Vivid Memories of Growth, Love

14 10 2011

by RENE ROMIG, World Service Corps

One version of my time in the Philippines as a World Service Corps volunteer goes something like this:

Not long ago I was sitting in a church building in Binalonan, a mid-sized town where I spent 10 months as a World Service Corps volunteer.

Each Sunday, the church service brought familiar elements: opening prayers, scripture readings, and sermons. But many hymns were new to us, the scriptures were read in a different language, and the church leaders regularly used bits of three languages.

My volunteer partner, Haley, and I would sit on the wooden benches, listening to the youth play in a praise band with keyboard, guitar, drums, and vocals. We’d pick out the few words we could understand and follow the scriptures in our English Bibles. This scene, so unfamiliar at first, became comfortable over time, and we settled into our lives in the Philippines.

My main assignment was to teach short, informal English classes at the elementary school two blocks from my apartment. Haley and I participated in community and congregational activities and traveled occasionally.

OK, that’s one reflection, but maybe this version captures things a bit better:

I taught English to students who already juggled two languages and had a good grasp of a third. I watched the rice fields transform from watery pools to seas of green and back. I learned noodles and rice come in many forms and flavors. I routinely beat back armies of ants with paper towels. And I didn’t leave my house without an umbrella—not to keep the rain off, but the sun.

Life in the Philippines was varied and often surprising. At once, it was hectic and slow-paced, familiar and strange, challenging and rewarding.

Through it all, I came to know a church community whose members believe in ending poverty and suffering by expressing love for each other and the world in many ways. I came to know a church community that has taken the enduring principle of Sacredness of Creation to heart.

Rice fields in the Phillippines fascinated Rene Romig.

During the first few months of our stay, we hiked up numerous hills to plant trees in deforested areas. Students from the school and young adults from the congregation pitched in, along with others, ready to brave the blazing sun. The church planted thousands of seedlings, beginning the process of healing these stripped hills.

I came to know a church community that responds immediately when its members are in need. A typhoon hit the Philippines in October 2010. It flooded and damaged several church buildings, and it destroyed one. It also flooded and destroyed the homes of some members. Community of Christ members quickly prepared relief aid packages and delivered food, medicine, and supplies. Their organized relief efforts reached many people even before government aid arrived.

I came to know a community committed to learning and discovering. One of my joys was teaching a violin class to six students ranging from 7 years old to college age. I hadn’t brought a violin to the Philippines, but when people learned I played, violins started popping up. When the violins appeared, so did enthusiastic students. The only person who actually had to buy a violin was the youngest girl, who needed a special size.

We started by learning the names of the instrument’s parts and strings. Eight months later, everyone played a solo for their friends and family. Organizing two concerts, watching these students learn, and sharing my love of music were joyful and fulfilling ways to grow closer to the community.

As I packed to leave, it was a great joy to announce the creation of a scholarship fund that would pay for lessons to continue with a local teacher throughout the summer.

I came to know a community that had no hesitations in allowing two foreigners to live and worship with them. They didn’t invite us simply to sit in the congregation, but they encouraged us to come up front, sing, teach, and share in ministry with them. It didn’t matter that I had never given a sermon and I wasn’t a trained teacher. Because of the confidence they placed in me, I was able to grow.

During the holiday season, the congregation invited my partner and me to speak at their Christmas worship service. This would be my first sermon, and I was anxious. But as I looked at the congregation, I realized the room was full of friends. These people had been strangers to me months ago. Now I knew them as neighbors, fellow teachers, pastors, playful kids, and my brothers and sisters in Christ.

I had no reason to worry.

World Service Corps gave me the opportunity to grow and love. The experience was a gift that went way beyond airline tickets or organizational support. It expressed itself through international music, conversations with new friends, words in a different language.

It brought caring friends, vivid memories, and fresh perspectives. Above all, it brought a better understanding of my neighbors across the ocean and our worldwide community of Christ.

Using the Right Building Code

10 10 2011

by ART SMITH, apostalic assistant

Standing beside the wreckage of an apartment tower toppled and lying broken on the ground, I found myself pondering our work in the church.

Someone always asks me how my latest trip into Central and South America has gone, and I usually focus purely on the positive. But the reality is that our work in pursuing the mission of Jesus Christ is a combination of building something new and trying to figure out how to rebuild something that has collapsed or appears at high risk of falling.

On February 27, 2010, an 8.8-magnitude earthquake struck the Biobio region of Chile, including the city of Concepción. It left a trail of devastation. Though Chile generally prepares well for earthquakes, this powerful tremor exposed buildings (even new ones) that had ignored construction codes. The apartment tower I stared at was only a few years old.

In Honduras there’s another “Concepción,” Concepción Sur. Honduras badly lacks government support for rural schools. But Concepción Sur has benefited from a decades-long partnership with Community of Christ. The church has positively influenced the town, which is home to one of our first Honduran congregations. Members lobbied government and years ago won unds to build a school. But it remained underfunded and inadequate for the growing enrollment.

It needed a new classroom for students and the church-supported Young Peacemakers Club. The World Hunger-Tangible Love Team approved a grant of almost $14,000 to help build it. A plaque outside recognizes the gift funded by Community of Christ contributors.
Leaders named the classroom in the memory of Apostle Carlos Enrique Mejia’s mother, Alma Corina Mejia, who served as principal from 1965 to 1981.

Visiting these buildings makes me think about congregations I have come to know.

Scandal devastates a promising, young congregation, which more or less collapses into rubble. In another congregation, key leaders must move away to find work, leaving a new church plant no longer viable. An older congregation carries on from habit, its testimony long since having lost its spark. It’s a struggle to remember when one of its members last invited someone to Christ through baptism and confirmation into church membership.

I’ve visited more than my share of congregations that this tumbled over building reminds me of. But I’ve also visited countless congregations that are growing and full of promise just like the school and new classroom in Concepción Sur.

Someone moves to a new town for work or schooling and feels called to plant the church there. People meet the church via the Internet and want to establish Community of Christ in a new part of the world. A missionary goes to begin a new congregation in a new country.

What does one say or do in these circumstances? What is the “building code” we use as we try to help that new congregation?

Huddled around the computer screen with brothers and sisters of the thriving, growing, new, little congregation in Monte Caseros, Argentina, we listened as President Steve Veazey reminded us in April that it’s the mission of Jesus Christ that matters most.

The church pursues Christ’s mission—our mission—through the mission initiatives: Invite People to Christ; Abolish Poverty, End Suffering; Pursue Peace on Earth; Develop Disciples to Serve; and Experience Congregations in Mission. I looked into the faces of these new, dedicated members and thought of the many ways they are living out this mission.

This is surely the code for building new and healthy congregations. I think it’s also the way to rebuild.

In Concepción Sur, I watch Honduran craftsmen splatter stucco onto the exterior of the new Alma Corina Mejia classroom. I easily can see the fine quality of work going into this new school. A few weeks later, as children occupy the desks and a teacher writes on the board, I know we have done something good.

In Concepción, Chile, I look beyond the rubble of the earthquake-broken building. I see a worker standing on the balcony of a new apartment tower under construction. He’s several stories up, but he smiles as I snap his photo. I’m sure this new building is being built 100 percent according to code.

I’ve never been more enthusiastic than now about our challenge to focus on what matters most—the mission of Jesus Christ—as we use his building code to construct and rebuild our congregations around the world.

What I Know about Ivory Coast

7 10 2011

by PAUL DAVIS, Kansas City, Missouri, USA

In August 2010 I spent several days in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, teaching and visiting in two congregations, Abobo-Nord and Abobo-Sagbe Deux. Ivory Coast then had 10 Community of Christ congregations, totaling about 1,600 members. Four of our congregations were in Abidjan, the country’s largest city with 3.3 million people.

I’m using past tense because in November 2010 the nation held a long-delayed presidential election. The outcome was disputed, and both of the main contenders attempted to take power. Clashes between their supporters spread throughout the country, with the heaviest fighting in Abidjan.

By March, Ivory Coast was in full-scale civil war, and a million people had fled Abidjan. All four of our congregations there closed. Most of our members, including church leaders Tanoh Assoi and Baka Ble, had to leave their homes.

In early April, international peacekeepers intervened. The disputed election was settled in favor of Alassane Ouattara.Laurent Gbagbo, who had served as president since 2000, was arrested. The violence subsided. Some people, including Tanoh and Baka, were able to return to their homes.

The conflict killed thousands of civilians, including a Community of Christ man named Augustin.

In late July Tanoh e-mailed an update. Here are some excerpts:

The church was seriously affected by the war.

At Sagbe Deux attendance dropped from 80–110 to 30–35. Here the battle was seriously heavy, and most people have relocated…The consequence is they…need assistance to pay five months’ rent (about $75 per month).

Abobo-Nord resumed services a month ago, and it has the same difficulties of paying rent of $75. Their attendance dropped to about 35 because of relocation of members. The prospect is to raise the attendance to 70 within two months. There are persons…who could not go back because former rebels, who are now regular soldiers, want to kill them for partaking in Gbagbo’s party meetings! People are still afraid, and it affects seriously the operation of this congregation.

Abobo Sogefiha is still closed. All its property was stolen or destroyed. The pastor also lost most of the contents of his house. We hope to reopen in two weeks.

At Yopougon Maroc, most members are family of soldiers in Gbagbo’s army, which used to be the regular army. We are working on regaining attendance—it had dropped to under 20.

Generally Abidjan congregations are recovering from the war progressively. But the pastors’ situation is mostly difficult because all of them have rent problems. I will suggest them to be assisted if possible from Oblation.

Of the up-country congregations, only Liliyo is doing well. Soubre is closed. There was a terrible battle after Gbagbo was arrested. Many people were killed, and our members scattered. In Galebre, the church building served as refuge to rebel troops until it collapsed. They are worshiping in the pastor’s house, and I (gave instructions) to help build a temporary structure in emergency.

It is the same in Komeayo, where members ran into the bush when the rebels came. The building is also destroyed. The good news is that despite the difficulties people are still faithful to the church.

We intend to go there for a week to provide ministry to these brothers and sisters.

If I had not visited Ivory Coast, I probably would be unaware anything had happened there. If it registered at all, it would play in my mind as a set of prejudgments: a failure of democracy, tribal violence, and the consequences of colonization and subjugation. I would use the distant facts to tell myself a story I already believed—a story whose main points are: What’s happening there can’t happen here, and it has nothing to do with me.

But here’s what I now know about Ivory Coast: We have members there. The lines Paul wrote in his letter (Romans 12:4–5 NRSV) work in Ivory Coast, too: “For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”

And because we are one body, we are vitally engaged in what happens not only to our members in Ivory Coast, but to all people in their communities, cities, countryside, and nation. That’s a gift that frees us from our illusion that this story has nothing to do with us.

God Is Faithful

5 10 2011

Becky Savageby BECKY SAVAGE, First Presidency

Scripture tells us God is faithful in relationship with all creation. Hebrew scriptures, especially the Psalms, assure us of God’s faithfulness.

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens, your faithfulness to the clouds. Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep; you save humans and animals alike, O Lord. —Psalm 36:5–6 NRSV

The New Testament provides more insights into God’s faithfulness. God offered the most-generous gift, a faithful Son; one to show us God’s intention for our relationships with God, each other, and creation.

The Gospels offer stories about Jesus in relationships. Jesus teaches by sharing parables that uphold the worth of all persons and protect the most vulnerable. Jesus says faith the size of a mustard seed can move a mulberry tree into the ocean or make mountains move (Luke 17:6, Matthew 17:20).

Jesus and Faithful Relationships

How are relationships and faith intertwined? Consider the example of the friends of a paralytic man (Mark 2:1–12, Matthew 9:1–8, Luke 5:17–26). They are concerned for their friend’s physical needs and are convinced through faith that Jesus heals. The paralyzed man also has faith in his friends. He trusts them to lower him through a roof safely to Jesus, the healer.

Sensing the men’s faith, Jesus tells the paralyzed man “your sins are forgiven.” This story intertwines faith, relationships, individual worth, and protecting the most vulnerable. The men have a faithful relationship that is strong enough for physical risk. Their faith influences Jesus. He heals and sends the man home, transformed from a marginalized person to a person of worth.

Luke 7:1–10 connects several types of relationships with faith. The slave of a Roman officer is gravely ill. This officer is a friend of Jewish leaders and has built them a synagogue. The officer is so concerned about his servant’s condition he sends respected Jewish elders to ask Jesus to come and heal his servant.

Before Jesus reaches the home, the officer sends more friends to tell Jesus he feels unworthy to meet him. Instead the officer is convinced Jesus will heal by saying the words. Jesus is impressed with the profound faith of the officer and heals the servant. Jesus tells the crowd “I haven’t seen faith like this in all Israel!”

Consider the various faithful friendships described in this scripture. While the officer and slave are master and servant, they also share love and compassion. The officer respects the Jewish elders and builds them a sacred place of worship. The Jewish leaders show their mutual respect for the officer by asking Jesus to heal the servant. Jesus honors all of them and responds to the officer’s faith.

In the Gospel of John (20:11–18) Mary Magdalene, a faithful follower of Jesus, goes to his tomb to honor him. The discovery of an empty tomb magnifies her grief. When the risen Jesus calls her by name, Mary recognizes and honors him as “Rabbouni”—Teacher. Jesus invites Mary to go into the world as the first apostolic witness of the risen Christ.

She responds faithfully, joyously sharing the good news with others. Christ lives!
In these scriptural examples Jesus’ actions are rooted in the principles of love, mutual respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness. His interactions uphold the worth and giftedness of all people and protect the most vulnerable.

Faithfulness Requires Presence

Doctrine and Covenants 163:2b offers this personal challenge for each of us.

Generously share the invitation, ministries, and sacraments through which people can encounter the Living Christ who heals and reconciles through redemptive relationships in sacred community. The restoring of persons to healthy or righteous relationships with God, others, themselves, and the earth is at the heart of the purpose of your journey as a people of faith.

In both the Old and New Testaments, relationships involve presence and intentionally being with another. God is with the people, and the people connect with God. Jesus reaches out to people, and people seek out Jesus. The sacraments, such as Communion, connect us to the Living Christ and give us the opportunity to invite others to share in sacred ministries.

God is calling each of us to engage in faithful relationships where we are physically present with others. We model our faith when we form genuine friendships. Forming faithful friendships does not require special skills or preparations. It does require intentional commitment, time, and presence.

Author Alicia Britt Chole describes Christ-like presence as purposeful proximity.

Jesus ministered to the multitudes…But concentrated his life in 12 rather rough individuals, and their first job description was simply to be with him…in a shoulder-to-shoulder position of saturated with-ship.

By spending concentrated time with a few disciples, Jesus created genuine friendships. He accepted each one, including their flaws and giftedness. In return the disciples agreed to follow Jesus faithfully. Jesus taught these faithful followers about God’s generous love and grace by spending time with them. He showed them how to be kind to the hateful. He reached out to the most vulnerable, touching and healing the poor, diseased, and rejected.

Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a tells us love, respect, responsibility, justice, covenant, and faithfulness are required to form authentic, Christ-like connections. How can we create purposeful proximity or intentional relationships that are faithful to the model of Jesus? First, let us consider a definition of faith offered by theologian and author Daniel L. Migliore.

Faith is the personal response of trust and confidence in the gracious God made known in Jesus Christ…. The object of Christian faith is not some thing or idea but the living Lord Jesus Christ who is God with us in the power of the Holy Spirit. Substitution of any other object of faith—whether self, family, church, race, or nation—is idolatry. The subject of faith is the whole person, including mind, will, and affections.

When we are baptized we make a commitment to follow Jesus Christ faithfully and with our whole life. Jesus lived in whole-life relationships. He was with God when he went alone to pray quietly. Jesus was present with his disciples when he stayed side-by-side with them; walked, ate, and slept with them; and taught and sent them to teach others.

Faithfulness Involves Presence

What are some ways to describe presence? Words like sharing, inviting, serving, loving, and caring come to mind. The challenge for many of us is how to live in intentional relationships when we live in technology-based cultures. We talk on cell phones and send messages via text or the Internet. It is easy to substitute technology-based conversations for genuine relationships.

Christ-like, purposeful proximity implies physical closeness and commitment or covenant. Doctrine and Covenants 164:6a–c specifies behaviors that show such connections. The behavioral principles of love, mutual respect, and justice require outer and inner connections.

Outwardly, we show love and respect through physical closeness and touch, kind words, considerate conversations, and shared experiences. Genuine love, respect, and justice also require us to relinquish the judgments we make about each other. Overcoming inner prejudice may be one of the hardest behavioral principles to uphold.

Because faithfulness requires letting go of our human perspectives, bias, and judgments, we must learn to view others with Christ-like vision. As Migliore explains, “Faith is the personal response of trust and confidence in the gracious God made known in Jesus Christ.”

Our human weaknesses hinder our ability to overcome our ingrained prejudices. We must depend on God’s grace and generous love to show us how to see the worth of others, especially those we do not know or understand.

Another aspect of faithful relationships involves personal vulnerability. Too often we mask or hide our personal difficulties or life circumstances. We do not want others to know we are not perfect. Faithful relationships require honesty and genuine openness. We covenant together and respectfully value each other when we share openly with each other.

Scripture assures us God is faithful, and Jesus models whole-life faithfulness. We are challenged to form faithful relationships based on the example of Jesus’ life and ministries.

Jesus was intentionally present with a few disciples. He showed them that faithful relationships are based on a mutual covenant between each person. Faithfulness requires us to embrace the guidance of Doctrine and Covenants 164:5.

It is imperative to understand that when you are truly baptized into Christ you become part of a new creation. By taking on the life and mind of Christ, you increasingly view yourselves and others from a changed perspective. Former ways of defining people by economic status, social class, sex, gender, or ethnicity no longer are primary. Through the gospel of Christ a new community of tolerance, reconciliation, unity in diversity, and love is being born as a visible sign of the coming reign of God.

When we depend faithfully on God’s Spirit to guide our lives, we are blessed with insights that allow us to overcome inner prejudices and accept others with Christ-like love. When we have Christ-like love we have faithful relationships.

The Voice Continues to Echo, Echo, Echo…

3 10 2011

by DAVID R. BROCK, presiding evangelist

The seminary course was “Theology of Mission.” The students and I all grappled with words like mimesis, paranesis, hodos, kenosis, and perichoresis. (Go ahead, Google them!) It was seven weeks of writing papers, seven weeks of pushing 2,500 pages of reading up against our sense of call. It was conversations with church leaders at the Temple and “face-to-face” on the Internet from Holland, Canada, and around the USA.
We found that Jesus’ “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” mission statement is unchanged. Christ’s mission and ours still originate in “the Voice that echoes across the eons of time and yet speaks anew in this moment” (Doctrine and Covenants 162:1b). The ways we embody that mission, however, constantly change. Our deeper understanding of what the Creator, “creating still,” is doing now is an ever-open invitation to our own transformation.

“Our mission initiatives define our response to God’s grace, hope, and peace found in Christ,” said one student, Erica Blevins Nye of Young Adult Ministries. “Holistic mission includes inviting people to Christ, abolishing poverty and ending suffering, pursing peace on earth, developing disciples to serve, and experiencing congregations in mission. These initiatives are a…framework to help the church discern and tend to…mission.”

“Mission is not a noun,” said Heather Lawson, the unofficial “pastor” of the homeless she serves in her profession. “Mission is a verb, requiring action.” Quoting from Transforming Mission by David J. Bosch, a late expert on mission, she added that mission involves “a multi-faceted ministry in respect of witness, service, justice, healing, reconciliation, liberation, peace, evangelism, fellowship, church planting, contextualization, and much more.”

President of Seventy Keith McMillan reflected, “If we run around doing mission breathlessly because we are the only solution…we run the risk of returning to failed ideas of a paradigm that shifted long ago.”

And Graceland University intern Melanie Grimes, prayed,

Bring the calm to my soul that is only available through you.
When I have reveled in your mystery
and regained a sense of peace within your warmth,
inspire me to lead my life in the way you would desire.
Make me understand with new clarity the depth and perfect
balance of the community that you would have us create…

“I am empowered by the time and place where I live,” said Laurie Heintz, a business owner and active disciple. “This is an era where humanity has a renewed curiosity about their purpose and seeks answers of a spiritual nature. This is an opportunity to be instrumental for God in being (God’s) hands and feet. …It is not I who will transform others, but the Holy Spirit….”

Church planter Matthew Swain challenged disciples to “…establish congregations that embrace the role of a risk-taking messenger of Jesus Christ…to start fostering your ‘inner little missionary.’… Cultivate passion and excitement for the unexpected adventure, and you’ll be amazed at how you…can stir up your church to become a more spiritually dynamic and contagious place.”

Christ’s mission is ours. I see and feel it in the lives of six seminary students. I personally hear it anew in “the Voice that echoes across the eons.”