Archives For Compassion

by Rev. N. Neelley Hicks

The book of Genesis tells the story of The Tower of Babel, describing how many languages came to be. Paraphrased, it goes like this:

“There once was only one language, but people began building a tower to reach the heavens—serving their own egos rather than God. God confused their languages—creating many out of one. Without the ability to communicate with one another, they could not finish what they had begun.” (Genesis 11:1-9)

Today, we speak in one language again—the global language of “digital communications;” however, confusion and chaos are found everywhere. From Twitter, Facebook, and all forms of social media—separating gossip from fact, propaganda from news—knowing what is real and true can be difficult.

Yet the greatest opportunity awaits: using this one language of “digital” to improve societies throughout the world—with peace-building, education, healthcare, job skills development, gender equality, and so much more. What will you share with the world? The gifts that God has given you, however small they seem, may be the greatest gift to another. You live in a day and age where it’s possible to impact lives everywhere, without even leaving your home. What will you share with the world?”

Excerpt from “Share: Communicating for a Better World,” © Rev. N. Neelley Hicks

Just so you know, I’m 53. My work life began when I became a part-time cashier at the Sears department store in Jackson, Mississippi, at the age of 15. Not really knowing or understanding my gifts, I went to college, then began working in offices, which at the time were transitioning from mainframes to “personal computers.”

I didn’t have a passion for technology, but I had the aptitude needed to solve computer problems and I delighted in implementing innovative solutions. When one of my sisters invited me to work as a trainer with her company, I found joy in helping other women learn things that could improve their chances at career advancement. I also realized that I could hold people’s attention as a public speaker.

Sitting at Galloway United Methodist Church in Jackson one Sunday morning, I felt a call to ministry. It didn’t make sense: I had a good job as vice president, director of interactive media at GodwinGroup Advertising. Certain that others would try to talk me out of going into ministry, I was startled that others weren’t surprised at all!

The education needed for ordination took several years, and in the final year I made my decision. I would become an ordained deacon, as opposed to elder. Push-back on that decision was greater than my decision for ministry, but “connecting the church with the world” described perfectly who I am. I am a connector—a joint in the Body of Christ—and one who wants to convey the very best of church to others who may not even know they are loved by God.

Traveling to Africa in the late 2000s, I met a young girl whose mother died after the United Methodist clinic ran out of the medicine she needed to treat her HIV/AIDS. I remember looking out at the roadway and thinking that surely other clinics along that road would have had the dose she needed for survival. If only they had a communications system with proper points of connection among providers who used it to monitor their stock, a request could have been made before their pharmacy ran dry. Someone could have transported it along the roadway. Communication itself could have served as aid among the faithful—people who care about helping others.

Communicating for a better world became my passion. The digital age offers the means for doing so through mass communications, technology, and faith communities who want to improve lives.

It’s more than telling the story of what happened. It’s sharing information to affect the outcome of the story.

In 2016, I heard about the East Congo Episcopal Area’s response to the rape crisis there. They wanted to build a women’s center for survivors of sexual violence. I volunteered to help lead the effort, thinking that my experience in communications could help raise the funding. Along the way, it became so much more.

The director of communications for East Congo Episcopal Area, Judith Osongo Yanga, and I began developing communications that could be used by the church to help women arise from stigma due to rape. We worked with Firdaus Kharas to produce the animation “A Plea to My Father” and broadcast it on television in East Congo, reaching at least half a million people. This became a catalyst for the church to discuss stigma through local media. It’s now available in nine languages.

Thanks to a grant from United Methodist Women, our team expanded so we could produce more materials: no-stigma text-messages for clergy, a drumming and drama guide, radio program, workshop guide, and a symbol that would be understood by those who can or cannot read. Named “Esther” by Rev. Dr. Betty Kazadi Musau because “she changed the minds of men and saved lives,” she will be printed first on T- shirts, then on fabric to spread messages of hope and courage.

Harper Hill Global has been forming inside me for a long time. God took my life’s experiences and is helping me apply what I learned. God is the Great Recycler, taking all the things (trash and treasure) from our lives and turning them into something beautiful. Nothing is wasted. Nothing.

For us deacons, being responsible for finding our own full-time appointments, starting a non-profit isn’t easy. Health insurance is costly to find on one’s own. The benefits of holidays, vacation, and pension, are lost, at least in the beginning. If successful, these things can come in time.

Fundraising in all its forms is essential, so get ready for grant writing! Doing side jobs that don’t require a lot of emotional energy can help pay bills along the way. To me, it’s all worth it.

The United Methodist Church can continue to grow far beyond sanctuary walls through deacons who reach out in creative and unusual ministries. It takes courage, faith, and a supportive network.

Women arise when our voices are heard and respected and when we live into the image imprinted inside us: God’s own image. What began for women in East Congo is helping women now in Uganda, Northern Nigeria, other parts of DR Congo, and in the United States, for I too have arisen. No matter what comes your way, by God’s grace, you will too.

Rev. Hicks, a deacon in the Tennessee Annual Conference, is executive director of Harper Hill Global in Nashville, Tenn.

Don’t let the church tame you

Deacons —  January 11, 2018

by Rev. Rachel Neer

My eyes, just starting to glaze over, came into sharp focus when my Wesleyan studies professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary addressed the deacons in the room.

“I know that there are a lot of deacons in the room, and that a lot of your course work will address the ministry of the elder.

“But deacons, I have a word for you: Don’t let the church tame you.

“You will go to interviews with your Boards of Ordained Ministry. You will find ministry positions in the local church. Some of you will be incredible leaders in the local church. But don’t let this church tame you.”

My professor went on to say that elders had a particular role, a particular place. Their ministry contexts looked different, but their ministry responsibilities looked the same. Deacons, he said, are different.

Deacons don’t have the same job descriptions. Some are in ministries of education or music in local churches. Others serve denominational boards or agencies, and do that well. Still others are hospital chaplains, doctors, teachers, administrators, advocates, therapists, public policy makers—the list goes on.

None of us have been tamed.

The ministries of compassion and justice that are the particular call of the deacon are not easy. These ministries call us to community with one another, to lift one another up, and to find releases in joy with one another. These challenging ministries call us every day to lean deeply into our baptism vows—to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

The advice not to let the church tame me gave me permission to step fearlessly into injustice and oppression and to advocate for change.

In a world that is broken and bruised it can be easy to be discouraged. It can be easy to go back to our places of comfort, find a nine-to-five desk job in a mid-range company, and hope that someone else changes the world. It could be argued that you could just as easily resist evil, injustice, and oppression from a cozy cubicle.

However, that is not the call of the deacon. Deacons, by very nature, need not become overwhelmed with the massiveness of the task that is before them. Deacons survey the situation, identify the challenge, and fix it. God has called us to the places where the world’s deepest brokenness and the Church’s greatest hunger intersect.

The call of the deacon is to speak words of truth to positions of power. The call of the deacon is to remember the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed.

The call of the deacon is to remind the church who the world is—and to remind the world who the church is.

The call of the deacon is to be an advocate for the silenced.

Dr. Bryant was a prophetic professor if ever there was one. I learned much in his courses, but it was his advice to not let the church tame me that gave me permission to step fearlessly into the injustice and oppression and advocate for change.

No institution will ever find in it the power to tame the deacon.

Praise be to God.

Rev. Neer is a provisional member deacon of the Pacific Northwest Conference. She is executive director of Project Transformation in that conference and her secondary appointment is to First United Methodist Church, Vancouver, Washington.

by Rev. Victoria Rebeck

Since deacons lead the church’s ministry to the world–and most especially to people who are usually overlooked or disdained–we are challenged to find new ways to minister alongside them. The old assumption that “if you build it, they will come” to a worship service or church building has long been proven outdated.

Deacons, with our emphasis on building relationships with the oppressed and sending the faithful out into ministries of justice and compassion, are the forerunners of the Good News and the church’s mission (should the church choose to accept it!).

Deacons find they need to develop ever new ways to meet and serve the marginalized, and send God’s people to do likewise. And United Methodist deacons are creating some inspiring new ministries.

The General Board of Higher Education and Ministry provides Emerging Ministry grants every year to new ministries developed by deacons to reach an underserved community and empower laypeople for ministry. We receive a number of excellent proposals and struggle to choose finalists. The agency wishes it had the funds to assist all applicants.

This year’s recipients:

Multitudes Food Truck Ministry
Deacon Christina Ruehl
New Hope Covenant UMC, Savannah, Ga.

Rev. Christina Ruehl

Drawing on the popularity of food trucks, New Covenant UMC will prepare meals in the church kitchen and transport them in a food truck to food-insecure neighborhoods. They aim to feed people where they are and build community among the guests. Christina, along with the church’s elder, will empower laypeople for leadership in the ministry.

They are inviting local chefs, the Chatham Savannah Authority for the Homeless and the Savannah Food Truck Association to partner with them. They will also invite unchurched neighbors who would not enter a church but who want to help others to assist the ministry.

“We hope to create hospitable environments for sharing a meal together with dignity, a value not offered to the homeless population, and with others of different socioeconomic status, also a rare occurrence in modern-day society,” Christina writes in her application. The church anticipates serving 300 meals per month.

The typical soup-kitchen model, Christina notes, “sets up an unfair, patriarchal system that forces participants to obtain transportation as well as swallow their pride in accepting a free meal. I believe the Multitudes food truck ministry can offer compassion and justice with every meal, thus restoring the pride and hope of every homeless person we encounter.”

Reconciler Addiction and Recovery Advocacy
Deacon Adam Burns
UM Church of the Reconciler, Birmingham, Ala.

Rev. Adam Burns

Church of the Reconciler (COTR) assists its impoverished neighbors, including those with substance addiction, to transition from the streets to self-sufficiency. The more well-to-do in the area consider the ministry participants to be “dirty, lazy, and violent,” Adam notes. The Addiction Recovery and Advocacy ministry will use an appreciative inquiry approach to train those in recovery to lead presentations about addiction and teach neighborhood organizations how to support recovery programs.

“The purpose of the ministry is to reveal the beauty, intelligence, and creativity of the COTR community while meeting a need of our local community,” Adam says in his application. “By empowering the men and women of the COTR community to address the hurt caused by addiction and to share the love of God and hope found in Christ Jesus, I will continue to fulfill my call as a deacon.”

The ministry will work with a representative of the National Institute on Drug Abuse to create a 30- to 45-minute presentation that will accurately define addiction, reveal effective treatment options, and identify local services that can help. COTR community members, particularly those in recovery, will receive training to deliver the presentation to churches and downtown businesses.

“I can think of no better messenger of hope than the men and women of COTR,” Adam says. “Through the very act of presenting they will not only educate their audience but the will demonstrate the grace of God and hope found in recovery.

“It will also give purpose to homeless and low-income men and women of COTR who are desperately looking for ways to give back.”

Naivapeace
Deacon Jerioth Wangeci Gichigi
Trinity UMC, Naivasha, Kenya

Rev. Jerioth Wangeci Gichigi

Kenya’s elections are marked by profound conflict that can erupt into violence. This is particularly true in the Naivasha District. Deacon Jerioth Wangeci Gichigi of Trinity UMC is one of the leaders of Naivapeace, which send church leaders to preach and teach peace and reconciliation to gatherings in conflicted neighborhoods.

Though the elections were held on August 8, 2017, Naivapeace has a two-year strategy to reach every ward in the district. Given that on Sept. 1, the Kenya Supreme Court ruled the election invalid and in violation of the constitution, Naivapeace’s ministry continues to be urgent.

“Naivasha constituency has 42 tribes represented, and we all vote differently,” Jerioth says in her application. “In 2007, it was the area affected most by violence–1,300 were killed and many displaced. This year’s election is similar to that of 2007 and the country is as divided as it was.”

Jerioth will be preaching in the wards and training leaders to extend the peacemaking ministry further.

*********

Emerging Ministry Grants are offered annually, Applications are available after Jan. 1 and due July 1. Provisional and full-member deacons as well as diaconal ministers may apply. After Jan. 1, write to the office of deacons and diaconal ministers to request an application.

Victoria Rebeck is director of deacon ministry support, certification programs, and provisional membership development for the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry.

 

 

 

 

 

A Deacon’s Eye for Writing

Deacons —  June 14, 2017

by Rev. Darryl W. Stephens

How might writing augment your ministry as a deacon, leading congregations in interpreting the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world (Discipline 2016, para. 328)?

Rev. Darryl Stephens

We live in a world awash with words. Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, the 24-hour news cycle, countless websites, and books on every topic imaginable—anyone with anything to say, it seems, can contribute to the cacophony. Why, then, would a deacon choose to write as an expression of ministry?

It is tempting to claim silence as a counter-cultural witness, to hide behind the words so often attributed to St. Francis, “Preach Jesus, and if necessary use words.” Cannot our actions be our witness?

Yet, many of the most powerful influences in our lives come through the written word. The Bible, that theologian you read in seminary who stretched your thinking, a love letter, or a thank you note—written words powerfully express ideas and feelings. Other people’s writings help us interpret our world and God, who created it. Your writing can do the same.

The written word is an exercise of leadership, helping others see what you see as you look upon the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world in light of God’s good future.

As deacons, we share a distinct perspective, seeing the world though what I have called a “deacon’s eye” for compassion and justice. You don’t have to be as eloquent as Annie Dillard (The Writing Life) or Barbara Brown Taylor (The Preaching Life) to make writing a part of your ministry. You just have to be intentional about using the written word to communicate what you see, hear, and experience in your ministry.

I offer four encouragements:

  • Writing is a spiritual discipline. Writing, like prayer and peacemaking, is a spiritual discipline. It requires intentionality and practice. There will be many distractions and impediments. Start small and grow from there. Daily writing time can include personal letters, substantive emails, blogs, newsletter articles, and more. As you write, consider how your perspective as a deacon shapes and is shaped by the words you write. I find that writing helps me better understand my own spiritual journey.
  • Writing is a form of witness. Proclamation is not just for the pulpit. Your words indicate what is important to you. As a deacon, when you write, you write not only on your own behalf but also on behalf of the church that authorizes your ministry. Writing can be a powerful, public proclamation of what motivates you in the ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice. When you write about your ministry, you can proclaim not only what you do but also why you do it. God will speak through your words. People will be inspired and challenged.
  • Writing is a tool for justice. Words perform. There is no neat distinction between words and actions. When you write, your words have effect. To motivate others for the work of justice, your words do not have to be profound, poetic, or overtly prophetic in their advocacy. Trust your call. Your deacon’s eye gives you a distinct perspective on the world around you, a viewpoint that is inherently suffused with justice. Sometimes, just drawing attention to an overlooked injustice can be enough to stir others to meaningful action.
  • Writing is an exercise of leadership. As a commissioned or ordained deacon, you have a role as a servant leader, both in your congregation and in your community. No matter your area of specialization, writing will enhance your ability to lead, connecting the church and world in ways that only God can fully anticipate or understand. The written word is an exercise of leadership, helping others see what you see as you look upon the needs, concerns, and hopes of the world in light of God’s good future.

Isn’t that worth sharing? Isn’t that worth writing about?

Darryl W. Stephens is a deacon of the Texas Annual Conference and author of many articles and books about the church and its ministry. His most recent book, Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press, 2016), is accompanied by a six-session study guide. Read his commentary “Christian ethics in volatile times,” which exemplifies his use of the “deacon’s eye” in writing.

 

Caring for the strangers among us

Deacons —  January 17, 2017

By Rev. Stanislav Prokhorov

Stanislav Prokhorov

Stanislav Prokhorov

Samara (Russia) United Methodist Church has opened its doors to the many refugees who have come to that town seeking new lives. Deacon Stanislav Prokhorov has helped that church in its ministries to those sojourners, helping them navigate the city and government systems, find apartments, pay rent and obtain food, and receive the warmth of a caring community. Under Deacon Stanislav’s leadership, this ministry received a 2015 Emerging Ministry Grant from General Board of Higher Education and MinistryStanislav offers these reflections on this vital ministry to the community.

It is difficult to name a single challenge that the Russian church is facing. To my mind, life in Russia in general is one big challenge with constantly changing factors. The limited work of social care institutions

A child tries on new clothing that Samara United Methodist Church helped her family to obtain.

A child tries on new clothing that Samara United Methodist Church helped her family to obtain.

leaves much room for action. We can’t say that we live in the Middle Ages, not by any means. However, the institutions do not fulfil their duties. There are few NGOs, volunteers or churches who work in the spheres neglected.

There is a wide range of activities a church can engage in. For instance, they can reach out to the homeless, drug addicts and alcoholics,

disabled people, single mothers, orphanages, refugees, etc. The former Soviet republics face various social conflicts and there are many people around us who are refugees or immigrants. We also must mention the conflicts in the Eastern Ukraine, immigrants from Central Asia, and victims of real estate fraud—the many who look for help outside of their countries of birth.

One year ago, thanks to the Emerging Ministries Grant from the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, our church has received support to serve people who are aliens in our land, to use the biblical term.

John Wesley spoke about social holiness in action. We see it as a challenge to act, leave the comfort of our churches and help those who are in need. We may not be able to change the whole world, but we can help real people and make their lives far from home a little bit better.

Rev. Stanislav Prokhorov is a deacon at Samara United Methodist Church, Samara, Russia. Learn more about this ministry here

By Rev. Rick Tettau

You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy.—Psalm 16:11

Porto Alegre, Brazil, hosted the 13th Diakonia of The Americas and Caribbean (DOTAC) conference. Porto Alegre means “Happy Port” or “Joyful Harbor” in English. According to the Portuguese translator on our bus tour, the city was named after a couple who were happily married.

Extending a joyful welcome to visitors is a characteristic of those who live in Brazil. After we got settled on the bus, our guide said, “Welcome to Brazil!” His welcome to us was sincere and authentic. He went on to explain that when somebody welcomes you to Brazil it means you are always and forever welcome in Brazil. I found his words to be true throughout the conference. I gratefully received a joyful welcome with lots of hugs everywhere that I went.

Rick Tettau (far left) examines the Bread Workshop facilities in Brazil, a site that educates at-risk youth.

Rick Tettau (far left) examines the Bread Workshop facilities in Brazil, a site that educates at-risk youth.

DOTAC is one of three regional organizations in the World DIAKONIA Federation. World DIAKONIA is an association of diaconal communities around the world. At our conferences brothers and sisters in diakonia from different countries come together to share stories about servant ministry, to learn from leading educators, share best practices, and fellowship in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The regional meeting of DOTAC is a smaller version of our world gatherings.

The DOTAC Conference in Brazil opened with a worship celebration at Igreja da Reconciliação (Church of the Reconciliation IECLB). I was honored to carry the banner for the United Methodist Deacons and Diaconal Ministers. Our theme for this conference was “The diakonia of Jesus—from crumbs to full communion,” based on the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman in Mark 7:24-30. The conference aimed to help us see those who are feeding off the crumbs under the table and welcome them into full communion at the table of abundant grace, where Jesus Christ sits himself.

We had three speakers for the conference: Dr. Felipe Gustavo Koch Buttelli, a professor of religion at the Municipal University Center of São José, who studied in Brazil and South Africa; Dr. Rodolfo Gaede Nero, a professor of practical theology at the Faculdades EST in São Leopoldo; and Deaconess Irma Schrammel, who serves at the Heliodor Hesse Social Center in Santo André.

Overall, the speakers spoke about how Jesus’ ministry is shaped by the heavenly banquet. At the heavenly banquet we will share table fellowship, food, and an abundance of blessings. At the heavenly banquet there is a seat at the table for all. Since an open community meal is indicative of the heavenly banquet, Jesus acts accordingly in his ministry on earth: God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Since the heavenly banquet makes sharing at a table one of the main characteristics of Jesus’ ministry, it is no surprise that Jesus relates to all sorts of people at the table. There are feeding stories, dinner parties, weddings, breakfasts, and suppers noted in the Bible. All are welcome at the table with Jesus. Jesus is so closely associated with eating and drinking with people the Pharisees accuse him of being a glutton and a drunk (Matthew 11:19). On example of Jesus’ teaching on the heavenly banquet comes from the story of a father who throws his prodigal son a party upon his return home.

A challenge in Jesus’ time was the struggle against those who wanted to privatize the table. In the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Lazarus begs to eat at the rich man’s table, but the rich man denies him the opportunity. Likewise, the Pharisees want a closed, private table (Luke 7:39). In the early church the apostles worked to deconstruct the barriers to the table, so the blessings of the kingdom of God were not particularized. The Christian church became a place where Jews and Gentiles could eat together (Acts. 10).

The speakers pointed out how the Syrophoenician woman in the story was different than Jesus. She was a woman, non-Israelite, and a pagan worshiper. Yet, Jesus heard her story. He heard the pain in her failed attempts at receiving healing for her daughter. She admitted as much that the crumbs of Jesus’ abundance were good enough for her. Through his conversation with the woman Jesus comes to welcome her to the table and grant her request for the healing of her daughter. In this act of mercy Jesus unites the community. The community is made whole when those who eat from the crumbs under the table enter into full communion at the table with Christ.

The speakers encouraged us to consider those who survive off crumbs under the table today. They pointed out that people who feel marginalized, suffer violence, are abandoned, and hunger and thirst are all living off crumbs. Each speaker challenged us to seek a new paradigm of sharing God’s abundance. Mark 7 is an example of how an open table overcomes the fragmentation of human community. At God’s table there is plenty to care for the well-being of all people. Jesus eats with all and all are satisfied. This is authentic reconciliation. Diakonia works toward authentic reconciliation. An open table overcomes a fragmented human community. When all sit at the table of grace in the midst of cultural differences and diversity we will gain a wholistic perspective.

I saw the practice of an open table in action at two mission sites in Porto Alegre. The first mission site I visited was St. Luke House (Casa de Pasagem São Lucas). St. Luke House provides free housing to those waiting for medical treatment. Porto Alegre is recognized for being a leader in health research and services and this attracts from the countryside and even from other states in Brazil. Many of these people do not have a place to stay while they are waiting for medical treatment. For these people, the Evangelical Lutheran Church (IELCB) created in 2002 this residence alongside of a church. All are welcome to stay, eat, rest, and recover from their medical treatments at St. Luke House.

The second mission site I saw was the Bread Workshop. The Bread Workshop was created by St. Mark Lutheran Church in 1993. Its goal is to educate at-risk adolescents coming from local and neighboring communities offering them the possibility of generating income through working in cooperative and commercialized bakery production. The Bread Workshop teaches the art of baking bread while promoting faith and citizenship.

To help us unwind after a busy week we enjoyed a cultural celebration at the Churrascaria Galpão Crioulo, a Brazilian barbeque that offered live entertainment. The celebration of this culture night was dedicated to Nazgul “Naz” William, a United Methodist lay deaconess who was tragically killed in a random act of violence in China two years ago.

Brazil is a wonderful place with many wonderful people. From the beginning of the conference until its close after Sunday worship I felt the warm welcome of the Brazilian people. This experience of hospitality along with the teachings on our theme reminded me of what it means to be fully included as a guest. As we are all guests of Jesus at the table, this conference gave me a deeper understanding and appreciation for hospitality in the church. As our tour guide explained about the meaning of “Welcome to Brazil,” we need to live into a vision of the church where all are forever and always welcome, because the church is a place where all are loved by God and God’s love never changes. The church is a place where those who are living off the crumbs can enter into full communion with Christ at the table of grace.

Rick Tettau serves as a deacon at Faith Community United Methodist Church in Xenia, Ohio. He is an alternate on the DOTAC central committee.

 

By Rev. Gregory D. Gross

On Nov. 2 I joined the latest Moral Mondays Illinois rally and action. Over 1,000 people gathered for a rally at the state building in downtown Chicago and marched through the streets of the Loop to the target of that Monday’s action, the Chicago Board of Trade.

Moral Mondays

Rev. Gregory Gross takes a stand for the poor in protest of a proposed Illinois state budget.

For over four months, we have been rallying, protesting, and acting while the state of Illinois has been without a budget since July 1. The Illinois General Assembly has passed a deficit budget, which the state’s new governor has vetoed because it is not a balanced budget. The General Assembly has suggested balancing the budget with additional revenue but has not yet approved any new taxes. The governor has refused to even discuss new revenue unless the General Assembly passes his pro-business legislation, which restricts union bargaining. In short, state bills aren’t being paid.

In the meantime, the most vulnerable in our state are suffering the consequences of all this political maneuvering. State programs serving those on the margins, like subsidized childcare program, have been cut. Social service agencies with state contracts aren’t being paid—if they still have contracts. The new governor had already ended other contracts that were awarded under the previous administration.

As a result, social service agencies providing services for Illinoisans have begun closing their doors, some permanently. The most vulnerable, those experiencing poverty, severe persistent mental illness, unstable housing, chronic disease, and homelessness, many of who are children and people of color, are bearing even more of the brunt of the state budget than they already are.

This summer a group of clergy and community activists began organizing Moral Mondays Illinois to draw attention to the budget impasse and to raise awareness of those most affected. Our movement is based on the Moral Mondays social justice movement that started in North Carolina as a response to actions of their state legislature. Moral Mondays Illinois has focused upon inequality in taxation and revenue for the state.

And so we rallied at the Chicago Board of Trade. The governor and others have said that there is no alternative to the state’s fiscal problems other than to make further cuts. They say there is nothing else that that can be done than to eliminate these vital services.

We went to the Board of Trade to say otherwise; to bring attention to other options. We chanted, we raised signs, we yelled. We gave voice to the voiceless. Services don’t need to be cut. Instead, the state can tax corporations and big banks that do business on the Chicago Board of Trade and Mercantile Exchange. We called for the governor and state legislature to support the “LaSalle Street Tax,” which would be a $1 to $2 tax on every transaction done at these entities. This translates to a .002% tax on these financial transactions, but could in turn generate an estimated $10 billion dollars for the state each year. Since the chairman of the Board of Trade had failed to respond to requests to meet with him, we went to him.

Once at the Board of Trade, I joined a group of 60 clergy and other community leaders in engaging in civil disobedience. We split up and covered all 25 doors leading in and out of the trade building. We then blocked them, stopping people from leaving or entering the Board of Trade. For over an hour, we shut it down to bring attention to this unjust system. Some people sat in the revolving doors. Others of us stood in front of the doors to stop others from trying to enter. When traders and others approached us seeking to enter the building, we explained that the building had been shut down in order to get corporations to pay their fair share through the LaSalle Street tax.

Moral Mondays 2

Rev. Gregory Gross sits in a police wagon after being arrested for blocking entrance to the Chicago Board of Trade, as part of a demonstration for justice for the poor.

Traders who were prevented from entering were not happy. I was pushed and shoved. Some taunted us to, “get a job” or “go back to your parents’ basement where you live.” One trader kicked in and shattered a glass door to get inside. A group of seminarians had hot soup thrown on them. The love of money makes people do shocking things. But we did not back down.

As a deacon, I am called to serve those on the margins of our society; to use my voice to advocate for those who have no voice; to use my whole self to call for justice. And yes, to call for a fair and just budget, for we know a budget shows what we prioritize. It is a moral document, and when it is immoral, we must speak up. Is this not what the incarnation calls us to do?

I stood my ground. I did not move. A trader asked me, “What makes this legal?” I said, “No one is saying our actions are legal. That’s what makes it civil disobedience.”

I stood my ground, chanting, until the Chicago Police officers told me I was under arrest. I was handcuffed and led to the paddy wagon. And as a police officer helped me into the back, he said, “Thank you for being here and doing this.” To which I replied, “Thank you for doing your job.” This was the common refrain throughout my twelve hours in police custody. As I was booked and processed, fingerprinted and mugshot, one by one the officers asked me what the protest was for and then thanked me for raising awareness.

I used my whole self to call for justice and compassion, even risking arrest. As I sat in my cell I wondered if it were worth it. But then I looked around at who else was being booked: all were young African American men and women. They are the ones who will continue to be most negatively impacted by our states policies. Just before midnight, I was released and given a court date for Dec. 21. What better time to stand before a judge for advocating for the forgotten: mere days before the celebration of the one who was told, “There’s no room for you here.”

Rev. Gregory D. Gross is the chair of the Order of Deacons in the Northern Illinois Conference. He was elected clergy delegate to the 2012 and 2016 General Conferences. His primary appointment is as the community health manager at The Night Ministry, a social service agency that seeks to provide housing, healthcare and human connection to those experiencing poverty, housing instability or homelessness in Chicago. His charge conference is Berry United Methodist Church in Chicago.

By Rev. Amelia Boomershine

Jesus talked a lot about the kingdom of God. One time he asked a rhetorical question: What is the kingdom of God like?

He answered with the parable of the mustard seed. So we named our emerging ministry project “Seeds of Grace.” The Seeds of Grace team leads a weekly Circle of the Word program called “Sacred Stories” for women at the Montgomery County (Ohio) Jail in downtown Dayton. In these Circles I experience the kingdom of God when stories of a deeply personal nature are shared in the safe place that our Sacred Stories Circle becomes as we creatively engage biblical stories.

Amelia Boomershine

Amelia Boomershine

We had a full room for our first Circle of this past summer: three of us from Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton) and eleven from the jail. The two suggestions for connecting to the story of “Hagar Conceives a Son” (Gen. 16:1-6) were invitations to tell about “someone you know who couldn’t have a baby, or a time you were treated with contempt.” I started with a story about a friend who couldn’t have a baby. Then all but one of the others chose to speak on that connection. Every situation described was unique, including recognition that sometimes the issue is with the man and a story to illustrate. The woman who chose the contempt theme shared an experience much like that of Sarah and Hagar. Some of the stories were sad; some had happy endings; all were poignant.

In these times of sharing I sometimes feel like Jesus reaching out to touch a leper, getting in touch with deep sorrow, pain, shame.

Monday Morning Prayer Group supports Circle of the Word participants through prayer.

Monday Morning Prayer Group supports Circle of the Word participants through prayer.

But I am not Jesus, and initially was not sure I could shoulder the burden of these troubles in a helpful and healthy way. As Gregory Boyle asks in his book on ministry with gangbangers in L.A., “How do those who ‘sit in darkness’ find the light? How does one hang in there with folks, patiently taking from the wreck of a lifetime of internalized shame, a sense that God finds them (us) wholly acceptable?” I’m convinced that internalizing certain stories from the Bible in a creative, safe atmosphere is one approach to answering these questions.

Another approach developed as I considered how church members might participate in the Seeds of Grace project besides those who join me as Circlekeepers in the jail. Out of this came the prayer card activity. At the close of each Circle the women are invited to write prayer requests or just their names on an index card, if they would like Grace’s Monday morning prayer group to pray for them. Most accept the invitation and write with sincerity and concentration. Sometimes they write their own prayers or express gratitude for the prayer group. Occasionally a request will be dictated to a Circlekeeper if writing is too much of a challenge.

After reading and praying with the cards myself, I pass them on to the Grace prayer group. On Monday morning prayer group participants begin their hour of prayer by reading aloud each prayer card. They conclude the reading of each card with, “Lord in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The person who reads the card will take it home and pray over it daily during the week. The prayer group has been doing this ministry for over a year—every week Sacred Stories Circle is held. It is a boundary-crossing spiritual experience for members of the prayer group, as well as for those of us physically going into the jail. Several Circlekeepers are also in the prayer group.

Grace’s senior pastor, Rev. Sherry L. Gale, is a member of the prayer group and has observed how the cards have impacted it: “Through the prayer ministry for the women, our Grace prayer group has connected with a world outside themselves. This connection has brought a growth in the prayer group participants’ understanding and experience of God’s love and God’s people.” For myself, I have learned as never before the importance of local church spiritual practice. I am grateful to have been shown a way to mobilize that practice in response to the needs of women in the jail.

Rev. Amelia Cooper Boomershine is appointed to GoTell Communications, Inc., and Grace United Methodist Church (Dayton, Ohio). Seeds of Grace received an Emerging Ministries grant through the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry for projects developed by deacons. Visit Circle of the Word to follow the Sacred Stories jail ministry and to learn how to start one in your community.

By Rev. Amy Aspey

In his blog Do Less, Live More, Terry Hershey recounts this memorable Communion moment:

As Alan Jones celebrated Eucharist one Sunday, in San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, he couldn’t help but notice a young man standing at the very back of the sanctuary. His clothing (atypical of “church attire”) and his uneasy demeanor gave him away. Alan could not tell if the visitor was entering, or wanting to leave.

Even so, the young man stood against the back wall for the entire service. As members of the congregation processed to the altar for the bread and wine, the young man waited, unmoved, at the back wall. His curiosity piqued, Alan made a point to seek out the young man. In conversation he learned that this young man lived on the city streets, that life had been unforgiving, and is now fighting a most formidable foe, AIDS. “We’re glad you are here,” Alan told him. “But why did you stay in the back of the church? Why didn’t you come down to the table for communion?”

“I didn’t think I would be allowed in,” the young man replied. (“Where Do We Hear the Voice of Grace?,” July 22, 2014).

Haven’t we all been there? An outsider looking in. Unsure if we belong. Feeling left out. Longing for an invitation. Playing the comparison game (me/them) and always coming up short. How many people in our communities and world are wondering, “Are we allowed in?”

Rev. Amy Aspey

Rev. Amy Aspey

Some of our predecessors in servant ministry (perhaps in a way the start of the Order of Deacon), Stephen and his co-workers, invited people in by extending Christ’s table out (see Acts 6:1-7). You may be thinking, where is the Table in this story? There is no specific mention of the Eucharist. I don’t believe, however, that when the Church responds to those in need, this can ever be separated from the holy feast. Perhaps, we could think of the seven’s ministry as being charged to become “living table leaves,” living extensions, in and of the Communion table.

When I was growing up, whenever our family had a large family meal, my mom always asked my dad, “Did you put the leaf in the table?”

It was critical to be sure that the extra space was added so that there was room for our guests. The leaves, those extra sections, extended the existing table so that others could join the feast.

Similarly, the heart of a deacon’s call is to live sacramentally. Ministry to those in need within the church and into the world can’t be separated from Christ’s ministry to us around his Table. Acts of compassion and justice are not separate from the Table; they are best understood as an extension of the Table.

In the text, it’s telling for our understanding of servant ministry that the seven are chosen to serve in a compassionate response to injustice. There was a growing racial tension within the church, which resulted in neglect of the poor. The Message phrases Acts 6:1-2 this way: “As the disciples were increasing in numbers by leaps and bounds, hard feelings developed among the Greek-speaking believers—“Hellenists”—toward the Hebrew-speaking believers because their widows were being discriminated against in the daily food lines.” People were being left out. Differences were becoming divisive. Leaves were needed in Christ’s Table because people were having trouble living the connections between the Communion table and the kitchen table.

While proclaiming the Word was not initially an aspect of this ministry, it didn’t take long before Stephen and others were known for preaching and miracles. Perhaps, this was because it is impossible to care for the poor, to love the neglected, to offer hope to the marginalized without proclaiming the Word. The Gospel of Jesus is always good news to the poor.

In our culture that kowtows to VIP titles, celebrates climbing the corporate ladder, clamors to be part of exclusive clubs, and measures worth by material possessions, the values of Christ’s table are confusing. Extravagant grace, radical love, transforming forgiveness and open-to-all are counter-cultural. When I began to understand deacon ministry as a means for extending Christ’s Table everything changed. All of the many beautiful ways of “doing”–creating community partnerships, leading teams in mission, serving in clothing rooms, sitting at a bedside in a mental hospital, preaching in prison, connecting our community to a Freedom School, equipping people in endless ways to live out their commitment as disciples of Jesus, when my heart bridged the serving with the sacrament–these acts of “doing” became a means for being and re-presenting Christ in the world.

When we understand our ministry as living leaves, which extend Christ’s table, acts of compassion and justice become the bread of life and the hungry are fed. Works of mercy and dignity become the cup of hope for those who are thirsty and the parched are renewed. Living out the vows of Word, Service, Compassion and Justice become the means by which additional places are set and each place card reads the name, beloved child of God.

May our servant ministry forever extend Christ’s Table out so all may know they are welcomed and invited to join us.

Rev. Amy Aspey, a deacon who is director of clergy leadership development for the West Ohio Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, preached this sermon to the Provisional Member Deacon Formation Event in October 2014.

They dress and look like their neighbors. But within their human appearance, deacons are empowered by the Holy Spirit to help transform the world into the realm of God.

They are more than meets the eye.

The Rev. Nick Nicholas never tires of seeing the result of combining his love of ministry and a passion for justice.

“You just know you’ve done something right when God, through the Holy Spirit, opens a person’s eyes to see things they ordinarily would not see,” he says.

TransformeriStockBrendanHunter

@iStock.com/Brendan Hunter

Nick is a deacon residing in Philadelphia who serves as coordinator of United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (VIM) in the Northeastern Jurisdiction. His secondary appointment is with at Arch Street United Methodist Church.

He is one of the deacons featured in the article “Deacons show Christ to a hurting world” in the Sept.-Oct. 2014 issue of The Interpreter magazine (the source of the above quote).

A number of other deacons are featured in this issue, which focuses on ministry in the United Methodist Church. It shows the breadth of ministry leadership that deacons provide.

Dr. Margaret Ann Crain speaks in another article in that issue about the ways deacons lead United Methodists in the denominational mission of transforming the world:

“One of the gifts of the order of deacon is that they have permission to stay focused on the ministry of all Christians and the transformation of the world,” says the Rev. Margaret Ann Crain, professor emeritus of Christian education at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and author of The United Methodist Deacon (Abingdon, 2014). “Because deacons are not focused on ordering the church, they have the freedom to focus elsewhere, specifically on the transformation of the world—or, to put it another way, to participate in bringing to fruition the reign of God. Deacons are always looking for opportunities to connect resources and people to needs in the wounded creation.”

Check out the issue and consider ordering extra copies for your ministry of helping people discern their ministry callings (whether those are lay or clergy callings).