Mar 28, 2018

A witness to resilient hope and radical hospitality

As we prepare to celebrate and share the timeless story of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday, April 1, Eastern PA Conference members and friends are invited to also come learn about “The Resurrection Faith of our Congolese Brothers and Sisters.” That’s the title of a dynamic visual and vocal presentation planned for April 15, at 6 to 8 PM, at Otterbein UMC, 181 Walnut Street, Mont Clare, PA.

All are welcome to attend, at no cost, to see and hear compelling stories of an exciting, successful mission partnership from members of a joint Eastern PA and Peninsula Delaware conference team that visited the Democratic Republic of Congo in February. The eight-member team, led by Bishop Peggy Johnson and the Rev. Dawn Taylor-Storm, spent about two weeks visiting and volunteering among various, life-changing mission sites supported by our four-conference Congo Partnership.

Bishop Johnson and Taylor-Storm will join the Rev. Bob Wilt and Tony Barnett, both of Lima UMC, to share what they witnessed, learned and loved about their resilient sisters and brothers in the household of faith at Mpasa, Wembo Nyama and other mission sites.

They saw new Partnership-funded medical advancements at work saving lives, schoolchildren and adults learning knowledge and skills to survive and succeed, and the first well dug to provide fresh water nearby to an under-resourced village of 86,000 residents. They taught at a school for local pastors, enjoyed relentless hospitality, and forged friendships that may last a lifetime…maybe several lifetimes.

Come learn and celebrate enthusiastic accounts of God’s mission bearing fruit—fruit that will last—in the Central Congo Area, with the help of faithful partners and the support of Eastern PA Conference churches. Meanwhile, enjoy these vivid, inspirational memories shared by Superintendent Dawn Taylor-Storm in two recent epistles she wrote to members of her South District in celebration of Palm Sunday and Easter.

A Palm Sunday Meditation

I will never look at Palm Sunday the same. Those were the words I repeated again and again as I stepped out of the plane in Wembo Nyama. As we touched our feet onto the dirt runway carved out of the jungle, I saw thousands of people waving palm branches, singing and dancing to greet us.

I had never experienced such radical hospitality in my life. The palm branches were a sign of welcome, a sign of peace. Immediately, I felt the gracious hospitality of our Congolese sisters and brothers. Children and adults alike waved branches; and even as our caravan took us down the road, I looked back and saw women running alongside the vans, raising palm branches over their heads.

When we arrived at a local church, palm branches were placed on the ground, as those in the procession danced up the aisle. Palm branches were weaved into arches over the entrance. I realized that palm branches, to this day, are used in many communities to welcome the stranger.

Palm Sunday came alive in a new way for me that day in Wembo Nyama. Rather than seeing Palm Sunday as a one-time event of welcome for Jesus, Palm Sunday became an opportunity to share the radical hospitality we offer to Jesus with all who are considered strangers. Our Congolese brothers and sisters taught us what it means to truly welcome the stranger.

From goats to chickens to eggs, our new Congolese friends gave us the best food to eat. Our Congolese sisters provided us with homemade clothing. The gifts offered went beyond food and clothing. The Congolese gave of themselves to us. They opened their homes to us. They cared for us; they spent time with us; they even protected us. Never before in my life had I seen or experienced such radical hospitality.

Here in the U.S., we sometimes think that we offer hospitality when a greeter hands out a bulletin on a Sunday morning. The hospitality of Jesus requires so much more. Jesus calls us to know names and know stories. The hospitality of Jesus requires us to share the best of ourselves with others.

Ultimately, hospitality is the gift of relationships. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, I learned what it means to welcome the stranger. This Palm Sunday, I pray that as we wave our Palms and shout “Hosanna!” we may also think about what it means to truly welcome those in our churches and communities.

May Palm Sunday change our hearts, as we offer the love of Christ beyond our walls. In the words of one of my favorite benedictions, may we go forth every Sunday to “Bear witness to the love of God in this world, so that those for whom love is a stranger may find in you generous friends.”

An Easter Meditation

As I watched the well gush with water for the first time ever in this village of 86,000 people, I knew I was seeing resurrection. The people of Wembo Nyama gathered around the well as Rev. Jonathan Baker fell to his knees, weeping with joy that water was finally flowing.

It is the story behind this well that you need to know, for only then will you understand the resurrection faith of God’s people in Wembo Nyama. Just a few years ago, between the years of 1996 and 2003, the village of Wembo Nyama was attacked by rebels multiple times. Many of the buildings were set on fire and completely destroyed. All of the furniture the people had was taken outside and burned to the ground by the rebels.

The people ran into the jungle and lived there for months. “Nearly all the women you have met this week were raped by the rebels when they came,” Jonathan shared with me. I thought about the women I had met, the ones who were caring for our team with such grace and hospitality. These women sang God’s praise and proclaimed their faith with such joy. I thought about the journey they had endured. And yet, they persisted.

In the months that the people hid in the jungle waiting for the rebels to leave their village, they refused to give up. The people went out daily to clear the runway. Day in and day out, for years, they continued to keep the runway clear. Even when no planes would fly into the village because it was too dangerous, the people refused to give up hope.

“One day, they will come,” the people said. The people of Wembo Nyama knew suffering, but they also knew the power of resurrection. They proclaimed God’s goodness even in a time of wilderness wandering. And thankfully, the people of The United Methodist Church did not give up on Congo either.

This Easter, I’m preaching on the Gospel of Mark. I love Mark’s Easter Gospel because it is so real. In Mark’s Gospel, the women run away from the tomb, too scared to say anything to anyone. There’s a whole lot of fear, suspicion and doubt on that first Easter Sunday.

In truth, Easter has little to do with us. Easter isn’t about you and me getting it right. Easter is all about our God who gets it right even when we get it wrong. Easter is all about God’s refusal to give up on us. Even when we run away, even when we doubt, even when we are afraid, God comes to us.

Resurrection will happen with us or without us. Of course, we know that the women don’t remain in hiding. At some point, they lace up their combat boots and start proclaiming their faith. I love the Gospel of Mark because ultimately the ending is left up to us. It’s easy to remain in our comfort zones, but God will not leave us there for too long. God will stir our hearts and our lives, calling us beyond what we knew was possible, into places we thought we would never go.

The well gushed with water. In 2018. in front of my very eyes. I wished every United Methodist could have been there with me that day. I would never need to explain the importance of apportionments again (DS joke, forgive me).

Seriously, in that moment, I saw what it means to be a global church. And in that moment, knowing the story of Wembo Nyama, I looked at the faces of God’s beloved people, and I saw what it means to have resurrection faith.

There’s still more work to be done, dear friends, but, this Easter, I rejoice in seeing resurrection in Wembo Nyama. In the words of Rev. Jonathan Baker, “Water is life.” We are called as resurrection people to bring life and hope to all God’s people throughout this Earth.

As you celebrate Easter this week, may you and I daily recommit our lives to what matters; and may we continue to “practice resurrection” in our churches, communities and beyond.

Happy Easter, dear friends.

​​Together in Ministry,