Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Quest for justice, mercy should be One Size Fits All

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

My son Gabriel appeared in a recent Facebook post donning a Halloween costume in which he is dressed as a cactus.  It is quite clever, and perhaps he chose this outfit because he works as a botanist at the Smithsonian Science Lab and loves plants. 

When I asked him about it, he said he purchased it at Walmart, and it is labeled “One Size Fits Most.” He said I could borrow it anytime I wanted to dress up like a cactus.  This is likely not going to happen. 

First, I don’t like plants all that much and secondly, “One Size Fits Most” never works for me. They are always too big. I can just imagine falling down steps in this unfitting cactus costume that my six-foot tall son fits into quite well.

Does one size fit most?  It is an important question to ponder as we consider our social issues in the world today. Is there a place for uniformity, or is it important to recognize our differences with respect and grace?  Yes and no.

When should ‘One Size Fit Most’?

The General Board of Church and Society is working on a revision of our United Methodist Social Principles. These can be found in our Book of Discipline in Paragraph 160-164.They include many important statements that we as United Methodists believe about social justice. However, one size does not always fit all in the global context.

Recently, the topic of plastic water bottles came up. We know that the use of these bottles creates a huge recycling issue for our planet. Because it does not break down, plastic causes pollution, increasingly littering our landfills and oceans with these empty bottles. 

When discussing the need for United Methodists to take a stand against these disposable bottles our sisters and brothers in Africa raised their own concern. Much of their drinking water is unsafe for human consumption. The plastic water bottles are a lifeline for health for many of our friends across the globe. To make a statement against all plastic bottles is to cause harm to part of our connection. One size does not fit all in this case.

In our conversations about human sexuality and ministry the Commission on a Way Forward’s One Church Plan acknowledges that “we are not of one mind regarding human sexuality. As we continue to faithfully explore issues of sexuality, we will honor the theological guidelines of Scripture, reason, tradition and experience.”

“We acknowledge that God’s revelation of truth and God’s extension of grace as expressed in Jesus Christ may cause persons of good conscience to interpret and decide issues of sexuality differently,” according to our United Methodist Judicial Council’s recent ruling.  I believe this is another case where one size does not fit all during this time in the life of the church.

When should ‘One Size Fit All’?

But what about non-negotiables?  Where do we take hard stands and agree to be in solidarity?  Where does one size fit all? I think that would be in the area of basic human rights, mercy and justice for humanity.

At the most recent meeting of the General Board of Church and Society (on which I serve as a board member) we visited Karnes City, Texas. There is a connection there of community partners helping immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers who have moved into that area in the state.  The health, housing, legal, education and employment services of this city are all working together in a coordinated effort to assist this population. 

For some in our country the latest wave of asylum-seekers from Central America are a problem, a threat that needs to be kept out, even with military troops, walls and mass shootings. But the people in Karnes see their immigrant population as an asset to their community.

Local agencies base their service model on the principle of Asset Based Community Development, and they identify their new community members as an important part of the mix. These welcome residents are hard-working and give many volunteer hours in the schools and support service venues.

They are tenacious, family-orientated and grateful. These immigrant families attend agriculture classes and ESL (English-as-a-Second Language) classes. They are fellow human beings working in the community for good, and they are treated with respect. Partly because of them the entire area is thriving.

We need to respect the humanity of immigrants, as many in this country have done in the past. But our federal government is now considering an administrative decision that would change the Flores Settlement Act and Public Charge policies. It is proposing that people who are not U.S. citizens should lose their chance to have permanent residency if they receive any form of public assistance, such as health, nutrition and housing aid.

According to our friends in Karnes City this would be a devastating thing, endangering the lives of many people there. We can all offer public advocacy comments about this dangerous new measure using https://www.ouramericanstory.us/faith-traditions/.  Surely, people should not have to choose between receiving food and health care assistance and pursuing legal residency or citizenship. One size needs to fit all here. Would any of us want to be put in that drastic, inhumane position?

Gun violence and acts of racial hatred
Another place where we should be in solidarity is around stemming the tide of gun violence, particularly as it relates to racial hate crimes. The recent fatal shootings of worshiping Jews at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., and elderly black shoppers at a Kroger grocery store in Louisville, Ky., are yet more examples of racism in its most heinous form. 

The Pittsburgh shooter absurdly posted on social media “HIAS (The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) likes to bring invaders in that kill our people. I can’t sit by and watch my people get slaughtered.”  As he was shooting innocent people, he shouted “All Jews must die.” 

At the Shabbat service that morning a family was bringing their baby for a Jewish naming ceremony known as a “bris.” A person’s name or identity as a part of the Jewish family should not be the reason for them to singled out as a people that “must die.” 

We must have a zero-tolerance policy against intolerance and our insatiable need for automatic firearms. Common sense legislation needs to be “one size fits all,” applying to all firearm sales and restrictions in all places.

The list could go on because there are many complicated issues. We are not of one mind or heart on many concerns. But officially, as United Methodists, as children of John Wesley, we are advocates for social justice and human mercy.

And as Christians, we believe that for everyone in the family of God there needs to be “one size that fits all” when it comes to our humanitarian concerns.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Believing and being there for domestic violence victims

October is Domestic Violence & Intimate Partner Violence Prevention Month (Also known as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month)
By Bishop Peggy Johnson

She came to the United Methodist-sponsored DeafBlind Camp*, this young woman with a small child. Her husband dropped her off. She could neither see nor hear. But faithful volunteers interpreted for her, making tactile deaf signs in her hands. And they led her from place to place during the week of camp activities. 
I was running the camp; so I did not have much contact with “Audrey.”** The woman who served as her support service provider (SSP) sensed that she was burdened with something; but the nature of it was unclear.
Being deaf and blind comes with huge daily challenges. God bless this volunteer helper! After camp ended she went to visit “Audrey” at her home, and they formed a bond of friendship. 
It was through that bond that the terrible truth about Audrey’s husband came to light. He would beat her and kick her and put things in her way, so she would fall and hurt herself. This was unbelievable cruelty behind closed doors. 
Thanks to much intervention and support, the volunteer helped Audrey escape from this abusive environment, move out of the state (with her young child), endure divorce and custody court proceedings, and begin a new life. It all started with a relationship and the simple fact that the volunteer believed her story and then did something about it.
Suffering in secret, silent agony
Many people are living, suffering in secret, silent agony because of abuse. That includes women and some men, attacked both in and outside of the home. Their abuse comes in the form of physical violence, sexual violence and emotional violence. Emotional violence can be as damaging as a fist.
October is “National Domestic Violence and Intimate Partner Violence Prevention Month.” Our churches can play an important role in prevention by teaching people about appropriate ways of dealing with anger, proper dating protocols and the dangers of producing and handling pornography. 
Our denomination’s Commission on United Methodist Men has a wonderful, eight-week learning program to help men in our churches and communities. Adapted from a YWCA program, Amending through Faith seeks to cultivate a healthy masculinity that recognizes and challenges disrespect and violence against women as a stubborn cultural norm. 
Learn more and view the video on the website or contact the Rev. Dr. Rick Vance at amendthroughfaith@gmail.com or 615-620-7277. 
The Eastern PA Conference will sponsor a day-long seminar, titled Domestic Violence: The Faith Community Responds, on Saturday, Nov. 17 at West Lawn UMC. There will be a keynote speaker from FaithTrust Insitute and workshops, including one from the Amending through Faith program for men. 

The faith community must respond
Everyone should come to learn about the signs and solutions to domestic violence and ways that we as the Body of Christ can help end this deadly, widespread scourge on our society’s treatment of women and families. We must get more involved, so we can become wellsprings of healing and hope for wounded victims, many of whom don’t believe the church cares or is willing or able to help.
The most important thing is believing the victim. Audrey’s life was changed when one person found her story to be credible. John 8:32 says “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” When truth is told it needs to be believed and then acted upon. 
Many times, a victim will summon the courage to tell their story; but then they are not believed. In some cases, they are punished and ostracized for it. The fear of this syndrome prevents many from coming forward to tell their stories of often terrible abuse. Instead, they keep it hidden, like a festering sore on their souls. And it never heals or disappears.
Believe people when they have the courage to tell the truth. But don’t just stop there. Believing means doing something about it. It means coming alongside persons to offer emotional support. It means:
  • helping victims with escape plans and financial support, 
  • helping both victim and perpetrator find needed therapy, 
  • supporting “safe” houses in your area that provide transitional services, 
  • posting signs in bathroom stalls about how to get help, etc. 
The possibilities are endless. It means stepping out and taking risks. Liberating truth is costly, but it is also a sign of our belief and discipleship in Jesus Christ. His depth of compassionate love and his actions to heal and set free oppressed persons should be our example.

*The DeafBlind Camp of Maryland was established in 1998 by Deaf Interfaith to provide a safe, fun, barrier-free week for persons who have a significant hearing and vision loss. Bishop Peggy Johnson was its visionary and director. She led camps there, along with Carol Stevens and others, for 10 years until she was elected a bishop.

The camp has grown from six campers the first year to over forty campers currently. Campers have varying degrees of hearing and vision loss; many are totally deaf and blind. In 2015, the DeafBlind Camp of Maryland, Inc. became a 501(c)(3) organization, allowing for tax deductible donations.

** “Audrey” is a name made up to protect the privacy of this individual.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

History Revisited

“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. (Isaiah 43:18-19, NIV)
Every October when I was in grade school we sang the same song: “In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” I learned about this brave sailor, who challenged the thinking of the time that the earth was flat and if one went too far west they would fall off the map.

I marveled at his tenacity. When he could not get Italian supporters for his voyage, he went to King Ferdinand of Spain and his wife, Isabella. (I especially liked hearing about Isabella since most of my history lessons in school had very few women of prominence. Betsy Ross sewing a flag in Philadelphia was the only other woman I remember.)

I was taught that Columbus “discovered” the new world and brought Christ to the heathens. I actually wrote a newsletter once at my first parish saying that the name “Christopher” meant “Christ-bearer” and that he was spreading the faith to those who had never heard.

Then I went on a mission trip to the Dominican Republic and visited a large, modern museum of history, where I learned of Columbus’ brutality and the genocide of the indigenous Taino people. He instituted slavery and engaged in horrific acts of inhumanity.

According to an article in the Philadelphia Tribune (9/2/18), “Council Must Stop Celebrating Columbus Genocide,” by Michael Coard, “the atrocities of Columbus were so bad that Governor Francisco De Bodadilla arrested him for his many crimes and sent him back to Spain in shackles.” So much for my “Christ-bearer.”

Across our country a number of states have changed “Columbus Day” to “Indigenous Peoples Day” or “Native Americans Day,” including Alaska, Minnesota, South Dakota and Vermont. Numerous cities and universities have followed suit.

What does this have to do with the church? In 2012 the General Conference of The United Methodist Church engaged in an “Act of Repentance and Healing for Indigenous People.” We learned how the church’s history was one of promoting genocide with no respect for the culture and rights of indigenous people all over the globe. We said we were sorry, but we also promised to improve some of our ways of knowing, living and being. 

According to our 2016 Book of Resolutions (BOR, page 319) “In 1452 the Papal Bull Romanus Pontifix (an official statement issued by Pope Nicholas V) declared war against all non-Christians throughout the world, sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories.”

The BOR further explains that, “In 1823 the “Christian Doctrine of Discovery” was adopted into law by the U.S. Supreme Court. Chief Justice (John) Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed dominion over the lands of America, and upon discovery, Native American Indians had lost their rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations and retained a mere right of occupancy in their lands.”

Much of that thinking came about as a result of a belief that we had the right to claim the belongings of others because of our superior Christian faith. I don’t believe there is any rationale for claiming the property of others in the teachings of Jesus. 

There is a Columbus Day—a three-day-weekend holiday—every year. But instead of celebrating a villain’s dubious “discovery” that led to brutal conquest, exploitation and genocide, we can find ways to celebrate the indigenous people of the world. We can honor their origins, cultures and survival and rejoice in their kinship with us as members of the human family created and loved by God.

So, I urge you to explore these indigenous histories and cultures—their past and present—through relevant experiences. Visit a museum, read a book, watch a movie. Offer a “show and tell” experience in church, sharing a story about how we as Christians need to live with others in healthy, respectful and sustainable ways.

Some of the history that we were taught years ago needs to be revisited and revised. As we consider the former things of old, we should forget or reject some stories that no longer seem valid. Instead, it is time to perceive new things that God is doing in our midst and celebrate new wisdom for our times.

Download this essay as a Worship Bulletin Insert: www.epaumc.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/columbusday-insert.pdf

Friday, September 14, 2018

Postcards from McAllen, Texas:  An Immersion in Immigration Realities

A tour provided by the General Board of Church and Society, Bishop Robert Schnase and support  personnel from the Rio Texas Annual Conference – August 22-24, 2018

By Bishop Peggy Johnson*

McAllen, Texas, is located in the Rio Grande Valley and it borders the country of Mexico. It is one of the poorest areas in the United States.  The average income is $34,000 and 29 percent of the people have no health care services.  This is a place where many people cross the border into the United States, and the dynamics of this are highly complex. United Methodists are found in this area, serving and ministering with the poor.

Bishop Robert Schnase, who serves in the Rio Texas Annual Conference, explained that the church strives to find safe places and spaces for migrating people to be processed and engaged, to offer compassion and civility, to build relationships, to teach people about the border experience and to be constantly in prayer. Radical hospitality is the always the goal.

The Border Patrol agents explained that their role is first to protect the country from terrorists and their weapons.  Mostly they see people from Mexico and Central American countries (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador) seeking work and asylum from the dangerous gangs and violence in their home countries. Smuggling people into the United States is a huge for-profit business that surpasses the illegal drug trade. They apprehended 140,000 people this year, 50,000 of whom were in family units. Some were unaccompanied minors.

The Border Patrol workers save many lives as some people have been traveling for months in harsh conditions.  They use vehicles, boats, horses, helicopters, and various forms of technology to find people who are coming over the border.  Mexican people typically are sent right back over to Mexico. The Central American people are mostly asking for asylum and they surrender to the patrol officers to be processed. At least 80 percent of them are sent back home after being processed.

Ursula Central Processing Center is where about 500 people stay while they are being processed.  It is the first step. We were not allowed to take pictures, but we saw first-hand women, men and children of all ages in something like cages with sleeping bags and Millar (silver) blankets.  After they are processed they are moved to shelters and eventually to places around the country where family and friends will keep them while they await asylum hearings.  They are given food, clothing, health care, laundry and showers. The guard told me that they also have begun offering behavioral services for those with emotional issues.  The people we saw seemed very subdued.  Some were resting after long journeys. A few of our group reached out and touched the hands of the people within and gave them a few words of encouragement. This center was built in 2014 when the flood of unaccompanied minors came across the border.  One guard said, “It is what it is, and you do the best you can.”

Rev. Amelia Beasley is a young adult United Methodist Elder in the Rio Texas Annual Conference. She serves a Hispanic congregation that consists of citizens, undocumented people, border patrol officers, and homeland security personnel. She led worship for our group one morning and said that Christ is found in the “in-between places” or “nepantla” in Spanish.

We as the church are to be bridge builders, fixing broken hearts, assisting people as they go to court, and building relationships.  It is how her very diverse church is able to worship and live together as the Body of Christ.  Bishop Schnase also read to the group a series of thoughtful, personal experiences as a minister who served near the border during the years he was a local pastor in this area.

Shelter and transfer ministries are an important part of the Christian witness in McAllen. La Posada Providencia (upper left) and Catholic Charities (upper right and lower two pictures) provide short term help for people as they leave the processing center, contact family in various places around the country and prepare to take a bus or a plane out of Texas while they await their immigration hearings.  Among the things they provide are some basic health care, English classes, food and clothing.

The goal is to restore human dignity and be a welcome presence.  When new people arrive each day at the Catholic Charities Center everyone claps to welcome them. These programs are run on the barest of means and are in constant need of funds.

The response of the church is not only humanitarian.  There are also legal avenues of service.  Ephraim Guerrero (left) works as an immigration lawyer for the Methodist Church of Mexico.  He assists people getting visas and conducts training for the law enforcement officers.  His work in Monterrey is very dangerous as the cartels make money from smuggling people. Violence and kidnapping is a constant way of life.

Azalea Aleman-Bendix (right), a United Methodist laywoman, is the Assistant Public Defender in the Federal Courthouse in Bentsen Tower, McAllen.  She has to process hundreds of people through the courts each week. She continually advocates for their civil and human rights. She told us that at least 565 children are not back with their families after they were ordered to be reunited. She says that the church must continue to speak out for the suffering that is happening and to address the policies that dehumanize people.

Other advocacy work includes the ministry of Tracy Hughes (left), the founder of “Tamar’s Tapestry.” She explained how this climate of immigration is the perfect storm for human trafficking and the sex trade.  Families pay smugglers $5,000-$7,000 to bring loved ones to the United States; and many are trapped in prostitution rings. They start with children as young as 11 and 12 years old.  Her program teaches about the need to address pornography in this country; and she also runs a shelter for women who have escaped the system.

Ann Cass (right) from Proyecto Azteca spoke to us about the proposed border wall.  There are already many walls along the U.S.-Mexico border.  The proposed, extensive 15-foot wall would cost $16.2 million dollars per square mile.  It would endanger protected lands and wildlife refuges.

She advocates for a comprehensive immigration reform that is not amnesty instead.  Ann wishes that the wall money could be used to build a hospital in the area, where there is currently no public medical center, and to help the 4,000 people who are in need of housing.

From left to right: Susan Henry Crowe, Peggy Johnson, Nora Pimentel, Sally Dyck, Hope Morgan, Ward)

Rebecca Cole and Cindy Johnson

From left to right: Trish Bruckbauer, Hope Morgan Ward, Maribel Vasquez, Rebecca Cole, Cindy Johnson, Susan Henry Crowe, Peggy Johnson, Sally Dyck, Amelia Beasley, Robert Lopez, Laura Merrill and Robert Schnase (not in the picture: Susan Hellums)

What a rich experience to be at the border and to learn about what the church is doing and how all of us can engage in ministries that promote justice and peace in this world.

My thanks to the General Board of Church and Society and the Rio Texas Conference who arranged for this immersion experience.

*Bishop Peggy Johnson serves on the General Board of Church and Society.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Place at the Table

The United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities met at Gallaudet University for a three-day conference for the purpose of education, advocacy and support (August 1-3, 2018). The theme was “Taking Our Place at the Table: DisABILITY Leadership Academy.”

The event included a number of speakers: the Rev. Stephanie Remington from Wesley Theological Seminary’s Lewis Leadership Center; the Rev. E. Michelle Ledder from the General Commission on Religion and Race; the Rev. Jackson Day from the General Board of Church and Society; and the Rev. Anthony Hunt from the Baltimore-Washington Conference Board of Ordained Ministry.

Back, Left to right: Rev. Ruthann Simpson (Pen-Del), Rev. Dave Goss (EPA), Rev. Bill Downing (Pen-Del), and Rev. Paul Crikelair (EPA). Front: Bishop Peggy Johnson.

Leadership development was the key component of this event; and the group strategized about how to promote more opportunities to be in leadership and inclusion in the UMC. People with disabilities, even those who are ordained or commissioned, often find themselves talked about but not present at the table.

Jesus understood the importance of table ministry. Much of his ministry included gatherings around meals and tables. It seemed like he was always doing radical acts of inclusion at the tables where he sat.

Jesus ate with sinners and tax collectors and got into trouble with the Pharisees for that (Matthew 9:11). He allowed a woman with a questionable past to wash his feet at a table in the home of a Pharisee, and he gets grief for that too (Luke 7:36-50). We see him including Mary of Bethany around the teaching table instead of sending her to the kitchen to cook with her sister Martha (Luke 10:38-42).

Left to right: Deacon Russell Ewell (Co-chair of the UM Association of Ministers with
Disabilities), Rev. Janine Delaunay (Co-chair of UMAMD with Russell), Bishop Peggy Johnson.

Jesus gives us a parable about the great banquet that includes all those whom the world excludes (Luke 14:15-24), especially those with disabilities. In addition, he didn’t shy away from literally turning over tables of greed and extortion when the place of prayer for the Gentiles was being defiled by the sale of sacrificial animals and the changing of coins. (John 2:11-12).

In each case the Lord was widening the circle at each table, teaching the world the unimaginably grace-filled, inclusive love of God.

Jesus’ most radical act of table turning would be the Last Supper. At that table Jesus himself becomes love incarnate. The Lamb of God becomes the sacrificial lamb for the sins of the world. The bread and the wine are his very body and blood. His death on the cross seals forever the opportunity for everyone, everywhere, throughout all of history to be a part of the family of God and seated at Christ’s table.

At this disability conference at Gallaudet we once again committed ourselves to sharing the good news that God unconditionally includes and loves people with disabilities. I ask you, the church, to think of ways that your church, your ministries, your worship and outreach programs can include this amazingly gifted community. Then widen your table to welcome all.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Turning as delight

In 1848, Elder Joseph Brackett, Jr. (1797-1882) a member of a sect known as the Shakers, located in Alfred, Maine, wrote the words and the tune to “Simple Gifts.”

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be.

 And when we find ourselves in the place just right, t’will be in the valley of love and delight.   

When true simplicity is gained, to bow and to bend, we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning, we come ‘round right.” 

This was originally one of the dance songs of the Shaker sect, whose full name was the “United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.” Their founder was a prophetic figure known as Mother Ann Lee. 
The group began in Europe (first France and then England) and eventually moved to the New York in the 1700’s.  The Shakers were basically Christian in their beliefs, following the teachings and lifestyle of Jesus. They lived together in communities with a strict rule about celibacy, and they held all property in common.  The movement swelled to 19 communities across northeastern parts of the United States in the 1800’s; and at its heyday they had more than 6,000 community members.  
An important part of their communal worship was dancing; so the lyrics of “Simple Gifts” were as much poetry as instruction, since the song was actually being danced. I can imagine them turning and turning in some fashion that eventually circled them back to their original place in the line.  The concept of turning as “delight” seems to be a call for a willingness to be open to change.  That involves bowing and bending that chaffs against our human pride many times. 
Change, and the humbling turning and turning that comes with it is often a threat to us “feet-stuck-in-the-ground” humans.  Yet only as we are open to change, take risks and are flexible enough to embrace it without “shame” can we grow and mature as Christians.  The basic fundamental core of beliefs and ways of being in God’s eyes stays the same but in the turning we experience personal and spiritual growth that cannot come in any other way.
In her fascinating book Simple Gifts: Lessons in Living from a Shaker Village (Vintage Books, 1999), June Sprigg writes about her experiences working as a summer-intern tour guide in one of the last remaining Shaker settlements in Canterbury, New Hampshire, in the early 1970’s. The remnant of women there, all in their elder years, taught the writer their basic rules of simple living (without the “scrambling and yearning for wealth”), hard work, making and doing things with excellence, and staying the course despite criticism and scorn.  Mother Ann Lee, the foundress declared their motto to be “hands to work, hearts to God,” and it was lived out there even after two centuries.
The Shakers achieved these goals of simplicity and personal piety by strong bonds of accountability to one another, much like the early Wesley Movement with its class meetings and bands.  Shakers had a leadership design that built into the community much mentorship and spiritual guidance.  Each member was assigned the task of confessing their sins on a regular basis to their superior, including those in the highest ranks.  In this way they continued to “turn and turn” and polish the diamond of their souls into a more clear image of Jesus. 
I met my future husband, Michael at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky in 1977.  We were aspiring to become United Methodist ministers. We were married at the Free Methodist Church in Wilmore in August of 1978 and spent our honeymoon at the Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill, Kentucky (just 20 miles from Wilmore).  
The Shaker community there was founded in 1805 and thrived for about 100 years.  After it disbanded because of dwindling numbers, it eventually became a historical center with tours and various exhibits of the Shakers’ handiwork and farms.  They also had exceptionally good food, and people could sleep in the restored Shaker quarters, which had handmade Shaker furniture and the simplest of amenities. We were charmed by the stories of their way of life (except for the celibacy rule), and we felt that our beginnings as a couple could take a page out of their commitment to Christ above all else.
The world continued to turn, and off we went into ministry after graduation from Asbury Seminary in 1980. We accepted appointments in the Baltimore Washington Conference and served there for 25 years, all the while turning and turning as we grew as a family and in the love of God.  
In 2003, the year of our 25th wedding anniversary, we took a pilgrimage to Pleasant Hill, Ky., to once again renew our vows to each other and recommit ourselves to simplicity.  On that visit, we were surprised to see that the Free Methodist Church where we were married in Wilmore had become a Cokesbury bookstore.  We went into the store and renewed our vows in the reference section with a curious store manager looking on. 
Things had turned in those 25 years.  The Free Methodists had built a larger church outside of Wilmore, and the seminary had expanded. The town had two traffic lights!  Our family had also increased by two sons; and our ministries turned from each serving two multiple-church charges to serving single churches in Baltimore. And I welcomed the joy of my life: a full-time pastoral ministry at the historic Christ UMC of the Deaf. Through it all, we learned about patience, endurance, God’s faithful providing in lean times and “laughter’s healing art.” (UM Book of Hymns, 560)
The world continued to turn, and this year we celebrated 40 years of marriage. Off we went to Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, once again to stay in the Shaker living quarters, to eat their humble but delicious food and to renew our commitments. The Free Methodist Church that had become a bookstore by our last visit was now a church again. This time it was the “GCF: Vineyard Church.”  
The town of Wilmore had “turned” a great deal as well: Asbury College was now Asbury University; and our beloved seminary had numerous new buildings and centers for evangelism, mission and technology.  There were many new expanded apartments for student housing. The seminary chapel had been renovated; and because the GCF Church was not open the morning of our visit, we renewed our vows at Estes Chapel.

Once again, we thanked God for the years of marriage and ministry, and we pledged ourselves to continuing the journey of “turning.” Since our 25th anniversary visit there had been much turning in our lives. I became a bishop; there has been great expansion of our global church; there is a new way of being the church in the world with advancements in technology and communication; and the out-in-the-world approach to missions has made our heads turn!
Turning and growing and pruning and continuing on the journey of ministry is our goal for the next however many years we have left. The song promises when we turn and turn enough we will “come ‘round right.” May it be so!  The Shakers will always bring me back to what is really important in life and ministry: the simple gifts are the best!

Enjoy photos of Bishop Peggy and the Rev. Michael Johnson, then and now.

Learn more about the Shakers from History of the Shakers and Ken Burns’ PBS American Stories and other sources. View the short video (2:24) Utopian Communities included Brook Farm, Mormons, Shakers by S. Anthony Hill.  Also, watch and listen to children sing and dance to the Shaker Hymn “Simple Gifts” [with lyrics]. 
1John M. Anderson (1950) “Force and Form: The Shaker Intuition of Simplicity,” The Journal of Religion, University of Chicago)


Monday, June 11, 2018

World Refugee Day – June 20, 2018

The United Nations' (UN) World Refugee Day is observed on June 20 each year. This event honors the courage, strength and determination of women, men and children who are forced to flee their homeland under threat of persecution, conflict and violence. Some communities dedicate an entire week that includes World Refugee Day to encourage people to think about the lives of refugees and the human right to a secure place to that one can see as “home”. (www.timeanddate.com/holidays/un/world-refugee-day )

By Bishop Peggy Johnson

Last December in my
New Year’s video statement and a related article, I declared 2018 to be the “Year of the Migrant.”  There are more than 65 million displaced people living in our world today; and we, the people of God, have a mandate to show them love and hospitality:

“Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” (Hebrews 13:2)

“For I was hungry, and you gave me food; I was thirsty, and you gave me drink; I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.”   Matthew 25:35

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”  Leviticus 19:33-34

The mandate is clear.  To live out these commands in this day and time, with immigration being a highly controversial issue, is far more difficult but also far more crucial.
World Refugee Day is June 20, 2018; and I hope that each of our churches will mention this on Sunday, June 17 and 24, during worship.  Make people aware of the plight of millions.  Help congregants understand the intolerable political climate that exists in many countries due to war, unstable governments, famine or natural disasters. 

Remind our flocks that our resettlement program for legal immigrants in the U.S. is an important part of our national value system. For the Christian, it is part of our commitment to Jesus.
Help people find ways to get involved and offer help, even just a little bit.  We have a United Methodist Advanced Special fund for donations: National Justice for Our Neighbors Advance #901285 (Creating a welcoming community by providing immigration legal services, education and advocacy.)  And we can communicate in many ways to our lawmakers that we support humane immigration policies.

Years ago, when I was serving in a local congregation in Baltimore, a man from Ethiopia came to my church.  He was seeking asylum in the U.S. due to political unrest in his home country, where he was a respected educator.  He narrowly escaped with his life after being kidnapped and tortured. 

The church afforded him many helpful support systems during his long journey through the immigration process.  This was because he had a face and a story; and it was because the common humanity they shared was compelling.  This talented and personable man eventually received asylum status and a green card, and it was partly due to the advocacy and support of this little church.  
Today he is a productive member of society.  I saw a picture of him on Facebook recently standing next to his son who just graduated from high school.  His story taught me that every church can do one thing, help one person, raise one voice for advocacy. 

Compassion for the stranger does not have to spin into partisan political controversy.  Respond only as the Lord lays it on your heart, as the “Lord loves a cheerful giver.”  Remember always that we are all sojourners on this earth, living a common life under the watchful eyes of a loving, merciful, welcoming God, who bids us to be loving and merciful and welcoming as well. 

Please download, use and share this toolkit from the Refugee Council USA, so that your church and others can promote and advocate for this important cause using various means in the weeks and months to come: 

World Refugee Day 2018:  Reaffirming U.S. Commitment to RefugeeResettlement & Protection