Born anew

www.brethren.org/yya
Photo by Glenn Riegel

By Emmett Witkovsky-Eldred, Brethren Volunteer Service volunteer for Youth and Young Adult Ministries

“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability” (Acts 2:1-4).

I’ve always been shy. Just thinking about gathering with dozens of strangers and getting to know them makes me anxious and bashful. I never expected to spend a year in Brethren Volunteer Service helping plan that sort of event. Well, actually, three: Christian Citizenship Seminar (April 27-May 2), Young Adult Conference (May 24-26), and National Junior High Conference (June 12-14). During my service in Elgin, Ill., with Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Church of the Brethren, I am responsible for shepherding people and wrangling details that allow these events to succeed.

Each event promises to kindle the flame of community that fills us with warmth and light. As all who attended a powerful denomination-wide event know, there’s something special about being gathered together to worship God under one big roof. Our hymns sound the richest, our prayers feel the deepest, and God’s spirit is the most palpable when we cross boundaries of race, gender, theology, and geography to simply be together.

As I’ve learned through summers in outdoor camping ministry, the potential for transformative community-building is amplified by the youthfulness and hopefulness of the people who go to these events. Because of their energy, their generosity of spirit, and their capacity for fun and friendship, youth and young adults are natural community-builders. This makes youth and young adult events of the Church of the Brethren ripe for interactions that resemble God’s beloved and sacred community.

Simply put, youth events like CCS, YAC, and NJHC are the moments when Pentecost comes alive—not a moment in the liturgical calendar but a revelation of what community looks like when anointed by the Holy Spirit. When we gather, we build our community upon love, free ourselves of jaded inhibition, and embrace diversity to foster unity. We find ourselves enflamed with love for God and each other. We develop an uncanny talent for speaking to one another in a language we can all understand.

I sometimes wonder how a shy person like myself would have fared at that first Pentecost. Could I have come out of my shell enough to speak to my neighbors in their own language? Could my energy sustain tongues of fire upon my head? Then I remember my own National Junior High Conference and my first Young Adult Conference. Those were moments when I felt enveloped by the community of God. This happened, not in spite of my quiet nature, but because in God’s kingdom, there is plenty of room for both extroverts and introverts. I belonged.

My hope for these events—much more than every detail being in its place—is for a spontaneous outbreak of community. May it spread like wildfire, and may it burn in each person’s own unique way. And may we be present in that moment to watch with wonder the church born anew in another generation.

Learn more about Youth and Young Adult Ministries of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/yya or support them today at www.brethren.org/givediscipleship .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Disaster Relief Ministry visits IDP’s near Benin City

In March, the EYN  Disaster Relief Ministry Team traveled down to Edo state in southern Nigeria to visit an NGO called the International Christian Center. The NGO located just outside Benin City, was started in 1992 by Pastor Solomon Folorunsho. It’s purpose was to care for orphans and vulnerable children. When violence broke out in the Northeast and many people became Internally Displaced Persons(IDPs), the NGO opened its doors to this new set of IDPs. Up to 4000 persons, mostly children and widows, moved south. The women and children are given food, a place to live and education for the children.The costs to house this many people are very high and having enough food to feed them is always a problem.

                  

Since so many of the children at the International Christian Center are from the Northeast, leaders from EYN have made several visits to the Center. Salamatu Billi, wife of EYN President, accompanied the Disaster team in March. She visited the classrooms and encouraged the children to do their best. She also thanked Pastor Folorunsho for taking in these children.

One of the main reasons for the visit was to provide food assistance to the NGO. This was a large undertaking and included: 500 Yam tubers, 140 Gari bags, 53 bags of rice, a pallet of Plantains, 25 Jerri cans of palm oil and 42 bags of sugar.

The major challenges of the center according to the camp official are food shortage  and medical support. They also spend a lot of money on diesel to provide water.

Please pray for the Disaster Team, these children and all those providing their care.

Pictures and information provided by Zakariya Musa.

Greetings from Rwanda!

Photos by Josiah Ludwick

 By Josiah Ludwick, Global Mission worker in Rwanda

Muraho and greetings from the Church of the Brethren in Rwanda!

Since August 2018, Global Mission and Service made it possible for my family to live in the beautiful country of Rwanda and to be a part of the budding ministry God is blessing here. The Church of the Brethren in Rwanda is nearly four years old. In that short time, God has worked mightily and there are already four congregations in the western part of the country.

More recently, however, the government has imposed strict guidelines for churches, which has been a significant challenge. Every week, hundreds of churches are being closed throughout the country. In response, the people of our churches gathered last November and gave sacrificially to raise nearly $3,000 (exceeding their original goal of $2,000) to begin improving their properties. Inspired by this act of faith by the Rwandese Brethren, many brothers and sisters in the US also have chosen to support these efforts.

As a result of this faithful giving and partnership, our churches in Gasiza and Mudende have been able to improve their worship spaces (above, left). The Brethren in Gisenyi also purchased land in hopes of building a denominational headquarters. This will be very important as we work to be recognized as a denomination by the national government. The recognition process has been arduous, but we have made progress and moved to the regional level. Praise be to God!

God is blessing the church in Rwanda through the teaching of Brethren beliefs. Even though new ideas are generally met with skepticism, the people have been really open to Brethren theology. We have assured them that our beliefs and practices aren’t new, simply new to them. Several leaders from each church have been trained with the help of Brethren Beliefs and Practices, authored by Galen Hackman in collaboration with EYN (Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria– Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), which recently was translated into the local language of Kinyarwanda. These leaders were trained so that they can lead small groups from their congregations through the book (top right).

As a result of these teachings, we have had two occasions for baptisms at Lake Kivu, which include multiple people from each congregation accepting Jesus, embracing the new way, and experiencing trine immersion. We are also planning the first Brethren love feast in Rwanda, one for Gisenyi and Gasiza and another for Humure and Mudende, to take place near the Easter holiday.

We also celebrate the ability to send three young Batwa men to university. The Twa are typically an underserved group, but the congregation in Mudende has taken great efforts to make them feel part of the faith community, to share how God loves them and we love them, and to reveal how they can accomplish anything with God’s help. Most Batwa don’t dream of finishing primary school, let alone secondary school, so for a few to go to university is truly a miracle. The three were recognized by pastor Etienne Nsanzimana, founder and overall leader of the Church of the Brethren in Rwanda (bottom right).

In the great tradition of being “blessed to be a blessing,” the village of Batwa has gone to another indigenous village to encourage them with the gospel of Jesus Christ and the love the Brethren have for them. This new group of about 20 Batwa has started attending the Humure congregation. This is what kingdom building is all about!

Through the ministry of Global Mission and Service and with God’s blessing and grace, all these things have been possible. Thank you for your continued support of all the Lord is doing globally through the Church of the Brethren. On behalf of myself, my family, and our Rwandese brothers and sisters, thank you!

Learn more about the work of Global Mission and Service at www.brethren.org/global or support it at www.brethren.org/givegms.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Nigeria Crisis work continues amidst the violence

There have been new reports of violence and attacks in Northeast Nigeria. Continue to pray for our brothers and sisters as they live in fear but continue to proclaim Jesus Christ as their strength.

As security continues to remain a concern, the EYN Disaster team has provided monetary assistance for the building of a wall which will surround the Kulp Theological Seminary and the church Headquarters area. This project is a huge under taking. Ten teams of block molders helped produce 21,000 blocks. Numerous other volunteers help move the dried blocks to where the bricklayers will construct the wall. Volunteers came from as far away as Maiduguri.

 

EYN Peace Program continues to work on trauma consciousness and resilience training. In February, workshops were held to measure the work of the newly trained Community Based Facilitators and encouraged these volunteers at the local level. The Community Based Facilitators are local volunteers who have been trained to assist others in dealing with the extreme trauma everyone is facing. As listeners, they give people a chance to share their stories. They  also teach some of the principles of trauma and encourage the forgiveness and resilience needed to live under such difficult circumstances. Four workshops took place in areas where Boko Haram are still active (Wagga, Madagali, Gulak and Midlu). The Peace program leaders had to travel back and forth from Michika each day as it was not safe to sleep in the towns holding the trainings.

All the churches in this eastern area of EYN have been burned and yet the churches continue to worship under temporary shelters. 81 facilitators, 22 females and 59 males, attended the four workshops; that’s 81 people at the local level trained to guide others through their trauma. Pray for all these volunteers and their trainers as they engage in such important work.

Letting go

By Wendy McFadden, publisher of Brethren Press and Communications

In an essay about lost gloves, Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich passes along the story of a woman who exited a train car and discovered that she had only one of her gloves. Just before the doors closed behind her, she tossed it back inside. “Better someone had two, if not her,” the storyteller recounted.

I know I couldn’t have acted so quickly, and I’m not sure that my first impulse would have been so generous. But with little hesitation, the woman leaving the train shifted from thinking of herself to thinking of someone else, from regretting the lost glove to giving her pair to another traveler. How does one learn to let go so easily?

There are people who give something up for Lent, but this month I’m thinking more about letting go. These are different, but not completely. Giving something up is about sacrifice; letting go is about freedom. Both clear space for what matters. Both can provide spiritual focus.

What shall we let go of?

  • Stuff that weighs us down—single gloves awaiting lost mates, unused dishes, clothes that don’t fit. I recently let go of the heaviest thing in the house, an upright piano that was too big for our small living room. (I thought someday I might take lessons, but let the unfulfilled idea go out the door with the piano.)
  • The compulsion to acquire more. It’s bad for us, our neighbors, and the earth. And someday we’ll have to haul that stuff to the second-hand store.
  • The need to be in control. We’re not. Go ahead and make long-range plans, but hold them lightly.
  • Resentments and complaints. Grudges are easy to nurse, but they eventually poison our hearts. Resentment can actually shorten our lives.
  • Fear of what might happen. We are not our best selves when we are afraid. Sometimes fear is a weapon used against others; sometimes it’s a cancer that attacks its own body. Either way it’s too violent for those who want to build peace.
  • Outrage. Sometimes it’s justifiable and sometimes it works, but it’s caustic. We would do better replacing outrage with lament and compassion and action.

That’s a lot of letting go, but if we keep practicing it will become easier—even second nature. When the doors are closing, we can turn losses into something good. We can be the stories that are passed along to others, who happily hold them as warm gifts in cold hands.

This reflection was originally featured in the March issue of Messenger magazine. Learn more or subscribe to Messenger today at www.brethren.org/messenger.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Black History Month: Future

If you haven’t read the first two posts in this series, you can find them here and here.

Future

  1. The Universe is a House Party,” by Tracy K. Smith (video)
  2. The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack,” by Tracy K. Smith
  3. what the cathedral said to the black boy,” by Clint Smith III

The final installment of this series dwells on “future,” likely the least considered time frame when thinking of black history. Afrofuturism is a term that has grown in public awareness, mostly used in arts and academic circles, and centers on this very idea.

Afrofuturism is a bit of a complex concept, but it’s explained well in an episode of This American Life. One of the hosts, Neil Drumming, says: “What I like about Afrofuturism, it just seems very—it’s like this way of talking about black people in a way that’s really hopeful.” Ira Glass follows up later, saying, “[a]nd for so long, in so many imaginings of the future, in so much science fiction, there were no black people at all—which, as Neil points out, makes no sense. He says, you can tell black people are going to make it into the future because they’ve survived so much already over the centuries.” It’s a way of thinking about the future that takes into account the lived history of black people while also being creative and positive about what’s to come.  These themes can be seen in pop culture in blockbuster movies like Black Panther and the work of musicians like Janelle Monae, whose albums often feature characters and narratives set in futuristic, spacey worlds.

This is the definition I will be using for the sake of this reflection—Afrofuturism as a hopeful, imaginative way of thinking about the future for black people. It’s an approach that is not only important for changing the way we as non-black people can think about black futures, but it also challenges us as the church to change how we think about our own future.

Tracy K. Smith is a poet whose work is thoroughly imbued with this imaginative, galaxy-strewn setting. Both poems I’ve included here explore human themes in universal language. In “The Universe is a House Party,” she says:

“We grind lenses to an impossible strength,

Point them toward the future, and dream of beings

We’ll welcome with indefatigable hospitality:

How marvelous you’ve come! We won’t flinch

At the pinprick mouths, the nubbin limbs. We’ll rise,

Gracile, robust. Mi casa es su casa. Never more sincere.

Seeing us, they’ll know exactly what we mean.

Of course, it’s ours. If it’s anyone’s, it’s ours.”

In this poem, she paints a future in which we are of course hospitable to aliens, to those who come from far reaches of the universe, and we are sincere in our welcome of these other beings. In describing this scene, she reveals the stark contrast to today, in which we find it difficult to welcome other humans with distinct differences from our own communities. She imagines a brilliant future in which we aren’t burdened by prejudice and hate, and it challenges us to do the work now so we can reach that starry future.

She is not deluded in this fantastical future—she tells of incredibly strong telescopes built for no other reason than a deep human curiosity of what is out there. Maybe from here, we can get to a place of equally deep hospitality.

Tracy K. Smith said at an event, “Imagining, for me, is an act that allows for a different kind of engaging with things.” As we look toward the future of the Church of the Brethren, we must accept the challenge to engage with issues differently, creatively, and imaginatively.

Smith said in an interview about one of the poems in her book, Life on Mars, “Part of what I’ve been trying to ask myself to do is think, OK, we belong to the history of the centuries that we span, but we’re also part of something enormous. What if we think about our actions as having some bearing upon the history of eternity? What would we change if those were the stakes that we were cognizant of?

This is the way the church needs to think about our future. We need to be cognizant of the stakes—if there’s anything that our faith tells us, is that our actions have bearing on the history of eternity. We need to take our commitment to racial justice, to true hospitality, to telling black stories, to lamenting our broken past, very seriously, because there are high stakes.

Clint Smith’s poem, “what the cathedral said to the black boy,” stands as a goal for the church in the future. The cathedral that he describes is, unfortunately, not what our church has always been for people of color. We want to be a refuge, but we must recognize the ways we have at times caused pain instead. His words should be a call to action for us all: “ain’t we all just trying to be / some type of sanctuary for someone? for every year we are not destroyed / do they not remind us what a miracle / it is to have lasted this long?” As the church, it should be our primary goal to be “some type of sanctuary” for populations that have long been targeted and oppressed.

What are our congregations not saying to the black boy, and how can we better say to them:

“come inside child

rest yourself

it’s okay to want to be held”

Black History Month: Present

If you haven’t read the first post in this series, please read it here first.

“For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:14)

Present

  1. Your National Anthem” (2018), by Clint Smith III
  2. litany” (2016), by Mahogany L. Browne

“Your National Anthem,” by Clint Smith III

Both Clint Smith’s and Mahogany Browne’s poems begin with “today.” They immediately place us in the current day, the present, such as the start of a news story that has just occurred. Whether they actually happened today or not, the situations described in each poem still circle around us daily, asking what we as a church can do for justice in this very moment.

For Smith:

“Today, a black man who was once a black boy

like you got down on one of his knees & laid

his helmet on the grass as this country sang

its ode to the promise it never kept”

For Browne:

“today i am a black woman in america

& i am singing a melody ridden lullaby…”

They were written two years apart but, in many ways, coexist in the same space. Smith is thinking about what it means to be a father raising a black child today, and yet, the question of tomorrow is factored into each thought. He says about this poem: “This is part of a series of poems […] thinking through what it means to watch my son discover the world for the first time [and] what it means to watch the world discover him. How [people] who call him adorable now might very well call him dangerous when he’s older.”

Smith spoke at a performance in 2016 about how, when he was in college, he was looking for “work that spoke to the urgency of now,” and how he found this in spoken word poetry. Now as a poet himself, his work definitely speaks to the urgency of now. In “Your National Anthem,” which acts as a letter to his very young son, Smith speaks to this in his reference to Colin Kaepernick’s protest while also speaking to the impending future that presses on his mind as a father.

“I know that you will not always

be a black boy but one day you may be a black man

& you may decide your country hasn’t kept

its promise to you either”

In “litany,” Browne is reflecting on what it looks like to live as “a brown and black & / bew woman dreaming of freedom.” She says, “today, i am a mother, & my country is burning/ and i forget how to flee.” Browne wrote this poem as a response to “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” as sung by Nina Simone.

“I sat with what that meant, years later—when I am still wishing for a certain type of freedom. To think of the time passing but of senseless deaths of black and brown bodies remaining. The poem is mulling all that has changed and all that has not,” Browne says of her work.

This is truly what it means to reflect on the present, today, the current state in which we live. All that has changed and all that has not. The urgency of now.

Today’s movements for racial justice and equity are not separate from the civil rights and abolition movements of the past that we now honor. Yes, today’s movements are tied to politics, but, most fundamentally, they are made up of everyday people who are yearning for freedom, for safety for their children, for trust that their country values their lives.

The 1991 Report of the Committee on Brethren and Black Americans says: “Because racism is built into our way of life, it is extremely difficult to unmask it and honestly face the radical changes that need to be made in ourselves and our institutions if it is to be eradicated. […] Many of us benefit from racist practices, without being direct participants, because of decisions and policies already in place in our religious, economic, and political institutions. The Church of the Brethren has affirmed that war is sin. It is time we acknowledged racism as sin—sin against God and against our neighbors—and mount a concerted effort to combat it.”

What does it mean for the church to speak to the urgency of now, keeping in mind what has and has not changed in all these years?

I don’t have an easy answer, but I do know that if we pat ourselves on the back for holding up lauded figures in black history such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Harriet Tubman, perhaps we should also ask about lesser-known black history that is being written as we speak and what we can do to add our voices to the call for justice in this very moment.

This is not about simply remembering heroes of the past or imagining some potential day in the future that calls us to action. This is about looking at the world around us and asking ourselves how we can support our brothers and sisters—who right now are afraid for their families, yearning for freedom, and demanding justice—in such a time as this.

Moving on, but not letting go?

By Lisa-Marie Mayerle, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit #319

This year, I decided to be a part of Brethren Volunteer Service, and trust me… it was not easy to make that decision. For me, joining BVS meant not knowing where I would end up, which project I would be going to, or how I would be living for the next year. But, it was the best decision I have ever made. Of course I had a lot of insecurities during the process, but in the end I knew that this was my best opportunity to serve for a year, to explore another culture, and to make a difference.

I would say that the worst part of the transition was saying goodbye—leaving everyone I love behind. All my friends and family in Germany would continue their lives without me, but my life would continue on as well. It felt like I needed to move on and let go. So, I left with a face full of tears and a heart full of sadness and happiness mixed together. I knew it was time for a new chapter of my life.

The moment I arrived at my project in Hagerstown, Md., everyone welcomed me with open arms and a big smile on their face. In that exact moment, all my concerns and doubts were gone, and I knew that it was the right decision. I also realized that I had never left someone or something behind. Despite missing Germany, and even though I could not see or hear my family and friends every day, I can remember that they are always with me.

I enjoy every minute at my project and I love to share about it with my loved ones. The people I work with are amazing and support me. I feel like I am a part of a bigger family, and the thought of leaving them one day brings tears to my eyes. Every single minute with the kids, my co-workers, and my friends is precious, and I am so glad that I can be here. I am thankful for this journey and the relationships I am creating.

Learn more about Brethren Volunteer Service or read the most recent issue of The Volunteer at www.brethren.org/bvs. Support the ministry of BVS today at www.brethren.org/give .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Black History Month: Past

For the end of Black History Month, I have curated three small collections of poetry, each with an accompanying reflection. The three reflections will dwell on the ideas of “past,” “present,” and “future.” Too often, it seems people and events must be decades old to be documented by the mainstream as “black history.” We must remember that black history is being created today, shaped by the past and informing the future. Looking at black stories from our past, present, and future requires us to think critically about how the church tells its own stories, as well as which stories we deem to be “our own.”

Langston Hughes, April 1942. By Jack Delano.

Past

  1. Frederick Douglass,” by Robert Hayden (1913-1980)
  2. Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes (1902-1967)
  3. I saw Emmett Till this week at the grocery store,” Eve L. Ewing (1986-)

We begin with past—the time with the clearest tie to the concept of history—and with Robert Hayden’s “Frederick Douglass.” Hayden’s words are a perfect framing for the way we should approach the past. He asserts that this incredible man, a former slave turned renowned abolitionist, will be honored not by the typical trappings of American remembrance, but instead by “the lives grown out of this life, the lives / fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.”

The past is not some dusty relic to be pulled out of a dark cabinet for a few days each year. It is something that we tell and retell every day, choosing which stories we highlight and the language we use to tell them. The people who make up today’s movements are the “lives grown out of this life,” the flesh on the bones of an idea that was once only a dream.

In Langston Hughes’s famous poem, “Let America Be America Again,” he challenges the narratives America tells about itself—narratives of freedom for all, where dreams are lived out and opportunities are ripe for the taking, if only one does the hard work to snatch them up. Hughes instead repeats the refrain, (America never was America to me.) He not only refers to his own identity as a black man, but also dons the identities of other oppressed peoples, such as Native Americans, farmers, immigrants, and poor. He rewrites the story, not saying that he doesn’t belong in America, but rather that America first and foremost belongs to those who built it.

Brethren openly condemn this dangerous type of American nationalism that ignores injustice and calls for blind obedience. In the 1967 statement “The Church, the State and Christian Citizenship,” Annual Conference asserted: “The church must warn against idolatrous nationalism in foreign affairs and call people to broader horizons of concern. In relation to domestic policy the church will try to help and to protect those who have been deprived of their rightful voice and are neglected or injured in some way.”

Eve Ewing takes a different approach to the past. In her quiet poem set in an ordinary grocery store, she imagines an alternate past in which 14-year-old Emmett Till was not brutally murdered. Instead, he has grown old, become a familiar face in the community, lived a long life. This is a moment of peace for a story that is only one of extreme violence and tragedy.

“How are things going for you,” she asks.

“Oh, it goes, it goes.”

By telling this story, one which was never allowed to happen, she manages to tell Till’s story all the same. His story is one of a young life brutally cut short by men so deeply entrenched in racism that they took the life of an innocent boy. It is the false memory of this ordinary moment in the grocery store, a brief glimpse of warmth, that brings the harsh reality of the past rushing in. She references everything Till’s life and death represent without saying it. “It goes, it goes” suggests the echo that, in fact, it does not.

As Christians, and as people in community, we use stories from the past to help us define who we are. We tell and retell the stories from the Bible to provide the foundation for understanding our identities and the world around us. All three of these poems by black writers ask us questions about which stories from the past we tell and how they inform us now. As we remember black history, perhaps we need to be creative about imagining new ways for the church to tell its stories and grapple with its past.

Life is Difficult in the Maiduguri Camps

The Ekklesiayar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN) Disaster Ministry visited two camps in Maiduguri. Shagari has 48 households and Cherubim & Seraphim has 65 households. The people are crowded into a small compound with 9-13 people sleeping in one 10X10 “tent” right next to the next one. There is often a lack of sufficient food for the camp, medical assistance is minimal, and many children are still not attending any school.

The Disaster Ministry registered the people at these two camps and brought food supplies.

In the town of Dabna in Hong Local Government Area 60 houses were destroyed by the Boko Haram insurgency. The Disaster Ministry was able to put roofs on 27 of these homes. Not everyone can be helped but the church helps choose those who need the most help. Please continue to pray for Nigeria!

Pictures are by EYN Disaster Team