Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Making poverty unwelcome in the Ozarks

Recently, I made a presentation at the Impacting Poverty Commission Community Summit, which was held at the Springfield Art Museum. More than 400 leaders from business, labor, government, service agencies and education filled the auditorium.

With the release of the Commission's report that day, we learned how significant a problem poverty is in our city, county and region. Springfield is the "most economically distressed urban area in Missouri," according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Poverty has increased from 10 percent of the population in 2009 to 28 percent of the population in 2015. More than half of Springfield public school students receive free or reduced-cost lunches. Eight-hundred public school students are homeless.

City Manager Greg Burris, one of the Summit speakers, urged everyone to "tell the story"of poverty in our community. He said that many citizens never see poverty. We do not sit beside poor people in our churches. We do not work with poor people.We do not socialize with poor people. We do not live in poor neighborhoods or even drive through them on the way to work or school.

Not seeing poverty, we assume that it does not exist. And sometimes, if we do see it, we might distance ourselves from it, as I have at times, with judgmentalism and stereotypes: The poor are lazy, dependent, takers.

As an "action item," Burris urged us to sign up before we left to participate in a Poverty Simulation, if we had not been involved in one before. I have. We are organizing one for Christ Episcopal Church members. The simulation helps people experience poverty for themselves, enabling them to discover that for the majority of poor people, poverty is not a life they choose, but a life, an existence, that is .forced upon them by circumstances, including divorce and family disintegration, major illness, debt to predatory lenders.

You can read the Impacting Poverty Commission's "Community Focus 2015, A Report for Springfield and Greene County" at www.springfieldcommunityfocus.org.

As a panelist at the Summit, I had only seven minutes to comment on the role of the church, including Christ Episcopal Church, in meeting the challenge of increasing poverty. Below are my comments. I answered questions posed by the Summit organizers:

What is the role of our faith-based community and what is its capacity to affect poverty? 

I speak as a Christian and pastor. Jesus calls his followers to love their neighbors as themselves. The Golden Rule is taught and is lived not only by Christians, but also by followers of the world’s other great religions. We people of faith are to love our neighbors by helping them flourish, realizing their full potential as human beings who are created in the image and likeness of God.  

And everyone is our neighbor, including those on the margins of society. In Matthew 25, Jesus says,
“Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren,you did it to me” (Matthew 25. 40b).  

During my 20 years in Springfield, again and again, I have seen our churches and their members faithfully do the work of Jesus. St. Teresa of Avila writes that Jesus has no hands but ours. The role of the faith community is to be the hands of Jesus--the very hands of God. Our hands might be calloused by service, but not our hearts. Sharing generously of time, talent and treasure, church members from many denominations are united in helping needy people. And so are people of other faith traditions.

 Please tell us what Christ Episcopal Church is doing to impact the quality of life for our under-resourced families?

Through our church budget and individual contributions-- amounting to tens of thousands of dollars--the people of Christ Episcopal Church support the agencies of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.

Our members also contribute hundreds of hours annually to the work of these agencies. Several women from the church, for instance, regularly volunteer at Safe to Sleep, which provides temporary shelter to homeless women in local churches.I am proud to serve on the council’s board.

Quarterly, Christ Church hosts a community dinner, serving 150 people at each meal, sometimes more. Our guests are often homeless, disabled, or suffering from chronic illness. All the food is donated, as is the labor. Church members do the organizing, the cooking, the hosting, the cleanup. They also visit with our guests. In welcoming them, we welcome Christ himself.

We are one of founding churches of the Center City Christian Outreach, which operates the Well-of-Life food pantry. The Well is open Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 10 am to 2 pm and is staffed entirely by volunteers. We contribute $8000 annually to the budget of the pantry, and church members give hundreds of hours of service to the Well, which feeds more than 600 people monthly.

Coordinating with the Council of Churches’ Crosslines agency, the Well will  also distribute 25 Thanksgiving and Christmas baskets this year. Crosslines helps five families a month pay their utility bills. It provides bus passes and gasoline vouchers, helping people without vehicles or friends who can drive them get to doctors appointments or to job interviews. 

Christ Church staff distributes nearly 20 sack lunches each week to hungry people who come to the church door. From clergy discretionary funds, amounting to a few thousand dollars each year,  we help people pay rent and utility bills, buy their prescription medications, secure temporary lodging, and more. 

Our Next-to-New resale clothing shop is often able, free of charge, to outfit needy people with warm clothing during the winter and sometimes with dress clothes for job interviews or employment. Through store sales, we provide support to such local groups as Rare Breed and the Family Violence Center. 

We help feed homeless teens through our ministry at Rare Breed. Once a month, church members buy food for dinner, prepare it and then serve it. We feed as many as 50 young people each month. Once, we fed 100. We get to know the young people we serve. 

Annually, we participate in Friends Against Hunger, or the Pack-a-Thon. With many other volunteers from the community, we pack one million meals on a weekend. From 20 to 60 of our church members volunteer a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, assembling dry meals for hungry people here, elsewhere in the United States and abroad.We commit $1000 to $1200 to the Pack-a-Thon when we participate. 

About 10 years ago, we adopted Bissett Elementary, a Title I school. We participate in the Council of Churches' RSVP reading program there, with 10 church volunteers giving 30 or more minutes weekly to each of their students. We provide Christmas baskets to three or four Bissett families annually. We furnish personal hygiene products for the school nurse to distribute. Yearly, we take a class to a production at Springfield Little Theater.This year, we opened a store, where children can buy pencils, paper and other supplies inexpensively. Church members annually donate as much as $7500 to buy new tennis shoes for all the students.This year our 31 volunteers gave out 280 pairs of new Converse All Stars. One church member got this ministry under way and keeps it going.

Why is caring for those in poverty imperative for our community, and how can we join together as a community to do this.

As Dr. Martin Luther King said, “If God is our Father, then we are all brothers and sisters." We are family. A loving family takes care of its members.We need to care for family members who are unable to care of themselves. And for people who can care for themselves and who are seeking work,
for instance, we need provide opportunities for education, training, mentoring and other support, and then we need to ensure that they have access to jobs with living wages and benefits. Good jobs will help reduce poverty. 

And just as important, we need to work for justice. As we live the Golden Rule,“Love your neighbor as yourself," we will create a more just society in which poverty diminishes, perhaps even disappears one day. Yes, it’s a dream, but I believe we can make this dream come true when we act in partnership with one another and with God.

Borrowing from Dr. King again, I believe we need to be "drum majors" for justice—at City Council, in the General Assembly, in the U.S. Congress. We citizens need to become informed about issues of public policy. We need to know where candidates stand. And we need to work and vote for leaders who are committed to creating a just society. Government is only as good as its citizens.


Tuesday, September 22, 2015

I implore the U.S. Congress to feed hungry children

"Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?"

"I will with God's help."

                    From The Renewal of  Baptismal Vows, The Book of Common Prayer, p 294

Today, I received an email message from the Episcopal Public Policy Network, a ministry of the Episcopal Church that seeks to influence public policy for the good of all human beings and all creation.  In its message today, the network called on me to contact my elected representatives in Washington, D.C., encouraging them to reauthorize legislation that will help reduce hunger among children.

Dear Senators Blunt and McCaskill and Rep. Blunt:

I see poor people almost daily. They come to my church, Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, for help.

I am especially troubled when I see hungry children. I am heart-broken when I hear true stories about children who go home from school on Friday and who have little to eat until they return to school on Monday. Famished. Springfield school teachers tell these stories.

I serve on the board of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks, and I know that the Council's Crosslines feeding program is overwhelmed by need, as is the Well of Life, which my church and other downtown churches support and staff with volunteers.

Such hunger should not exist in Springfield or, indeed, in any community in America, the richest country in the world.

Surely, we can do better. And I believe we must.

As an Episcopalian, as a pastor who cares for people's souls and bodies and as your constituent, I am deeply concerned about hunger in my community. I am thankful that churches, non-profit groups and government bodies here and elsewhere are working together to reduce child hunger.

I know that each of you has a good, compassionate heart. Each of you is a person of faith. None of you wants to see children go hungry.

You can do something to help feed hungry children. You have a special opportunity to strengthen child nutrition legislation that is set to expire on September 30.

The Child Nutrition and WIC Reauthorization Act helps millions of low-income children daily. It provides them free or reduced-price meals, which improve their health, educational achievement and advancement and physical development.

The Act encompasses several federal programs--including the National School Lunch Program and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children--and my denomination, The Episcopal Church, supports these programs.

The reauthorization process grants you the opportunity to review and improve the policies contained within the Child Nutrition Act. I ask that you act swiftly to strengthen nutrition and school meal programs for our children today and for generations to come.

And as you work to reauthorize the Child Nutrition Act, please ensure that these nutrition programs are fully funded and that other important programs that meet human needs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are also fully funded. One program should not be cut to fund another one.

In addition, I ask you to make these feeding programs more accessible to low-income children, children in preschool and childcare and youth who are out of school on holidays.

Finally, please ensure that the services provided within each feeding program are based on strong nutrition standards that are grounded in scientifically reviewed data.

Thank you for your attention to this critical issue.

Because one in five children is at risk of hunger in the United States, I urge you to act now to strengthen and to reauthorize this legislation so that our children will receive the adequate and nutritious food that they need to thrive.

Grace and peace to you in Christ,

The Rev. Kenneth L. Chumbley
Rector, Christ Episcopal Church
Springfield, MO

Sunday, August 30, 2015

God's arms open in welcome

"Welcome, regardless." This sign in front of Messiah Episcopal Church, Murphy, NC, expresses God's nature. God's arms are open in love to every person. Regardless.

At Holy Communion today, Penny and I listened as the Messiah choir sang "The Welcome Table," an old African-American spiritual.

And we felt God's welcome of us: in the music; in the liturgy; in the moving sermon by the Lutheran pastor who serves this small congregation; and in our Holy Communion with God and these kind people.

The service over, the pastor then dismissed us for our service to God. His words were: "Go forth and be kind."

How might we be transformed by showing God's kindness to our very own selves?

How might wounded people, including those who have wounded us, be transformed when we show them kindness?

How might the world be transformed by our simple, steady acts of kindness?

May you know God's goodness, His everlasting kindness, and share it with everyone you meet.

And watch what happens.

Deep healing and peace be with you in Christ.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Transfiguration of light, word, love

Today, August 6, is the Feast of the Transfiguration.

I just read the story of this sacred event in Mark 9.2-8 (It is also recorded in Matthew 17.1-8 and Luke 9.28-36).

At the Thursday Holy Eucharist, which will begin at 5.30 pm, just a few minutes from now, I will reflect on the significance of this event.

In the gospel accounts of the Transfiguration, Peter, James and John accompany Jesus to a mountain, where a revelation occurs. Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus, talking with him. (Wouldn't it be interesting to listen in on that conversation?).

And then a huge cloud settles down upon them, and from the cloud, God speaks, "This is my beloved son;  listen to him." And then there is silence. Moses and Elijah disappear. Jesus is alone. The apostles now see only Him.

God reveals Himself in and through Jesus, who is the only one who remains of the three great figures who appear to the apostles on the mount that day. I wonder: might the meaning of this event be that Jesus fulfills, surpasses; indeed, supersedes the Law, as represented by Moses, and the Prophets, as represented by Elijah?

Might the meaning of the Transfiguration be that God's former revelation of Himself to Israel in the Law and the Prophets is now embodied in Jesus and, indeed, exceeded by Him, for Jesus alone is God in human flesh; Moses and Elijah were simply human servants of God, albeit extraordinary ones.

In this story, I believe God is calling me to listen to Him in Jesus--Jesus who reveals Himself today in new ways through the words of the Holy Scriptures: Jesus who gives His Real Presence to me in the Sacrament of the Holy Communion, the consecrated bread and wine; and Jesus who is alive in and through me and all the members of Christ's living body, the Church--alive and active through deeds of love, which bring God's healing, His wholeness, to broken human beings and to our broken world.

As we celebrate this Feast of the Transfiguration, may the bright light of Christ, God's living word, transform us, that His love might shine through us into the darkness.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

God, Why didn't you prevent the Nepalese earthquakes?
by The Rev. Kenneth L. Chumbley
At a recent Sunday adult class, someone asked a provocative question--one that I often ponder.
Referring to the first earthquake in Nepal, which killed more than 8,000 people and devastated that small country,  he asked: Why didn’t God prevent that disaster? 
I did not get the sense that the questioner was bating me, using a natural disaster to argue against the existence of a loving God, as many people do, but that he was genuinely seeking to understand God, even reaching out to God with his question.
People of faith and people without faith have long sought to understand Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, as Rabbi Harold Kushner's classic book poses the question( I recommend this book and would happily lead an exploration of it, if anyone were interested.) An earlier classic, the biblical book of Job, also deals with the question of evil and the God of love. I commend Job to you. Thank God the Bible comprehends Jobian questions.
                                                              Evil is personal
Every person, I reasonably assume, has experienced his or her own personal Nepal, if you will. On several occasions, Penny and I have. Penny's niece, Toni, for instance, was murdered by her boyfriend about 10 years ago. 
That horrific tragedy certainly challenged our family's faith. It still does. Toni's murderer is serving a life sentence. Penny's mother, Norma, a person of deep and strong faith, says that it is only by the grace of God that she can pray for James, which she does. I do not know whether I could.
No person, and certainly no theologian, no matter how learned, will ever fully and satisfactorily answer the question posed by that man in the adult Sunday school class. 
Although I do not have any answers--not in any conclusive sense--I do have some thoughts, perhaps even insights, standing as I do daily amid the rubble of evil, tragedy, pain, and suffering. I hope they help you in your journey of believing. 
                                                   Faith is at the heart of the journey
Mine is not Christian certainty but Christian faith. I am like the man in Mark 8. 17ff. He takes his son who is possessed by an evil spirit to Jesus to be healed, if Jesus can. And Jesus responds, If I can. “All things are possible to him who believes.” And the man answers, as I do: “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Given so many questions and so few answers, I could stop believing. I could give up on God. But I choose to believe in the God of love, even when the evidence sometimes seemingly contradicts the existence of God. 
A cellar in Cologne, Germany once sheltered thousands of Jews from Nazi evil. When WW II ended, someone discovered a few sentences scratched on a stone wall there. No one knows the name or what became of the author, who wrote: "I believe in the sun even when it's not shining. I believe in love even when not feeling it. I believe in God even when He is silent."  
This anonymous author suffered and likely died during the Holocaust, as did more than six million Jews. These and other millions of other deaths came not as a result of natural evil, like that earthquake in Nepal, but from human evil: Hatred, discrimination, cruelty, violence, horrible death. It is impossible to prevent earthquakes, tornadoes, many diseases, and, although it is impossible to eliminate human evil, it is possible to curb it and even to prevent future Holocausts, with God's help and with our faithfulness to God.

                                                         God is love: Not a cliche but the truth
As a Christian, I believe that God became human in Jesus Christ. St John's Gospel and John's letters teach that Jesus showed us the nature of God. God is love. God's love for us is so great, as St. Paul writes in Romans 5.8, that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us. Jesus goes to his death for the sake of love--He dies on the cross as a political criminal because He did the very best for every human being He ever encountered, be that person stranger, or friend, or enemy. And loving this way brings ridicule, persecution, and even death. His was a radical love, a love that the world had never seen before; indeed, a revolutionary love that sought--and that still seeks--to eliminate all that is unloving in the world today. This is the mission of every follower of Jesus.

God offers His  love to human beings as gift. And God gives us the freedom to accept Jesus and God's love embodied in Him and to live according to His teaching and example and in His Spirit; or we can choose to reject Jesus and His love. Daily, people--yes, even Christians--reject God and do ungodly things to one another. Our niece's murder is a particularly monstrous example.

                                                                            God's YES!

I believe it was scholar and famous preacher Fred Craddock who once said that Jesus' crucifixion was humankind's NO to God, but His resurrection was God's YES to us. You killed my son, I imagine God saying, but I went on loving you and seeking you and will never stop doing so. You can never destroy my love.

The resurrection, which we celebrate in the great 50 days of Easter, proclaims the beginning of God's act of new creation, according to theologian and Anglican bishop Dr. N.T. Wright. The natural world, which, perhaps like human beings, is in rebellion against God's good purposes--will be made new. It will be perfected as it was at the beginning. Then, there will be no more Nepals. No murdered young women. That is because all creation will act in conformity with the purposes of God. Why does God wait for this perfection? Could it be that He waits on us, hoping that all, not just a few, will choose Him and live eternally in fellowship with Him? And in the judgment of the living and dead, God, may I be among those who live with you forever.

In class that Sunday morning, the only thing I remember saying in response to that man's question was not profound at all, but was truthful: We all come into this world in the same way, at birth; and we all leave this world  the same way, at death. Some deaths come at the end of long lives well and faithfully lived. Other deaths come too soon and sometimes tragically, as in the case of Toni and those earthquake victims in Nepal.

But I believe--there is that word again--that as God is there at our beginning, to paraphrase the poet T.S. Elliot, so God will be there at our ending and that ending will be only the beginning of life eternal.