Leading from the Heart: Climbing into the Skin of Others

Forty-nine years after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, President Barack Obama gave a stirring farewell speech. I was particularly challenged by the truth Obama spoke about progress toward racial reconciliation.

“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society. I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10, or 20, or 30 years ago – you can see it not just in statistics, but in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do…

“But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each one of us must try to heed the advice of one of the great characters in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said, ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’”

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I give thanks for the way in which both Dr. King and President Obama acted proactively rather than reactively to encourage you and me to climb into and walk around in the skin of people who are not like us. It reminds me of an experience last month when several conference center staff were driving to lunch. When I remarked that the roads seemed all wet, even though there had been no precipitation, I was told, “The Department of Transportation trucks are covering the roads with liquid brine in anticipation of snow and ice tomorrow.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Don’t you just put salt on the roads when it’s icy?” Traditionally, rock salt has been applied to roads after snowfall because it lowers the freezing point of any water with which it comes into contact. However, this strategy only works when temperatures are above 15 degrees Fahrenheit. By contrast, placing liquid brine on the roadway surface prior to a precipitation event helps prevent the snow and ice from bonding to the pavement.

In recent years, there has been a growing transition from reactive strategies like de-icing to proactive strategies where brine is applied before the weather event occurs. According to Wilfrid Nixon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Iowa and international road salt expert, the Iowa DOT is a world leader in “prewetting roads” with millions of gallons of brine every winter.

Be Proactive. It’s the first of Stephen Covey’s seven habits from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People; Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, which has sold more than twenty-five million copies since its publication in 1989. One characteristic that sets humans apart from animals is our self-awareness and freedom to decide how we will respond to stimuli. You and I can choose to react to our environment by accepting that there is nothing we can do about our situation, or we can decide to be proactive by using resourcefulness, initiative, and character to determine our response and find creative solutions.

I learned this lesson the hard way. In March of 2008, while running in the dark of early morning before an appointive cabinet meeting in Michigan, I slipped on some black ice and landed directly on my left elbow. After thirty years of accident-free running, I guess I was due for a bad fall, so it didn’t really surprise me. What shocked me was that a metal plate and five screws somehow climbed into my skin to put my shattered elbow back together.

It’s a story of two sets of hardware. I should have been proactive in using Yaktrax, which are ice/snow cleats fastened to the bottom of running shoes to improve traction. Of course, I thought it would never happen to me, so I didn’t bother protecting myself. The result? I had another set of hardware inserted into my elbow in a reactive effort to rebuild it. Plus weeks of physical therapy. Plus no driving for two months. Plus lots of out-of-pocket costs. Plus another surgery nine months later to remove the hardware so I could regain full motion of my elbow.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that how we prepare for and then respond to events affects us more than what actually happens. Proactive people by Martin Luther King Jr. prioritize the things over which they have influence and in the process often expand their area of influence. On the other hand, reactive people often focus their efforts on areas of concern over which they have no control.

One of the most insidious afflictions of local churches is the temptation to be reactive instead of proactive. Time and again, I have witnessed clergy and lay leaders sabotage their effectiveness by not anticipating and responding non-anxiously to concerns that subsequently explode into serious conflict.

  • Churches would be healthier if leaders acted proactively rather than reactively by watching, assessing, and then promptly responding to situations before they get out of control.
  • Clergy and laity waste too much energy reacting to crises rather than proactively formulating policies, procedures, and processes to prevent those crises from happening in the first place.
  • When congregation members act in reactive ways by name-calling, raising their voice, or personalizing an issue, self-differentiated leaders climb into the skin of others and demonstrate a calmness of spirit that de-escalates potential conflict.
  • It is not unusual for some of our best pastors and lay leaders to be so worn down by the reactive behavior of others that they give up and ask to be moved or resign from their position.

Proactive thinking by climbing into the skin of others and seeking to understand their point of view is preventive medicine for the church. Not only does it bolster the congregational immune system, but it also empowers us to change the world around us. As the appointive cabinet of the Iowa Annual Conference begins the appointment-making process for 2017, our eight district superintendents and I vow to be proactive in our work as well.

  • We vow to undergird all of our work by prayer, climbing into the skin of our congregations and clergy and seeking only God’s will.
  • The Field Outreach Ministers and District Superintendents vow to coach and mentor our district churches and pastors to create a healthy church climate by “seeing ahead” rather than reacting to events that have already happened.
  • We vow to gain as much knowledge as we can about every local church and every pastor so that we appoint clergy where they and congregations can learn, grow, and thrive.
  • We vow to place primary emphasis on our strategic priorities in Iowa: creating world-transforming communities of faith, equipping clergy and laity as transformational leaders, and aligning our resources toward our common goals.

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase. (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Rock salt or liquid brine? Reactive or proactive? A plate and screws or Yaktrax? Lamenting the state of our world or climbing into the skin of others and walking around in it? All of us have more work to do. Hearts must continue to change. Thanks be to our proactive God who took the first step and sent Jesus into the world to show us how to love.

Our Modern Slavery

January 9, 2016

It’s one of the most dastardly crimes imaginable: the sexual abuse of children. Children and teenagers who are abused forever carry with them fear, pain, distrust, hopelessness, and the loss of innocence. So many lives and families are torn apart by the ripple effect of those who dare to take advantage of others in this way.

Yet there is another equally insidious form of abuse called human trafficking. Every day children, women, and men are enslaved in our world. Young women are forced into prostitution, boys are compelled to become soldiers, and the poor are exploited to work in dreadful conditions. In 2017, an estimated twenty-one to thirty million people live as slaves, unable to escape a life they did not choose.


Just as I was moving to Iowa last fall, US Senator Chuck Grassley hosted a forum on human trafficking at Des Moines University. Grassley said, “Sex trafficking of our nation’s children and adults is a growing domestic threat,” and then added that trafficking takes place “in every state in the nation, and even though we don’t like to admit it, even here in Iowa.”

Iowa has almost nine hundred sex workers in any given month, said Anna Brewer, a retired FBI agent who specialized in Iowa trafficking cases. Sioux City has the highest rate per capita, but trafficking happens everywhere, even in small Iowa towns. Stephen O’Meara, Nebraska’s human trafficking coordinator and former assistant U.S. attorney in Iowa, highlighted the case of two teenage girls who were brought from Milwaukee to Hills, Iowa, which had a population of 703 at the time. O’Meara said, “We are not even touching the tip of the iceberg (of the trafficking issue). We have to do a lot better.”

According to a November 16 Des Moines Register article, massage parlors have suddenly mushroomed in the metro area, which is raising additional concerns about human trafficking. Polaris, a national anti-human trafficking organization, identified Des Moines as one of the top hundred cities for massage-related trafficking.

Kellie Markey, founder of Dorothy’s House, a Des Moines rehabilitation house for women and girls recovering from human trafficking, said that trafficking of women who work at massage parlors is happening in every corner of the state. “It’s huge here in Des Moines,” she said. “If you live in the metro area, it’s happening within three miles of your front door.”

According to Markey, Iowa now has some of the best laws in the country to combat sex trafficking. The first human trafficking law in Iowa was passed in 2006, and in 2016 lawmakers and Gov. Terry Branstad approved the creation of a state office designed specifically to address trafficking.


This Wednesday, January 11, is Human Trafficking Awareness Day in the US. The Senate set aside this day in 2007 to raise awareness of human trafficking, end all forms of slavery and forced labor, and make this world a safe place for everyone. The facts are sobering.

  • Human trafficking is a $32 billion per year industry (The United Nations). People are bought and sold like merchandise for sexual exploitation, manufacturing, agricultural work, domestic service, hotel/motel cleaning, and other purposes. By many estimates, human trafficking ranks third in world crime behind the drug trade and counterfeiting.
  • Sexual exploitation accounts for 79% of all human trafficking victims.
  • According to UNICEF, two million people becomes victims of the sex trade every year, 20% of whom are children.
  • The average age of a girl who is forced into sexual slavery in the US is thirteen. Sadly, many have no one looking for them when they disappear.
  • The average cost of a sex slave worldwide is $90.
  • Almost every country plays a part, either as a source of trafficked people, transit point, or destination.

The United Methodist Church has taken a strong stance against human trafficking. The Book of Discipline 2016 states that United Methodists “deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality. To lose freedom and be sold by someone else for sexual purposes is a form of slavery, and we denounce such business and support the abused and their right to freedom. We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation or use of children by adults and encourage efforts to hold perpetrators legally and financially responsible.”

The United Methodist General Board of Church and Society website says, “Human trafficking denies the sacred worth of God’s children and destroys the fabric of our communities. Victims endure psychological trauma, physical injury, economic hardship, and stigmatization that can create lifelong scars and barriers for full participation in one’s community.”

What can you do about human trafficking?

  1. Educate yourself.
  2. Understand the complexity of the healing process once people are freed. One victim said, “I felt like I was permanently stained, broken, dirty: different.”
  3. Support resources for healing so that victims do not have to remain captives emotionally.
  4. Ponder and pray why the buying and selling of humans is so much more profitable than buying legitimate goods.
  5. Speak out about human trafficking and contact local state and national lawmakers to enact strict laws.
  6. Call the National Human Trafficking Resource Centerat 1-888-373-7888 for help. The center takes calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in more than 200 languages.
  7. Check out The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
  8. Most of all, we are called to look into our own hearts and ask ourselves this question. Why do we humans treat others as things or commodities rather than as people of sacred worth?

Dr. Chris Momany, chaplain and director of church relations at Adrian College in Michigan and an expert on human trafficking, has said, “Slavery of all kinds is rooted in a mindset that perceives some people to be little more than instruments for the benefit of those with power… We need to look in the mirror and examine our hearts. Do we see all others as fundamentally sacred persons, or do we see them as potential servants of our agenda? How we answer this question will help determine the fate of human trafficking.”

Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” (Luke 4:18) May we go and do likewise.



What’s in Your Bag This Year?

January 3, 2016

What would you take with you if you had to leave your home for the foreseeable future? In 2016 nearly 100,000 men, women, and children fled from their homes in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia to seek a new life away from war, terrorism, and violence. Syria itself is the victim of the worst humanitarian crisis of our time, with more than eleven million people (half the country’s population) killed or forced to flee their homes.

According to the International Rescue Committee, tens of thousands of refugees are using rubber dinghies to cross the Aegean Sea to Lesbos, Greece. The IRC is at work in nearly forty countries and twenty-five US cities, seeking to restore safety, dignity, and hope to millions of families in need.


Imagine only being able to take what you can carry yourself while walking many miles a day. Imagine being interrogated, shot at, robbed, exploited by smugglers, and jammed into tiny boats. And imagine having to dump into the water whatever you did take in order to keep the boat afloat.

A twenty-year-old mother from Syria escaped from a violent refugee camp with her husband and ten-month-old daughter, crossing over into Turkey and then taking a raft to Europe. Even after Turkish police detached the motor to stop them, they kept going, using makeshift paddles.

What’s in her bag? Pain relievers, sunscreen, toothpaste, a bottle of sterile water, baby food, napkins for diaper changes, a hat and socks for the baby, personal documents, the baby’s vaccination history, wallet and ID, cell phone charger, and yellow headband. “Everything is for my daughter to protect her against sickness. When we arrived in Greece, a kind man gave me two jars of food. Another man gave us biscuits and water when he saw my baby.”

We cannot fail to read the story of Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-23) with their young child, Jesus, without making the comparisons. Families running for their lives, carrying very little in their bag except hope. Entering a new country, knowing no one, utterly dependent upon the hospitality and good will of others. Wondering if they will be able to make a new life, even as they hope to return some day to their homeland. Thinking only of the most vulnerable among them: the children, the sick, and the elderly. Praying that, by a miracle, they will see the face of God in the kindness of strangers. What do you suppose was in Mary and Joseph’s bag?

Iqbal traveled hundreds of miles from the warring province of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, through Iran and Turkey to Greece, fearful for his life every step of the way. The teenager had traveled hundreds of miles and dodged bullets, fleeing east to Iran, then traveling by foot to Turkey. Crossing over by boat into Lesbos, Iqbal arrived with only a backpack and wonders what next. He has a brother in Florida and another friend who made it to Germany before him.


What’s in Iqbal’s bag? One each of pants, shirt, shoes, and socks; shampoo; hair gel, toothbrush and toothpaste; face whitening cream; comb; nail clipper; bandages; 100 U.S. dollars and 130 Turkish liras; Smart phone and back-up cell phone; and SIM cards for Afghanistan, Iran, and Turkey. “I want my skin to be white and hair to be spiked. I don’t want them to know I’m a refugee. I think that someone will spot me and call the police because I’m illegal.”

The Joint Public Issues Team is a consortium of churches in Britain, including the Methodist Church, The Church of Scotland, the United Reform Church, and Baptists Together, all seeking to live out the gospel together by addressing the immigration crisis in Britain. As of September 2016, 37,958 asylum seekers in the UK were entitled to accommodation and/or financial support of less than £6 per day from the government’s National Asylum Support Service.

The Joint Public Issues Team produced a poignant Christmas video called “A Very British Nativity,” which highlights the realities of those seeking asylum in the UK and the responsibility of churches to be advocates. “It’s time to give asylum seekers of today the dignity they deserve,” the video concludes.

A family from Aleppo lost everything. When they left Syria, each member took one or two bags. During the journey to Turkey and then Greece, their boat began to sink. Seven women, four men, and twenty children managed to salvage just one bag among them.

What’s in their one bag? One shirt, one pair of jeans, one pair of shoes, toiletries, one diaper, two small cartons of milk and some biscuits; personal documents and money, sanitary pads and a comb. “I hope we die. This life is not worth to live anymore. Everyone closed the door in our face, there is no future.”

What’s in your bag as you enter the new year? If you only had one bag to take with you into 2017, what would it contain? What is most important to you? What are the non-negotiables that disciples of Jesus Christ need in order to witness to God’s love for all people?

As I ponder this question, I realize anew that most of the “things” that I cling to are not only unnecessary but might actually prevent other people from living fully. In my 2017 bag, I vow to take compassion, suffering love, courage to always do the right thing, a commitment to see other people with new eyes, and a renewed passion to work for the day when all people are welcome to the table, regardless of who they are, where they come from, or what they look like.

At the same time, I vow to leave out of my bag false assumptions, hate, fear, bigotry, the arrogance of thinking that everyone has to look, talk, and think like me, and the presumption that I get to decide who is worthy of God’s love and who isn’t.

But there is an equally important question. What will be in the bag of The United Methodist Church this year? As the Commission on a Way Forward begins its work, how will we participate as individuals and congregations?

  • How will prayer be a part of the bag your local church brings into the new year? How will you enter into a time of intentional prayer for the future of The United Methodist Church? The Iowa Annual Conference’s designated week of prayer is May 21-27.
  • Will an openness to the leading of the Holy Spirit and a willingness to allow God to work in unexpected ways be in your bag?
  • Will your bag contain a commitment to bring hope to the 65.3 million forcibly displaced people in the world? Would your church consider resettling a refugee family so that they have a safe place to live and work, the chance for an education, and the opportunity to give back to their new community?
  • Will your church open your bag to the “religiously displaced” people in your community who have been rejected and/or excluded from churches for a variety of reasons?

“By contrast, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” (Galatians 5:22-23) The good news is that the fruits of the spirit won’t take up any extra room in your bag. What will you put in your bag in 2017?