Devotion given this evening at the ELCA Hunger Leadership Gathering, Minneapolis
Before I truly begin this devotion, I want to say a word of thanks and a dedication. First, thank you to Robin Brown for inviting me to do this devotion. Robin was an upstairs neighbor of mine at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago almost 20 years ago, and her work with congregational mission put us back in touch when she visited the congregation I serve a couple years ago. I am grateful for her work, and for this invitation, especially at the moment it came.
The day her email came, June 28th, my husband Marrett died suddenly, and I still don’t know why. But in the few months before he died, he’d said to me several times that I should stop saying no to invitations like this one. Partly because I’d say no, and then regret it, or resent that my commitments at home with our 5 children, or at work with my very full plate, had left no time for larger church work. So I knew when I read Robin’s email the day after Marrett died that it was a sign of his continued presence with me, and that I needed to say yes, even if it felt impossible. So I’m dedicating this devotion to him.
Our theme verses for this event are Hebrews 10:23-25, which says: “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for the one who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching.”
In addition to being here in honor of Marrett, I am here because of the generosity of the congregation I serve, Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Mankato, just 90 minutes south of here. Their generosity and commitment to mission outside their walls is baked in to the congregation, from its very beginning. In their 152 year history, Bethlehem has started 3 new congregations, sponsors several refugees, built generations of relationships with a hospital and secondary school in Tanzania, started two ministries to serve people experiencing homelessness, and given literally millions of dollars away.
It was this generosity and mission orientation that made Bethlehem such a perfect fit for me when I joined the staff as Associate Pastor in 2011. I’ve now spent over half of my ordained ministry with Bethlehem, and the growth we’ve all experienced has been nothing short of miraculous.
About 5 years ago, the Community and Global Mission Board of Bethlehem began to discern the Spirit provoking us to change our relationships to our monthly mission partners. I know the writer of Hebrews says that we are provoke one another, but it’s my experience that the Holy Spirit is almost always behind the provocation we experience from other people. In this case, that provocation was to go deeper in partnership with fewer ministries. For years, Bethlehem had done 12 separate monthly missions, half local and half global, mostly just raising money for those organizations and ministries.
Now, said our missions board, it is time to dig in with our actual hands and hearts, and give our time as well as our money. And we can’t do that for everyone, so let’s choose the ones we’re most passionate about. Like the theme of this gathering, “Creative Congregations, Courageous Leaders”, we knew it would take both creativity and courage to move from a mission support model to an accompaniment stance with our mission partners. It would mean saying no to organizations we’d formerly supported. It would mean turning our love into good deeds, which is at least uncomfortable and sometimes downright scary.
Through the creative and courageous work of Bethlehem’s staff and leaders, we made our Wednesday night supper free so that more community members could be fed. We planned our first trip to see our mission partners at Arusha Lutheran Medical Center and Iambi Secondary School in Tanzania. We took on a drop-in center for homeless youth as a tenant at way below market rates. And we began what has become the ministry that captured my heart completely, Connections Ministry.
Connections Ministry is an ecumenical partnership of churches in the Mankato area which increases stability for people experiencing homelessness through shelter, resource connection, and community building. It was birthed out of a meeting in mid-2016 between 5 congregations to talk about the people making the rounds to all our buildings asking for assistance, and the feeling we all had like what we were giving was not actually helping. Within four months, the Spirit led us from conversations about financial assistance to wondering if it was possible to open our church buildings for overnight shelter on a rotating basis.
We never intended to start a new organization, or a homeless shelter, or an ecumenical movement in our town, but everywhere we turned, the Spirit put provocateurs in our path. “We need more shelter beds for families” we kept hearing. And the thing all our congregations had in common was an abundance of space that was unused overnight. We couldn’t ignore the coincidence. We couldn’t ignore the breaking our hearts as we listening to the stories of people without shelter, living in their cars with their children through the Minnesota winter.
The courage it took to say yes to shelter felt more like foolishness at the time. There were so many things that could go wrong, so many questions to be answered, so much risk to our selves and our buildings. But meeting together with pastors and lay leaders from those churches, we kept experiencing the Spirit’s push, provoking us in love toward the good deed of shelter.
We opened in the fall of 2017, with 6 hosting congregations, which became 9 over the course of the season, and between October 29 and April 19 of 2018, we sheltered 170 men, women and children in our church buildings. We fed them dinner, we loved them with the love of Christ (without usually ever naming our Lord specifically), and we gave them a safety that many had never experienced in their whole lives.
By the time we opened for our second season in October of last year, 16 congregations were on board, either to host or provide volunteer support. 8 others provided financial support. This is in a community of about 50,000 people, meaning that more than half the congregations in the area are now involved in Connections Ministry. At our board retreat after the end of this second season, we set our intention to operate a year-round shelter in a permanent location within the next 3 years. I told you this ministry is nothing short of miraculous!
But here’s the thing that’s especially miraculous, and relevant to this gathering of ELCA World Hunger leaders. When people gather together to eat, meeting together as Hebrews tells us not to neglect, hungers other than the physical ones are fed. Yes, our guests at Connections Ministry need actual food, and a safe place for their bodies and belongings, but they are hungry for so much more than that.
More than anything, the marginalized people whom Jesus loves best, in my town and yours, are hungry for community. Hurting people hunger for a place where they are accepted and loved as they are. They hunger for a group that encourages them to become what they struggle to be. We all hunger for a place to call home. I think that’s why Jesus ate so many meals with so many struggling people, because he knew that the healing of the world happens one dinner, one table, one gesture of hospitality at a time.
I’ve seen it with my own eyes. A grandmother of a multi-generational family who stayed with us who told us as she left: “Before I got here, I had given up on God entirely. But because of you all, I’m starting to think God deserves another chance”. The man with severe and persistent mental illness who hadn’t been able to sleep indoors for a decade has become a beloved friend and honorary lifetime guest of the shelter. The mother with four children, some of whom have never known a permanent home, now has partners in parenting and can ask for the help she needs. Lives have literally been saved because the Spirit provoked us to love our neighbors in creative and courageous ways.
Let me wrap up by saying that I am now experiencing the power of God’s beloved community for myself in a new way. As I sat in Bethlehem’s sanctuary at Marrett’s funeral, I could not say the liturgy or sing the songs. But my silence was carried on the voices of more than 400 faithful who showed up that day for me and my family. They are holding fast to the confession of our hope, which I cannot currently believe. They are reminding that the one who promised me abundant life is faithful, even though I cannot see how that is possible now. So, even though it is painful, I will not neglect to meet together with them in worship, in fellowship, around meals prepared for me, so that my own deep hungers may someday be fed.