An unlikely friendship

www.brethren.org/drsp

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

Writing comes naturally to me, and writing letters is a hobby I have loved since I was a young girl. When I was 16 and in high school, I discovered DRSP and chose to sign up without knowing what kind of impact it would have on me. I was paired with a man at the San Quentin State Prison by the name of Noel: a man a couple of decades older than I am, and one I (wrongly) assumed I couldn’t relate to. Flash forward to today: It’s been over a decade since I started writing to Noel. We’re pen pals, friends, and yet strangers who have never met.

It has truly been a remarkable experience writing to Noel. We know so much about each other, but I still have not yet seen him in person. Noel is faithful, strong, resilient, compassionate, thoughtful, and patient. He trusts in himself and his good heart and believes he will be set free. I wholeheartedly believe that too. I don’t need to know the elusive “why?”  that put him in prison. It never mattered to me, to be honest. What mattered was his heart and the way he talks about his life—a life that is just as valuable as any other.

We have both changed over the years and I have blossomed into the adult I am now. My naiveté gave me the grace to ask questions and accept differences. Noel had mentioned he was looking for a romantic partner, but I didn’t feel put off by that. My intentions going into this pen pal experience were to build a unique friendship and to help someone in need of a support system, and that has never changed. I have always appreciated Noel and valued our friendship so much, even after all these years and multiple address changes.

Miscommunication can happen easily through pen and paper, and it was something that, at one point, created a little uneasiness in our friendship. During one particular time, Noel felt abandoned by me because I had become engaged to a man I didn’t tell him about. There were certain things I refrained from telling Noel simply because I like having some privacy. My relationships with men were something that felt private to me, even though I would briefly mention things to Noel to give him updates on my life. My understanding from some of his letters was that he felt jealous and upset by my relationships, but I always assured him that I hadn’t changed and I would continue writing.

Regardless of what Noel envisioned me to be once we started writing, I am certain he still values our friendship as highly as I do. He stopped writing to me for a couple of months to “give me space” after our miscommunication. I told him how saddened I was to not receive his letters anymore. I told him how much I looked forward to them. I communicated to him about how I needed to live my life authentically, and that meant I would continue doing what makes me happy. He accepted what I had to say and wanted to continue our special friendship. He supported me and still does to this day. Noel will always be cheering me on, even from the sidelines.

Seeking empathy helped me step into his shoes—shoes shackled with chains. I now realize how deep his loneliness must be, how frustrating relationships are for him because of his forced limitations in prison, how people may come and go in his life and he may not know why, and how sad and hopeless it might feel to never have the life you imagined for yourself. I am hopeful Noel will be released soon and truly live his life to the fullest, with or without a partner and family of his own. But I can confidently say that we are family, through thick and thin. I’ve told Noel that I see him as a wise uncle figure, but most importantly I see him as a lifelong friend. I’m honored and proud to say that he is not just a pen pal, but a true friend for life.

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

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Do not be afraid

By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

“Do not be afraid, [Church of the Brethren]; be glad and rejoice. Surely the Lord has done great things!” ~Joel 2:21, modified

It has been six years since I began working for the Church of the Brethren denomination. Six years that have been filled with a lot of ups and downs, joys and sorrows, frustrations and celebrations. My work as director of Mission Advancement gives me the opportunity to talk with a lot of different people from across our church body. Those in lay leadership serving as deacons, church treasurers, witness chairs, board chairs, leadership team chairs, and the like. I’ve spoken with pastors and congregation moderators, and district executives, and office staff. I’ve shared a meal or coffee with “people in the pews” who give generously towards the missions and ministries of the church. It’s rewarding work. It’s work that, most times, fills my soul and gives me the energy to continue Mission Advancement’s work of interpreting and educating the ways in which we are the hands and feet of Christ in this world. Yet, there are times when the noise of our world and even voices among us drown out what is typically fulfilling work.

In those moments of frustration, when phone calls, emails, and conversations are centered around the distrust of the work of denominational staff (“Elgin”), misunderstandings of how contributions are used, the misuse of statements that were developed as a means to aid us in living together as community, and the confusing narrative shared by some who were once entrusted to guide the church in the ways of Jesus, the Spirit nudges me to lean into the Word in an effort to remain encouraged and strengthened.

I believe we find ourselves, again, in the times the Church has been warned about through the writings of Paul, James, Peter, Jude, and others whose letters form the New Testament. A time when the Church is called to be “awake and watchful,” aware of what is going on around and within our body so that we might live in a Christ-like manner in which we are not “conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2). It is easy to get caught up in negative narratives (of “no way forward” or “continued decline”) and allow accusations to deter the work of the Spirit that can lead us to new growth. But I would respond, in a loud voice, in the spirit of Deuteronomy 31:8:  The Lord goes before us and will be with us; God won’t leave or forsake us; we need not be afraid or discouraged.

It’s encouraging to me that the New International Version mentions “do not be afraid” seventy-four (74) times. “Do not be afraid” was spoken to Mary, to Joseph, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and to the shepherds in the fields. During Christ’s ministry, he told his disciples and others as he prepared for crucifixion and death to not fear. After the resurrection, an angel tells Mary Magdalene and the other women at the tomb to not be afraid. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, we hear God tell His people, and us as adopted children, to not be afraid. “Fear not” is the message I echo to you in these days that precede our celebration of the birth of our Lord and Savior, our King of Kings and Lord of Lords, Jesus Christ.

It is my hope that we will go into this new year saying to one another: “Do not be afraid! Be glad and rejoice! The Lord continues to do great things!” Look at all of the good work God has done through His Son, Jesus Christ, and how a new work is done within us because of our relationship with Him. I invite you to reflect on the good work the Lord has done through us, “The Not-so-Big Church.” From starting endeavors that now function on their own like Heifer International; to our work for conscientious objection; to the spreading of the gospel in Spain, Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Look at how God has blessed that work and how God’s kingdom has expanded through the Global Communion of the Church of the Brethren.

Even in the US, we have seen God’s provision and peace as we accompany those who have had their lives turned upside-down by natural disaster or horrific acts of violence in communities. Brethren Disaster Ministries and Children’s Disaster Service volunteers are ready when tough times come, to be of support and aid to those who are hurting, feeling lost and alone, have lost loved ones, or have nowhere else to turn. These are the places where we have met “Jesus in the neighborhood” and have continued his work. What we have accomplished in the name of Jesus for the size that we are is nothing short of miraculous. Instead of fearing the decline of our denomination, we instead claim, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?” (Hosea 13:14). Until Christ’s return, our work as his body is not done. Be glad and rejoice for the great things God still wants to do through us!

As this year concludes and a new year begins, Do not be afraid! Rejoice and be glad for God is doing a great thing in the Church of the Brethren!

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

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Go and tell what you hear and see

www.brethren.org/adventoffering

By Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement Communications
“Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see.’”
~Matthew 11:4

Everyone has a perspective worth sharing. Each day includes opportunities to complete a survey, to share our thoughts, to tell about your experience at a particular place. If we’re choosing between multiple restaurants to visit, for example, the testimonies of others who have visited previously can be helpful for us to consider.

Throughout the history of the family of faith, testimonies have been essential. Our words can inspire others to take another look at the ordinary parts of life and find God working in extraordinary ways. We share our testimony by the words that we share but also by how we live. Indeed, our prayer is that the things that we profess with the words of our mouths are revealed through the movements of our bodies as well.

When John the Baptist was in prison, he needed fresh data to renew his hope. Yes, even the wilderness prophet who baptized Jesus—who observed his humility, saw the Holy Spirit christen him, and heard God speak with affirmation about his identity—needed additional evidence about the mission of Jesus. John sent his followers to ask Jesus directly, seeking information from the source.

Inspiring faith and community discernment, Jesus didn’t simply give an answer. He invited John’s followers to recall, discover, and ask others who had encountered him to experience how God was moving in his ministry. Jesus invited them to observe for themselves and to go back and tell John what they heard and saw.

Within the Church of the Brethren, we offer our testimony by putting our time, energy, and resources toward partnering in our shared missions and ministries. We do this because we have heard and seen for ourselves how God is working among us. Sharing our testimony in word and deed provides the opportunity for others to participate in what God is doing—not just because we’ve told them, but because they, too, have gone out and experienced God’s redeeming work for themselves. Gifts to the Advent Offering support ministries like the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, Discipleship Ministries, Global Mission, Brethren Volunteer Service, and others that offer opportunities to grow in faith and offer encouragement to others.

Following the instruction of Jesus, we move forward to share of what we have heard and seen, with hope that others will be inspired to investigate, too. Everyone has a perspective worth sharing, and their testimony can restore the hope of others.

The Advent Offering highlights our passion in the Church of the Brethren to live out the holistic peace of Jesus. Unless otherwise allocated by donor preference, gifts to this offering support all Core Ministries of the denomination. Find more information and worship resources for the Advent Offering at www.brethren.org/adventoffering or give an offering today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

We give thanks for you

“I will give thanks to you, LORD, with all my heart;
I will tell of all your wonderful deeds.” -Psalm 9:1

Even as the seasons change, we give thanks to the Lord wholeheartedly for you and for the wonderful deeds God reveals through the missions and ministries of the Church of the Brethren.

Your prayerful and financial support continue to sustain the work that we do together. As we walk by faith and go with God, we reveal Jesus in the neighborhood by: encouraging brothers and sisters near and far, feeding and sheltering those in need, entering into conversations to allow for healing from systematic brokenness, and serving others.

Thank you for your generous partnership in our ministries. May you have a very blessed Thanksgiving.

With gratitude and hope,

David A. Steele
General Secretary
and the staff and volunteers of the Church of the Brethren


Learn about our faith-building, life-changing ministries at www.brethren.org/greatthings.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Our hope is in the Lord

www.brethren.org/givingtuesday

Photos by Glenn Riegel, Donna Savage, Galen Fitzkee, Alfredo Merino, and Kim Gingerich

By Matt DeBall, coordinator of Mission Advancement communications

“Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God.”
-Psalm 146:5, NIV

The world is full of people looking for meaning. Whether in a place of scarcity or sufficiency, people are asking questions—in reflection or conversation—about how to thrive, how to succeed, how to find satisfaction in life.

The search for a path to navigate the challenges of life is not new. People from multiple nations from the ancient Near East (before the common era in the region now known as the Middle East) recognized the God of heaven as the source of the good gifts of life and wondered how to please this God. As the people of Israel were chosen by Yahweh and given the life-giving and life-guiding Torah, the path to live in harmony with God, all people, and all of creation became more clear.

Even with the way to life outlined, Israel still experienced seasons of confusion and struggle. Along the way, they needed reminders about how to orient themselves in the world and with God in order to find help in times of need and at all times to have hope. As we look to Psalm 146, we find a hymn for Israel that now serves as a song of instruction for us concerning how we praise God well—with our voices but also with our lives. This hymn reveals two markers of how we affirm that our hope is in the Lord.

First, we declare our hope in the Lord by putting our trust in God. There are many leaders, causes, and organizations vying for our attention, and some of them are worthy of it. With November elections wrapping up, we remember how it is a healthy practice for us to engage in the political process as we feel inclined. Nonetheless, the Psalmist calls us to put our ultimate hope and trust in God regardless of who we vote for or what groups we affiliate with.

Within the Church of the Brethren, we point to God as the help that each of us needs. We welcome people from all walks of life rather than use human-made markers of division. In all facets of our life together, we strive to declare our full trust in God rather than in leaders who can fail us and systems that are imperfect. We worship God, individually and corporately, by nurturing hope in God in heads and hearts and also revealing trust in God through our voices and hands.

Second, we declare our hope in God through caring for the vulnerable. We know that God is the defender and provider of the overlooked, the outcast, and the oppressed. We also remember the words of Jesus to love God and to love others as an extension of our love for God (Matthew 22:37-40). As a result, we seek to be present with the vulnerable and attentive to their needs. When people are abandoned or afflicted, we seek to be present with them—that they may see the love and provision of God, and together, we may see the restoring work of God.

The Church of the Brethren is committed to continuing the work of Jesus and being a caring presence in neighborhoods near and far. It’s missions and ministries nurture faith for people of all ages, accompany communities through recovery from disaster or violence, and build relationships to navigate life in community. Wherever people are asking questions of meaning and purpose, we seek to be present, to listen, and to respond. Through our lives and the work we do together, we proclaim our hope is in the Lord.

On Giving Tuesday, November 29, we will sing again of our hope in God and how the Lord sustains the work of the Church of the Brethren. We also give thanks for you and for the ways that we serve together. Learn more about our faith-building and life-changing ministries at www.brethren.org/greatthings or support them today at www.brethren.org/givingtuesday.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Look at the nations and see!

Footwashing in Venezuela (left) and prison ministry in South Sudan (right).
Photos by the Office of Global Mission

By Eric Miller, director of Global Missions for the Church of the Brethren

“Look at the nations and see! Be astonished! Be astounded! For a work is being done in your days that you would not believe if you were told.”
– Habakkuk 1:5

What comes to mind when you think about Church of the Brethren missions and missionaries? What sort of work have we done together? Do you know how we have an impact around the world?

Reading documents in the archives, it is easy to see the tension between evangelism and service in Brethren missions of the past, but the two goals were never really at odds. Brethren missionaries went to serve God and to care for people, not to earn their way into heaven or score points with God. They preached the Gospel and lived it. Frank Crumpacker walked from village to village preaching. Howard Sollenberger collected supplies and medicine for people suffering from poverty and war. They built churches, hospitals, schools, and even a major road. Seventy years after the last missionary left, people still remember. Loving God and neighbor matters. Making disciples takes time. We baptize people into a church to join with us as members of the body of Christ. We may fall short, but we are not doing it just for show. We may not always see the results of our work, but we know if we are faithful God will bring a good harvest.

Working in Global Missions, I hear variations on this theme:  we know Jesus cares because you care. You gave us a cup of water when we were thirsty. You stayed with us. Our global Church of the Brethren family is strongly evangelical. They love to share the gospel and plant churches. They also reach out to the downtrodden in their own communities. In Rwanda they worship side-by-side with the often-overlooked Btwa people and partner with them in farming. In Venezuela, they take boats up the river into the jungle to worship with indigenous sisters and brothers. In the Dominican Republic, the neighborhood churches reach out to the sick, elderly, and poor who live nearby. In South Sudan, after our country director Athanasus Ungang was wrongly imprisoned, he started a prison ministry that continues after his release and exoneration.

To be clear, we have not been perfect. We are a small church that offers Jesus, what we have, and our friendship. I have seen what impact our small church has made through our faithfulness, in communities that remember our love decades later. We may sometimes feel pressure to do more, to close a deal of faith today, but ultimately we aim to build churches on strong foundations that will endure and glorify God. May we continue to share the love of Jesus with all people and be willing to accept the gifts they share in return.

Did you know the Church of the Brethren has partnerships and programs in all of the following countries?
Brazil, Burundi, China, Democratic Republic of Congo, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Sudan, Spain, Uganda, Venezuela, Vietnam

Learn more about the work of Global Mission at www.brethren.org/global or support this ministry today at www.brethren.org/givegm.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Working by faith, laboring with love

Tree planting in Quito, Ecuador.
Photo by Alfredo Merino

By Jeff Boshart, manager of the Global Food Initiative

“We remember before our God and Father your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.”  ~1 Thessalonians 1:3

It is hard for me to fathom that this year marks my 10th year serving with the Global Food Initiative (GFI). Time passes quickly. As I reflect on the many changes in the past 10 years, some stick out. The GFI now counts solid partnerships in 12 countries and grants sent to a total of 23 countries in the past decade. Through your generosity, allocations totaling nearly $1.7 million are continuing to help families around the globe through generations of animals, fruit trees that bear more food with each passing year, and increased yields of vegetables and crops grown with improved farming techniques gained through numerous GFI-supported training activities.

One constant during my time in this position is the remarkable faithfulness of GFI supporters like you. Through economic downturns, pandemics, and political turmoil, people who care about hunger in this world, give and give and give again. As I travel, I hear the words of gratitude shared by GFI’s international partners and I wish you could hear them too. It is always humbling to be your representative and a reflection of your love wherever I go for the GFI.

Last year due to many worthy requests, the GFI balance fell to its lowest level in my time in this role; however, we were able to supply funding to all those projects and through your generosity, God supplied more than enough to return the GFI to a place where we can meet this year’s challenges. High food prices around the world stemming from manmade disasters (warfare, climate change, and trade embargoes, to name a few) have once again placed the greatest burden on those who can least afford them.

On a recent Sunday in church, a friend asked me if I find any hope when I visit places like Haiti, Honduras, or Nigeria. Without hesitation, I shared how I am inspired by the boldness of Christian servants to share their faith in word and action even as they endure extreme difficulty in their own lives. Recipients of GFI grants understand that the funds are coming from churches and individuals in the US and not a large organization or government program. I believe that personal touch makes a difference in the reverence with which the gifts are received. It certainly does for me. Thank you for being part of this important, hope-giving ministry.

Learn more about the work of the Global Food Initiative of the Church of the Brethren that your faith, love, and hope sustain at www.brethren.org/gfi or support its life-giving ministry at www.brethren.org/givegfi.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

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.)