Celebrating the wondrous work of God

Giving Tuesday 2019
www.brethren.org/givingtuesday

By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

“Bless the Lord God, the God of Israel–
the only one who does wondrous things!
Bless God’s glorious name forever;
let his glory fill all the earth!
~ Psalm 72:18-19, CEB

When was the last time you noticed the “wondrous things” God has done in your life? A question that my Sunday school teacher, Fran, at Mechanicsburg Church of the Brethren would ask is, “What were your God moments this week?” Sometimes she would begin with this question, but on other occasions, it would naturally seep into our conversation or even close our time together as people reflected on how they had seen “wondrous things.” I travel often in my role as director of Mission Advancement, and during a recent trip, I noticed a “God moment.”

I like to travel by train when I work at the General Offices in Elgin, Ill.—taking the Pennsylvanian from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh and then Capital Limited into Chicago’s Union Station. The autumn season sets a beautiful stage to travel the rails. Getting into the mountainous areas of central Pennsylvania, the end of the harvest season can be observed as you pass by fields. Orange, brown, green, yellow, and red are the colors that splash this canvas. Traveling by train slows things down and offers the opportunity to reflect on what I’ve seen and experienced. Most trips include having conversations with fellow travelers—hearing their stories, sharing my own, and providing words of encouragement, grace, and peace, if it’s needed.

A few weeks ago, at the conclusion of the October meeting for Mission and Ministry Board, I boarded the train at Union Station to begin the trip back to Pennsylvania. After beginning to talk with my seatmate, we noticed peculiar behavior from the passenger in front of us. This person had been flailing about in their seat, speaking loudly with colorful language, and causing a bit of a ruckus. There was a feeling of concern for those of us who were directly around this person, a sense of uncertainty as to whether their actions should be confronted, and concern about the outcome of a confrontation. As time went on, several people in the railcar shared concerns with Amtrak personnel, who eventually confronted the passenger. The final outcome was the removal of the passenger from the train by local law enforcement.

So, where did I see the wondrous things of God in this situation? God was present through each of my railcar mates. Two people were able to remove and dispose of alcohol that the passenger had brought onto the train by approaching them and asking for a drink. Another man engaged the person in conversation to distract them from causing further alarm. In general, we all looked out for each other as the situation unfolded and worked together to make sure that everyone, including the unruly passenger, was safe until the authorities arrived to intervene.

In this present age, though our culture makes it seem much easier to throw a fist than pass the peace, I watched a group of strangers come together and work to care for one another. We were “strangers no more, but part of one humanity.” This situation gave me a renewed hope for humanity and reminded me that God is always present with us.

Where do you see the wondrous things of God in your life, in your community, or in your place of worship? The Church of the Brethren reveals “another way of living” to those we serve, one in which God’s “glory fills all the earth!” We do this through our Global Mission and Service partnerships in Venezuela, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, and other countries. Another way of living is revealed through the work of our Office of Peacebuilding and Policy as staff meet in Iraqi Kurdistan with ecumenical partners and government officials to talk about active USAID projects to respond to the genocide of Yazidis, the persecution of Christians, and other vulnerable groups. Through the programs of Discipleship Ministries and the Office of Ministry, congregations and pastors are cared for and encouraged. In these ministries and more, God is doing wondrous things around us.

As we enter this season of thankfulness, joy, and giving, we invite you to consider how you will partner with us. May we celebrate the wondrous work of God among us!

This reflection was written for Giving Tuesday on December 3. Join us in celebrating—now or then—by making a gift to the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/givingtuesday.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

The fruit of our labor

Duvelis Altenor near Grand Bois, Haiti

By Jay Wittmeyer, executive director of Global Mission and Service

On behalf of the Office of Global Mission and Service, thank you for your regular support of our ministries. It is hard to believe that I have served in this office for 10 years. This milestone has given me the opportunity to closely consider what has been achieved. Jesus calls us to remain in him, and, as a result, we will “bear much fruit” (John 15:8). What has been the fruit of our labor in the last decade?

In 2009, the first trips I made as executive director were to Haiti. There a team of US Brethren interviewed nine individuals to be licensed into the ministry of the Church of the Brethren in our efforts to start the fledgling mission. Among the nine were two brothers: Jean Altenor, in whose house the first Brethren congregation was started in Port-au-Prince, and his older brother, Duvelis Altenor, in a remote mountain village of Grand Bois on the Dominican Republic border.

When Frère (“brother”) Jean, as he is called in Haiti, encountered the Brethren and understood our unique perspective of the gospel, he immediately went home and shared the good news with his brother Duvelis. When we interviewed him in 2009, Duvelis was hard at work getting a new church established in Grand Bois. We asked about his sense of calling and ministry, and Duvelis, a very quiet man, shared that, besides being a pastor of the congregation, he would hike through the mountains and visit the sick and suffering. This has led to much growth in the church, making it the largest Church of the Brethren congregation in Haiti.

I have wanted to visit Grand Bois for many years (and did so after joining the Haitian Brethren for their seventh annual conference gathering). The journey to Grand Bois is dreadfully hard with hours of creeping along rocky donkey trails in 4-wheel drive until, just when you feel your body cannot handle another bump, you park the car and hike down into the village.

When we arrived, we visited the church first. Though the community is poor and agrarian—growing crops of maize and beans in stone-filled plots of land—it came together to purchase land and construct a Brethren meeting house. God has so blessed their ministry that the building cannot hold all of their 400 members.

Our second stop near Grand Bois was to the capped spring. Traditionally, the community has relied on a small, natural spring that flows from the mountains forming a small creek. Community members travel far to the creek but the water is never very clean. In the dry season, its flow is very limited. This year we were able to cap the spring with cement (which prevents animals from trampling through it), and build a series of tanks to move the water closer to the village with the aid of a pump and a generator. Communities are very sensitive to anyone messing with their only water source, but the Haitian Brethren have a reputation of trust and competence.

Our third stop was to the home of Duvelis and his family. He was thrilled to show us the cabinet of medicine and introduce us to the community health worker who manages it. The community pharmacy program provides treatment for basic needs. Their cabinet saves a person from needing to travel a full day’s journey out of the mountains to get treatment. Duvelis’s heart and passion for the sick is extending in ways we had not anticipated in 2009:  clean water, medical clinics, and now a community pharmacy. 

After 10 years, it’s wonderful to celebrate the growth of the church in Haiti. Fruit remains when fruit replicates more fruit. The church in Grand Bois sees itself as the church of the community and spends its time and effort serving the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of its community. It delights in the partnership it has with other Brethren churches in Haiti and with other Brethren congregations on Hispaniola, as well as in the US and around the globe. They intend to be an active participant in the global Church of the Brethren body.

Life is hard in Haiti and poverty is endemic, but a caring church inspires members to find a calling of service. This is what inspired Duvelis to embrace a Brethren understanding of a holistic gospel of compassion and peace, and, quite literally, a cup of cold water. Duvelis inspires me to share the good news of the compassion of Jesus.

What we see happening for the Haitian Brethren is one of many examples of how God has blessed the global church in the last decade. May we be encouraged by the fruits of ministry for our sisters and brothers around the world.

Learn more about Global Mission and Service ministries of the Church of the Brethren at www.brethren.org/gms or support them at www.brethren.org/givegms.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

How do you measure success?

Global Food Initiative
www.brethren.org/gfi

By Jeff Boshart, manager of the Global Food Initiative

As I travel for the Global Food Initiative (GFI) of the Church of the Brethren, I am sometimes asked, “How do you measure success?” Answering that question begins with an understanding that true success comes from the Lord. As Isaiah 10:15 reveals, tools need someone to wield them in order to be useful. Likewise, GFI is simply a tool that is used by God to help our partners serve effectively in their local communities. After acknowledging God’s involvement, I also say, “Good things ARE happening with GFI and its partners around the globe.” And it’s great when recipients of GFI grants share their stories.

Dawn Blackman from the Randolph Street Community Garden, an outreach of the Champaign (Ill.) Church of the Brethren, received a grant to pay community members in great need to labor in the garden. She wrote: “With the use of the [GFI] funds, we not only got more infrastructure work done this summer in the garden, but there were people trained to lighten my load and even take over when I needed help. Additionally, some casual labor recipients became volunteers in our other ministries. It has been a good year! We would love to be able to continue this program in its current form or to even increase our ‘Tools and Manual Library.’”

Etienne Nsanzimana in Rwanda shared: “Our ministry has been serving with the Batwa [Pygmy] people farming potatoes for the last 7 years. Traditionally they were hunter-gatherers living in the forests. When violence caused them to leave the forest, they became outcasts, surviving by begging and stealing. Now they are working and feeding themselves. Malnutrition has decreased in their children and many are going to school. Recently, 36 of the adult Batwa accepted Christ and some formed a choir in the church named “Makerubi” (meaning “Cherubim”). They are committed to spreading the love of Christ through their songs. We have seen a real change in their lives and have great hopes for the next generation.”

Lastly, Alfredo Merino in Ecuador wrote, “With the support of the GFI, the training project in agroecology and gastronomy for youth of the Pedro Moncayo-Pichincha area has been a success in all respects. Dozens of young people [over 500] have participated, resulting in increased environmental awareness. We will continue to encourage youth to cultivate their small gardens, eat better, and take pride in preparing their own food. Thank you for all your support. It is a blessing as we continue this work.”

Thank you for your partnership in the important work being done around the world through the Global Food Initiative. God is truly blessing this ministry and changing lives. Please prayerfully consider how you will help us respond to future needs.

Learn more about the Global Food Initiative at www.brethren.org/gfi or support it today at www.brethren.org/givegfi .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Serving together for a purpose

Brethren Disaster Ministries long-term project leaders
Steve Keim and Kim Gingerich (first row from left) enjoy watching
friendships develop among volunteers coming from different
districts and backgrounds as they share God’s love together.
Photo by Brethren Disaster Ministries staff
By Kim Gingerich, long-term disaster project leader

As a long-term volunteer project leader with the Brethren Disaster Ministries (BDM) Rebuilding program, I have had the privilege of experiencing this ministry from the “inside” for more than five years. I’ve been given the opportunity to see our denomination through different eyes:  the eyes of service, compassion, and love.  The one thing that keeps standing out to me is how we are united, as opposed to how we might be divided. The “we” are volunteers who come from different districts across the denomination to serve together each week. I often comment to them during our end-of-week debriefing that this ministry is the best-kept secret of our denomination.

Why do I say that? Because those who come to serve strive for a common goal that we fulfill together. What is that common goal? To glorify God as we serve with our hands, feet, and hearts to help restore hope in our clients and the communities in which we serve. Because we have that common goal, we are united. Despite our differences, we are united. We are united because we are motivated by love—God’s love for us and our love for Him—which in turn compels us to love our neighbor as ourselves. As Galatians 5:13-14 tells us: “Serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command:  Love your neighbor as yourself.”

This is how we build the body and unite the church, week after week:  through acts of service that provide opportunities to break down barriers and build relationships. Serving. United. Being the church.

Since BDM has combined its two project sites into one in Lumberton, N.C., we have received a lot of feedback from volunteers that illustrates this unity through service. Here are just a few:

• We are working with people for a common goal—an extraordinary goal.
• It’s the Holy Spirit taking human form, out of our hearts and into our hands.
• We’re so different but we have so much in common.
• Volunteers are like-minded people.
• We come as strangers but leave as friends or family.
• We are stronger together.

Together, across districts and denominations, we come. Different but the same, bound together by love, serving for a purpose, restoring hope, and being the church as we build homes and relationships. These are the real ministries the Rebuilding program of Brethren Disaster Ministries.

This reflection was originally featured in the summer issue of Bridges newsletter produced by Brethren Disaster Ministries. Learn more about the Rebuilding program at www.brethren.org/bdm/rebuild or support it today at www.brethren.org/bdm/givenow .

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Blessed and multiplied


Photo by Steve Buissinne

By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement,

In May, I was blessed to attend Young Adult Conference. The theme scripture this year was Ephesians 3:16-20 and invited us to “test the lengths” of Christ’s love for us and to “reach out and experience the breadth” of the Holy Spirit within us. We are called to empower others to go where we can’t go and reach out to those whom we can’t reach. We do this by giving to support this work of the church. When we give what we are able, we trust in Christ’s transformative power. If Jesus used five loaves and a couple fish to feed more than 5,000 people, can’t our gifts, no matter their size, be blessed and multiplied in the same way?

Growing up, I was taught to give 10% of my income to the work of the church. I haven’t always been able to do this, and it took some time and creative budget planning to get to this point. What helped me was creating a spreadsheet to track my monthly income and spending. There are certainly all kinds of apps and software out there to do this now, but it can still be very valuable to see all your money outlined in an old-fashioned spreadsheet. Doing this exercise helped me become more intentional about giving to ministries that are important to me.

Today, while I still use a spreadsheet, I also use www.brethren.org/give . Through the online giving form, I scheduled a monthly recurring gift to support the ministries of the Church of the Brethren that I am passionate about. (Voluntarily, each member of my team has done this, too.)

If you would like more information about how to give, the mission and ministry of the Church of the Brethren, or would like a copy of the budget spreadsheet I use, feel free to reach out to me at trabenstein@brethren.org .

May you be blessed in your efforts to “test the lengths” of Christ’s love and to “reach out and experience the breadth” of the Holy Spirit.

This reflection was originally featured in Bridge, a publication of Youth and Young Adult ministries.

The way of Jesus

Joshua Brockway speaking at the Discipleship Ministries dinner
at Annual Conference 2019.
Photo by Glenn Riegel

By Joshua Brockway, director of Spiritual Formation

Earlier this year, I picked up March, a graphic novel by Congressman John Lewis.  The first volume of the series sketches the plotline from Lewis’s early life to the first success of the Nashville sit-ins in 1960.

One of the pages, in particular, caught my eye. On the day of the first arrests of the Nashville protests, a white student named Paul LaPrad was pulled from the lunch counter and beaten. The page stood out to me, not because LaPrad was white, but because I heard his story during my undergraduate studies at Manchester College. LaPrad was a Church of the Brethren young adult and would later graduate from Manchester. He attended James Lawson’s weekly workshops on nonviolence, heard the experiences of Jim Crow and racism from his black peers, and learned to withhold a violent response to verbal and physical attacks.

Since reading March and other accounts of the Nashville student movement, as well as talking with Paul LaPrad, I have come to one conclusion:  Peacemaking is a way of life.

We talk about peace often in the church—and rightly so—but when I read about Lawson and his nonviolence workshops, I realized how counter-intuitive nonviolence truly is. Violence, whether through fists or words, is ingrained in us at an early age when we are taught to stand up for ourselves. We are encouraged to share witty retorts to insults. We are entertained by verbal sparring on news channels and by retributive violence on big and small screens.

So in order to live nonviolent lives—and like Jesus—we must be re-formed. This means that peacemaking is not a means to an end but, rather, the result of a long and intentional process of formation. Through our discipleship, we are made into the likeness of the Prince of Peace.

Our ministries, from Sunday school classes using Guide for Biblical Studies to youth groups gathering to raise money for National Youth Conference, keep us in the path of the “long obedience in the same direction,” as the late Eugene Peterson would say. Our ministries don’t just teach the ideas of peace, but they invite us to read the Scriptures through the nonviolent life of Jesus. Our practices of mutual aid and service are not a means to happy living or random acts of kindness, but are acts of obedience to Christ. And our witness and advocacy in our communities and nation are extensions of our relationships with those pushed to the edge of our culture through unjust laws and policies.

Thank you for the ways you disciple others in the nonviolent way of Jesus. Thank you for the ministries you lead and support in your congregation, district, and the denomination. And most of all, thank you for promoting the practices of discipleship and peace through your gifts to the Church of the Brethren.

Learn more about Discipleship Ministries at www.brethren.org/discipleshipmin or support them today at www.brethren.org/givediscipleship.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

United: Pursuing the mind of Christ

www.brethren.org/missionoffering
Photo by Smith Gameti

A scripture medley with Romans 5:1-9 for the 2019 Mission Offering

ONE:  We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.

ALL:  I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. . . . For when I am weak, then I am strong.

ONE:  Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.

ALL:  No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.

ONE:  For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

ALL:  “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. . . . As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.”

ONE:  For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

ALL:  And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.

ONE:  May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other [as] Christ Jesus,

ALL:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,

ONE:  So that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

ALL:  Until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

ONE:  Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

ALL:  For Jesus said, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

ONE:  For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.

ALL:  “I will bless those who bless you, . . . and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

(Romans 15:1-9, 2 Corinthians 12:9-10, 1 Corinthians 10:24, John 15:18-19, Romans 5:5, Philippians 2:6-7, Ephesians 4:13; John 13:35, Genesis 12:3; NIV)

Find this and other worship resources for the Mission Offering or support it today at www.brethren.org/giveoffering.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Sparking joy and saying, “Thank you, next”

Emily speaking to workcamp participants in Brooklyn.
Photo by Carol Elmore

By Emily Tyler, Brethren Volunteer Service director

As I write this, I am in the midst of writing position descriptions, learning more fully the ins and outs of our volunteer insurance policy, and responding to our BVS partners with organizational position statements. And then I looked at this issue’s topic, finding joy. I couldn’t help but chuckle.

In my nearly seven years of working for Brethren Volunteer Service, I have not very often struggled to find joy in my work. The BVS office in Elgin is a pretty fun place to be! However, I must be honest, in this time of transition with no BVS director after Dan McFadden’s resignation, to then being called to fill the position myself, creating joy has sometimes had to be a more intentional part of my work.

This winter, I hopped on the bandwagon of watching Marie Kondo “spark joy” for so many by helping them to purge and organize their belongings. There was one part of the process that I was admittedly skeptical of at first, but learned to appreciate when I put it into practice myself. When the homeowners decided that something was no longer sparking joy for them, before they put it in the “toss” pile, Marie had them thank that item out loud for serving them.

While I can’t toss out the tasks that I do every day that don’t spark joy for me, I can be intentional about finding the joy in those tasks–how they serve our volunteers and our program. It has also been important for me as I’ve settled into the role of director of BVS to think about the history of BVS and how it has served us, and moving forward, learning how to thank those pieces that no longer serve us and usher in new programming that sparks joy for the next generation of BVSers.

Joy may have to be intentionally found at times. But allowing our work and calling to spark joy while also letting go of and thanking the seasons in life that have served us but are no longer needed is a delicate but important balance. What would the world look like if we all followed a calling that sparked joy in us?

This reflection was originally published in the Summer installment of the “The Volunteer” newsletter. Learn more about Brethren Volunteer Service at www.brethren.org/bvs.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

The ministry of fishing

By David Steele, general secretary

“Simon replied, ‘Master, we’ve worked hard all night and caught nothing.
But because you say so, I’ll drop the nets.’ So they dropped the nets and their catch was so huge that their nets were splitting. . . . Jesus said to Simon,

‘Do not be afraid. From now on, you will be fishing for people”
(Luke 5:5-6, 10; CEB).

Many within the Church of the Brethren are not afforded the opportunity to regularly experience the church beyond a local congregation or district setting. Without the privilege to worship, meet, and engage with congregations and districts across the country, it is difficult for someone to truly appreciate the richness of what we call the Church of the Brethren. Without those opportunities, one could easily see a denomination unsure of its own identity and miss the forest for the trees.

While we may talk about membership decline and its impact on giving, I would caution against making any direct correlation of that decline with competing notions of identity or a denomination unsure of its identity. A common purpose and identity are essential to the success of any organization, and I won’t deny that some have doubts or disagree with the identity articulated by the Mission and Ministry Board and Church of the Brethren staff. However, from my experiences as a pastor and a district executive, I believe membership declines have less to do with any common understanding of a true north “Brethren-ism” and much more to do with cultural and familial shifts, our hesitation to move beyond “the way we’ve always done things,” and pastors and church leadership at all levels struggling to meet the ministry needs of local communities and to live into the great commission.

In many ways, our predicament resembles that of the tired fisherman that Jesus encountered. We have labored in less-than-ideal circumstances, been left wanting for better results, and are weary from difficult, often thankless, work. And yet, Jesus is calling us to cast out the net again—not just to continue our usual work but to do the work of fishing for people.

Despite our challenges, our ministries and missions continue. The Mission and Ministry Board, with the help and support of districts, congregations, and members, is working to fan the positive sparks that are emerging. The outcome of the denominational compelling vision process will inform the shaping of our next strategic plan—a plan that will guide our ministries for the future.

While these movements will lead us forward, each of us must take seriously the role that we hold. Max Lucado once wrote, “When those who are called to fish don’t fish, they fight.” Until we whole-heartedly unite for the work of fishing, we will continue to fight and continue to struggle for a common identity and purpose.

Friends, our governing principles and Annual Conference statements cannot save a church filled with imperfect people. Being the church is messy, and there always will be differences among us. Yet in the midst of our circumstances, if we listen carefully to members from across this country, we hear common and familiar themes: service, peace witness, community, living simply, mission, and discipleship—one might say “Brethren-isms” that still point true north. These are at the center of the work and ministries of the Church of the Brethren and the methods we will use together to fish for people.

If we look around us, we will see passionate disciples continuing the work of Jesus. As followers of Christ, may we focus on the work ahead and keep our attention on the work of fishing. We have something unique that the world so desperately needs, and the Lord who calls us is faithfully beside us for our mission. It is for this reason that we may trust that the Church of the Brethren will flourish.

The Church of the Brethren continues the faithful work of fishing for people in the name of Jesus. Support its ministries today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)