That crazy Holy Spirit! Pentecost came early on May 19 in Grand Rapids, but the wind kept blowing and the fire kept burning until well into the evening. At 8:30 a.m. several hundred people gathered in Briggs Park in northeast Grand Rapids ready to work. They were part of Hands across the City: The Greening of the North Corridor.
Hands Across the City was a collaborative effort between Grand Rapids United Methodist Metropolitan Ministries, Creston Neighborhood Association, Friends of Grand Rapids Parks, North End Community Ministry, New Development Corporation, and local churches and businesses. Participants prepared community gardens for planting, made improvements in city parks, spruced up the Creston and Cheshire business districts, and made repairs to residents’ homes.
Coordinator Rev. Greg Martin said, “Everyone loves it when neighbors come together to make new friends, share a meal, and work together for the common good. The energy of a highly diverse group of people committed to making the North Quarter a greener, more welcoming place was a work of the Holy Spirit.”
In the afternoon I drove to the Vietnamese UMC in southeast Grand Rapids for an introductory meeting with their new pastor and church leaders. The Vietnamese UMC holds a special place in our denomination because it is the first chartered Vietnamese UMC in the world. Right here in Grand Rapids!
Because we don’t have many Vietnamese churches in the U.S., the process of finding a new pastor involves the Vietnamese National Caucus, a clearing house for clergy seeking a church and churches needing a pastor. That connection led me to 40 year old Rev. Dung Nguyen, who was called to ministry in a Hong Kong refugee camp in 1988. After 5 years Rev. Nguyen was forcibly sent back to Vietnam and boldly started a church. Dung was finally allowed to immigrate to America in 2004, where he became a United Methodist local pastor.
I carefully watched the interaction between church leaders and Pastor Dung, not comprehending the Vietnamese language but clearly understanding the language of hope, expectation, and respect. The leaders listened with rapt attention to Rev. Nguyen’s story, smiling, nodding, and speaking passionately.
That crazy Holy Spirit! As one person said, everyone who comes to this country from Vietnam has a story with many twists and turns. Those stories are often painful, but when the Holy Spirit goes to work, Vietnamese men, women, and children hear about Jesus Christ and respond with deep faith.
Pastor Dung said that his wife learned Vietnamese sign language in 1998. She soon discovered, however, that there were no words in Vietnamese sign language for God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and Christianity. Consequently, she learned American sign language and brought 100 deaf people to faith in Christ.
Tears came to my eyes as I thanked God for this new relationship between pastor and congregation, which I pray will grow and flourish. In the same way I hope that the congregation will mature and shine in its outreach to the Vietnamese community in Grand Rapids.
Even though the language and culture of the Vietnamese UMC is unique, they expressed the same hopes and dreams as any other church: the need for outreach in the city and a focus on young people, contemporary worship, spiritual growth, Bible study, and planning and goal setting. Acknowledging that power struggles have weakened the church’s health and vitality at times, one person simply quoted Philippians 4:13, “We can do all things through God who strengthens us.” A new Pentecost was at hand.
I drove directly from the Vietnamese UMC to a fundraising dinner at Wyoming Park UMC, where I was greeted with wind, fire, and joy. Gary and I had not intended to attend, but the crazy Holy Spirit blows where it wills, and it blew away our previous plans.
It all started with an event that Wendy and John Brookhouse attended 4 years ago where Wendy spied a beautiful little African boy with his white, blond mother. Engaging her in conversation, Wendy discovered that she had adopted her son from Ethiopia. Wendy and John had been thinking about international adoption but had already been turned down by one agency.
The Spirit nudged Wendy to try again. According to Wendy, Ethiopia is a country that reveres its children, and most citizens don’t understand adoption, so there were a few roadblocks. After 2 years of waiting, Wendy and John brought home their new daughter, Blen, on Valentine’s Day 2010. Blen’s name means “the apple of my eye.” When they had the rare opportunity to meet Blen’s 16 year old birth mother, Wendy asked, “What do you hope for your child?” She said, “A long education.” Blen’s birth mother had never had an opportunity to go to school.
Fast forward to 2012. Wyoming Park UMC made a pledge of $10,000 to our Grand Rapids District project of raising $500,000 to build an Ubuntu Gathering Center at Africa University in Zimbabwe. Pastor Bill Johnson asked Wendy to head up the Ubuntu Gathering Center Task Force. Even though Ethiopia and Zimbabwe are at opposite ends of the African continent, Wendy remembered Blen’s biological mother’s plea for a long education. She realized that by helping Africa University, she was also helping children all over Africa who are like Blen. That crazy Holy Spirit prompted her to say “yes.”
The task force decided to sponsor a mission meal where they could raise awareness of the Ubuntu Gathering Center and also have a good time. Wendy immediately thought of the Ethiopian restaurant in the Eastown section of Grand Rapids, GoJo Ethiopian Cuisine. Wendy contacted owner Sam Terga, who was delighted to help with catering the dinner.
When Sam found out that the fundraiser was supporting a project at a church-related university in Africa, he was thrilled, saying that he had attended a high school in Ethiopia that was fully supported by the Mennonite Church. He even moved up knee replacement surgery to be present at the event.
What a night it was! The round tables were festively decorated in African style, and parishioners and their friends gathered, young and old, to try out a full-blown Ethiopian meal. Ethiopian food has unique flavors and textures, and utensils are not used. Rather, Ethiopians people break off a pierce of injera, a crepe-like flat bread, and use it to pinch food into their mouths. We had great fun trying strange and wonderful foods, using injera as a utensil. Following the meal we went outside to witness a special Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a ritualized form of making and drinking coffee that is a part of Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Arab culture.
As I stood outside with Wendy and heard the entire story, I marveled. A family desiring international adoption, a church that has embraced Blen, an aggressive pledge to the Ubuntu Gathering Center, an Ethiopian restaurant owner who received an education in a Mennonite school (I grew up as a Mennonite), and a university in Zimbabwe that has students from 28 African countries, including Ethiopia.
But that wasn’t the end of the story. During dinner I saw a group of African American teenagers eating together, and Bill added another layer to this amazing evening. The previous Wednesday, when congregational members gathered for their 3 times a month Simple Blessings meal and activities, neighborhood boys were shooting hoops in the church parking lot. A few men were grilling in the parking lot as well, so Bill invited the teens to eat with them. He also gave the them free tickets to the Ethiopian dinner on Saturday and encouraged them to bring their friends, which they did.
Can you imagine? That crazy Holy Spirit brought together:
- Members of a church that is passionate to be in mission
- A mother who dreamed of providing a good life for a baby in another part of the world
- A little girl born in Ethiopia to a mother whose dream of her daughter having a long education is already coming true
- An Ethiopian chef who thrived because of his education by American missionaries
- African American teenagers in a lower-middle class section of Wyoming offered hospitality and hope by their church neighbors
- A university in Zimbabwe that is seeking to educate moral, ethical, and spiritual leaders
Ubuntu means “I am because you are.” When the crazy Holy Spirit blows in 3 parts of metropolitan Grand Rapids in one day, ubuntu happens. Many different people came together to “green” the Plainfield Corridor. A Vietnamese church not only welcomes a new pastor with grace and hope but reaches out beyond itself by contributing $500 to the Ubuntu Gathering Center. Wyoming Park sponsors a fundraiser but gets a long education and Ubuntu instead, with ripple effects that have already spread throughout the neighborhood, city, and the world.
Ubuntu: a work of the Holy Spirit. And to think it came 8 days before Pentecost. Crazy, isn’t it?
P.S. Next Monday will be my last Leading from the Heart as the Grand Rapids District Superintendent. On July 1, I will become the pastor of Aldersgate and Plainfield UMC’s in Grand Rapids. I plan to continue Leading from the Heart, so on Monday, July 2, you will see a redesigned blog at LaurieHaller.org!