Monday, July 20, 2009

Serving "The Least of These", Rural and Urban

Kyle Bauman
Mt. Zion UMC & Hebron UMC
Grandy, NC

"Truly I tell you, just as you id it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me." ~Jesus, Matt. 25:40

I came into this summer with some knowledge of the numerous ways churches can serve "the least of these" - the poor, the sick, the troubled. I'd experienced many of those ways - soup kitchens, construction missions, food pantries - first-hand through mission trips and service projects. What I'm coming to realize, as I reflect on this summer that's all too quickly drawing to a close, is that almost all of those experiences came in urban settings. That's the setting that usually comes to mind when I think of "the least", those who come to a soup kitchen that serves thousands of meals or a shelter with hundreds of beds. I have come to see, however, that there is an equal need for the Church to be in mission to "the least" in rural settings, offering the same services that can help the urban poor.

I have seen this summer the unique needs of these services in the rural setting. While urban service ministries often seem to be limited by their capacity and an inability to serve all of those who need help, rural ministries are more often limited by lack of availability. While there may not be enough capacity in the soup kitchens of Chicago to feed all of those in need there, the situation in rural settings may be the complete lack of such a service. In Currituck County, where I'm serving this summer, there is no food pantry to serve the entire southern half of the county. Right now, there is a truck that comes from the regional food bank once a month to distribute food, and this program is only a year old. The poor of Currituck County are as under-served as the poor in our cities, but here it is because of a lack of services, not a lack of capacity. The pastor of my charge has been working to start a food pantry at Mt. Zion, but the process has taken several months and may continue for several more.

My experience this summer has taught me, among many things, that our churches, whether rural or urban, have the opportunity to meet the needs of "the least of these". There is never a lack of opportunity to be in service to the poor, even if poverty is well-hidden. It is the call of our churches to be actively seeking ways to be in service, because often these opportunities will not present themselves until many have gone without the help they need.

Thursday, June 25, 2009


Laura Richards
Columbia, SC

I have been thinking of seeds a great deal lately, mostly because I feel as though I am watching a parable about seeds unfold before my eyes. I am specifically thinking of the parable in Mark 4, in which Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a man who scattered seed, slept, and watched as the seed sprouted and grew into full grain. I am seeing this parable take on life at Epworth Children's Home, for every day many dedicated and loving staff scatter seed among the children. They scatter seeds of compassion and love, seeds of dignity, seeds of discipline, and seeds of encouragement.

I also try to scatter seed, but I have found it to be a more difficult task than I would have expected. After all, scattering seed requires a good bit of trust that the seed will indeed take root in the soil and flourish into a healthy plant. As I have learned more about the family circumstances and traumatic histories of some of these children, my grief has made it difficult to trust that small seeds of love can offer any comfort or guidance. This summer, I have often felt as though my tiny seeds will inevitably be choked and scorched by the varieties of trauma that drove these children into a children’s home. There is no way, I find myself thinking, that my word of encouragement or my short devotional can counteract the suffocating weight of trauma that some of these children carry.

But everyday I see evidence that the tiny seeds scattered by the Epworth staff do in fact grow: a high school senior leads a devotional on the importance of forgiveness, an Epworth graduate begins a Master’s program at USC, a young teenager rebukes her peers for bullying an unpopular girl, another young teenager makes it her goal to encourage other suffering children with the hope that she has found in Jesus. Everyday I am reminded that it is God who works the soil that is His children; it is God who accomplishes transformation. It is not about me or about the seeds that I scatter. Even when trauma and depression work like clouds to block all rays of hope and transformation, God works wonders and causes even the tiniest of seeds to sprout. I am truly learning from my experiences with these resilient children that with Christ there is always hope. And I have discovered this hope at Epworth not only in the nurturing staff; I have found this hope in the children themselves as they, despite their darkened pasts, become lights to a darkened world.

And so the kingdom of God grows, even before my very eyes, and I know not how. It often does not seem like the kids are responsive when their staff teaches them about forgiveness. And it often does not seem like they are terribly interested when they learn about God’s love for them. But little by little, the seeds grow. Traumatized children find healing in God. Little by little, they grow into people who choose to live peacefully and lovingly, shunning violence and hatred. Little by little, they choose to imitate Jesus. And little by little, they plant seeds of hope in others. They are becoming the man who scatters seed and waits to watch as the Lord works His wonders.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great Pastors, Great Churches

I’m reflecting today on something I’ve heard on a few occasions from some members of Mt. Zion UMC, the larger church in my placement. First, a little background to what I’ve been hearing. The pastor of Mt. Zion and Hebron UMCs, David Blackman, is a great pastor. He’s a gifted preacher, sociable with the congregations, focused on vision-setting and lay empowerment, and always talking about missions and outreach to the area. God has given him a vision of bigger and better things for Mt. Zion and Hebron, and he tries in everything he does to convey that vision to these congregations. He is deeply loved by both of these churches. But what I keep hearing from the parishioners is this: “We’re just going to enjoy David while we have him, because we know he’s better than just Mt. Zion.”

Given the UMC’s system of itinerancy for elders, the first half of this statement isn’t unusual, because the fact is that at some point David will move on to another appointment. What bothers me is the notion that David is too good of a pastor to be at Mt. Zion and will soon be “moving up” to a bigger church or a leadership position in the conference. This troubles me in a couple of ways. First, I don’t the way this implies that bigger churches are better churches – that bigger churches are the ones that make a difference while smaller churches are left to irrelevance. What bothers me even more is this notion that bigger churches deserve better pastors than smaller churches. Don’t all churches deserve great pastors? Shouldn’t Mt. Zion and Hebron be as deserving of a pastor like David Blackman as churches many times their size? All of these churches are equally part of the body of Christ, and I don’t believe that the quality of a church’s leadership should be determined by the number of members on the roll. I think particularly of smaller churches that are used to being led by retired ministers or student pastors, churches that are used to cycling through pastors instead of having pastors that invest in growing the church for an extended period of time. Does the itinerant system often sell short the vitality and potential of smaller churches and become a system where better and/or more experienced pastors just move up the pastoral ladder to bigger churches?

Another problem I have from hearing this is that smaller congregations may develop a sense that mediocrity is the best they can do, or that this attitude is already in place. I’m afraid that smaller congregations may feel that they’re just training grounds for new pastors or receptacles for the pastors that are left over after the great ones have been appointed. This attitude may not be deadly for a congregation, but I think it can certainly breed a feeling that the bar for small congregations is set lower than the bar for larger congregations. I refuse to believe that, and I refuse to believe that God is pleased with mediocrity. We have all been graciously saved to be part of God’s transformation of the world, a purpose that we cannot fathom and that is certainly beyond the vision of even our “greatest” pastors and leaders. We can see Paul in his letters encouraging the churches he planted to excel in showing love, to outdo one another in showing kindness, to move on to perfection regardless of their current size or situation. From the very beginning of the Church, God has been moving to push the Church to greater heights, to live abundantly rather than sheepishly. A call to follow Jesus is a call to greatness in faith, hope, and love, regardless of where we are. Are many of our churches now stuck in a culture of mediocrity that is hampering the proclamation of the Gospel in all corners of the world?

I honestly don’t know the answer to the questions I’ve posed, and I hope I’m wrong in my assessment of the ways small congregations perceive the quality of pastor they “deserve”. I also run the risk of being hypocritical, because I will admit that I have sometimes thought ahead to my first appointment, one that will probably be in a rural church or multi-point charge, and eagerly anticipated the time when I will move on to appointments at larger urban and suburban churches. I must fight the “small-church syndrome”, as well, and this in spite of my experience growing up in a wonderful, nurturing rural church. I pray that I can someday live out John Wesley’s prayer that God would send him to whomever God saw fit. I know that when I enter the itinerancy system, I will go not as one who is hired but as one who is sent, and I have to be ready to be sent to some places I would not volunteer to go to. God, however, has a history of doing great things with those situations, and I pray that I will have faith to follow God’s leading.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Summer in Downtown Grandy

You could probably drive through Grandy, NC, and not really notice it. It's not that there's nothing here to see. It's just that in this part of the state, the first peninsula west of the Outer Banks, it would just seem like another one of the towns that run together on your way down the highway to the beach. I've heard the members of one of my churches, Mt. Zion UMC, use the phrase "downtown Grandy", and I think it's used with a bit of jest. "Downtown Grandy" is a few restaurants, a couple of gas stations, and a grocery store. The only thing you might notice is Mt. Zion and its parsonage (where I'm staying for the summer). At the heart of town sits one of my churches.

On the front of the Mt. Zion bulletin every Sunday is the phrase "The Cradle of North Carolina Methodism". It's one of several churches in the area founded in the 1770's when the Methodist movement first reached the American colonies. For a church to have that kind of longevity is really remarkable. Mt. Zion is a very welcoming congregation and seems to have a long history of being that way. Right now, there are around 100 in worship each Sunday, with some other ministries active during the week. It's growing a bit, but in my talks with the pastor (David Blackman), we've agreed that there is potential here for much more. I think that assesment can be made for a lot of United Methodist churches: doing alright, but not doing enough.

The other church in the charge, Hebron UMC, is a few miles south of Mt. Zion. I think it is also representative of many churches in the UMC. Weekly attendance at Hebron is between 10 and 15. It has had one profession of faith in my pastor's tenure (3 years). Last Sunday, it had its first fellowship event in several years. Hebron may well be short-listed for closure in the next few years, and the congregation seems resigned to that fate. They still care deeply about their church and are good, faithful people. Pastor David has been working to get them more involved in the community, but it seems to be an uphill battle. With a larger, more active church also part of the charge, Hebron often gets short-changed on the time David can devote to ministry with it.

I'm excited to be in a placement where I can be in ministry with two very different churches with very different challenges. I think I will learn a lot, and I know I have been blessed with the opportunity to serve in a wide variety of ways. This is a community that needs these churches to be beacons of God's light and love, and I pray that I will see that happen this summer and be a part of what God is doing in Grandy. If I'm sure of anything, it's that God is still at work here, and it's a blessing to see it. This will be fun.

Grace and peace to you.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


How precious is the joy of a six year old.

I am the intern at Epworth Children’s Home this summer, and I have the privilege of sharing in the often startling joy of displaced children. I say displaced because, for some reason or another, the children at this home are no longer living with their families. Some of the children here are now in the hands of the Department of Social Services, awaiting a foster placement or the age of 18. Other children only know Epworth as their temporary home, longing for the day when they can return to their families. In any case, around eighty children call Epworth their home; and I am blessed to share in their experience this summer.

While some may agree that I am indeed very blessed, others may question my sanity. After all, not everyone would call an outing with nine 4-6 year old boys a dream come true, especially when it involves gobs of candy, go-carts, bumper boats, and an arcade. While such an outing is not usually listed in the stereotypical job description of a “Duke Divinity Intern”, I was elated to find that even it can fit under the umbrella of ministry. In fact (somewhat to my surprise), my presence at the Fun Park did truly minister to the boys' young spirits; and as a result, the exhilarating outing deepened my understanding of ministry.

It all started with the joy of a six year old. Though the boys had already almost killed each other on the junior go-carts and soaked me with water on the bumper boats, they could think of nothing else than the intimidating Drop Zone that beckoned them from the center of the park. Those children who dare to ride the Drop Zone must be brave, for it is a ride that plunges one upward, only to let one free fall just enough for another upward plunge. The boys, however, were not afraid. And as they flew upward and fell downward, all of the adults watched from the bottom, amused by the looks of gleeful terror plastered on the boys' faces. And here is where my learning began, for at the close of the ride one particular child could not contain his excitement. “That was awesome!” was all I could hear from him for a solid two minutes, as he (literally) bounced from adult to adult savoring the smiles and laughter that his glee produced. As I watched him embrace the adult attention, I started to suspect that his excitement was more than a rush of adrenaline. While I am absolutely positive that the free falls of the Drop Zone filled him with energy and excitement, there was more to his joy than just exhilaration. Rather, he was surrounded by grown-ups who cared that he was happy. He knew, as we smiled and laughed at his uncontainable joy, that we cared. Someone else-a grown-up even!-was happy simply because he was happy. And that, for this displaced child, caused his cup to overflow.

How transparent is human nature in children! Aren’t we all like that, in some way or another? Don’t we all ache for love, to know that someone cares enough to rejoice when we are joyful? Don't we all especially long to know that our heavenly Father smiles on us simply because we are His? And so, I learned that though ministry with children may have (in my book) some incredible “benefits” (ahem, go-carts and free pizza), all types of ministry involve an endeavor to address the same need – the need to know and experience the exhilarating love of Christ.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Bailey, NC: Population 670; Apprx. 3 blocks wide (no exaggeration)

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You're on your own.
And you know what you know.

-Oh, the Places You'll Go, Some dude named Dr. Seuss

For me, Bailey is the antithesis of this quote, it's arch nemesis, it's Kryptonite, etc, etc...Dr. Seuss: 0; Bailey: 1.

Long story short: I'm a 23 year old, single, black female Baptist, who's pretty much openly and unabashedly afraid of ministry. So naturally, I'm spending my summer in a majority white (is there a stronger word for "majority" I could use here? I think I might have seen two black people by a swing set, but that could have just been my imagination, or the heat), rural, Methodist Church in the middle of North Carolina.

(Hint: This is one of those things I've generally been warned not to do, along with taking candy from strangers and bungee jumping).

So, no, by most sane people standards, I don't have a brain in my head. And, it certainly doesn't feel as if I have any control of my feet. And, I certainly didn't wake up one day, eat a bagel, and think, 'gee, that's how I should spend my summer."

Don't worry, this won't be a love letter to Calvin, I do believe I have a choice in all of this (which actually, in some ways makes it much harder, because daily I have to choose into doing something that seems continually foolish and costly). But, I do believe God has been ordering my steps, and I do believe this is exactly where he wants me this summer.

Now, enough of the drama. Here's the good part.

I'm not alone.

Jesse, my co-intern (slash co-key-wielder, four square partner, trashcan specialist, etc, etc) is better than good company, he's already becoming a friend.

The people of Bailey won't leave me alone (in the best way possible). And, honestly, when I walked into that first country church on Sunday (there are several churches in the area) and was literally flocked by the kindest, most excited, most loving faces I'd ever seen in a church (no,not an exaggeration), I'd never felt more welcome--I told Jesse just as much.

It was startling. Bizarre. Straight out of some wacky, Seussesque book. Don't tell me God's left the Church when a black woman can feel so welcomed and affirmed in a white, rural church in the middle of "nowhere", NC.

I could go on and on (promise I won't make a habit out of long posts, but it's my first so, bygones). But, I'll just say, my first day was surprisingly a blast. A really odd, quirky, is-this-really-happening to me--so, okay, yeah I guess it is--sort of blast. But a blast nonetheless.

Random thoughts / observations:
-Bailey really isn't as small in the grand scheme of things as I thought (although, I did live in Iowa last year, so I could be biased). The town population is really small, but spatially so is the town. It's surrounded by a ton of other towns, and there's plenty of shopping centers, etc nearby. Not so bad.

-It's a peaceful, pretty area.

-I've already been invited to fire a gun and go hunting (oh, wowz, if you knew me and how much I've been going on about this, you'd know how big of a deal this was, lol)

-My pastor gives three different sermons at three different churches in one day, back to back to back. It was one of the most impressive (and exhausting things) things I've witnessed in a while.

-If I decide to live in Bailey instead of commuting (which I think I will), I'll be living in this small house called the Cornerstone. I just think that's cool :)

Okay, that's it for now.

God Bless,
Andrea aka Dre