It was quite a day! I knew it was May 1 because the appointive cabinet was meeting at the Iowa Conference Center for the first of three days, and my monthly From the Heart of Iowa newsletter is published. Little did I know what surprises the day would hold.
After our weekly Wednesday worship service in the Conference Center chapel, the cabinet had the privilege of meeting Katherine Parker, who is a General Board of Global Ministries missionary serving as a Health and Community Transformation Advisor with the United Mission to Nepal. As a missionary, Katherine is itinerating in the U.S. right now, and we were blessed by her presence among us. Missionaries take extended time away every three years to visit the conferences that support them.
Katherine, who is a native of California, graduated from Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, CA. with a degree in biology. In 2000, she became a mission intern for three years with the Asian Rural Institute in Japan and also Practical Farmers of America in Iowa. Before starting her ministry in Nepal in 2013, Katherine was assigned to Cambodia, where she worked with the Community Health and Agricultural Program.
Having spent several weeks in Nepal last summer, I was fascinated with Katherine’s description of Nepal as a closed country for 350 years. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that Nepalis began to encounter Christ, and the first churches were formed by Nepalis returning to their native country. Today, Nepal is a primarily Hindu country (81.3% of the population), followed by Buddhist (9%), Muslim (4.4%), Kirant (3.1%), and Christian (1.4%).
The United Mission to Nepal is a partnership of seven denominational agencies whose mission is, “Inspired by the love and teachings of Jesus Christ, in partnership with the Christian community and others in Nepal and worldwide, we will serve the people of Nepal, particularly those who live in poverty: to pursue peace and justice for all; to address the root causes of poverty; and to make Christ known by word and life.”
Katherine’s ministry in Nepal is centered in three areas: 1) Adolescent empowerment, including sexual reproductive health and rights and menstrual hygiene; 2) Maternal and child health; and 3) Water, sanitation, and hygiene. Katherine of part of the 5th generation of her family to serve in the Methodist connection. What a joy it was to hear Katherine share how the United Mission to Nepal is reaching out to Nepali citizens in holistic ways to address the roots causes of poverty.
Meeting Katherine would have been enough of a May Day surprise, but in the afternoon, we received word that one of our United Methodist bishops from Africa was in the building! Bishop Daniel Lunge Onashuyaka is the resident Bishop of the Central Congo Area, which includes Central Congo, Kasai, and Western Congo conferences in the Congo Central Conference of The United Methodist Church. Bishop Lunge and his wife Julianne live in Kinshasha and have seven children.
Bishop Lunge was in the U.S. for another denominational meeting, and it wasn’t practical for him and Julianne to return to the Congo for a few days and then fly right back to Chicago for the Council of Bishops meeting, which started yesterday. Therefore, one of our district superintendents, Kiboko Kiboko, and his wife Betty, offered to host the Lunge’s in their home.
It was amazing for our cabinet to hear how similar and very different The United Methodist Church is in Iowa and the Congo. Bishop Lunge has three annual conferences with 29 total district superintendents! To travel from one side of the Congo to the other side is two thousand kilometers. Bishop Lunge meets with his DS’s two times a year to help them accomplish their mission, which includes visits to their pastors, evangelism, and staying connected with United Methodist schools, hospitals, and other social work agencies. The spouses of DS’s are also expected to care for the spouses of the clergy.
One of the greatest challenges in the Congo is transportation because most of the roads are not well maintained. Bishop Lunge’s priorities for his clergy include inspiring and mobilizing lay people, calling others to ministry, forming district leadership programs for young people, and encouraging an outpouring of generosity to all those in need. What an inspiration to hear Bishop Lunge’s passion and know that, far across the globe, The United Methodist Church is also making a huge difference. He said to us, “Every day I ask, ‘What work of God have I done, according to my schedule?’”
What a privilege to be blessed by the presence of Katherine and Bishop Lunge and Julianne. But May Day had more surprises in store. After a lunch meeting, I returned to the cabinet room to discover a row of large red cups lined up on the counter. Inside the cups were all kinds of goodies, including popcorn, nuts, chocolate, jelly beans, and other candy. Later I discovered that Diane Brockmeyer, our beloved episcopal administrative assistant, created this culinary delight for us in honor of May Day.
It’s a curious custom, one that I had never really paid attention to until last week. May Day is a northern hemisphere tradition that usually goes like this. As May 1 approaches, people begin gathering flowers, candy, and other small items to put in baskets and then hang them on the doors of families, friends, and neighbors. In 19th and 20th century America, May baskets were quite popular. On May 1, the basket was hung on the door of a loved one or prospective girlfriend or boyfriend and then the person ran away.
Louisa May Alcott wrote about May Basket Day in New England in her 1880 children’s book, Jack and Jill, “Such a twanging of bells and rapping of knockers; such a scampering of feet in the dark; such droll collisions as boys came racing round corners, or girls ran into one another’s arms as they crept up and down steps on the sly; such laughing, whistling, flying about of flowers and friendly feeling – it was almost a pity that May-day did not come oftener.”
The surprises and blessings of May Day came at just the right time for the appointive cabinet. As we continue to work carefully and prayerfully on the last phase of our appointment-making, we are also caring for our clergy and families and encouraging our congregations to engage in transformative ministry in their local communities in Iowa and around the world.
Heavy on our hearts, however, is our continued struggle in Iowa with extensive spring flooding. According to a National Public Radio report, Iowa has received more precipitation in the last year than in any recorded period in 124 years of available information. In March, parts of southwest and northwest Iowa were flooded, primarily from the Missouri River, including several of our United Methodist churches. We are grateful for the help of UMCOR and hundreds of individuals and churches who have contributed to flood relief, knowing that this will be a long-term recovery.
Meanwhile, the Mississippi River on the eastern border of Iowa has been at a dangerously high level. Last Thursday, a tipping point was reached when the river level in the city of Davenport reached an all-time high at 22.64 feet. Instead of a flood wall, Davenport has several hundred feet of a riverfront park in addition to HESCO barriers, which are similar to fencing with a liner filled with dirt or sand. Last Tuesday, the temporary levee broke, inundating the downtown business area with contaminated water. Fortunately, there were no deaths, and, once more, people from all over the state are doing what they can to help.
May Day surprises (and I dare say miracles) happen when the people that God so lovingly created and into whom God breathed life, use the gifts they have been given to make a difference in the far corners of the world, from Nepal to the Congo, to Iowa, to May Day baskets/cups that surprise and bless. Thanks be to God!