The Accidental American

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Less than two weeks from now, Leah and I will be leaving the continent of North America. After a five-day stopover in Madrid to see our oldest daughter and her husband, we’ll be continuing on to South Africa to take up our new lives.

These days are full of packing, disconnecting from services, and saying goodbyes to friends. I’m fairly used to the routine after years of being moved around by a bishop, but this time, I can’t help reflecting on another powerful reality.

As I pack boxes, I am acutely aware of my privilege. That’s a loaded word; most of the time the word is used, it refers to race, as in the term “white privilege.”

But I want to use it in a slightly different sense. Let’s talk about the privilege that comes with holding a navy blue passport, the privilege of being a citizen of the United States of America.

Despite the labyrinthine complications of procuring a visa to South Africa, there is no doubt that it’s easier to get one as an American than it is from many other places in the world. 

In world travel, there is a marked advantage to being a US citizen, for many reasons. For one, we are still the world’s lone superpower, at least for now. Americans might be mocked or ridiculed, but we are always taken seriously by other nations. 

The dollar remains the most-desired currency in the world, too. Everywhere you go, people want the green bills. 

And compared to the vast majority of humans on the earth, we live in luxury.

We can pretty much go anywhere in the world. Many of us have the disposable income to travel whenever we want, wherever we want. We can visit practically any country in the world, and be warmly welcomed in doing so.

Think for a moment how recently in world history this development has taken place. A century ago, a vacation to Europe meant a long boat trip, horse and buggy rides, and the means to sustain oneself for a very long stay away from home. Today, you can make all your plans in a single evening on a computer screen and go to Paris and back in less than a week!

But we should never forget that this is a luxury enjoyed by only a small percentage of the world population. International travel is still reserved for those who can afford it. The vast majority of the world’s people don’t have a travel “bucket list.”

Not only that, but when Americans travel or live in other countries as we will be doing, there is always a safe place to return, a place to which we can go back. No matter where we go, there is always the option to return to the US. 

That’s an extremely reassuring thought; no matter where we go, we can always come back. But it’s a privilege that many people don’t have.

Imagine being a refugee family and being chased out of your home, unable to return. Or think about what it’s like to be one of those hundreds of thousands of people who are in the US right now without proper documentation because they have fled their home country for safety or economic security. This week, the President of the United States has essentially announced that these people are personae non gratae, a Latin phrase which means “people who are not appreciated.” 

I am an accidental American. I was born here, and I had no say at all in where I was to be born. I am lucky, or fortunate, or blessed. Percentage-wise, it was much more likely that I would have been born in Asia, or in another time period, but here I am. 

And there you are. 

We are privileged. That’s the hard truth. 

We didn’t do anything to deserve the privilege that comes with being an American citizen, it happened without our input. Our privilege doesn’t make us any more or less deserving of God’s grace, nor does it make us more or less a child of God. 

But it does make us more responsible. Our privilege becomes a responsibility for those of us who believe in the shalom and justice of God. When we look at the world, we recognize that there are billions of people who are not likewise privileged. We recognize that there are millions of people in our own country who suffer from the disparities of race and wealth. We come to realize that our privilege is something that is truly accidental.

As Christians, we have a responsibility to look out for those who are not privileged, those who suffer from poverty or geographical hardship, those who are not appreciated. 

So … what are you going to do with your privilege?

How to Support a Missionary

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I might have a terrible sense of timing. I’ll admit that right away.

Lots of my friends and colleagues have questioned the wisdom of my becoming a missionary of the General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) of the United Methodist Church at a time in which, one year from now, the church as we know it might not exist.

Yes, there are lots of reasons why this may be a bad idea. For one, many churches (including Kessler Park!) have decided to withhold their global apportionments until General Conference 2020 — that is money that is used to fund GBGM missionaries! And what will happen to the general boards and agencies in the event of a split? Which side of the church will inherit them?

One thing I know for sure — those of us who are clergy didn’t opt for the ministry because it was a safe and secure career path! Indeed, we didn’t choose to be pastors — we were called.

The truth is that I’m going back to Africa as a missionary simply because I believe God is calling me and Leah. This isn’t my idea, but God’s.

As I previously announced, I will be teaching at Seth Mokitimi Methodist Seminary in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa beginning in July 2019. I recently received my first semester course load; I will be teaching Methodist History and Introduction to Christian Ethics. I’ve also been asked to co-lead a post-graduate program called Theologies and Perspectives of Leadership. I honestly can’t think of a more important place to be — and role to play — than this appointment, even though I will greatly miss my friends in the North Texas Conference.

But I will need the assistance of United Methodists in North Texas to succeed in my new position. As you may know, there is a financial crisis in our denomination.

Let me explain how missionaries are funded in our current system. First, unlike other missionary agencies, United Methodist missionaries receive monthly salaries from GBGM. Salaries are paid from a general pool of money. At the end of each three-year term, missionaries spend three months traveling among UM churches, telling their stories, and raising money for the GBGM missionary pool.

The money in this pool comes from a number of places: partnerships with congregations and individuals, investments made by GBGM, and from the World Service Fund of the church’s general apportionments.

But the amount of money available has been shrinking. Even before the 2019 General Conference, the next quadrennium budget for GBGM had been slashed by 20%.

One way to ensure that GBGM missionaries can remain on the mission field in the future is to support missionaries like me and Leah with Covenant Relationships.

At last week’s Annual Conference, I invited North Texas congregations to consider entering into a Covenant Relationship with me during my ministry in South Africa. Covenant partners agree to send $2,500/year (or $5/member) to the GBGM missionary pool on my behalf for a period of one to three years.

It would mean a lot to me if Kessler Park UMC considered the same thing. By becoming a Covenant sponsor, you would not only be supporting United Methodist missionaries across the world, you will also guarantee a visit from me in three years when I come back to the States on furlough.

I’d love to have Kessler Park as one of my official sponsors, but even more so, I value your prayers and encouragement. Thank you for preparing me for my next phase of ministry.

Thoughts from the North Texas Annual Conference

This week's article is written by our incoming senior pastor Rev. Eric Folkerth.

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Let me provide a bit of context for the past few days in the North Texas Conference. It’s just my one perspective on what felt like an extraordinary few days. (So, take it or leave it...)

Last evening, the NTC ordained the first openly lesbian woman in the *South.* Meaning: In any conference in the Southeastern or South Central part of the nation.

Today, we elected a slate of clergy delegates that was decidedly more to the “center-left” than previous delegations.

We elected a virtual *sweep* of progressive lay delegates. It is, without question, the most progressive group of lay delegates in our conference…and, therefore, almost certainly the most progressive in the South as well.

Approximately 50 of us —lay and clergy—attended an impromptu prayer vigil and press conference, lamenting the spate of murders of African-American Trans Women in our city. This was led by an African-American clergywoman, and attended by a beautiful spectrum of queer and straight, and people of all races.

And finally, by a stunningly high margin of 80% in favor, the North Texas Conference approved a resolution stating its intent to live NOW as a “One Church Conference.”

Among other things, we have said that we wish to be a conference that:

“grants space for traditionalists to continue to offer ministry as they have in the past; space for progressives to exercise freely a more complete ministry with LGBTQ persons; and space for all United Methodists to continue to coexist without disrupting their ministries.”

And we have agreed that we intend to:

“allow for contextual ministry and pastoral care and not impede the work of others in ministry. We will seek to find common ground and actively be in ministry with people who are different from us. We will not speak ill of one another and model that all people are of sacred worth .”

Again…and I want you to pause on this for a moment…this resolution passed not by 51% percent…or even 65%….but by 80%!!

It literally exceeded all of our expectations for an outcome.

Friends, only three years ago did we ever pass our first resolution that spoke positively about the LGBTQ community.

Now, three short years later, we have exceeded a supermajority.

It’s Pentecost on Sunday.

I see God’s Spirit at work here today.

After General Conference, I wrote a blog asking “What do we know now about General Conference?”

Tonight, we can ask: “What do we know about North Texas?"

It seems to me we know the following:

— Our delegation is more progressive than ever, and it was already the most progressive in the Jurisdiction.

— That you can ordain a lesbian woman and the sky will not fall. In fact, that most folks will be happy about it.

— That you can hold a press conference to support Trans people, and 50 folks will show up.

— And finally, that 80% of us are interested in finding some way to live together.

Of course, the “devil is in the details” as to what this last point means.

Over the past weeks, I have heard from many progressive friends who believe this resolution does not go far enough.

My answer to that has been to say…I agree.

African-American friends, and other People of Color, have justice and equity issues that must be addressed in any future Methodism that were not at all mentioned in this resolution.

The LGBTQ community and allies are right to note that this resolution does not nearly go far enough in working toward a fully inclusive space for them. The language is not as strong as statements coming out of Minneapolis or Kansas City.

Therefore, we must see this resolution is a *starting point* for conversation over the next weeks and months, as we continue to imagine the “new thing” that is coming in Methodism. Many of us have been saying for some time that a “new thing” is coming in Methodism.

Many observers have conjectured that as many of 70% of American Methodists might desire to live together in some future alignment.

Today, we showed, with data, that this number COULD BE as high as 80% percent here in our area.

Hopefully, what happens now is an ever-broader table of up to 80% of North Texas Methodists who wish to live together in some way. This should be an inclusive conversation that takes place over the next few months, as we look toward GC 2020.

We should get down to brass tacks, and start asking tougher questions like…

What will it mean to *really* include all of our people of color as full partners in a church of the future?

What will it mean to fully support and welcome our LGBTQ brothers and sisters?

What will it mean to potentially still be in different theological places, and yet maintain that very Wesleyan desire to “walk hand in hand” with those whose hearts are the same as ours?

What will it mean to support our rural churches, which have different contexts from the city?

What could it mean to listen to the feedback of the Minneapolis and Kansas City gatherings, and incorporate some of the values and goals from those gatherings into our future dreaming in our conference?

We here in North Texas now have some GREAT data to justify swiftly engaging this bold and robust conversation with as many has 80% of North Texas Methodists.

Don't you think?

We continue to also know that it will continue to be a chaotic time, with many possible ideas being tossed around.

That has to continue to be OK for a while.

Just know, it’s a broad swath of folks who appear willing to keep talking and dreaming together.

And for now, that’s an interesting conversation that I look forward to having.