Reflection: Staffing Update

Last week we included a couple of small staff-related announcements, and I wanted to expand on them today. 

The first is the next step in Twila’s decision to move to part-time in 2020, and to focus on the bookkeeping function that has grown so large with the increase in property-related income for the Presbytery.  Twila had initially thought she would go part-time in June of this year, but is staying full-time through December, as she can get better benefits on an upcoming knee surgery through the Board of Pensions (another example of how our Board of Pensions provides superior care for their members, and a reward to us for keeping Twila in Board of Pensions even after their new structure made it more costly to do so).

But Twila is determined to go part-time starting January 1, 2020, and she is already getting her paperwork current in anticipation for training her successor.  The hope would be for us to find a new Administrator/Associate Stated Clerk in time for that person to go through the preparation and work for the November presbytery meeting, so we hope to review applications and interview folks soon.  If you know of someone who is interested (or if you are), please read the position description (please click HERE to download a copy of the position description) and send a resume to me at wendytajima@sangabpres.org by September 14th, which happens to be our next Presbytery meeting.

When we developed the position description, the Personnel Committee and I discussed the critical attributes of the job.  The contribution to the work of the Presbytery that I am most grateful for is Twila’s combination of efficiency/detail orientation with her supportive attitude towards everyone she works with.  We are all aware that this person is the initial and regular contact for the Presbytery, so how they act and respond is a direct reflection on the Presbytery as a whole—so responsiveness, clear communication, grace, and knowledge are important.  I am also aware that with the staff working in multiple places, this position is the anchor that everyone can rely on, so dependability is key as well.

It sounds like an impossible job, and surely we do not expect to find someone with all of Twila’s gifts and knowledge easily.  The Personnel Committee reminds us that it is unlikely to find someone coming in with all of Twila’s knowledge coming into the job, but over time the person will learn.  So don’t be intimidated!  We will look for someone who has the inherent qualities needed, and we will commit to providing support and training for someone motivated to learn and grow.  For instance, the person does not have to even be Presbyterian—in which case we would likely drop the “Associate Stated Clerk” from the title unless the person becomes a ruling elder (though the compensation and duties would stay the same).

Last week I also briefly announced the resignation of Rev. Jake Kim from his position as quarter-time Associate for Ministry Development.  Jake has been pursuing a pastoral call since he left Northminster at the end of last year.  He has accepted a call as Senior Pastor for Church of the Valley in Apple Valley.  This is a large church that had been a member of Riverside Presbytery, but has since moved to ECO, so COM will be recommending to the September presbytery meeting that Jake be released from his ministry responsibilities with the PC(USA).  This may not be a “forever” thing; there have already been pastors who have moved back and forth between PC(USA) and ECO; in fact the interim at Church of the Valley was Jan Armstrong, the former executive presbyter for Santa Barbara Presbytery.  And Jake is not rejecting the PC(USA) on principle but because the call happens to be in ECO.  While some people may have hard feelings about ECO, this is where the call is for Jake, and I believe that God works through all people and churches in good faith.  So I pray for blessings on Jake’s work with them, and I am sure that people will be inspired by Jake’s infectious love for Jesus Christ.

Of course, given the distance to Apple Valley, he will be moving over that way, and cannot maintain this quarter-time position with the presbytery.  As it happens, the presbytery leadership has already begun to evaluate our current structure, and I am meeting with members of the two committees Jake staffed (Vision and Strategy, and Education), so this is also an opportunity to look at the most effective committee and staffing for the presbytery’s needs today.  More on that as things develop.

As for our newest staff member, Kristi Van Nostran, you have been very welcoming to her as she works to support our asylum-seeking neighbors.  She has already met with several of our churches, and one family will be hosting two people temporarily as they are released from detention and prepare to move out-of-state to await their court dates.  Just yesterday I preached at First Presbyterian Altadena, and some leaders expressed interest in helping with Kristi’s work.  They, and I, see a direct correlation between the detention of Japanese-Americans in World War II and the detention of those lawfully seeking asylum now.  Veronica Ota, a young adult leader at the church, has done ethical reflection on her family’s incarceration during World War II and has researched literature of the hibakusha, the survivors of the atomic bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  You are invited to celebrate with the church’s annual Fall Festival on September 21, 3-8 pm, with a presentation at 4:30 pm that Veronica will be leading.

So there are many opportunities to consider in the coming weeks:

  • September 14:  Get ready for Presbytery at Puente de Esperanza in La Puente.  And if you are interested in the Presbytery Administrator/Associate Stated Clerk position, please apply by then
  • September 19:  Come to Westminster Gardens to learn about “Grateful Stewardship” as you build financial resources for your church’s ministry, 10 am—2 pm; lunch provided.  Please RSVP by September 9 to presby@sangabpres.org
  • September 21:  Come to First Altadena’s Fall Festival 3-8 pm, especially the 4:30 presentation on Japanese-American incarceration during World War II and those affected by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • Anytime, maybe now:  Contact Kristi Van Nostran at presbywelcome@gmail.com to invite her to meet with your church and consider ways you can care for our neighbors seeking a safe place to live for themselves and their families.

Lately I’ve shared with everyone I meet the great work of our presbytery.  As we look ahead to the fall, with a new school year and new church initiatives starting, I am so grateful to be able to work with you all, and in this time of great potential and opportunity for new ways to serve God’s realm, I am excited to see how we all can join together in God’s great harvest.  Thanks for being such faithful leaders in the ministry to your communities, and to this Presbytery.

Your fellow laborer,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Living Matthew 25

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.  All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.  Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’”

Matthew 25:31-35

I am writing from Baltimore, a truly lovely town.  It has been a great blessing that the PC(USA) is holding several events in Baltimore at this time—first, Big Tent which just finished, then the Mid-Council Leaders will gather here in October and of course General Assembly will be held here in June 2020.

I am actually here thanks to the Presbyterian Mission Agency (PMA) Board, who invited a select group of presbytery executives and all the synod leaders to give their perspective on priorities for the PMA.  Some of you may remember that my term on the PMA Board ended at the 2018 General Assembly, and I have greatly enjoyed moving from Board member to frequent participant in this year’s trend of consultations.

The 2018 General Assembly affirmed the Matthew 25 movement, and Diane Givens-Moffett, the new President and Executive Director of PMA, has adopted this as the guiding vision for all that PMA does.  She knows not to call it a program or initiative, because she’s heard that the last thing the church wants is yet another new program that has to be discussed for possible adoption, implementation, or rejection, only to have the next GA move on to something else.  But Matthew 25 is so indicative of Jesus’ gospel that PMA is confident that it is a worthy challenge for all of us, at all levels of the church.  So churches, presbyteries, and synods are also being invited to commit to being a Matthew 25 church as well.

(This actually has caused some confusion for us in Southern California, where the Matthew 25 movement has already been established, especially focused on immigrant welcome.  You may remember that our keynote speaker at this year’s WinterFest was Alexia Salvatierra, who is the leader of Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal.  Kristi Van Nostran is working on an invitation that addresses both Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal, and Matthew 25 for PMA.  The PMA version is much broader than Matthew 25 SoCal, but we are likely to continue to keep immigrant justice as the focus of our efforts.)

So Diane has developed a Bible study of Matthew 25 that I found very compelling, and I hope that she will come to Southern California to share it with us.  I wanted to highlight just a couple of things as a preview.

First is one of those things that are obvious if we read the whole scripture passage rather than cherry pick the most convenient parts.  We North American Christians have a habit of privatizing our faith, so whenever there’s a call to mission we tend to assume the call is to us as individuals.  But the beginning of this passage clearly addresses “the nations”—so Diane pointed out that this is not just a call to each of us to feed the hungry or welcome the stranger, it is a call to the nations to do so.  This is why we in the Reformed tradition do not limit our vision to our own personal efforts, but we call on the nations to address systemic injustice.  Yes, we can give a meal to one homeless person on the street, and yes, we can have a food pantry at our church.  But also, yes, we can call on our nation and all nations to eradicate hunger, knowing that it is possible with the resources of the earth, if we chose to distribute the food to all.  The good news is that even in recent years, hunger and poverty have been reduced in countries like China, India, and Kenya, though there is a direct correlation between increases in hunger and conflict and impacts of climate change.

Demographics

But I digress.  Diane didn’t get into world hunger statistics, but she did give a very helpful chart of the systemic ways our nation can respond to the needs of our siblings in Christ:

  1. Treatment of the hungry (access to land)
  2. Treatment of the thirsty (access to clean water)
  3. Treatment of the stranger (new arrivals)
  4. Treatment of the naked (vulnerable persons)
  5. Treatment of the sick (access to health care)
  6. Treatment of the prisoner (access to justice).

So yes, we can work person-to-person, and it’s important that we learn to relate to individuals in need and see them as cherished children of God.  But we can also work to advocate for systemic change.  Amidst all the terror around us, we have seen proof that there can be systemic improvements in feeding the hungry, supplying water to the thirsty, caring for the refugee, defending the rights of the vulnerable, providing health care to all, and reforming our justice system. 

This last weekend has seen the epidemic of gun violence exploding in more communities than we can keep straight.  But there was also a time when global hunger seemed a permanent condition.  There can be systemic change, for the sake of millions.  We have also seen nations and even states that have been able to curb gun violence, if only the leaders have the will to confront it.  So we must not lose hope.  May we continue to work in faith, without fear of what the world might think.  Instead, let us trust that if we do our part, God will magnify whatever efforts we offer.

In faith and in trust,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Go Back

Perhaps this is the reason he was separated from you for a while, so that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but as more than a slave, a beloved brother—especially to me but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord.         

Philemon 15-16

It seems to me that we Americans are more frequently running into what I’d call “parallel universe” experiences.  As social and traditional media prove and amplify the impact of particular actions and statements, we are becoming more aware of experiences of different groups in our communities—experiences that in the past were largely unknown.

One early example of this came out of the O.J. Simpson trial some years back, when the question of unfair police treatment of African-Americans came up.  That may have been the first time the general press discussed the disparity between how police were seen by dominant culture communities and communities of color, especially African-Americans.  This has been expanded in recent months by the plethora of reports of people calling the police against innocent people who are “living while black.”  In December 2018, a list was compiled of times in 2018 alone when police were called on African-Americans, including:

Unlocking the door to his own business
Golfing too slowly
Waiting for a friend at Starbucks
Barbecuing at a park
Working out at a gym
Campaigning for elected office door to door (she won!)
Moving into an apartment
Shopping for clothes for the prom
Taking a nap in a university common room (as a registered student)
Asking for directions
Not waving while leaving an Airbnb
Redeeming a coupon
Driving his white grandmother home from church
Babysitting two white children
Working as a home inspector
Working as a firefighter
Delivering newspapers
Swimming in a pool
Shopping while pregnant
And many more . . .

As I was editing this list (to shorten it), I noticed that even when blacks were with whites, this added to the problem—for instance, it was assumed that the young man driving with his white grandmother was robbing her.  (A sad footnote is that the person who alerted the police in this instance was also black—studies have shown that all of us have absorbed racial stereotypes, even against ourselves.)

These situations seem so outrageous that past reports were not believed.  It’s only because people can now use their phones to record videos of the incidents (and post them on social media) that this phenomenon is being exposed.  I remember being in seminary over 20 years ago, when a black student heard a “thud” in his neighbor’s apartment in student housing—he went to her door to make sure she was okay, and she called the police on him.

Another “parallel universe” experience came with the rise of the “Me Too” movement, when reports of various kinds of sexual harassment and violence were made known.  I was surprised to hear men express their shock and surprise that these incidents occurred, because I would guess that just about every woman has experienced some form of sexual harassment—men exposing themselves, making sexually suggestive and sometimes coercive remarks, touching or kissing inappropriately and without permission, and far worse.

And now, people are reacting to the words “go back where you came from.”  As people discussed this phrase, I noticed how it touched an old and deep wound within me.  I noticed how commentators thought the phrase has been attributed only to recent immigrants, or conversely how it can be used more locally, like when New Yorkers move south, or Californians move north.  I realized that dominant culture folks didn’t know how pervasively that phrase (or its variations, such as “go back to Africa” or “where are you really from?”) has been used to tell people of color and non-Christians that we do not belong, that we will never be seen as fully American, no matter how long our people have been here.  The New York Times asked on its website to share times they were told this, and almost instantaneously, they got over 16,000 responses—from African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Native Americans, Jewish Americans, and others.

In the years after Jesus came to be one of us, some of his followers lived out their faith in amazing ways.  In a highly segregated, classist society, the early Christian church received Gentiles and Jews, women and men, slaves and slave owners, poor and wealthy, illiterate and educated, and people with varied levels of citizenship status.  I think we need to emulate the apostle Paul, who by his own account was Jewish, well-educated, a Roman citizen, self-employed, and a sinful persecutor of Christians, and used his own background to reach out to those whose inclusion in the early church was resisted.  In his letter to Philemon, Paul very delicately appeals to a slave owner to receive back his escaped slave not as a slave, but as a beloved brother.  What a bold appeal!  Philemon could have affirmed that the slave Onesimus broke the law, and even if freed legally, the class difference is undeniable—yet Paul urges that the past be erased, and that Philemon now see Onesimus as a peer, a family member, forever.

Too often we Presbyterians find ourselves disrespecting fellow members as not Presbyterian enough, or as new Christians, and unconsciously we make these judgments based on race, immigrant status, or education level.  May we follow our Biblical tradition and see the new creation that Jesus brings out in each of us, and love one another as family—whether or not they look like us, agree with us, or have known us for decades.  And as we receive each other as family, may we listen to each others’ stories, and care for each others’ hurts, that together we may be the loving, vulnerable, and persevering body of Christ we are called to be.

Over the next two weeks, you will not see much of me, as I am trying to take some time off, and then will be going to the Big Tent in Baltimore.  I should be back starting August 7.  And over the next few months, I have invited our Presbytery staff to write their own reflections on their ministries among us, to give you better perspective on the work they do on our behalf.  I look forward to our growing understanding of the ways we can serve Christ and Christ’s people as individuals, churches, and the Presbytery of San Gabriel.

In Christ,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Judgment and Justice

“I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 

Acts 9:16  

There are many reasons that we humans fall into discord and disagreement.  Sometimes this happens simply because the same word means different things in our minds, but we assume we all think the same thing.  Personally, I believe this is a big problem with the word “church.”  When I used to do a lot of church transformation consulting, I would talk about the act of “discovering” the church’s vision.  An important part of this discovering is the realization that everyone has a vision of what church is supposed to be and do, but they often don’t articulate it and aren’t even aware that their visions differ—so people regularly run up against each other’s unspoken visions.  So an important part of the visioning process is to “un”-cover, or “dis”-cover, our particular visions of church, and come to a shared understanding so we can all move in a more coordinated direction.

Every once in a while I am reminded that we run into similar pitfalls with the word “justice.”  I believe that one way people differ theologically is based on how we understand God’s justice. 

When I think of “justice,” I think of three different forms (this is not an academic paper, so please forgive this amateur’s thoughts on the subject):

  1. Retributive justice, which requires punishment and restitution to neutralize the guilt of the offender.  When Christians talk about the crucifixion of Jesus as “buying” our freedom, it means that God’s retributive justice against the sinfulness of humankind had to be satisfied with punishment that Jesus took upon himself, for our sake.
  2. Distributive justice, which seeks to allocate resources more evenly across all people.  This was described multiple times in the account of the Acts church, where “they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:45)  Note that the distribution is not measured by who deserves more or less; it is just based on need.  (In fact, the judgment was directed against those who attempted to withhold personal wealth from the community.)  When you think of the early church members giving their all to a community that came to include ex-slaves and slave masters, Jews and Gentiles, women and men, the radical nature of this vision of distributive justice is pretty amazing—our efforts at multiculturalism has nothing on our early church ancestors!
  3. Restorative justice, as I mentioned in my column on May 28th, attempts to provide healing for both victim and perpetrator by bringing them together for a facilitated conversation that enables them to speak their truth and come to see each other as people who can forgive, accept forgiveness, and reconcile.  I am most inspired and challenged by this work, which is so often carried out by Christians who are seeking to forgive, as Jesus forgives us, and as Jesus commands us—and in this forgiving, other children of God are given healing mercy that is the manifestation of the grace of Jesus Christ.

This probably reflects my personal bias, but I believe that the mistake we make is our focus on retributive justice.  Worse, we may think it is our job to mete out retributive justice.  However, my reading of the Bible says that it is only God who should choose to enact retributive justice—and that sometimes God chooses NOT to, often to the dismay of God’s vengeance-seeking children.  The words in Acts 9:16 come from Jesus, who directed the believer Ananias to receive and heal the stricken Saul, whom Ananias knew to be a persecutor of Christians.  Ananias initially resisted the order to open his home to this murderer, but retribution is the sole responsibility of the Lord, not of Ananias.

Frankly, it would be easy and even satisfying (in a broken human way) for us to practice our form of retributive justice—which may be why God wants to keep that to the judgment of Jesus Christ, “who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me.”  (Heidelberg Catechism, Question 52).

Instead, we are told repeatedly that our job is to practice distributive and restorative justice, as God has shown to us.  The prophets through the millenia, Jesus in feeding the five thousand and reaching out to the outcast, the calls for mercy to the widow, the orphan, and the least of these point to our call to offer mercy and tangible help to all, especially those in need.  And perhaps the most effective witness of Jesus’ claim on our hearts is the ability to forgive, which is the foundation of restorative justice.  We know restorative justice is possible because of the world-changing willingness of Nelson Mandela to reconcile with members of the Apartheid government in South Africa that imprisoned him for 27 years, and more locally we remember the Amish families of schoolgirls killed at Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, and survivors of the saints killed in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The forgiveness offered by those who have faced evil unleashed on the innocent—but also countless other, more personal, acts of forgiveness and reconciliation—help to make visible God’s kingdom of heaven.

Even as we continue to call out injustice in our world, and seek to prevent the abuse of the most vulnerable in our midst, let us seek to practice distributive and restorative justice, as we live as bearers of Christ’s mercy for this broken world.  What an awesome responsibility, and a most amazing opportunity to reflect God’s glory.

In Christ,

Wendy

 

 

Reflection: Priorities

Reflection: Priorities

When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, Jesus said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.” 

Luke 21:5-6

Amid all the uncertainties of life, we like to think that at the very least we are assured that we stand on solid ground.  This weekend forced us to confront the fact that even the earth on which we stand is subject to shifting, sometimes quite violently.

As a native Californian, I was almost relieved when the 6.4 magnitude earthquake came, because my understanding is that earthquakes happen when pressure is built up, so any release of pressure helps to prevent another, more catastrophic, quake.  It seemed odd that there were so many aftershocks, but it was the second quake, magnitude 7.1, that rolled for so long that it scared me.  While the earth shifted like a boat in choppy waters, I wondered whether I should dive under my desk, and prayed for the people close to the epicenter.

There have been thousands of aftershocks over the weekend, at times averaging one every minute.  While many were too small to be felt, I wondered how the residents around Trona and Ridgecrest felt as the earth continued to shake, split, and rumble so relentlessly.  There are few things we take as a given in our lives, and one is that the earth is solid beneath us—so how does it impact our sense of security when the earth is far from solid?

Throughout the Bible, we are reminded not to put our trust in temporary things—riches, buildings, human rulers.  At this time when buildings can tumble and expensive things are crushed, we are experiencing this teaching.  When even the earth seems transient, what is lasting? 

As people of faith, we are blessed to know that God, and the grace of Jesus Christ, and the healing and empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, is ever with us.  As people of God, may we see past surface decoration and appreciate the dignity, the gifts, the searching and insight of every person we meet.  And as followers of Jesus Christ, may we prioritize the mission of our Lord, which is eternal and universal in scope, trusting that our Lord’s grace is sufficient.

And in so doing, may we be generous in offering aid to those whose lives have been shaken—by earthquakes, by violence, by governmental detention.  May this aid be a sign that no one is alone; that God has chosen to work through us to spread love and concern for those who most need it.

Last week I mentioned what is now hundreds of vigils being planned for this Friday, July 12.  You can go to https://www.lightsforliberty.org/localevents for a list; as of today there are vigils scheduled at Altadena Community Church at 7 pm, La Cañada Congregational Church at 7:30 pm, Montebello City Hall at 7 pm, and 391 S State College Blvd, Brea, at 8 pm.

Years from now, we will look back at this time when children are left to the care of other children, when pregnant women are made to sleep on concrete, when men were packed into pens too crowded even to lie down, and people will ask what did the people of faith do?  May we make decisions today that reflect our priorities as Christians, for the world to see, for our own conscience, and mostly in obedience to the call of Christ.  Even if you aren’t the demonstrating kind, find a way to respond to God’s call on your heart.

In prayer,

Wendy