When Stuff Happens

It was a parliamentarian’s worst nightmare. Last week, three of the five amendments to the Constitution of The United Methodist Church were approved by an aggregate two-thirds vote of all the conferences in our global church. However, the first two amendments, which related to the rights of women, girls, and various other groups, were narrowly defeated.

Many United Methodists were both surprised and disappointed in the vote and wondered what happened. Then, last Friday, it was announced by the Secretary of the General Conference that an error in the wording of constitutional amendment #1 had been discovered. A new ballot is being prepared for distribution to all the annual conferences to consider at their next meeting.

I’m glad that the error was discovered but am not too concerned because stuff happens. Yes, this was a whopper. But the human condition is that sometimes we make mistakes. And when we do, we hope that we can learn from our mistakes, make amends, be the recipient of grace, and move on. The funny thing is, I learned about the amendment mistake just as I was beginning to write about another mistake.

The text message came at 2:39 p.m. a week ago Friday. “American Airlines. We’re sorry, but one of your two checked bags will arrive on a later flight in Des Moines. Set up free delivery at aa.com/delaybag/V5QU1CW”.

At least my suitcase disappeared on the way home from the Council of Bishops meeting in Chicago rather than on the way to the meeting. Nevertheless, it was annoying. After all, I was on a direct flight from Chicago to Des Moines. What could possibly go wrong?? Well … plenty!

After vainly checking to make sure that my bag was not on the carousel, Gary and I went to the baggage claim counter at the Des Moines airport to confirm the plan. I had already checked out the “delay bag” website and signed up on www.wheresmysuitcase.com to receive free delivery.

The young woman at the counter said, “Unfortunately, your bag was rerouted to Manhattan, Kansas.” I remembered Dorothy, who said in The Wizard of Oz, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”Please, purple suitcase, don’t let them take you to Kansas!

“The good news,” she said, “is that someone detected the error and removed your bag from the plane before it actually took off. The bad news is that we couldn’t get the bag back to Gate G-8 in Chicago in time for your flight. But the good news is that your bag will come on the next flight to Des Moines and will arrive at 6:30 p.m. It should be on your doorstep by 9:00 p.m.”

“Who will actually deliver my bag?” I asked. “Oh, we contract with a delivery service. There’s nothing to worry about, and it’s free!” In hindsight, we should have driven a half hour home and then returned to the airport at 6:30 p.m. to retrieve my wayward purple suitcase, but we trusted the system.

At 8:33 pm., I received two identical texts from wheresmysuitcase.com, one again saying that my bag had been delayed. I filled out all the information online, which indicated that my bag would arrive at the airport late in the evening. If I wanted the delivery company to bring the bag to my house by 3 a.m., we could make sure the porch lights were on and sign a waiver (which I did) so the driver would not have to ring the door bell and wake us up.

We called the phone number that was given, just to make sure everything was on the up and up. I like my purple suitcase and wanted some assurance that it would not be lost forever in conveyor belt heaven. Plus, I had a lot of material from the Council of Bishops meeting in my suitcase that I needed ASAP. The rep said the suitcase would arrive at our doorstep at 4:30 a.m. “Now I lay me down to sleep…”

I woke at 6 a.m. and opened the front door. The outside light was still on, but no suitcase. Gary got through to a customer service agent for American Airlines after being on hold for 45 minutes. Meanwhile, I received one email, saying that the bag was delivered at 11:55 p.m., and another saying, “Case closed.” Hmmm. The person who finally answered was very pleasant, but when Gary asked why my suitcase hadn’t arrived yet, he said, “We don’t deliver bags during the night.”

“But my wife received three emails, one saying the bag would arrive at 4:30 a.m., and another that it would arrive at 3 a.m., and another to say it had been delivered at 11:55 p.m. What’s up with that?”

“I don’t know, but we don’t deliver bags at night.”

“You mean, it was fake news?”

“I guess you could say that.”

“Don’t you coordinate with the airlines, wheresmysuitcase.com, and the delivery company? Why did we consent online to have the bags delivered overnight when they were not even going to be delivered? And why did we get an email saying the case was closed?”

“All I know is that bags are never delivered at night. Our records show that bag will be at your house at 9:30 a.m.”

“How can I contact the delivery company to make sure the suitcase is really on the way?” “I’m sorry, but there is no one you can contact. The emails are automatically generated.”

Clearly, it’s a deeply flawed system. Sigh. I go out for an early morning bike ride and when I return, there is my purple suitcase, delivered at 10:16 a.m. by Joseph, the driver, safe and undamaged. Gary said, “It’s good I was here. Joseph was driving a car that looked like it was in an accident, with a gaping hole where the right headlight had been. When he came to the door, he gave me a beat-up black suitcase. I said, ‘That’s not my wife’s suitcase.’ He replied, ‘Oh, it isn’t?’”

Evidently, Joseph went back to his car and had to open the front door on the passenger side from the inside because it was too banged up. My purple suitcase was on the front seat. Twenty-two hours after parting with my bag in Chicago, we were reunited. Case closed.

My experience with both the bag and amendment #1 reminds me a lot of the local church. As leaders, we all mean well, but sometimes stuff happens. When we don’t have our act together, it can really irritate others. I’ve heard hundreds of complaints about the church over many years, some of which are amusing, others of which are sad, and still others that cause me to roll my eyes in amazement. And for the sake of full disclosure: I have accepted responsibility for all of the following mistakes at one time or another.

  • Why didn’t you visit Aunt Mabel when you knew she was very ill?
  • Why wasn’t my financial statement correct? It’s missing a huge contribution.
  • Why didn’t you let Johnny go on the middle school field trip? He’s almost old enough.
  • Why are there no safe sanctuary procedures for children?
  • Why did you let the announcements run on for 15 minutes this morning?
  • Why did a stranger sit in my pew today?
  • Why are major decisions made by a few “influential people” and not by the Administrative Council?
  • Why did you let Rachel and Judy get into an argument about who’s in charge of the mission fair without intervening?
  • Why weren’t you in your office when I dropped by yesterday?
  • Why didn’t anyone call me back when I signed up to help at the Wednesday dinner?

Our reality in the church is that when stuff happens, we too often minimize the issue, avoid taking responsibility, or make excuses. Whether it’s constitutional amendments, runaway suitcases, or church goof-ups, the questions for leaders are always the same when stuff happens.

  • What actually took place and how will we admit responsibility?

As leaders, there is no substitute for honesty and transparency about our mistakes, even if we personally did not make the mistake. In my experience, church folks are usually very gracious and tolerant if we admit our gaffes and apologize. When we refuse to admit failure, we project an image of ourselves and the church as incompetent, unresponsive, and uncaring.

  • Where and how did the failure take place in the system?

When stuff happens, it’s critical to humble ourselves and take the time to thoroughly investigate the problem. Hoping it will just go away never works. Carefully and prayerfully examining processes and procedures against our mission, vision, and values is critical. Other common problems include sloppy systems of accountability and lack of clear and frequent communication.

  • What commitment will we make to ensure that it doesn’t happen again?

The key to healthy organizations is having the will to change, taking the time to create better processes and procedures, and continually evaluating and communicating our progress.

I have more confidence that The United Methodist Church will “fix” the constitutional amendment issue than American Airlines will “fix” their lost baggage delivery system. But I do know this. The greatest secret to a healthy response when stuff happens is creating transparency, always showing grace, and continually going on to perfection. But I still wonder. Where did my purple suitcase actually go?

Why Postville Matters

It was the second to last day of the 2017 RAGBRAI bike ride across Iowa when I rode my bike through Postville. I did not know about this tiny northeast Iowa town before, but my curiosity was raised when I heard buzz among the riders. As I walked my bike through town, I noticed ethnic restaurants as well as orthodox Jews walking the streets. That is not a normal scene in small town Iowa.

When I started asking questions, not having grown up in Iowa, the story unfolded. On May 12, 2008, Postville, population 2,273, advertising itself as “Hometown to the World,” was the place of the largest immigration raid of a single-site employer in US history. On May 12, students in the schools heard the sound of helicopters overhead and wondered what was happening. Was it simply the National Guard performing exercises or coming to recruit teenagers, or was it the worst nightmare of immigrants: the fear of deportation?

More than one thousand heavily armed ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and federal agents arrested 389 people, mostly Guatemalan, in a raid at Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat-packing plant in the world. Immigrants were handcuffed and bused to a makeshift prison at the National Cattle Congress grounds in Waterloo where they were held pending adjudication. Most of the detainees were unaware that they needed Social Security numbers to work in the US and were charged with document fraud. They could plead guilty to one set of felony charges and receive five months in jail and deportation, or they could face the prospect of much more serious charges and a considerably longer jail term.

Hundreds of families were separated, and Postville lost 20% of its population overnight. The raid cost the United States five million dollars. Meanwhile, company officials were arrested for immigration violations, worker exploitation, and financial crimes. Agriprocessors filed for bankruptcy, and the town’s major employer was shuttered five months after the raid. Sholom Rusbashkin, CEO of Agriprocessors, was convicted and served eight years of a 27-year sentence for bank fraud. His sentence was commuted in December 2017 by President Donald Trump.

This Friday, May 12, marks the tenth anniversary of the Postville raid and offers the opportunity to look back on this significant and defining event in the state. Most people outside of Iowa assume that there is little ethnic diversity in the state. They have visions of miles and miles of corn and soybean fields, huge cattle farms, and mostly white people driving trucks and tractors.

In a 2006 article by Stephen G. Bloom, a journalism teacher at the University of Iowa, “Immigration comes to the small-town Midwest,” he noted that 60 percent of graduates at UI leave the state because of a lack of opportunities. He also wrote that from 1980 to 1990, all but seven of Iowa’s 99 counties lost population, with many school districts consolidating. We find the same trend in The United Methodist Church, where it is no longer impossible for many rural churches to support full-time clergy or for county seat towns to maintain two or three United Methodist congregations.

In the past few decades, however, Iowa has experienced slow and steady growth, due in large part to immigrants moving to Iowa from other countries. Immigrants are often willing to work in low paying jobs that others do not want, including service industries and meat-packing plants.

Postville was one of those places. In 1987, Aaron Rubashkin, a Russian-born Hasidic Jew from Brooklyn, decided to get into the business of mass producing kosher meat in Iowa. He purchased an abandoned slaughterhouse outside Postville, converted it into a processing plant, and hired 350 workers. Two of his sons were sent to oversee the plant, with Sholom Rubashkim becoming the CEO. By 2007, Agriprocessors was suppling 60% of kosher meat and 40% of kosher poultry in the US.

The Hometown to the World became a grand experiment in multi-culturalism. Many Jews relocated to work at Agriprocessors, and people from fifty nations also converged on Postville, with immigrants being given dangerous and the lowest paying slaughterhouse jobs in the nation. Postville was changed forever.

How did this tiny community learn to live together? Amazingly, Postville made great progress in creating a sustainable, multicultural community. With rapid changes in the global economy and traditional midwestern tolerance, residents of Postville were able to transcend ethnic, religious, and class differences.

Postville schools had students from more than thirty-five countries. People from many cultures worked together to address community concerns and organize events. Despite built-in segregators such as religion, food, and separate schools, Jews, Christians, Muslims, people of various ethnicities, and locals became neighbors and friends.

By attempting to build a tolerant respectful community, Postville became a model for diversity, despite occasional setbacks. The multicultural and popular Taste of Postville was intentionally designed to break down barriers between residents. A multilingual Postville radio station started, and the Postville Soccer League became an opportunity to have fun together.

Unfortunately, after the raid, the town fell apart. Businesses and restaurants were forced to close. Undocumented workers disappeared, which meant they were foreclosing on houses or not paying rent. And far fewer people were around to spend money in town. All this, as the recession of 2008 was beginning. The kosher slaughterhouse was bought by SHF Industries in 2009 as a meat-processing plant and was renamed Agristar.

Postville has come a long way in recovery with many Somali refugees now working legally and living in town. Why does Postville matter ten years later?

  • Postville matters because it has become the poster child for the global themes of refugees, poor working conditions. and false promises. A multicultural and multireligious world is right outside our doorstep, no matter where we live.
  • Postville matters because it reminds us that immigrants are human beings made in the image of God who deserve to be treated with respect and grace.
  • Postville matters because ministries like Iowa Justice for our Neighbors can provide legal immigration resources for individuals and families who have no other place to turn for help. After the raid, eight local faith communities came together through the Decorah JFON clinic to assist immigrants still living in Postville through the Path to Citizenship. 
  • Postville matters because wherever diversity exists, even in small numbers, training is necessary around language, health care, teachers, law enforcement, and churches.
  • Postville matters because last month, on April 5, 2018, an immigration raid at a meat packing plant in rural Morristown, Tennessee resulted in the detention of 97 people. More than five hundred children missed school the next day. It was the largest workplace immigration raid since Postville.
  • Postville matters because we are all called to demonstrate bold resolve by championing the rights of immigrants, respecting and defending their inherent dignity, and welcoming their many contributions to our neighborhoods, towns, and to our society. “

On Friday, May 11, the 10th anniversary of the federal immigration raid will be observed in Postville. Organizers of the event say it will be a time to remember the 389 people who were arrested on May 12, 2008, “as a summons to challenge current anti-immigrant rhetoric and behaviors and to unite in demanding just, humane and comprehensive immigration reform.”

The day will begin with a 10 a.m. interfaith prayer service at St. Bridget Catholic Church, followed by a noon rally at Meyer Park, close to the site of raid. Postville matters.

Inescapable Community

There were seven of us. It was last Saturday evening, the night before the Council of Bishop meeting began, and we decided to get Chicago pizza at Giordano’s Restaurant. Because we didn’t want to wait a half hour, we sat at the bar. No one ordered a drink, but the bartenders weren’t upset, so we had a good old time catching up with each other.

The only empty spaces at the bar were to my left, and when the next group of three was seated, I struck up a conversation. An older couple was taking their granddaughter out to eat before dropping her off at O’Hare Airport, where she was headed to Madrid. Tiffany was going to spend a few weeks with friends, after which she was taking a four-week course as part of her engineering major in college.

As we chatted, I told Tiffany’s grandmother that our group was from The United Methodist Church, and she replied that she was the volunteer treasurer of her local church. We had a wonderful conversation about church finances and learned that we both knew a United Methodist pastor from Michigan who was a relative of her husband. In this very public place, we all huddled together and asked God’s blessing upon Tiffany in her big adventure. The ten of us, sitting at a bar in Chicago, became the body of Christ at the heavenly banquet, inescapable community.

Community. It’s a word I hear a lot, especially as I travel the state leading gatherings around the work of the Commission on a Way Forward. Some United Methodists are convinced that we are better apart than together and believe we should bless each other and part amicably. Others believe that our differences make us stronger and more effective in our witness to the world. Some are not able to accept same-sex marriage and self-avowed practicing homosexuals as clergy while others are not able to embrace a denomination that denies full inclusion of LGBTQ individuals in the life of the church.

How can we stay in community with each other when we do not agree on human sexuality? What does it mean to say that United Methodists are connected to each other, anyway? In our cabinet worship last week, we read these words from Ralph Morton, who wrote them in 1951.

      For we are not trying to build community.
      We can never do that.
God sets us in community.
God has set us in inescapable community,
      In our family,
      In our neighborhood,
              In all the relationships with others that life brings.
And all the time we rebel….
When we are enlivened by the Spirit of Christ
      We accept community and begin to live
      According to the laws of our being.
(Ralph Morton, This is the Day; Readings and Meditations from the Iona Community, Month 1, Day 15, Wild Goose Publications)

Morton’s words were startling and provocative. For we are not trying to build community. We can never do that. We can never build community? I thought the church was supposed to be a community!

I discovered that Ralph Morton was deeply involved in the early formation of the Iona Community, which is located on the island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland. In 2011, I had the privilege of living for a week in the Iona Community, which describes itself as “an ecumenical Christian community of women and men who seek to live out the Gospel in a way that is radical, inclusive, and relevant to life in the 21st century.”


As I participated in the rhythm of life on Iona through worship, chores, food preparation, and Bible study, I learned that I cannot “build community.” That’s because God has already set us in inescapable community. Community is a given: inescapable, just like yesterday’s lectionary lesson from the gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit. Without me, you can’t do anything.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t say, “I hope you’ll choose to be a branch on my tree.” No, he says, “I am the vine, and you are the inescapable branches. If you want to be part of my work on this earth, you need to remain in me. If you want to bear fruit, you will need to welcome and accept that there are not only other branches but that those branches are also inescapable community.”

Did you know that community and communion both share the same root: common? Think about it. There is no community if we do not hold certain things in common, such as loving our neighbors, sharing what we have with others, and deepening our faith through study, prayer, and mission. In the same way, partaking of holy communion is at the heart of our common experience of community in the Christian church.

There is another twist to Morton’s quote, however. God has set us in inescapable community, In our family, In our neighborhood, In all the relationships with others that life brings. When I first read the quote, I mistakenly switched the last two words, so that it read, “God has set us in inescapable community … In all the relationships that bring life.

Isn’t that our preferred default mode as humans? We experience community when our relationships bring life to us. We just love our friends and family. But, wait! Morton says that we achieve community when we enter into relationships with others that life itself brings. In other words, community becomes real when we do not choose relationships that are easy or comfortable. Inescapable community becomes real when we intentionally enter into the relationships that life brings to us, such as a homeless family unexpectedly knocking on our door, or several refugee children arriving for church school one Sunday, or the opportunity to advocate for racial justice when a shooting takes place down the street from the church, or when a gay couple visits the church and asks, “Are we welcome to worship here?”

Then Morton gives us a reality check. And all the time we rebel. It’s the human condition. You and I rebel against inescapable community. In Thomas Merton’s book, The Hidden Ground of Love; The Letters of Thomas Merton on Religious Experience and Social Concerns, he writes, The deepest level of communication is not communication, but communion. It is wordless. It is beyond words, and it is beyond speech, and it is beyond concept. Not that we discover a new unity. We discover an older unity. My dear Brothers [and Sisters], we are already one. But we imagine that we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.

 Community. Communion. Communication. Common. As brothers and sisters in The United Methodist church, we are already one. We are not searching today for a new unity but for an older inescapable unity that empowered the early church to spread contextually throughout the Mediterranean world like wildfire. When we are enlivened by the Spirit of Christ, we accept community and begin to live according to the laws of our being.

We cannot escape community because we are all common branches on the same vine, rooted in the grace of God. Every day you and I discover a new unity in all the relationships that life brings. Just as communion is beyond words, and speech, and concept, so we hold in common a need for Jesus that goes far deeper than the faith, hope, and love we could ever communicate.

Life brought Tiffany and her grandparents to sit at the bar with us last Saturday, and by eating pizza together, God set us (and the bartenders!) in inescapable community. Is it time to admit that the unity we seek is beyond speech and beyond concept? Could we possibly acknowledge that we are already one? Dare we confess that at times we succumb to the temptation to imagine that we are not one? Are we willing to recover our original unity by giving up whatever separates us from bearing fruit in escapable community? Can we become what we already are?