Looking back on 2016, there is much to celebrate. In the Reno-Sparks-Tahoe area, our congregations work with each other and ecumenical partners to sponsor Syrian refugees. This ministry is exactly how Moses taught us to care for the alien and how Jesus taught us to welcome the stranger. This is how Jesus comes to us today -- as the refugee. The voices of fear shout that we should send these people back to the tender mercies of the Assad regime just as we sent Jews back to Germany into the hands of Hitler. Our churches have the courage to follow the voice of Jesus instead of the voice of the mob.
Also in Northwest Nevada, the Empty Bowls Banquet which supports the food pantry at St. Paul’s, Sparks outgrew its old venue and had to move into The El Dorado. After Trinity’s exhibit of Russian icons made Reno sit up and take notice, they began a Wednesday night education program that is well attended by both adults and children.
In the Las Vegas Valley, our work with Nevadans For the Common Good continues to change the face of our community. In the past, we won an omnibus bill to fight the modern-day slavery of sex trafficking, played a key role in increasing funding for public schools, and expanded home health care to keep elderly and disabled people in their homes instead of institutions. The list goes on. Today, every Episcopal Church in the Las Vegas Valley is a dues-paying member of Nevadans For the Common Good.
Last Fall, our Diocese and Nevadans For the Common Good co-hosted a Regional Forum at All Saints on how to form and deepen partnerships with public schools. We had workshops presented by the All Our Children Foundation in Boston, Nevada Communities in Schools, the Clark County School District, and Nevadans For the Common Good giving workshops. We had Episcopalians from Reno and Ely as well as Clark County. Christ Church, Las Vegas is in the thick of the fight to save Fremont Middle School. Grace in the Desert had an overflow crowd for its Vacation Bible School this summer and Epiphany has a burgeoning children’s ministry with 30 to 40 kids each Sunday.
To the East, St. Paul’s, Elko has taken on a new role in Underdog Ministries serving the homeless; and St. Bart’s, Ely remained a driving force in the Committee Against Child Hunger. Our largest congregation in central Nevada is St. Thomas the Believer, which worships inside the Lovelock Correctional Center. They are also the most Biblically literate and theologically educated congregation in the diocese. Holy Trinity, Fallon supports that ministry as well as our new church plant in Silver Springs/ Stagecoach, St. Hugh of Lincoln.
All of that, and many ministries I have not mentioned, help explain something. In 2015, the membership of The Episcopal Church throughout the United States and several other nations went down by 2%. But our membership went up just shy of 3%. That’s a 5% spread. Sunday attendance in the wider church went down by 3.5%. Nevada’s attendance went up by 3.4%. That’s almost a 7% spread.
Most of our larger congregations are growing at an impressive rate. Our smaller rural congregations prove resilient as a sagebrush. Death and relocation deliver blows that look fatal. But their attendance remains just as strong. While the wider Church is getting older, our rural congregations are getting younger -- more young adults, more children. We are growing because people can see we’re up to something that looks like God’s Kingdom happening here.
Looking forward to 2017, I see us beginning a time of challenge and opportunity such as we have not faced before. The challenge and opportunity is not about survival or institutional strength, but about rising to the occasion of God’s mission in a hard time.
Never in our lifetimes has our community been so broken. The shootings of unarmed Black suspects by police officers (102 in 2015) and the 21 ambush shootings of police officers are a bloody example (part of 56% increase in shooting deaths of police last year). These tragedies are not inevitable. While even one lost life is one too many, through intentional efforts to change, incidents of police killings of unarmed Black people were reduced by half last year. Still, the trust level is far from what we need in order to keep our people of all races safe. Quite the opposite, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, homophobia – the list goes on – have all erupted. Political discourse has descended to character attack; and, in some cases, like the menacing of National Review journalist David French’s family during the presidential campaign, it has sunk to harassment and threats of violence. Fear has become the driving force of our public life, breaking relationships and splintering us into our multiple little fortresses of righteous indignation at one another.
In the midst of this internecine strife, the Church’s mission remains “to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.” Our Baptismal Vows remain “to seek and serve Christ in all people” and “to strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being.” How do we seek and serve Christ in the person whose views are morally reprehensible in our eyes? Would Christ really want us to befriend a sinner? Even if the sinner sinned by corrupt political oppression (like St. Matthew) or violent rebellion against society (like St. Simon Zealotes)? What is to be gained by sullying our hands associating with such people?
I wonder what we might learn from Nelson Mandela. In prison, they served sufficient food for the day, but they served it all at once. By evening the supper was cold. Mandela wanted a hot plate but the racist Afrikaner guards would not speak to him. So, he studied soccer (not a popular sport for Black South Africans) to lure the soccer-fan guards into conversation. That got him a hot plate. Then he asked them about their support of apartheid. Not by arguing – but by listening – he converted them. And he went on converting people in this way up the chain of power until apartheid was ended. He did not accomplish this through prophesying out of his righteousness but by connecting on the human level.
In the coming year(s), our most urgent challenge will be the art and spiritual discipline of mindful conversation. We can be the healing, reconciling presence the world desperately needs today. We can draw on Anglican practices, particularly from Africa, indaba groups and Ubuntu theology. I will devote two weeks this year to resuming my training with Parker Palmer’s Center for Courage & Renewal to help me find better ways to minister to the diocese in these times. A Courage & Renewal facilitator will train our deacons in the art and spiritual discipline of mindful conversation. Our first task is learning to listen deeply and speak authentically out of our own personal experience, to tell our own stories from the heart – setting those conversations in the context of our shared identity as the Body of Christ.
We do not develop our relational spirituality at the expense of working for justice – also a Baptismal vow. We can develop our relational spirituality in the process of working for justice and the well-being of the vulnerable at a time when they are apt to be thrown under the bus. Nevada ranks 51st in funding Meals On Wheels. Elderly and disabled people in Las Vegas go on a six months waiting list for their first meal. That waiting list typically has 600 people, plus 200 in Henderson. Medicaid reimbursement for institutional care increases each year, but home health care in Nevada has not had a cost of living adjustment since 2002. Home health care agencies are closing and people are being forced into nursing homes, that cost the state more money. Inmates languish in prison though they are eligible for parole and the Department of Corrections wants to release them – but we do not have sufficient half-way houses to manage their re-entry. This keeps them in prison, again at greater cost to the state. We are taking these issues on.
To prepare our hearts so that we may better serve God’s broken, bleeding, crucified world, we need prayer – lots and lots of prayer. Canon Catherine and the Rev. Douglas Gregg will be traversing the diocese this year sharing ways of praying that promise to enrich the spiritual lives of our people. We will need this if we are going to sit in the center of our saddle while riding through the times to come.
All in all, I have good hopes for our Diocese in 2017 precisely because it will be hard. G. K. Chesterton famously said, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and not tried.” As we face the challenges of the closing years of this decade, it may be time to give it a try. And if we try, we will grow strong – together.