Let’s Stand Up Together!

It seemed serendipitous, but it was no accident. I found myself sitting next to Doris Knight last week at the dedication of the new offices for Justice for our Neighbors (JFON) in Des Moines. According to their website, Iowa JFON is a “nonprofit organization, welcoming low-income immigrants of all faiths into our churches and communities by providing free, high-quality immigration legal services, education and advocacy.”

Doris was instrumental in starting Iowa JFON in 1999 and served as their first executive director as a volunteer for 15 years. The first legal clinics were in Sioux City, Omaha and Des Moines, and today Iowa has seven clinics around the state.

“I was so blessed to be used by God,” Doris said. Her face beamed as she marveled at those who had gathered to celebrate thousands of lives that have been changed because of this United Methodist immigration ministry. A more diverse group of staff, volunteers and clients I have not experienced in a long time: many ages, cultures, religions, ethnicities, skin colors and languages. What drew us together last Thursday was a deep desire to love our neighbor, especially the immigrants in our midst. Among many guiding scriptures for Justice for our Neighbors is Exodus 22:21, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.”

In 2017, Iowa JFON saw 1,187 new clients. Although many people assume that Iowa does not have much ethnic diversity, dozens of countries are represented. The highest numbers are from Mexico: 336; El Salvador: 131; Burma: 103; Guatemala: 97; and Liberia: 78. Iowa JFON handled 2,490 total cases in 2017. They involved family reunification: 392 (16%); escaping violence: 709 (28%); citizenship: 222 (9%), advice and counsel: 750 (30%), and work authorization: 417 (17%). A typical immigration case can take between 10 and 100 hours to complete.

Sol Varisco was hired in November 2017 as Iowa JFON’s first paid executive director. When I met with Sol in December, she knew that JFON needed a new location with more space, but they could not pay market rate as a non-profit with limited resources. Sol and I prayed that God would provide a way for JFON to locate in an area of Des Moines that would be affordable and provide easy access for those needing their services.

Sol told me last week that in January and February, she called 16 different locations that were offering space, with no luck. The owners of the last location never returned her call, so one day Sol went to the area and talked to a neighboring business owner. That person opened the door for a contact to be made, and now JFON is housed in a beautiful suite of offices that is inviting to all who enter its doors.

Several Des Moines religious leaders participated in the blessing of JFON’s new offices, for the plight of immigrants in our midst is of concern to all religious faiths. I was delighted to share that Iowa JFON was a model and guide for JFON in West Michigan, which started in 1994 out of the downtown church in Grand Rapids where I was serving. I saw firsthand how concern for the legal needs of the immigrants brought together people of all faiths in the city.

Bishop Richard Pates of the Catholic Dioceses of Des Moines reminded us that our God has a special preference for the immigrants and the poor in our midst. He emphasized that every person deserves respect and dignity, for we are all made in the image of God and should have the opportunity to live a full life.

Buddhist monk Honorable Razinda chanted “Hommage to the Buddha.” Some of us had an English translation, but even those who could not understand the language felt connected to the Honorable Razinda in a special way.

  • “This is what should be done by one who is skilled in goodness, and who seeks the path of peace: Let them be able and upright, straightforward and gentle in speech, humble and not conceited.”
  • “Radiating kindness over the entire world spreading upwards to the skies, and downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, freed from hatred and ill-will.
  • “By not holding to fixed views, the pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision, being freed from all sense desires, is not born again into this world.”

And Hindi priest Pandit Mukti Subedi, chanting the final hymn from the Holy Book, reminded us that we are all involved together in this ministry. We cannot do it on our own. We need to model the generosity of God by helping the immigrants in our midst because everyone should prevail peacefully on the earth. Every individual has a right to live with dignity and independence.

What a joy it was to witness people of many different traditions standing up together in solidarity with our immigrant brothers and sisters! As Christians continue our journey this week toward Jerusalem and the cross, the Palm Sunday Old Testament lectionary passage from Isaiah 50:4-9a reminds us of our call to respond to the weary and stand up together to make a difference in the face of suffering and injustice.

The Lord God gave me an educated tongue
to know how to respond to the weary
with a word that will awaken them in the morning.

God awakens my ear in the morning to listen,
as educated people do.
The Lord God opened my ear;
I didn’t rebel; I didn’t turn my back.
Instead, I gave my body to attackers,
and my cheeks to beard pluckers.
I didn’t hide my face
from insults and spitting.
The Lord God will help me;
therefore, I haven’t been insulted.
Therefore, I set my face like flint,
and knew I wouldn’t be ashamed.
The one who will declare me innocent is near.
Who will argue with me?
Let’s stand up together.
    Who will bring judgment against me?
Let him approach me.
Look! The Lord God will help me.
Who will condemn me?

How is God calling you and me to stand up together this week?





















Losing My Voice

I lost my voice last week. Just like that! I’d been pretty run down from a heavy travel schedule and didn’t feel quite right. I thought I was coming down with a cold. Then, in the middle of our first district gathering around the work around the Commission on a Way Forward, my voice began to weaken and waver. Then it just flew away! Not sure where. I limped through the rest of the day, speaking as softly as I could, but then my voice departed for good. Cough drops and cold meds helped a bit, but rest is what my voice and my body needed the most.

Have you ever lost your voice? Laryngitis happens when the voice box in your throat becomes irritated or inflamed. This leads to swelling that keeps your vocal cords from being able to open and close smoothly. It’s usually a viral infection and can be very annoying and inconvenient when speaking is part of your job.

Not being able to speak reminds me that our voice is a gift. God created every human being with a unique voice and calls us to use our voice to glorify God, share Christ’s love, and change the world. My voice was silent for much of the week, but that is nothing compared to millions of people around our world whose voices have been deliberately silenced.

It’s been amazing to observe how our youth have been using their voices to protest gun violence in the wake of the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL. A movement has begun where our young people are speaking truth to power by asserting the need for stricter gun safety measures in order to protect our schools.

Voices are starting to be heard in other places as well. The “Me Too” movement went viral in October 2017 and is encouraging girls and women to speak out against sexual assault and misconduct in the workplace and elsewhere. Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2017 was The Silence Breakers; The Voices That Started A Movement. The riots in Charlottesville last year rekindled one of our nation’s greatest challenges: our history of personal and institutional racism and the need to keep working for racial justice at all levels.

On February 22, public school teachers in West Virginia went on strike after not having had any pay raise for the last four years. After the State House agreed to a 5% increase and the State Senate would not go past 4%, the teachers would not back down. Among the lowest paid teachers in the country, they refused to still their voices and would not return to work. Last Tuesday the West Virginia House and Senate passed a bill to give all state workers, including public school teachers, a 5% pay increase. Their voices finally prevailed, and children are back to school.

Children, youth, and young adults who are part of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) are still in limbo after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced on September 5, 2017 that the government was terminating DACA. In the days and months following, as court injunctions have been filed challenging the Administration’s actions to end DACA, tens of thousands of young people, many of whom have no other home than the US, continue to live in fear.

At the same time, advocates for these young people are using their voices to demonstrate the gifts that DACA recipients offer our country and are urging a gracious response. We are privileged to live in a country where our Constitution guarantees the freedom to make our voice heard. Our United Methodist Justice for our Neighbors, based in Des Moines, with six branches throughout the state, has given voice for many years to tens of thousands of people with free, high-quality immigration legal services, education, and advocacy. I will be helping JFON to bless their new space in Des Moines on Thursday afternoon.

Did you know that the Latin words for “voice” (vox) and “to call” (vocare) come from the same root? At the beginning of Paul’s first letter to the Christians in Corinth, he writes, “From Paul, called by God’s will to be an apostle of Jesus Christ … to God’s church that is in Corinth: to those who have been made holy to God in Jesus Christ, who are called to be God’s people…”

To be called is to use our voices to glorify God and make a difference. Evidently, Paul, who had been called by God to preach the gospel to the Gentiles and become a missionary to all the nations, had heard about dissension among the Corinthians. Paul was dealing mostly with behavior problems among the Corinthians rather than doctrinal issues. All the way through his letter, however, Paul interprets these issues in light of the “testimony of Christ.” Paul encourages the Corinthians to consider and claim their call as people set apart to be agents of Jesus Christ.

Who is God calling you to be as a Christ-follower (vocare)? And how will you use your God-given voice (vox) to change the world? Listen to how the apostle Paul describes this call:

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God. 

Here’s the heart of the matter. God gives a voice to the powerless in order to challenge the powers that be. God gives a voice to the foolish in order to humble the wise. God gives a voice to the weak in order to topple the strong. God gives a voice to all who are despised, discriminated against, and rejected in order to expose those who claim to know it all.

Has your voice ever been silenced? What does it feel like for your voice not to be heard?

Who was your champion and opened doors for you to speak your truth? And how can you be a catalyst for the voices of others to be heard?

Losing my voice once in a while is probably a good thing because it reminds me how many people in our world never have a voice. It also gives some time and space to consider my own call. As my voice slowly comes back, I yearn for the day when no person ever has their voice ignored, discounted, or taken from them. I also pray for the time when every person can recognize, celebrate, and use their voice to share words of hope and deeds of love. Most of all, may I never lose my own voice to console the broken-hearted, cry out against injustice, and witness to the grace and peace of God that makes us whole.


The Flashback

“Come to the table of grace.” It was the most profound part of our Council of Bishops meeting last week in Dallas, Texas. On our first three days together, we shared the sacrament of holy communion, a reminder that God was in our midst, binding us together in love and hope. The liturgies were rich, the music uplifting, and the words deeply moving, “Serve your God with patience and passion. Be deliberate in enacting your faith. Be steadfast in celebrating the Spirit’s power. And may peace be your way in the world.”

On the last day, we shared in the Love Feast, which is a Christian Fellowship Meal that recalls the meals Jesus shared with his disciples during his ministry. The Love Feast can be traced back to Count Zinzendorf and the Moravians in Germany. In 1727, they initiated a worship service that consisted of sharing food, prayer, religious conversation, and hymns.

When John Wesley was living in Savannah, Georgia, he experienced a Love Feast with the Moravians in 1737. He wrote this in his diary, “After evening prayers, we joined with the Germans in one of their love-feasts. It was begun and ended with thanksgiving and prayer and celebrated in so decent and solemn a manner as a Christian of the apostolic age would have allowed to be worthy of Christ.”

It was during the Love Feast where I had the flashback. Two of my episcopal colleagues and I were sharing bread and simple cups of water at our table when I remembered something I had forgotten for decades. I was a small child, sitting beside my mother in our Mennonite church and watching her take communion (my father was in the choir). She took a piece of bread from the tray that was passed through the pew, and I heard her chewing the bread slowly in her mouth. Then I saw her take a small cup out of a tray and drink the grape juice.

As I recall, we had communion just three or four times a year. I had a vague sense that it had something to do with remembering the Last Supper and the death of Jesus on the cross. I also remembered that before Communion Sunday, we had from time to time what were called “preparatory services.” These services were meant to spiritually prepare church members to receive communion by ensuring that our hearts were right with God and our neighbor.

Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have failed to be an obedient church.
We have not done your will, we have broken your law,
We have rebelled against your love,
We have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray. Free us for joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

I confess that I wasn’t particularly invested in communion because I was not allowed to participate. I was only an observer. I never heard these words, inviting to the table all who love him, who earnestly repent of their sin, and seek to live in peace with one another.” When I finally asked my mother why I could not take communion, she explained, “When you profess your faith, are baptized, and join the church, you will be allowed to take communion.”

In the Mennonite church where I grew up, we attended “catechetical class” once a week in 9th and 10th grade. We were instructed in the Christian faith and Mennonite theology and practice. In the spring of our sophomore year, we were encouraged to make our profession and be baptized. Only “believer’s baptism” was practiced.

Here I was, a Jesus-loving little girl whose life revolved completely around the church, and it wasn’t until I was a teenager that I was able to be baptized and receive this holy meal that seemed so serious and important. Because communion happened so rarely, I didn’t obsess about my exclusion … until the day a new girl in my junior high grade began coming to church with her parents. They were Mennonites who had moved to southeastern Pennsylvania from another state.

Not only did I notice Lisa’s presence in worship, but on World Wide Communion Sunday, I observed her receiving communion!! Stunned, I said to my mother, “I saw Lisa take communion today. I thought we had to wait until we completed two years of classes in high school before we could be baptized and take communion.” My mother spoke to Lisa’s mother, who said that in their previous Mennonite church, children could profess their faith and choose to be baptized in upper elementary school. “No fair!” I said indignantly. “Why do I have to wait?”

“Come to the table of grace. Come to the table of grace. This is God’s table; it’s not yours or mine. Come to the table of grace.” The flashback happened when we sang these words at the Council of Bishops, and I realized anew that the communion table is God’s table, not mine. One of the beautiful gifts of our Wesleyan heritage is that all are welcome to the table. We don’t have to wait until we are baptized or become a member of the church. We don’t have to wait until we understand the theological nuances of the sacrament. We don’t even have to wait until we are worthy, for Jesus invites us to come, just as we are. Children, especially, grow spiritually and experience God’s unconditional love and belonging by taking communion.

Come not because you must, but because you may.
Come not because you are strong, but because you are weak,
and in your weakness and frailty are in constant need of God’s love and care.
Come not because you are righteous,
but because your Savior has made peace between you and God.
Come now to meet your Lord and to pray for God’s Spirit.
Whoever you are and wherever you have come from, you are invited to partake.

I regret missing communion as a child, although I understand the reasons why. Because I could not partake, the sacrament did not mean much to me. It was only as I went off to a Lutheran College that I received communion on a regular basis. And when I worked at a United Methodist church as a Director of Music while in graduate school and seminary, I came to yearn for the sacrament in a way I had never felt before. To have the privilege of serving the bread and the cup as a United Methodist pastor and now as a bishop has become a treasured part of my ministry.

There is no greater privilege than to look into the eyes of children, youth, and adults and say, “The bread of life, given for you. The cup of salvation, given for you.” The vulnerability and humility that they bring to the table is overwhelming. It’s as if I can see into their soul and am thus transformed myself.

During our Love Feast, we sang Brian Wren’s beautiful hymn, We Meet as Friends at Table, and I flashed back again, this time to so many beautiful experiences of communion. It was a reminder that in the midst of our differences as United Methodists, the way forward may just be to meet as friends at table.

  1. We meet as friends at table, to listen, and be heard,
    united by the Spirit, attentive to the Word.
    Through prayer and conversation, we tune our varied views
    to Christ, whose love has made us the bearers of good news.
  1. With food and drink for sharing, the table soon is spread,
    The freedom meal of Jesus is crowned with wine and bread.
    And all, without exception, may eat, and speak, and stay,
    for this is Christ’s own table where none is turned away.
  1. We share our lives and longings, and when the meal is done
    we pray as friends at table and promise to be one.
    To Christ, and to each other, we cheerfully belong:
    apart, our hope is fruitless; together, we are strong.
  1. Fulfilled, and glad to follow wherever Christ may lead,
    we journey from the table to love a world in need
    with patience, truth and kindness, that justice may increase
    and all may sit at table in freedom, joy and peace.

(Brian Wren, tune: Ellacombe “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed”)