Report: Summertime Travels, Gatherings and Reunions
It is getting hot in Americus. So that must mean that it is church conference time. Millard Fuller used to joke, "Christians begin to wilt in the summer and that's why in the South we have summer revivals." What once began as tent meetings, though they still continue, have now grown to become regional and national gatherings. Some denominations meet once a year and others meet every other year and some even spread out their meetings every three, four or five years. Last year, I visited the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship gathering in Charlotte and the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in Minneapolis. This year I traveled to Atlanta, twice to Tampa and then onto Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
Before my travels began, on June 1st we had an important meeting at our local South Georgia Technical College. I helped my good friend Bryan Zulko introduce a new solar manufacturer called MAGE (pronounce Ma-Gay) based in Dublin, Georgia to our local trade school. Excited about the technology and the 400+ jobs they are bringing to Georgia, we wanted to bring the
MAGE Solar Academy to South Georgia Tech so we could train folks on how to sell and install solar panels.
As South Georgia Tech President Sparky Reeves said, "We put our hat on backwards and run full steam ahead around here!" We will have a solar academy here, and maybe as early as this fall semester. The Rural Development program has small loans for solar installation. Now all we need to find is some dedicated solar installer volunteers and we can make this technology available for our affordable housing partner homeowners.
Our tour guides invited me to get up in this Caterpiller earth mover. In a moment of temporary insanity, all I remember Bryan Zulko saying was "Drive it like you stole it!"
Noticing that it had working air conditioning, unlike my pickup, I was tempted to take it home, but alas I couldn't find the garage door opener.
On Saturday, June 11th, I made my first stop in Atlanta to the Southeast Conference United Church of Christ (UCC) annual meeting. Central Congregational UCC in Atlanta rolled out the red carpet for us all. They provided a team of church members that were ready to direct meeting attendees, prepare food for the hungry, coordinate the day's agenda and see that everyone felt at home. Check out this beautiful sanctuary with its glass walls that overlooks ten acres of beautiful woodlands in the middle of Atlanta.
Many joined us for the early morning Conversation Corners. I was invited to share about our upcoming trip to the Congo and to sell coffee and Millard's book "Beyond the American Dream" which tells of his upbringing in the Lanett Congregational Church in Alabama and his early church work on behalf of the UCC.
My home church Praxis UCC in Atlanta was invited to do afternoon worship. What a neat experience. Rev. Chris Lyman Waldron and his wife Leah rocked the place and pictured above I am giving the benediction to our service which happened to close out the event.
Accompanied by my beautiful bride Cori, we also had the opportunity to share the story of the upcoming Clarence Jordan Symposium which will be held in September 2012.
Later in the afternoon, I was invited to share about our Congo trip with the Global Ministries gathering of donors in Decatur. I am really enjoying hearing the stories of folks who knew Clarence and Millard.
The Global Ministries is a unique arrangement of shared mission staffing and leadership for two major denominations: The United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
The history of Millard and Linda Fuller building 114 houses in Mbandaka in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is chronicled in Millard's books Bokotola. The book Beyond the American Dream outlines Millard's early church work with the UCC. It was the Global Missions office of the Disciples of Christ that sponsored Millard and Linda in Zaire. While the houses were sponsored by an ecumenical partnership with the UCC, Mennonites, Presbyterians, etc. the Fullers were on staff as Global Missions missionaries during their time in the Congo, which was 1973-1976. When they returned home to the United States, they returned to Koinonia and founded Habitat for Humanity International.
Cori and I hurried back to Americus that evening because the next day on Sunday, June 12th I was to meet up with the chair of the Tallahassee Fuller Center for Housing Tom Fackender, who also serves on Koinonia Farm's board of directors. Tom brought one of his best Faith Builder volunteer team from the Tallahassee United Church of Christ to hear President Carter teach Sunday School and to see Faith Fuller's
Briars in the Cotton Pactch documentary out at Koinonia Farm.
Of course I had to get a picture with Mr. Jimmy and Miss Rosalynn too...
On Thursday, June 23rd, I headed down to Tampa to pinch hit for Ryan Iafigliola who was scheduled to give a talk to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Due to the the crazy start of the Bike Adventure, and because it is just plain fun, Ryan decided with our nudging to stay with the riders for the whole trip across the country. (Note: Of course the day after I wrote this blog, Ryan showed up back at work in Americus) But never-the-less, I had a great time delivering the talk and meeting up with some of our friends from Smyth and Helwys publishers and collaboarators from the team at Conscience International who along with the Texas Baptist Men make up the Haiti Housing Inititive team for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. If you are interested, click here for a copy of my powerpoint notes from the presentation.
Bam! I saw a deer and then the airbag in a split second. On my way back from the Atlanta airport at 11:45, I was only 15 miles from home on a journey that took me over 1500 miles that day.
Fortunately, I escaped with only a minor skin irritation from the chemicals that escaped from the airbag. The deer and Cori's new car were not as fortunate.
A wonderful officer on duty came by and put the deer down so he wouldn't have to suffer any longer. He called a wrecker and Cori and Levi picked me up and took me the last leg of my long day.
Within a couple of weeks, Cori's car would be returned to new condition by the good folks at Southern Body Shop in Ellaville.
I've been told that most accidents happen close to home.
Now I believe this is true.
I think we should move.
But in all seriousness, this event reminded me that we often overlook the occupational hazard ministers have, which is travel.
We finished out the month with some special visitors from the Philippines. Rev. Paul Barner, his wife Elvie and their delightful children Abigail and PJ came to Americus as they were touring the United States.
Paul is my fourth cousin twice removed (whatever that means) and we are both decendents of Swiss immigrant Adam Barner who settled in Liverpool, Pennsylvania in 1749. I'll certainly claim Paul as my kin as he is the founder of Barner Learning Center in Davao City which now has over 500 students from very impoverished families.
Cori and her students at the Koinonia Homeschool Cooperative had a great time learning about our school and the work Paul and Elvie do in the Philippines.
The following day, I was back at the Atlanta airport headed towards Tampa for the United Church of Christ (UCC) 28th General Synod. Tampa is a beautiful city, but he UCC pilgrims were not distracted by the Bay from their good social justice works.
I was invited to speak twice at the conference on a topic that had a number of steps and would be of support to congregational leadership. I chose the following topic: "Seven Steps for Turning Pew Potatoes Into Servant Leaders." Click here for a copy of my speaking notes. Of course I shared the various mission programs available to churches through our Faith Builders and Global Builders ministries, but it was fun to think about and discuss the hurdles people face when asked to volunteer at church and ways to overcome the challenges. The talk was well received and several in the audience asked for additional handouts so they could pass them along to their friends at their home church.
I met up with Chris and Leah Lyman Waldron who were collecting disaster relief kits for the tornado victims of the recent storms that caused great distruction in the Southeast, our home conference.
The 3,500+ conference participants were invited to bring disaster kits to the Synod. Chris and Leah eventually drove the Ryder truck full of kits to Maryland where they would begin distribution.
Leah and Chris know first hand about the need in times of Disaster. They worked in the Gulf region after hurricaine Katrina and most recently in Sunydale with The Henry County and Greater Atlanta Fuller Center for Housing Fuller Center covenant partners.
After helping Chris and Leah load up the truck, I headed into the Exhibit Hall.
I was intrigued by a booth that was handing out pedometers and asking participants to track their walking miles at the conference. The totals would be tallied up and sent onto the Let's Move
campaign offices. I was suprised to learn of my walking distance at the conference. I averaged about 5 miles per day and burned an average of 3,000+ calories each day of my 10 day trip. No wonder my legs were sore at the end of each day. When I got home I saw further evidence of my exercise by dropping 5 pounds! What a fantastic experience!
As they say, "all good things must come to an end" and after a great Sunday breakfast meeting with Tim Downs and Kathy Clark and the pastors from the Southeast Conference where they promoted our Congo trip, I checked out of the hotel and walked two miles to the bus stop and headed to the Tampa airport where I would fly to my hometown of Pittsburgh.
The Synod event was fantastic and the welcome Tampa gave to the convention was incredible. Here's a picture of Leah in front of a trolly with the UCC "God is still speaking" campaign sign.
The UCC has adopted Gracie Allen's quote "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." We are the Comma Christians and so long as God's people need decent shelter there will be good folks trying to figure out ways to help.
It has been almost a decade since I visited Pittsburgh. I believe the last time was graduation at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 1992. The Mennonite Conference would not begin until Monday evening so I took the opportunity to visit my old neighborhood in West View. I hadn't been back there since 1976. The West View Park with its incredible wooden roller coaster was gone, and a shopping mall exists on the old park grounds, but much of my old neighborhood remained the same as I remembered it. My grade schools were now converted to apartment buildings but my childhood home in the working class neighborhood looked exactly the same. The Arbor Day trees that I planted with my sister when I was 13 were now over 60 foot tall! I saw my old bedroom. It was on the second floor on the right. I saw the sunroom where we put up our Christmas trees and a cascade of memories started to come back. I remember our cat Marshmallow jumping in the open church windows when my Dad was preaching his sermon. I saw the front door and remembered sitting in disbelief at the bottom of the stairs with my best friend Jeff Lavender as we contemplated the meaning of the news that our Pirates baseball hero Roberto Clemente had just been killed in a plane accident while delivering relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Later that evening I posted several photos and enjoyed my family adding their memories.
Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood is my neighborhood. It is my upbringing and who we from Pittsburgh understand ourselves to be. If you choose a life of service helping people achieve a decent house in a decent community, this is what you want them to have. A good home is a blessing from God. Trips down memory lane are not just sentimentalism for the sake of times gone long ago. Telling stories of our past is informative to the next generation. Making sense out of community and discovering what binds and bonds a people is why churches are so good at sharing the narrative of God's incarnational love and relentless quest to help all people see the good things that are ammenities with what Dr. King called a "beloved community."
The Mennonite Church USA Convention would be a homecoming as well as I connected with old friends from Harrisonburg Virginia and Fuller Center partners from across the United States.
I was quite surprised by the number of participants (over 6,000) and the number of youth in attendance (4,500+).
I learned that the youth used to attend summer camps but it evolved to become a national gathering that was eventually combined with the adult national gatherings.
The teens are pictured here waiting to gather for evening services on Monday, July 4th.
The conference rented a large space for recreation. Like the UCC, the Mennonites were encouraging healthy activities.
I caught up with Edgar Stoez, former chair of the Habitat for Humanity International Board of Directors. Edgar is a great friend of The Fuller Center for Housing and is the author of several books on non-profit board governance which we share with our covenant partner leadership teams.
Rev. Owen Burkholder is the Virginia Mennonite Conferance Minister and assisted my father in our wedding at Park View Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg. Owen was interviewing people about their understanding of calling.
Jill Schmidt is a great friend that serves as a director for Mennonite Voluntary Service that has brought us great staff like Ryan Iafigliola, Allen Slabaugh, Kelli Yoder, Richard Agrirre and Alyssa Hostetler. These people are among the finest saints and servants we have ever worked with. Jill used to work with New Horizons Habitat for Humanity her in Americus and has participated in the Millard and Linda Fuller builds in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Matt Pritchard and his friend Rachel Schlabach host an incredible Community Supper group in the Homewood area of Pittsburgh. They invited me to join them for supper on Tuesday and it was hands down the best meal of the entire trip.
Matt works with our Fuller Center friends Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Willson-Hartgrove. He was personally responsible for the global house parties that helped to roll out Shane and Jonathan's new book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.
I had the opportunity to meet with Matt to discuss strategies for the Clarence Jordan Symposium 2012. Matt has agreed to serve as a consultant.
Ted Swartz is an old buddy of Cori's from Eastern Mennonite Seminary. Ted has a Christian theater performance company that is interested in performing her in Americus in December and helping us with fundraisers.
After our meeting, Ted and I had a good laugh about using this fountain area between the Pittsburgh Convention Center as a baptism site "Moonie style." We laughed about the number of youths that might wash down to the Allegheny river which appears in the background.
On Friday, I journeyed from Pittsburgh to Cleveland and had a wonderful tour of the UCC headquarters by my host Hans Holznagel.
The highlight of the tour was visiting the Amistad Chapel. The cross and the table were built from the wood of the touring ship Amistad that travels the world sharing the history of the Amistad case and the birth of the social justice movement of what would become the United Church of Christ.
Hans introduced me to Mary Schaller Blaufuss who heads up the UCC Volunteer Ministries. The result of our meeting will be that our Fuller Center covenant partners who want to host full time volunteers and volunteer work teams will be listed on their denominational mission service opportunities list.
The advantages of working with denominations are many. Creating opportuniites and filling the positions for volunteers is among the most important gifts a denomination can provide to an organization like The Fuller Center for Housing.
On Saturday and Sunday, I spent the day with my dear friends Sandy and George Uhl. They helped arrange an opportunity for me to preach twice at the Middleburg Heights Community Church.
I hadn't seen the good folks from Middleburg since 1999. Many joyful tears were shed as we redicovered how interwoven our lives were. If you have the time to read what I shared, I'm sure you will understand what it means to be bound together in love and service.
Thank you for looking at my report on our Faith Builder activities this summer. I look forward to posting notes on our trip to the Congo. Until then, peace and hope be with you.