa. What can we learn from Creston?

  1. We start by confessing our own sin, which includes all of us. White supremacy is a sin and has no place in football or anywhere else.
  2. By taking racism seriously, we teach our children that the symbols found in this photo have perpetuated hate and bigotry for too many years and that there must be zero tolerance in our country for prejudice in any form.
  3. We combat racism by modeling respect, tolerance, and inclusiveness in our own attitudes, actions, and words.
  4. We must have the courage to speak out whenever we see injustice or oppression.
  5. At the same time as we hold each other accountable for racist acts and words, we are also called to show grace, knowing that God continually calls us to learn and gain wisdom from our mistakes.
  6. By standing with those who are the victims of racism, we communicate support, solidarity, and the conviction that those who demonstrate racist behavior are in the minority.
  7. Every church can find a way to address racism in their community and congregation. This could involve sponsoring workshops around racism or cross-cultural competency, partnering with churches of different ethnicities, or participating together in a mission or outreach project.
  8. We need to ask God to continually open our eyes to the beauty of diversity in our world and celebrate the uniqueness and potential that is within each individual.

The silver lining? Creston Community High School, area churches, and the town itself are filled with good people who are ready to become proactive in moving forward. “Even though this could happen anywhere, it happened here,” principal Bill Messerole said, “So we’ve got to own this and move on in a positive way.”

Yesterday, Creston First UMC Pastor Jodi Rushing shared a statement with the congregation, part of which said, “My hope is that these boys will understand the significance of what they have done and understand the ramifications of their actions and have the wisdom to make amends… Hatred is not something we are born with. It is something that we learn. Our own actions speak loudly to children and teens, and I hope as a church and community, we can share love instead of hatred toward all those who are different than us.”

On Friday night Creston/OM played at Harlan. Before the game, the Harlan band faced the Creston fans and played part of their fight songs. Everyone clapped. Harlan won the game, 42-7, but there was no trash talking, only cheers.

We’re Ready to Make a Difference … and We Already Are!

People all over the world have been praying for those in Texas who are still in the midst of intense and even cataclysmic flooding. When Iowans were recovering from the great flood of 2008, United Methodist volunteers from Texas came to clean out and rebuild our houses and businesses. Now we are ready to return the favor. Hurricane Harvey is still wreaking havoc in Texas, but laity and clergy in Iowa are already responding through the energy, resources, and networking of our United Methodist connection.

Because of our experience in flood relief in 2009 and just last fall, we are continuing to develop an organizational maturity in Iowa that is quickly responsive, a very powerful presence, and multi-faceted.

  • We have two thousand Cleaning Kits (aka: flood buckets) in storage that have been collected since last fall’s flood in northeast Iowa. We will send them all as soon as the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has their shipping plan ready.
  • The Iowa Conference has a brand new twenty-foot Laundry Trailer that is being finished as I write. It contains two washers and driers and a sink and will be ready to head south as soon as Texas is ready.
  • We also have a Shower Trailer that has been on loan to Arkansas where flood recovery has been going on. As soon as Texas is ready, the shower trailer will head there. The money for both trailers has come from special gifts and conference apportionment dollars.
  • Catie Newman is our Iowa Conference Disaster Response Coordinator. We usually hear from her when there are tornado warnings, but she coordinates floods and other disasters as well. The Disaster Response Coordinators from across the United Methodist connection keep in constant touch with each other for encouragement, prayer support, and relief coordination.
  • Emergency Response Training is necessary for anyone who wants to enter an emergency disaster zone. One of our clergy, Rev. Paul Evans, is a certified trainer and is qualified to lead teams in the early response phase. Iowa will have a training on September 8 and 9 for all those who wish to be trained so that they may help in the disaster zone. A United Methodist Volunteers in Mission training will be held at the same time. Click here to learn more about upcoming ERT and VIM trainings.
  • We will offer a new Spiritual Care Training in October for those who feel led to be trained on how to be a spiritual presence to those in the midst of disaster. One of our conference staff lost her home to a flood and reminds us that recovering from a natural disaster involves much more than simply rebuilding a home.
  • It’s because of our denomination-wide giving to The United Methodist Committee on Relief that UMCOR is able to be one of the first responders at most major disasters around the world. Have you made a difference yet by making your donation to UMCOR? Because of the miracle of our connectional church, every dollar that you give will go to flood relief in Texas. You can give by clicking here.  
  • Our conference United Methodist Communicators, Bishops, Directors of Connectional Ministry, and Disaster Relief Coordinators are diligent in connecting people and resources, networking, and sharing information across the Connection.

We’re ready to make a difference … and we already are through the prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness of people of faith throughout the United Methodist connection.

Rev. Art McClanahan, Director of Communications in The Iowa Conference, was so moved by the incredible display of generosity, caring, and courage in the midst of the flooding, that he created a slideshow  set to the music Pie Jesu. (Click here to download the self-playing PowerPoint.  Images were selected from what was available on the internet thru a Google search on the evening of August 28, 2017. “Pie Jesu,” sung by Sarah Brightman and Paul Miles-Kingston from the album. The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, 1989, selection 15, © 1997 The Really Useful Group, Ltd.We pray that your hearts will be warmed by these pictures so that you, too, will be inspired to make a difference, however God leads you.