Stained-glass Trees

19 07 2014

The Spiritual Practice of Creating Sacred Space

by Brittany Longsdorf, Princeton, New Jersey, USA

Most of my life, I have lived in rural towns and villages in the Southern and Midwestern USA. I was raised by wide-lined cornfields and formed in the branches of oak trees. These spaces were sacred to me, though I often undervalued their spiritual essence while living among them.

photo 1When I was in college I read a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke. It suggested that trees can be a home once you destine one to be. In a light-filled, clarifying moment I realized I had always done that—I somewhat unintentionally had made tree-homes.

Tree loves of my past flashed through my memories:

  • An ancient oak that sprawled over a creek near my grandparents’ house in Alabama, where I would fish and read novels.
  • A tall and rotund walnut in the woods by my house as a teenager, where I would cry and vent.
  • A circle of three pines that I ceremoniously dubbed “heaven” at Graceland University, where I used to study, laugh with friends, and discuss theology.
  • A warm, yellow ginkgo outside my apartment at seminary, where I would sit for hours, attempting to discern vocation, call, and mission.

These tree-homes were intentionally created sacred spaces where I felt safe to live fully in the present and explore my relationship with others and God.

My husband and I recently moved to Boston, and I am thoroughly enjoying the adventure of living in an urban place for the first time. The city is abuzz with life, diversity, and culture. Working as a university chaplain I am blessed with meeting incredible students every day and exploring spiritual formation in this generation in new and beautiful ways.

But for a while, I struggled to make this vibrant city feel like home. I missed the cornfields, the bubbling creeks, and the chirping woods. Facing the stress and labor of moving, starting a new job, and setting up a new apartment, I was determined to find another tree-home among the Bostonian brick and mortar.

The large maple in our front yard sits next to a busy road, which didn’t feel quite right. A beautiful magnolia on the lawn outside my office is convenient, but it’s always surrounded by students and picnickers.

After a few months, I found an ancient weeping willow in the Boston Public Gardens that had been planted nearly 200 years ago. The curving branches barely caress the ground, and I can sneak under them into a holy green fort of peace and prayer. I seek those willowing arms every couple of weeks and journal, meditate, and pray.

In our search for spiritual growth in experiencing the sacred presence we often wait for the Spirit to “find” us. In our quest for holy awareness, we want to be shaken, stirred, or struck with an overwhelming emotional experience of God. In waiting for these moments, we often forget we can seek, find, and create.

What I discovered through my tree-home search is that sometimes we can “find” the Spirit by intentionally creating sacred space. Rilke said a tree becomes a home if you destine it to be. We can name those sacred places, those holy havens, ourselves.

We can turn something entirely ordinary into hallowed ground for prayer, for peace, for spiritual formation. These are places for faith, places for hope that we create through intentionality and thoughtfulness. Katie Harmon-McLaughlin says it beautifully in her poem:

I pray with my whole heart
That generations from now
The stained glass leaves
Of setting sun trees
Will still remind people
Of hope

You have the ability to create holy spaces—to make a tree a stained-glass sanctuary, turn a porch swing into a church bench, or transform a candle on your work desk into a sacred altar.

Not all tree-homes are trees: Discover the sacred space unique to you. Push yourself to grow, change, evolve, and create in the spaces you find holy every day.

We grow in love and relationship as we join in community at church on Sundays. This is a beautiful, sacred time of assembly and worship where we join in our calling as the body of Christ. Further your spiritual formation by acknowledging you also have the opportunity to continue to grow throughout the week in all the sacred spaces of the world.

The stained-glass trees of setting-sun leaves are holding firm in their old holy ways, awaiting your discovery. Seek those tree-homes and stand firmly beloved and blessed on your holy ground.

When the World Came Undone

16 07 2014

By Matt Naylor, National World War I Museum president and CEO

The world is commemorating the first global conflict. Centennials are often a cause for celebration. But not this. Rather, it is a reason to learn, make meaning, and remember.

 The world leading up to the summer of 1914 was much like the world of today. Europe faced rising nationalism and awareness of ethnic differences. Alliances shifted between nations and ruling families. Countries and empires sought increased influence to drive their goals of expansion. Changing technologies, including shifts in energy sources, changed power balances.

So while the June murder of the heir to the Austrian Hungarian Empire—an empire unfamiliar to most of us today—is considered by many as a cause of World War I, it is better thought of as the match that struck the kindling of a well-set fireplace.

What made this war different from earlier ones was that it was the first global conflict. Indians, Australians, Costa Ricans, Haitians, Thai, and multitudes of others soon found themselves traveling to foreign lands or providing resources to propel the war. And the world was never to be the same.

Going to Scale

The scale of death was massive. Additionally, conditions on the frontlines caused illness, leading to even more death. Some 9 million soldiers died, and 21 million more were wounded. For example:

More than 400,000 Australians (thousands of miles and continents away from the war) enlisted, representing almost 40 percent of the male population between 18 and 44 years old. Almost 65 percent were killed or injured.

The Austrian-Hungarians mobilized 6.5 million troops. Almost 5 million, or 75 percent, were killed or injured.

The French Empire enlisted 7.5 million, and 75 percent were killed or injured.

Whole towns of young men, who were conscripted or enlisted together, were lost. The war brought terror of weaponry, gases, trench warfare, and disease. It also brought social and technological change, perhaps the greatest in human history. To name but a few changes:

Disintegration of empires; creation of nation states; environmental damage; new technologies in communications, medicine, aviation, weaponry; oil’s rise in importance, leading to modern conflicts; civic and human-rights movements; and a USA shift from isolationism to global leadership.

One City’s Response

In Kansas City, people wanted to honor those who served, and they wanted to seek a peaceful world.

In 1919, 83,000 men, women, and children donated more than $2 million (equal to nearly $40 million today) to create a memorial. And they did this in two weeks. Everyone, from the city’s leading lumberman, R.A. Long, to schoolchildren contributed.

The memorial’s site was dedicated November 1, 1921. An estimated 100,000 people witnessed the stirring ceremony. The five main Allied military leaders—General Jacques of Belgium, General Diaz of Italy, Marshal Foch of France, General John J. Pershing of the USA, and Admiral Lord Beatty of Great Britain—addressed the throng.

A nationwide architectural competition yielded the winning design by New York architect H. Van Buren Magonigle. Following construction between 1923 and 1926, the mostly completed memorial was dedicated November 11, 1926. It attracted more than 150,000 people. President Calvin Coolidge and Queen Marie of Romania delivered addresses.

In the late 1990s when the memorial needed renovation, leading citizens again motivated the people. Kansas City’s citizens provided a place suitable for the tremendous responsibility of properly reflecting on the war—its sorrows and significance. More than $100 million has been spent in the past decade.

Ominous Contemporary Parallels

In an op-ed piece in the New York Times, historian Margaret MacMillan says today holds ominous parallels to the world leading up to World War I. For example, globalization before 1914 led Germany and Britain to be each other’s largest trading partners. Yet each felt threatened by the other’s economic success and rising commercial and military power.

“It is tempting—and sobering—to compare today’s relationship between China and America to that between Germany and England a century ago” MacMillan wrote. “Lulling ourselves into a false sense of safety, we say that countries that have McDonalds will never fight one another.”

MacMillian points to the Middle East as resembling the Balkans leading up to World War I. “A similar mix of toxic nationalisms threatens to draw in outside power as the United States, Turkey, Russia, and Iran all look to protect their interests and their clients.”

The centennial of the Great War provides people of faith with an opportunity to reflect on how the world was swept into this global conflict, and what it means to live in its shadows.

I propose people of faith can do three things. Many nations are responding with similar and culturally appropriate actions.

1.    Tell stories. The Great War was about people fighting people. Sure, it was also about nationalism, tribalism, empires, and geopolitical rivalries. But those things are really about people. Telling stories can help us turn history into human story.

2.    Teach people what happened and why it matters. The world today is more like the world leading up to World War I than we would like to imagine. The great American novelist, Mark Twain, is credited with saying “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” Appreciating the past can help us successfully navigate the future. In partnership with a consortium of churches and affiliates, including Community of Christ Seminary, the National World War I Museum will host a symposium in 2017 about conscientious objection as a response to war.

3.    Remember the courage and values of those days. Many thought World War I would be over in days, surely by Christmas. But the war was not over by Christmas. War was envisioned as romantic and colorful—flags, spiked helmets, flashing sabers. Those called to arms would be heroes, defending their homelands and way of life. The grim reality was far different. To remove any notion of war as a grand adventure, remember what happened. Remembering also can make us aware of real and present threats to our world.

Monumental Changes

The world came undone in those days. When it was put back together—if it ever was—it was forever changed: new countries, new weaponry, new threats and ideologies.

This war matters, if only because it is about the power of a fractured world. And it showed us as never before destructive power on a massive scale.

The great Frieze Wall at Liberty Memorial is 488 feet long and 43 feet high. Combining images of the horrors of war and the fruits of industry and peace, the wall’s central figure is a woman with spread wings, symbolizing peace and understanding. Inscribed above it:

These have dared bear the torches of sacrifice and service. Their bodies return to dust but their work liveth evermore. Let us strive on to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Remembering those who served and learning and finding meaning in the Great War and its enduring impact is a tribute to the past and a commitment to a world of peace.

Longing for Peace

14 07 2014

By Greg Clark,
Integrated Communications

Church leaders were among the many guests who found images of peace amid stories of conflict at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Hall.

Church leaders were among the many guests who found images of peace amid stories of conflict at the National World War I Museum at Liberty Hall.

It would be easy to think the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial in Kansas City reflects battle, pain, and strife—and it does.

Even more, however, it tells of humankind’s yearning for peace.

To be sure, when Community of Christ leaders toured the site in May, they found many spectacles of warfare: tanks, trenches, and testimonies of tragedy. They also saw reflections of our desire for peace: red poppies depicting the Flanders Fields, where so many died in Belgium and France; 40-foot-tall carvings of Guardian Spirits, who symbolize protectors of peace; and the Great Frieze, a 488- by 48-foot sculpture that represents the end of the war and the creation of an era of peace.

Sadly, peace was short-lived. The war to end all wars didn’t. Since its first shots 100 years ago this month, wars have popped up across the world like mushrooms in a moist forest. Today people fight in Ukraine, and others needlessly die in places called Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, and more.
All of this makes Christ’s mission—our mission—imperative.

“We have to learn about the causes of war to understand how to wage peace,” President Steve Veazey said during the tour. “We are to the best of our ability doing that.”

Many anniversaries are seen as celebrations. Not this one. No party hats, no cake, no reliving past glories. Rather, this centennial reminds of war’s horrific nature and humankind’s imperative to find different paths.

“For me, the claim as a peace church forces us to be aware and see the presence of non-peace in our midst, and it requires us to look into the ugly face of brokenness and conflict,” said Scott Murphy of the First Presidency.

“I was very supportive of coming here. It’s one thing to talk about peace around the table, but to see representations of [war] makes our work more critical.”

Apostle Susan Oxley echoed that sentiment: “I don’t think the church ever can be reconciled to war. We stand for looking for alternatives. War is alien to the gospel of Jesus Christ. His teachings are designed to solve conflict and encourage us to seek solutions.

“I support museums like this that don’t glorify war but present the horror of it.”

Historians cite many reasons for the start of World War I, which killed 9 million, wounded 21 million, and brought changes the world still feels today. Among the causes was widespread and fervent nationalism, still a force today.

World Church Historian Mark Scherer said that initially in World War I the church urged neutrality. “People were not supposed to join, but if drafted, to ‘do your duty.’ But there was a disconnect between the general church and the patriotic fervor most Americans held. With the enthusiasm of going ‘over there, over there,’ church members flocked to join.”

Not all members. F. Henry Edwards, an English citizen and future member of the First Presidency, was in England during the Great War. He was drafted but refused to fight, and he went to prison.

Over time, the church’s stance changed. Peter Judd described the shift in “RLDS Attitudes in World War I,” a 1975 article:

It appears evident that the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints moved from a position of strict neutrality with respect to the war in 1914 to a position of unqualified support for the United States and Allied nations by 1918.

Today leaders from the church, the museum, and others are seeking peaceful paths and hoping to learn from history. Among them is US Army Colonel Robert Ewing, who leads the 79th Service Support Command. His group toured the museum at the same time as the church leaders.

“Our chaplain unit is having ministry team training,” he explained. “We want them to practice exercising their faith…with people like those represented [in museum exhibits].”

Presiding Evangelist David Brock, like many other church leaders on the tour, holds hope that humankind will learn from the causes and tragedy of World War I.

“In a strange way, being aware of the reality of how horrible and costly war is presents one of our greatest hopes.”

Apostle Andrew Bolton said every generation must learn the lesson of peace over war. “In answer to nationalism, we’re an international church. That’s one of the social forces that pushes our peace mission.”

Apostle Linda Booth noted the irony of the US entrance into the war. It was April 6, 1917—the church’s birthday. While church members were celebrating their heritage, the nation was entering a dark period.

“We learn from our experiences of the past, mistakes in relationships that caused people to determine war was more important than reconciliation,” she said.“Here we see the stark reality of millions killed and families changed because leadership couldn’t [turn away from war].”

But Booth also found hope in the tour.

“I’m walking behind a tour of high school students who will see the reality of what war does, and hopefully they will become advocates for peace.”

Living, Loving, and Sharing Zion

11 07 2014
Stassi Cramm, Council of Twelve Apostles

Stassi Cramm, Council of Twelve Apostles


by Stassi Cramm,
Council of Twelve Apostles

I grew up in the church, hearing sermons, singing songs, and listening to prayers about Zion. There was an awareness Zion was coming, and we needed to be ready to go to Independence, Missouri, when the call came. I remember one reunion before I turned 16. The message focused on the idea that Zion was coming very soon. We were living in the latter days, and we needed to be ready.
I was petrified in the following months that Zion would happen before I got my driver’s license, and I’d never get a chance to drive a car. (I guess somehow I had inferred that cars would be unnecessary in Zion.) I was also sad that I would have to leave my life and friends in Illinois and move to Independence. Even with my limited understanding of God and Zion, leaving others “behind” seemed like something a loving God would not require or even want.
I remember all of these feelings about Zion with a bit of humor and deep fondness. My understanding of Zion may have been incomplete then (and probably still is), but the idea of Zion coming was—and still is—a formative vision for me. It has continued to guide my discipleship and ministry throughout the years.
When I first heard, and later read, the closing paragraphs of the words of counsel presented in April 2013, my heart overflowed with joy. There was that old familiar idea: Zion, beckoning us onward. More important was the idea that God challenges us to move beyond talking about and just waiting for Zion into the action of co-creating with God the reality of Zion. How amazing is that?

If we survey Doctrine and Covenants about Zion it becomes clear this closing paragraph of the 2013 words of counsel repeats counsel we have heard before.

There is a recurring theme that Zion is something we need to work toward and not just wait for. As early as 1869 in Section 6:3a is the encouragement: “…Keep my commandments, and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion.”

This counsel highlights that Zion is not something we are waiting for. Rather it’s something we help make happen. More than 100 years later, in 1982, Section 155:8 reminded us: “The call is for workers in the cause of Zion.…” This was another reminder that God was looking for people to help bring about God’s vision of shalom. Again the indication was that God wants and needs workers to help build Zion, rather than for people to wait faithfully until God brings Zion to us.

It has taken me awhile in my own journey to grasp that I’m not waiting on God to bring about Zion. The call to go to Independence is not going to come. God’s waiting on me and—more importantly—us to create expressions of God’s reign on Earth in our families, neighborhoods, and cities.

It reminds me of the song, “Waiting on the World to Change,” by John Mayer. In a world where we often feel powerless to overcome injustices and bad situations, we feel like we are stuck waiting. Waiting on the powerful. Waiting on an intervening God. Waiting on something or someone to change the world.

To give ourselves hope and encouragement while we wait, we speak and sing about Zion. It is good to speak and sing about Zion because this is how we expand our understanding of what God’s peaceable kingdom on Earth is all about. However, we can’t just wait while we speak and sing. We must live, love, and share as Zion. Preceding the call for workers in Section 155 was the encouragement to act now:

Know, O my people, the time for hesitation is past. The earth, my creation, groans for the liberating truths of my gospel which have been given for the salvation of the world. Test my words. —Doctrine and Covenants 155:7

I love the challenge to test God’s words. Throughout our journey as a people, we have received many “words” on how we can help Zion happen: tend to our spiritual condition; have courage; witness; heed the call; create pathways for peace in sacred communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness; hold to God’s covenant of peace in Jesus Christ; visibly be one in Christ; and more.

Words are funny things. They often mean different things to different people. No matter how clearly I think I’ve said or written something, inevitably someone will have an interpretation that differs from my intent. So even agreeing on how we test God’s words is a challenge.

I began a journey in June 2013 to build on my limited Spanish knowledge. Learning a new language has underscored for me how complicated communicating with words can be. Maybe that is why Mark Twain wisely observed, “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”

We have filled volumes with beautiful words about Zion. Meanwhile, God keeps calling us into action. I am certain each of us has a different idea of what Zion might be or how to help create it. I suspect this is why we get stuck in the “talking about it” phase and never get on with the “testing of God’s words” phase.

Meanwhile, our words have limited impact on influencing others and inviting them into a new way of seeing and interacting in the world. If Mark Twain was right and our actions do speak louder than our words, then our inaction as we wait for God to bring about Zion is screaming an unfortunate message to a world in need.

I talked for years about becoming more fluent in Spanish. However, every time I thought about taking action, it seemed too overwhelming. I wanted the “quick fix” that magically would move me from illiterate to fluent without any real effort on my part. The reality is that learning a new language (or a new way of being) is really hard, very time consuming, and most humbling.

The call to build Zion is a call into a new way of being. It is the action of developing zionic skills and behaviors. It is really hard, very time consuming, and most humbling.

We have to start small. I had to relearn the Spanish alphabet so I could start learning the basic words and grammar rules. I had to move beyond just reading the rules and into the action of practicing them. I had to experiment with speaking and writing the words. I had to test everything I was learning. I had to be willing to be humble because of my countless mistakes.

With each new section in Doctrine and Covenants about Zion we have gone deeper in our understanding of the “alphabet” and basic grammar rules of Zion.

Now we need to start experimenting with what we’ve learned by “testing God’s words.” We have to be willing to jump into living, loving, and sharing as Zion, striving to be visibly one in Christ, where there are no poor or oppressed.

We’ve been told our ability to create zionic conditions in our family, with neighbors, at our workplace, and in interactions with others is dependent on our spiritual condition. If our cup is filled, we are more likely to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus in the way we live, love, and share. We need to tend to our spiritual condition.

We have been told to have courage about our call to bring about the cause of Zion. If we make time to be spiritually healthy, this will give us more confidence.

We need to ignore natural insecurities about being incapable of making a difference and instead look for opportunities to serve and jump in.

This means we have to get out of our homes and congregations and become involved in the community around us. As we prayerfully engage with others, God will open our eyes to opportunities for service.

Many in the church have been praying the mission prayer being used by the Leading Congregations in Mission project:

God, where will your Spirit lead today? Help me be fully awake and ready to respond. Grant me courage to risk something new and become a blessing of your love and peace. Amen.

Those who have made this a daily practice have discovered that prayers are answered and opportunities to bring blessing become visible.

We have been told to witness of God’s love and concern for all people and to become a global family. We do this by listening to others’ stories, sharing our stories, and weaving our stories with God’s unfolding story for creation. We are called to be in healthy relationships with others to include bearing each other’s burdens.

Actions shared with others in Christ-like love are great ways to share our witness. This then leads to the opportunity to invite others to be part of Christ’s mission through baptism and confirmation.

We have been told to create pathways for peace in sacred communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness. For me sacred communities include my family, friends, work colleagues, my church family, and neighborhood. As I consider each of these communities, I am challenged to consider how I can be more attentive to making all of these encounters a zionic experience and a witness to the world.

When I visited Honduras after my first week of Spanish immersion, I realized my Spanish-language skill was equivalent to the abilities of the Honduran 2- to 3-year-olds. I remember Carlos Enrique teaching his grandson, David Enrique, a song to help him learn the alphabet. I almost cried when I realized David Enrique could sing it better than I. I wanted to give up.

In reality, I just want to wait for the technology that will allow me to insert a data card into my head and bam!…I am fluent in Spanish. However, what I am learning goes so much beyond knowing the language. I am shaped and formed by the struggle. I would lose so much if I just wait for technology to do it for me.

Similarly, we’ve been invited into the creative struggle with God. For me, this is what the last two paragraphs of the 2013 words of counsel are all about. We are being shaped and formed as we tend to our spiritual condition, act in courage, develop healthy relationships, and create sacred communities that witness of Zion through our collective actions. This often comes with pain and suffering, but the outcome makes it all worth it.

More than a year has passed since the 2013 USA National Conference. As I look back, I see that all who gathered created a sacred community that witnessed to the world a new way of making decisions about difficult topics. Regardless of whether people agreed with the result, most present recognized the profound nature of sacred community struggling to listen to God’s guidance through the blessing of the Holy Spirit. It was hard and even painful at times.

Those gathered were generous with their love, patience, and contributions. They sought to be just in how they treated one another. Most experienced a peacefulness that passed all human understanding, even amid heart-wrenching moments.

People came spiritually prepared to be together with one another and the Holy Spirit. Most received an undeniable glimmer of the nature of Zion that has continued to bless many throughout the USA as stories have been shared.

So you see, the closing paragraphs of the 2013 words of counsel align with our own story of why we should have courage and hope. Our story teaches us to trust what will happen when we test God’s words. It encourages us that we can struggle together with difficult issues, trying to be true to God’s vision of shalom in our actions. It shows that Zion happens as we endure, persevere, and stay the course, holding to God’s covenant of peace in Jesus Christ as best we understand it. Ultimately, it is about seeking to visibly be one in Christ not only in word, but in action.

Most experiments that yield significant results are not easy and can even be dangerous. As we continue to experiment with living, loving, and sharing Zion, we undoubtedly will experience difficulties and setbacks. We need to be patient with one another and open to continued understanding of how God is leading us.

Nobody has all the answers. But the 2013 words of counsel end with a recurring and undeniable truth from people’s continuing interactions with God: The story always ends with “resurrection and everlasting life in Christ’s eternal community of oneness and peace. Trust in this promise.”

Enough with the words…What are we waiting for? Let’s build Zion…Onward!

Something’s Happening

13 06 2014

By Larry McGuire, president of seventy

Larry McGuire baptizing Amy.

Larry McGuire baptizing Amy.

Jesus proclaimed his mission in Luke 4:18–19, and in Acts 1:6–8 he handed it to a community of believers as its transforming mission.

Washington Congregation in Indiana is such a community. It’s famed for its Watermelon Festival, which serves the community and congregations in the Kentucky-Indiana USA Mission Center.

However, after years of service, active membership had begun to decline. Questions surfaced about how long the congregation could provide ministry. In 2006, Evangelist Robert Rugg and High Priest Donald Maymon began helping the congregation engage in discerning God’s will. The journey helped members celebrate their faithful past and provided opportunities to seek God’s desire for their future.

As part of that journey, the congregation prepared to receive an evangelist blessing. Members shared in faithful expectation for their future and received the blessing. The event was meaningful for the congregation and those leading the process. Participants committed themselves to doing whatever it took to accomplish the mission they would receive. And they waited….

* * *

THE CHURCH building sits several miles outside town on the family property of the pastor, who also serves as the sheriff of Daviess County. Jerry Harbstreit grew up attending the congregation and has seen many changes in the church and his community.

Ed Sellers, a professional counselor, former pastor, and active congregation member, also saw the changes. He hoped something would happen through the efforts to discern a focus of mission.

Several other key congregation members also were anxious because the small congregation feared it had a limited future. And they waited.…

* * *

AS SHERIFF, Jerry encounters people in distress. Often, their actions put others in distress. He continued to see an increase in the inmate population of people addicted to drugs, especially meth and alcohol. Multiple offenders and generations of addicts hurt the community. Jerry, Ed, and other community leaders knew something needed to be done.

In 2004, a new initiative began at the jail called Resisting Addiction and Recovery Eduation (RARE). It’s an avenue for inmates to address serious issues of addiction and decision-making with a goal of living lives of recovery every day by confronting and restructuring their thinking. It is not simply a classroom program; it’s a seven-days-a-week, 24-hours-a-day experience of education, treatment, and mutual accountability.

Billy Wagler was one of the first inmates in this program. He turned the corner of addiction and began to work in Bible study outreach in the jail. He worked on a road crew with other inmates. Jerry and Billy talked about a different way of life. He was released in 2012, and his testimony and transformation witnessed to many in the program and community. As a result, increasing numbers of inmates joined RARE.

And the community began to transform.

* * *

I HAD VISITED the Watermelon Festival in 1994 as my first “official” assignment as an appointee minister. When I returned in 2012, it wasn’t just members from the local congregations who joined in worship. Eighteen inmates from the Daviess County Jail were there, too. Nothing would be the same again.

In January 2013, RARE began reaching into the community, where family members of inmates come to join in the training and journey of recovery. I had the privilege of being there in September 2013, when 66 people were in attendance.

It’s now a support group, relapse-prevention, and Bible-study session—all in one. Brian Patterson was a meth addict for 20 years. Now, as a Community of Christ member, he’s leading the session. It all started with the witness of Billy Wagler and the tremendous support he received from Jerry, Ed, and other church members.

In the last year, the stories of transformation of people and the community have been overwhelming. Lives are being changed in such a radical way that one article could never capture what’s been happening.

Every week, inmates, their families, people from the community, and congregation members gather for study as part of RARE. The mighty acts of God continue to amaze and transform people.

During one study session, a man came up from his cell pod, carrying a letter he’d received that day. It welcomed him to Community of Christ. With tears of joy and thanksgiving he shared with the other inmates and friends, “I’m part of a family, and they want me!”

* * *

SO THIS SMALL congregation—with seemingly limited capacity—discerned and waited. Now it’s seizing an enormous opportunity.

In August, during the annual Watermelon Festival—held under a huge tent because more than 200 people attended—another amazing experience happened. Twenty-nine people were baptized. Nineteen were confirmed, with the others working to complete preparation for confirmation. We then confirmed two who had been baptized in another faith but chose to become Community of Christ members.

Before the baptisms we shared in the blessing of two children.

After this amazing worship service, the evangelist who worked with the congregation on its discernment process talked with new members about the opportunity of an evangelist blessing. God’s Spirit was in abundance.

The evangelist, a high priest, and a small group of people all had put their hearts into ministry that brings Christ’s love to people—many of whom were facing huge challenges. Now, they find the amazing power of the Holy Spirit at work in them as they share together.

God wants to guide, gift, and empower your work as much as theirs.

They had waited…but now, something’s happening!

Serve the Poor and Hungry

11 06 2014

By Barbara Graeff-Vinck,
Independence, Missouri, USA

IMG_7862Every Wednesday people come together in fellowship from a citywide group representing different faiths, different civic organizations, and youth. They come to serve those from under bridges, from tents in nearby woods, from families with hungry children, and from places of isolation.

They come to Stone Church Neighborhood Dinners in Independence, Missouri.

Volunteers come from 21 partner organizations, including nine churches, four service clubs, six youth organizations, two community agencies, and three schools. More than 250 volunteers invest more than 2,500 hours annually, serving 9,000 to 10,000 meals. Each group hosts the dinners on a rotating basis, serving 180 to 225 people each week, including 20 to 40 children.

All volunteers are there for a single purpose: to let those in need know they are valued, respected, and loved. The volunteers accomplish this in several ways, including serving guests restaurant-style.

“Serving our guests this way, protects their dignity,” explains Arthur Butler, who has been with the program four years. “They don’t have to line up to receive their food.”

Many volunteers visit with the guests, offering compassion and care by listening to each person who wants to share a story, a concern, or ask for prayer. They demonstrate love for each person. Pastor Terry Snapp says, “Creating a caring and loving relationship with the people we serve is the most important and the most rewarding part of this ministry.”

Several volunteers have decided to do more than serve. One asked if she could sponsor a meal, and then she wrote a check for the amount. Two others decided to get gift bags containing socks, toothbrushes, and other essentials for each person at the Christmas dinner.

Some have shared other gifts, in addition to serving the meals. Erin Barrier, a music teacher at Van Horn High School, brings music students to serve the meals, and they occasionally perform.

When asked what serving at the dinners means to her group, Hilda Beck, mission director for St. Mark’s Catholic Church, replied: “A lot of people come together. I think helping with the dinner means something different to each one of us. We are trying to live the gospels. Jesus said go and feed the poor, and that is what we are trying to do.”

The program works closely with other community groups that help support this effort. Community Services League, which provides a wide range of services to those in need, donates food when possible. The Society of St. Andrews, which gathers freshly grown but not harvested—and therefore unused—produce also makes food donations.
Starbucks donates dessert items, and the Stone Church Community Garden adds fresh produce. The main source of food help comes from Harvesters Community Food Network.

But Stone Church’s program cannot survive on food donations alone. The contributions of several financial resources make it possible. The dinners originally were financed by donations from corporate entities and three years of World Hunger grants, an outreach funded by financial gifts to the Mission Initiative of Abolish Poverty, End Suffering.

“We are being successful at obtaining local community support that replaces the World Hunger grant,” Pastor Snapp said. “We have every reason to believe that the community will support it. This program is an example of how World Hunger ministries has started a program that will now be locally sustained.

“In addition to getting significant support from individuals, companies, and foundations, we have established a relationship with the Truman Heartland Community Foundation. This organization has created the Uplift Independence Fund. It allows us to be eligible to receive gifts and grants from various funders.”

Added Betty Snapp, Terry’s wife: “The Neighborhood Dinners began in September 2009 as a way to serve our immediate neighbors. We cooked the dinners in our home and took them to the church to serve.”

By 2010 there were 60 guests, up from the original 10. The number has continually increased with the ever-expanding need. The dinners now are weekly. Originally, the idea was to feed children not eating regularly when school was out during the summer. Now dinners are served every week all year.

Linda Craig and Chris Copeland plan and cook the meals. Linda also is responsible for scheduling volunteer groups. Through their management, the program prepares dinners—offered free—for $1.25 to $1.50 each.

Meal-partner groups include several Community of Christ congregations: Stone Church, Open Arms, Summit Grove, Walnut Gardens, and Cornerstone.

The need is greater than ever. The most recent figures from the Independence School District say 848 families in the district are homeless. In the two elementary schools serving the Stone Church area, 81 percent receive free or reduced-rate breakfast and lunch because of poverty.

So what happens when people from different backgrounds, different cultures, and different circumstances share a meal? They begin to talk and then to listen to one another. They form relationships. A sense of community takes hold. Those once isolated find companionship and caring, from volunteers and each other.

Lessons from a Small Town

9 06 2014

by Kelly A. Phipps, Lee’s Summit, Missouri, USA

My work takes me into various settings, and occasionally I am struck by the common themes I find in unlikely places. This happened recently as I studied the way people approach cultural difference, particularly of a religious nature.

Many people consider difference a threat or something to be avoided. I was interested in what caused some people to embrace differences as a source of strength. As I interviewed people about encountering those they perceived as different, they talked about feeling eager, excited, and curious to learn. Research is pretty clear about what causes such openness: encounters with those whose experiences and perspectives are different.

At the same time, I was on a team helping a small town develop a vision for its future. We were interviewing townspeople about the strengths and challenges of their community. In those interviews I also heard stories of struggle, and a few complaints about neighbors. But the townspeople always carefully tempered their complaints.

Overall, their message was, “We stick together because we need each other.” Their community, defined by geography, was important to each person.

One day these two experiences forcefully intersected in my mind. I was recounting my experience of working with the small town to a colleague. Suddenly all the strengths of a small town and all the benefits of multiculturalism came together in one idea: What the world needs is a global small town! A community that commits to hold together despite its differences and is defined by something larger than geographic proximity. A belief that “we need each other” together with a definition of “we” that spans the globe.

My colleague and I immediately began to imagine what such a thing might look like, and question whether it would be possible. We brainstormed how a community like this might form, and daydreamed about how powerful such a movement could be in today’s polarized world.

Then it hit me—I am already part of such a community! My church is a close-knit community that spans the globe. A place where membership makes you part of a family, while simultaneously stretching all members to understand and appreciate perspectives different from their own. A place small enough to belong, but wide enough to bring its members into contact with different world views. A global community where we all truly need each other.

This notion of a global small town has important implications for the way the church thinks about diversity. In recent years the church has begun to describe the importance of Unity in Diversity.

The term “diversity” has become a buzzword in Western culture, almost to the point of becoming hollow. But committing to stay together despite our differences is far from hollow. In fact, it borders on being counter-cultural.

Surrounded by cultures that seek polar extremes on divisive issues, we seek to be a community that radically and miraculously holds together. And we do this while working to expand the reach of our community to include an ever-widening circle of difference.

Achieving unity in these circumstances doesn’t happen by overlooking our differences, or what we might call “unity despite diversity.” We do not hold together because of our stance on an issue, or because of some geographic boundary. This global small town is defined by believers who feel called to live out Christian discipleship together.

And just as a small town needs all of its varied members to survive, the same is true for us.

When we make space to truly encounter one another, we can begin to see that while we may not all agree, we belong with one another. Encountering one another’s differences can be difficult. But doing so strengthens individuals and our community as a whole. It brings us closer to our calling to be a living example of Christ’s love for all people. The unity we seek is not despite our diversity, but because of it.

Ironically, this blessing of Unity in Diversity is delivered in a package we often lament. Our denomination is small. So small that we sometimes feel we must be doing something wrong. But our small numbers mean no one is expendable.

The “others” we might be tempted to blame for what we dislike are too close to us to vilify.

Like neighbors in a small town, we know we need each other. At a time in history when the traditional systems that have offered belonging and have bound people together in community are under duress, this small band of believers dares to live in deep connection with one another. That act alone is more powerful than we typically recognize.

Our commitment to Unity in Diversity has not always been lived out to our potential. At times we have failed in the face of crisis and conflict, and there likely are errors for which we still must atone. But our atonement must be for hurting our brothers and sisters—not for failing to agree. For our commitment is to unity—not unanimity.

God’s will for this movement is woven into the many voices among us. As we seek Unity in Diversity, may we commit to stay together and listen in love so the Spirit may speak to us through the beautifully diverse voices found within this global small town.