My family started going to SP&SA some twenty years ago because of a particularly magical children’s message. We were church-shopping chiefly because Caroline and I hadn’t connected with our previous church’s children’s ministry (my sole memory is of having been put in “time out” for failing to remember to put away my juice and graham crackers, then hysterically crying as a nicer lady carried me around the cavernous building, trying to find my parents). SP&SA wasn’t as big or well-known, but we felt included in the intimate setting, especially once the children were called up to the front of the sanctuary for the children’s message. From what I remember, a net had somehow been affixed above our heads, filled with bread, and toward the end of the message, it let loose, raining little chunks of bread on us: manna from heaven. This was a wholly (holy?) different experience. We stayed.
This spring, the New York Times published an article and graph charting the steeply declining rates of people who call themselves Christian. At the New York Annual Conference this year, we learned that membership in the United Methodist Church has dropped 5% in the past 5 years. I believe that a major reason membership rates are falling is because churches often fail to meet the spiritual needs of their children and young people. They resist the challenging questions posed by young people, and resist being transformed by the new generation.
This was not the case for me at SP&SA, which never fell into the usual pitfalls of adultism: I was never talked down to. Adults didn’t pretend to have all the answers. My questions were treated as valid and important. I was treated as a valued member of the community with something to contribute. Because I was treated this way, I wanted to contribute, and my faith was able to grow in its own time, in its own way. When I started to feel my own call toward ministry, I was supported at every stage. I was given the opportunity to preach. I was given the opportunity to travel to conferences. I was given the space and support to establish green ministries in the church.
Now, as I enter on the path to ordained ministry, I not only feel the full love and support of the community, but I know I have an outstanding example of what a church should be. The church should be a model of love, and a means of love, for the rest of the community. SP&SA is exactly that, a place where love is embodied every day through service and action. A place where courage and activism are not just spoken of, but lived. SP&SA is known in the community for how much we love each other and how much we love all the members of God’s family, even those who are rejected and judged by the rest of society.
As Jesus said: By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. And as the new SP&SA motto says: Just Love.
It is the spirit of this message that I carry with me to seminary in Washington, DC, and beyond. The world needs churches now more than ever. It needs churches that can be a model of loving relationship with God, with each other, and with the earth.
In May, Michelle Obama spoke at the commencement ceremony of my Alma Mater, Oberlin College. 50 years earlier, Martin Luther King, Jr. had addressed the graduating class of 1965, and First Lady Obama echoed his appeal to not sleep through the revolutions of one’s time, saying:
“…Climate change, economic inequality, human rights, criminal justice -– these are the revolutions of your time. And you have as much responsibility and just as much power to wake up and play your part in our great American story. Because it is absolutely still possible to make a difference. The great moments of our history are not decades in our past; they’re happening right now, today, in our lifetimes.”
The church must be fully awake and engaged in the age of climate change that has now unequivocally arrived. It must be a gate and a tool through which God can do her radical, healing, transformative work, and see humanity through to a more peaceful and just era of equally shared abundance.
Three weekends ago I bid farewell to the congregation of SP&SA. It is by no means a permanent farewell, as I will be (relatively) close by in Charlottesville, Va, but the congregation still poured its love out over me, hearing my thoughts (a more informal version of the above), and drawing close to me, laying their hands on me and praying for me. In that moment I felt twenty years of love and support washing over me, and opening the door to the future.
To bring things even more full-circle, one of the scriptures for the service was that of the manna falling from heaven: the same scripture as was read the day I arrived as a child and experienced the warmth of the community for the first time. It’s moments like this that make me aware of, and humbled by, God’s presence in the world, and which give me the spirit to press on with the reckless hope that love and justice will prevail.
So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you SP&SA!