My experience as a pen pal

www.brethren.org/drsp

By Claire Schadler, pen pal with the Death Row Support Project (DRSP) of the Church of the Brethren

For the past year, I’ve been a pen pal with a death row inmate in the Florida prison system. I didn’t know what to expect when I started, but I didn’t care what crime my pen pal had committed. I originally needed to decide beforehand whether I was ok with writing to someone who had committed a serious crime. Once I made that decision, I signed up.

Even though I had made that decision, I still Googled my pen pal’s name. I read newspaper articles about him and watched CCTV footage of one of the crimes he committed. It wasn’t easy to see. But, looking him up didn’t change my conviction that the death penalty is wrong, that he doesn’t deserve to be treated the way he is being treated, and that if being my pen pal provides him with one glimmer of reprieve, then this experience will have been worthwhile.

My first email to him, I was more formal than I tend to be in my everyday life. His first letter to me had none of the formality that mine had. He told me to call him by the nickname that his family uses, chatted about himself, and ended the email by asking me why I had signed up for DRSP. His first email was this refreshing breath of directness, honesty, and sweetness. I wanted to answer his question with the same tone so that he understood my intentions for being a part of this organization. My response to him took time. I wanted to strike the right tone, and doing that required me to think.

Then, I didn’t hear from him. Trying to be patient, I let time pass until I realized that I had messed up the payment method for the email system and hadn’t actually sent my email. When I heard back from him, he was having internet problems. Over the past year, he often starts his emails with an apology about his tablet device or Wi-Fi. Recently, he wrote, “Sorry for such a delay in response, I haven’t been in the right state of mind lately and didn’t want to email you with a depressed state of mind but I’m feeling a little better now.” Of course, there could be any number of reasons that he can’t get back to me.

I’ve been told that people in prison just want pen pals to get something from the person on the outside. I was worried about that. My pen pal talked to me about his money concerns, about his mother not being able to afford anything for him, and about not having a lot of food. But, he has never once, in over a year, asked me for anything. Around Christmas, I sent him money for a Christmas basket that he said he was hoping he could get from his mom. He didn’t expect it from me or ask for more or do anything other than thank me.

Most recently, we decided we would start a book club together. He said he liked action thrillers and told me a few authors that he likes. I bought two books, not realizing I needed to send his book to him directly from a third-party seller. I asked Dina at DRSP for some advice about sending books, and she told me about Hamilton Books, which was cheap and included a section in the shipping address to put an inmate’s ID number. I just sent a copy off to him and hope we can jump into a fictional world soon.

I’ve had such a fulfilling year writing to my pen pal. Sometimes it’s hard, and I feel like I’m talking too much about my life. Sometimes, I feel overly privileged because I tell him about the places I have lived and the countries I have traveled to. Sometimes, I overthink what I can ask him or what I should talk about. Sometimes, I don’t hear from him for weeks. Sometimes, I don’t have time to write him back. Sometimes, I think about the Google search I did when I first received his name.

But, after a year, I think about those things less and less. I write my responses more easily, more naturally. We talk about tattoos and New York City and my job and dogs and art and friendship and Florida and my husband and his mom and his possible resentencing and exercise and food. I send him photographs of the mountains where I live. He also calls me “Ms. Claire,” and signs off his emails with “your friend.”

This testimony was originally featured in an email newsletter by Death Row Support Project, connected to the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy of the Church of the Brethren. Learn more about Death Row Support Project at www.brethren.org/drsp or support its ministry today.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Facing the storms of life

By Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement communications

If you could pick the weather for a perfect day, what would it be? Perhaps you love the warmth and sunshine of the summer. Or maybe the cooler temperatures and breezes of the fall are more to your liking. In any case, it would be lovely if we could reside in a place and season with wonderful weather all the time, but unfortunately the skies don’t always offer good news. And even on days with perfect conditions, there can still be storms of health, emotion, or thought that stir within us. Just as we need homes that can endure the weather, so also do we need lives that are weather-proof.

On one occasion (as found in Matthew 8:23-27), the disciples encountered a storm while sailing. As fishermen, some of them previously had experienced poor conditions on the Sea of Galilee, which was vulnerable to quick-forming storms. Nonetheless, the severity of the wind and waves on that day was reflected in the height of their fear and their urgency to ask Jesus for help. Just like the disciples, it’s natural to worry; however, do we let the storms amplify our anxieties or do we see our difficulties as an opportunity to call upon the Lord? As we recall the experience of the disciples on the raging seas that day, Jesus reveals two reasons why we can face any storm and accompany others through them.

First, we can face any storm because Jesus is present. As the disciples endured the storm, so also did Jesus. There isn’t a struggle we face that the Lord doesn’t face with us. Like a comforting friend in a time of need, Jesus is right next to us through it all. Even when conditions continue to give us concern, Jesus is available to hear us and to help us.

The second reason we can face any storm is because Jesus is powerful. As the disciples called upon Jesus for help, it is as if they believed that the Lord was capable of more than what they had witnessed. Jesus first attended to the concerns of the disciples and then addressed the chaos around them. With the same power that God used to bring all life into being, Jesus spoke into the storm and restored peace—to creation and to his companions.

As the body of Christ, we are called to care for others as the Lord cares for us. Our mission is to be present with those who are vulnerable and hurting, and to allow the power of Jesus to flow through us to bring comfort and hope.

It’s a privilege to hear how Brethren Disaster Ministries and Children’s Disaster Services prepare volunteers to be present with people who have survived natural disasters or endured trauma from violence. It’s a blessing to hear how Brethren Volunteer Service volunteers and representatives for the Office of Global Mission share and receive love as neighbors in communities near and far. It’s wonderful to behold Discipleship Ministries, the Office of Ministry, and the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy as they inspire leaders of many places and people of all ages to live into the restorative work of God that continues through both good and bad days. Your support of the missions and ministries of the Church of the Brethren allows the presence and power of Jesus to go out into all of the world and make a difference in people’s lives—both immediately and for eternity.

While some days offer beautiful weather, others are marked by storms. While it is natural to worry, every concern is an opportunity to call upon the Lord and see what he will do. Indeed, we can face each and every storm that comes our way because the Lord is present and powerful. May our faith in Jesus give us strength to find peace—and to share it—no matter the weather.

Learn more about the faith-building, life-changing ministries of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/greatthings or support them today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Praising the Lord everywhere

www.brethren.org/missionoffering

A theme reflection for the 2022 Mission Offering by Chris Elliott, pastor from Pennsylvania who recently visited Rwanda as a representative of the Office of Global Mission

“Everywhere—from east to west— praise the name of the Lord.”
~Psalm 113:3, NLT


Such joyful words that flow from the psalmist’s pen! “Everywhere, everyone—praise the name of the Lord!”  Psalm 113 begins and ends with “Praise the Lord!”

The Psalms in general run the gamut of human emotion, from the deepest sorrow to the most exuberant praise, with Psalm 113 on the latter end of that spectrum. For me, as one coming from a quiet worship setting in North American Christendom, it has been stretching to experience worship services among our sisters and brothers in Latin America and Africa.

What strikes me most in this passage, aside from the obvious call to joyful (maybe even giddy) praise of the Lord, is the universality of its application. “Everywhere—from east to west,” not unlike the message we find in Romans 1, when Paul reminds us that all of nature cries out for us to recognize and exalt the Creator. No one is excused or exempt from the call to worship.

Likewise, we mustn’t miss the correlation of Psalm 113:3 to Revelation 7:9-10: “After this I saw a vast crowd, too great to count, from every nation and tribe and people and language, standing in front of the throne and before the Lamb. They were clothed in white robes and held palm branches in their hands. And they were shouting with a great roar, ‘Salvation comes from our God who sits on the throne and from the Lamb!’” We prepare for this eschatological praise-fest in our present day worship—our psalms and hymns and spiritual songs—but also by our work of Gospel-sharing, based on Jesus’ command to “Go… and make disciples” (Matthew 28:18).

I have been fascinated by the paradigm shift in missions of recent years. In times past we would send missionaries to faraway lands for them to learn language and culture. They would translate Scripture, present the gospel, and pray that many would come to Christ. A new era of missions is developing, as believers in Africa, Europe, and Latin America are coming to us and saying, “We are ‘Brethren’—we are your brothers and sisters.” It is a healthy relationship, no longer like a parent and child, but more like an equal friendship or partnership.

These new relationships are maintained not only by occasional visits, but also with the benefit of the internet.  Daily communication by methods like email, Facebook, and WhatsApp keep the connections strong. Together we grow in Christ. Together we are encouraged in our faith. Together we share the gospel message. Together we are praising the Lord everywhere!

Find this and other worship resources for the Mission Offering (suggested date: September 18) at www.brethren.org/missionoffering or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Unwavering hope

A skit during the closing worship service of National Youth Conference acted out the story from John 21, in which Peter leaps from the fishing boat to swim to shore to meet Jesus.
Photo by Glenn Riegel

By Erika Clary, serving through Brethren Volunteer Service as the 2022 National Youth Conference coordinator with Youth and Young Adult Ministries

Over the last year, I coordinated National Youth Conference (NYC), which took place at the end of July.

I would like to thank Church of the Brethren staff, volunteers, members, and supporters for your encouragement over the last year. Thank you especially to those who worked behind the scenes to make NYC a success. I’m sure many times as staff or even as advisors, planning this event may have felt thankless, so I want to explicitly say right now–thank you so much. NYC takes more than just a village; it takes a whole metropolitan area.

It feels almost impossible to sum up all the emotions that arose from NYC. The one thing that has consistently come to mind is a feeling of unwavering hope. Time and time again throughout the week, the youth showed why we should have no problem entrusting them with the church.

One thing the worship team was adamant about this year was youth involvement. We initially struggled to assemble the NYC band, but this challenge ended up being a perfect opportunity to ask youth to participate. Through singing and the playing of a variety of instruments (viola, flute, drums, guitar, and more), the youth showed courage and extraordinary leadership. They also brought their gifts of reading liturgy and acting in scripture dramas. We saw youth literally jumping out of the boat (as seen in the photo above).

One thing about these youth that has given me so much hope is how they simply showed up. Youth groups struggled to fundraise and hadn’t spent imperative time together in community because of the pandemic. They could have remained scattered and their minds could have been drawn to so many other things, but they still chose to show up. And they didn’t just show up to NYC itself or to play in the band or read liturgy like I talked about; they showed up for one another.

Youth cheered on their friends who played in the band or read liturgy, and they held each other tight after being anointed. They sat with one another in small groups, and shared meals in the dining halls.  Amid the stress and anxiety that went into planning NYC over the last year, the fact that the youth showed up and showed up for one another reminded me why I did this job in the first place.

One of the things that strengthened my unwavering sense of hope was the youth speech contest winners. The theme of this year’s youth speech contest was “Bring Your Own Jesus Story.” The worship coordinators asked youth to consider how Jesus is foundational to their lives, pick a story about Jesus that relates to their story, and then preach on it. Kara Bidgood Enders talked about the story of the Good Samaritan, Hannah Smith talked about Jesus calming the storm, and finally, Anna Schweitzer related to the story about Jesus healing the blind man.

I remember watching their video submissions months ago and sitting in my office crying because of how vulnerable and wise those young women were. They weren’t just representing themselves, they were representing their peers, too. The three young women talked about being neighborly, about crying out to Jesus in waves of depression and anxiety, and about doing good things for people without hoping for any credit. Their words inspired not just the youth, but everyone in attendance. They definitely inspired me. It wasn’t that long ago that I was their age, and I can’t imagine going on stage in front of 900 people and being that vulnerable. And yet, they did it. They showed up. And they gave us hope.

There are many lessons I’ve learned in the last year, but one of them is that we need to simply learn to pass the microphone to the youth. They are strong, fearless, and adaptable, and always lift each other up. Though the verses may be familiar, 1 Timothy 4:12-14 is worth repeating. I like how the Message translation says it best: “Get the word out. Teach all these things. And don’t let anyone put you down because you’re young. Teach believers with your life: by word, by demeanor, by love, by faith, by integrity. Stay at your post reading Scripture, giving counsel, teaching. And that special gift of ministry you were given when the leaders of the church laid hands on you and prayed–keep that dusted off and in use.” If I had to sum up the hope the youth at NYC made me feel, it would be through these verses. They are teaching with their lives. I know they are teaching me.

We need to give our youth space to show up, to pass them the microphone, to listen to their stories, and to show up for them the same way they show up for us. They are the future, after all.

In closing, I want to share a sending that Cindy Laprade Lattimer, one of our worship coordinators, wrote for the NYC worship that the youth speech contest winners, after sharing their speeches, proclaimed together (as seen below). I teared up when I heard it.

We are all made of stories. Go and embrace God’s story by loving others, no matter the circumstance. Go and live your story, knowing that you are never alone, whatever storms arise. Go and share the story, doing the unexpected and acting neighborly. Amen.

Learn more about the 2022 National Youth Conference at www.brethren.org/nyc or support Youth and Young Adult Ministries today at www.brethren.org/giveyya.

Kara Bidgood Enders, Hannah Smith, and Anna Schweitzer, the 2022 youth speech contest winners, sharing a sending during worship at National Youth Conference.
Photo by Glenn Riegel

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Growing in love for the Lord and one another

www.brethren.org/greatthings

“As I have loved you, so you must love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
– John 13:34-35, NIV

Dear family, friends, and faithful supporters of the Church of the Brethren:

It is with deep gratitude that I extend words of thanks to you for your contributions to support the Church of the Brethren. On behalf of those who will be blessed because of your generosity, thank you for growing in love for the Lord and others.

The 2022 Narrative Budget shows how your gifts do great things. It reveals how financial gifts entrusted to the Church of the Brethren are used for its faith-building and life-changing missions and ministries. It also highlights a broad view of 2021 ministry expenses and impacts, and current endeavors.

Thank you for partnering with us through your generous gifts and persistent prayers. We are so grateful for you as, together, we serve as the hands and feet of Jesus in our neighborhoods!

With gratitude,

Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

< View the 2022 Narrative budget >

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Loving your neighbor in an unusually good way

By Roger and Kathy Edmark, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit #319

Loving our neighbor usually involves people we run into everyday–the people next door, those in stores we frequent, those we encounter on the streets, our family, friends, and work associates. There are many opportunities to help people in their time of need, or maybe just with a smile. In our day-to-day lives these encounters make a difference and change the world around us. This is something we all can do each day.

But sometimes we get an unusual opportunity to meet new people in a place we have never lived before. An opportunity to help serve and love our neighbors in a little different way you may never have thought to do.

My wife and I did just that in August of 2019. We were sent by Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) to Hiroshima, Japan to serve with World Friendship Center (WFC) as the volunteer directors. We were met by dedicated volunteers, English class students, and staff who all became our friends.

For seven months, before the pandemic closed the borders of Japan to tourists, we also received people from all over the world who wanted to study peace at WFC. World leaders of many countries consider atomic bombs to be “strategic” weapons of mass destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors (hibakusha) know of the personal pain and devastation that atomic bombs indiscriminately wreaked havoc on everyone within the shadow of their destructive heat, hurricane force winds, and radiation. Barbara Reynolds, in 1965, established WFC as a place where people could come to hear the stories of the hibakusha and to work together for peace. The hibakusha’s cry is “No More Hiroshimas, No More Nagasakis!”

As you can imagine, this opportunity to live and serve in Hiroshima had a great impact on our lives. We are thankful that BVS works to connect people willing to serve “in a little different way.” BVSers serve with organizations all over the world needing volunteers, side-by-side with amazing people and groups making a difference.

You may have a heart to do something a little different too. If you decide to do something unusual or go someplace you have never been to, it may, like it did for us, change your life.

This article was originally featured in the summer issue of The Volunteer newsletter published by Brethren Volunteer Service. Learn more about this Core Ministry of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/bvs or support its ministry at www.brethren.org/givebvs.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Called for such a time as this

Erika Clary, NYC coordinator, and NYC 2022 logo
www.brethren.org/nyc

An interview by Jenna Walmer with Erika Clary, serving through Brethren Volunteer Service as the 2022 National Youth Conference coordinator with Youth and Young Adult Ministries

Tell me about your journey to becoming the National Youth Conference (NYC) coordinator. Were there any “God moments” where you knew this is what you wanted to do?

I attended NYC for the first time as a youth in 2014. Until that point, I went to National Junior High Conference and district events, but I never experienced anything quite like NYC. NYC 2014 was a mountaintop experience for me, both physically and spiritually. I remember thinking about how cool it would be to be an NYC coordinator and plan something that influential. I was a member of the 2017-2018 National Youth Cabinet, so I got to help plan NYC 2018.

There have only been a few times in my life when I feel like I truly thrived somewhere, and NYC 2018 was one of those times. It was so rewarding to pick the theme and watch it come to life in 2018. When I was a student at Bridgewater (Va.) College, I served on the inter-district Youth Cabinet, which plans Roundtable. In 2020, I served as the Roundtable coordinator. Roundtable is like a mini-NYC, and I loved coordinating that conference, so I knew I would love coordinating NYC just as much, if not more.

As much as I knew I wanted to apply to be NYC Coordinator for 2022, I still had some reservations—like living so far from home. That is where my major “God moment” comes into play, I have always loved the “for such a time as this” scripture from the book of Esther. In the fall of last year, someone sent me the theme song from NYC 2002, when the theme literally was “For Such a Time as This.” I really thought about the words in that scripture and in the theme song and realized that I could let my fears overcome me and not apply to be coordinator, because someone else could do it. But if I didn’t even try, I would never forgive myself for not applying for something I was (and still am) so passionate about. After that moment and realization, I began to realize that Esther 4:14 was following me everywhere. I would see it/hear it at the most random times and I just knew that was God’s nudge to me to apply. Thankfully, I took what I like to call my “Esther moment.”

What is your advice for people thinking about being a BVSer?

BVS has truly changed my life! It provides so many valuable life experiences. I barely knew how to cook anything before BVS, but since I live in a community house—and cook for myself and my housemates—I have learned how to make so many dishes. BVS, but specifically orientation, has made me realize so many things about myself and about my faith that could have taken me much longer to realize otherwise. This is the first time in my life when I’m not a student, so I am truly learning who I am outside of academics, which has been quite beautiful. If you are thinking about serving in BVS: do it. I could talk about my experience for days! It will change your life for the better.

Do you have any final words, advice, or wisdom to share about spiritual direction, following the call, or being in ministry or service?

I think my best advice is to do things in your own time. If you feel like the time is right to serve, whether through BVS or in ministry, try it! If you want to wait and try that later, then do that. I think we are conditioned to think that we must work on everyone else’s schedule and that we must know exactly what is going to happen next, but neither of those things is true. When you are called to do something, I think you will know the right time to take the leap of faith. When you are following God’s plans for your life, timing and perfection really don’t matter all that much. Following God’s plan is messy and doesn’t always feel perfect, but that’s okay. Do what you need to do for you and your relationship with God.

This interview is excerpted from the spring issue of Bridge produced by Youth and Young Adult Ministries. Learn more about National Youth Conference at www.brethren.org/nyc or support Youth and Young Adult Ministries today at www.brethren.org/giveyya.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

What Would Jesus Do…with $813 Billion?

Barring political complications, by the end of the summer Congress will have discussed, marked up, and voted on a spending package to fund the government through the upcoming fiscal year. More specifically, this process will determine how much discretionary spending is appropriated to government agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of State, and more. By far, the largest portion of this budget will go to fund war and preparations for war, with the Biden administration already requesting $813 billion in discretionary spending for the Pentagon. This represents an increase of roughly $30 billion over the previous year and a continuation of the annual pattern of exorbitant military spending. The costs of war itself, of course, also extend beyond financial considerations, taking a physical toll on human life and our environment. Regardless, there is little pushback on this figure in Congress, and members of both parties may yet vote to increase the level of funding beyond the President’s initial proposition. As Christians who lived through the WWJD era of the 1990s and early 2000s, we would do well to ask ourselves: What would Jesus do with that $813 billion?  

Fortunately for us, the writings of past generations of Brethren can get us partway there. In a 1918 Statement on War, the first Annual Conference statement in the online archive, Brethren spoke out strongly against preparations for war, writing that “war or any participation in war is wrong and entirely incompatible with the spirit, example, and teachings of Jesus Christ” (1918). They substantiated this claim with numerous verses from the New Testament which more fully bear it out. To reference just one passage, Romans 12:17, 20-21 says this:

“¹⁷ Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. ²⁰ On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’ ²¹ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

War, decidedly not good, was off the table. Instead, Brethren strongly encouraged the rulers of our nation to “contribute liberally to the relief of human suffering, both in men and money” (1918). This was perhaps their best answer to the question “What would Jesus do, instead?”

In our present political context, we can be even more specific about the alternatives to war and military spending. In the minds of many Americans, the ongoing spread of COVID-19 remains the most prevalent threat to our safety and health at home and around the world. Globally, over 6 million people have lost their lives to the virus. Pandemics, as it turns out, do not respond well to threats of violent military action. Similarly, climate change cannot be mitigated by armed drones, nor can severe weather events be warded off by nuclear weapons. The U.S. military, as one of the largest polluters in the world, also exacerbates climate change and undermines global stability in the process. Ironically, bills and funding to respond to these exact crises were blocked by Congress, the very same body now expected to dedicate $813 billion to weapons and war. Now is the time to call out this contradiction and to make significant financial investments to address pandemic disease, climate change, poverty, racism, gun violence, and other causes of human suffering. 

With or without this historical and moral Brethren lens, it is clear that our military budget is disproportionately large. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in fiscal year 2021 the U.S. spent more on defense than the next 9 countries combined. This extreme disparity suggests that the U.S. can afford to make large cuts to the Pentagon and still remain a military powerhouse. Better yet, the U.S. could commit to investing in strategies of diplomacy and peacebuilding, reducing the likelihood that violence would occur in the first place. As individuals and communities suffer from pandemic disease, natural disasters, poverty, violence, inflation, and more, Brethren should stay grounded in our history and be bold enough to look at our massive military budget and ask and answer the age-old question, “What would Jesus do instead?”

Prayer and expectation for Annual Conference

A message from David Sollenberger, moderator of the 235th Annual Conference of the Church of the Brethren

As we anticipate meeting in person for the first time in three years for our Annual Conference, we recognize that we come from varied places, circumstances, and experiences. One common denominator, however, is a belief in the power that prayer affords us as we seek God’s leading and direction for this time together.

Pentecost Sunday, this year on June 5, is celebrated by many Christians as the “birthday” of the Church. We take time on that day and in the weeks that follow to remember the special gift of the Holy Spirit coming to those faithful apostles that were gathered, after the ascension of our Lord, in prayer and expectation.

It was the power of that Spirit that transformed a small, discouraged, and disorganized group of followers into a courageous movement of disciples that took the Gospel, in a few decades, to nearly all of the known world. More than 2,000 years later, we remember the exhilaration and might of that moment as part of our own “birth” story.

This is an invitation to pray through this season of Pentecost in preparation and expectation for the gathering of the Brethren in Omaha this summer, July 10-14. I ask that you join me in this opportunity to remember and pray for Annual Conference—in your family and in your congregation.

Pray that we might be open to, and guided by, the Spirit in our worship, our study, and our deliberations. Pray that we will be given the grace to treat each other as brothers and sisters in Christ in the best tradition of the Church of the Brethren. Pray for safe travels for those that give of their time and talent by serving the church at Annual Conference. Pray that each person who gathers in Omaha will experience a renewed anointing of the Spirit that will give energy and courage in abundance for moving Christ’s church into a confident future.

Thank you for considering these thoughts and this request. Thank you most graciously for all you do on behalf of our Lord and his Church.

Online registration for Annual Conference closes this Friday, June 10. Register today to participate in-person or online at www.brethren.org/ac.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)