Keep Moving Forward!

“Father Serra had a motto which inspired his life and work, a saying he lived his life by: siempre adelante! Keep moving forward! For him, this was the way to continue experiencing the joy of the Gospel, to keep his heart from growing numb, from being anesthetized.”

So spoke Pope Francis last Wednesday when he canonized the first American Hispanic saint and the first saint on American soil, Junipero Serra. Serra’s canonization at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington D.C. may have been minor in the grand scheme of the Pope’s first visit to the United States, but it mattered deeply to many Catholics as well as Native Americans. And it was controversial.


Pope Francis’ motive was two-fold. I suspect he wanted to educate us in a little bit of America history. The origins of the United States do not simply lie with the thirteen colonies whose Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence from England on July 4, 1776. Hispanics were also here from the very beginning, settling in Florida, Texas and California. The first nonindigenous language spoken in America was Spanish, not English. In addition, with Congress and presidential candidates stuck in massive gridlock over immigration, and with Latinos now the largest U.S. minority, one-sixth of them without documentation, I believe Pope Francis sought to move Americans toward a more compassionate and just immigration policy.

In the first address that a Pope has ever given to a joint session of Congress, Francis was direct, “On this continent, too, thousands of persons are led to travel north in search of a better life for themselves and for their loved ones, in search of greater opportunities. Is this not what we want for our own children? We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal.”

Serra’s canonization was a landmark moment for many Latinos and reflects on our legacy as a nation of immigrants. Yet who was Junipero Serra, and why has there been dissension around his sainthood?

20150928-2A Spanish missionary in the eighteenth century who was credited with converting thousands of Native Americans to Christianity, Serra was the child of poor farmers on the Spanish island of Mallorca. According to University of California, Riverside history professor Steven Hackel’s 2013 biography, Junipero Serra; California’s Founding Father, Serra was educated by Franciscans and became a theology professor by the age of 24. However, he gave it all up to travel to Mexico to become a missionary. Arriving in Veracruz in December 1769, Serra walked two hundred miles to what we know as California to fulfill a life-long dream to convert the Native Americans.

His charge from the Catholic Church was to “Christianize” and “Hispanicize” the Native American population on behalf of the Spanish crown. Serra founded nine of the twenty-one missions in California. These missions were self-contained compounds where Native Americans would live, work and worship under the authority of the Spanish soldiers and priests.

How did Native Americans end up in these missions? Some were simply looking for food. When Spanish colonists arrived, they brought animals that ate native plants and berries that were crucial to the ecosystem, thus starving the native people. Others were lured by the priests with gifts, especially young men who were conscripted for construction and agricultural work.

Many of the native people who came to the missions were forced to stay and give up native ways, culture and language. They were known as “mission Indians.” Unfortunately, the Spanish colonization of California and the southwest, of which Father Serra was a crucial part, included corporal punishment, rape, prohibiting natives from leaving the missions, destruction of native culture and thousands of deaths from diseases brought from Europe.

Fifty different tribes in California opposed the sainthood conferred on Serra, said Deborah Miranda, a literature professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia and a member of the Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation of California. She wrote Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, a book about her ancestors’ experiences in the Spanish missions.

She said about the canonization of Father Serra, “My objection and the objection of many California Indians is that he is being honored for in fact dishonoring many of our California ancestors. The missions ended up killing about 90% of the California Indians present at the time of missionization, creating all kinds of cultural and emotional baggage that we still carry to this day. It’s not a question of attacking the Catholic Church or attacking Pope Francis. It’s about making sure that the truth is heard and that injustices are not continued on into the 21st century.”

Abuse and atrocities committed by Christian missionaries against Native Americans were not confined to the Hispanic colonization of California. On July 23, 2012, the Diocese of Grand Rapids, Michigan, unveiled a statue of Bishop Frederic Baraga, a nineteenth-century Catholic priest that others were pushing for sainthood. Like Serra, Bishop Baraga, who was originally from Slovenia, has been perceived as a holy man in the church and media. Born in 1797, Baraga became known as the snowshoe priest, traveling all over the Great Lakes region to missionize the Odawa and Ojibwa tribes.

Unfortunately, the theology of missionary work in Michigan was also to denounce the spiritual traditions of those they attempted to convert. This resulted in stealing native lands, forced relocation, taking native children from their families and putting them in boarding schools. In these schools native children were not able to speak their language, wear native dress or participate in native cultural traditions. Native American theologian and scholar George Tinker, author of Missionary Conquest: The Gospels and Native American Genocide, refers to Christian missionaries to native nations as “partners in genocide.”

Acrylic on wood painting of Fr. Junipero Serra and his 9 missions by Jen Norton

Acrylic on wood painting of Fr. Junipero Serra and his 9 missions by Jen Norton

Is Junipero Serra a saint? Should Pope Francis have canonized him? Certainly, many have defended Serra, including some Native Americans, saying he was a man of his time and expressing gratitude that he introduced the Christian faith to Native Americans. They also point out that Serra did advocate for more humane treatment of Native Americans.

It is possible to understand Serra as a priest who was following the colonial and imperialistic ideology of his day. Yet Serra’s story also reminds us that the formal history of our country has often been rewritten in textbooks and oral history. How does the dominant culture take responsibility for institutional racism: for the myths that the Native Americans voluntarily came to the missions in search of God and that the missionaries were always kind and gentle? How do we understand the abuse suffered by Native Americans, the effects of which have persisted through generations?

My hope was that when Pope Francis canonized Father Serra he might have also acknowledged the atrocities committed against Native Americans at the time, as he did in Bolivia this past summer. He expressed regret for the “grave sins” of colonialism against the native people of America and said, “I humbly ask for forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.”

By formally apologizing to the Native Americans in our country, Pope Francis, a man who is deeply committed to the poor and the oppressed, would have gone a long way in fostering the healing process for Native Americans. It would have also served as a reminder that we are called to treat all people in this world with dignity and respect, no matter who they are.

Nevertheless, siempre adelante. We keep humbly moving forward, always learning from the past and living as vessels of God’ grace. For in the end, God never forces the heart. No one can “make” another person become a Christian, and when we try to impose our beliefs on others, it always takes a toll. Our call is to share the love of Jesus in this world by our words and actions so that all people, especially those who have been disenfranchised by Christianity, will see in us a faith, hope and love for which they yearn.

Siempre adelante. Keep moving forward!


Who are the Victors, Anyway?

It’s exciting even for someone who is not hard core. Imagine sitting in a stadium of 106,000 rabid football fans, a part of something bigger than yourself, everyone united in a common mission and cheering on your favorite college football team by singing, “Hail! to the victors valiant; Hail! to the conqu’ring heroes; Hail! Hail! to Michigan; The leaders and best!”


Gary and I, our son Garth and a friend went to the University of Michigan football game last Saturday. I “took one” for the family but not because I love young men risking their future brain health by smashing into each other for several hours. I wanted to spend time with my son but was also curious to observe how new Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh has brought renewed energy and hope to Michigan football. Plus, I’m interested in how the church can learn from America’s fascination with football, especially as it relates to stewardship.

Observation #1
College football fans are obsessive and totally committed to their team. I think I was the only one not decked out in maize and blue. Every Saturday in the fall, millions of fans take an entire day to drive many miles to the stadium, sit in traffic, tailgate, experience the electrifying atmosphere of a stadium, yell themselves hoarse, walk back to their car, eat dinner somewhere and arrive home late in the evening. And they love every minute of it!

Would that disciples of Jesus Christ poured into worship with that same sense of excitement and anticipation! Would that worship was so electrifying and inspiring that the movement of the Holy Spirit would be obvious. Would that everyone would leave as pumped and energized as football fans to live out their faith every day and change the world.

Observation #2:
Everyone wants to be on a winning team. Jim Harbaugh replaced Brady Hoke as Michigan’s coach on Dec. 30, 2014. Hoke was affable, good-natured and related well to his players, but he did not produce. In Hoke’s four seasons, wins went down rather up. Last year the team was plagued by turnovers, distractions and consequent disgruntlement, which, if not addressed promptly, could have led to the withholding of financial support from donors.


Needing to be responsive to its constituency and supporters, who ultimately care only for the bottom line of winning, the powers that be hired former Michigan quarterback Jim Harbaugh, who guaranteed and delivered a victory over Ohio State and led the Wolverines to the 1987 Rose Bowl. Intense and quirky, Harbaugh has the pedigree, personal passion and energy to return Michigan to the elite programs of college football.

In the same way church members want to be proud of their ministries and their pastors and know that lives are being transformed. Giving always increases when people feel good about where their church is headed. On the other hand, if they observe declining programs, poor decision-making or compromised excellence, they may scale back their giving or even leave.

Observation #3
Universities make a huge amount of money by selling tickets and marketing concessions, including food, drink and logowear. In 2012-2013, the roughly one hundred students and twenty coaches and staff in the Michigan football program brought in $82 million, among the most profitable businesses in college sports. This amount did not include revenues such as sponsorship, licensing and advertising agreements, which totaled $22.5 million.

Likewise, the efforts of our ministries depend on the response of congregations financially. We receive no support other than that of our members and friends. We don’t charge tuition, and we no longer have pew rentals. Anyone is free to participate as much as they want without being sent a bill.

Equally important as marketing to raise revenue is the marketing of team spirit. It’s really fun to watch 100,000 people do the Wave. Then to do it again in slow motion and finally in double time galvanizes the crowd and gets them cheering.


How many local churches have marketing professionals on their staff or ever think about the importance of congregational morale? How many congregations are constantly discovering innovative ways to reach out to their neighborhoods in order to grow? How do we inspire the community of faith to move beyond “playing it safe” to do the Wave together, to boldly reach out beyond the walls of our buildings to be the hands, voice, feet and heart of Jesus?

Observation #4
Alumni giving is big business at all colleges and universities. The University of Michigan received two pledges in 2013 that were among the nation’s largest donations given by U.S. philanthropists that year. Stephen M. Ross pledged $200 million to U-M’s athletic department and business school, and Charles Munger pledged $110 million toward a graduate student dorm and fellowship program. Major gifts enable universities to focus on providing an affordable, top-notch education to a diverse student body.

Major gifts professionals understand why and how people give, are adept at identifying potential large givers and don’t hesitate in making the ask. Unfortunately, the church has too often lagged behind in understanding the motivation and psychology of major gifts and bequests.

Endowed funds can be invaluable for congregation if used wisely. They can jumpstart new ministries, provide seed money for staff or building campaigns and free the congregation to dream. On the other hand, congregations that rely on endowed funds merely to survive often have little incentive to reach outside their walls with invitational and transformative ministry. Do you have a planned giving ministry which enables faithful givers to leave a legacy that will last forever?

Observation #5
Understanding motivation for giving is critical. Colleges and universities are excellent at tugging on the heartstrings of loyal alumni, who want to see their alma mater continue to flourish. In the church, stewardship at its best is a free response of gratitude for God’s love and presence in our life. However, motivation for giving is more complex because it compels us to face conflicting values around money.

Some Christians practice the biblical standard of tithing and give 10% of their income to the church every year. For them, giving is a spiritual discipline and a fruit of the spirit, unrelated to the actual operating budget of their congregation. Others give proportionally of their income and are moving in the direction of tithing.

Some Christians give in direct response to the fruitfulness of the ministries of the church and/or the effectiveness of the pastor. Others may threaten to withhold money when they don’t like the direction the church is going. Still others hold back money to protest a specific decision they feel is unwise. There is a reason why Jesus spoke so much about money. Money represents the best and worst of human nature.

Observation #6
The best way for any organization, including the church, to communicate with its constituency and achieve financial health is by telling stories. The story told by the press and social media last Saturday is that Michigan defeated UNLV 28-7and is hitting its stride.

What if you and I told the story of how Covenant Bible Study completely changed Joe’s life; or how the church provided round the clock volunteers to help Sue and Dan through the first months after their triplets were born; or how Miss Kathy’s Sunday school class inspired Ken to go into the ministry; or how our inner city tutoring program kept Craig off the streets and gave him the opportunity to attend college? How might our congregations thrive if only we knew how many lives have been transformed by our ministries, how much hope has been restored, how much love has been shared and how the energy of the Holy Spirit has revived flagging spirits?

Observation #7
There is one significant difference between football and the church. In football, boosters and donors give money so that their team can win games, but in the church we win by losing. We invite people to give away their resources and their very lives so that the church can give itself away to the world through suffering love. Who are the victors, anyway?


The Next Step

“I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other god.” In Patagonia, by Bruce Chatwin (English travel book, 1977)

Waves of refugees from conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan continue to pour on foot into Germany and Northern Europe via Turkey, Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that 366,402 refugees and migrants have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe this year, with 2,800 dead or missing. I wonder. What kind of courage does it take for people to make that first step, leaving their homes to face an uncertain future?


“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” (Lao Tzu) What first step do you need to take today? On July 15, I crossed the 25 million step mark. In May of 2012 I started wearing a pedometer, as do most United Methodist clergy in Michigan. Statistics show that we are an unhealthy bunch: over-weight, over-stressed and over-anxious. The human condition is that we were created to move, but many of us have to sit most of the day.

My pedometer is as ever-present as my cell phone. It’s not a fancy piece of technology with all the bells and whistles. It simply records steps, and steps are not always a complete reflection of fitness. You can swim across Lake Michigan or lift weights all day, and you will not record any steps.

It all begins with the first step, however, doesn’t it? Even if we cannot physically walk, we are constantly challenged to take first steps. Whatever our task, goal or dream, having the courage and determination to start is the only way to begin. I was eager to reach 25 million steps because it is halfway around the world. The circumference of the earth at the equator is 25,000 miles. Therefore, if the average person walks 2,000 steps a mile, you would have to walk 50 million steps to make it around the world. That’s counting on the fact that you can walk on water!

The smallest number of daily steps I took over those years was 3,408, and the largest number of steps in a day was 97,142 (ironman triathlon).

Think about the steps you have taken in your life.

  • Your very first step, opening up a whole new world, yet one you don’t remember except in pictures
  • Steps of joy, walking your child to the first day of kindergarten
  • Steps of faith, offering your life to Jesus for the first time
  • Steps of grief, walking through the process of death with a loved one, then walking down aisle of the church to be seated at your beloved’s funeral
  • Steps of discovery, walking down a street in Charleston and serendipitously coming across the house where John Wesley’s first U.S. hymnbook was printed
  • Steps of awe, like rounding a corner of a path and the scene takes your breath away
  • Steps of fear, running away from the horror of 9-11 in Manhattan or walking into the emergency room, not knowing the condition of a loved one who was in an accident
  • Steps of anxiety, walking into a meeting not sure whether you will still have your job when you walk out
  • Steps up church towers; onto hospital floors; in a CROP Walk; with your elderly father to the dining room; with an infant grandson in a stroller; to the sound of a cardinal or rushing water or a carillon
  • Steps leading to fulfillment of a lifelong goal
  • Steps of solidarity with those who are dismissed, disenfranchised or dissed
  • Steps in the wrong direction, leading to a dead end or even failure

How grateful I am for a God who walked in the Garden of Eden in the time of the evening breeze. And how grateful I am for a Savior who stepped into virtually every situation we will ever face: walking into an angry mob, walking into a crowd that begged him for healing, walking off to a deserted place by himself, walking to a well where he offered living water to a Samaritan woman, walking to the cross. Jesus walked most everywhere. I wonder how many steps he took in a day.


One of my current heroes is Paul Salopek. The Pulitzer prize-winning journalist is on a seven-year mission to walk 21,000 miles around the world in a journey that attempts to reproduce human global migration. Salopek started in January 2013 in Africa and will walk through the Middle East, across Asia (he is currently in Tbilisi, Georgia in Asia), over to Alaska, down the western United States and Central America and ending at the tip of Chile, South America.

Salopek writes about his decision to get off the fast track of instant journalism, “Everyone is going faster and faster and getting shallower and shallower. I said, ‘How about we slow down a bit to grab a little mindshare by going in the opposite direction.’ The rewards have been far in excess of my expectations, both professionally and personally.” You can follow Paul’s journey at

Although we never travel anywhere without the first step, I believe the most important step is always the next step. What will you do when the going gets tough? What happens when you encounter toils, dangers and snares? How will you proceed when you get lost or encounter a detour? Which direction will you go when the God of walkers calls your name? How will you journey through life in a way that honors the inherent risk in walking?


  • Sometimes the next step involves backtracking because listening to feedback causes us to go another way.
  • Sometimes we have to run because there is an urgency to decisions.
  • Sometimes the next steps are steep, so we need a Herculean effort of will.
  • Sometimes we can’t even take the next step until we apologize for hurting someone.
  • Sometimes it’s best to walk in groups, even though we cannot go any faster than the slowest person if we journey together.
  • Sometimes the next step is walking alone, making tough decisions as leaders and being willing to boldly step around, over or through obstacles others place in our way.
  • Sometimes we have to choose the road less taken, blazing a new path in the forest.
  • Sometimes we have to walk when we would rather stay in bed and not face the day.
  • Sometimes we have to walk into a storm, for there is no other way.
  • Sometimes we will get lost even if we have a compass.
  • Sometimes the next step demands grit, determination and risk.
  • Sometimes the next step will lead to reconciliation and away from bitterness.
  • Sometimes we have to remind ourselves to pay attention to the Holy Spirit while we walk and be completely open to where God might lead us; after all, it’s the next step that counts.
  • Sometimes those we encounter on the journey are angels in disguise.

It doesn’t matter how many steps you take. The only thing that counts is that you take the first step … then the next … and the next … and the next. For our God is the God of the journey, the God of walkers. What next step do you need to take this week?