2nd Annual Day of Service

2nd Annual Day of Service

We had our 2nd Annual All-Presbytery Day of Service this last Saturday, and it was enlightening in many ways. We had a short business meeting which was highlighted by the presence of Mission Co-Workers Ryan and Alethia White, who pastor the Farsi-speaking Iranian Presbyterian Church in Berlin, Germany, perhaps the first church in Germany to welcome what is now a very large Middle-Eastern migrant community.

Two other highlights from the business meeting were a report from the survey taken at our April Presbytery meeting by the Vision and Strategy Team. The survey respondents showed the following priorities:

  • A strong need for resources and training to help churches build relationships with their community
  • A strong need to diversify generationally
  • Requests for training and resources in identifying local issues and working with homelessness and hunger issues
  • A preference among pastors for a retreat to be centered around a particular topic or speaker.

You can see all the responses in a separate document here.

Perhaps the most important action of the Presbytery was to transition Community Presbyterian Church, West Covina, to be a fellowship of the Presbytery. This allows the CPC family to continue to worship, while the Presbytery takes on the responsibility of managing and utilizing their impressive property, which seems exceptionally well-suited for ministry by multiple bodies. A new AC was formed to discern the vision for that ministry center, with the hope of seeking staff later in the year to care for the fellowship, manage the property, and grow new ministries. This approach is a new strategy for San Gabriel, as it provides support and pastoral care for our long-time members while better stewarding the property that has been entrusted to us for ministry. Several CPC members were present, as Moderator Becca Bateman prayed in gratitude for all they have been and are, as the first church established in West Covina, and as they take on this new path.

In honor of their 70th Anniversary, Community Presbyterian Church will be holding a celebration luncheon at the church on Saturday, July 14th, at 11:30 a.m.

The rest of the meeting (and yes, the stated meeting continued until lunch) was carried out in service projects. The service projects were well-attended and varied. Several people were out landscaping, utilizing not only physical strength but some artistic flair as they laid out a streambed. Others shared stories of faith with some of the residents of Westminster Gardens, and quite a few sorted and packed dozens of toiletry kits for LAC+USC Medical Center, and several housewarming laundry baskets for people moving from homelessness to homes through Door of Hope. We were all astonished at the generosity of our folks bringing in supplies and gift cards for young asylum-seekers, and especially thankful for the churches that took up collections ahead of time.

The immigrant advocacy group met with Fabrizio, a young man awaiting his asylum hearing, and Guillermo Torres, lead organizer for CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice), who is coordinating the UCARE Coalition that helps provide legal and family support for unaccompanied minors with the help of Pacific and San Gabriel presbyteries and other people of faith. I will note that many of the strongest and boldest advocates for the immigrants are Jewish, because they see their ancestors in the young asylumseekers, and they want to give back for those who sheltered them when they fled the Nazis.

Indeed, this theme came up a couple of times on Saturday. Dean Thompson asked Ryan and Alethia White whether the Germans feel a sense of redemption in their generous welcome and support for the Arab refugees, and the Whites affirmed that this is the driving motivation for Germany’s leadership in this area. Wendy Gist suggested that what the Whites are doing, welcoming Iranian refugees in a foreign land, is very similar to what many of our churches do.

However, after the immigration advocacy project ended, I asked Alethia White if indeed the issues seemed similar to her. She opened her eyes wide and said no, the idea that the United States of America is forcibly taking children and infants away from their mothers and sending them sometimes thousands of miles away was mind-blowing, as she had no idea this was happening here, and it is totally different from the German government’s approach.

A few days earlier, I suggested that 50 years from now, people are going to look back at our country’s treatment of refugees the way we look back at Nazi Germany, and they will wonder, what did people of faith do? What will we do?

So as we had a wonderful day of learning and serving, we know that the work continues, and we need to be bold in our obedience to our God, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. We did quite a bit of that as one body of Christ on Saturday.

Let us know Christ’s peace as we continue in his footsteps.

In gratitude and joy,

Wendy

Blessed to be a Blessing

Blessed to be a Blessing

This Sunday is not only Memorial Day weekend, it is the first of many “ordinary” Sundays in the season after Pentecost. This season lasts from Pentecost to the end of the liturgical year, right before Advent-so that’s around 27 weeks. It’s always struck me as a little odd that there are so many Sundays in this season; a few years ago folks tried to make it more interesting by riffing off the liturgical color of green for this season. So instead of just “ordinary time,” they called it “growing time.”

Perhaps it can be called “growing time” or “time to work.” When I think of the story of the church in the Bible, we see:

  • God’s saving intervention in Jesus Christ,
  • the small band of people who were loved and led by Jesus,
  • the disciples seeing his death and resurrection,
  • Jesus promising the power of the Holy Spirit to be his witnesses,
  • Jesus ascending to heaven, and sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost to empower the church.

So now what? Were the disciples given the gift of language and the power of the Holy Spirit to sit back and enjoy their special status? Or were they to wait quietly until Jesus comes again?

I always loved the image of the disciples when Jesus ascends, their mouths open as they looked up to heaven-until two men in white robes arrive to tell them to stop looking to heaven and get on with things.

Of course, I am a child of my tradition, as we Presbyterians are not known for sitting around and reveling in our blessed status. We believe that God has blessed us, as God blessed Abraham, in order that we may be a blessing to others.

Perhaps that’s the connecting point between this long season in the church calendar, and Memorial Day-we look back on those who have gone before us, and we give thanks for their service that has been such a blessing for us today. Whether you focus on military service or on all whom we remember, we are inspired by the work, the sacrifice, the faithfulness, the courageous obedience to our Lord that our ancestors exemplified.

This Saturday we will be having our 2nd Annual Day of Service. We are purposely compressing our regular Presbytery business so we can get on with the Presbytery at work in the world. Because we are called to many different kinds of work, the projects are varied as well-from working in the garden of Westminster Gardens, to putting together hygiene kits for LAC+USC Medical Center patients and housewarming baskets for Door of Hope clients as they escape homelessness, to advocating for migrant people fleeing violence and poverty, to sharing sacred stories with each other, including retired church workers.

As you may remember, Rev. Lauren Evans is our chaplain for retired Presbyterian church workers, and two wonderful side benefits of her ministry are the opportunity to get to know and hear from our retirees, and “Weekend Wanderings,” Lauren’s new newsletter that speaks specifically to the retiree community. This electronic newsletter includes reflections and information that is useful for retirees, and Lauren hopes to share stories of our wonderful retirees. (You can let Twila know at presby@sangabpres.org if you want to subscribe to this.) And at our Presbytery meeting this Saturday, we can hear some of these stories-stories of work, and sacrifice, and faithfulness, and courageous obedience to our Lord. I have been inspired, energized, and challenged by such stories, and I expect you have also.

So as we gather up items to bring this Saturday (see shopping lists below), as we help our service project leaders by registering ahead of time for your service project preference here, as we get ready to connect with each other with love, prayer, and work, let me leave you with a little story that always makes me pause:

A man, distraught by all the pain and suffering he saw all around him, broke down and banged his fists into the dirt. His head turned upward and he cried out to God, “Look at this mess. Look at all this pain and suffering. Look at all this killing and hate. God, O God! WHY DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING!!”

And God answered him and said, “I did. I sent you.”

As we enter this season of growth and service, may we enjoy exercising the power of the Holy Spirit moving through us, for the sake of the Gospel, for the sake of the people God has called us to serve. See you Saturday.

In love and service,

Wendy

The Language of Service

The Language of Service

For some reason, it felt like Pentecost came very early this year. Yesterday I heard a pastor friend saying that things are so busy there wasn’t time to really think about Pentecost, and it reminded me how sometimes we try to fit God into our very-busy lives (even those of us who work for the church can get too busy to contemplate the One we have vowed to serve). I thought how Jesus’ followers would not be busy with tasks, as they were in fear and mourning, having first lost Jesus to crucifixion, and then having Jesus leave again as he ascended into heaven-yet devoting themselves to prayer and preaching to their congregation of around 120. Their lives were open for the coming of the Spirit-though certainly the rest of Jerusalem was taken by surprise!

Yesterday I heard a sermon focusing on the Pentecost gift being that of language. Now I happen to think of “language” in a larger sense-that is, all the ways we communicate with others. So there are the words we use, but also the way we communicate our faith through the choices we make, the ways we treat people, the love and forgiveness we offer, as Jesus gave to us. We even know that the architecture of our buildings and the songs we sing in worship express something of what we believe about God, and who we are as God’s church. And we speak of serving Jesus when we serve others, especially when we show concern for those who struggle in the world, “the least of these.”

I once heard a person say, “I want my life to be my sermon.” What language do you use to proclaim Christ in your life?

For many of us, we communicate, and fellowship, and learn through service. If that’s you too, please be sure to come to our next Presbytery meeting, June 2, which is also our 2nd Annual All-Presbytery Day of Service, held at Westminster Gardens in Duarte. That’s less than two weeks away!

We are planning the day to really be a morning-registration starts at 8:30, and the meeting starts at 9 am. We expect that the meeting will move into service projects by 10:30, so the meeting adjourns at 12:30 with lunch. All the service projects will be done at Westminster Gardens, though not all the projects are for Westminster Gardens. So we are hoping that everyone stays for the full meeting, which includes the service opportunities. As with last year, we are posting a Google Docs sign-up for the service projects-though you can also register on-site, you can give the organizers some advance notice by signing up here – Open in Docs

You’ll see that there’s a variety of options-from a few landscaping projects, to putting together housewarming baskets and hygiene kits, to sharing sacred stories with long-time servants of God, to immigrant advocacy. Along with the service, there will be learning along the way, as service project leaders such as Angel Interfaith Network and Door of Hope (hygiene kits and housewarming baskets) and Margarita Reyes and Walter Contreras (immigrant advocacy) will give information about the communities they serve, and ways we can be Christ’s hands and heart for them.

There’s even a shopping component. At the last Presbytery meeting and in last week’s Monday Morning Update, we gave you shopping lists for the hygiene kits and housewarming baskets-see the list again in a separate box. In addition, we invite you to bring in $5 Target gift cards for families who are caring for unaccompanied minors as they seek asylum here in Southern California. These young people are fleeing the rampant violence in Central America, and are in our immigration court system, living with volunteer families until they can appear before a judge. As part of the immigrant advocacy project, we will be writing notes of encouragement to the young people and their families, and we will insert a gift card in each note. You can bring in any of these items, regardless of your participation in that service project.

So now you can be shoppers for Jesus, and invite your friends to join us for a very short Presbytery meeting-or invite them to come to Westminster Gardens at 10:00 for worship, and 10:30 for the service projects. We hope that we can get to know each other better as we learn and serve for the kingdom.

Later this week, several of our own will be leaving to learn and serve in Peru. This year we will be sending a 9-person Living Waters team, to install a clean water system for a school in Lima. Because this is the first time we are not working in a high-altitude community, this team includes folks who have not been able to serve in the past. We are grateful that we can continue in this on-going commitment to the people of Peru. I ask that you pray for the team, as well as for the people of the Big Island whose homes were overtaken by the Kilauea volcano. I have visited this area (and worked with churches there), when the lava would pour out of Kilauea in a slow stream, not like the violent eruptions happening today. There are multiple hazards resulting from this open break in the earth’s crust, even as eventually this will lead to new land being birthed. May we all remember with reverence the power of God’s creation.

In love and service,

Wendy

Pentecost and Peace

Pentecost and Peace

Some of you may know that I argued long and hard with God before becoming ordained.

Among the countless (and I mean countless) reasons I should not be a pastor was my intense stage fright. Even during seminary, my voice would shake if the Scripture passage I was to read was long, and every time I gave a practice sermon in preaching class, the first comment from the professor was a very concerned “Wendy, are you feeling all right?”

I figured I would not be ordained because in order to be ordained, you have to preach at least one time, and that was one too many. I imagined beginning my first sermon with the Jerry Seinfeld joke that when polled, the fear expressed by most Americans was that of speaking in public, even ahead of the fear of dying. So, Seinfeld reasoned, at any given funeral, more people feared giving the eulogy than lying in the casket. In my one and only sermon, I would tell the joke (which would bomb, of course), give a stultifyingly dry sermon, and walk out of the pulpit saying to God, “See?! I told you I couldn’t do it!”

Well, my first sermon was a miracle of the community of faith surrounding me with love, which is how I ended up where I am now-no great preacher by any length, but still trying. However, it was my SECOND sermon when I had the nightmare preaching experience I thought would kill off my ministry career. I was asked to fill the pulpit for a friend of mine who was serving a Japanese-American church in the Bay Area, a church whose stubbornness caused their large young adult group to break away and start their own fellowship; a church whose insistence on focusing exclusively on Japanese people severely limited their future ministry. My friend and I thought that I could say a prophetic word to these stiff-necked people because as a guest preacher, I could get away with it.

I focused on Acts 1:8, the very last words of Jesus upon his ascension and just before the day of Pentecost (which we will be celebrating this Sunday-I hope with the Pentecost Offering). My main point was that Jesus didn’t just say “you will be my witnesses to the ends of the earth” but that he first directed them to witness on his behalf in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. I especially focused on Samaria, who I consider to be estranged cousins of the Jews of Judea, children of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who were subjugated by the Assyrians and then rejected by the Judeans as traitors and half-breeds. History shows us how invaders will use rape as a form of violence that changes the ethnic legacy of a conquered region, and this is how I think of the hybrid nature of Samaria. Unfortunately, as I interpret the legend of La Malinche in Mexico, the conquered are sometimes demonized as enemy sympathizers.

In his final words, I suggested that Jesus is telling his followers to first reconcile with estranged neighbors before going out to the rest of the world. By reconciling with those closest to us, we can be effective witnesses to the reconciling love of Jesus Christ.

This thought comes to me on the day that the United States government opened its embassy in Jerusalem. As I write this column on Monday morning, 52 people have reportedly died in protests of this embassy move. Mainline Christian churches, including the Presbyterian Church (USA), have denounced this move as being premature, since it was understood that the resolution of Jerusalem would occur as part of the shalom, or fulfillment, of peace talks among the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who all see Jerusalem as a holy city.

When President Trump announced his decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem in December 2017, leaders of the Orthodox, Coptic, Episcopal, Lutheran and other churches in Jerusalem sent an open letter, saying:

Our land is called to be a land of peace. Jerusalem, the city of God, is a city of peace for us and for the world. Unfortunately, though, our holy land with Jerusalem the Holy City, is today a land of conflict.

Those who love Jerusalem have every will to work and make it a land and a city of peace, life and dignity for all its inhabitants. The prayers of all believers in it-the three religions and two peoples who belong to this city-rise to God and ask for peace. . . . We are certain that [the embassy move] will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. . . . As the Christian leaders of Jerusalem, we invite you to walk with us in hope as we build a just, inclusive peace for all the people of this unique and Holy City.

I have often believed that Jerusalem is the nexus of God’s peace for the world. If the children of Abraham cannot learn to live together in peace, what kind of witness do we have for the rest of the world of the reconciling power of our love for our Lord?

While I am gravely concerned for our nation’s role in disrupting the cause of peace, I always take comfort in the many times I have been wrong when discounting the power of God to overcome our shortcomings. Take a little thing like my fear of public speaking, to the utter miracle of our Presbyterian Mission Agency finding a new Executive Director in the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett in the midst of turmoil and distrust in the church-God can certainly do what we cannot do for ourselves. So I always pray that God’s will is much larger and more righteous than my fears.

So I close with Paul’s letter to the Philippians, a letter written from prison, when all might seem lost:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (4:4-7)

Praying for peace on this Pentecost, for all nations, Wendy

Reflecting on Our Mission’s Relevance

Reflecting on Our Mission’s Relevance

A couple of weeks ago, I gave a summary of the April 21 Presbytery meeting, and I mentioned the approach now being taken by the Vision and Strategy Team (VST).

As a new committee, VST felt the need to develop a stronger shared understanding of their role in the life of the Presbytery. They did this by taking the current mission statement of the Presbytery of San Gabriel, and reflecting on its relevance in guiding their work.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, here is the Mission Statement of the Presbytery of San Gabriel:

To expand the Kingdom of God in the San Gabriel Valley by building a relational Body of Christ that ministers to our congregations, each other, and the world.

  1. To strengthen, support and equip our congregations in their work of ministry;
  2. To take time for each other by worshiping, praying, celebrating, supporting and depending upon one another;
  3. To work for the transformation of the valley by sharing our faith in Jesus Christ, becoming a mosaic of Godly diversity in a deeply divided society, and by demonstrating our faith by engagement in public life.

I was invited to sit in as VST deliberated their own vision statement for their work together. One of the concerns that we noticed is that the first two bullet points in the current mission statement view ministry internally, suggesting that the Presbytery’s work is limited to current congregations. Of course our primary concern is to be supportive of and responsive to our congregations, and to ensure that they have the opportunity to know about and contribute to decisions that impact them. But what if we don’t have congregations in a particular area, or they are not equipped to serve that community in its current state of diversity? Is it enough to focus our efforts only on existing congregations?

We also felt that the current mission statement is too long for a mission statement. You probably have heard guidelines that say a mission statement must be short-usually just one sentence-and easy to repeat and compelling to hear. During the discussion, someone noticed that while the first two points seemed more tactical in nature, the third point seemed more like a vision for the mission Jesus Christ called us to. We are not simply to serve our own, but to seek to proclaim the love and saving grace of Jesus to all in our region, in this case San Gabriel Valley. VST’s role is to review our ministry coverage for the region, and to nurture new ministries or help redevelop existing congregations where our coverage is thin or insufficient.

And how would VST assess whether we are providing that ministry coverage, and if someone approaches them for aid, how are they to determine whether it’s a good investment of limited resources to fund that particular project?

It seemed that this last statement contained the elements of what it means to be a vital ministry or congregation in San Gabriel Presbytery. So as we consider how we’re doing as congregations and as a presbytery, we should ask ourselves and each other . . .

–Are we a transformational presence in our communities?
–The best way to become God’s transforming presence is by making disciples of Jesus Christ, who know and share and live out the Gospel to neighbors and friends. How are our members able to share their faith and live and love as Jesus calls us?
–Are we reflecting God’s creativity-and God’s desire for shalom across worldly boundaries-so that we can celebrate and demonstrate the love of people who are siblings in Christ, born in every hue of skin color and/or bringing diverse perspectives on faith and mission.
–And are we using our faith and gifts not only to serve our own, but to bring God’s love into the public space as well?

I believe there is value for all of us to consider these three metrics as guidelines for healthy ministries and congregations. Are we making faithful disciples of Jesus Christ? Are we reflecting God’s will for all believers to join as one body of Christ that reflects God’s creativity and call for love across boundaries? And are we willing to move our faith to more than Sunday worship by demonstrating our faith in public life?

These are characteristics of a vibrant, well-rounded, Reformed community of faith, and I am thankful to VST for giving new life and focus to our existing mission statement. We can use this statement to guide our discernment when reviewing or investing in healthy ministries-discipleship, Godly diversity, engaging with the world. Wouldn’t it be a beautiful transformation for our home in San Gabriel Valley if our churches were fulfilling these three roles of vital ministry? I pray you can look at your own church and consider how we are doing in relation to this vision.

In peace, love and hope, Wendy

Naboth’s Vineyard

Naboth’s Vineyard

I don’t know if many of you know the story of Naboth’s vineyard (1 Kings 21); I can’t remember ever hearing a sermon on it in any Presbyterian church. It is the scriptural basis for Queen Liliuokalani’s appeal to the American people to restore the Kingdom of Hawaii. (Did you know that President Grover Cleveland actually agreed that the US overthrow of the Queen was an unlawful military invasion, and unsuccessfully requested to Congress that her sovereignty be reinstated?)

For myself, Naboth’s vineyard became the symbol of my seminary experience. One of our great Old Testament professors, Marvin Chaney, an expert in Biblical economic justice, introduced to us the term “latifundialization.” The term was used to describe the way large landholders could use their power to overtake the lands of neighboring small local farmers. Nowadays it might be a precursor to corporate agribusiness, but when Prof. Chaney first described it, I said “Oh, Starbucks.” That was 20 years ago, when Starbucks was entering new markets by boldly moving right next to a local coffee house, using their marketing power to push the local coffee house out of business. They even eclipsed their own inspiration, Peet’s, whom I love.

Thus, I never liked Starbucks. So it would seem simple for me to avoid Starbucks after that distressing incident when two men were arrested upon the complaint of the Starbucks manager, even after the person they were waiting for appeared and protested the arrest. I didn’t have a hard time boycotting Carl’s Jr. for their sexist policies, because honestly I would get an upset stomach whenever I ate their hamburgers anyway. And since I don’t go to Starbucks that much (can’t justify paying that much for coffee on a regular basis), I made a casual commitment to avoid them.

It was surprising and not a little disappointing to realize that several times a day, I had to stop myself from thinking of Starbucks for something-for a quick coffee or cold drink, to hang out at the airport, even to go to the bathroom when on the road (the reason, of course, for the men’s arrest). Even though I didn’t go there often, even though I don’t even like them, and now even though I have good reason to protest them, their pervasive presence has enabled them to infiltrate multiple aspects of my life.

This struck me as a new example of the challenges we Christians face to live in the world, but not of the world. When we attempt to live as citizens of God’s kingdom, we must unlearn the rules of the worldly kingdom that have surrounded and guided most of us since birth. How am I supposed to confront hatred with love, injustice with mercy, fear with the courage of faith, and self-interest with self-giving trust in God’s providence if I can’t even let go of this also-ran coffee company that I have settled for, due to its easy presence in the world around me?

What’s worse, sometimes our worldly prosperity as a church makes me wonder if I am more Ahab than Naboth. In order to complete the sale of the South Hills property, we have had to escalate our efforts to close down the community garden that has thrived there for 25 years. Now part of me can become irritated that some individuals have dared to demand to stay after the church has allowed them to work this land for decades without any fee but to pay for the water. But thanks to our new president Maria Cacarnakis, who can speak not only in their language but also with grace and respect, we have been able to speak with more of the gardeners in person, who have responded with the same grace and respect, but also showed how they had been misinformed. Now that we had to post a legal sign demanding that they leave, most of the gardeners we have met seem to understand that the garden must close. And we encouraged some of the gardeners to advocate for a new garden at Cal Poly Pomona, as has already been discussed by Congresswoman Norma Torres. (If you live in her district, please also give the office a call-ask for Mario-and lend your support for the Cal Poly Community Garden. Their phone number is (909) 481-6474.)

As Dave Tomlinson said, when we talk with the gardeners and see their very productive plots, we are saddened that the garden must end. Our prayer is that the new land at Cal Poly, which is larger, permanent, and accompanied by a healthy eating grant from a large healthcare company, will come to fruition soon.

This weekend has been a kaleidoscope of experiences in my life in the Presbyterian church. I was blessed to be able to serve communion (wearing a robe from Tanzania) at my final meeting with the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board. Bong Bringas and I concluded our work on the PMA Executive Director Search Committee-and I am thrilled with the result. I can’t reveal the name of the candidate yet, but in any case I would ask your prayers for the people serving the national church, especially with the too-public wrangling over the future of the PMA as we head towards General Assembly in two months. Coming home at midnight on Saturday, I spent Sunday at the Community Garden with Maria and Dave, then went to a choir rehearsal, then witnessed a major step forward for Pasadena Presbyterian Church. PPC has been working hard to discern as a full church how they envision their future, in anticipation of beginning a pastoral search this year. The work at PPC has been complex, challenging, and multifaceted, but I can see the emerging clarity and hope for their next phase of ministry.

One small glimpse of the future came as this multiracial community of faith could hear and feel the personal prayers of joy and hope from their Korean brothers when they spoke of the possibility of reunification. We all join in prayers for a reunified Korea, and the restoration of peace on their peninsula.

I know most of you are fully invested in the ministry of your local church, as you should be. But know that you are part of a much, much larger family of God-the Presbyterian branch, the North American clan, our current global relatives, and the eternal cloud of witnesses, followers of Jesus, fellow citizens of the kin-dom of Heaven. Thanks be to God!

Your sister in Christ, Wendy