Community as a call for justice

Brethren Volunteer Service - winter The Volunteer newsletter

By Naomi Yilma, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 325

“Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.”
— Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

According to a press release from the People’s Vaccine Alliance, 9 out of 10 people in poor countries are set to miss out on the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021, while rich countries have hoarded enough doses to vaccinate their entire populations nearly 3 times over. During a pandemic that has affected millions across the globe, the need for a beloved community becomes ever more urgent. This is a community that, according to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is based on the love of one’s fellow human beings and, in turn, puts the just treatment of all humans at the center of its values. In recognizing the humanity of those around us, we would work towards systems that give everyone in the community access to healthcare, food, and shelter, especially in crisis situations. In a beloved community, we would prioritize giving vaccines to those who bear the brunt of the health and economic fallout from the pandemic.

At my project with the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, I have contributed to a series of blog posts on simple living, racial justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. My work so far has helped me recognize the interconnectedness of our society and the systems that exist within it. It has helped me recognize that systemic injustices that were fostered over decades play a huge role in magnifying the health and economic impacts of COVID-19 in Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities. I have also learned that issues of justice are multidimensional and must be approached as such. In the words of former BVSer Susu Lassa, “Climate justice is economic justice and economic justice is racial justice.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached that the end goal of non-violence is a beloved community. As we build a beloved community that encompasses all forms of justice for all people, advocacy geared towards equitable distribution of resources and opportunities should take center stage.

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

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Service is never unbearable

BVS volunteer Evan Ulrich works at a Rebuilding project in Dayton, Ohio.
Photo courtesy of Evan Ulrich

By Evan Ulrich, member of Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 325

Dayton, Ohio, was never on my radar for places to live after I graduated from Juniata College. However, as a member of Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) Unit 325, I found myself signing up to spend my year of service with Brethren Disaster Ministries’ (BDM) Rebuilding Program.

And I am so glad I did. BVS helped steer me toward volunteering with BDM—an organization that allows Brethren (and anyone else willing to pick up a hammer) to act upon our shared belief of serving others. In that case, that means serving others by rebuilding homes that were destroyed or damaged by natural disasters.

What I find unique and remarkable about BDM is its long-term goal. Each site focuses on long-term recovery. After all the media coverage and initial assistance has died down, BDM comes in to pick up where others left off. Sometimes even years after a disaster there is still much work to be done.

As I write this there are two sites open for volunteers—one in Bayboro, N.C., to assist those hit by Hurricane Florence in 2018, and the other here in Dayton. Our site is located a few miles east of downtown, in a recently closed Presbyterian church. Our work encompasses the greater Dayton area as we help rebuild homes damaged when 15 devastating tornadoes ripped through the area on Memorial Day in 2019.

Due to the type of disaster, the majority of our work involves repairing damaged roofs, installing new siding, and performing interior repairs due to water damage. Hanging and finishing drywall seems to be a never-ending project. I’m getting lots of practice! The work can sometimes be tedious, hot, cold, and occasionally quite odorous. Added on top of this is the duty to keep everyone safe during the pandemic and adhering to all COVID-19 safety precautions.

But helping fellow humans through love is never unbearable. It is a true blessing and the highest privilege to lay your needs down and pick up the needs of a stranger. I am grateful for being able to see this occur every day with the volunteers who come out.

Being a part of the site long-term, I have the opportunity to see the timeline of recovery over its full span. Each week brings something new: a different set of volunteers, and a different energy. But what never ceases to amaze me is the amount of quality work that gets accomplished by even the most inexperienced group of volunteers. Everyone has an important job, no matter the skill set.

One survivor of a disaster expressed his gratitude by simply saying how nice it was to not have rain coming into his house. This short statement made me step back and realize how many comforts we take for granted—and how important it is for us to safely serve others through love.

Brethren Volunteer Service and Brethren Disaster Ministries are ministries of the Church of the Brethren. Support them today at www.brethren.org/give.

This reflection was originally featured in
Messenger magazine.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

As the world changes… our goals stay the same

Read a Brethren Volunteer Service reflection by Alexander McBride
Alexander McBride from Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 322

By Alexander McBride, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 322

Life at my project at Snowcap Community Charities has drastically changed in the past couple of months. Back in March we were able to bring clients into the pantry where they could select what food they wanted. However, within a couple of weeks our operations completely changed because of the threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. To keep our clients safe, we began distributing food boxes to them outside of the building and added changes to volunteer scheduling meant that there were some friends I did not see for several weeks. All of this coincided with a major adjustment to my living arrangement as my housemates were all recalled home early to Germany because of the virus, leaving me by myself. In a matter of a couple of weeks, the world around me had completely changed. How things were in February started to become like a distant memory.

Regardless of these changes, the core mission of SnowCap remains the same: providing food to those in need. Now more than ever, people need help to have enough food to make it through the week. It is wonderful to provide some food security during these tough times. The pandemic has even opened some new opportunities to provide food aid to more people. Earlier in May, Snowcap teamed up with the city of Gershan to hold a distribution drive, handing out food boxes to locals who needed them. Even during a time of great turmoil and change, my project’s mission has not changed, providing some form of stability in my changing life. Our lives may be going through a period of great change, but we must never lose focus of our goals in life. We must always strive to humbly serve those in need and bridge the gaps of inequities.

Learn more about Brethren Volunteer Service at www.brethren.org/bvs or support it today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

On Growing Pains

I have done a lot of growing in this year of service.

And no, it’s not the kind of growth that takes place with a background of sunshine and rainbows and peppy music, but the hard, achy kind of growth. Still I walk around with these growing pains, sitting with questions that push at my own personal perceptions of peacebuilding, service, and what it means to actively build the kind of peace that mandates liberation for all.

Earlier in the year, I wrote about the struggle of maintaining resolve in the face of what seems like a stagnant, and in some cases regressive, time in our political climate. In the time that since that piece, I know that my resolve has weakened, and naturally, anger was poised to take its place. COVID-19 ripped back the curtain on the various systemic problems  in the U.S and worldwide, and police brutality and racial injustice were once again cast into the limelight (with the help of live social media documentation of a phenomenon that is as old as the institution of policing itself).

In bearing cognizance of my anger and the ire that burns hot in my belly, I wondered what to do with this fire. After getting tired of letting it burn me out and leaving me weak, through the help of Audre Lorde, I came to realize its refining power. Through her words, I came to see the malleability of anger and its ability to be used as a powerful source of energy, and I utilized its energy for reflection.

Left to focus on the intent and motivation behind my work as opposed to the outcome -because the outcomes were increasingly unfavorable- I became aware of how little time and reflection I had devoted to this endeavor. As the observatory lens turned away from what change we could effect and towards the why and the how, I was awash in the light of the selfishness of my approach to service. There I sat, questioning why I was doing this work, and not being thrilled with the answers.

I noticed that my approach to this work centered the things I thought would be beneficial to the demographics that I was advocating for; it didn’t center their own needs, wants, and aspirations, and this was a glaring problem. This was something that I also noticed in various of the spaces that I interacted with while in this position, and I felt comfortable in my criticism of these spaces but remained oblivious to my complicit conceptualization of the very same service that I was engaged in.

It soon became obvious that I needed to look at my motivations for service, first and foremost, as an act of service to those that I am in-service of. I needed to make “basic and radical alterations in those assumptions underlining” why I serve as a peacebuilder, and in utilizing the refining fire of anger, I called out my own biases and began the process of reconstructing my perceptions and motivation around service and peacebuilding. This is an ongoing process, and I hope that it only ends with a world where ALL can grow, because we are not free until the most marginalized within our world is free.

This year has been one of learning and aching, and I gleefully rejoice for the work that I have been able to do on myself while actively in service of others. I came into this position with a reservoir of resolve and energy, and that reservoir has been severely depleted. However, I see this not as a bad thing, but as a necessary pre-condition to the work of understanding the assumptions around why I serve, and what the larger implications of my actions are for the well-being of demographics in which I have an active interest.

I know that in what should be a blog post about the work done in service of others this year, I have spoken more so about myself.

I think that is the point.

Service is a necessary, worthwhile, and laudable endeavor, but doing the work of examining why we serve is an act of service in and of itself. This year has helped to clarify my hazy assumptions and preconceived notions about what it means to truly be in service of others, and in that way has strengthened me as a peacebuilder. This work, for me, took place within my year of service, and while I am thankful that working at OPP provided me the conditions to come to this realization, I am cognizant that this is work that should be intentionally done by all who serve others, in all avenues and capacities.

I am better peacebuilder for working at the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy; its been a tumultuous year, but I believe that this refining process has instigated in me a process of discernment that is of paramount importance when working in service of others. I plan to head to Bethany Theological Seminary in the Fall to gain a Masters in Peacebuilding, and I hope to tailor my projects and reading materials to study theology from the perspective of African American Liberation Theology. Afterwards, I intend to continue in the vein of peacebuilding, because this is necessary work.

*Quote from Audre Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger”

The march toward positive peace


By Susuyu Lassa, associate of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy and Brethren Volunteer Service worker

Peacebuilding has always been a passion of mine. I’ve known from a young age that I am called to a life of volunteerism and service; I remember spending a number of my weekends throughout middle and high school volunteering however I could, be it spending the majority of a day painting the walls of a recently erected building at a mission compound, or spending just a few hours holding newborn babies at an orphanage.

(Continue reading the original blog post featured by
the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy.)

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Life as I know it

www.brethren.org/bvs

By Christina Kaake, Brethren Volunteer Service Unit 311

After leaving my three-year Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) term at incredABLE in Northern Ireland, I emailed my former boss about a reference for a job in the States. He said to me that no other job would ever be good enough for me, that they had ‘ruined me’ for other work by giving me too much freedom and too good of an experience. At the time, I laughed at him. A few months later, though, I told him he was right.

But it wasn’t totally incredABLE’s fault. It’s BVS’ fault, too.

Volunteer life is freeing in a way that’s difficult to convey and even more difficult to move past. I still had bills to pay during my placement—being in your mid-30s when you join up will do that—but spending that time focusing on only basic monetary needs frees a person to engage with other needs. As a BVS volunteer you get to focus on your social needs, the things that ‘fill your basket’ at work and learning to create and maintain the boundaries that feed your emotional health.

I had a fantastic plan for my own re-entry. I was going to transition so easily and simply back into the career I had been working in for 15 years. But a full-time office job, particularly with U.S. expectations and job culture, is something that doesn’t really appeal to me anymore. I know how much I’ll miss those freedoms, from the materialistic mindset and the general belief that you are where you work.

BVS changes you. You’ll learn to make genuine connections with strangers, to rely on community, to look at conflict differently, even to define home differently. It’s the most rewarding set of changes I can think of, and they make returning to life as you knew it before… impossible!

Learn more about Brethren Volunteer Service at www.brethren.org/bvs or support it today at www.brethren.org/givebvs.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Set free to love and serve

Chains broken
Photo by Elias Sch

By Traci Rabenstein, director of Mission Advancement

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. … You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. … Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit” (Galatians 5:1, 13-15, 24-25).

These are not easy words for the church in Galatia to hear, nor for us today. Paul wrote this letter to Jewish believers who were teaching Gentile believers that they needed to follow the letter of the law in order to follow Jesus. In addition to correcting them, Paul was also calling them to find freedom in Christ. Since the Jews who believe in Jesus as their Messiah struggled with a split identity—growing up with strict adherence to the Torah and, now, celebrating their freedom in Christ—it’s no surprise that they also struggled with how a Gentile could now become a part of the family of God.

This tension divided the early church, and Paul wrote to urge them that their faith was no longer centered around the law but, rather, Jesus, who fulfilled it. Their former directive was now simplified to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Earlier in the letter, Paul shared about a time he rebuked Peter and other church leaders, and in chapter 5, he built a case for liberty and stated plainly that all believers were saved by faith, not by keeping the law. Their salvation through faith alone freed them to love and serve one another, carry each other’s burdens, and share kindness with everyone (chapter 6).

What does this mean for us today? The church in Galatia struggled to find loving unity and experienced bouts of dissension—an atmosphere that, unfortunately, can feel too close to home.  Don’t we also struggle to live in loving unity? Experience disagreement with each other? Can our discord also lead into destructive postures? And can’t all of this harm our life together and our testimony?

While the Church of the Brethren may seem like an easy target for these questions, this can also be true for any church regardless of denominational affiliation. Many churches have struggled with one issue or another, and it has led to ugly feuding. When we are not motivated by love, we become more critical of others. We stop looking for good in them and see only their faults. Soon the unity of believers is broken.

According to Paul, there is a way to counteract division. He proclaimed repeatedly what it means to have freedom through Christ Jesus. He kept sharing the message that faith in Jesus Christ equals salvation, that salvation equals freedom, and that freedom leads us to love and serve every person made in God’s image without prejudice. The message is for every person. Salvation is offered to every person. Loving and serving are for every person. Freedom from selfish desire. Freedom from Satan’s agenda. Freedom from being overcome by the ways of the world. This is what transformation through faith in Christ looks like and this empowers us to bear a spirit of freedom with joy and confidence. It transforms us to serve the least of these without reservation, so that they may catch a glimpse of God through us.

As the Church of the Brethren, through the financial support of congregations and individuals, we reach to the corners of our country and the world, and we proclaim the message of freedom through faith in Jesus. We bear witness to the love that God has for all people through the ways we are present with and serve others. This happens through ministries like Global Mission and Service, Brethren Disaster Ministries, Brethren Volunteer Service, Discipleship Ministries, the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, and the Global Food Initiative.  Through our shared work, we continue the work of Jesus. Peacefully. Simply. Together.

Even through seasons of tension and sharp disagreement, doubt and uncertainty, may we be Brethren who seek to find light and hope. May we find God’s presence within us and around us in our life together.  And may we continue to focus on the work we are called to do as the body of Christ, doing it in love and in service to others.

Support our shared work of love and service today at www.brethren.org/give.

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Holy ground

Workcampers at the Knoxville, Tenn. workcamp in 2019.
Photo by Marissa Witkovsky-Eldred

By Hannah Shultz, coordinator of short-term service for Brethren Volunteer Service

“This is holy ground.” The first time I heard Jason Haldeman, the former program manager at Camp Swatara, speak these words I got goosebumps. It was during staff training of my first summer working at camp and Jason was preparing us for the ministry we would be a part of in the upcoming weeks. He told us that God was present among us and that we were on holy ground. “This is holy ground” stuck with me throughout the summer as I planned evening vesper services, went on hikes, taught Bible classes, and sang silly songs around the campfire. I knew what Jason said was true. From the moment you drove through the archway onto camp property, something felt different. God was certainly present in that place. Camp is where I learned to encounter God in both the most mundane and the most serious moments.

Barbara Brown Taylor, an Episcopal priest and theologian, has a book called an Altar in the World in which she talks about blurring the lines of what we consider to be sacred. We need not only encounter the Divine sitting in church pews and reading scripture, she says, but by keeping our hearts and minds open to the presence of God in the world—in the everyday activities and encounters in our lives. She also encourages us to follow the words of Jesus by recognizing how God cares for lilies and sparrows as well as women who prepare bread and laborers who wait to be paid. In all these cases, we find the work of God in the world as much as in scripture.

In Genesis, Jacob told us what to do when we encounter God in the world. As the story goes, Jacob and Esau both wanted their father Isaac to bless them on his deathbed. Since Esau was the firstborn, he was set to receive the blessing, but Jacob and his mother developed a scheme to trick Isaac into blessing Jacob instead. This enraged Esau, so Jacob fled for his life. He left with nothing and walked as far as he could. He was out in the wilderness when he finally decided to rest, and he went to sleep using a stone as his pillow. During the night he had a vision from God in which God promised him safety, children, and land. God said to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go.”

Genesis 28:16-18 reads:
“Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the LORD is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it.”

God visited Jacob right where he was—out in the wilderness. Jacob realized that this ordinary place in the world must be part of the house of God, so he used a stone as an altar for God. In doing this, he taught us what to do when we encounter God in the world. Barbara Brown Taylor encourages us to follow his example and set up an altar, in the world or in our heart, to commemorate the places where the Divine meets us.

For the past few months, Kara and Liana and I have been writing the 2020 workcamp curriculum, centered on our theme, “Voices for Peace.” Through the workcamp experience, we hope to learn that encountering God does not just take place within church walls, but also when we serve and live in the world. Workcamps offer many opportunities to do physical acts of worship. Through pulling weeds on a farm in Florida, dishing out food at a soup kitchen in Los Angeles, and being in community and sleeping on hard church floors, we are challenged to find God in these daily, sometimes mundane, activities.

At workcamps, we also encounter God in the hard work of identifying injustice and doing something about it. Encountering God in the world often means getting involved in the messiness of human failure. It requires a willingness to be radical disciples in a world that may reject us. Jesus calls for an inbreaking of the kingdom of God on earth. His compassion and healing reaches out to those who are often ignored, and in his parables, he challenges his followers to consider the poor, the hungry, the widow, and the orphan. Similarly, we are called to challenge systems and structures that perpetuate injustice and to make God’s enduring presence known to everyone. We build altars in the world when we participate in activities that advance God’s love and justice, when we create more spaces where we can say “this is holy ground.”

Holy ground does not rise only out of church buildings, it is not just a place where we have sung to God or preached from scripture. Holy ground is the place where God’s beloved community is formed and where God’s reign of justice is made known on earth.

We are each on our own path to discovering holy ground, and as we journey through mundane circumstances and personal fatigue, there are moments to pay attention to the Divine. Like Jacob, we are called to recognize when we have encountered God in the wilderness and to celebrate that God meets us in the most unexpected places. Let us go into the wilderness, seeking God in the fight for justice and peace, and discovering divine possibility in our daily practices. And when we discover that we are on holy ground, let us make an altar to the Lord, revealing to others that God is in this place and still moving in our midst.

Church of the Brethren workcamps are for people of all ages to be the hands of Jesus and voices for peace in the world. Learn more about the workcamp ministry or register for a 2020 workcamp at www.brethren.org/workcamps. Registration opens tomorrow evening (1/16).

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Celebrate what God has done in 2019

Photos by Doretta Dorsch, Glenn Riegel, courtesy of Martin Hutchison,
and Church of the Brethren staff.

“Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering.”
– Psalm 96:7-8a


As 2019 concludes, we remember what God has done among us through the ministries of the Church of the Brethren.

We celebrate the ministries of international Brethren bodies and partnerships, the 1,064 individuals who attended Discipleship Ministries conferences this year, the ongoing work of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, 33 grants totaling $200,000 given by the Global Food Initiative to national and international projects, the continued work of Brethren Disaster Ministries to serve individuals and families through times of need, and 79 Brethren Volunteer Service workers who served in the US and around the world in 2019.

Thank you for your prayerful and financial support in 2019.
Have a very blessed Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Celebrate with us by making a year-end gift to the Church of the Brethren.

www.brethren.org/give

(Read this issue of eBrethren.)

Introductions + OPP Work Update

Hello! My name is Susuyu Lassa, and I am excited to join Nathan Hosler at the COB Office of Peacebuilding and Policy. I am glad to be here, because peacebuilding has always been a passion of mine, though it has gone by various names in my short 23 years of life. I’ve known from a young age that I am called to a life of volunteerism and service; I remember spending a number of my weekends throughout middle and high school volunteering however I could, be it spending the majority of a day painting the outer walls of a recently erected building at a mission compound, or spending just a few hours holding new born babies at an orphanage.

After graduating from Hillcrest School in Jos, Nigeria, I seamlessly transitioned into being a political science major on a pre-law track at Manchester University. I knew that I wanted to go into human rights and advocacy, and my passion for working with the disenfranchised and marginalized was born out of seeing my people suffer massive displacement and death at the hands of radical insurgency and ethno-religious conflict. I was convinced that if I went to school and became a lawyer, I would be equipped to move back to Nigeria and positively apply myself in the march towards the betterment of the lives of those affected by displacement and violent conflict. Then I spent a summer shadowing a slew of lawyers and realized law was not for me.

Back to the drawing board. I was devastated, not because of the realization that law would not be a good fit -in fact I was quite glad to have figured that out sooner than later- but because I found myself with no objective path to my goals. Law had been the plan since I was in middle school, and I found myself at the dreaded ‘what now?’ impasse. In the throes of the closest thing I had ever had to an existential crisis, my guardian angel, in the form of a few members of the Manchester Church of the Brethren, whispered to me, “what about policy advocacy?” That was my breakthrough. Halfway through the first semester of my last year of college, I began looking into how I could positively influence policy so as to better the lives of those in whom I had an active interest. I learned of the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, about the work done specifically on Nigeria, and with marginalized groups within the U.S. such as people of color, and more recently refugees and immigrants. I spent three weeks of my January term unofficially interning at the office, and I became more and more curious about BVS.

Fast forward a few months later, and here I am, a BVSer serving as the associate in the OPP office this year. This is about the last place freshman-year Susu would have envisioned ending up, but therein lies the beauty of the organic nature of life; that we are constantly becoming. I am excited to plug in to the work being done on immigration and to join the various discussions being had on the hill surrounding the multi-faceted nature of conflict in Nigeria. In my short time here, I have been able to delve into immigration work by joining the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, and I have been blessed to have conversations and brainstorm ideas with folks from various Brethren churches who would like to plug into these issues and be a force for change within their local communities. Through the Nigeria Working Group, I have had the opportunity to hear diverse perspectives on pertinent issues such as the Farmer-Herder conflict, and am looking forward to the working group’s fall congressional briefing, during which the role of the U.S. foreign policy and humanitarian aid will be highlighted.

Recently, OPP director Nathan Hosler met with the in-going ambassador to Nigeria, Mary Beth Leonard, to brief her on the scope of OPP and the Nigeria Working Group’s work on Nigeria. He also attended the International Religious Panel roundtable meeting with Sam Brownback, the Ambassador at Large for International Religious freedom.

Nathan Hosler speaking at the International Religious Panel Roundtable

The Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, while small, is engaged in such important work. The need is vast, and I feel blessed to have the opportunity to try to nip away slowly at the vast injustices that plague our world by working in this office and using this platform to bear witness to the words of the Bible, which in Proverbs 31:8 calls us to “speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute.”