September is back-to-school month for many of our youth. There is much anticipation and preparation by parents, students, teachers and retailers for this once a year event. Schools send out reminders about schedules, meals, and activities. Teachers spruce up classrooms and take refresher courses. Parents buy clothing and supplies and figure out transportation needs. Students look forward to reuniting with friends and negotiating for the latest computers, backpacks, sneakers etc. from their parents.
September is also an opportunity for us to have a back-to-church month for our youth with the same vigor and anticipation for Sunday School and youth activities. How are we doing? The leadership of the church including our vestry and clergy, not just the youth ministry leaders, should be intimately involved in this youth outreach. Many of us bemoan the lack of youth in our congregations but do not make it a priority in our planning.
I’m writing this as my family and I are in the midst of Tropical Storm (formerly Hurricane) Harvey.
My heart goes out to so many victims of Harvey – to those dear souls who have lost their life, and to those who lost their homes and cars, or years’ worth of memories and precious possessions. Hardship and suffering tend to bring out the worst in people – the occasional looting in flooded neighborhoods, traffic nightmares, and fist fights in long gas station lines are, sadly, all too real.
But hardship and suffering also bring out the best in people!
In 2015, Vital Posts recorded the planting of a new Episcopal congregation in Brownsburg, Indiana, just outside Indianapolis (Parachute Drop). Rev. Gray Lesesne, D.Min., Church Planter/Pastor, “parachuted” into this suburban area and worked the coffee shop crowd, discovering what he was called to find: diverse people seeking spirituality.
The small seed of a congregation that Fr. Gray planted has grown to nearly 130 people of Good Samaritan Episcopal Church. He says it is “a Spirit-filled operation that has gone beyond our wildest dreams.” The congregation stays united around a mission and identity rooted in service: Good Samaritan Episcopal Church is a growing community of open-minded Christians who seek to do what Jesus taught us: to include, love, and serve all people without exception.
This past weekend I went out with a group from my parish to serve with 249 & Hope, a ministry for and with our brothers and sisters living along the local highway. This was my first time to go along with the group, and I was struck by the question the ministry leader asked me. “What are we going to learn today?”
I didn’t have an answer.
Too often, I think the church goes out into its neighborhood to solve problems. Let’s feed the homeless, or tutor in the local school, or visit the sick and lonely. These are all good things that we, as Christians, should do! But we don’t do them because we can provide solutions to other people’s problems.
On the 2nd day of Ramadan 2017 our senior warden Evelyn and I attended the annual fundraising dinner of the American Muslims for Hunger Relief (AMFHR). We did this at the invitation of Ghani Khan, the Executive Director. The Church of the Advocate and AMFHR have shaped a partnership that fruited in Halal meals being offered monthly at our Advocate Cafe. How wonderful it was that evening of the fundraiser to be immersed in a cultural event outside of the Eurocentric, Christocentric framework, one that propelled me and Evelyn into a sea of colors, textures, tastes, hues and sounds that declared another way of being that nourished and enlightened and spoke to a powerful encounter with the sacred.
What AMFHR does for the Advocate community is less about the Halal meat made available to our patrons. What AMFHR does is remind us that the work before us as Christians is sometimes best done in relationships that cross boundaries to find places of common mission. Our relationship with AMFHR is not predicated upon removal and substitution, we have not substituted any Islamic beliefs or practice for our own, but rather is situated upon a common interest to meet a basic human need; i.e. the need for food. The shock is not in the partnership but in the need.
What is it about tables? We all hear the anecdotes and research about the importance of family dinner around a table. But what about dinner around a table with our church family, or even our community?
The Diocese of Texas started a project several years ago called Sharing Faith Dinners. As its website states, “Sharing Faith dinners invite people to gather around a meal and participate in life together. At each dinner, a moderator will prompt participants to share stories of their faith journey with printed questions. Sharing Faith provides a welcoming and safe way to engage one another, articulate our faith and build relationships.”
Five years ago in a small city on the Ohio River, an Episcopal faith community began to explore the gifts of its people, and what God was calling them to do with those gifts. Several people had a passion for the arts – many were artists themselves. They began to envision the arts as central to their ministry.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Albany, Indiana, has taken ministry outreach through the arts to an exciting new level – even for us artsy Episcopalians.
With an eye “to build relationship with artists, patrons, and guests through the ministries of hospitality and the arts,” St. Paul’s started with something small and manageable: a reader’s theatre called “Parlor Stories.” Actors and others from the community were welcome to participate.
An often overlooked aspect of our ministries is the need for and importance of transportation. It has potential impact on every demographic within our church, every ministry, our outreach, our finances and our viability, yet is rarely discussed. Examples of transportation impact are as follows:
Our youth depend on parents or guardians to be dropped off; without that reliable access they do not attend Sunday school, confirmation classes and youth events.
Our seniors may have discontinued driving, or are uncomfortable with public transportation and may be leery of coming out at night, limiting their participation in important church events.
Most of us have been taught to avoid triangulation in communication, but it can be a valuable tool for promoting peace and justice. Triangulating by asking Jesus to “re-speak,” through the power of the Holy Spirit, words we are unable to receive is good triangulation. The gift of learning at our Lord’s feet is always available to us through scripture and prayer, and daily life becomes a dialogue of faith when we give ourselves to God in this way. These dialogues of faith often become the foundation for raising voices of advocacy.
The diocesan Commission on Peace, Justice, and Racial Reconciliation is working to organize voices of advocacy that promote reconciliation, restoration, and healing, and I am grateful to be a part of this work. Seeking to better understand human systems that produce dysfunction and despair has been part of my training as an anthropologist. Now, as a priest, I understand that Jesus calls us to faith that sees beyond the landscapes our brokenness and sin have created. Christian advocacy is about seeing a horizon of hope through the eyes of our faith and asking Jesus to use us as his ears and heart and hands.
This fall, Episcopalians have a unique opportunity to do the holy work of building the Kingdom of God here on earth by engaging in the electoral process. Engaging in the election is an opportunity to be with and speak out with people who are oppressed, hungry, and/or an outcast, and to insert compassion and justice into our country’s guiding systems and structures. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry reminds us,
“If we who are Christians participate in the political process and in the public discourse as we are called to do — the New Testament tells us that we are to participate in the life of the polis, in the life of our society — the principle on which Christians must vote is the principle, Does this look like love of neighbor?"
Amid the various back-to-school traditions of churches, one congregation has struck gold. They tap into the community’s strong support for the schools – and particularly for its athletics – by offering yard signs: Pray for a Pirate. Pray for a Titan. Pray for a Panther.
In the week before the special school kick-off Sunday service, the church’s front lawn is full of these signs – a powerful testament for passersby of the church’s connection to the community. Who doesn’t want to pray for young people as they return to school?
The church also invites a few student-athletes to speak during worship about the role that faith plays in their lives.
Back to school time! Pencils, pencil boxes, notebooks, markers, glue sticks, tissues, hand sanitizer... Lists of required school supplies are long and diverse for each grade, each school. Many churches engage their members to “shop the list” and bring items to be given to families in need, often supplying backpacks too – sometimes several hundred at a time.
Today, we highlight the extraordinary backpack ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church in Logansport, Indiana (Diocese of Northern Indiana). Trinity’s average Sunday attendance is 65. On August 6, many of those folks distributed more than 750 backpacks and all the supplies students needed.
In 2006, when Trinity first realized the community need, the church gave away 40 filled backpacks. School Supply Giveaway project chairperson Deb Miller says the effort grew because of the “generosity of spirit” living in the people of Trinity.
CNN calls it “the 90s fad that never died,”  and in fact Pokémon is on another upsurge. Nintendo’s new smartphone-based app / game, Pokémon GO, has been released in the US, New Zealand and Australia – topping the US iOS and Android charts within hours of availability – whereas the worldwide release scheduled for the first week of July hit some snags. The servers went live on July 4 in Singapore and Taipei but by 9 o’clock that evening they were shut down, apparently struggling to keep up with the huge demand for the game.
Pokémon GO is a new twist on the old characters and an even more interactive spin on the relatively new smartphone game, now inspiring players to not just stare at their tablets but get out into the world – literally go to different places to improve their scores. I learned about Pokémon GO this week when the grandson of a parishioner popped into the 8 o’clock service. He’s not normally known for showing up at church, let alone at the early service. “God moves in mysterious ways,” his grandmother said, and then told me all about the game – and that St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland is one of the game’s hotspots! Pardon my Poké-ignorance, but I’ve since learned that at various places – St. George’s being one of them – there are such things as Pokéstops (from CNN’s article: “Geotagged locations, i.e. a landmark or destination, where you can get Pokéballs and other treats”); and Pokémon gyms (again, CNN: “Where you can battle your Pokémon with other Pokémon to earn control over different gyms, as well as other prizes. These are geotagged like Pokéstops.”)
I’m always interested in unique and easy fundraisers. So I was drawn to the bottle stall at Church of the Ascension in Munich, Germany (Anglican/Episcopal).
Various bottles filled a card table. Wine, of course. But also shampoo. Peanut butter. Homemade jam. Mouthwash. Apple juice. Water. Each bottle was marked with a number. For two euros (about $2.30), you could draw a number. (Or three numbers for five euros). The stipulation was that there was no trading the number. All draws were final. You might end up with a nice bottle of wine. Or a bottle of ketsup.
We were visiting the church on vacation and had stayed for an “all-American” cookout. Wanting to support the church, I bought three numbers. The first corresponded to Jif peanut butter. Oh, said one of the woman, you got one of the best bottles. Really, I thought. Apparently despite globalization, Jif peanut butter is hard to get in Germany. The bottle was purchased at a PX (a store on one of the Army bases). Because our access to peanut butter is pretty good, I donated the bottle back. I was lucky that another number corresponded to some homemade Erdbeere jam (strawberry). I already was imagining how it would taste on warm toast. Later in the cookout, the jar ended up going home with a family of eight. They had just arrived from the US for a year study program. I bet the jam tasted just as good on their toast as it would have on mine.
How or what is your congregation known for in your community? In my town, the two Episcopal Churches may be best known for their fundraisers.
Both St. Michael’s and St. Andrew’s Episcopal churches in Marblehead, Mass have long established fundraisers that have become part of the fabric of the community.
St. Michael’s annual lobster luncheon is on many people’s ‘must do’ list for the July 4th weekend, including mine. Beginning on Saturday and continuing through July 4th, the lobster luncheon fundraiser coincides with the Marblehead Festival of Arts, taking advantage of St. Michael’s location in the midst of the festivities. My friends Joe and Jill became engaged while eating lobster rolls on the St. Michael’s lawn and return each year to celebrate this milestone.
All proceeds support the Church’s community and world ministries and information about these ministries is visible to people purchasing lobster rolls, clam chowder, hot dogs, and watermelon. Tours of St. Michael’s historic building and an organ concert are typically offered during this event.
St. Michaels also provides space to the Festival for their printmaking and sculpture displays, ensuring a steady stream of visitors to the building and past their food tent.
Festival season is gearing up, and hopefully congregations are spending some serious creative time thinking about how to make the most of these evangelism opportunities.
St. James Episcopal Church in Piqua, Ohio, has one idea: Invite folks to make a joyful noise. On a newly decoupaged piano.
Reading between posts on their Facebook page (the small congregation has limited office hours), it appears that the church received a generous gift of a grand piano. So what to do with the trusty, but no longer needed upright piano? Members decoupaged it with brightly colored pieces of paper and wheeled it out onto the sidewalk.
The city held its annual Taste of the Arts festival this past weekend, and the good people of St. James invited folks to tickle the ivories, plunk out a turn, make a joyful noise.
I’m sure the piano was a sight on the sidewalk, with one green leg, one purple, and pinks, blues, and yellows all over. (Feels like there should be a joke in there. What’s green and purple and decoupaged all over??)
It’s a simple question that can have a surprisingly complicated answer.
This year, I’ve decided to devote more time to my parish, particularly to our various outreach ministries. After years of fretting about whether I truly had the time and energy to take on what can sometimes feel like yet another project, I’ve been inspired - indeed, moved by faith - to just dive right in. But now I’m facing the more practical question of just how, exactly, I plug in.
I’m convinced that my experience is not unique in Episcopal congregations. Consider your own parish. Are there obvious ways for an inspired soul to take the few first steps into a deeper life of service? Or to be more specific, does the Sunday bulletin and website list the relevant ministries that people can join? Are there names and contact information associated with these ministries so people can learn more? Will there be opportunities either during the announcements or during a parish ministries fair for parishioners to meet the lay leaders running the program? What other opportunities are there to encourage one-on-one conversations about how individuals can join in and help?
These are all basic questions, of course, but one helpful exercise would be to imagine, step-by-step, the practical pathway for a newcomer to go from inspiration to action.
When one learns about the tremendous outreach ministries of Trinity Episcopal Church in Logansport, Indiana, a natural question might be, “How do they afford it?” As it turns out, many years ago, the church invested a large estate gift at the Cass County Community Foundation, and determined that half of the annual proceeds of the fund would go to outreach ministry and half to building maintenance. But if you conclude that THAT is how Trinity Logansport “affords” its apostolic outreach ministry, you are not realizing the full power of being a joyful giver.
Clark Miller, rector of Trinity Logansport, explains: “When we started looking outside our walls, we started to grow. When you start giving things, things come back to you. The people of Trinity give willingly of their money and time. People don’t say, ‘let the endowment take care of it’ – they jump in to help.”
Trinity’s largest outreach ministry is its annual school backpack project, which has grown to an amazing 1,200 backpacks a year! Children and their families line up around the block on the day the backpacks are available at Trinity. Kids choose the backpack they want from grade-appropriate selections. This day has evolved into a back-to-school event – even free haircuts are provided.
While Trinity’s endowment certainly helps, members of congregation personally purchase backpacks and supplies all year long. People may be reimbursed from the Fund, but most don't ask.
Holy Trinity, Manistee recently completed month 8 of its Laundry Love ministry. We learned about this idea last summer from a video sent out by The Episcopal Church. We hadn’t thought of this as a ministry opportunity until then, but it was immediately apparent to us that this was an unaddressed need in our community.
Our town of approximately 7,000 in rural Northwest Michigan has few people who are homeless but many people live on fixed incomes or get by on low-paying jobs. Of our town's two laundromats, one is located closer to the residents we were looking serve and, as it happened, charges considerably less for their machines and provides free soap for those who need it. The owner of that laundromat thought Laundry Love was a wonderful idea. Working with her we decided the best time to do this would be a four hour window on the fourth Friday afternoon of each month.
Our first month, publicized only by a poster at thee laundromat and a couple of writeups in the newspaper, we served 11 people or "family units." In the months since we've numbered 15 to 20 family units. With the low cost of the machines at this laundromat, we spend around $250 each month. Some of the people who come are regulars, such as the older woman who lives on $715 a month and the family with both parents on disability and four children at home. Others have come only a time or two due to circumstances such as their washer at home being broken or their pipes at home being frozen. (It's been a very cold winter here.) Some people have vehicles they can drive to the laundromat, some catch rides with friends, and some use the very limited bus service in our town. All have been quite grateful to us for doing this and there's been more than a little wonderment that people are willing to help in this way.
The owner of the laundromat, Eve, and her assistant, Wanda, have been beyond helpful in this ministry. Eve definitely performs her own unsung ministry in treating the patrons of her laundromat with respect and kindness. She has built relationships with most of our regulars. During Laundry Love, she is invaluable in helping keep the laundry flowing through the machines in the most efficient manner.
Last night my family was invited over to our friends’ house for supper. With kids similar in age, this meant we had four kids at or under 6 years of age. It was fun and boisterous. In the midst of our roasted chicken, laughter, and interrupted conversation (Mama!! I`m really done, can I puhlease be excused?!), I found myself enveloped into a conversation about God’s abundance.
During our time there, we started talking about stories of transformational giving. Our friend, who works for a social service organization of a partnering denomination, described how a local church had given its end of the year Christmas offering to a local social service organization. This was extraordinary as many churches rely on end of the year gifts to ensure they are able to make all budget needs. This is especially true as sometimes parishioners pledge but aren’t able to complete their pledge or unexpected expenses arise that require additional giving.
This Church was willing to look beyond its own needs. Instead they believed they had enough and collectively gave their resources to a social service organization that impacted the lives of many in their local community.