All Connected in Christ

Grace and peace to you as school has started and fall church activities are not far behind. After a summer in which many of us have actually been able to get away for a vacation, it doesn’t seem as if we are much farther along with COVID-19 mitigation because of the Delta variant. Some school systems are requiring masks and others aren’t. Many of us have received the vaccine, but others are choosing not to. Some have even gotten COVID after having been vaccinated.

How will COVID teach us as people of faith? The coronavirus interrupted our march toward General Conference 2020, which has already been postponed and is scheduled for late August and early September 2022. And in our local churches, clergy and lay leaders are carefully and prayerfully discerning how we can best worship and live out our call as disciples while not putting others at risk. Through it all, we are united as disciples of Jesus Christ by our fervent desire to embody Christ’s love, reach out to our neighbors, and extend grace and hope to all. The Pandemic has reminded us that, regardless of our views around COVID, vaccinations, and any number of other issues, we are all one in Christ Jesus and are inextricably connected with each other.

Throughout the summer I was reminded of that connection. It was July 23, and Gary, Talitha, and I had climbed to the top of the Mount Constitution Loop Trail on the island of Orcas. Orcas is located in the Salish Sea in the San Juan Island chain off the northwest coast of Washington State. Our youngest daughter, who lives in Seattle, had planned a wonderful series of hikes for the week. It was a trip we intended for a year ago but had to postpone because of COVID.

Mt. Constitution is a 6.6 mile loop trail through the forest that has some steep elevation gains and is amazingly beautiful. Once at the top, you are greeted by a 360-degree view of the Cascade Mountains, from Mount Ranier to Mt. Baker and into British Columbia. I’ve been fortunate to do some traveling over the years, but never have I seen a more spectacular panorama of mountains, water, and islands. Unlike in other locations, visitors to Orcas Island have the choice of either driving to the top of Mt. Constitution or walking. As avid hikers, driving wasn’t an option for us.

After we had our fill of the view and ate our sandwiches for lunch, we stopped at the restrooms in the parking lot before scampering back down the mountain. As we waited in line, Gary noticed that the young woman next to us was wearing a white cap with a big blue “Y” on it. Gary immediately recognized it, pointed a finger at her and said, “YALE!” She said, “Yes!” and he said, “Me too! I’m M. Div.[1] ‘75 and S.T.M. ‘81.” And she said, “I went to Yale Divinity School, too!” We learned that Ann graduated with a Master of Divinity degree in 2018.

What a coincidence! Gary then introduced me, noting that I also had degrees from Yale and revealing that I am serving as the United Methodist Bishop of Iowa and the Dakotas. And so the coincidences continued. Ann then added that she is a United Methodist and pastors a local church in Washington State. Here we were, at one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we made connections with a young woman who just happened to be a Yale Divinity School graduate and just happened to be serving as a pastor of a United Methodist congregation.

That’s still not all. Ann was a bit surprised but was also very excited to introduce me to her father, who was nearby. It just so happens that he, too, is a United Methodist pastor in the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference. Ann’s father had served as a District Superintendent and as a General Conference alternate delegate, and he remembered when I was elected a bishop in 2016. But there’s even more. Not only does Ann’s father serve in Eastern Pennsylvania, but I was born and raised in southeastern PA. He knew my small hometown of Souderton.

The connections were amazing: Yale grads, clergy, United Methodists, from the same part of the country – all connected in Christ at the top of Constitution Mountain. Later in the day, I learned from the website of Ann’s church that her congregation is committed to cultivating an anti-racist, contemplative, and beloved community grounded in the way of Jesus. Meeting Ann and her father was a deeply spiritual experience. It was not a coincidence, however. It was a God moment, for we are, indeed, all connected in Jesus Christ.

Perhaps you have heard of the concept of “six degrees of separation.” “The six degrees of separation theory states that any inhabitant of the Earth could meet anyone in the world with a maximum of six or fewer mutual connections between them and another person.” As a result, a chain of “friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps.

Gary and I were way ahead of the six steps of separation as we chatted with Ann and her father on Orcas Island. But COVID has also reminded us of this truth as well. We are all connected as one human family whether we like it or not, or whether we desire to be connected or not.

I am so grateful to be a United Methodist, for the “Connection” is our greatest gift to the world and to one another. At a time when we still don’t know what The United Methodist Church will look like after General Conference 2022, I can’t help but think of John Wesley’s sermon, Catholic Spirit, where he says, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.”

I thank God for our serendipitous encounter with Pastor Ann and her father, and I thank God for each one of you. Every day you bless me by your faith, by your hope, and by your commitment to the unfailing love of Christ and for all people. The following words are found on the website of Pastor Ann’s congregation.

No matter where you are on life’s journey.
No matter what you believe or doubt.
No matter how much or little you have.
No matter your race, gender, or immigration status.
You are beloved and belong and are welcome.
We say these words often to remind ourselves that even though the world sometimes places limits on belovedness or worth, God does not.
For whatever reason you’ve arrived here, know that you’re not alone.
We’re each seeking something: new life in the midst of pain,
a gracious community as life changes, a space to become more fully ourselves,
or a group of people with whom we can make the world a more just and loving place.
Look around. Make yourself at home. We’re so glad you’re here.[2]

All connected in Christ, may we and our congregations continue to do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God.

 

[1]. “M. Div.” is a Master of Divinity degree. An “S.T.M.” is a Master of Sacred Theology degree.

[2]. from the website of Edmonds United Methodist Church, Edmonds, Washington

 

Call on the People and Tell the Story

Yes, I will admit to it because the video has already been published. During my ten-day August Road Trip through the Dakotas, I had the opportunity to go ziplining over a river at the Wesley Acres UM Camp and Retreat Center in Dazey, North Dakota. How cool is that for a United Methodist camp? I was a bit skittish, but it was a great experience.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the Dakotas Road trip was spending time and staying overnight at our three United Methodist camps. Lake Poinsett (South Dakota), Wesley Acres, (South Dakota) and Storm Mountain (North Dakota) Camp and Retreat Centers are all vital ministries in the Dakotas. Iowa has two United Methodist Camp and Retreat Centers, Lake Okoboji and Wesley Woods UM Camp. All five of these facilities host many week-long camps and retreats every year.

Each camp is amazing and vital. But today I want to tell you about first stop in South Dakota, Lake Poinsett. I fell in love with the facilities, the beautiful United Methodist church, and the water, especially when we were able to watch a gorgeous sunset while drifting in the middle of the lake. I was particularly grateful when Camp Director Christy Heflin gave me a book to read during our ten days of driving over 2,000 miles.

The Lake Poinsett Story; A Venture in Faith, authored by Lewis C. Reimann and published in 1957, tells the history of camping in the Dakotas in the context of Lake Poinsett. Although Bishop Edwin Edgar Voight wrote the Foreward to the book sixty-four years ago, his words could well apply to our day. “What we do with our youth is the most critical task of the Church. They are the Church of tomorrow. The way they are guided into the fellowship of the Church and find a creative place in it, calls for the most judicious effort. It is well for a Conference to take an occasional look at its effort in this connection.”[i]

The year was 1945, the same time that World War 2 was coming to an end. An idea began to form in the hearts and minds of United Methodists in both the Northern and Southern districts to build one joint camp. A natural place seemed to be on the shores of Lake Poinsett, which was near the center of both the northern and southern districts and is the largest lake in the Dakotas, with 8500 acres of water.

It was suggested that a good person to contact would be Charlie Smith, who owned a dance hall, a skating rink, and a tavern and restaurant on the south side of Lake Poinsett. The location was ideal, with a sandy beach. When Smith was asked his thoughts on a location, he said, “You gents don’t have to look farther. I’ll sell you the buildings and throw in the land, or I’ll sell you the land and throw in the buildings.”[ii]

When one of the committee members asked about the price, Smith said, “My price is $12,000, lock-stock-and-barrel… That’s my price and not a cent less.”

“What about the down payment and terms?”

“I’ll take $1,200 down and give you until next June to complete the final payment.”[iii]

The committee began a conversation. Is this the right location on the lake, on the south side? As they toured the buildings, a Rev. Wagar said, “Somehow every one of us felt in our souls that this was ‘the site,’ and that it would not be hard for Methodism to sanctify the place if only we had a chance.”[iv] The committee had a vision of what this land could become for God’s kingdom.

An executive committee for the Southern District was established and was given the power to finalize the purchase as long as the majority of boards in the Northern District also agreed. A majority of churches voted “yes.” After the initial negotiations were complete, Charlie Smith decided he would no longer sell beer, saying “If the Methodists are going to use the place, I don’t want to sell liquor again.”[v] As a sidebar, along with the purchase of the property came the liquor license. It might be the only time a Methodist church has ever owned a liquor license!

On April 1, 1946, the Methodists took possession of the camp, with a goal to accommodate 300 campers and staff. Immediately, volunteers went to work to clear the land and rehabilitate old structures. At the same time, all of the Methodist churches were asked to calculate whatever 5% of their pastor’s salary was and pledge that amount as their contribution to the project. Time was of the essence since the first “Camp Institute” was to be held in that same spring.

What an amazing year it was! Now that World War II was over, many volunteers from all over thoroughly cleaned the waterfront, and the Army base in Sioux Falls released 200 mattresses that were no longer needed. They bought 99 double bunk beds at 25 cents each; 150 iron beds at $1 each; roasters at $3.00 each. Six stock trucks arrived full of tables and benches, costing $16.00.

That first 1946 season offered sleeping capacity for 120 campers and counselors. The old dance hall was used by 80 or so girls, and 46 boys stayed in the icehouse (they named the icehouse the “Waldorf-Astoria!”). Leaders had a vision of ten lodges, five classroom cottages, a garage and storage space, a handicraft shop, the superintendent home, a chapel waterfront dock, recreational equipment, and reconstruction of buildings, all done by hundreds of Methodist volunteers.[vi]

In 1948, Camp Superintendent Fred Hubbard wrote to a friend, “We found the people more than willing to give and we could have secured more if we had asked for it. I am convinced that all we have to do is call on the people and tell the story and we will get all the money we need for the camp.”[vii]

In the midst of ongoing post-war restrictions, it cost $220,000.00 to purchase the site, erect the buildings, and buy necessary equipment. Everyone joined in the effort, even non- Methodists! There was a campfire service every evening by the lake, and in the summer of 1951, 24 young people dedicated their lives to full-time Christian vocations. On June 1, 1952, the Methodist camp at Lake Poinsett was formally dedicated.

Seventy years later, Lake Poinsett United Methodist Camp is still going strong, even after camp leaders made the difficult decision to suspend conference-sponsored summer programs in 2020 because of COVID. Under its tagline, Inviting campers and guests to experience Christ, creation and community through camp and retreat ministries,” Lake Poinsett had a full 2021 summer season, with appropriate guidelines in place to assure safety for all.

Call on the people and tell the story. Isn’t that the heart of the gospel? Time and again, I have been a part of churches where all we needed to do in order to grow was tell the story of how God is calling us to witness to the love of Jesus and change the world. When we share as well as live out the story, people respond. For there is a deep yearning in each one of us to embody the image of God through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. When we engage in the venture of faith and invite others to be a part of this amazing story of God’s love, lives are transformed forever – especially at camp.

PS – About that Zip Line at Wesley Acres. They are attempting to raise funds to make it even longer! If you would like to support our life-changing camps in either the Dakotas or Iowa, here’s a quick way to do so.

The Dakotas: https://www.dakotasumc.org/news/camp-is-back-spring-2021-camp-appeal

Iowa: https://cwngui.campwise.com/Apps/OnlineGuestDonations/OGD.html

[i] The Lake Poinsett Story; A Venture in Faith, Lewis C. Reiman, Lake Poinsett Methodist Camp, 1957, vii.

[ii] Ibid, p. 4

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid, p. 5.

[v] Ibid, p. 8.

[vi] Ibid, p. 28.

[vii] Ibid, p. 40.