Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Give us your eyes and your heart

Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

October 2010
Harlan, Kentucky

Harlan County, Kentucky. Coal is still king here. And while coal still provides a lot of jobs in this community, the unemployment rate is more than 20%. More than one-third of the population lives below the poverty line. Just over half graduate from high school.

When I was in this town for the MCC Great Lakes board meeting, I got to meet with several homeowners that have been assisted by the SWAP program (Sharing With Appalachian People). During a typical summer, 1200 youth and adults spend a week working on dozens of home repair projects and learning to know the folks who live here and in three other communities.

Most of the homeowners are white, but coal has brought a rainbow of people of other colors into this community, too. Though some folks are critical of the current strip mining practices, they're also grateful for meaningful work and are quick to point out that almost 50% of electricity in the United States is still provided by coal.

Mennonites came to this valley after the floods of 1977. MDS organized disaster relief, but some of the volunteers realized challenges were much deeper than the floods and stayed to help. Other churches in the community are also trying to respond to the widespread economic poverty in this community.

"Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God," the prophet Micah reminds us. One of the SWAP coordinators says she puts it this way to the volunteers who come to work and learn - Give us your eyes and your heart.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Start with the churches

Make every effort to be fruitful and effective... (I Peter 1: 5 and 8)

The Gulf region
October 4-7

The week after Hurrican Katrina hit with a vengeance on the Gulf Coast, Mennonite Disaster Service director Kevin King remembers a call that came his way while he was on an exploratory trip in Alabama. A woman calling from Bayou La Batre south of Mobile in the Gulf said "the world has forgotten us."

So MDS, with the help of MCC canned meat, blankets and health kits, first began its Katrina response in this shrimper community. Its a response that has involved a dozen locations in the Gulf region and hundreds of volunteers to help rebuild homes and peoples' lives.

Kevin remembers asking local Mobile pastor JD Landis where to start and JD told him, "Start with the churches." From the beginning, Katrina response in this community has encouraged the Way of Life Mennnonite Fellowship's outreach to the Asian community.

Two states away and several hours south of New Orleans, MDS is helping a Native community on the bayou near Triumph, Louisiana restore its homes. These homes are outside the levee system and so they are not eligible for any governmental assistance.

MDS is also working with George and Ruby Renno who have provided a long-time pastoral presence in this community through the Lighthouse Church. Geoerge remembers using insurance money to buy another shrimp boat which provided income for seven people for the first three years after Katrina.

Both Bayou communities have suffered through a more recent storm of another nature called the BP oil spill. George Renno says the oil is thick in some parts of the marsh in the southern tip of Louisiana. Back in Bayou La Batre in Alabama, though no oil has yet appeared, it still has made its presence known. Though Gulf seafood has been tested to be safe, no one wants to eat it and prices have tumbled. The oil spill has prolonged economic hardship in both bayou communities.

Back in New Orleans where there are still 900 blocks of mostly empty lots and houses five years after Katrina, MDS is still rebuilding homes here, too. It works with Churches Supporting Churches to help rebuild the spiritual fabric of the communities.

MDS is also wondering whether its New Orleans unit facility might eventually become a peace center or connected in some other way to the ministry of its supporting churches.

One person we talked to in New Orleans recalls somebody asking him who Mennonites are. All he could think to respond was that Mennonites believe in Jesus and they believe in helping poor people.

All the more reason, in responding to Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill, to start with the churches who are making every effort to be fruitful.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

When our words fail us

I am the way, the truth and the life. - John 14:6

October 1-2, 2010
Winnipeg, Manitoba

We met in the material resources warehouse, a symbol of what we can do together. Because of the generosity of our people, health kits and blankets and much more are shipped from this place to people who need them all over the world.

When the binational and Canada MCC boards met in Winnipeg this weekend, we took time to meet with leaders of the Chortitzer and Sommerfelder Mennonite churches because they don't believe MCC is always clear and true to the Biblical faith we say we believe.

MCC Binational chair Herman Bontrager remembered when he was an MCCer in Latin America. A Lutheran bishop's life was in danger because he worked with the poor so the MCCers decided they would be a presence with him by staying with the bishop in his house.

MCC Canada chair Neil Janzen remembers being called to a life of service through MCC terms in the Teachers Abroad Program in Africa and in India.

MCC Manitoba chair Ernie Wiens still remembers the stories of his grandmother in the Ukraine where an MCC soup kitchen helped provide needed nourishment for her children.

Bishop David Wiebe of the Sommerfelder church remembers his call to service as a Sunday school teacher, wanting to say no, but standing in front of the children and realizing he was being called to a lifetime of ministry.

Bishop Frank Unrau of the Chortitzer church remembers a life changing experience with MCC when he visited Nicaragua and experienced first hand how much stuff we have as North Americans and how few material resources some have in other parts of the world.

Our actions are always understood but not always our words, said Herman Bontrager. And that's why we were here this evening. We shared stories and fellowshipped together, but because of our words, or in some cases the lack of them, these brothers were not sure they could trust our actions.

"I am the way, the truth and the life," says Jesus. "On that there can be no compromise," said Bishop David Wiebe. We all believe that Jesus is the way, but MCC's work to build bridges with Muslims and our words of support for them have caused the Chortitzer and Sommerfelder leaders to wonder if MCC is compromising on the truth. They wonder if MCC believes the God of Muslims and the God of Christians is the same God.

How do we find a balance between humility and confidence in our message wondered an MCC board member. What does it mean to give an account for our faith when it is asked for, wondered one of the church leaders.

This evening, sitting side by side, we still found ourselves far apart in our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Our heartfelt words to each other were not enough. "MCC wants to be rooted in the church and do our work in response to Christ," said Ernie Wiebe in closing. Our words and deeds must come together, on that we all can agree.