Foolish Church 

It’s a pretty foolish idea. A church inside a state prison? When I arrived in Iowa in 2016, that was one of many things that felt amazing, and wonderful, and challenging.

It seemed no less foolish when I had the opportunity to visit worship there in Mitchellville on a cold winter’s night in early 2017. I immediately noticed how dark it was. Yes, there were a few spotlights, but most of the buildings were dark, and the sky was black. It was also very quiet.

You see, in Iowa, we have a United Methodist church inside the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW), the only women’s prison in our state. Ministry began there in 2006 with Rev. Arnette Pint as the first pastor. By February of 2007, the church had chosen its name, Women at the Well, and it was consecrated as a duly constituted congregation of The United Methodist Church. Since 2011 the church has been led by full-time pastor and former attorney Rev. Lee Roorda Schott, along with, more recently, Rev. Paul Witmer. Worship is on Thursday evenings at 7:00 p.m. in the Sacred Place, which is the chapel on the prison grounds.

Part of the foolishness of a church in a prison is how much is out of our control. I certainly felt that, waiting in the entry area, that first time I visited Women at the Well. I had been part of creating a county jail ministry in Michigan, and I understood the importance of being present with those who are incarcerated. This was a prison, however, and my senses were on high alert. I knew I had no control of what would happen.

When someone decided it was time, we passed through two sets of heavy doors and heard them clang shut behind us. I walked with the other visitors and regular worship volunteers through the bitter cold, up a long hill to the Sacred Place, right in the midst of women who live at the prison. I noticed how thin the women’s coats were, but I had to let it go.

Once we arrived inside the Sacred Place, the wisdom of this foolish undertaking became evident. The Holy Spirit was preparing the way. The singing was lusty and joyful, the women were deeply engaged, grace overflowed, and I kept forgetting that we were in prison. It was hard to observe the rule that we weren’t supposed to touch the women. That’s not easy when you’re a hugger. Of course, I wanted to embrace these women because something special was happening. The communion elements, transformed into the body and blood of Christ, were also transforming me as I served them.

What seemed at first like some kind of foolishness has become a vital ministry supported by dozens of United Methodist – and non-UM! – churches in Iowa. “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Corinthians 1:18) Over the course of a dozen years, hundreds of guests have had the same experience I had, of entering into this most unlikely of places and being deeply blessed there. Women at the Well’s ministries have expanded to include a statewide network of reentry support for women leaving prison in addition to various ministries inside the prison. They include an inside council (leadership group), grief group, civil conversations, Christmas open houses, and even a Vacation Bible School for the grown-up residents!

In 2017, the leaders of Women at the Well adopted this vision statement: to lead the church in love that breaks down walls. They have done this, notably, through helping churches outside the prison think about how they can better welcome people they might have overlooked. That includes people who deal with mental illness (like 70% of the prison population), or addiction (like 80% of the prison population), or sexual assault or domestic violence (like a staggering 90% of the prison population).[i] They’re asking us to do outside the prison what they’ve learned to do inside. How foolish is that?

Women at the Well took that far-reaching vision so seriously that they have rearranged staffing and provided volunteer support so that Pastor Lee could write two books (so far!) on this subject, both published this year. The first, Foolish Church: Messy, Raw, Real, and Making Room, offers a vision and leadership lessons for how the church outside the prison can learn from what she has discovered inside. The second, The Fools’ Manual, is a study and practice guide (#FoolishChurch) that will help us live out this foolish, countercultural vision. Both books (available on Amazon, Cokesbury and other booksellers) describe a church that:

  • doesn’t need us to hide our scars.
  • is more about relationships than programs.
  • believes and protects.
  • builds boundaries, not walls.
  • brings its messes into the light.
  • has something critically important to offer.

It’s a great and timely vision. I agree with Pastor Lee that “God must long for us as churches to make room for people whose experiences and scars equip them to meet the needs of the overlooked and hidden communities that surround our churches.”[ii] In the foolish places of our world, we dare to do ministry in the name of Jesus, believing that all people are loved by our Creator and have gifts to offer our world. If we take all this seriously, we’ll have to welcome people better. We’ll have to be less judgmental and more open. Our churches will become messier, and some will call us fools. But it’s a foolishness Jesus would recognize. In fact, he calls us to it.

Even as Women at the Well has stepped boldly into these questions of leading the church outside the prison, its role inside the prison has been curtailed over the past year. Leadership and policy changes at the prison have limited the number of programs and volunteers allowed inside the prison, and guests no longer (for now) get to join in worship with the women who live there. Part of the foolishness we signed on for, when Women at the Well began, was to serve within an institution where we aren’t in control.

I have been marveling at how the Holy Spirit continues to lead the way forward for Women at the Well. Even inside the prison, vital worship continues twice a week, with the longstanding weekly worship service on Thursday evening in the Sacred Place, and a small, informal service that takes place in the minimum-custody live-out unit on Tuesday evenings. There’s still a Bible-centered prayer group that meets on Tuesday. The volunteers will tell you they’re just there so the doors can open, for it’s the women who lead this prayerful, supportive community. And Pastor Lee and Pastor Paul have developed a reentry workshop that is drawing 40-50 women each Wednesday afternoon. This lively gathering explores Biblical perspectives and spiritual practices that will support these women on that journey, even as the sharing of stories, experiences, and encouragement strengthens them for what lies ahead.

And with less room to do ministry inside the prison, Women at the Well is intentionally mobilizing for ministry outside. They’re building a relationship with the Fresh Start Women’s Center in Des Moines, a residential work release facility, where they’ll soon be offering twice-monthly reentry and/or spiritual programming that can be replicated through volunteers across Iowa in other work release centers and halfway houses. They’re also partnering with the Iowa Conference Board of Church & Society to facilitate jail ministry across the state. What began as a “church inside the prison,” which drew you and me there for support and assistance, is becoming a more diffuse, shared, and local expression of our love for persons who are incarcerated, jailed, confined, or in need of support. The foolishness continues, and we’re going to be invited to do our part!

Thanks be to God for this foolish church that is messy, raw, and is helping us make room for all.

P.S. Pastor Lee communicates weekly about #FoolishChurch on her blog and on the @Foolish Church Facebook page. In addition, there will be a  Foolish Church Conference in Ames, Iowa, November 15-17.  

[i] Foolish Church; Messy, Raw, Real, and Making Room, Lee Roorda Schott, Eugen, Oregon, Cascade Books, 2019, p. xvi.

[ii] Ibid, p. 91.

I Repent in Dust and Ashes

Early Thursday morning last week, I was awakened by huge rolling claps of thunder and the sound of torrential rain beating against our house. As I lay in bed, knowing that I would likely not be able to get back to sleep, I marveled at the fierceness of the storm and this hymn immediately came to mind, “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds Thy hands have made; I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, thy power throughout the universe displayed.”

I am going to come clean, however, and say that, “How Great Thou Art” is not my favorite hymn. In fact, I wrote a blog in 2008 on my love/hate relationship with this hymn. It was a reaction to the time when I was leading church conferences as a district superintendent, and I asked each congregation to pick two hymns. Almost half of the churches chose to sing “How Great Thou Art.”

It wasn’t surprising because, in a 2010 survey on The United Methodist Church’s Facebook page, 1,500 people answered the question, “What is your favorite hymn in the United Methodist hymnal?” “Here I am, Lord” came in first, and “How Great Thou Art” came in second.

Writing in my blog, I said, “I don’t have any complaint with the words of ‘How Great Thou Art.’ They’re a wonderful witness to the majesty and power of God. It’s the music that often drags me down. Accompanists tend to play the hymn so slowly that I just want to close my eyes and take a nap. I even timed it once. It takes five minutes to sing hymn #77 when it pokes along.”

I confessed my bad attitude about “How Great Thou Art” a long time ago and made my peace with the hymn, although it was still not a favorite. Then, in the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to hike with my husband Gary and son Garth in the Canadian Rockies of Banff National Park. We decided to tackle the challenging 11.6-mile roundtrip hike to Healy Pass. We even purchased the recommended bear spray, but, fortunately, did not need to use it.

It took almost three hours of steady climbing to reach the pass, and when we emerged from the woods it seemed as if we were on top of the world. It literally took my breath away to see such a vast array of snow-capped mountains. It was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever witnessed. We took our pictures and just sat at the top for a while, pondering the majesty of God’s handiwork.

As we began the long journey back, which took us on a different path, I turned a corner, and there it happened. A huge expanse of mountains and meadows that we had not seen before emerged, and I was filled with a deep joy that could only be described as ecstasy. Snow-capped mountains, flowers, trees, rocks, and a stream. I prayed, “I am fully alive, God. I am completely connected with nature and with you. This is my true self, hiking high in the Rockies, walking in harmony with nature and my Savior.” And then, inexplicably, a song arose from the depths of my being,

O Lord, my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

I remember saying to myself, “Wait a minute. I hate this hymn! I dislike the tune and the way we often sing it so slow.” Yet this is the song that God placed in my heart as I gazed out over the most gorgeous setting I have ever been in my lifetime.

As I continued walking, a prayer spontaneously came from my heart, “I repent in dust and ashes. I repent in dust and ashes.” I prayed that phrase continually as I repented of my bad attitude toward “How Great Thou Art.” Having sung the hymn hundreds of times over the years, I realized perhaps for the first time how the beauty and goodness of God’s creation and God’s gift of Jesus Christ is expressed so eloquently in word and music. The hymn was written by Carl Boberg in Sweden in 1885 and is based on a Swedish traditional melody and poem.

When through the woods And forest glades I wander
I hear the birds Sing sweetly in the trees.
When I look down From lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook And feel the gentle breeze.

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.

If you want to experience a unique setting of “How Great Thou Art” I invite you to listen to the last time Elvis Presley sang this great hymn live, just weeks before he died on August 16, 1977.

I repent in dust and ashes. The hymn that I came to dislike so much was the first one on my lips in the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and then again as I lay in bed listening to the thunder and rain last week.

  • How often does pride prevent you and me from experiencing the wholeness that God yearns for us?
  • How do our preconceived notions about God and others get in the way of claiming God’s grace?
  • When have past experiences or even sheer stubbornness tainted our ability to be reflections of God’s love?

When Christ shall come, With shouts of acclamation,
And take me home, What joy shall fill my heart!
Then I shall bow In humble adoration
And there proclaim, “My God, how great Thou art!

Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!
Then sings my soul, My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art! How great Thou art!

I repent in dust and ashes.

A New Creation in Christ

World Communion Sunday was yesterday, and I couldn’t wait! I never received the sacrament of Holy Communion until I was 15 years old, so I’m still catching up. I was raised in the General Conference Mennonite Church and attended church every Sunday from my birth until I went off to college.

It never dawned on me that communion could be for all people because children and youth in my church could not participate in communion until they had professed their faith, were baptized, and joined the church. And we could not be baptized until we had gone through two years of “catechetical class” in 9th and 10th grade. The equivalent would be confirmation class, although it was much more comprehensive than many confirmation classes in United Methodist churches today.

The Mennonite church practices believers’ baptism, as distinguished from infant baptism. Rather than see baptism as a sign of God’s grace, given to all free of charge, Mennonites want to make sure that those who are baptized understand the meaning of and freely choose baptism. I feel fortunate that I remember the day of my baptism and how powerful it was for my pastor to place his hands on my head in front of the Holy Spirit stained glass window.

I also remember with chagrin when a new family came to our church when I was in junior high, and I saw my new friend taking communion. “Why can Jane take communion and I can’t? It’s not fair!” I lamented. My mother responded, “Well, Jane came from another Mennonite Church where youth go through catechetical class at a younger age.”

Looking back on my childhood, I wish the communion table had been open to me from the time I was very young because it is so important for our children to know that God’s love is for everyone, including them. One of my greatest joys as a local church pastor was offering the bread and the cup to children.

As the years go by, I yearn for communion more and more, knowing that it is only by God’s grace that I can represent that grace to others. Every time I receive the sacrament, I remember these words from 2 Corinthians 5:7 (CEB), “So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!” I am reminded through communion that I am not only a disciple and Christ-follower. I am a new creation in Christ.

A few weeks ago, at a meeting of the North Central College of Bishops and Assistants to the Bishop in North Canton, Ohio, our devotions included these words from Bishop Francis Enmer Kearns. Bishop Kearns was elected a bishop by the 1964 North Central Jurisdictional Conference of The Methodist Church and was assigned to the newly created Ohio East Episcopal Area, where he served for twelve years.

In August 1968, Bishop Kearns reflected on the April 23, 1968 formation of The United Methodist Church through the merger of The Methodist Church and The Evangelical United Brethren Church and the abolishment of the Central Jurisdiction. It was a time of coming together after many years of division, including the 1939 segregation of African-American Methodists into what was known as the Central Jurisdiction. The words that Bishop Kearns wrote in August of 1968 bear an uncanny resemblance to our world today.

“We are living in a new world characterized by technological advance, increasing urbanization, a growing gap between the ‘have’ and the ‘have-nots’. The tendency in this world of accelerated change is to dehumanize, to underestimate the worth of the person, to grow callous toward human need, to allow millions of our citizens to live in ghettos without a genuine concern for them.

“A new church is one that has become ‘a new creation in Christ’ and that is responding to ‘the ministry of reconciliation’ given to it by its Lord. The new church finds itself in a world where social structures, racial prejudices, economic orders, and international relations threaten human dignity and freedom.

“Our new church must find new ways to minister to people, in both urban and rural areas, who are living in frustration and without hope of breaking their bondage. The summons is for us to discover new forms of Christian community in which the love of Christ will become a reality. The Uniting Conference summoned the new church to be ‘a dramatic sign of hope and a symbol of compassion.’

“A new church will be the fruit of the Spirit of God, alive and active in the lives of the church members. Our sensitivity to human need will grow as we listen to the message of Jesus, who will give us directions in our daily living and kindle his love within us. The Sermon on the Mount will engage our attention in which Jesus’ words confront us with the irresistible demands of social justice rooted as they are in his intuitive awareness that God’s love is all-inclusive. The clergy will have the opportunity to exercise their teaching function as they seek ‘to equip the laity for the work of ministry.’

“An understanding of ‘the Word’ at its deepest levels by church members will enable the church to be more effective in its planning and participating in mission. In The United Methodist Church each local congregation will be given greater flexibility and freedom to determine and carry out its own particular mission in the community and in the world. Every church member is called upon to become involved in the mission of the church, to work for constructive changes in society and to be a witness for Christ in his(her) daily life and work.

“More creative worship and more effective leadership development will be needed if every Christian is to fulfill his (her) potential in the life and mission of the new church.

“The problems which confront The United Methodist Church are common to all Christians. If we are to fulfill our mission, then we must make an ecumenical thrust in which Christians of all communions demonstrate that ‘we are fellow workmen for God.’ A new church will bear witness that through Christ it has become ‘a new creation.’”[i]

Fifty-one years after Bishop Kearns’ wrote those words, are they not still relevant today? During those years, Methodists have continued to wrestle with what it means to be a new creation, both individually and collectively. After all, the history of the Methodist movement has always been one of “moving on to perfection.” When you and I are “in Christ,” we are not only a new creation, but we are continually seeking out the marginalized and the excluded. We are continually moving out of the comfort of our churches into our communities to meet people where they are and offer hope and grace.

What is the new creation that God wants to birth in you? What new creation is God birthing in The United Methodist Church right now? How are the millions of United Methodists around the world who received communion yesterday making a difference today? How will you offer Christ to your neighbor and your co-worker as well as to the one with whom you differ around immigration, gun safety, health care reform, or human sexuality?

Can we become a new church, a new creation in Christ, that responds to the ministry of reconciliation given to it by our Lord?

“Eternal God, we give you thanks for this holy mystery in which you have given yourself for us. Grant that we may go into the world as new creations in Christ, to give ourselves for others, in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord.” Amen.

[i] The Bishop Writes; The Monthly Messages of Bishop Francis E. Kearns, Volume II.