Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Ground-Breaker: In Memory of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg




By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

I remember well my first Volunteers in Mission international trip. In 1993 a group of Deaf Senior Citizens and I went to Montego Bay, Jamaica, to help a fledgling Christian Deaf School.  I was in quite over my head, being the only hearing person on the team and doing all the interpreting.

The accommodations were somewhat rustic. The plumbing broke down the first day, and the dining hall served mostly rice and more rice. The most difficult part of the trip was the task we were assigned at this small, struggling school.  The principal asked us to take hand shovels and break ground for a vegetable garden. We were breaking hard, hard ground in the hot, hot sun; and if we had not had the chance to also teach Bible school to the Deaf children as well, I think the team would have packed up and left after two days. 

Breaking ground is necessary for any kind of vegetation to grow.  Nothing can grow in hard, packed, dry ground without such hard labor. But the benefits of it can yield the gift of crops and nourishment and life.  Teams that followed us in subsequent weeks were able to plant the garden. And later the children were able to harvest some food to add to their rice menu. 

It is reminiscent of the Apostle Paul’s words to the Corinthians about the work of ministry: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything; but only God who gives the growth.”  (I Corinthians 3:6-7)

I would agree with Paul’s analogy to a point, but I would give praise to social justice “ground breakers.”  These are people who till the hard soil of stubborn hearts, but who have the vision and creative imaginations to begin a work among us that can be liberating, life-changing and righteous. 

These words describe the life and witness of the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.  She was described as a “ground breaker” because of her pioneering, tireless work for gender equality and equal rights for all people.

This is bone-hard work.  Ground breakers get a lot of resistance; but they keep tilling the soil. Although she graduated first in her class at Columbia University Law School, no law firm would hire her; so she worked as a judge’s clerk and then taught law.  Throughout her distinguished career as a lawyer and judge she never gave up on a just cause. And she consistently advocated for equality and equity. 

Ginsburg left us last week, on September 18, after a long bout with cancer and after many victories. She died on the first night (Shabbat) of the Jewish holy observance of Rosh Hashanah. According to Jewish tradition a person who dies on the Sabbath “tsaddik” is a person of great righteousness. If someone dies on the Shabbat of Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) they are “the ones God has held back until the last moment because they are needed the most and were the most righteous.” (USA Today 9/19/20, Joel Shannon, quoting Nina Totenberg of NPR.)

Ground breakers are indeed righteous, intent on doing the right thing, bearing the heat of the day, the hardness of the soil for the sake of others.  We honor the memory of the victorious RBG!

Monday, September 14, 2020

The Four ‘W’s’


By Bishop Peggy A. Johnson

Every day I watch a local newscast that gives COVID-19 updates and health reminders. Yesterday they talked about the “Four “W’s.” They are as follows:

 “W” – Wear your mask

“W” – Watch your distance (at least 6 feet)

“W” – Wash your hands

 “W” – Open the Windows to keep fresh air circulating


These “Four W’s” caught my eye and my heart, not only because it is a catchy way to remember these important virus protection practices, but because it could also be a parable about personal holiness in the life of the Christian believer.

The most dangerous pandemic that we face as human beings is that of sin, and the temptation to sin. It is why Jesus came to earth in the first place, to die for our sins (I Corinthians 15:3) and give us life abundant. We do not become perfect on the day we ask Jesus into our hearts. God forgives us; but our daily walk with Christ, which includes constantly striving to live in holiness, is our lifelong journey of faith.

We often don’t talk about sin as much as we should. John Wesley, in his early days with the Holy Club at Oxford, emphasized confession and self-examination as a central practice during his daily prayer time. His “22 Questions” inventory (found on umcdiscipleship.org) is a discipline that every believer needs to practice to root out pride, greed and evil.




What are the “Four W’s” for a Christian who is striving to “go on to perfection?”


1. “W” – Watch your Words. Jesus said, “The things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a person unclean. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, and slander.” (Matthew 15:18-19)

We get into more trouble by the words we say than by just about any other means of evil. The Book of James reminds us, “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire and is itself set on fire by hell.” (3:6)

Put a “mask” over your lips when you are tempted to say hurtful, judgmental or hurtful words. Speak truth, and as the Apostle Paul reminds us, “Let your speech be always with grace, seasoned with salt, that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:6)


2. “W” – Be Wary of temptation. Jesus said to his disciples, “There will always be temptations to sin, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting!” (Luke 17:1).

Temptation is always close at hand, both in the things that tempt us and in the ways we cause others to be tempted by our sin. Likely you know the “pet” sins of your life that “so easily entangle” you. (Hebrews 12:1).

When you keep your distance from temptation by your constant communion with God, you are more able to resist it. As the Book of James reminds us, “Submit yourselves then to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you.” (4:7).


3. “W” “Wash” to cleanse yourself of sin by confession and restoration. One of my favorite verses in the Bible is I John 1:9: “If we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Just as hand-washing cleans off bacteria and germs, confession opens the door for God to forgive us and set us free from guilt and judgment. True repentance also requires restoration for those we have harmed and a 180-degree directional shift away from that sin. Otherwise, it is not true repentance at all. 


4. “W” – Follow the “Wind” of the Spirit. The word “Spirit” in scripture literally means “breath” or “wind,” and as saved, repentant and forgiven people of God we need to “walk in the Spirit” (Galatians 5:16). That means following the guidance that God gives, heeding the warnings about temptation, using the Spiritual gifts bestowed on us, and moving freely, like the wind, into new and often unexpected avenues of service. As difficult as these times are, we have many windows of opportunity for outreach, witness and justice ministry. Let us catch the wind of the Spirit during this unique time, and take the church to a new height of service to our neighbors and devotion to God. 


The “Four W’s” of pandemic precautionary practices are helpful and necessary for our health. The “Four W’s” of the Christian faith can lead to abundant life and life everlasting. Let us follow them both.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Jesus, the ‘Universal Suffragist’



This summer women in the United States celebrate with pride the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote when fully ratified on August 26, 1920. This was a hard-fought battle that had its earliest beginnings at the “Women’s Rights” Convention in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1848.

There were failures along the way. The Supreme Court in 1872 declared in a ruling about the 14th amendment that “all people” did not include women. One of the saddest realities of this movement was the fact that the White women often sidelined Black women for fear that Southern voters would not support their suffrage campaign. 

The “National American Women’s Suffrage Association” in 1890 refused to include Black women in their ranks. Later, in a 1913 suffrage rally in Washington, DC, the White women insisted that the Black women march at the end of the parade.  Racism was a consistent struggle alongside the intersectionality of sexism, even though the early movements for slavery’s abolition and women’s suffrage struggled hand and hand on many levels. It was a complicated time, much like today.

Even after the passage of the 19th Amendment, many Black women found it difficult to cast a ballot due to literacy requirements and poll taxes.  It wasn’t until the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that Black women had the best opportunity to vote in this country.  It is important to know our true history and to actively oppose current voter suppression attacks in this generation.



What does Jesus have to do with all of this?  The word “suffrage” comes from a Latin word: “suffragium” which literally means “to support.”  The word came from a root word for “tablet” that was used to record a vote.  Through the years, voting rights tended to go to majority-culture men, wealthy men, landowners and citizens.  During the Enlightenment era in Europe (1715-1789) there was growing thought that there should be equal rights for all people. Along with this came a call for “universal suffrage.”


Jesus was the ultimate “universal suffragist,” long before Europe’s Enlightenment era. In the truest sense of the word “suffrage,” Jesus supported and uplifted women of all stripes: Samaritan women, Syrophoenician women, women of questionable character, homemakers, his own mother, little girls, and ceremonial unclean women. He even gifted them with the highest honor of all: to be the first to tell the Good News of his resurrection.

Jesus saw all people as equals, including women, and he gave them a voice in public, engaged them in theological conversation, and allowed them to sit with the men as he taught. He healed women, forgave them, loved them and saw them as worthy of respect.

The world, and sadly the church, continues to deny support for women. “Don’t send us a woman pastor!” is something I still sadly hear each year when making appointments. The majority of our largest churches are served by men. Overall, women earn less salary than men in our denomination.

However, there are improvements coming little by little as time passes. I can see in my 40 years of ministry how attitudes, acceptance and support continue to improve.  I would say that is the movement of the Holy Spirit. The influence of Jesus’ teachings in his words and deeds continues to liberate women in our church, our country and our world.  We still have a long way to go as disciples seeking “the transformation of the world.”

As Christians we can be a part of the support system that raises up women to equality, self-determination and leadership. The same quest awaits us in regard to other groups and communities that face discrimination—such as people of color, people with disabilities, people living in poverty, and the LGBTQUIA community. Equality and equity for everyone is the only way that any of us can have true freedom and wholeness. Where can you show support and be a “universal suffragist”?

The other meaning of the Latin word “suffragium” is “to pray.”  We receive support for the work of justice and equality through the power of prayer. As we celebrate the milestone of women’s suffrage, let us pray for a day when all will have the freedom to vote and to be recipients of equality and support.



Also see: 6 Methodist women who fought for the vote

References:

Washington Post, August 5, 2020

ThoughtCo.com – October 2, 2019

AARP – February 28, 2020

“Black Women and the Suffrage Movement” Wesleyan.edu

“One of Divided Sisters: Bridging the Gap Between Black and White Women” by  Midge Wilson and Kathy Russell, Anchor Press, 1996

 

Monday, July 20, 2020

The Power of a Letter

Long ago, an African American teenager from Troy, Alabama, wrote a letter that would help change his life forever.  His name was John Robert Lewis and the letter was sent to a pastor by the name of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

Young Lewis was inspired as he read about what was happening in Montgomery, prompted by the actions of a woman named Rosa Parks. It was the bus boycott led by Dr. King to protest and end racial discrimination in public transportation.  Lewis sent that letter to the civil rights leader, hoping that the pivotal events occurring in Montgomery could be replicated in Troy.

Dr. King not only wrote back to this 18-year-old, but he included in the letter a roundtrip bus ticket to Montgomery and an invitation to come meet him.  Lewis got on that bus, and the rest was history. 

The young man would later become an influential United States Representative from the state of Georgia, often described as a moral leader within the U.S. Congress. But first he learned much from Dr. King and others—including the Rev. James Lawson, a United Methodist leader in the civil rights movement—about how to engage in that justice work through faith-based, strategic nonviolence. He dedicated the rest of his life to this endeavor.

Lewis was the first head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a relentless force of young people who led Freedom Rides and voter education and registration efforts across the South. Thus, he was the youngest face always seen around the table with Dr. King and other civil rights leaders in those black and white pictures of the 1960s. 

He was the last living speaker from the March on Washington in 1963 that culminated with King’s “I Have a Dream” address. He learned and demonstrated first-hand that when people see “something that is not right, not fair and not just, that they have a moral obligation to speak up and speak out.”

Congressman John Lewis went home to be with the Lord last week. The world has gained and lost a great man in him.  As a child he felt a call to the preaching ministry, and he later graduated from a Baptist seminary and Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. But he spent his life preaching justice and equality for all through his actions as a public servant.

His kind of preaching got him arrested over 40 times, and it got him into what he called “good trouble” for the cause of freedom for African Americans and other Americans across this nation. Civil rights for people of color has in many ways been a springboard for the cause of equality and justice for many oppressed people in this country. The benefits continue on and on, as the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice,” a prophetic phrase made famous by Dr. King.

The story of John Lewis all started with a letter and a bus ticket.  Added to Dr. King’s many attributes was his intentional mentoring of younger people along the way.  King wisely knew that the movement he began needed the next generation to carry on the work.  He took the time to work with this high school graduate from Troy, Alabama.  And John Lewis, in turn, mentored countless young people in his day as well. 

The work of God’s love, equality, justice and empowerment—of nonviolent social action or “good trouble”—is as important now as ever.  Twenty years from now things will look different, largely because of what is happening and what we are learning today. And yet, we can solidify the effectiveness of future strides and ministries as we mentor the ones coming up behind us. 

Who is writing you letters?  Who is curious about your ministry, your justice work and your passion for “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?  Who can you empower and encourage to learn from you and to continue and develop the work for generations to come? 

The next John Lewis waits for you to answer their letter.

Sources:

  • NPR “StoryCorps” January 17, 2020
  • CBSnews.com August 16, 2017
  • Wikipedia

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Celebrating 30 Years of the ADA

I was serving as a pastor for an all-Deaf congregation when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) law was signed July 26, 1990.

For my congregation it meant there would be a free relay service for telecommunications. What an incredible thing! A Deaf person could now call a relay operator using their TTY.

This was a telephone device that allowed a Deaf consumer to type words on a keyboard that would appear onscreen for a person with the same device through the phone line. The relay operator would contact a hearing person for the Deaf consumer, who did not have a TTY, and speak vocally for them the words of the Deaf person’s typed TTY message. Then that same operator would type into the TTY the words that the hearing person was speaking back to the Deaf person.

This was part four of the Americans with Disabilities Act: “Telecommunications.” It meant that Deaf people could then make confidential calls to whomever they wanted without having to go through a hearing volunteer (like me) or a hearing family member.

The other benefits I could see from the ADA included more access to paid sign language interpreters in many places, such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, and state and local museums. Many Deaf people began to have sign language interpreters at their places of work for the first time.

When we went on a bus trip to see “Sight and Sound” in Lancaster, PA, the theater had professional interpreters for the show, and I no longer had to volunteer to interpret, as I had to in the past. Not everything that the ADA envisioned was accomplished, but much good was done.

Improvements in accessibility but employment lags

Through the years, progress continues to be made. More buildings are accessible, employers are making needed accommodations in the workplace, and people with all kinds of disabilities are able to live more independently and contribute to society. Employment is still one of the most difficult areas with the national average of full-time employment for people with disabilities at 36%. This is a “work in process” as are all of our journeys toward equality and human rights

The United Methodist Church affirms the sacred worth of people with disabilities, and in our Social Principles we state that our churches should be accessible and welcoming. We encourage our churches to do Accessibility Audits each year, as well as observe a Disability Awareness Sunday in January.


American Sign Language sign for "Love."

The federal ADA law exempts churches and religious organizations from compliance. Yet, the law of love requires that we not only follow these principles of inclusion and accommodation, but even go the second mile.

On this anniversary of the ADA, please consider the progress that your church has made. Is there some work that still needs to be done in your building to improve accessibility? Remember how very important restrooms are!  Who is left out of your ministry because of your building’s structure?  Who cannot access your video services because of their disability?  What child with autism is not able to come to Sunday School?

Also, consider how you would react if a pastor with a disability was appointed to your church. Would you welcome them and their gifts for ministry or focus on their disability and see them as a liability or a burden? Pastors with disabilities often report disappointing responses when they are introduced to their new church for the first time.

Some churches write letters to the bishop asking for a reconsideration, or ask what they did to “deserve” a pastor with a disability. Surely, the beloved community is better than that. Gifts for ministry are not always found in perfect bodies. The truth is: none of us are perfect and yet God uses everything we are and everything we have for God’s purposes. God’s power is made perfect in weakness (II Corinthians 12:9).


Bishop Johnson, a longtime advocate for people with disabilities (or people who are differently abled) will be featured at An Interfaith Reflection on the ADA: 30 Years Later, sponsored online by the Interfaith Disability Advocacy Collaborative (IDAC), on Wednesday, July 22nd, 12pm – 1pm EST. She will participate in a panel discussion with Jewish, Muslim and Christian leaders. The General Board of Church and Society, on which she serves, is a member of the IDAC. To register and receive participant instructions, use this form: https://bit.ly/ADA30years. See the flyer. 

Also, Bishop Johnson recommends, “Theology and Disability Ministry" as “a good resource for disability equality information. It helps with ableism eradication.”

Also see: 
Statement on reopening churches by the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities


A Litany to Celebrate the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA)

For thirty years of being treated like we matter,

We give you thanks O God.

For millions of barriers taken down,

We give you thanks O God.

For the opportunity to have meaningful work,

We give you thank O God.

For a way to get into church buildings so we can worship,

We give you thanks O God.

For accessibility in public spaces and employment

We give you thanks O God.

For accessible tele-communication,

We give you thanks O God.

For no longer being left out of many cultural activities,

We give you thanks O God.

For space to hope and a chance to dream,

We give you thanks O God.

For the opportunity to share in the American dream of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,

We give you thanks of God.

Lord, thirty years ago we had a great start, but we still have a long way to go.

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still many churches that need physical and attitudinal accessibility

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still places of employment discrimination, including the church

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still many lives passed over as “too much trouble”

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still many who believe that they have done enough

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

There are still those who do not see our sacred worth, or value us as an essential part society or the Body of Christ

In your mercy, Lord, hear our prayer.

Lord, may these next thirty years bring more open doors, open minds, and open hearts. 

Amen.

(By the Rev. Michael C. Johnson)

 

 


Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Freedom


During this 4th of July weekend, when we celebrate our country’s independence and freedom, it is a good time to ponder what freedom really means.

Freedom is a privilege as well as a responsibility, or it is not freedom at all. One is free to speak but not necessarily to shout “fire” in a crowded room (unless of course, there is a fire). Each of us have freedoms that are a gift from God to be used and not abused or hoarded.

As Christians, we have been given freedom from sin and eternal death, the ultimate greatest freedom of all. We need to use our freedom in Christ for good in this world.

In recent weeks we have been discussing racial reconciliation and the need for things to change in our country with regards to equality for people of color and white people.

Since the founding days of this country oppression and discrimination have been a way of securing wealth and power at the expense of black, brown and indigenous people.

Some people are asking, “What can I do to make a difference?” “How can I change things?” The truth is, everyone can do something to make the principles of freedom a reality for all in this country.

If you have a freedom, share it with someone does not. It is the responsibility of freedom to pass it on out of the abundance of God’s grace, and not out of a sense of scarcity.

Here are some freedoms you can share:

Your voice: Speak out for someone who is being discriminated against.

Your vote: Vote for policies and legislators that work for equality.

Your education: Teach someone who needs your knowledge and experience.

Your wealth: Share with people in poverty. (How much stuff do you need?)

Your heart: Say a word of apology to people you have hurt by exclusion. 

The United Methodist Women have always been on the forefront of the fight for racial equity. For years they have promoted their groundbreaking “Charter for Racial Justice.” Their charter should be posted on the door of every church as our Declaration of Independence from the sin of racism. 

There are many practical suggestions in this charter that we can take to heart and do with our hands. May we be free from attitudes and actions that oppress people. The absolute truth is this: until everyone is free, no one is truly free.

At the July 1 Dismantling Racism: Pressing on to Freedom Town Hall meeting (UMC.org), the Rev. Alfred Day (left), an Elder in the Eastern PA Annual Conference and the General Secretary of Archives and History prayed this prayer:

“Set us free, God of all people, everywhere, from every bond of prejudice and fear. (We honor) the steadfast courage of your servants like Harry Hosier, Richard Allen, Jarena Lee, Absalom Jones, and James Varrick. May we show forth in our lives the reconciling love and true freedom of the children of God, which you have given us in your Son, our Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever and ever. Amen”*

May this be our prayer this week and always.

*From Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints, Episcopal Church Publishing, 2010 (Adapted for United Methodist use by Rev. Fred Day.)

NOTE: If you missed this important Town Hall today, be sure to watch the recording of it. And also watch the recording of the hour-long “Service of Lament, Repentance, Communion and Commitment” recorded June 24, that puts The United Methodist Church on record as committed to a renewed push against racism.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Juneteenth

I confess that until I became a bishop I had never heard about Juneteenth! My knowledge of African American history was sorely lacking, and I certainly am not the only one.  Here is some background information found in an article from the PBS network’s local WHYY affiliate. (The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.)

On June 19, 1865, the following declaration was made: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.  This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor.  The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages…”

President Abraham Lincoln had issued The Emancipation Proclamation 2½ years before that on January 1, 1863. This ended slavery in the Confederacy, and in the interim nearly 200,000 Black men had enlisted to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.

Many slave owners in Mississippi, Louisiana and other points east had been migrating to Texas to escape the Union Army’s reach and they took 150,000 slaves with them.


The June 19, 1865, announcement was read aloud that day to slaves in south Texas by a U.S. Army general. But it did not bring about an instant change for all of the state’s 250,000 former slaves. Many were forced to keep working until the harvest came, and some were not even told. Still others were lynched or shot for exercising their new freedom.

The nation’s Freedmen’s Aid Bureau was further delayed in coming to Texas to help new black citizens adjust to freedom until September of 1865. Yet, despite the confusion, delays, exploitation, violence and even murders they had to endure, the newly freed Black men and women of Texas finally had a date to rally around. Thus began in 1866 the annual celebration of “Juneteenth,” also known as Jubilee Day and Freedom Day.

It was a day to gather family together and teach younger generations about the values of self-sufficiency and pride.  At these events there were religious services, singing, food (always a barbecue pit), games, and rodeos.  Black people gathered near rivers and lakes at first, but eventually they raised enough money to buy their own celebration sites.

In 1979 Texas became the first state to make Juneteenth an official holiday. Since then 41 other states and the District of Columbia have recognized this as a state holiday or holiday observance. Pennsylvania just recognized it in 2019.

Juneteenth is an opportunity not only to celebrate freedom but also to speak out about injustice. Today more than ever we need to speak out against white privilege, racism, law enforcement brutality, mass incarceration, voter suppression, poor educational and health care opportunities, and the continual segregation of our schools and churches.  We all need to stand together to make real changes happen, and we cannot let this moment pass. 

Please pause and celebrate Juneteenth this year. Also, take time to study Black History, and not just in February. There is much to learn that can inform us about what we need to do in the future. Take stock of the progress that has been made, and wisely craft the road ahead. 

I am grateful for all I have learned on my journey as a bishop, thanks to many patient people who have taught me along the way. I still have a long way to go. Please join me on that journey.