A Faith that moves Mountains

They couldn’t have been more different.  Billionaire, Harvard trained economist, his country’s third richest citizen and former senator: Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera used every one of his leadership gifts to move mountains and freeChile’s 33 miners 69 days after their tunnel collapsed on August 5.

54 year old foreman, consummate professional, and shift boss with a deep desire to protect the men under his care: Luis Urzua calmly assumed leadership immediately after the collapse.  Urzua enabled the miners to survive the first 17 days by rationing a 48 hour emergency supply of biscuits, tuna fish, and milk.  We had only a little food,” Mr. Urzua said.  “We give thanks to God that we were able to resist eating it all right away.”   

A billion people around the world watched the dramatic televised rescue of the Chilean miners on October 13.  It was one of the most amazing miracles I’ve ever witnessed, perhaps because I have claustrophobia and wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours underground.  The rescue would have never happened, however, without the leadership of two men who never met each other until Urzua emerged from 700 meters underground, the last man to be rescued, and was hugged by President Piñera.

Piñera was in Ecuadorat the time of the collapse and was warned by advisors not to raise the hopes of the nation.  However, Piñera became the nation’s cheerleader for the rescue process and said in a late August interview, “I had a strong conviction, very deep inside of me, that they were alive, and that was a strong support for my actions.”  A constant presence at the site of the disaster, Piñera spared no expense, gathering specialists from around the world, spending millions of dollars for the rescue, and tending to the physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological health of the miners.  Video conferences were even arranged with family members in order to cope with the isolation and depression.

After communication was finally established with the miners, Luis Urzua was the first to speak to President Piñera and urged him not to let the miners down.  Meanwhile, Urzua, a recognized leader in the mining community for years, immediately divided the men into work groups and set apart areas for work, sleep, and sanitary necessities.  When asked how he kept the miners alive, Urzua said, You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy.”  Despite the inevitable dissension, anxiety, and squabbles over space, food and responsibilities, especially at the beginning, most decisions were made by majority rule.

As the drama unfolded while I was traveling around the district conducting church conferences, I couldn’t help but compare the plight of the Chilean miners to that of some of our congregations.  Local churches can feel at times as if they, too, are living in darkness and despair.  They valiantly attempt to keep a full-time pastor, membership and attendance declines steadily, leaders have to choose between paying the heat bill or their ministry shares (apportionments), staff positions are downsized or even eliminated, congregations struggle to reach out to their community in effective ways, and morale is low.

Just like the miners living without natural light, some of our congregations have lost their sight and are grasping at an uncertain and elusive future.  How can you see when there is no hope?  How can you hope when you can’t see?  Praise be to God that in the midst of darkness, God raises up leaders with vision, people who can see what others can’t.

Against all odds, Temple United Methodist Church, located in the poorest and most dangerous area of the city of Muskegon, has reversed a long decline and is growing again.  Under the bold leadership of pastor Rob Cook,TempleUMC, known for its many outreach programs, has decided to focus on spiritual formation.  As a result, younger families are coming, new Bible studies and small groups are springing up, and Sunday school classes have formed for children and youth.  Sunday worship is traditional, energetic, and exciting, but Rob isn’t satisfied.  Now he is challenging the congregation to initiate a Wednesday evening prayer service and invite the hundred plus people who receive a free meal every evening in the fellowship hall to join them.

At the same time, a congregational care committee has been formed to contact visitors and welcome new members, giving is ahead of expectations, new policies and procedures are in place, and the congregation is fully inclusive in membership: young, old, homeless, middle class, employed, unemployed, gays, lesbians, African Americans, blacks, Hispanics, poor, wealthy, professional, and blue collar folks all worshipping together.  Worship attendance is up 10% and Sunday attendance is up 50% from last year.

Rob sees himself as a bridge between people from all walks of life and says, “I lead creatively by giving people a vision and then helping them to follow it.  You need to be serious about being a Christian if you come to Temple UMC.”    

One summer day in July, Jerry Hagans, a retired pastor serving the tiny, rural church of Sitka, had a vision.  After driving hundreds of times past a dilapidated and abandoned township hall right across from the church, he saw that building with new eyes.  Jerry’s first idea – to hold a community Halloween party there – grew into a vision of a completely renovated building.  The building would again be used as a community center for this farming community that has suffered greatly from the economic recession and is plagued by unemployment, alcoholism, and family dysfunction.

Jerry shared his vision with this active and growing congregation, which now averages 20 in attendance.  In the last several years Sitka UMC has begun to look at themselves and their community with new eyes.  In the spring they sponsored an Easter egg hunt, and last month they invited the community to an outdoor picnic with live country music.

The members of Sitka UMC do not use their small size as an excuse for not being God’s people in the world, so they eagerly walked through the township hall.  Soon a dream emerged.  What if God could be calling them to use this building to share God’s love?  What if Sitka UMC took on the project of renovating the township hall and then offered the finished product back to the community?  What a gift it would be!  When God’s people begin to see through new eyes, the darkness quickly gives way to light and hope.

Pastor Jeff Bowman arrived in the small county seat town of White Cloud 8 years ago.  As with many areas inWest Michigan, White Cloud has an exhausted economy and is fixated on survival, with people relocating because of unemployment, local businesses closing their doors, and a declining school system.  Jeff has given himself fully to ministry in White Cloud by courageously leading the congregation through necessary transformation so that they can give themselves away in mission to their community.  However, Jeff and lay leaders in the congregation have also experienced the inevitable resistance and opposition that results when encouraging people through adaptive change.

For the past 4 years, White Cloud has participated in the L3 Leadership Incubator, which is a sustainable, peer-group-based, mission-driven, leadership development program designed to strengthen congregations.  A vision, mission, and core values have been formed, new leaders are being trained, accountability systems have been put in place, and a strategic plan has emerged.  Jeff and the congregation are learning that transformation and rebirth is a slow process, demanding patience, perseverance, hope, and a strong will to be faithful to God’s call.  Praise be to God that in the midst of darkness, God raises up leaders with vision, people who can see what others can’t, and have the courage to make difficult decisions.

When Luis Urzua emerged from the darkness of the tomb (or “womb”?) that had nurtured and protected the 33 miners for 69 days, he said to President Piñera, “We have done what the entire world was waiting for.  The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain.”  Piñera then said to Urzua, “You have been relieved, coming out last like a good captain. … You have no idea how all Chileans shared with you your anguish, your hope, and your joy.”  With Mr. Urzua by his side, the President of Chile led the crowd in singing the national anthem.

Sebastián Piñera did one more thing.  He acknowledged the importance of the families of the miners, many of whom camped out at the site until their loved ones were rescued.  “I want to thank the families of the miners who maintained faith this faith that ended up moving mountains.”

Two leaders, different as can be, but united by the leadership qualities of vision, presence, hope, encouragement, motivation, courage, and perseverance.  Three different pastors and churches, each inspired not only to survive but to thrive in their mission of reaching out to their communities and the world with single-mindedness, compassion, and love in the name of Jesus Christ.  Countless disciples of Jesus Christ who maintain faith – a faith that moves mountains, even when they are under the earth.

Blessings, Laurie

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