South Africa Bound!

Dear Friends,

I have what I hope you will think is fantastic news!  Beginning June 16, I will be serving with Central Methodist Mission in Cape Town, South Africa with Rev. Alan Storey as a IVIM Missionary Pastor.  Central Methodist Mission is a City Church Methodist-church-Greenmarket-Sqthat has a connection to the historic District 6 museum in Cape Town and a deeply rooted presence in the community.  The church has a coffee shop called HEAVEN, which I trust will make you believe there is a GOD watching over me, should you have doubted this before.

My role will be to help bridge the church closer in their connection with the nearby Kaleche community.  I will help Alan with organizational leadership systems to strengthen the church’s outreach ministry to a large homeless population, ministries with at risk children, and preach/teach so that there is additional pastoral support for Alan to continue to grow his Manna & Mercy teaching ministry.  Bishop Michele Hansrod hopes to explore ways that my experience with mission and passion for leadership development might be a gift to the wider District as well.  Certainly, I will be happy to serve as an ambassador of sorts, helping to make connections for incoming pilgrims too.  Yes, this is indeed an invitation to come visit!!!  South Africa is a beautiful country with deeply meaningful history.

I mIMG_0065et Alan Storey 15 years ago while he was preaching at my church–Hyde Park UMC in Tampa, Florida.  I have helped connect Alan’s Manna & Mercy teaching ministry with communities here in the US for the past 10 years.  While serving in Mississippi, I led two Ubuntu cross racial clergy peer groups in pilgrimage to South Africa, connecting both times with Pinetown Methodist Church near Durban (where my summer internship was at Duke Div) and Alan’s community in Cape Town.  It is a humbling thing to be winding back to a country that served as my first window to the world.  My heart for global missions began years ago after hearing Alan talk about the disparities between the wealthy and the poor around the world.  My curiosity to learn more about the people that live across the ocean’s divide has never ceased.

How can you help?

  1. Prayer:  Please pray that all my logistics to get me from here to there fall into place and that this ministry will be a blessing to the back and forth partnership between the United Methodist Church and the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.
  2. Partnership:  IVIM Missionaries raise their own salary support and so I am hoping some of you might consider donating to my online giving through the United Methodist Advance.  There is a link to giving on my blog page on the right.  Be sure to find my name on the drop down list or it will go to a general pool of monies.  I will be sharing short 90 second videos that will inform you about what life is like for the people in South Africa, what the Church there is celebrating and struggling with, and will be blogging regularly to keep all who join the journey with me informed. I am hoping that I can forge deep partnerships with at least seven church communities that will enter into a 3 year relational and financial covenant with me and Central Methodist Mission in this ministry.
  3. Pilgrimage:  It is my hope that many of you will consider making a pilgrimage to South Africa either on your own or with a team from your local church.

I am so thankful for this opportunity and thankful to all of you who support me at every turn on this wonderful thing called life!

Sharing with you on the journey,

Rev. Michelle Shrader

Collecting

If someone would have asked me if I was a collector, I would have said, “no.” Yet, I am learning this is actually not true. I am in the process of letting go of things…things that I have been collecting unbeknownst to me. The act of collecting shares little secrets of who we are. The things we pick up and cling to share the story of what we hold dear and what we find beautiful in the world. Maybe these things start out as gems—treasures, but it is important to strip ourselves of our collecting from time to time literally and figuratively, so that our lives can become free of the things that keep us cluttered in our space, in our hearts, and in our minds.

There is a picture that has hung on the wall in every home I have lived in for the past nine years. I purchased it at a street market in South Africa. It is a painting of a woman who was pregnant. I believed she was pregnant with possibility. The artist who painted this picture was painting a self portrait. I felt compelled to learn more about her and learned during our conversation that she was sick with HIV AIDS. It is unlikely that she is alive today, but then I remember thinking that her life was pregnant with a possibility that she might not ever realize and so I purchased two paintings of hers, both of pregnant women. I gave one away to a friend who was struggling to give birth to a book. It has since been written and in the book, she named the painting as a source of inspiration.

The paintingIMG_0798_2 I kept was an icon of sorts in my life. I would sip coffee in the morning and pray that my life too might be inspirational, that I might give birth to the dream of life God had in store for me. Just last week I took the painting off the wall and packed it up with me on a trip. I gave the painting away to a friend who long ago gave birth to a boy who inspires me every day to live my life more faithfully. My friend did not want to bring the boy into the world when he was born because she feared what kind of life he would have, for her boy was born with skin that was black. I remember crying that night after her story. I cried for her, for her son, and for the children I might not ever have. When the tears withdrew from my eyes, I made a promise to that little boy that I would not give up. I wanted his mother to have the painting so she would remember how important she and he have been to me.

I am a collector. I have a statue of Moses with the Ten Commandments from Zimbabwe that I bought for $6.00 on the street. I have a serving tray made for me by women in Palestine with magnificent embroidery. I have a basket woven for me by a woman in South Sudan. I have tea cups that were used by my Great Grandmother Molly Pearson. I have a gerber daisy painting that was painted for me by an old roommate after she held me as I cried tears I could not stop for missing a brother who would never lift me high in a hug again. I have a hand crocheted quilt given to me by my grandmother and a red glass vase that was the only thing I took from her home when she died. I have a cross I wear around my neck that was given to me by a Muslim man who when he looked into my eyes spoke into my life the words of my ordination as a Pastor. I have a coffee cup that reminds me of my calling, “to make God’s love real.”

I have learned that I collect more than things over these weeks of letting go. Tied up with all the things are the emotions that get woven into them. Emotions can live with us longer than we should allow. In this season of letting go, I am also learning to let go of disappointment, anger, and grief. I am sure I will pick them back up again and again as I will pick up more things without even knowing I am doing it. Yet, disappointment, anger, and grief are not emotions to cling to, they are emotions to work through. Resting in God’s Spirit through these emotions has helped me to grow through them. On the other side of my release, I experienced a new strength and the peace that brings with it breath. Where disappointment, anger, and grief once lived, Joy now resides. I have decided to be a collector this year of Joy. It can’t be collected apart from the journey of the dance with God on the mountain top, the trudge with God in the valley, and the moments of ordinary with God in the spaces in between. I choose to be a collector of at least one thing, the Joy that comes in this life from truly living!

Sweet Nicholas

 

This past weekend, I spent time with fifty four other leaders from the Charlotte area in a program called Leadership Charlotte. It was a wonderful weekend filled with risk, adventure, moments of deep conversation, and the gift of fun with new friends. There was a question posed to us during the weekend that I have been sitting with this week. We were asked to share in small groups the story of an unlikely teacher in our lives. It was a struggle for me at first, because I am someone who naturally seeks out mentors. I love to soak up the wisdom of others. I sat for a moment juggling the possibilities, when the answer came clearly into my mind. My unlikely teacher in my life was an unborn baby boy named Nicholas.

Years ago, while a student at Duke, I was given the gift of time in a cross racial group called Ubuntu, which is a term that comes from the Bantu languages in Africa. Desmond Tutu defines Ubuntu as “the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality — Ubuntu — you are known for your generosity.” The purpose of our Ubuntu group was to share life together for a year, learn about our biases, prejudices, and the ways in which we might learn to work to break down the racial divides in this world. It was a deeply meaningful time for me. I learned so much.

During that time, one of my friends got pregnant. The day she learned that she was giving birth to a boy, she shared the news with tears streaming down her face. I just could not imagine an expectant mother experiencing anything other than pure joy. Her reaction completely threw me off guard. Through her tears, my friend shared that she did not want to bring her child who would be born a black boy into this world. Her acknowledgement was met with the shake of a head from every other African American in that room. It was as if together they held the key to a secret the rest of us did not know. How could I, a white woman of great priviledge in this world have any idea how truly difficult it is for an unborn boy to grow into a black man in this world.

Through out that year, I would learn so much from people whose experience was very different than mine. My Ubuntu group invested in me, they took risks to share their stories, and they walked with me in a grace that I believe could only come from God. After I graduated from Duke, I went to spend a year in Jackson, Mississippi to reflect specifically on religion and race. It would be another chapter of learning for me. I received so many gifts of story. I was invited to serve as the co-chair on the commission on religion and race for the Mississippi Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church and served alongside a Civil Rights veteran. I learned during that time how human we all are—both black, white, and all the races that so often get left out in between.

I spoke to Nicholas’ mom this week. We were sharing frustrations about the shooting of a black man in St. Lois. She hoped to get our Ubuntu group back together to reflect. As we were talking, I told her that I carry the picture of her son in the front of my bible because I made commitment to a little unborn boy one day that I would give my life to making this world a better place for him to live in. I told her that I shared the story of Nicholas with my Leadership Charlotte group naming him as my unlikely teacher. I met Nicholas when he was first born and didn’t see him again for many years. When we reconnected, he ran to me saying, “Auntie Michelle…Auntie Michelle!” The innocence of his voice and the reality of the world he would face brought tears to my eyes. I wept for the understanding of the stories that were shared to me by my friends. I learned from an unborn child what I want the world to be like for him.

Beginning again and again

There has been much conversation about Christian community over the years. “What does it mean to be in community with one another,” we have asked. “Who is on the in and who is on the out,” we have pondered. The hard thing about walking with Jesus is that we rarely catch him casting out. Mostly Jesus is circling everyone in. This means that we have to learn how to live with a circle that is ever-widening. Our tendency would be to keep those close to us that make the most sense to us. It is an actual discipline to widen the circle of embrace, for if we don’t embark upon this disciplined life of boundary breaking, we will find ourselves living in the boxes that our culture creates for us and on the side lines missing out on the great adventure Jesus calls us to.

In order to break the boundaries, we have to step outside of the boxes of our everyday routines. This makes perfect sense until we have to live into it, for routines bring with them a sense of comfort.  Just a couple of weeks ago forty six members of both the South Tryon Community Church and Myers Park United Methodist Church embarked upon a pilgrimage in which boundaries were broken. We gathered on a charter bus to set out on a tour of the City of Charlotte. Though Charlotte is one of the most beautiful cities, there is a layer of history that lies beneath. Uptown Charlotte was built over an African American neighborhood named Brooklyn. There is little evidence of this place many would have called home today. It was hard to listen to this story, but it was harder still to listen to the worries of our friends in the South Tryon community about what will happen to their community with all the development going on in Charlotte.

imageThis bus tour was the beginning of some deeper work that Pastor Tiffany Thomas and I are planning for our two communities. It was not the place we understood answers would be found, but more a place for us all to begin again. After journeying together for many years, the two communities are recognizing there is an opportunity for us to move in our relationship to a place that will require more from us. Partnership across divides requires a walking with over many years and a growing with in the midst of some of our deepest fears. Hearing these stories about the history of Charlotte unsettled some of the residue that hangs in the air and that residue took up residence among us after we stepped off the bus. Part of our ongoing journey will be learning what it means to walk together through the unsettled residue from the pages of the past towards a future that brings us closer together.

Life might have been easier if we had not stepped foot on the bus to hear the history that is hard and challenging, but we would not have been doing the work that is required of us as Christian people seeking to live in community with one another. Widening the circle of our embrace means the ground shifts beneath our feet and stories that once were theirs become ours and stories that are ours become theirs. Jesus does not make life easy for us, rather he lifts up a vision of a Kingdom that becomes a reality worth giving ones life for. A bus ride is not going to get us to the Kingdom, but it is a place to begin again and each day we find another way to begin again in our work of widening our embrace, until we recognize that we are better listeners across divides and better friends with the ones we have chosen to journey with.

God is so good and there is a goodness God calls us to find with one another. When we live in the goodness of life together, we will recognize that the goodness is found in the midst of hardship, in the midst of real struggles, and in the midst of stories we wish were not true. Building up the Kingdom here on Earth as it is in heaven will exact from us the cost of our very lives. Are we seeking to widen the circle of our embrace? Are we living within the boxes marked out by our culture or breaking down the boundaries that divide us? Are we using our voice to make a difference in the midst of stories that should not be true? The good news is within each day is the chance to begin again and again until we look around and witness the gift of God’s Kingdom being realized all around us on this place we inhabit called earth.

Do We Know What It is to Wait?

imageSomething beautiful happens in our spirit when we wait in prayer. The quiet of that space stills us and reminds us we are not in control. Different things draw each of us to seek the comfort of God’s quiet holy embrace, but I wonder in this life if all of us really know what it means to wait?

I have walked where bellies are swollen from lack of food to eat.  I have touched the face of a small child hours before she took her last breath.  I have prayed with a man who lives behind a wall.  I have witnessed an entire community living in thirst, while I myself held in my hands a bottle of water to drink.

I have never suffered from hunger or thirst I could not readily fix. I am someone who when I speak others listen to me. I have waited in pain and in grief, but I worry I’ll forget my wait is not just about me.

During advent we wait for something just beyond our reach. It’s the hope that rose up a love so powerful it is able to unite a whole world. To wait in this way means to hunger and thirst for a world where children will no longer live with swollen bellies.  We agonize for a glimpse of a Kingdom where all will live with just enough.  It’s a wait for brothers and sisters everywhere to live free and a wait that has less to do about a specific you or me.

Yet, when in our lives we are the we that live with more than enough, I wonder if we really know what it means to wait? God calls God’s people to gather in prayer, so the eyes of our spirit connect us in spirit with all God’s children everywhere.  In the quiet and stillness of our Holy Wait, God grows in us the love we are called to live with in our wait.  It’s a love that calls for loss of control and release of ourselves for the sake of the whole.  God calls to us all to be still, to be quiet, and know that cries in the night are heard by the God who gives us the gift of love with the power to unite.

So during advent be silent and still.  Light a candle and let the light of it guide you to the love God instills.  Pray for the courage and strength to join with others in prayer, so that the light we share together will be what guides us in our wait.

Light

Light nestles in the crevices of my mind.
I did not invite it, but it refuses not to
come in.
I turn my back on it, not ready for its message
of hope. Sometimes its too much too feel hopeful.
The pain of so many young lives
robbed still rings in the air all around
me. I try to imagine the tears that fall from
the eyes of so many–the families, the community,
the world–I imagine them falling into my hands.
I wish I could catch them all, but I can’t.
My hands are too small. My hands are just too small.
And yet I know there is one whose hands are capable of catching
these tears, of holding them sacred for us all.
So I turn to the light, I allow it to bathe
my face, sing softly to my spirit, and lead me by
the hand from the precipice of  this darkness,                                                                                                                                                     moment by moment to                                                                                                                                                                                                          the awaiting beams of God’s radiant light….

Written for the victims of the Sandy Hook Shooting, Conneticut

Grace

There are moments in your life that are such a gift they become captured in time returning to the forefront of your memory to bless you again and again. This advent, I have been turning over one of my favorite memories like a cherished gem till the shine of it has filled my spirit with a renewed sense of Faith, Hope, and Love.

Years ago, while I was in seminary, I was invited to join a team of advocates in the Holy Land to be trained to teach on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Part of the experience was to be immersed in different areas so that we might hear the stories of the people. We stayed in a refugee camp, spent time with Israeli’s whose family members had been killed by suicide bombers, and with Christians who shared their disappointment at how many Christians around the world visit the Holy Land while never visiting the “living stones”–the people of the land.

After our immersion experience was through, we were scheduled to visit with people involved with peace initiatives. Though the light of hope was scheduled for the next day, we the people of God were sitting in the darkness of the stories we held and we wondered how the light would pierce through the darkness of them.

A woman in the group began to sing. We looked at her like she was crazy and she said, in the darkest of nights, light was born into the world–a light so bright even death could not hold it back. She continued to sing the words of an ancient hymn called, “alleluia!” One by one we began to sing this song of good news with her. Our spirits began to turn towards the hope of what the new day would bring, for light is indeed promised to the people who walk in the good news the reign of Jesus brings.

As we were wrestling as a group of how to find our way to the light, there was an internal wrestle I was managing as well.  I had been praying about whether I would seek ordination as a Deacon or an Elder in the United Methodist Church. I could not find a place of rest in my spirit and the wrestle grew during my journey.  In the midst of learning about this deep conflict in the Holy Land, I experienced a sense of peace in the midst of our receiving Holy Communion.  It was the gift that I wanted to be able to give to a broken world–the good news of the God that does not leave us in our broken mess. I learned in one of the most conflicted parts of the world the gift God called me to give to the world in my ministry–the Word of God, Presiding over the gift of the Sacraments, Ordering the life of the Church, and Serving in the best of times and the worst of times…..

…..I ran into the woman who led us in song on that trip recently at a conference. I looked at her and she looked at me and we fell into a warm embrace. I shared with her my story of finding my way to my calling in the Holy Land and she smiled, revealing she had not known the deep inner journey I was on in the midst of our training.  The stories between us fell back and forth naturally and eventually we parted ways, but the chance meeting at the conference drew forth from me the memory of this story that remains a precious gem–it is a gift to remember our calling.

My calling might have started out like a whisper, but it lives in me now like a flame. Where once before I could not imagine myself ever being able to preach, now I don’t know what to do if I am not. Where I never felt holy enough to preside over the sacraments, I now worry for those who feel unworthy to receive God’s mercy and grace in their lives. Where I once wondered if I could ever lead a church, I now long for a church full of those seeking actually to be led.

The journey of our lives is one that leads us through valleys, with the promise of mountains in between. The air on the mountain is clear and good, but we are called to the journey–the step by step Kingdom building journey of making the love of God real in the lives of those who live in darkness.  The gift of this journey is the Joy of witnessing people come alive and witnessing the gift of coming alive ourselves.  I was glad to run into the woman who led me to sing “alleluia” during a dark night. She is a tiny Philippino woman, who wears cowboy boots, and whose name just happens to be….GRACE!  I give thanks this advent season for all those who spoke God’s calling into my life and for the moments when God’s grace has met me in the place of my deepest need.  I celebrate this season of LIGHT and the gift of good news we remember in it–Emmanuel–God is with us!

Deep Peace be with you this advent season my friends….

To Be Available…

A couple of weeks ago, I was preaching on the text in Mark 10:17-31 where Jesus is approached by a Rich Man  who asks him how he might inherit eternal life.  It is quite a challenging passage.  Jesus tells the man to follow the commandments and when the man reports that he has, Jesus shares with him that he should sell all his stuff, give it to the poor, and join up with Jesus and the rest of the disciples.  It is challenging.  As I wrestled through the passage with the congregation, a voice shouted out from the middle of the room, “Amen!  Amen!”

The voice was “Chilly Willy,” one of Charlotte’s most colorful street personalities.  I was excited to hear an “Amen” and then I was startled.  What brought him to our church on this day?  He had been before, but for him to be sitting not in the back, but right in the middle as this particular text was read made the reality of the divides we live in more striking.  “Chilly Willy” was a man that challenged me.  He challenged me because I didn’t always have a good answer for him.   There were no eyes that could avert his presence on this Sunday because he was making his presence known. He refused to be ignored. I am thankful he was with us on that day, but I would be lying if I didn’t also share that it was a challenge.

After the service had concluded, I was standing at the front door and he approached me to tell me that he enjoyed my message.  He shared with me that his father was a minister and then broke the conversation we were in to look at me and say, “If I didn’t hear you preach, I would never believe anyone as pretty as you was a preacher.  If I can ever get cleaned up, would you do me the honor of marrying me?”  I smiled and laughed awkwardly and we parted ways.  Later on he found me in my office and shared he needed a ride.  One of our members volunteered to get him back to Moore House where he had found housing and that was the last I heard of “Chilly Willy.”

I read in the paper the next week that he had been hit by a car.  Chilly Willy died four days after I sat with him–four days.  Though he challenged me, I was thankful that he was with us the day I was preaching on that text.  I needed to see the chains of his life and the chains of mine and I needed to be with him.  I didn’t have an answer for him.  I didn’t know what to do about the fact that he wasn’t allowed on the bus anymore for his drunken-ness,  I wished he hadn’t asked me to marry him with stale liquor on his breath, for then I might have just driven him home myself.  Instead, a “male” someone else did.

There are people who stay with you–moments spent with them that linger.  Even before I learned of Chilly Willy’s death, the time with him lingered.  I don’t think I am the only one who had these moments with him.  I believe his life was hauntingly prophetic in a painfully broken way.  I believe this man who refused to be ignored, shook many of us from the realities that we live with every day.  We have the choice to avert our eyes–we can stay on the other side of the street and not know about the broken-ness, the pain, and the certain joys that filled his life and the lives of many others like him.

As I shared this story with a Sunday School class the week after Chilly Willy’s death, a man in the class said with conviction, “Michelle…I think what you are saying is it is important for us to be available?”  Yes–Yes–this is what I believe I was trying to say, to be available in a moment is something I believe Jesus calls us to and it was something he called the Rich Man to.  He called him to be wholly available for the life God was calling him to.  He called the man to join a journey that would drag him through valleys and propel him on top of mountains–a journey that would fill him with such purpose and hope that he would find it JOY to live this way, no matter the cost.

Do we say, “yes” to this?  Do we?  Do we avert our gaze when Jesus asks too much from us?  I recognized with Chilly Willy that he was a witness to me–an invitation to be more available…  Isn’t this the gift of it all for us–that the God of the Heavens and the Earth chose to make himself more available to us–in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we find God with us.  As I celebrate the gift of a new year, I hope that Jesus continues to interrupt my life with characters that refuse to be ignored. My hope and my prayer is that I will not avert my gaze, but that I will understand the gift it is to simply be with some of the others that God created in God’s own image…the gift is simply to be…

I celebrate on this “All Saints Day”–my birthday, the gift of time spent with a man who taught me how important it is to be available, Mr. “Chilly Willy” who was born into this world under the name of William Major.

Image

On the banks of the Tallahatchie…

This reflection was written during my fellowship year in Mississippi–2007

I stood on the banks of the Tallahatchie River today and I wept.  I wept for hearing the story of a fourteen-year-old boy Emmett Till—an African American boy who was killed in 1955.  He was brutally murdered and thrown in the river with an industrial fan tied around his neck.  To think that hate could kill a boy—a black boy—for whistling at a woman—a white woman.   I stood on the banks of the river and experienced the blood of this boy crying out from the land.  It was as if his blood was thumping like a drum and joined with his blood was the blood of a people—my people-the Native Americans of this land.  Those that I was gathered with joined together in prayer and I recognized I was experiencing a connection to my own people through lamenting the death of a fourteen year old African American boy.

My life has not been an easy life, but it would not be because I was oppressed for the color of my skin or the heritage of my people.  I was raised with the privilege afforded white people—people that looked like me and in fact, that would be the place where I feel my feet standing most firmly—in privilege.  My people though are many—they are Native American, they are Scottish, they are English, and they are like my last name “Shrader” German.  What does it mean that in my veins I have the blood of a people that have been oppressed and a people who oppressed?  What does this mean?  This question beat like a drum in my head as I stood on the banks of the Tallahatchie River lamenting the death of a fourteen-year-old boy and it beats in my head like a drum still today.

My mother’s people are mostly of the Lumbee tribe of Indians in North Carolina.  As a child, I learned the story of the Lumbee watching outdoor dramas, going to Pow Wow’s, and listening to stories told by my family and people in the community.  Now that I am an adult, I realized that this heritage is a place I visited, but not a place I lived.  To be connected to oppression on a visit is not the same as living in it and so I have felt a disconnect for not having the right color skin, the right costume, or the zip code that places me in the land with the people, so then who am I?  Who am I, when I know that in my veins runs the blood of these people?  For a long time I thought this question was just for me, but now I believe it is a question for every one who claims themselves to be Christian…”Who are we?”

I wonder looking back on that day as I stood on the bank of the Tallahatchie River whether it was my blood pounding like a drum in my ears or the Holy Spirit rattling me into my true identity.  I cannot live at home in the land of plenty, knowing that there are those in my family tree who live a life so different than me.  I can not get used to a life that others could never dream of.  So, the answer to what it means to have running in my veins the blood of people who have been oppressed and those who oppress is that anyone who calls themselves Christian must stand with me.  Jesus calls us to acknowledge every part of our family tree and for those who live on my land, it means that we have to hear the blood beating in our head like a drum calling forth from us a life lived into our true identity.  We must live and work for the day when “ALL” are free from the division that lives inside and outside of me.

The Case of the Missing Pew….

Recently, I moved from the state of Mississippi to Charlotte, North Carolina.  The transition was unexpected–just as unexpected as the transition to Mississippi was after I graduated from seminary years ago.  As the movers were bringing in my things, I noticed the shape of a piece of furniture.  As my mind began to reel working to figure out what it might be, my pulse began to rise.  When the blankets fell away and the furniture was revealed, I realized I had just solved the case of the missing pew!

In the middle of the pew, still intact, was the note I had written to the movers, “Do not move–this stays here!”  Yet, somehow  this pew that belonged to my former church had followed me all the way to Charlotte.  It is not something to be proud of–stealing a church pew!  Yet, as I have wondered how to get it back to Mississippi, I have been thankful for its arrival, for it has forced me to reflect on the journey I have been on for the last several years.

I graduated from Duke with many offers at my feet.  I could have worked with an Archbishop in Israel/Palestine, with several congregations around the world and nation, but in the end each of the twelve positions I was offered I turned down because I wanted to spend some time in deep reflection about how to be a pastor that stands in divides and points to a different way.  I wanted to engage for a time with a community that was a shining star in terms of working to break down barriers in attempt to fill their pews with all God’s Children.  So, I decided to engage in a one year fellowship looking specifically at intentional reconciliation relating to religion & race.

About three weeks away from graduation, I received a phone call from a man named Keith Tonkel in Jackson, Mississippi.  He was calling to tell me he’d be happy to take me to lunch and share stories once I got settled in the church he thought I would be working at near him.  I shared with him that “sadly, I turned that position down because—it didn’t feel right.”  Keith asked me to share my entire story with him and so I did.  Afterwards, he said, “this might sound crazy, but would you let me fly you to Mississippi and help you find a position.”  It was crazy, but I flew there in complete trust that somehow this connection was important.

When I met Keith at the church, I walked in and was overcome with a sense of excitement that indeed this felt like the right place.  He called an emergency meeting with his leadership afterwards, they heard my story, and voted unanimously for me to engage in my fellowship year as part of their community in Jackson, Mississippi.  I had never heard of Keith Tonkel before, but he is a pastor who has grown an incredibly beautiful community.  He was part of a group of pastors who signed a statement called the “Born of Conviction” statement during the Civil Rights years that stated that they would work to break down the divides in the communities particularly around the issue of segregation during that time.  His years in ministry have been challenging, but the fruit of his faithfulness is evident in the congregation that he serves.  Wells Memorial UMC in Jackson is known as the most integrated church in the state of Mississippi.  My one year never ended and I decided to stay on in Mississippi to continue serving at Wells and to step into leadership with the Commission of Religion & Race.

People have asked me over the years, “What did you learn while serving under Keith?”  I learned a lot under Keith, but mostly I learned who I want to be.  I want to be someone who is constantly asking God to help me see through the present into God’s future.  I want to see possibility in people, in the stories in my community, and on out  into the world as well.  I want to be someone who recognizes the gifts of others and the potential in us all to live into the story God is writing all around us.  I want to be someone like Keith who lives in FAITH, with great HOPE, and with a boundary crossing LOVE.

I want to know that my life has been a gift in relation to the case of the missing pews in our churches–how can we have pews that represent the radically creative nature of our truly amazing God.  If our pews all look the same, then I believe we are missing out on a wonderful gift that God desires for us–the rich witness of God’s creatively knit community.  I wondered how my transition to Charlotte would be.  What I have found so far is that there is a wonderful journey unfolding before me.  There are fantastic people traveling on the road right beside me and many asking wonderful questions that I believe will keep us moving in the direction of continuing to wrestle with this case of the missing pew…

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