Tag Archives: church

Why the Church Needs People with Disabilities

 

science-tv-dr-who-daleks-cartoons-punch-magazine-birkett-1981-08-05-235
This is the cartoon on the front of my students’ syllabus!

Over the past five years or so, this blog has taken a massive shift in trajectory toward exploring the lives, needs, and gifts of people with disabilities, in China, in our local church, and through my own experience with my daughter.  (In fact, I’m realizing how much I need a new tab for disability on here!  Coming soon…)

What I’ve found as I’ve only just begun to embrace this collision of my anthropological, theological, and spiritual life is that our theologies, when it comes to understanding disability, are quite limited.  They’re often not broad enough to consider the gifts of the Spirit people with disabilities possess, because they’re caught up in a rhetoric of healing, medicine, suffering, or overcoming.  Or they’re plagued by an anthropology that makes disability some surface form of neoliberalist inclusion rather than a deep paradigm shift for us all in what diversity and its value really confers.

We human beings are searching for theologies of disability that ring true when it comes to the light, challenge, and wisdom people with disabilities bring to life–theologies that confront our hollow concepts of both diversity and God.  But we need to learn and hone and witness to these theologies through practice rather than mere intellectualism, recognizing the transformative experience of life lived with other and with God.

I’m excited about being part of a recent series on Youth Ministry and Disability organized through The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary because the authors are making the case that the Church needs people with disabilities rather than the another way around!  I think this is a really exciting moment for the theology of disability, and I hope you will read all the posts and leave your comments and continue the conversation.  I’m including mine below, but please do swing by this one from my colleague, Joel Estes, and one of the great theologians of disability, John Swinton, among others!

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On Being Transformed

“You never know. Maybe she will get up and walk. Maybe she will be able to eat and talk like other kids…maybe someday she will be normal.” 

I have often heard these well-meaning words from friends, colleagues, and church folk about my daughter, Lucia, who was born with a progressive genetic disease of the brain. From the time she was just a couple months old, from her seizures, to her feeding tubes, and onto her diagnosis, our family has been confronted with the idea that Lucia is abnormal. But perhaps especially because she’s our first child and we know no differently, or perhaps because my husband and I have learned so much from her, I bristle at statements that suggest life would be better for us or Lucia if she would conform a bit more to the standards we hold for other kids. As a person of faith, I often wonder what God would have to say about our ideas of normal and how God might use children and youth like Lucia to fight against a culture that (perhaps un-self-consciously) worships ability and regards disability as a problem.

Keep Reading at The Institute for Youth Ministry…

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On “special” needs and ministry

The Sunday morning crush–those moments after worship lets out and as a pastor you spiral through the gauntlet of requests, cordialities, and pastoral care where in a matter of condensed minutes nearly everyone wants a piece of you.  Across these moments I struggle to keep track of all of the information, making mental notes, hoping against hope that I won’t lose the important stuff amidst the sea of bodies and sounds and breaths.  And then, just as suddenly, one of our congregants with special needs descends upon me, with increased intensity and concern.  She has seen something on the news that is bringing her to tears; he becomes angry as he struggles to remember what he just said to me; she can see nothing but darkness through the thick depression that plagues her.

I do not mean to paint disability here as unilateral or un-diverse, but many of the people in our congregation with special needs where their hearts on their sleeves.  They plough into me, a person who’s a bit sensitive to touch, with eager, forceful hugs.  They launch into detailed descriptions and litanies–lists of weekly activities without warrant and ad nauseum.  They foist their feelings upon me in thrusts of emotion, seemingly without warning or reason.

And in so doing, they are deeply needy.

Their bare, disruptive, palpable need right there in the midst of more palatably, socially-aware displays of contained emotion, less barrier-breaking touch, and less audacious requests clashes with my own sensibilities.  It’s too much, I think to myself, this business of trying to minister to folks with special needs alongside more “neurotypical “folks, which is the dance in which our church has become messily entangled over the past few years.  I can’t help but think about the imbalance special needs present not just during Sunday morning but within the life of a church–how I, as a pastor, can’t shirk the sense that in attending to these needy folks other more subtle needs may be lost.  In trying to provide classes and worship and counsel that is suitable for all modes of learning, my colleague in ministry, church leaders, and I may be spreading ourselves thin, engaged in some cruel, impossible quest to meet needs that are unreasonable and insatiable along others that are more comprehensible and predictable.

Sainte Chapelle
Stained glass at Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France.  Photo by Evan Schneider.

But in pondering neediness I am reminded of the poor, elderly foster mothers whom I met in China and the way their vulnerability rocked and assaulted the sensibilities of the orphanage monitors.  Such women, many of whom had been abandoned by their own biological children, so desperately relied upon and needed their orphaned, disabled children to recreate life-giving family bonds in contemporary China.  In their need, they reminded middle-aged orphanage monitors of their own failures to care for their aging parents or their neglect of their only children.  They reminded these orphanage monitors, powerfully, uncomfortably, and disruptively of their own human and yet deeply repressed and seemingly inappropriate needs for love, compassion, and care.

And here I do mean to compare the need of these foster mothers to the need of folks with disabilities and to the needs we all have as human beings.  I am reminded of Jesus’s ministry to deeply needy people–to the perceived inconvenience of the poor, disorderly women, especially those pouring lavish ointments over his head and touching the hem of his garment.  I am reminded of the metaphors so often associated with need and disability–the unclean, the contaminators, the sinful–and I am aghast that in erecting divisions between people with disabilities and myself, I find that I am the one who is fragile, human, and sinful.  I am suddenly aware that the crush of bodies on Sunday morning and these raw emotions, hugs, and pressing needs that seem so inconvenient and disruptive are both deeply human and deeply holy.

And I begin to see that ministry and life (for in Jesus’s life), were not and are not about balance or containment or arbitration, because then life becomes about division.  Then I am led to believe that some people are needy while I am not or that need isn’t so fundamentally human, that it’s not part and parcel of Jesus’s incarnation and ministry.  So I try and I struggle and I pray to let go of my economist tendencies and submit to such a mysterious ministry of mercy and care and love.  I try not to mediate the crush; I try just to pay attention.  

But I am also reminded that it’s not just paying attention, and how painfully aware I become in these moments of my own need–my need for self-acceptance, other’s acceptance–and my need for Jesus.  And I become thankful that there are some in our midst who aren’t necessarily having such divisive thoughts or harboring such divisions, some who are so deeply, honestly, beautifully needy.  I become happily convinced that “we” have gone about this ministry all wrong, for “we” have so much to learn.  I become convinced, so richly and powerfully as I do over and over because of God’s ministry to us, that it is not I who is ministering but it is I who am being ministered to.

Crucifix
Crucifix in Paris, France. Photo by Evan Schneider.

What God Did

A few weeks ago I sat in the pews as my colleague and senior pastor led the prayers of the people, and I lifted one for Lucia’s upcoming surgery.  My voice wavering, I asked for prayers not just for the doctors, for health, and for our little girl, but for my husband and for me.  I explained that in facing another surgery that could have mixed results, I’d grown a bit weary and leery, and my faith was faltering.  It’s so hard as a parent to make decisions for your child that involve both risk and reward.  Lucia was doing so well, and I wondered whether another surgery was the most faithful decision.  Could the congregation be my faith, could they lift prayers for us even as we were feeling weak? I wondered aloud.

Mind you, I’m one of the pastors of this church, and I wasn’t sure how prayers for faith from one of the spiritual leaders in their midst would be received.  But not a person came up to me that Sunday scolding me for my weakness, my fears, or my lack of faith.  Instead, I remember lots of assurances that prayers would be lifted, many looks of concern on their faces as I spoke my prayer, and many knowing, earnest nods as I let them know that even for a pastor, sometimes faith is hard to come by.

PTS Snow
Fresh snowfall on the Princeton Seminary campus.  All photos are mine.

Several weeks have passed, and Lucia’s surgery has not only brought her incredible comfort from reflux, but she is now feeding into her stomach (instead of her small intestine), an intervention that seems to bring her the satisfaction of feeling full and the comfort and freedom of having natural breaks from feeding throughout the day.  However, it is hard to describe the extent of the intangible transformation for her and for us: it feels as if there’s a part of her spirit that has been set free, and we are all growing closer, as she’s more alert, communicative, and joyful.

As I reflect on the miraculous results of this surgery and this transformation, I am left with no other explanation than that God did that.  This summer I felt that Lucia’s intestinal feeding tube had provided her unprecedented comfort, happiness, and tranquility, but these past few weeks, a transformed Lucia has smiled up at us, and I am in awe and so deeply grateful.

Snow and blue skies
Blue skies and the grad tower peek through the snowfall.  

But God didn’t just surprise us by transforming Lucia; rather such transformation is apparent in us as parents because of the faithful who love Lucia for who she has been, will be, and who she is.  I’m writing this today because it’s so important to talk about what God has done and what God can do even when we struggle to believe, how God’s faithfulness transcends our wildest imagination.  And I believe that those people in the pews who love Lucia so unconditionally are part and parcel of who I know God to be.  What a gift it is to be part of a community of faith who accept me for my weaknesses, who pray for my child, and who do these things not because they expect results or know what’s in store, but because they desire to trust God–they are the faithful.

And I am so grateful that in faith, we don’t have to go it alone–that God’s transformation happens through people, through prayer, and in us.  I am so grateful that after all these years God is still full of surprises and one of those is that even when you falter, there’s faith enough for the least of these, for the faithless, the weary and the leery.  In a world which doesn’t always recognize Lucia as fearfully and wonderfully made, it’s kind of miraculous that I’m surrounded by people who actually keep reminding me of that.

And the fact that God did all that–well, these days my faith runneth over!  And you can borrow it when you need it someday, I’m deliriously humbled and happy to owe you all a prayer or two.  Perhaps that how faith works: we owe it all to God and to one another, but in being bound to one another, we are set free.

Lucia smiles
One of those sweet smiles that makes the world stop!

 

God, making weakness holy for over 2014 years

Our church is quirky and I love it.

It’s a place where people show up late, they won’t stop greeting each other during the passing of the peace even when the pastor’s screaming to get their attention, and just about anything goes.

We also do cool things in the liturgy.  Our prayers of confession aren’t staid and silent, but often full of passion and hope.  This Sunday, as we read the following words, I realized something:

In this place of confession we are shaped by hope:

In our brokenness, we know your blessing.

In our pain, we touch your promise.

In our longing, we discover your love.

You are making things new in our lives and this world.

Merrill Creek Reservoir.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Merrill Creek Reservoir. Photo by Evan Schneider.

I realized that God’s love is transforming, because God makes weakness holy.  God doesn’t just give meaning to our suffering, but God enters into it and makes something new from the residue of despair, longing, and pain.

That’s why we Christians are people who live, especially in this season, with deep hope.  We know that it is not up to us to change the world or its brokenness, but that God, despite appearances, is already redeeming all this messed up humanity and making things new.

It’s really hard for me to trust that on these dark days of injustice, but I imagine it was equally hard for the shepherds and the wise men and the Jews.  This season I’m asking God to give me eschatological vision: to believe that in great longing, there is great love, that in pain, there is promise, and that in brokenness, we will know blessing.

This week I have been struck by how deliciously novel Advent feels, despite it being the 33rd year I’ve celebrated it, and the 2014th year the world has done so.  I take this as evidence that 2014 years later, God is, indeed, doing a new thing.  We may not perceive it, we may not see it, but I’m praying that God will help me to believe, and to trust that our weaknesses will be made holy once again.

Amen.

Where is the joy?

I’m nearing the end of my Lenten devotional, Richard J. Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, so besides needing another short book to fill the rest of April (any suggestions, guys?), I’m also finally starting to discover the meaning behind the curious title.

As Foster writes, “Joy is the end result of the Spiritual Disciplines’ functioning in our lives.  God brings about the transformation of our lives through the Disciplines, and we will not know genuine joy until there is transforming work within us…Celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed” (Foster 193).

Plymouth, MA.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Plymouth, MA. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Foster describes how we can’t take a shortcut to experiencing and exhibiting joy, but we can certainly experience joy through seeking God in prayer, confession, service, and worship, and it is God who is the source of this great gift.

That last line, “celebration comes when the common ventures of life are redeemed,” reminds me of a reflection I read this morning from Micha Boyett where she discusses the ordinary tasks of readying her two boys for school alongside the rather extraordinary miracle that Jesus does by turning water into wine.  Boyett’s pastor described the miracle as Jesus “replacing the joy,” and then points to our own lives, saying, “Look where you’re frantic and that’s probably the place where you’re trying to find joy.”

But the challenge is that finding joy, requires little of us and so much of Jesus, that we often spend the better part of our days scouring and scrubbing only to miss the promise of the dirt, the simplicity, the ordinary holiness of our bent up, misshapen lives.

Foster goes onto discuss a spirit of carefree celebration where we rely completely on God, and experience radical joy through our trust in God’s greatness rather than ourselves.  I look at the last few weeks and this controversy over World Vision’s decision and retraction for hiring gay staff in committed relationships, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look around me at churches working arduously and desperately to spawn last ditch ministries to save themselves, and I wonder, where is the joy?  I look at each of us going about our busy lives, failing to truly see those in front of us, to listen, to love, and to rely on God and one another, and I don’t see strength or independence or carefree celebration, but fear and greed and angst.

I certainly don’t see joy.

The Sonoran Desert.  Tucson, Arizona.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
The Sonoran Desert. Tucson, Arizona. Photo by Evan Schneider.

The Church in America is in need of God’s joyful transformation.  We need less of us and more of God, less of our will and more of God’s grace and love and mercy.  And it’s only by way of the cross, that we are found by grace, and the we experience such true, unadulterated joy.

We don’t often think of Lent and the journey to the cross as a journey toward joy.  We often place the story of Jesus turning water into wine and Jesus’ death on the cross in two completely different literary categories, but what if we are called to live out the whole of our faith as ordinary, yet joyful people?  What if the transformation God enacts on the cross and in each one of us amounts to replacing the joy of humanity, and we’ve been missing something as we try so hard to just “get things right?”

We need look no further than our ordinary lives to answer the question, “where is the joy?”, and yet we struggle against what God has done for us.  We need look no further than the cup of wine to remind us of both Jesus’ holy sacrifice and great joyous celebration.  Let us accept the joyous transformation that Jesus brings to our lives, and let us live with great reliance on God, great grace for one another, and above all, great joy.

A photo so full of joy.  Bridal party at my friend's wedding on Chesapeake Bay.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A photo so full of joy. Bridal party at my friend’s wedding on Chesapeake Bay. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Amen.

 

 

“A church which is bruised and hurting”

Above the altar in a church in Yunnan, China.  The characters read, "Emmanuel."  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Above the altar in a church in Yunnan, China. The characters read, “Emmanuel.” Photo by Evan Schneider.

I posted this quote to Facebook the other day and it seemed to resonate with a lot of people, so I wanted to share it on the blog.  Whatever you think of the new pope, these words about the papal mission really struck a chord:

Pope Francis on the papal mission: 

“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security … More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat.’”

On community

When I came back from China I was really hurting.

I miss my life there, I would tell people with great drama, but it was how I felt, as though something had been ripped from me, because I’d had friends who knew my heart even though we spoke another language together.  I’d seen strength of character like no other in the foster mothers I’d met, and I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’d find it again in this land of affluence and privilege.

Statues in Paris, France.  All photos by Evan Schneider.
Statues in Paris, France. All photos by Evan Schneider.

But I was drawing these lines around communities the way God never does.

It was easier for me to compartmentalize and think in binaries: China was a place where great struggle and sacrifice produced something real and holy, whereas in the United States, life was hollow and stuffy, less shot through with God’s work, because there was less need, less contrast.

It wasn’t true, of course, but it seemed to make the ups and downs of culture shock more justifiable.  But I was insulating myself from life here by thinking and dreaming about China and logging many hours in Mandarin on skype.  Although I gradually reentered the world of academia and my husband I began to reconnect with friends and find a church community, deep down I still doubted whether these communities would ever compare to what I had in China.

Prayer candles in a cathedral.
Prayer candles in a cathedral.

This past weekend, my husband and I took a great leap and joined a church community that has gently, yet firmly demonstrated God’s faithfulness over the months of culture shock in this land.  What’s so powerful to me is that over those months, I haven’t particularly mentioned my doubts and fears to many people there.  We’ve told people that we spent time in China, but I haven’t asked for their prayers.  I didn’t really know how when sometimes the very prospect of being in community here seemed the last thing I wanted.

But as I’ve listened to the prayers of this community over the last few months, I’ve noticed something.  Before I went to China, I used to lead prayers of the people in my previous congregation, separating the joys from the concerns, but the people at our new church let them bravely comingle.  They don’t seem to worry that the praise of one might smart in the wounds of the suffering, or that great needs might rain on the parade of another’s blessing.  And that’s what life is like, what hope is like, not some naive optimism, but a conviction that suffering exists, and yet, God is very much present.

I realized, I’d been doing it all wrong.  

Not just the prayers of the people, but this theology of parsing the real from the ordinary, the needy from the privileged, and of course, the praise from the pain.  It makes sense to me now that as much as I’d seen and experienced God in China, China itself had become a hollow idol threatening to separate me from the real people in front of me.

Sacre Coeur at night.
Sacre Coeur at night.

This Sunday there was a family in front of us who’d lost a mother and a grandmother and there were painful tears shed as they asked for prayers of comfort and support from the church.  But there were also their arms draped around one another’s shoulders, and deep, heartfelt prayers of praise to a God who they know to be real, powerful, and present because they have each other, their friends, and their church community.

As Evan and I joined the church, nearly every member of this tight-knit family came and congratulated us, personally welcoming us to their community.  How people show that kind of hospitality and peace and love in the midst of loss is the best testimony I have to a God who is real, and who embodies hope and holism and life over death!  It’s that honesty in which people lay their hearts before community, but also the practice of hope and resurrection that’s healed me and freed me even though the people in the pews didn’t particularly understand my struggle or my pain.

Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.
Atop a grave marker in a Paris cemetery.

Thank God they didn’t draw lines around their community.  Thank God there is room at the table.  And thank God for great, audacious hope in the midst of suffering.

Amen.

Outside the walls

A few months ago I overheard my husband counseling a friend who was going to accompany us to a party thrown by a bunch of my colleagues in anthropology.  “You don’t have to worry with them,” my husband assured our friend, “anthropologists are interested in everything.  Watch, whatever you say they’ll find it interesting, they’ll talk about anything forever.”

It’s evidently what makes us quirky party attendees or hosts, but I like to think that our curiosity as anthropologists is also one of our best qualities.  We find the world more interesting, more beautiful precisely because of diversity and difference.  Life is more intriguing because of culture, because your corner of the world doesn’t look talk, or act, like mine.  And yes, I could talk about those fascinating differences in culture, well…forever.

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A foster mom in Anhui, China embraces her foster son. Photo by Jason Fouts.

On the last day of the class I was teaching at the seminary this semester, when I felt like I’d earned the right to speak a little of my own passion into my students’ lives, I challenged them to believe that they might learn just as much about God outside the Church walls or the seminary campus as within.  I asked them to dare to believe that pushing their faith to include, behold, embrace, and learn from people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds–pushing their faith to be real outside the Church might actually make it deeper, more powerful, and more poignant.

You see, I think that while it’s human to be curious, it’s also human to be really freaked out by difference.  And when we Christians get skittish, we often take a lot of the beauty and truth and goodness that God has blessed and made and called good and try to cram it into our manmade boxes.  I think good theology and good anthropology teach us to do just the opposite (like reminding us that Jesus blew the chains off women, tax collectors, diseased men and women, and prostitutes,  and included us Gentiles in salvation) (or anthropology that shows us how insightful, productive, and healthy cultural differences are), but we humans also like to be in control.

Anyway, I said these things to my students not only because they’re my truth but also because the next generation of spiritual leaders just might be our politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, non-profit managers, prison wardens, and community organizers.  A friend of mine had a conversation last week with a faculty member at the seminary who said her greatest concern is that we are preparing seminarians for jobs and a world that doesn’t exist.  A few days later, that same friend asked me whether I claim my Christian faith in community and what that means.

Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I realized for the first time in years of discerning and seeking and praying that I can say that I’m “out,” for lack of a better term, in my department at my university, as a Christian, a minister, a person of faith, and it finally feels right.  My colleagues happily introduce me as their resident pastor, they call on me for counsel in difficult situations because they know I’m not afraid of the messiness of life, and they even appreciate being told they are prayed for.

But it doesn’t just go one way–these same colleagues hold me accountable when I begin to complain or gossip, they counsel me through life’s big decisions, and they rejoice and grieve with me.  Both these experiences close to home and those afar of being ministered to by those supposedly outside the fold have taught me that the Spirit isn’t limited to the walls of the Church despite our unconscious, subversive efforts to confine it.  The prophetic isn’t limited to God-fearing people, and Christians don’t have a monopoly on Truth.

A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making.  Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do.  And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth.  It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.

I look around and I value and am inspired by both forms of leadership, service, and ministry–those inside the Church and out–but I believe the Church and seminaries have often been focused on internal ministry at the expense of the external, and our lives are lived, made, and redeemed in the everyday.

A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Thanks for letting me talk forever and ever this morning about what I really find interesting in this beautiful, strange, sacred world.

P.s. You may notice the blog has a new look.  About time, right?  Everything’s pretty much the same except some of the links are to the right and on the bottom.  Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think of the facelift.   —Erin

My cup runneth over

Did I mention these days that I just feel so full?

So full of inspiration, joy, and even need that I could burst?  

Spring foliage on the East coast.
Spring blossoms on the East coast.

My cup runneth over when I have conversations with students and colleagues who are discovering the beauty, the power, and the importance of culture, or when I hear the testimonies of people at our new church that affirm the importance of community and relationship.

My cup runneth over when our eyes are opened to the truth that relationships trump ambition, and so we lay down our fears, our brokenness, and our vulnerabilities for one another to bear.  My cup runneth over when I pray for the deep needs of people I love, and when we speak together holy words of comfort, hope, and peace, our voices breaking, this world brimming with the subtle work of the Holy Spirit.

My cup runneth over when I hear how my sister serves as a woman called to ministry, as we in Princeton plan to receive Chinese friends and pastors from a faraway land, and as I speak with a young woman who has left behind a foster family in China and cleaved, beautifully and powerfully, to a new one in America.

Lord, we are the works of your hands.  You lead us beside still waters, you restore our souls, you anoint us with oil, we bow before you, you dwell within us.

We are full.

Counter-cultural living

In 2007, I began a seminary field education placement that would lead to a part-time ministry during my Ph.D. coursework with a pair of multicultural congregations in North Jersey.  One is a biracial congregation whose integrated demographics had survived the Newark Race Riots and welcomed a few African and Caribbean immigrants in recent years.  The local community, however, had been in transition, and the church’s numbers dwindled as more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants poured into the area.

The other congregation meets in the sprawling building’s chapel and boasts members from nearly twenty Latin American countries.  Forty-eight years ago they were established as a mission of the presbytery and they worship in their native Spanish, enduring the challenges of leaving families behind in unstable, impoverished, and war-torn countries, and navigating new immigration processes, jobs, schools, and life in a new country.

Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras, 2011.
Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras, 2011.

This past Sunday, members from both congregations gathered in the stately, hundred year-old sanctuary to celebrate something new: the Spanish-speaking congregation became a chartered and organized church of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  We worshipped for three hours in Spanish and English, led by the youthful chorus of the praise band and the words of former interns, church members, local pastors, and even the moderator of the PCUSA.

For Evan and I, despite our Caucasian backgrounds and our recent two years in China, it felt distinctly, like coming home.

This was the place where my own call to ministry had been nurtured by these generous people who allowed me to pray for their struggles that I could often hardly fathom, who welcomed me into their homes, and who dismissed the jumbled Spanish of a gringa woman in their midst.  I hadn’t realized until I looked around that multi-colored room this past Sunday what a powerful a witness these two little congregations in North Jersey had made.

I’d been the fourth in a long line of seminary interns, but the first who wasn’t from a Latino, Carribbean, or African American background, and yet, they’d hardly made me aware of that difference.  They’d welcomed me when they had every reason to look at the color of my skin and hear my accent and find ample reason to keep their fellowship insulated from the America which often doesn’t show them anything like hospitality, equality, or dignity.  They’d taught me when they had every reason to be suspicious of my willingness to learn or my ability to leave the privilege that had gotten me to halls of higher education and power at the door of that little chapel.  They’d ministered to me when they had precious little, the English-speaking church few members and resources, the Spanish-speaking church little funds or time to spare given their busy lives caring for children and working several jobs.

Some of the former interns of Nuevas Fronteras and UPC.
Some of the former interns of Nuevas Fronteras and UPC.

But as we celebrated on Sunday, as ministers struggled to characterize the length of their struggle as forty-eight years in the wilderness, as waiting on the timing of God, the members of the congregation who got up to speak subtly, yet confidently proclaimed the truth that despite the importance of what was happening that day, they had always been a church.  They didn’t need (and hear I sound like a bit of a Presbyterian heretic but I’m willing to take that risk) the approval of their denomination, a piece of paper, or a service full of pomp and circumstance to allow them to minister, because they’d been doing it, for those in the community, those in the church, and people like me, for forty-eight years.

Their ministry reminds me that when we take what little we have and we put it into God’s hands, far greater things than we could possibly imagine come to pass.  The trouble is, we’re usually so hesitant to trust, so hell-bent on recognition for our service, and so afraid to believe.  It’s counter-cultural to take everything that you have, especially when you don’t have much, and faithfully thrust it into Jesus’s hands, it’s counter-cultural to minister without much recognition to communities in need, and it’s counter-cultural to admit those to your fellowship who don’t look much like you and in fact, represent a lot of the power structures that give you hell on an everyday basis.

Over the years this Spanish-speaking mission, now chartered church, has trained sixteen interns and raised up twelve candidates for pastoral ministry in the PCUSA.  Those are stats that congregations with three times their size and three times their history only dream of.  But somehow along the way this little church has understood that miracles don’t happen by our own muscle, but by God’s grace, and that faithfulness is not for the in between times, but faithfulness is what life is all about.

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They have always been a church.  They have always been ministering.  Thank you, Iglesia Presbiteriana Nuevas Fronteras, and United Presbyterian Church, for always ministering to me.