Where’s the Compassion?

What a volatile world in which we live! Because nothing seems certain or in our control anymore, we humans often react out of fear and anger. How could it possibly be that one of the most beloved actors of our time chose to take his own life last week? It wasn’t long for the critics to let loose on social media. Robin’s twenty-five-year-old actress daughter Zelda was bullied about not having posted enough pictures of her father online. Others criticized her father and his career. Where’s the compassion? What would possess someone to inflict more pain upon a family that has suffered such a tragic loss?

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A few days later we learned that Williams was in the early stages of Parkinson’s disease when he died. While debate raged about the merits of suicide and whether Williams’ death actually set him “free,” his widow Susan Schneider thanked Robin’s fans and said, “It is our hope in the wake of Robin’s tragic passing, that others will find the strength to seek the care and support they need to treat whatever battles they are facing so they may feel less afraid.” As Williams’ family grieves deeply, a door has opened for compassionate dialogue about the complex challenge of depression and the importance of demonstrating grace rather than judgment.

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Then there were the tweets about missionary doctor Kent Brantly. A year ago Brantley stood before his church community and talked about the call he heard from Sunday school teachers who helped him memorize scripture and the neighbors who helped fund his first mission trip years ago. An estimated 1.6 million American adults embark on short-term mission trips to foreign countries every year.

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Dr. Brantly, his wife and two children went where God led and made a two-year commitment to serve with Samaritan’s Purse in Liberia. After the Ebola outbreak began, Brantley chose to treat Ebola patients but contracted the virus himself. On August 2 Brantly was flown to Emory University’s infectious disease unit, one of the best and safest places to treat Ebola patients.

Rather than applaud Brantly for his courage, detractors complained that Brantly and fellow aid worker Nancy Writebol should not have been allowed back into the U.S. for treatment at a hospital that has the very best doctors and protocols in the world for Ebola. Donald Trump tweeted, “Stop the EBOLA patients from entering the U.S. Treat them, at the highest level, over there. THE UNITED STATES HAS ENOUGH PROBLEMS!”

Commentator Ann Coulter called Brantley’s service in Liberia “idiotic” and an example of “Christian narcissism.” Coulter listed problems in America such as like our high murder rate, drug abuse and a culture of sexual promiscuity. Then she wrote, “Can’t anyone serve Christ in America … no, there’s nothing for a Christian to do here.”

Are the problems in America more important than those of Africa? Where does the Bible say we should only take care of our own? Where’s the compassion? Brantly said he held the hands of countless patients who died of the disease and still remembers each of their faces and names. “One thing I have learned,” Brantly said, “is that following God often leads us to unexpected places.”

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On August 1, Julion Evans’ family was preparing for his memorial service the next day at New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, the church where Julion was raised in the faith. Evans died on July 26 at the age of forty-two after a four-year battle with amyloidosis, an illness from which his father and brother also died. Gathered around the casket, Evans’ family received a call from Pastor T.W. Jenkins, who informed the family that the memorial service was being canceled because church members had read in the obituary that Evans was gay and had a partner, Kendall Capers.

Evans and Capers were together for seventeen years and were married last year in Maryland. Rev. Jenkins said in an interview, according to WFLA-TV, “I’m not trying to condemn anyone’s lifestyle, but at the same time I am a man of God, and I have to stand up for my principles.” According to Capers, the pastor told the family that it would be “blasphemous” for him to officiate at the funeral of a gay man.

Do Christ followers have the prerogative to reject any of God’s beloved children, whether we agree with their lifestyle or not? Where’s the compassion? Blount and Curry Funeral Home quickly agreed to host the memorial service, which drew two hundred people. Capers expressed gratitude to be able to celebrate Evan’s life in a place where the family was accepted.

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Thousands of children have left Central America in recent months because of corrupt governments, the threat of kidnapping and death by criminal gangs, poverty, drug cartels, human traffickers, domestic violence and lack of educational opportunity. Over 75% of the children are from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which have the first, fourth and fifth highest homicide rates in the world.

Referencing Matthew 25:35, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” The United Methodist Church (through our legal immigration ministry, Justice for our Neighbors) and the Catholic Church are taking the lead in advocating for the rights of these innocent children. In addition, Lutheran centers in Bay City and Farmington Hills, Michigan, are preparing to receive dozens of undocumented children in the near future.

At the same time, hateful resolutions against hosting children have been passed by several Texas towns, and vitriolic rhetoric is coming from areas of Arizona. On July 15 fifty people protested a proposal from the Grosse Pointe Park-based Wolverine Human Services to house one hundred and twenty Central American boys ages twelve through seventeen in Vassar, Michigan. Some of the marchers were carrying U.S. flags, rifles or handguns. Demonstrations and counter demonstrations have divided this small Michigan town. At the same time, two hundred and fifty people participated in a prayer vigil on July 31, calling for compassion and hospitality.

A candidate for public office in Michigan has set forth this campaign plan on immigration: Secure borders; Enforce laws; Protect jobs; Put Michigan first. As a Michigan resident I wonder, why should we come first before children whose very lives are threatened by staying in their own country? Where’s the compassion?

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As if all of the above were not enough, we are confronted once again by the violence that plagues our African-American communities and the racism that we prefer to silence rather than name. We mourn with our sisters and brothers in Ferguson, Missouri, where an unarmed sixteen-year-old teenager, Michael Brown, was killed by a white policeman on August 9. The case is still unfolding. Yet, following nights of protests, we confess our continued inability as a nation to address the systemic and racial inequities that spawn violence and squelch the potential of so many of our children and youth.

“The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Psalm 145:9)

  • Where is the compassion for those who suffer from mental illness?
  • Where is the compassion for those who become ill after offering up their lives to save others?
  • Where is the compassion for a family whose only wish is the dignity of a memorial service for a loved one?
  • Where is the compassion for innocent, frightened children who are reluctantly sent by their parents to a foreign country just so they can live?
  • Where is the compassion for police officers who have to make difficult split-second decisions and those who are victims of violence simply because of the color of their skin?

If Jesus is pure compassion, what does God ask of us as Christ followers? Can we covenant to think before we criticize, seek to understand before we judge and resolve always to love? Can we advocate for the welfare of all of our world’s children, show solidarity with all who grieve and stand with the poor, the depressed, the struggling and the disenfranchised? Can we ask God for forgiveness for our hardheartedness, ignorance and selfishness? To whom will you show compassion this week?

Blessings,
Laurie

 

 

When the SOS Goes Out

They are no different than us. They’ve just come upon hard times. Amy chose to come to the South Oakland Shelter (SOS) because it was safer for her and her children in the shelter than at home with an abusive husband. Tom had been a successful insurance agent, but the bottom dropped out during the recession, and he has not been able to recover. Walter and Deirdre are professionals whose jobs and marriages both unraveled simultaneously. Walter spent his first night ever in a shelter last week, and Deirdre says that she has three goals during her time at SOS: find a job, secure housing, and fix her car.

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Tim worked for thirty years in the computer industry. He said his brothers swindled him out of a lot of money, and he lost everything, including his car. Tim is reading Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native at the dinner table. He says that everyone at SOS is given two bus tickets a week, but it’s difficult to seek a job or housing without daily transportation. In addition, Tim has an open wound in his leg from an incident in another shelter, and he can’t walk very far. Unlike many of the guests at SOS, Tim is not on disability, so he has no income at all.

What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. SOS is the international Morse code distress signal, but it is also the universal call for help. The South Oakland Shelter (SOS) has been in operation for twenty-eight years and currently rotates between forty-seven churches and five synagogues. Fifty-two faith communities make a yearly commitment to house homeless men, women and children a week at a time as an act of hospitality, faith and hope.

It doesn’t take too long to realize that there is no one picture of a homeless person. Kathy, who has led the congregation’s SOS ministry for all twenty-eight years, says, “Some folks take a left turn and others take a right turn. I was lucky and was born into a good family. Many of our guests have family who can’t or won’t help when they’re in trouble, their marriage breaks up, or they lose their job. There isn’t much difference between them and me. Our guests could be your cousin, child or parent who caught a bad break.”

What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. Church hosts commit to providing a warm and safe place to sleep, three meals a day, and lots of love. During the day, guests are required to leave the host site. Some go to part-time jobs, use the Internet at the library, look for work or housing or simply walk the streets. SOS provides assistance, but as Deirdre says, “SOS offers resources, but they require us to make the calls. It’s our responsibility. It’s one step forward and two steps backward. But soon it becomes two steps forward and one step backward. The only way is up.”

Dinner consists of homemade barbeque pulled pork and chicken, potato salad, a vegetable salad and brownie sundaes. The cooks are intentionally serving healthy food this week. Fresh fruit and vegetables abound. They ask me to try a kale smoothie, but I’m distracted by conversation. After dinner, some people stay for bingo or walk the track in the Christian Life Center.

What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. One of the volunteers says to the group, “If you haven’t had time yet to sign up, I’m a chiropractor and will be glad to give you an adjustment this evening.” I wasn’t even aware that Heather is a chiropractor. To offer treatments is an amazing gesture of concern for the health and wholeness of our guests, who sleep on less than superior quality beds at different places every week and inevitably have their share of aches and pains.

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I go upstairs and find Heather, whose husband and two young daughters are also volunteering. I ask how she came up with the idea of offering chiropractic adjustments to guests. She says, “I was searching for a way to give back. There are a lot of skills I don’t have, but I can offer this expertise. Many people cannot afford chiropractic care, especially if they are homeless. I always ask about their health history, and everyone is so appreciative. There is often a stigma about people who are homeless, so this treatment offers them dignity.”

Joe comes for an adjustment and says that he has a bulging, herniated and degenerative disc. Heather listens closely and then tells Joe what she can do to help him. She mentions that a few years ago she helped a woman at SOS. The woman was eventually able to find a job and get her life together. Two years later she made an appointment with Heather for an adjustment. She never forgot Heather’s generosity. Heather says, “Often we say about our professions, ‘It’s just a job,’ but any job can be used to help other people.”

What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. One of the new programs of the South Oakland Shelter is aftercare. It’s now the largest part of what they do. Keeping track of those who exit the program (ninety days is the maximum amount of time for anyone to stay in the shelter) has proven to be a significant gesture of care and a blessing to former guests.

On Wednesday our congregation hosts a day at the zoo for one hundred current guests and aftercare guests and their families. Former guests may have housing and a job, but most do not have discretionary income for the zoo. We use the church bus, pay for the discounted entrance fees and provide donated food.

The connections and resources that local churches have contribute to the effectiveness of SOS. A contact with Weight Watchers results in the gift of new red blankets for each family to sit on for the picnic and evening concert at the zoo. Interaction between current and former guests enables people to connect and encourage one other.

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One night I meet Early, who was a guest last summer in SOS and returned to volunteer and give back. When she was in her early twenties, Early saw her mother die of a heart attack. Early, who was raised in the church, prayed, “Jesus, help me,” and she distinctly heard God say to her, “I honor the love you shared with you mother. Now you give back.” Even in hard times, Early never forgot those words.

What does God expect when the SOS goes out? We put our faith into action. Early came to SOS when she was taking college classes but had no money for an apartment. Because of the hope and love she found at SOS, Early found a job a week later and is now self-sufficient. She says, “God gives you kindness and compassion through other people so you can give it back.” Early returns to SOS as a volunteer/evangelist and hands out inspirational quotes to people in the shelter, encouraging them to take one day at a time and trust God.

I ask Kathy and Page why they return back every year to lead the volunteers, and Kathy says, “You come to love the guests. They are so courageous. A man left this morning because he got a job in North Carolina. He has been completely estranged from his family because of a substance abuse addiction. He is sober now and said to Kathy, “Do you have any idea how much SOS means to me? You are a bridge to the world for me. You make me feel good, and because of that I can feel good about myself.” Kathy was making fruit smoothies for the guests at 11:30 p.m.

Page says, “We recruit people to help every year, but not everyone feels comfortable interacting with people who are homeless. Sometimes it takes years before a person will come by our table in Fellowship Hall and say, ‘I think I’d like to help.’ I say, ‘You can just drop a dish off at the church and leave.’ The next year they want to do more, and soon they’re hooked.”

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On Friday we eat outside on the lawn with grilled brats and hamburgers. Guests and volunteers; children, teens, and adults; single people and families; people of various ethnicities and religions. Everyone is enjoying great food and good company. There is laughter, conversation and smiles. For a moment we lay aside all fears, worries and anxiety and experience a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Thou preparest a table before us. Our cup runneth over. We are all one in Christ Jesus.

“How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need yet refuses help?” (1 John 3:17) What does God expect when the SOS goes out? Any church, no matter how large or small, can find a way to put their faith into action, knowing that we will always receive far more than we will give.

Blessings,
Laurie

 

A Tiny Help to Carry Methodism On

A member of our Seminary Relations Committee expressed gratitude for our intern and the opportunity to, in her words, “Be a tiny help to carry Methodism on.” It was a refreshing counterpoint to the now familiar lament about the lack of youth and young adults in The United Methodist Church and in the clergy ranks.

We are a calling congregation. A number of youth have entered ministry after growing up in our church. The congregation places great emphasis on spiritual development for all ages, a strong confirmation program, giving youth opportunities to be in leadership and presenting ministry as an esteemed vocation. Ninety youth just attended our annual week-long choir camp, where they not only sang but learned how to be leaders.

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In addition to our seminary intern, two other seminary students from our congregation spoke in worship during the past week. We make it a priority to affirm and support them financially, relationally and spiritually. These future pastors are committed and capable and credit the congregation with affirming and supporting them and helping clarify their call.

There are, in fact, thousands of bright, committed young adults across the United Methodist connection who feel called to make a difference in the world. At stake, of course, is not the future of The United Methodist Church as much as the building of the kingdom of God on this earth. We are often hesitant, however, to accept our responsibility to be “a tiny help to carry Methodism on” by encouraging and nurturing the youth of our congregations. When was the last time you said to a youth, “Have you ever thought about ministry in The United Methodist Church?”

The conversation of our local church Seminary Relations Committee with Emily, our intern, focused on ways in which we have helped Emily get her feet wet in ministry, at the same time thanking her for the ways in which she has taught us. In the process we found ourselves discussing essential qualities that pastors need in order to be effective in their call.

• Energy
Energy does not correlate with age. It’s the way we relate to others, carry ourselves and imagine the future. Pastoral energy begets congregational energy. Emily has an energy, enthusiasm and optimism about her that is contagious.

• Healthy boundaries and a balanced life
Emily came to us with no idea how the next ten weeks would play out. However, she was careful to carve out Sabbath and time to pursue recreational opportunities that balance her pastoral responsibilities. We even swam together in a local lake!

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• Emotional intelligence and ability to manage the demands of high stress situations
Emily has a wisdom beyond her years. She thinks before she speaks, is quick on her feet, and is always open to suggestions. One Sunday she covered for herself quite nicely after forgetting to return the offering plates to the ushers after the prayer of dedication. And when Emily started the call to worship and then realized that another pastor was supposed to do it, she wisely kept on rather than stop to let the other pastor do it.

• Flexibility in the midst of uncertainty and always-changing circumstances
Emily was willing to do anything, from digging post holes at Cass Community Social Services in Detroit, to accompanying the youth on their summer mission trip to Cincinnati, to visiting shut-ins, to staying in the church apartment even when the power was out because of a storm, to cheering on the Detroit Tigers, to learning how to pray extemporaneously.

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• Openness to grow in skills, theological understanding and grace
Emily made it a priority to meet with every senior staff member to find out exactly what they do and how it fits in with the overall mission and vision of the church. We opened all of our meetings to Emily so that she could experience our successes, failures, joys and conflicts. She has been especially eager to learn how we wrestle with difficult issues.

• Understanding of the theology of context
Emily was called upon to preach in different worship settings, including traditional, contemporary, early morning outdoor and inner city evening services. She displayed an intuitive sense of how to speak to various audiences.

• Communication skills in diverse and challenging situations
Emily is eminently approachable, open to new ideas and is not constrained by a “This won’t work” attitude. She communicates joy, hope and creativity.

• Recognition of the need for spiritual formation
Emily taught a six week class called “Soil and Sacrament,” where she emphasized the importance of seeing all life as sacred. Emily already recognizes that she must continually foster her own spiritual growth in order to be rooted and grounded in Christ’s love.

• A deep sense of call and desire to be an agent of transformation
Calling churches produce young adults who are aware of God’s movement in their life, no matter what vocation they choose. Emily was raised in The United Methodist Church and has been given many opportunities not only to claim her own faith but to hear God’s call in her life affirmed by others.

I was deeply moved by comments from members of the Seminary Relations Committee, who make a commitment each summer to nurture, teach and learn from our seminary students. “I thank God for young people like you who have such a deep desire to change the world.” “I am grateful that we can be a tiny help to carry Methodism on.” “The future of The United Methodist Church is in good hands.” “Every year our seminary students are a blessing and help us to grow as a congregation.”

Emily responded to our dialogue by saying that her experience with us has awakened the deepest desires of her heart. She said, “I used to think that Christians can do what everyone else is doing. Now I know that we are called to do and be more than we ever dreamed. I want to hold myself to a higher standard than before.” “I have a stronger desire to live more fully into who God has called me to be.” “I now have a greater awareness of the questions to ask, most important among them, ‘Who is the fullest and most alive version of Emily?’”

Not every church can have a seminary intern in the summer or during the school year. But every church can be a calling church. We can all learn the names of our youth and encourage them. We can speak to those we feel would make a good pastor and affirm them. We can all provide opportunities for youth to be in leadership. We can all try to find summer jobs for youth in some kind of ministry-related organization. We can all have a youth Sunday during the course of the year.

Every United Methodist can be a tiny help to carry Methodism on, for the call to ministry is both personal and corporate. If a personal call is not confirmed by a congregation’s affirmation, the call may lie dormant forever. I am thrilled with the quality of our United Methodist seminary students and young pastors and am even more pleased with the variety of coaching and mentoring experiences that are now available to new clergy.

What’s at stake if we neglect spiritual formation for our youth and young adults? At stake is the loss of one of our greatest resources. When we forget to value their contributions, our youth and young adults lose interest in the church. When we refuse to let go of our stranglehold on leadership and downplay the importance of creativity and “doing a new thing,” we remain stuck in the status quo. When we don’t tap into the synergy of young and old, freshness and experience and innovation and wisdom, we disconnect ourselves from the future of hope to which God calls us.

Who is the next youth headed for pastoral ministry in your church? When was the last time you asked him or her, “Have you ever thought about ministry as a vocation?” How can you be a tiny help to carry Methodism on?

Blessings,
Laurie