Unfolding the Kingdom of God in the Here and Now

Gratitude. It was the first word that came to my lips. A week ago yesterday, I attended worship at Storm Lake United Methodist Church, which is in the Northwest District of Iowa. The first thing I noticed was the young drummer warming up with the band. How wonderful that a youth is part of the praise band, I thought. 

“His name is Joseph,” a church member said. “When Joseph started attending church, someone asked him, ‘Do you want to play the drums?’ He eagerly said, ‘Yes!’” The member continued, “Joseph is one of nine children, and his father has been deported back to Africa. We are so grateful that he has found a home with our church.”   

Just over 45 years ago, then Iowa Governor Robert D. Ray opened the doors of Iowa to refugees from Southeast Asia. At the time, a number of families settled in Storm Lake. Over succeeding years, the Latino population came, followed by East African refugees. What is now the Tyson plant for turkey and pork processing has long employed those coming to find a new life. Over the past forty years, the small idyllic town of Storm Lake, located along a beautiful body of water, has been transformed into a multicultural community fueled by meat processing plants. 

According to Storm Lake pastor Phil Webb, “It is a wonderful thing that local business leaders, faith leaders, law enforcement, and the schools banded together with new immigrants to make the influxes of immigrant communities feel welcome and a part of Storm Lake. It was a deliberate choice, and the intentional steps taken have made this a truly vibrant and welcoming town, with opportunity and joy for its inhabitants.”

88% of Iowa is white, yet less than half of Storm Lake is white. The 2019 population of Storm Lake is 10,458. In fact, 85.2% of the public school population is non-Caucasian. Of the 62.7% of the students who are non-English learners, 76.2% are on free or reduced lunch. The poverty rate in Storm Lake is 17.9%. This past spring, a new school bond referendum was passed to enlarge current school buildings for this rapidly growing school district.

Asian, African, Mexican, and Central American individuals and families have converged on Storm Lake to work in beef, pork, and egg plants. Walmart looks like a United Nations. It is estimated that 30 different languages from 35 nations are spoken in Storm Lake, including Amharic, Arabic, Burmese, Burmese Cebuano, Central Khmer, Chinese, Ckuukese, English, Filipino/Pilipino, Gujarati, Hmong/Mong, Karen Languages, Lao, Mayan Languages, Nilo-Saharan Languages, Panjabi/Punjabi, Pohnpeian, Russian, Spanish/Castilian, Sudanese  Languages, Thai, Tigrinya, and Vietnamese. That number does not even include a variety of regional dialects and tribal languages that are not specifically listed. 

Storm Lake United Methodist Church is located in the heart of the town and has many outreach programs to the community. Nancy is a leader in the church who builds bridges between the congregation and the immigrant community, where parents are very protective of their children. Children often have no beds, blankets, or pillows, and when asked, are often reluctant to accept help. When Nancy asks, “Do you have siblings who need something?” she often receives better results. Most of the immigrants make regular money transfers back to their native countries, which, in turn, makes their own financial situation even more precarious.  

The homepage of the church website says, “All lives matter to God.” Storm Lake UMC is an inclusive church where they are always asking the question, “How can we be Christ for others? Wednesday night is church night and is a huge draw because the church gym is a safe place for immigrant children. 80% of the middle and high school youth are not from the congregation, and most are unchurched. 

Wednesday night includes a meal and separate activities for different ages. “I don’t know what I would do without the gym,” said one youth. Wednesday night is meant to create fellowship and build trust with the immigrants. There is no divide between the races at Storm Lake United Methodist Church. The youth even went on an overnight to one of our Iowa Church camps. But there’s more.

  • The backpack program at Storm Lake is truly amazing. Storm Lake gives away hundreds of fully loaded backpacks to children and youth every September. Backpacks as well as many other useful items are stored at the church in what is called “The Blessing Room.” 
  • The Methodist men support scholarships for youth, reminding us that God is not done with us yet!
  • The church has a free clothes closet and a free food pantry.
  • One week each summer Storm Lake UMC sponsors an English Language Camp. Students attending this program begin each morning at 9:00 a.m. with a hot breakfast. Transportation to and from the church is provided for some of the students. On the last day, the parents are invited to attend a program where students present nursery rhymes, plays, songs, and readings that they had learned during the week.
  • Every fall at Iowa United Methodism’s Mission Ingathering, Storm Lake UMC makes school kits for Nigeria. Word got back to Iowa several years ago that the students who receive these kits in Nigeria call them “Iowa’s” because they learned that they were sent from Iowa by people who love Jesus. “This is my Iowa,” the students say because they know that someone in Iowa cares enough to prepare and invest in their education. Storm Lake is unfolding the kingdom of God in the here and now.

Police and public officials in Storm Lake are deeply committed to community outreach, especially because some of the immigrants come from countries where the police are not to be trusted. They do their best to help the immigrants get settled and feel at home. In an October 5, 2019 Washington Times article, Storm Lake Police Chief Mark Prosser said, “My attitude has always been our organization had to serve the people the best it can. I realized we had to broaden our outreach.” 

Prosser mandates that, “During every shift they work, officers must interact with at least one person they don’t know. Responding to a police call doesn’t count… I don’t know if street officers or local police chiefs ever have an impact on immigration reform, but we can have an impact on the people we serve,” Prosser said, making sure that his officers receive credit for their efforts. Several weeks ago, Chief Prosser was honored in Washington D.C. with the “Keepers of the American Dream” award from the National Immigration Forum for his work in helping the assimilation process of immigrants in Storm Lake.  

Along with the radical hospitality that Storm Lake residents have extended to the many immigrants in this community comes inevitable growing pains, including a lack of affordable housing and uncertainty about the future of DACA. In addition, the immigrant communities themselves are adjusting to what a new life in America means for traditional customs and languages. At the same time, there are some politicians and activists who spread disinformation and are not supportive of assimilation. Police Chief Prosser is outspoken in countering the assertion that it is the immigrants who are always involved in crime.

Meanwhile the congregation of United Methodists in Storm Lake continues to visibly demonstrate their gratitude for the diversity of their community and the opportunity they have to make a difference. “God is not done with us yet,” I can hear them saying. “God will write God’s love on our hearts to love without fear because whenever the will of God is done, there the kingdom unfolds.” 

A Call to Faithfulness and Social Engagement

One of the things that attracted me to The United Methodist Church many years ago was that professing faith means more than simply claiming Jesus as my Lord and Savior. It also means embodying my faith every day by making a positive difference in the world.

Did you know that the Methodist Episcopal Church was the first denomination to adopt a social creed in 1908? Different branches of the Methodist movement also produced social creeds in the 20th century, but it wasn’t until 1972, four years after the Methodist Church and the  Evangelical United Brethren Church united, that The United Methodist Church adopted its first Social Principles. These principles have been revised at many subsequent General Conferences, but for the first time, the Social Principles has been completely rewritten. Six writing teams developed the draft, which will be voted upon at the May 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis. Click here to read the revised Social Principles.

During my years as a local pastor, each person in our membership classes received a copy of the Social Principles, and we would spend one session discussing how essential it is to live out the faith we claim. I always made it clear that the Social Principles are not binding upon United Methodists. Rather, they provide a springboard for discussing what it means to be a person of faith in today’s world. Our conversations were always stimulating and inspirational.

The Preface to the 2020 proposed Social Principles says, “The Social Principles are not church law. Instead, the Social Principles represent the prayerful and earnest efforts of the General Conference to speak to issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation that is in keeping with the best of our United Methodist traditions.” I’d like to share some highlights of the Social Principles, where each of the four sections focuses on global relevance.

Community of All Creation

Emphasizing that God declares all creation to be good, this section reminds us of our responsibility as stewards to care for the earth. “Global warming and climate change are already creating extreme conditions that threaten the entirety of life on earth.”

The dangers of dependence on fossil fuels is noted as well as environmental exploitation, hazardous environments, industrial pollution, toxic waste dumps, and urban decay, all of which “constitute environmental racism.”

Sustainable policies and practices are urged, such as reducing carbon footprints of individuals and families, recycling, and the right of all people to have “healthy, culturally appropriate food, produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods.”

Serving as I do in a farming state, I was heartened by these statements. “We oppose the patenting of seed varieties and other organisms traditionally used in farming and agriculture. The rapidly expanding practice of patenting seed varieties and charging farmers for their use has reduced access to traditional crops and increased the indebtedness of subsistence and smaller-scale farms.”

A concern is expressed for the humane treatment of all creatures, saying that animals raised for human consumption “should be provided with healthy living conditions and sufficient food and water.” We are also called to protect “endangered and vulnerable species and preserve dwindling habitats.”

In addition, there is a new paragraph called “Protecting Space,” which emphasizes that “God’s creation encompasses not only the earth but the entire cosmos, including space…. We reject the exploitation, commodification and militarization of space…”

The Economic Community

One of the most consistent themes in the Bible is standing in solidarity with the poor.

“As a church, we recognize the importance of creating just, equitable, and sustainable economies that benefit all members of society, especially marginalized and vulnerable peoples.”

A goal of John Wesley was to improve the lives of everyone, especially those afflicted by “poverty, starvation, illiteracy, imprisonment, slavery, addiction, and disease.” This is also reflected in the statement, “We reject religious teachings that view the accumulation of wealth as a sign of God’s favor and poverty as a sign of God’s disfavor.”

Other themes in this section include the tragedy of human trafficking and child labor; socially responsible consumerism; reducing unnecessary waste; promoting just and equitable compensation; advocating for sustainability and corporate responsibility, and; reducing reliance on fossil fuels.

A new paragraph offers support for local and family farms, appreciating their value in feeding the vast majority of the world’s population while deploring the growing monopolization of agricultural production by corporations and larger agribusinesses. 

I especially like the section on Sabbath and renewal time. “We recognize Sabbath as a gift from God for all people, remembering that God rested on the seventh day of Creation. We affirm the importance of taking time away from work to rest and renew the mind, body, and spirit, engage in play and recreation, and serve the needs of our communities.”

The Social Community

“The gospel of Christ knows of no religion but social, no holiness but social holiness.” (John Wesley, Preface, Hymns and Sacred Poems). This section addresses how we live our faith, including the sacredness of marriage as a lifelong covenant, polygamy, divorce, substance abuse, alcohol, and tobacco. Human sexuality is not included in the proposed 2020 Social Principles because the 2020 General Conference will take that issue up separately.

There is also a section on bullying, which is an increasing problem in our schools. “We decry all forms of bullying, which consists of unwanted and aggressive behaviors toward children, youth and adults, including verbal taunts, physical violence, emotional manipulation and social intimidation.”

I appreciate a new section on Colonialism and Neocolonialism, which says,
“Colonialism refers to the practice of establishing full or partial control of other countries, tribes and peoples through conquest and exploitation. Neocolonialism continues the historic legacy of colonialism by maintaining economic, political and social control of formerly colonized nations and people…We recognize that far from being innocent bystanders, the church has often been deeply involved in colonialism and neocolonialism.”

The section on abortion has been slightly revised to say, “We recognize that…‘tragic conflicts of life with life’ may justify decisions to terminate the life of a fetus. In these limited circumstances, we support the legal option of abortion and insist that such procedures be performed by trained medical providers in clean and safe settings.”

The Political Community

“Love is the fulfilling of the law, the end of the commandment…Love is the essence, the spirit, the life of all virtue.” (John Wesley, The Circumcision of the Heart)

The last part of the Social Principles revolves around government responsibilities, civil disobedience, restorative justice, the death penalty, criminal justice, and war and military service. Noted is the critical work of the United Nations, the restoration of right relationships, the rejection of the use of war as an instrument of foreign policy, and the importance of peaceful and diplomatic means of resolution.

As United Methodists, we believe that all individuals have basic human rights and freedoms as well as responsibilities. The Social Principles ends with proclaiming the rights of children and young people; elders; women and girls; men and boys; indigenous, Native and Aboriginal communities; migrants, immigrants and refugees; people with different sexual orientations and gender identities, and religious minorities.

I thank God for the way the Social Principles challenge me to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and I look forward to the time when they are discussed at General Conference. I’d love to hear your thoughts about our proposed Social Principles.

The Mending Wall

Last week at our Council of Bishops meeting, our European episcopal leaders led us in a worship service commemorating the 30th anniversary of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, which was this past Saturday, November 9. How critical it is to remember.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Robert Frost’s famous 1914 poem Mending Wall, is a meditation told through the eyes of a landowner who, every spring, joins his neighbor in repairing/mending the stone wall that divides their properties.

I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.

The Berlin Wall is one of the most famous walls in human history. It is also a Mending Wall. When World War 2 ended in 1945, six million European Jews had been murdered by Nazi Germany, and the country was divided into occupied zones. The eastern part of the country was run by the Soviet Union, and the western part of the country was divided into three territories occupied by France, Britain, and the United States. The city of Berlin, located in Soviet territory in the east, was also divided into four parts for each of the four countries involved.

There were some years of relative calm during the Cold War, yet the East Germans suffered greatly. Their territory had not been rebuilt, and several thousand East Germans successfully fled to West Germany every day, seeking a better life. To stem the tide, Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev urged East Germany to close off access between East and West Berlin. It was a hasty attempt to stanch the constant flow of refugees from East to West Germany.

Consequently, on the night of August 12-13, 1961, East German soldiers laid more than thirty miles of barbed wire barrier through the very heart of Berlin. Several days later, the barbed wire was replaced by a concrete wall. In the twinkling of an eye, East German families were no longer allowed to travel to the west, and hundreds of families and friends were completely cut off from each other for what would become years.

The apostle Paul reminds us in his letter to the Ephesians that Jews and Gentiles had been divided from one another through circumcision. Jews were to have no contact with Gentiles, who were not circumcised and were considered aliens, outcasts, unsaved. Yet, through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, all walls to faith have been removed.

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups (Jews and Gentiles) into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. (Ephesians 2:13-14, NRSV) The dividing wall became a mending wall.

For the next 28 years, Germany was a country divided, a literal “Iron Curtain” separating families through a series of check points. To ensure that no one could escape to the west, there were mines and machine gun emplacements, the walls were topped by barbed wire, and electric fences and watchtowers with armed guards and dogs dotted the landscape. When I lived in West Berlin in 1974-75, at the height of the Cold War, the walls circled the city with 75 miles of electrified fences plus 28 miles within the city. Many thousands of East Germans were captured during attempted crossings, several thousand were able to escape, and several hundred were killed.

There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.’

In 1989, a wave of democracy swept through eastern Europe, including East Germany. Citizens became emboldened and demanded change, including the right to leave. Our German bishops told us about Christian Fuhrer, pastor of St. Nikolai Evangelical Lutheran Church in Leipzig (East Germany), who provided unique leadership during the resistance to the Communist regime. Atheism was the norm in East Germany at the time, and clergy were often spied on, but many of the churches still stayed open. St. Nikolai and other congregations provided a spiritual space where people were free to express their faith.

Leading up to November 9, 1989, thousands of people joined in vigils and marched in the streets of Leipzig, demanding freedom and the right to leave East Germany. On October 9, the movement would not be denied, as 70,000 people marched together in Leipzig against the Socialist Unity Party (SED), transforming their fear into courage. The police were armed but were not permitted to take action as long as the marchers were peaceful.

The communist regime was overwhelmed by this non-violent democratization movement sweeping across Eastern Europe. It was a kairos moment that no one had ever dared dream about. The East German government no longer controlled its people, for this revolution grew out of the church.

Finally, on November 9, 1989, East Germany announced an easing of travel restrictions to the West. With thousands of East Germans demanding to cross the Berlin Wall into West Berlin, the German guards finally opened the borders. Berliners climbed on top of the Berlin Wall, took pieces of it as souvenirs and painted graffiti on it. The next day, East German troops began dismantling the wall. East and West Germany were formally reunited in 1990.

Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.

There is one German nation today because a wall that separated became a mending wall. This is not to say that walls don’t still exist today, however. Just as nationalist and tribal instincts continue to influence Germany, so you and I also struggle to create mending walls rather than separating walls.

The Holocaust has taught us much about creating walls that target those who are seen as “other.” The Nazis, who killed two out of every three Jews living in Europe during World War 2, focused their evil on other groups as well, including homosexuals, gypsies, people with physical and mental disabilities, political dissidents, homeless people, children, and persons of different religions and races other than Aryan.

The Berlin Wall has come to symbolize all of the ways in which we continue to love our walls. There are walls of the like-minded; economic walls that distinguish the haves and the have nots; religious walls that separate Christians, Jews, Muslims, and those who practice other faiths; and ethnic walls that discriminate against other races.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall. In the midst of forces that will always seek to build walls in order to separate, however, the mending wall brings people together to create, repair, and unify. For Jesus has broken down the dividing wall, and our call is to ensure that all of the walls in this world become mending walls that bring hope and peace.

As we remember the legacy of the Berlin Wall, I invite you to ask yourself, “Who is my neighbor? Whom am I seeking to wall off from my comfortable existence? What are the forces that threaten to divide The United Methodist Church? And whom do I need to invite to mend the walls together?