By Frank Decker
Perhaps the most significant work for the Kingdom of God is conducted by people who are unlikely to become famous—those who quietly and faithfully serve in places that most others avoid. You won’t see their photographs on the jacket of a best-selling Christian book; nor do they dwell in pulpits that are visible to thousands. And yet they are custodians of lessons that we must know.
In most cultures it is orphans and street children who represent the most vulnerable and sometimes most invisible members of a society. That’s why over the last few weeks I have compiled a selection of comments—in response to questions I asked them—from six missionary friends who serve in ministry to “children-at-risk” in three different regions of the world. These cross-cultural workers range in mission experience from four to fifteen years.
I’m sharing this simple progression of quotes because in these remarks are reminders of what mission is about when it is transformational, having moved beyond the theoretical and into the reality of revolutionizing broken lives, lessons that can reach back into my own world and speak into situations visible from my own orbit.
I find it refreshing to look up from my Bible study or sermon preparation and just sit at the feet of those who are serving in other contexts and listen.
Here are their entries.
• You know, these kids have faced so much loss and displacement at such a young age. First they may be sent to a shelter, then moved from the shelter to an orphanage, and then at a later age to yet another orphanage.
Popular society here tells our kids that they are worth nothing. “What good can come of an orphan?” So, sometimes we lead them in an exercise to just be quiet and “ask God what he thinks of you.” They are usually shocked by the messages that the Holy Spirit conveys to them about how highly they are thought of by God.
• We serve as foster parents to five former orphans, all of whom in their relatively young lives have experienced more significant life events than most of us ever will. Some never met their earthly father, which often negatively affects their perception of God. Rarely did they hear encouragement. I believe the most effective act of parenting we can do is to encourage them with simple words of affirmation, such as, “I believe in you,” “you are special,” or “I knew you could.”
We thought our kids were too messed up for God to help them. That was before we reached a turning point in our ministry that caused us to realize that we had to depend on the power of God.
• Our orphan ministry is about relationship and loving and bringing some little spot of something pleasant and nice into the kids’ lives…. But what is necessary for there to be actual change in the orphan’s life? Supernatural, divine intervention is the ONLY effective thing. The problems these kids face, the pain in their lives, and the self-destructive survivor instinct that drives every decision they make cannot be encountered by mere human intervention. Their only hope is for the Lord to touch and restore those broken places inside. The cycle has to be broken and only Jesus can do it.
Inner healing will take time, as their level of trust is understandably low, but that is why we believe inviting these children to live with us as family in our home is the best kind of ministry we could imagine. It gives us daily chances to speak words of truth and healing, and enabling the Lord to take back what may have been lost. He does the healing, and He is faithful and able.
A sign of progress for them is not the absence of struggle in their lives, but when they are “struggling successfully.” Early in our ministry we felt that we had to come and rescue them every time that they fell into a “pit.” Now we see growth when they have learned to trust God to lift them out of that pit. When we see this, we know that they are growing.
The last thing these kids need is empty, ritualistic religion. But the greatest tool you can give them is intimacy with God. Intimacy with God destroys the work of the devil.
Missionaries in three regions giving testimony to the same axiom: The reality of the living Jesus brings inner healing, victory in spiritual warfare, and the assurance of one’s adoption as a child of God. These are essential elements for a ministry of transformation, regardless of the context.
By Steve Beard
Despite being a monumental influence on contemporary music, most people outside the small fraternity of blues aficionados have never even heard of Robert Johnson (1911-1938). As a matter of fact, it was not until 70 years after his death that he was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys.
His mark on the history of rock ‘n’ roll, however, is undeniable. “Robert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived,” says legendary guitarist Eric Clapton. “I have never found anything more deeply soulful. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice.”
Robert Johnson’s life was tragic, miserable, and short. He never knew his father. His birth was the result of an extramarital affair. He wandered around the South, using aliases to keep one step ahead of the law. When he got married as a young man, both his wife and baby died during childbirth. After that, he drank hard and chased women. In “Preaching Blues,” he sings, “the blues is a low-down achin’ heart disease/ Like consumption killing me by degrees.”
Johnson also was a certifiable musical genius, able to do things with the guitar that no one else had done. Even though he only recorded 29 songs in the mid-1930s, he mesmerized fans all over the South.
Because he had mastered the guitar seemingly overnight, the rumors began to whirl. It was said that he went out to the crossroads and traded his immortal soul for the ability to play the guitar. Like a showman, Johnson never contradicted the rumors. With songs like “Me and the Devil Blues” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” as well as lyrics that dealt with damnation and salvation, he let the legend take on a life of its own.
Five years ago, my best friend Troy and I traveled to the crossroads where Robert Johnson supposedly waited for his encounter with the Devil. Blues fans like us from all over the world travel to the intersection of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
In the South, the juke joints are packed on Saturday night and the clapboard churches are crowded on Sunday morning. The Robert Johnson legend of the crossroads fits right into a vibrant worldview of angels, demons, heaven, hell, sin, and atonement. At the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, you can even buy a t-shirt that reads, “Lord, forgive Robert Johnson.”
The metaphor of the crossroads is not reserved for yesteryear blues vagabonds looking for fame, fortune, and females. Rather, it carries a universal draw to anyone looking for a second chance. The crossroads represent an opportunity to get back on the right course, regain integrity, and give life another shot. It often defines our journey with grit, soul, and drama.
In honor of Robert Johnson’s memory, Eric Clapton hosts the Crossroads Guitar Festival every year. He actually knows a thing or two about crossroads. At one point in his life, Clapton was in the middle of a tour in Australia and he couldn’t stop shaking. “I’d reached the point where I couldn’t live without a drink and I couldn’t live with one,” he wrote in his fascinating autobiography.
At the time, Clapton was a new father and he knew he had to get back into alcohol treatment—especially for the sake of his son Conor. “I thought no matter what kind of human being I was, I couldn’t stand being around him like that,” he wrote. “I couldn’t bear the idea that, as he experienced enough of life to form a picture of me, it would be a picture of the man I was then.”
Clapton had been to rehab and tried to control his drinking, but once again it was controlling him. “I now had two children, neither of whom I was really administering to, a broken marriage, assorted bewildered girlfriends, and a career that, although it was still ticking over, had lost its direction. I was a mess.”
His love for his son proved to be his prime motivation. Clapton wanted things to be different for Conor from what he had experienced as a boy. “I had to break the chain and give him what I had never really had—a father,” he wrote. Clapton had grown up believing that his grandparents who raised him were actually his parents. His childhood was miserable and he was scrambling to make sure history didn’t repeat itself.
Ticking off the days in rehab, he came to the terrifying realization that nothing had really changed about his desires and that he was going to go back outside the safe confines of the treatment center completely unprepared to deal with his addiction.
“The noise in my head was deafening, and drinking was in my thoughts all the time,” he wrote. “It shocked me to realize that here I was in a treatment center, a supposedly safe environment, and I was in serious danger. I was absolutely terrified, in complete despair.”
“At that moment, almost of their own accord, my legs gave way and I fell to my knees. In the privacy of my room I begged for help. I had no notion who I thought I was talking to, I just knew that I had come to the end of my tether, I had nothing left to fight with,” Clapton confesses. “Then I remembered what I had heard about surrender, something I thought I could never do, my pride just wouldn’t allow it, but I knew that on my own I wasn’t going to make it, so I asked for help, and, getting down on my knees, I surrendered.”
That epiphany took place in 1987. Eric Clapton just recently turned 65 years old, but more importantly he has now celebrated 23 years of sobriety.
It took only a few days after that experience for him to realize that something profound had taken place within his life. “An atheist would probably say it was just a change of attitude, and to a certain extent that’s true, but there was much more to it than that,” he conveys. “I had found a place to turn to, a place I’d always known was there but never really wanted, or needed, to believe in.
“From that day until this, I have never failed to pray in the morning, on my knees, asking for help, and at night, to express gratitude for my life and, most of all, for my sobriety,” Clapton continued. “I choose to kneel because I feel I need to humble myself when I pray, and with my ego, this is the most I can do.
If you are asking why I do all this, I will tell you… because it works, as simple as that. In all this time that I’ve been sober, I have never once seriously thought of taking a drink or a drug. I have no problem with religion, and I grew up with a strong curiosity about spiritual matters, but my searching took me away from church and community worship to the internal journey. Before my recovery began, I found my God in music and the arts, with writers like Hermann Hesse, and musicians like Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and Little Walter. In some way, in some form, my God was always there, but now I have learned to talk to him.”
In 1991, Clapton’s four-year-old son died from an accidental fall from a Manhattan highrise. Understandably, this crossroads devastated him.
“I cannot deny that there was a moment when I did lose faith, and what saved my life was the unconditional love and understanding that I received from my friends and my fellows in the 12-step program,” he writes. The song “Tears In Heaven” emerged out of the anguish of the tragedy in order to help him cope.
Clapton would go to his 12-step meetings and people would get him coffee and let him vent. On one occasion, he was asked to chair the session on the third step—the one about handing your will over to the care of God. During the session, he recounted the mystical experience he had when he fell to his knees and asked for help to stay sober. “I told the meeting that the compulsion was taken away at that moment, and as far as I was concerned, this was physical evidence that my prayers had been answered,” he relates. “Having had that experience, I said, I knew I could get through this.”
Much to his surprise, a woman came up to Clapton after the meeting and said, “You’ve just taken away my last excuse to have a drink.” He asked her what she meant. “I’ve always had this little corner of my mind which held the excuse that if anything were to happen to my kids, then I’d be justified in getting drunk,” she said. “You’ve shown me that’s not true.”
Clapton came to the sudden realization that perhaps there was a way to turn his excruciating pain and tragedy into something that could help someone else. “I really was in the position to say, ‘Well, if I can go through this and stay sober then anyone can.’ At that moment I realized that there was no better way of honoring the memory of my son.”
Not everyone responds at the crossroads of pain and tragedy by finding peace kneeling in prayer. But everyone has been given a choice and an opportunity—from Robert Johnson to Eric Clapton to you and to me. There often comes a time when decisions must be made, courage must be summoned, and change must occur. For some it is getting off dope, for others it is getting right with God, and still for others it is just choosing to be a decent human being.
Robert Johnson died at age 27 after three days of pain and agony. Apparently, he was given moonshine laced with strychnine by a jealous husband who believed that Johnson was messing with his wife. Even though there are three different graveyards that claim his bones, he most likely is buried in the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church cemetery in Greenwood, Mississippi.
Etched in the granite tombstone are the words that Johnson supposedly scribbled on his death bed: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem I know that my Redeemer liveth and that He will call me from the grave.”
The lines between fact, fiction, and Robert Johnson are blurry at best. What we know for sure is that crossroads have always held out the offer of a shot at new hope, even if we are approaching the exit gate of life.
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
Cheers and Jeers
In reading your recent editorial in Good News titled “A Judicious Decision for United Methodists” (January/February 2010), I must strongly disagree with the way and manner with which you presented me in your article.
You were incorrect in attributing to me a quote you cited in the previous Judicial Council’s Decision 1032. At no time in the internal process of responding to an Administrative Complaint in the Virginia Conference, or in speaking at an oral hearing of the Judicial Council when this case was considered, or in submitting my written response, did I ever use the words in the phrase you quoted. You have collapsed my role, the written opinion of the Judicial Council Decision 1032, and your own opinion about consequences of this case into your referencing me and the use of the quote. Had you exercised the courtesy of contacting me prior to quoting me in your editorial, I would gladly have had conversation with you regarding this matter. I am convinced that had you taken that step, you would not have misquoted me or misrepresented me in your article.
Bishop Charlene Kammerer
Virginia Annual Conference
Editor’s note: In his January/February Good News editorial, Rob Renfroe commended the United Methodist Judicial Council for “its good work” in ruling on the issue of homosexuality within our denomination “and for allowing the General Conference to speak for the church.”
As a means of giving a context to his commentary, the Rev. Renfroe referenced a previous decision by the Judicial Council—our denomination’s version of the Supreme Court. “Decision 1032,” he wrote, “determined that Virginia Annual Conference Bishop Charlene Kammerer was wrong when she ruled that the pastor of a church did not possess ‘the right and responsibility to exercise responsible pastoral judgment in determining who may be received into church membership of a local church.’”
We want to clarify that the italicized quotation was not directly quoting Bishop Kammerer, but was quoting the question that was put to her at the Virginia Annual Conference and that she ruled against. We apologize for the misunderstanding.
Thank you for Dr. N.T. Wright’s essay, “Hope in the Midst of Trouble” (March/April 2010). It reminds the Church in succinct ways that we dwell for a time between the bookends of Jesus’ resurrection and the consummation of history, a role that indeed calls us beyond merely “dwelling” to the daily fulfillment of the Great Commission.
In other words, we the body of Christ must allow no room for copping out on the driving needs of this day; neither do we work at it as those who have no hope. So, the Church must be Christ in the world.
I thank you for supplying this article and in it, a nugget of inspiration for a post-Easter exhortation to my congregation.
River Hills UM Church
In your March/April 2010 issue in the article “For the Cause of Unity,” you state, “We respectfully ask that if leaders of our renewal groups have ever used derogatory language to refer to persons whose beliefs or practices differ from ours that we be given that information. We will personally ask them to apologize and make whatever amends are necessary.”
Well, well, well. Here is your “mote in your own eye” moment. In this very article you yourselves do exactly that. Under your subhead “Tension Points” on pages 13-15, you repeatedly and sneeringly use excessive derogatory language toward LGBT Christians and those who affirm them. For example:
• “a self-avowed practicing homosexual person”
• “vocal proponents of the acceptance of homosexual practice”
• “sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage, with no commitment or covenant expected”
All of the above are most cruel and unChristian terms, and for the use of this hateful language you should be sorely ashamed and make restitution as you promised. Another’s capacity to love is not a “practice” and to contemptuously refer to folks as such is exactly what you made a specific commitment to correct. People who affirm our LGBT brothers and sisters are hardly advocates of any sort of sexual act, as your nastily worded manifesto wickedly proclaims. You, whose ranks surely include the divorced and remarried, are in no tenable ethical position to judge any others’ sexualities and loves, and your appeal to prurience and gutter language there is reprehensible.
Your entire article only advocates unity under your dominance and such will not and should not occur. Your vicious complaint about LGBT musicians, for example, is beyond the pale. You have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that by publishing this screed you are not at all interested in unity, only in your own raw, naked power to exercise the hatred in your villainous hearts.
As upsetting as your horrible article was, I thank you for giving me the inspiration to fight the corrupt power you represent.
George Nixon Shuler
Junction City, Kansas
Head of the Church
No improvement or reorganization plan will save the UM except one that puts Jesus back at the head of the Church, denies universalism and pluralism, and stops the disregard for the person in the pew. I am inclined to think it is too late, however.
E. Louise Parker
Fort Worth, Texas
Lay Witness Mission
What a wonderful surprise when I opened the January/February 2010 issue of Good News to the article about Lay Witness Missions.
My husband Stan, now deceased, and I spent 20 years going on missions with different coordinators. George Wickes of Dayton, Indiana, and John Nicholson from Joliet, Illinois, were most frequent.
We went on more than 100 missions during that time. For some of the missions, we led the singing. Music was a big part of missions. It was a spiritual renewal for us and the many people we met. People were saved and others rededicated their lives to Christ. It was like a mini-revival each weekend. Thanks again for the article.
Example of Jesus
I am saddened that you—and so many others within the United Methodist Church—have chosen to exclude and thereby cause pain to homosexual persons, when I am sure you must know that Jesus would do no such thing were he in your place.
I hope you will not consider what society has taught you to think about homosexual persons and how they should be treated, but what the example of Jesus teaches us. As is often the case, the two differ starkly from one another, and the more socially acceptable course is not always the right one.
I will be praying for you.
Right to speak
Thank you for an enlightening article, “Afghanistan and the United Methodist quandary” (January/February 2010). Both my husband and I are United Methodists and have great issues with the social justice group. With a son currently in Afghanistan and a career military soldier, we are proud of his service as well as the service of other brave young men and women who risk their lives to protect our lives and freedoms. They fight so we as citizens can have differing points of view. This does not seem to be recognized by some who participate in ugliness for anyone who disagrees with their position. This seems a bit hypocritical on their part. However; they have a right to speak. I do as well, without being accosted as a church member in another United Methodist church did to me in the sanctuary with a chastisement on why I would let my son go in the military—and in a not very Christian manner.
This faction has taken over a huge part of our church policies as the only way to approach a problem or issue. If you disagree, you are the problem. Thank you for your response to this error, which could be thought of as deliberate. Yes, we are to love our enemies, but we are not to allow them to take our freedoms and especially our freedom to worship. This is the basic reason for having a strong defense system. If we do not, we will not be able to worship and honor our God and his son Jesus Christ.
Your view of United Methodist unity is Good News? It sounds more like law than gospel, the letter than the spirit, fear and not freedom (“For the Cause of Unity,” March/April 2010).
Since you do not like the kinds of theologies held in high places and the directions they lead, you would replace them with your own “generous orthodoxy.” I have never seen any orthodoxy, generous or otherwise, that was not meant to clobber some heretic as defined by the orthodox. One person’s generous orthodoxy is another person’s heresy trial. For that reason, I also oppose removing the guaranteed appointment, since it protects freedom of the pulpit.
You belabor the emotional issue of homosexuality, while claiming to be more concerned about basic theological issues. In particular, you don’t seem to like the United Methodist quadrilateral of equal authority for scripture, tradition, reason, and experience. Simply objecting it is not what Wesley taught begs the question: Why should it be?
Pressure to change theology with far reaching consequences has been effective. Scripture is no longer the first among equals, as in the 1972 UM theological statement, but assumes authoritative dominion over tradition, reason, and experience in a separate section in the 1988 version. They are only to be used to interpret the authority of scripture. This is called the dogmatic method in theology. You, too, seem to be using the “water dripping on the rock” tactic to wear down your opposition and replace the regnant historical method in theology with your dogmatic starting point. In one regard, you are also right. There can be no middle ground between the two methods.
Telling United Methodists what they have to believe cuts off our attempts at faithful discussion and determination of new forms for twenty-first century Christianity and claims an absolute certainty, which many of us find arrogant and obscurantist. I follow the model of Plato’s dialogues where everyone gets their say and everyone is free to decide who is right.
In short, the effect of adopting your dogmatic position would be inauthentic to our own heritage and force many of us, including our brightest, questioning youth, to look for a new church or drop out of church altogether. Maybe that is what you want. Or worse: tongue-in-cheek acceptance of a creed just to keep our jobs or a place to belong. Loss of intellectual integrity is a high price to pay for a clearer, but narrow-minded, institutional identity. It is certainly not “Good News” that we can get excited about. Nor is it a guarantee of unity and church growth.
Southminster UM Church
By Elizabeth Glass Turner
The Los Angeles Times ran a photo depicting a bloodied corpse lying prone on the ground, a victim of the infamous drug cartel violence in Juárez, Mexico. The caption described Tierra Nueva, the area where the shooting occurred, as “a graffiti-stained neighborhood of dirt streets and concrete shacks in south Ciudad Juárez.”
But that’s only part of the story.
Juárez, commonly known as one of the deadliest cities in the world, has mourned 4,900 of its citizens killed in just the last two years. Nestled at the crux of New Mexico, Texas, and the Mexican state of Chihuahua, its sister city across the U.S. border is El Paso, Texas. Two prominent drug cartels fight for control of Juárez, leaving thousands dead—often innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire. According to The El Paso Times, the FBI fears that El Paso gangs may, “join the cartel power struggle”—bringing the war onto U.S. soil.
A frequently overlooked subplot in the violence, Juárez is what author Daniela Paniagua calls the “city of femicide of the western hemisphere.” She continues, “the people of Juárez set about constructing their own monument—a series of pink crosses memorializing ‘the Labyrinth of Silence,’ a desolate area where hundreds of women have been ‘disposed’ of over the last decade. Gazing across the Labyrinth, a ‘massive monument of Christ on the Cross’ stands erect, symbolizing faith and protection. Locals question if the victims have looked up toward that depiction of Christ’s suffering that towers above their brutally beaten bodies and pleaded for His mercy. This Mexican border-town, founded on prosperity and faith, is estranged from its original principles and has become known as the City of Lost Women.”
In addition to the stark number of dead men and women, the systematic intimidation of citizens and law enforcement officers alike includes burning houses in the Valley of Juárez, and—early this April—a Catholic church.
One source explains that the “drug war in Mexico has its roots in many of Mexico’s other problems—lack of economic development, Mexico’s authoritarian past, its celebration of machismo, and its weak civil society and compromised rule of law.”
Bridges & Rites of passage
Plenty of contributing factors complicate the gritty violence that plagues Juárez, but one factor that propels the violence exchanged among drug cartels continues to be machismo—the sense of one’s own exaggerated manhood. Machismo is often affirmed by gang acceptance through rites of passage that frequently include violent crime.
A year ago, CNN reported that, “the violence involves beheadings, running gunbattles, and discoveries of mass graves and huge arms caches. Police and public officials have been gunned down in broad daylight. The cartels’ enforcers boldly display recruitment banners in the streets.” The report further elaborated that, “the beheadings started at the same time the beheading videos started coming out of Iraq. It was simple machismo. The Sinaloa [cartel] guys started putting up videos on YouTube of them torturing….”
While gangs actively recruit young men in Juárez and other border towns, other high school students attempt to cross the bridge daily from Juárez to El Paso, where they study. Parents pray for their children’s safety and hope they will be spared a life of violence.
A couple of decades ago, one such boy was Jose Luis Portillo, one of ten children raised in Juárez. He earned enough money selling cigarettes on the streets to attend a United Methodist high school in El Paso, where he learned English and felt called to ministry. After he graduated from John Wesley Seminary in Monterrey, Mexico, Portillo worked at a church in Juárez. Volunteers helping to build the church saw people living in cardboard houses. When they asked how they could help, Portillo partnered with Volunteers in Mission to build concrete block houses for the families.
While the murder rate in Juárez escalated, Jose Luis Portillo established Proyecto Abrigo (“project shelter”) in the southern Juárez neighborhood of Tierra Nueva—the same “graffiti-stained” neighborhood where the Times photographed a casualty of the drug cartel violence. Since 1992, Portillo has been responsible for the construction of more than 1,000 small block houses for the poorest citizens.
The bridge Jose had taken to school every day, back and forth across the U.S./Mexico border, helped to steer him away from becoming another faceless cartel foot soldier.
From Juárez to The Woodlands
Eleven hours east, the Rev. Rob Renfroe had a conversation with a man at his church—a congregation Rob had served for about a year at the time. “He told me a story about a man who was in our church. The man was vice president of a bank in downtown Houston,” recalls Renfroe, the Pastor of Adult Discipleship at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, as well as President and Publisher of Good News. “He’d been in church for a number of years and had never really connected deeply spiritually, was driven to succeed, and used alcohol to help him cope with life. He ended up losing his job, his family, and then finally ended up living on the streets, and died disconnected from everyone who had ever cared about him because of his alcoholism.”
“Rob, we had this guy in our church and nothing ever really grabbed him spiritually and changed his life,” the man said to Renfroe. “And we’ve got other guys sitting in the pews, they come and do their Sunday morning duty, but the rest of their life is disconnected from their spirituality, and we need to do something.”
The result of this conversation was the initiation of the men’s ministry “Quest,” designed to engage men who were marginally involved in church—at best. This exploration of manhood and faith isn’t as simple as it might appear at first.
“Part of the challenge is to be able to talk to guys in a way that makes them feel comfortable as men,” Renfroe explains, “that doesn’t make them feel like they have to fit in to some stereotype of the good little Sunday school boy, but that lets them be real men and enjoy things that men enjoy in a way that honors God.”
Renfroe is the first to acknowledge that he might not be the typical “guy’s guy.” He says he doesn’t hunt or fish or fix anything around the house, but he has discovered that “if you challenge guys and treat them as if they are real people with heart hungers and deep needs and a desire to be better—if you let them be men, then God is able to do great things.”
In stark contrast to the bloody streets of Juárez, Quest addresses men’s need to be both godly and masculine through an eclectic array of hands-on ministries, meetings, and conferences. While Quest has convened twice a year for eight years—holding meetings for eight weeks in the fall and eight weeks in the spring—small groups allow men to continue to grow their practices.
Additionally, a ministry called “Destination Manhood” pairs volunteer mentors with at-risk youth. Although the original commitment for mentors was to spend an hour a week with a young man, activities have expanded to include camping, fishing, and trips to college sporting events so that young people can imagine themselves pursuing a college education. In a haunting reminder of the young men targeted by drug cartels, Renfroe explains, “one of the boys has even spent time in jail during the time that one of our men has mentored him, and really does need someone there with him. These are boys who would be lost if one of the guys in our church wasn’t taking a real, active role in his life.”
The men of Quest also participate in “Rehab for Humanity,” a service to the elderly and poor in which volunteers provide home repairs. After one Quest meeting in which 58 groups of men were given $100 to “invest in the Kingdom,” one group that had decided to provide home repairs instead felt called to partner with a community organization to build an entire new home for the recipient.
The best gift
But it’s the trips to Juárez that connect the men from The Woodlands UM Church to Jose Luis Portillo and Proyecto Abrigo. Mission trips are not new to The Woodlands. Under the leadership of Dr. John Hull, the church’s missions pastor, the congregation sends more than a dozen teams annually all over the world. But Renfroe and Hull felt that the trip to Juárez could have a huge impact on the men of the church. The first 100 men from The Woodlands UM Church went on the four-day excursion in 2007.
Renfroe describes Tierra Nueva as a place where “thousands of people live in little hovels outside the city in desert slums. They live out there and the government sells them a little piece of land for $4000. Interestingly, they pay per square foot, with no electricity, water, or sewage, the very same amount we pay here in The Woodlands per square foot. Yet The Woodlands is a high-end, planned community. Most of the people who come there are from southern Mexico. They come to Juárez for the ‘opportunity’ to work for a dollar an hour in the factories there on the border. That is a step up for them, so they save their money to make a down payment on this land. Then they build shelters—from cardboard, pallets, plywood.”
The men from Quest are aware of the urgency behind the work trips: they have heard about the dangers to the residents, not only of Juárez cartel violence, but also of the extreme desert temperatures. Because so many shelters are patched together with wood and other flammable material, open flame fires are not allowed to heat the homes during the frigid desert nights. Renfroe recounts learning that a baby froze to death one night because the family could not heat their dwelling. With the construction of a rudimentary concrete block house, however, residents are able to use propane to ward off the freezing temperatures.
The Proyecto Abrigo houses, built by teams like the one from The Woodlands, measure 12’ by 24’. When the 100 men arrive, they are organized into teams, which are aided by maestros, who show the team how to mix mortar and cement, and how to lay the blocks. Often, when able, the family assists the team with the construction of their new home. When the project is complete, the team and the family celebrate a house dedication.
More than 350 men from Quest have been a part of four trips to Juárez where the work teams have built 30 houses, in addition to working on a school.
“Many guys express their spirituality by doing with their hands, and often churches have a hard time of finding a way for men to serve God in a way that feels natural, that uses their masculinity. This trip has been very beneficial to our guys, in addition to meaning a lot to the people who live there. It helps fulfill that natural desire to provide and protect that’s kind of built into men. They’re really grateful for the opportunity.”
Whatever distance exists between Juárez and The Woodlands has evaporated for Bob Leilich. “This is the first time I’ve been on a mission trip like this,” he says. “I’ve been all over the world and I have seen poverty. There’s always been a disconnect to me to see poverty—there’s so much of it you tend to ignore it. Well, I found out on this trip that these are real people. They are happy people.”
One experience continues to haunt the volunteers. “There was a family who’d been living in a cave before they got their little shack. Their home had been flooded when a river flooded its banks,” reports Renfroe. “They got enough money together to buy this little piece of land. So we built this concrete block house for them. One of the great things is that they can now have a propane fire to stay warm at night. At the dedication, we gave them gifts, finished praying, and this old man is standing there. And his kids are having a house built next to him, and he held up his Bible, and said, ‘This—this is the best. Out of all God’s gifts, this is the best.’ That really spoke to us; it reminded us that for people who don’t have anything, what gets them through is the sense that God is with them, that God loves them.”
In the midst of the valuable outreach that Quest teams and others provide for Juárez residents caught in the crossfire, a new issue has emerged. Recently, the State Department renewed a travel warning to U.S. citizens bound for Mexico, especially for the northern states like Chihuahua. The recent murders of Americans working at a U.S. Consulate in Mexico have only fueled fears. An article by Mallory McCall in The United Methodist Reporter describes the growing problem faced by churches that have sent work teams in the past.
“In light of [the] violence, some churches are rethinking their south-of-the-border mission projects, and some have eliminated trips to the Juárez area altogether… Flower Mound United Methodist Church in Texas, for instance, has not taken its annual family mission trip to Juárez in two years. ‘It breaks my heart not to go back, but we just don’t think it’s safe,’ said Mike Farmer, a member who has been to Juárez 10 times and helped build 25 houses.”
The Woodlands United Methodist Church is still considering whether to continue sending the Quest work teams to Juárez. “The terrible thing with all this violence is not just that drug dealers are killing drug dealers, but that innocent people get killed. But what’s happened to the people who live in these little hovels is that groups like ours are not going down there,” says Renfroe. “Many, many churches cancelled last year. They’re not getting homes because of this kind of violence. It really shows you how violence spreads out and hurts and creates victims who aren’t in any way connected with the drug trade.”
Janet Hunt, director of community ministries at Suncreek UM Church in Allen, Texas, told The United Methodist Reporter that “it’s the joy and gratitude of the people that make the risks worth it. ‘They live around this fear and violence that they hear about every day on their news, but yet they’re just worshiping the Lord,’ she said. ‘It humbles you and makes you realize what’s important in life.’ She’s concerned that peoples’ needs will go unmet as volunteers back out. In 2009 Proyecto Abrigo set a goal to build 200 cinderblock homes; instead they built just 21.”
Juárez has proven to be a cataclysmic training ground both for the machismo of drug cartel soldiers and for the deepening appreciation of masculinity as a unique gift of God to the men of Quest. As for the families of Tierra Nueva? For the time being, they, along with the rest of Juárez, will have to continue trusting that God will be their shelter in the midst of the cartel chaos.
Elizabeth Glass-Turner is a freelance writer. Passionate about robust, sacramental faith and avid reader of murder mysteries, she resides in central Kentucky with her husband, newborn baby, and two dogs.
Quest, the men’s ministry at The Woodlands, is now in its eighth year. All of the Quest materials can be found at www.thewoodlandsumc.org/content/quest-message-archive.
Good News statement on the health care bill
Commentary by Rob Renfroe and Walter Fenton
Good News believes faithful United Methodists are people passionately committed to Scriptural holiness, and that most assuredly includes our founder John Wesley’s emphasis on “social holiness.” Rank and file United Methodists care deeply about the health and welfare of people throughout this country, and in deeds large and small, find many ways to demonstrate that care. Certainly all United Methodists look forward to a time when all Americans possess adequate health care.
However, some have confused support of the specific plan recently passed by Congress as evidence of an individual’s true commitment to health care for all. While some United Methodists consider the health care reform bill signed into law by President Barack Obama as a political triumph, others find the legislation disconcerting and disappointing.
First, we are disappointed that a number of pro-life members of Congress abandoned their commitment to language they themselves insisted upon in the House bill approved this past November. The promise of an executive order that no public funds will be used to pay for abortions simply does not have the same force as a law duly debated and passed by the legislative branch, and signed by the President. As Wall Street Journal columnist Bill McGurn recently wrote, “all that has to happen for…federal dollars to start flowing for abortion is for NARAL Pro-Choice America to sponsor a woman demanding an abortion. The center will initially deny funding, citing the executive order. The woman will then sue, arguing that abortion is a part of health care. Given the legal precedents, and the lack of a specific ban in the actual legislation, the courts will likely agree.”
Second, we regret that a bipartisan approach to health care reform was not adopted. When a bill of this magnitude is passed with the slimmest of majorities and only single party support, it appears that doing business as usual has not changed. In short, the way this bill was passed only feeds the current distrust and low regard many Americans have for Washington.
Third, we find it very difficult to support legislation that does not deal forthrightly about the costs involved. What kind of crushing debt will future generations have to bear? It appears that those who promoted the bill and voted for it either postponed to another day many of the tax increases necessary to fund the massive plan, or they naively—we hope not cynically—convinced themselves that future congressional representatives will have the integrity and courage to tell the American people the truth about the plan’s actual costs. Politically speaking, it is easy to vote for health care for all, but it is far more difficult to honestly explain how we will pay for it.
Finally, we are deeply disappoint-ed with the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS). Rather than engage the issue of health care reform in a manner representing the hopes and concerns of all United Methodists, it has once again embraced and advocated for the most partisan and polemical position. Unfortunately, the Board chose to feverishly work for a particular plan that divided United Methodists. A more thoughtful board would have simply promoted the goal of health care for all, but would not have sided with one particular party’s plan. By so publicly making common cause with a partisan plan, many church members will view GBCS more as an agent of a particular political party, and less as an agent of the kingdom of God.
Throughout the debate, GBCS failed to seriously acknowledge or fairly represent other proposals for meeting the health care needs of Americans. Once again, GBCS alienated thousands of United Methodists, and caused many to wonder whether the Board can ever fairly represent them in the public square, even going so far as to advocate for the most extreme iterations of the bill that included federal funding for abortion.
Indeed, despite GBCS’s self-congratulations, it actually failed to convince most United Methodist congressional representatives to support the bill. Forty-four United Methodists currently serve in the House of Representatives, 26 voted in opposition to the bill, and only 18 voted for it. In other words, nearly 60 percent of United Methodist representatives opposed the bill. We are confident that split is far more representative of United Methodists than the far-left views advocated by GBCS throughout the 14-month debate over health care reform.
Rob Renfroe is the President and Publisher of Good News. Walter Fenton is the Chief Operating Officer of Good News.