Monday, November 22, 2010

Christ Church Is Alive! Let Christians Sing!

The rumors on the diocesan street about Christ Church, Las Vegas are all about division and decline. All I know is what I see.

Yesterday, at Christ Church, there were close to 60 people in attendance at the 7:45 a.m. service. Granted, that does not pack such a big worship space. But it was a lot of people for 7:45 a.m. under any circumstances. They are nearly two years deep into an interim period and numbers always go down during interim periods regardless of how well loved the interim may be. So I was surprised and impressed by the early service.

I missed the Spanish Mass at 9:30 because I was socializing with the good people of CCLV in the parish hall, now served by its remodeled kitchen. I talked with a number of folks, but mostly with two young adults, one of whom I had confirmed last year, the other of whom is a 2 L at the Boyd School of Law, UNLV. Yes, there are young adults and college students at Christ Church.

At the principal service, I lost count of how many teenagers we confirmed. All I can say for sure is that it was a most impressive group – by far the largest group of confirmands I have had this year at an English speaking service. There were also 2 adult confirmands – one of whom was young adult, specifically another UNLV student. There were also four teens from the Latino congregation at St. Luke’s. Hurray for St. Luke’s too. But most of the youth were Christ Church kids. Let me add, they were strong in spirit as well as numbers. They were engaged, intelligent, and attentive when I met with them before the service. They had clearly been blessed with good Christian formation.

I don’t’ know the attendance number, but the church looked about ¾ full to me. It was a crowd! Yes, they were there for confirmations – or a lot of them were – but that counts. It was a mighty impressive turnout of engaged people who sang out and said the prayers with gusto. And another thing: they were, as they always have been, a diverse lot by any standard. There were black, white, brown, and Asian people. There were folks who looked well to do, folks who looked poor, and folks in between. This congregation looked considerably more like the city in which it resides than most Episcopal congregations.

If you are in Nevada, you have heard about the controversial new organ. In my experience, saying “controversial” and “new” about a church organ is redundant. Any new organ is controversial, and the better the organ the more controversial it is. The Christ Church organ, the largest in Nevada and certainly one of the best, is inevitably controversial. But the voluntaries before and after worship were magnificent. At the principal service, the congregation staid in place for the postlude, spell bound by the music, then broke into spontaneous applause.

“When in our music God is glorified
And adoration leaves no room for pride,
It is as though the whole creation cried
Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Hymnal, 420.

How much is that worth? How much is it worth multiplied by the long life of a tracker organ which will inspire souls for generation after generation?

Then at 5:00 Linda and I joined the Latino congregation for a Fiesta in the parish hall. It was absolutely packed. The food was delicious and the people were warm hearted. This group has been worshiping together for only 9 months but already the feel of community is emerging. Wondering how the Anglos are taking it? Several Anglos took me aside in the morning to say, “Thank you for sending us Fr. Bernardo.” Some described their own new spiritual experience and joy from worshiping with the Latino congregation. Even though they did not speak Spanish, they got it. They understood at the heart level.

Then came the evening Eucharist. I’d say the church was about 4/5 full. We baptized and celebrated children’s communions. Again I could not keep track of the initiation rites. More than in the morning. Now here’s what struck me. We were not baptizing babies. We were mostly baptizing teens and pre-teens. Latino families whose children have not been baptized long before this age have definitely been alienated from the church. We are not moving people from one church to another. We are bringing people from unchurched and estranged lives into the fold. I wish you could have seen the faces of these young people – joyful, devout, sincere. They were not going through the motions, not just doing what was expected of them at a certain age. It was ritual marking new commitment to Jesus.

This Latino congregation along with Latinos from All Saints’ and St. Luke’s are the heart of Latino support for the Las Vegas Interfaith community organizing effort. Anglo clergy from Christ Church are joining the struggle to make the Valley into a place where we know and care about each other. Of course, Christ Church continues to be the core of our urban ministries to the homeless and now to the new poor of the present recession.

They are doing all this during an interim period, during a recession, and in the aftermath of a traumatic conflict two years ago. This congregation is resilient, inspired, and inspiring. I give thanks to God for their witness.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Interfaith Relational Power For The Common Good

The Episcopal Church is involved in interfaith broad based community organizing in Reno and the Las Vegas Valley. Our efforts are really quite simple, but people have a hard time grasping it. This is such a different approach to our common life that it is like speaking a foreign language. It isn't starting with a divisive issue and gathing the people who agree to fight with the other side. Interfaith organizing believes relationships and knowledge lead to a different kind of power -- relational power to heal society instead of dominating power for win-lose controversies. It is a different way of being a people together. The statment below is how I explained our goals to a meeting of Las Vegas Valley Interfaith attended by 254 people from 72 different churches, mosques, and synagogues two weeks ago.

From what Charles Redmond has told you
of our accomplishments so far,
you can see we are here to do something new
– something different.
We are here to change things at a deeper level than usual.

Usually when we set out to do some public good, we start with an issue.
People who care about the same issue
get together, take a stand, win or lose, then go home and forget it.
Relationships have not been formed.
People have connected to causes, not each other.
The basic pattern of fragmented, broken community has not been changed.

This is different.
Instead of starting with issues, we start with people.
We are forming a network of relationships
among Las Vegas Valley people who ordinarily
would not know each other.
I have new friends here I would not have known
and my life is already the better for it.
We intentionally cross the lines of race, religion, and politics.
We are Muslims and Catholics, Methodists and Jews.
We are Democrats, Republicans, Greens, and Independents.
We are black, white, brown, and Asian.

We are knitting together this diverse community
by hearing each others’ stories.
We are learning together how our government,
our economy, and our schools work
so we can make them work better.

We have no ideology except grass roots democracy
– common people taking responsibility for our common life
– and working for our common good.
We will stand shoulder to shoulder to meet the issues of this decade,
and we will still be standing shoulder to shoulder
in the next decade when new issues arise.
Divided, we are too politically weak to make our voices heard.

But together, we can make a difference
in the foreclosure crisis, the decline of our schools,
the plight of families in which a member is undocumented.

This Organization has a broad but clear purpose
– a better life for families.
Our Valley is not yet a family friendly place.
We have children in Las Vegas growing up
-- some on the streets; some in rent-by-the-week motels
-- children without a sliver of a chance.
We are an international hub of human trafficking.
Young lives are being derailed by gangs.
Tonight, you have heard some of the stories
about how life goes wrong here
for children, youth, and the elderly.

But together we can make this Valley blossom
for all our families and all our faiths --
just as broad based community organizations have done in Phoenix,
Tucson, San Antonio, San Diego, Nasville, Charlotte, New Orleans.
Las Vegas is next.

This big job takes broad-based, long term commitment.
To be stable and strong, we have to stand on our own feet.
We have to be self-supporting and self-sustaining.
That means we need the churches, mosques, and synagogues
to sign on, to commit both time and money,
just like we expect the people in our congregations
to sign on and commit.

We all have other pressing demands on our time and our budget.
But you have heard the stories and there are countless more.
What are these lives worth to us?
What are the children, the elderly,
and ordinary families worth?
What is it worth to set our Valley free to flourish?

Churches, mosques, and synagogues cannot change this Valley
if we remain divided -- feeding a hungry person here,
speaking out on a particular issue there.
But together, we can be a formidable force for the common good –
built to last, uniting people of all races and faiths as friends.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Sojourner Dream Of Grace

After giving a sermon on the spiritual journey at St. Stephen’s yesterday, I flew back to Henderson and had the most beautiful, healing dream I can remember. I was moving to Nevada. Much of the journey was on foot and I would stop in small towns along the way. The beauty of the dream was the kind and gracious way several people helped me. I feel like a new person today.

In waking life, the road was hard last year, to say the least, and the hardness has continued to weigh on me until now. My dream was a channel of grace and peace.

We are all on a path, often not of our choosing. We would prefer to stay in Abram’s home, Ur; or in Jerusalem, like the apostles who did not leap into fulfilling The Great Commission, but instead set up shop in Jerusalem until driven out by persecution. One way or another, we are all on the road, pushed out of our nest. I don’t know where the road leads. The song says it, does it not? “I know not where the road may lead . . . . (only that) I walk the King’s Highway.” But regardless of the destination, grace happens when people are kind to us at the way stations.

Perhaps that is the wisdom embedded in the spiritual practice enjoined by the law of Moses to welcome the alien and shelter the sojourner, remembering that we are sojourners ourselves. As we go about being the Church, we might do well to think less on sustaining our institutions, to think more about the literal and spiritual sojourners around us, and find ways to extend a bit of consolation.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Slightly Bitter, Mostly Sweet Big Meeting

Last night’s organizational meeting for Las Vegas Valley Interfaith was on the whole a big success. I didn’t count the number of churches, mosques, and synagogues present but it was by far the largest yet – and the diversity is increasing. The evening began with music from a great Gospel Choir singing “How Excellent Is Thy Name.” Then Dr. Aslam Abdulah chanted the Lord’s Prayer in Arabic as our invocation. Evangelical Protestants were spontaneously murmuring surprise and appreciation of that beautiful gesture. Roman Catholic Bishop Pepe was there with a pledge of $60,000 in support of our efforts. We heard moving stories from real people about real life challenges in the Valley. I gave it my best shot to explain how broad-based community organizing changes communities at a deeper level than charity or single issue advocacy. People seemed to get it. I got Amens and was interrupted by applause, which feels good anytime but especially when it’s the teaching piece of the program. We received in one night half the pledges we need for the funds we have to raise by May.

I was so proud of the turnout from our Latino/ Hispanic congregations! They may well have had the strongest turnout of any congregation of any denomination. Without them the attendance would have been disappointing. With them, it was something to celebrate. I'd call them playmakers. Fr. Hilario, Fr. Bernardo, and Dee had speaking parts done to perfection. Fr. Bernardo is going to Phoenix in the next couple of weeks to be trained as a community organizer.

I was especially pleased to see a strong turnout of lay people from both St Thomas’ and St. Luke’s along with their priests. Fr. Tim told me afterward he would be taking this mission to the St. Thomas’ vestry so they can decide how best to support Las Vegas Valley Interfaith. It is inspiring and deeply gratifying to see St. Thomas moving on from a leadership role in our recent convention to a leadership role in our most important social ministry in the southern half of the diocese. Christ Church, Las Vegas was also present, represented by three clergy and a clergy spouse.

There is much to celebrate for the mission, which I am confident will transform the character of the Las Vegas Valley in the profound way that can be accomplished only by an interracial, non-partisan, interfaith coalition. This is exciting.

Personally, I also feel rather like President Obama the day after the mid-term elections. The absence of most of our Episcopal churches, including some I had expected to be on board, is definitely a message – I’m just still sorting out what it is. Shakespeare said, “There is a tide in the affairs of men (sic) which when caught at the flood leads on to destiny.” I saw that tide last night, saw it growing deeper, wider, stronger – and saw most of our congregations missing it. I feel responsible for that but am not at all sure what to do next. Thankfully, two of my colleagues may be showing me the way.

The Rev. Candace Lansberry, District Superintendant for this district of the United Methodist Church; Fr. Bob Stoekig, pastor of Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Church in Boulder City (he spoke to our deacons earlier this year); and I will be meeting soon to talk about how to introduce the same listening process within our parishes that we have used to build our interfaith organization. Perhaps that process will deepen relationships in the congregations turn the ignition for participation in our religiously pluralistic community. In the meantime, I’ll keep my hand on the plough and hold this in prayer along with our other diocesan missions, all our congregations and their leaders both lay and ordained.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Children Blessed To Be At St. Barts/ St. Bart's Blessed By Children

The children’s Sunday School at St. Bartholomew’s in Ely is my idea of important news. It isn’t overflowing like St. Mary’s, Nixon or Epiphany, Henderson – both wonderful too. But they definitely have something good going in Ely.

Of course they have had children’s Sunday School before but part of small church life is the demographic blips. Every few years, the Sunday School declines or even dies for want to children. It is as natural as the seasons. The rebirth of the Sunday School, however, does not happen so spontaneously. That takes initiative. Kim, a relatively new member of St. Bart’s, has taken the initiative.

Last Sunday, there were 4 children. Sometimes they have 5. Having no Sunday School room, they gather in a corner of the Fellowship Hall while the grownups are engrossed in the Liturgy of the Word upstairs. The kids sit on the floor for now, but Kim and Fr. Red are planning to get a rug or a carpet remnant for them to sit on. Such a thing makes a big difference. It welcomes the group into a defined space, holds them there and focuses attention – far less wandering off.

There is a board on which they have the words for their simple song – “Jesus in the morning” – one of my favorites. Then Kim converses with the children about one point from the Gospel lesson. Colored construction paper chains hang under each child’s name on the bulletin board. Every Sunday when the child attend Sunday School and learns a new lesson, they put a new link on their paper chain. The paper chains make visible their growth in spiritual intelligence. They also encourage and reward attendance, which judging by the paper chains is pretty good.

The point of this week’s Gospel lesson (Zacchaeus up the sycamore tree) was generosity. For their craft, the children created basketfuls of ghost treats. They hooded lollipops, with tissues, tied around the neck, and faces painted on the tissues with magic markers, thereby making ghosts. The kids then came upstairs to join their parents for the Liturgy of the Table. As people were leaving the nave, the children formed a receiving line giving away the ghostly lollipops to the grownups. After everyone else had left the nave, Kim gathered the children to make sure they got the connection between the Gospel lesson and their exercise of generosity in giving away the lollipops. The children also made large pin-on name tags for themselves and for the adults to wear – big help to the visiting bishop.

There are bigger, better-equipped Sunday Schools, but that isn’t an option for St. Bart’s. It may be just as well that it isn’t. As Professor Susannah Singer told us at Convention, Christian formation depends on context, context, context. I cannot imagine any Sunday School program working better in this context. They are doing what works for them – and from my conversation with the children, it is definitely working. They get it. What’s more, Kim is making the children and their activities visible to the adults, as with the ghost candy and the name tags. Children are mysteriously invisible to adults in church. The Rev. Kathy Hopner tells me she has talked with congregations who explain they do not have a Sunday School because they do not have children. She then points at children running about and says “What are those?” When the kids are the receiving line, they are harder to ignore.

Children’s ministry at St. Bart’s is not limited to the offspring of adult members. The Girl Scouts are reactivating in Ely as well, and guess where they meet? Most every Tuesday night, there’s a Girl Scout Meeting in our Fellowship Hall. That is an outreach ministry to the community and a soft evangelism in that it keeps us on the radar screen of Ely’s awareness.

But it isn’t all for children at St. Bart’s. They are soon revving up the new course using the Marcus Borg video on an Adult Faith, facilitated by MDIT (Ministry Developer In Training) Norma Engberg. The course used a workbook to structure people’s reflections on what they have seen and heard. This same program is being used at St. Martin’s, Pahrump and is, I think, available for Church Publishing Co. They are an alert, thinking congregation at St. Bart’s. I just did a sermon there that most preachers would not dare try – too theologically sophisticated. But the folks at St. Bart’s got it right off. Our people are plenty smart enough to deal with challenging material. They want to be challenged because that’s where the growth happens. I am very pleased that St. Bart’s, along with St. Martin’s, is undertaking this study.

Then there are softer spoken kinds of formation going on too. I noticed this year’s poster for Episcopal Relief and Development on a bulletin board too – a visible reminder of the world’s need and the Episcopal Church’s response. That too is soul shaping, consciousness raising, awareness instilling symbolism. I would be so glad to see that poser up in all our churches. Thank God and the people of St. Bart’s for remembering.