A Call to Action for People of Faith

Every morning, I wake up, turn over and pick up my phone. I have an alert set to directly receive any tweet sent by the president. Most mornings, there are two or more tweets awaiting my view.

I do this because I want to know what he said BEFORE I begin my quiet prayer time. I need to know HOW to pray and HOW to orient my mind and soul before starting my pastoral work.

Lately, however, the president’s words have been haunting more than just my morning thoughts; my daily thoughts and nighttime dreams are full of his scandalous ruminations. Every time you think it can’t get any worse, it does. Yesterday’s scandal is rapidly replaced by today’s scandal, which will be off the radar as soon as tomorrow dawns.

I hear often from friends, church members, or Facebook/Twitter friends, something like this: “This is all so upsetting, but what can we do? What can I do? What can anyone do?”

I want to answer that question. It’s important. Especially for people of faith. If you haven’t noticed, the religious folks closest to the president have been close to mum about the Charlottesville events and the president’s remarks concerning those events. The CEOs who fled the president’s councils have shown a stronger moral fiber than his religious leaders.

Yet across the country, clergy and members of churches, synagogues, and mosques have raised their voices in opposition to the president’s harmful rhetoric.

I know that you want Kessler Park UMC to be one of those faith communities that stands up on behalf of justice, so let me suggest some things that you — and I — can do today.

Let me preface my remarks with an important statement about where we stand vis-a-vis the president. What I am going to say has nothing to do with party politics or policy issues; I recognize that good Christians disagree on all sorts of issues, including immigration, taxes, abortion, and healthcare. I’m not talking about the basic differences between Republicans and Democrats. 

The problem with our current president has less to do with policy issues than with morality, truth, decency, and human dignity. No person of faith can truly deny that this president has violated these norms so consistently and ruthlessly that we no longer expect him to act morally, truthfully, decently, and with dignity. It is clear that this problem will not be solved by a different chief of staff, or a steadying family member, or even opinion polls. The president has clearly signaled that he has no interest in changing or doing things differently.

Thus, Christians must now act to have the president removed from office. It’s as simple as that. The stakes are too high for things to continue as they are. He must be removed by peaceful, nonviolent, democratic, and constitutional means.

Here’s what I recommend all of us do starting today:

  1. Call or write your Congressperson and ask them to begin the impeachment process or invoke the 25th Amendment. Do it today. Our representatives need to begin hearing from large groups of people that the president must be removed.
  2. Consider attending the “In Solidarity” rally with me in Dallas on Saturday evening at 7:30 pm. The rally was originally scheduled to protest the Confederate monuments in Dallas, but now is meant to also stand as a rebuke to what happened in Charlottesville, and resist the president’s defense of white supremacy. The time for debate and conversation about the monuments and statues has passed; at this point, they simply need to come down, for the president has invested new meaning and significance in them, which solely benefits white supremacy.
  3. Read the Barmen Declaration, written and signed in Germany in 1934 by the brave members of the Confessing Church, which recognized the growing danger of the Nazi movement, and drew its red line in the sand. Dietrich Bonhoeffer helped write this declaration; in fact, pick up anything by Bonhoeffer to read for such a time as this.
  4. Pray for the president’s removal at 6:45, a.m. and p.m. When you see the clock hit 6:45, spend 5 minutes in prayer, preferably on your knees. Praying in this way will unify us, regardless of where we are when we pray, and it also serves to strengthen and embolden the one who prays. I like to think of prayer as a time when I am given my marching orders, a time of regrouping and empowerment. 
  5. Use Scripture and theology to protest the president’s words and actions. Permit yourself to use religious imagery and faith symbols in your protests. The rest of the American white church needs to hear what we have to say in their own language.
  6. Finally, attend a workshop/planning session with me at the church on Sunday night, 6:30 pm in the Chapel. We will work through further steps to take in order to counter the president’s words and actions. 

I recognize that this column is strongly-worded and that some of you may strongly disagree. However, I believe we are long past the point where the words and actions of this president can be legitimately defended by people who follow Jesus Christ. Something must change, or we will encounter worse words and actions tomorrow.

Mission Week Moments

By Eva Englert-Jessen

Mission is one of the most foundational aspects of the history of the church and of church life in general. If I’m being honest, it can also be a loaded word. At its very best, Christian mission can transform perceptions, stereotypes, and invite people into a relationship based on mutual love in Christ, respect, and accountability. At its worst, it can be coercive—stripping away cultures and ways of being in the world that are rendered foreign or in need of a Christ who shames and demands conformity, rather than embracing difference. 

When I first came on board at KPUMC in early July, I was excited to hear about Mission Week and how it intentionally invites the youth (and by extension, the larger church) to participate in the work of repairing relationships and meeting human needs that are already happening in the city of Dallas through various other groups of people, churches and other faith communities, and organizations. A colleague of mine and pastor of Union United Methodist, Rev. Michael Baughman, describes this kind of participatory mission beautifully: “[Through the work we do at Union], we’re not bringing God to anybody. We are looking for the ways in which God is already at work in a neighborhood and discerning how we can partner with that.”  

For Mission Week 2017, KPUMC youth explored this theme of partnership. We helped, yes. We served, yes. But it’s also my hope that we learned, even in a small and humble way, that God also calls us to give something of ourselves. We are called to challenge our privilege where we have it and explore prayerfully together how to partner with folks who lack resources because of injustice (not because of any single thing they have done). I think we are also called to ask folks in vulnerable situations or communities how we can be of help---not simply assuming that we are the ones who are the givers and they the passive, benevolent receivers who had better be grateful for what we give. This work is not easy, and we will continue to stumble as we figure out how to love more fully, and to love in a way that truly sets others free. But we don't do it alone, or without a lot of deep breaths and faith companions and self-love, too. 

The youth and I, along with Ashley Schulz who so generously gave her time to support us, piled in the church van around 8:15 each morning, and headed out for a few hours of work followed by lunch out or at the church each day. Here is a snapshot of our days: 

Monday: Distributed 200+ pairs (among 1500) to children going back to school, and assisted food pantry clients at the Wilkinson Center. Some of our Spanish-speaking youth got to practice their Spanish with clients, translating the names of produce and canned veggies. Serving at the Wilkson Center stirred up a couple of thoughts for me and the youth: 1) Providing resources to help people achieve self-sufficiency is a powerful thing. The Wilkinson Center does this well. 2) What would it look like for more agencies, organizations and churches to work not only to provide food through giving it away, but to also work to respond to the systems, policies, and positions that cause hunger, at their roots? I am especially excited about opportunities to do this work with our youth through gardening and food theologies/ministry.

Tuesday: Mulched and chased turkeys (I’m not kidding!) at Bonton Farms in South Dallas. I shared this on the KPUMC Facebook page already, but I was especially moved by our time at Bonton. We learned the story of this particular history of the Bonton neighborhood, which has been all too often neglected and severely underserved by the city of Dallas (South Dallas contains 45% of Dallas’ population and only 2% of the jobs. Let that sink in). Farm manager Patrick told us about the powerful transformation that the creation of this farm has been to his community—providing jobs, healthy food to combat chronic diseases like diabetes, and an opportunity for this very neighborhood to be its own catalyst for change. Being at Bonton felt like a kind of church for me; I would love to form a partnership with them, if other KPUMC folks had interest. 

Wednesday: Owenwood United Methodist Church in East Dallas recently closed, and the North Texas Conference of the UMC agreed to allow White Rock United Methodist Church to absorb its property and convert it into a kind of missional campus community. It will be home to several community agencies and nonprofits that work directly with the East Dallas community to provide a variety of support, from after school programs to diaper services and a theater company. They are also partnering with Grow North Texas, a food systems and urban farming organization, to turn the 4 acres of land there into an urban farm. KPUMC youth enjoyed rummaging through old closets and choir rooms, helping organize and sort through what will remain and what will be taken out to breathe new life into the space. 

Thursday: Thursday was our church service day. With the help of David Spence’s insight, we worked on cleaning out the labyrinth by cleaning up plant beds and freshening the circle. We also cleaned out some children’s cabinets, as our church community prepares for another school year.

It was a wonderful week. I am sincere when I say that I was delighted by the hard work, laughter, and curiosity of our youth. I can’t wait for more mission opportunities down the road, especially as we explore mission that exemplifies communal partnership, humility, solidarity, and God’s abundant love for all people. I am so thankful for your prayers and support, and for our youth and their amazing work!

Church DNA, Part Two

I closed last week’s column with a question: “What part of our church DNA needs some revision?” In other words, are there any unhealthy behaviors or traditions in which this church participates? Are there things we need to change?

I was hoping someone might leave a comment on the blog, but so far, nobody has written or said anything. I don’t think this is because we all believe our church is perfect, but rather because it is a difficult question that requires lots of thought.

Perhaps it would be helpful to meditate on the way the DNA of Kessler Park UMC has changed over the years. I understand that, at one point, this church had the reputation of being a “country club church.” Our members were caricatured as being wealthy, snooty, and a bit exclusive. I think all would agree that we’re not like that now! Our DNA changed; the way our congregation interacted with the community changed, and we finally lost that negative reputation.

Now that I have been your pastor for three years, I believe I am starting to understand this church’s culture and ethos. I have a better grasp on the ebb and flow of things, the way things get done, the kind of informal rules that guide church behavior.

Before I say anything else, let me affirm my conviction that KPUMC is a healthy organization. We have an identity, a sense of purpose, that is shaped by the gospel, and we have a strong conviction that our faith must be put into practice, lived out. We are not primarily inward-looking, but mission-focused, even if we’re not yet able to accomplish everything we want to do. But we are on the right track.

There are a few things that I think we need to revisit, or at least strengthen. Perhaps this is where we could stand to do a little DNA tweaking, a bit of genetic splicing, if you will:

  1. Let me begin with what I mentioned before this Sunday’s sermon. I believe we need to reclaim our Scriptures as inspiration and guide, and take seriously Scripture study and knowledge. When I arrived as your pastor I was surprised to learn that, besides two Sunday School classes, there was only one midweek Bible study group meeting. I know that there was a tradition of Disciple Bible study in this church many years ago, but the interest in really getting to know the Bible has flagged since then.
  2. Bible study takes place best in small group settings, or situations where people can have honest conversation and dialogue over Scripture. There are currently too few small group opportunities at KPUMC. And yet small groups are the place where relationships form, friendships grow, and community blossoms. We should be encouraging and facilitating more of these kinds of connections. Unfortunately, too many of us are engaged with the church only through worship, and not through any other activities.
  3. Financially, the church is on fairly solid ground. We’re not deeply in debt, and we have recently started a permanent endowment fund to secure our future. But we have not yet become a place where we understand that financial stewardship is part of our discipleship. Too often we exist in a “fundraising” mindset; we view the collection plate as an extension of the church budget. Instead, we must begin thinking about our giving as our own response to God’s call to join in the work of the gospel. We don’t give to pay the light bill; we give to participate in God’s mission.
  4. And finally, I believe that we need to continue to tweak our understanding of mission. We are a congregation that firmly believes in the importance of doing mission work. I am proud of all the work we do to support various ministries that work to transform lives. But we also need to take a further step that moves us from an understanding of mission as “charity” to mission as “doing justice.” We are too content with giving grace bags to homeless people, when we must also be asking why people are homeless, why affordable housing is so hard to find, what are long-term solutions to homelessness, etc. Very few churches ever make this step; perhaps it is our calling to find a way to move into more substantial justice work.

Again, let me ask for your input. What do you think of my suggestions? Do you also see room for improvement in these areas? Or can you think of other ways in which we need to change our DNA?