Wow, it has been quite an eventful year at North!
2014 was our first full calendar year together as pastor & congregation. We faced many challenges & opportunities, overcoming obstacles with faith in God, “whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
In the life of my family, it has been a delight to really start to put down roots and become part of the Kalamazoo community. Our daughter started kindergarten this year at El Sol Elementary School. We have become invested in the fabric of the Vine neighborhood, where we live. We saw God’s hand at work there when a condemned former crack house on our street was finally razed by the city. Neighborhood residents then joined forces to transform the empty lot into a community garden. Through this common cause, residents on the block have come to know and care for each other in new and exciting ways. God has also opened the door to enable my wife to pursue her pastoral calling through work in the Presbytery of Lake Michigan: in addition to regular pulpit supply work, she has also been called as the Recording Secretary for all presbytery meetings, Secretary for the Committee on Ministry, and Pastoral Transitions Coordinator.
In my own personal life, the most significant event of 2014 began in April, when I took a week of study leave at St. Gregory’s Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in nearby Three Rivers. My exposure to this way of life has been nothing less than life-changing for me. I discovered that many of the spiritual practices that have sustained my soul over the years actually have a common origin in the Benedictine monastic tradition. Walking with the monks has helped me to find a more grounded, balanced, and stable pattern for living my days, sustained by the steady rhythm of prayer and discipline. It has been my joy to return to the monastery once a month, just for an evening. I look forward to nurturing that relationship in the years to come.
Here at church, we have undergone multiple transformations as well.
Members of the church have continually encouraged me to step up my game when it comes to preaching: first by moving down from the elevated pulpit in order to be closer to the congregation, then by preaching more conversationally from an outline, rather than a full printed text. I have also begun to include a brief conversation with the kids after the Passing of the Peace, so that our younger members can get some regular face-time with their pastor as well.
We have continued to celebrate the wonderful and dedicated music leadership offered by our many talented members. Julie Lyons celebrates 57(!) years with us as our faithful organist. Eric and Judy continue to lift our spirits with their soulful preludes at the beginning of worship each week.
Beginning in the season of Lent and continuing thereafter, we have restored the practice of celebrating the Eucharist weekly in our worship. While this is not yet the most common practice among Presbyterians, this regular discipline puts us at the leading edge of our denomination’s changing understanding of worship. At the same time, weekly Communion also connects us more deeply with our roots in the historic Reformed faith and the ancient Christian Church. From the earliest days of the Church (even before the New Testament was written), Christians have gathered around the joint ministry of the Word and Sacrament: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42)
Sacramental ministry is especially important for us at North, as so many of our members live with some level of cognitive impairment. Even the best-written sermon can fall flat, but the Eucharist speaks the Gospel to the heart and body, as well as the mind. Sacramental worship reminds us that faith is an all-encompassing mystery that we receive into the very center of our being, not just an idea we get into our head. Each Sunday in the Great Thanksgiving, we remember the saving acts of God in the creation and redemption of the universe, we offer ourselves as a “living sacrifice” to God, and we ask the Holy Spirit to bless and consecrate the elements of bread and wine: trusting that Christ is truly, spiritually present in this meal and feeds our souls with his Body and Blood. Then, one by one, we stand and gather together around his table and hear the ancient words spoken to us personally: “The Body of Christ, given for you. The Blood of Christ, shed for you.” Several people, from long-time members to first-time visitors, have told me after service how meaningful this practice has been for them. On more than one occasion, people have pulled me aside after service and told me that they just received Communion here for the first time in many decades (or sometimes even the first time ever).
Here at North, we have continued to discern how God is calling us to use our building as a ministry resource in this community. For a time, we held open office hours and times of prayer. These contemplative services were attended by multiple parishioners as well as friends from the wider community. Those who came often left touched and refreshed by the Holy Spirit, who meets us in silence and speaks with “a still, small voice.” Sadly, we have not been able to continue this particular practice due to ongoing safety concerns with the building and the neighborhood.
Our kitchen has a brand new floor, ever since a pipe burst under the sink last January, requiring us to replace the old one. We are thankful for the ongoing service of John Liggett snow removal and MRC cleaners for the work they do in maintaining our church. Jim Ruimveld, one of our newest members, has helped with numerous construction projects around the church and its property. Most of all, I would like to thank our many volunteers who have worked so hard to maintain this place as a house of worship and hospitality for all who come. I would especially like to recognize deacons Don Roe and Karen Nast for their help in preparing for our monthly meals and ensuring that the church building is a safe, attractive, and open place for all God’s people each Sunday.
We have had several fascinating education opportunities come before us this year: In February, the Session got a crash course in Presbyterian theology and polity at a day-long leadership retreat. Over the summer, Brent Hepp led an evening book discussion of We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2 by Greg Garrett. Our Tuesday afternoon study group at Stadium Drive Apartments read and discussed Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging by Brennan Manning. Finally, we held an 8-week new members class in the Fall which resulted in eight new members joining our congregation and one person (Deacon Pam Grimm) making a re-affirmation of faith. Larry Braak-Palmer also officially joined our congregation by letter of transfer from First Presbyterian Church of Grand Haven.
We said goodbye this year to Bettye Snelson, who passed away. Bettye was a long-time member of our church who was confined to a nursing home for the last several years of her life and unable to attend worship regularly, but she remains with us in spirit. Bettye was central in the founding and early development of the Togetherness Group, which is still our primary outreach ministry. While I did not get the chance to know Bettye personally, I know she will be missed by many in our community, even as we give thanks for her faithful ministry and witness to the love of Christ through North Church. We also gave a parting blessing to Jade, Pam Grimm’s service dog, who retired from active service and went to live with another family.
In our extended church family, I was honored to be asked to officiate at two weddings and three funerals: for Gloria Sell, Mike Mersino, and Marianne Eschenfelder.
As part of our outreach into the wider world, I was able to set up a new website for our church: www.WeAreNorth.org. On this page, we are able to share articles of spiritual inspiration, mental health information, sermons, church events, and other items of interest. Related to this, I have also established a page for our congregation on Facebook, which performs a similar outreach function through social media.
I have also continued to maintain my personal blog, The Theological Wanderings of a Street Pastor, in which I regularly share about our church’s work in the world. One particular article I wrote ‘went viral’ and has been viewed over 165,000 times by people from all over the world. I have received multiple requests for it to be reprinted in church newsletters and on other websites. I was most proud to learn that one such congregation to reprint my article was the First Parish Church of Plymouth, MA, which is the very same congregation that was founded by the Mayflower Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock in the 1600s.
The power of the web ensures that our congregation’s unique message can be heard, not just by those who show up on a Sunday morning, but by people anywhere, anytime around the world.
In the larger Kalamazoo community, I have been privileged to be part of a number of groups, programs and initiatives. I participate regularly in the Northside Ministerial Alliance, the local branch of the NAACP, Interfaith Strategies for Action & Advocacy in the Community (ISAAC), our presbytery’s Self-Development of People (SDOP) committee, Friends of Transit, and the Faith Alliance of the Kalamazoo Gay & Lesbian Resource Center (KGLRC).
I have represented our church on multiple occasions in TV and print news media. I marched in multiple rallies to protest gun violence, police brutality, and racial discrimination. I sat on televised panel discussions at the local library that explore the place of spirituality in treating mental illness.
On the national level, I got to visit and observe this year’s General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which was held in Detroit. I felt especially privileged to be present in the room as members of the assembly voted to amend the Book of Order (our church constitution) in order to expand the definition of marriage to include same-gender couples. This amendment is still in the process of being ratified by the presbyteries.
I have been invited to participate in discussions to reinvigorate the work of the Presbyterian Serious Mental Illness Network (PSMIN), which has been defunded and dormant for several years. Numerous individuals and congregations around the country are feeling the call to re-engage with this necessary avenue of ministry in our denomination. We are beginning to do so with the support and participation of representatives from our denomination’s national office in Louisville, KY.
Due to my past work experience in the field of substance abuse counseling, I have also been selected by our denomination to serve as part of a two-year task force to research possibilities for Drug Policy Reform in the United States. Many are concerned that current policies do too little to combat the problems of addiction and violence related to the drug trade. The Presbyterian Church is interested in exploring and recommending more creative and effective means to dealing with this very important social issue. I am looking forward to traveling to California next week to participate in the first of these conversations.
We had another fun year at Togetherness Group! I will leave the main report on that ministry to our Coordinator, but would like to point out a couple of highlights:
We got to hear a special concert from Fred Gillen, Jr., a folksinger I know from upstate New York who has toured globally and recorded with artists like Pete Seeger. Fred was delighted to spend an afternoon with us and looks forward to doing so again this coming April!
In the autumn, Togetherness Group had a special visit from Fr. George Makhlouf, a Palestinian Orthodox priest who visited our presbytery to teach us about the inter-ethnic conflict that continues in that part of the world. While he was here, the presbytery was proud to hold North Church up as a shining example of local outreach ministry alongside people who live with mental illness. Fr. George and I enjoyed a deep collegial bond and continue to develop our friendship over long-distances.
One of our biggest challenges of the year came at summer’s end when Kalamazoo County Community Mental Health informed us that they would cease all funding to the Togetherness Group, effective October 1. For the last decade, Togetherness Group has received $18,000 annually in county funds to pay for the salary of our part-time coordinator.
In response to this crisis the session and I acted quickly to ensure that this essential outreach ministry could continue. To save money, we temporarily reduced Togetherness Group’s activities to twice a month, rather than weekly. In the meantime, I traveled throughout the area to garner support from pastors, sessions, and outreach committees of various congregations in multiple denominations. I also spoke with the leadership of the Presbytery of Lake Michigan and was invited to preach at a presbytery meeting and hold open, round-table discussions to raise awareness and support for Togetherness Group. We have also begun working with Halle Greene, a grant writer whose services have been donated and paid for by Central Presbyterian Church of Towson, Maryland. Ms. Greene is helping us to identify possible grant sources and present the Togetherness Group’s work in a way that highlights our most positive and effective attributes.
All in all, the road has been difficult but God has been faithful. By the time the session was ready to pass the budget for 2015, we had raised $12,100 for the Coordinator’s salary. That position has been renewed for an additional 8 months, with the option of continuing for an even longer period of time, as financial support continues to pour in. I am also proud to announce that Togetherness Group will be able to return to meeting weekly as of the beginning of next month.
Above all, it has been my greatest joy to spend time with you as individuals, chatting about your day, exploring theological questions, sharing the joys and concerns of life in homes, hospitals, restaurants, and offices. Being your pastor is a dream-come-true for me. Even on the hard days, I wake up with gratitude that I get to have the best job with the best people in the world.
This has been an amazing year and I look forward to seeing how God will work in our midst in 2015!
I love you,
God loves you,
and there’s nothing you can do about it!