Loving God and opposing the death penalty

"Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." -1 John 4:11

By Carl H. Spitzer

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s in Marin County, California shaped my understanding of the death penalty. The state executed people on a regular basis, and my sisters and I were told that if a man escaped from the state prison of San Quentin or the federal prison of Alcatraz, he could show up in our neighborhood.  Death row itself was not discussed often, but when it was, it was only to say emphatically that the men on it were the ‘worst of the worst.’

Then, in 1971 I began active duty in the US Navy, and the next year served near the coast of Vietnam.  I heard about ‘draft dodgers’ who moved to Canada and about conscientious objectors, as well as what the general public thought about to them. The debate of how Christians could opt out of the military interested me, but at the time, it was unclear how the teachings of the New Testament fully supported either side. In 1972, one of my bosses was leaving the Navy with a conscientious objector discharge, and he and I talked about the process.  The next year I filed for discharge on the same grounds; however, my application was denied and I was told my evaluations did not support my request.

After a time of discernment, my next steps were to join the Episcopal Peace Fellowship (EPF) in 1974.  I signed up for their newsletter and for The Catholic Worker and Sojourner publications.  In one of these, I saw an invitation to write letters to prisoners on death row.  The first person given to me as a pen pal was Joseph S. in Virginia.  We wrote to one another for 2 or 3 years, and then he requested to stop our correspondence.  A few years later, a small article in the newspaper announced that the State of Virginia had executed him. Joseph was a very troubled person, but I did not feel that his death was necessary. It upset me a lot at the time and still does to this day. It took a few years before I requested another pen pal on death row.

More recently, a friend joined me in the EPF and invited me join the Washington Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (WCADP).  This organization has an annual Lobby Day with senators and representatives, and I have also gone to the Capitol for many years to discuss faith and social justice. As with my stance about conscientious objection, I sometimes struggle to interpret what God has revealed to me:  that any act of taking a person’s life is a sin.

I wish others could experience what I have; however, it is a blessing to share my story so that others may understand how God’s love has shaped my journey.

This testimony was originally featured in an email by Death Row Support Project. It reflects a faithful expression of the Church of the Brethren’s vision to share the radical transformation and holistic peace of Jesus Christ. It also highlights our passion for ministries like the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy and Death Row Support Project. Learn about Church of the Brethren missions and ministries at www.brethren.org/greatthings.

Growing around the world

Eric Miller sharing about a recent Global Mission and Brethren Disaster Ministries trip to Haiti at a Facebook live event.

By Ruoxia Li and Eric Miller, co-directors of Global Mission

In recent years, there has been a concern about decline in the church in the US; however, the global church is growing in most of the 10 countries where the Church of the Brethren has sister denominations around the world. Annual grants provide critical funds to support leaders as they develop denominations in countries that are torn by conflict and disasters. Fellowships are forming in new countries. Churches are being built and leaders are being trained through programs in the US as well as those they design themselves or in nearby seminaries.

In the last year, major gifts have made possible the purchase of a new property for Delmas, the Haitian mother church. These gifts have supported the completion of the first translation of the Bible into Kamwe—a language in Nigeria—which is a culmination of work over decades. Your generosity has allowed us to send money to Nigeria to rebuild churches that were destroyed as Christians are persecuted and attacked. Your gifts also provide resources for building new churches in the African countries of Uganda, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as in Venezuela. Evangelism of those churches is reaching people who have been marginalized in their own countries and gives them hope as they receive the Good News that Jesus cares and that they matter—to God and to the human family.

Your gifts help us build relationships with our brothers and sisters around the world. We pray for them, and they pray for us, and all of us are blessed. These relationships allow Brethren Disaster Ministries to respond quickly to needs that strike the areas where we have churches. As one example, churches in Rwanda and the DRC were able to distribute food to their members and neighbors after a volcano there. In addition to places where we have sister churches, your gifts also support projects in eight other countries around the world. This includes literally bringing sight to the blind in Vietnam, and supporting peacemakers in war-torn South Sudan.

Through your generosity, Brethren around the world will continue to do this and so much more in the coming year. They are able to do so much with so little. Despite many challenges, we can celebrate that our church is growing around the world!

Visit www.brethren.org/global/ for more information about the work of Global Mission and to sign up for the global mission prayer guide. Support this ministry of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/giveGM.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Humbled by God’s faithfulness

A project in Ecuador supported by the Global Food Initiative.

By Jeff Boshart, manager of the Global Food Initiative

“I will praise you, Lord, among the nations; I will sing of you among the peoples. For great is your love, reaching to the heavens; your faithfulness reaches to the skies.” -Psalm 57:9-10, NIV

Last year I wrote to you at the beginning of  the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, the US has seen some seasons of improvement, but many of our partners around the world have not. While experts are optimistic about the economic recovery in wealthy countries, the same is not true for poorer countries. Borders in many parts of the world remain closed or limit the flow of people and goods. Some countries that initially kept the spread of the virus low are now experiencing the most deaths and hospitalizations as vaccines remain in short supply. In some places, lockdowns and masks are still a daily part of life and likely will continue into 2022. It is against this backdrop that we praise God for faithfully providing and give thanks for Global Food Initiative partners who continue to be Christ’s hands and feet as they minister to those in great need.

With your generous prayerful and financial support in 2020, we were able to share $145,890 in grants for agricultural projects both domestically and internationally. Gifts to the GFI in total were $205,877, meaning we had a healthy balance to start this year. Recently, however, the pace of requests has picked up and the GFI is at its lowest level in 10 years. Since January, grants were distributed to undergird community gardens or food ministries in Maryland, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Illinois. New projects were also started with help from the GFI for a grain mill in Uganda, and a fruit tree nursery in South Sudan. In Nigeria (soybean production) and Ecuador (dairy cows and irrigation for organic vegetable production), partner organizations received grants to continue multi-year programs. 

Looking ahead, the Church of the Brethren in Rwanda has begun distributing pigs to the Batwa people–a tribe that lives on the fringes of society. Materials for pens and funds for veterinary services are needed to expand this project. In the Dominican Republic, leaders of Iglesia de los Hermanos are planning to establish a farm credit program for church members and neighbors. In Honduras, plans for a backyard chicken project in an urban setting, though originally delayed by restrictions, are now back in motion. These are just a few partners that will need support from the GFI in the coming months.

If you are like me, you spent much time in prayer over the last year. I wasn’t sure at times how much support the GFI and its programming would receive while we were in uncertain circumstances. Looking back, I am humbled by God’s faithfulness and your generosity in 2020. I am excited about the future, and what God and our partners will do next as together we seek to serve our neighbors near and far in the name of Jesus. Thank you for partnering in this important ministry. 

Learn more about the Global Food Initiative of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/gfi or support its ministry today at www.brethren.org/givegfi.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Declaring the glory of God

Mission Offering 2021 banner photo

A theme reflection written for the 2021 Mission Offering by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement Communications

“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands.” ~Psalm 19:1, NIV

Since the beginning of time, humanity has looked to the skies. Whether for direction, agricultural planning, or inspiration, the heavenly bodies—near and far—have promoted ingenuity and amazement in our world.

King David was a sky-watcher, a stargazer. In his younger years as a shepherd tending his sheep, he surely spent plenty of days under the radiance of the sun and nights with little more than the heavenly bodies to keep him company. Taking in the warmth by day and the vast masterpiece at night, David concluded that the sun and stars above were telling a story, playing a song about the awesomeness of God—a song that, he reasoned, warranted words being written and sung along with it.

Psalm 19 is a wonderful hymn for the people of God in every age. It begins with observing the lights in the sky by night and by day, declares the greatness of the Lord who made them all, reflects upon the lifegiving nature of God’s word and promises, and concludes with a plea for protection from wrongdoing and a prayer.

As we consider the body of Christ in all the earth, many have witnessed the beauty of the skies and proclaimed how great God is for bringing them into being. Around the world, our sisters and brothers continue to be inspired by God’s power and goodness, and as a result, work to share great love with those around them. Indeed, all of us are invited to catch the tune of the heavens and to share fresh testimonies of God’s handiwork in the heavens, in our world, and in our very lives. It is together that we can tell (this and other) rich stories and sing melodious songs about the God who created all things and continues to sustain them through all seasons and struggles.

In a time when each of us greatly benefits from hearing statements of hope and promise, what words of Psalm 19 resonate with you or would encourage those around you? As you look to the heavens, what fresh (or refreshed) words of worship do you feel led to sing to God in this season?

No matter where we are located, as we look to the skies, may we with one voice declare the glory of God, singing new words to the song of the universe.

Find worship resources for this year’s offering or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Celebrating the fruit of denominational ministries

By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

“This is to God’s glory, that you bear much fruit,
showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
– John 15:8, NIV modified

Thank you for your generous contributions to the Church of the Brethren. Overflowing with gratitude, we celebrate your partnership, which sustains our missions and ministries, and the fruit that we bear together in the name of Jesus for the glory of God. 

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Serving with love

By Evan Ulrich, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 325

My hope for the future is a world where we can use our unique gifts together to serve our communities with love. A future where the focus is less on money and personal wealth, and more on the collective well-being of all of our sisters and brothers on the Earth we share. My time with BVS and serving with Brethren Disaster Ministries has allowed me to see the good works that we can do when we all work together. It has shown me how everyone working as a team, given the proper tools and instruction, can do just about anything. Serving with love starts with a willingness to learn, a willingness to put others before self, and a willingness to work hard for no personal gain or motive.

This mindset of service is needed now more than ever. The gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is widening. More and more people are finding themselves without a safe home and without reliable sources of food, water, or heat. I have come to see this every day while rebuilding homes in rural eastern North Carolina.

I remember a conversation I had with one of the homeowners whose house we were working on that truly opened my eyes to how I want to live my life. She was sharing her story that was full of loss, struggles, and hardships. Things I could not ever imagine going through. Yet with every sentence she spoke, she did not stop telling me how blessed she was. And she sincerely meant it. It made me question and realize how easy it is for me to see the things I do not have, rather than give thanks for what is abundant in my life. From the outside looking in I was the one serving her, but she gave me something even more special in return: perspective.

I hope that we can realize how exceptionally important each of our lives are. As we live in this world together, we are called to lift up our neighbors with kindness, share the burdens of the people we are intricately connected with, and serve the world in love.

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 of serving with love at www.brethren.org/givebvs.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Life moves fast

A reflection by Karly Eichenauer as featured in the Spring 2021 issue of Bridge

In my favorite movie, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the main character Ferris reflects at the end, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” In our work/school/play, life moves very fast. We busy ourselves with daily tasks or assignments. We plan events and meetings into the day.

This year has been tough for most people. In addition to great loss and suffering, social distancing and safety protocols have canceled many fun events that usually get planned into our schedules. Due to the pandemic, there have been fewer in-person social events to connect with friends, family, and the church community. Even hobbies have been modified to reduce social contact. These changes, layered on top of our busy daily schedules, contribute to stress, anxiety, and loneliness.

Despite this season of stress and loneliness, may we find the time to stop and look around, to slow life down, and appreciate where we are right now. In our own ways, we have experienced new growth and persevered through trying times. Wherever we are, God is guiding us and promises to be by our side. Slow down for a minute: breathe new energy into your body, to center your mind to focus your thoughts, and to release your worries to God.

May we open our eyes to find the joy that is all around us: the blooming of the daffodil flowers, the warming of spring days, and the birds singing in the morning. May we open our hearts to God’s call through the bustle of daily life: to changing paths, to stepping into the unknown, to trying something new. May we focus our sights on the glimmer of hope on the horizon: that we may soon be through this dark season once and for all, and we can reconnect with everyone in our community soon!

Learn more about Youth and Young Adult Ministries at www.brethren.org/yya or support it today at www.brethren.org/giveyya.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Testifying to the work of Jesus

Pentecost Offering 2021
www.brethren.org/pentecost

A theme reflection/sermon starter for the 2021 Pentecost Offering written by Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement Communications

“When the Advocate comes . . . the Spirit of truth . . . will testify on my behalf. You also are to testify.” ~John 15:26-27a

Not a day goes by that we aren’t bearing witness to something. Sharing about today’s local weather and how well it matches the forecast. Talking about the incredible meal we had from our favorite restaurant. Telling confidants about the person who went out of their way to help (or harm) us. Whenever words pass our lips, we are sharing a testimony.

As the resurrected Christ prepared for his transition to the heavenly realms, he outlined the essential elements of experiencing new life in the Holy Spirit. Jesus trusted his followers to continue his work and promised to provide them with what they needed to do it. The emerging advocate, the Holy Spirit, would bear witness about Jesus, reminding his followers how to hold him in their minds. In addition to receiving words from the Spirit, to continue the work of Jesus meant the disciples would bear witness as well.

As we hear the words of Jesus from the 15th chapter of John’s Gospel, the mission to testify should not surprise us. The whole account of John prominently features the Greek word “martyreō” meaning “to bear witness”—more than any other gospel, in fact. In the NRSV, variations of the word “testify” are present 30 times and “testimony” is mentioned 12. Indeed, to follow Jesus is to reveal in word and deed what we have seen, heard, and experienced.

Beyond the faithful act of sharing testimonies, the apostle John also reveals whose testimonies to whom we should stay attuned. In the family of faith, our witness is collective. Just as we aim to lift Jesus by the words that we share, so also do we elevate him in the world by the voices that we hear, amplify, and echo. To honor the testimonies in John’s Gospel involves inclining an ear to the same people today. This means listening to the stories of social outcasts (who, like John the Baptist, may be very aware of the redemptive work of God), believing the testimonies of women (the only preachers on Resurrection Sunday), and hearing the voices of people of color (without whom we wouldn’t have a single letter of the entire biblical narrative). Though some voices might be overlooked in other circles, expressions of new life in Jesus can be found everywhere that the church lends an ear.

With your help, the ministries of the Church of the Brethren testify to the work of Jesus and amplify unique life-giving testimonies that need to be heard. Through online conversations and webinars, fearless disciples and leaders are equipped to reveal the ministry of Jesus in new ways. Thank you for supporting this collective work that builds up the body of Christ and speaks words of healing and hope to a hurting world.

How are you testifying about the work of Jesus? Whose testimonies are you hearing regularly? What new voices need to be heard (in your household, church, community) for the redemptive work of Jesus to become more tangible near you?  Together, empowered by the Spirit, how can we reveal the new life we have found in Christ to people in a broken world?

Whatever the conditions, the location, or the people you encounter, may we faithfully testify to the work of Jesus with each day that goes by.

Find worship resources for this year’s offering or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)