Another Letter to the Bish
November 23, 2007
Bishop Michael Coyner
Dear Bishop Coyner,
Greetings! And Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you and your family had a lovely time together, and that you had a much needed and deserved time of rest.
When I picked up the mail on Friday morning I discovered the November/December 2007 issue of Together and read on the front page the article headlined “North Indiana United Methodists repent for neglect of inner city.”
I was glad to read the remarks made by you and Rev. Cobb at the auspicious occasion of the celebration of the establishment of a “ruin [?] park with garden.” Those words cut close to the bone. Perhaps it was mistyped – but it may also have been one of those type of errors that reveals more than we want it to.
You are quoted as saying, “we are here to learn from our mistakes.” I think it would be very helpful for all of us in the church to hear you say concretely and clearly what those lessons have been. Such words then have the opportunity to be standards upon which we can measure ourselves and hold one another accountable. I am honestly afraid – as I’ve heard such words of commitment down through the years – that we are much more adept at uttering such words than at even attempting a step in the direction of actually doing something new – behaving in new ways – changing old patterns.
I too desire repentance – and not a repentance that looks back on the past – but a repentance that looks forward. But my concern is that we continue to make the same mistakes over and over again.
For example, we continue to downsize and close churches in our most ethnically diverse communities (not to mention our most low-income communities – both rural and urban). I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do that – I AM saying that if we are going to do it we should at least talk about it. We should gather together and talk and pray together about the future of the church in our most ethnically diverse and also low-income communities. Jesus’ commitment to the poor and to those on the margins is widely acknowledged – at least in word – by most all of established Christendom. Why can’t we talk about the abandonment of these communities, because of racism – but also because racism and other forms of moral blindness, have left us without imagination – without a capacity to trust in the spirit of God working in the midst of our communities and our congregations.
What would it look like to “learn from our mistakes?” I really do want to hear from you. But lest I be accused of criticizing without offering any thoughts on my own (and I’m not arguing these are good thoughts – just MY thoughts), I will offer a few thoughts.
What would it look like for us to make a major decision, an out front vocal decision, to invest in new ministries (not necessarily new buildings) in low-income communities, in diverse communities, throughout urban areas in particular? What would happen if instead of acting out of scarcity, we began to make plans, real plans, solid plans, to not only NOT downsize, but multiply (at least 10 fold) the number of ministry sites in low-income communities.
What would it look like if we were to go into urban communities and not say how can we help – but – something like this that William Stringfellow said nearly 40 years ago in a meditation he did on the book of Hebrews entitled Free in Obedience.
…[I]f I were a bishop in one of the great cities, I would not show my compassion for the trauma and violence of city life by building, financing, and consecrating any more church buildings or parish houses. Maybe some of those are needed, but first there has to be a depth and passion of involvement that, for the most part, there has not yet been. Only then can there be intelligent deployment of financial resources and shrewd location of physical facilities. If I were a bishop, I would first of all devote myself to walking the streets, trying to see the inner city for myself. I would, so to speak, make myself available to the actual inner life of the city; I would visit and try to listen to the voices that can be heard in the taverns and the tenements, on the street corners and in the shops. First, I would try to hear the city, if, indeed, the city would tolerate my presence long enough to permit me to listen.
Then, I think, I would go scour the land to find perhaps five hundred Christians—men and women, clergy and laity—to commission and send into the city. When I had found and called these missionaries I would tell them that they were to go and, probably in pairs, into the city and just live on whatever means of survival prevailed in the block or neighborhood to which they were sent; they would have to live, in so far as possible, as those to whom they were sent. I would instruct them that upon their arrival they should do only one thing: knock on every door. Most doors would not be opened, at least not readily. But when a door was opened, the missionaries would say: ‘We have come to be with you because God cares for your life, and because God cares for your life, we also care for you.’ Period. There would be nothing more—no invitations to join the Church, no programs to offer for the people or their kids, no rummage to give away, no groups to join or meetings to attend, no gimmicks, no concealed motives, and no hidden agendas. There would be just the bare announcement of God’s love and the freedom which that love gives people to love each other.
Of course, at first, because the world is so accustomed to guile on the part of those who come in God’s name, the message would not be either welcomed or believed. But with persistence, some would receive the message. Then there would be time enough to deal with all of the other issues of Christian witness beyond the event of merely caring, such as whether some should be baptized or join a congregation, whether a new congregation should be called into being, whether any particular facilities were appropriate to the witness in this place, and so on. But first of all, the Christian (the Church) must simply be in the world, sharing in and caring eloquently and honestly for the life of the world—or the life of any…[person]—just as it is.
Now what Stringfellow has suggested here is a fairly impressive act of repentance that looks forward not backward. But the words I read, in the Together article and in your regular E-pistle – didn’t have much concrete to offer. Please offer something beyond words – that those of us in ministry in these places and across our conferences could lift our voices to support.
What if we were to take some lessons from the Episcopalians and their Living Stones movement that recognizes NOT the lack of professional clergy that they have in isolated rural areas – but the abundance of gifted people in those areas. What if we treated places like Gary, NOT as if they are poor destitute communities, but as if they are places full of people who are bursting with gifts that will enrich us all?
During Advent we often recall the words that Mary spoke when she felt the child, Jesus, leap in her womb. She sang a very practical (and challenging) word about what the coming presence of Jesus had, in fact, already brought into the world. Would anyone looking at us today say be able to accuse us of singing Mary’s song?
Our mission, as the General Conference has clearly stated, and as the Bishops have emphasized over and over again, is to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, in this regard, we have seemed to think that those who are to be “made” disciples of Jesus Christ are those who are not present in the church –perhaps it would be more appropriate if we who are already in the church focused less on “making” others disciples and more on “making” ourselves disciples.
I remember the words of the Gospel of St. Matthew – where Jesus asks the question about which son does the will of the Father – the one who tells him that he will do something and doesn’t – or the one who tells him he won’t and does it anyway. I think that the answer is that it is the second. But my real concern is that we will be the first son.
Words are not enough (as I’m sure you know) – but the presence of the Living Word IS enough.
I know that you cannot be all things to all people. But you can create the space and encourage and support those who are called to this conversation. And you could then use your office (appointment making, etc.) to support such an effort.
Perhaps you already have folks talking about this at cabinet meetings and in other places around the Annual Conference. But if not – perhaps you would consider bringing together folks from urban congregations AND urban communities (who may or may not be in the church) to talk and pray together about how to move forward.
Keep tellin’ the Story,
Rev. Michael Mather
Pastor, Broadway UMC