Letter of gratitude and challenge

from outgoing Mission Center President

 

December 30, 2015

 

Dear Friends,
 

As the year comes to an end and the church prepares to embark on a bold new plan for mission in the United States, my mind turns to fond memories of my association with the congregations and people of the Heart of Texas Mission Center and my heart is filled with gratitude for the opportunity you have given me to serve the Community of Christ in north Texas. As I stated at our fall mission center conference, being your mission center president has been the best job in the whole church. The nature of my job is changing significantly but we are not moving away, and I look forward to opportunities to continue to be with you in ministry in your congregations as time allows.

 

Beginning January 1 Joe Postnikoff will be our new mission center president, and as Ron Saur transitions into his new job, Steve Newby will be taking over as our mission center financial officer. I ask an interest in your prayers on their behalf and urge you to support them and the rest of the mission center leadership team fully in their new responsibilities. As self-sustaining mission center leaders Joe and Steve will need your help in carrying out the mission of the church. Please take opportunity to express your appreciation for their willingness to serve us in these important roles. They are highly competent, experienced ministers and I look forward to their ministry among us and on our behalf.

 

As I have been preparing to leave the role I have been so humbled to occupy these past two years, I have felt moved with words of challenge for the congregations and members of the mission center. The political rhetoric in our country has recently become characterized by xenophobia, fear, and divisiveness. This year in Garland and Irving there have been incidents that inflamed anti-Muslim sentiments in our communities. Terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino have led to retaliation against peaceful Muslims throughout our country. The question of accepting Syrian refugees in Texas and the arrival of young, unaccompanied immigrants to north Texas have stretched our understandings of hospitality (Hebrews 13:2).

 

In previous pastoral responses to anti-Muslim incidents in Garland and Irving I called on the members of the mission center to proclaim peace and to affirm the equal worth of every person according to the Enduring Principles of our faith movement. As tensions continue to rise in our communities there is an even greater need for us to share the message of God's love for all people and for all of creation. It can be intimidating to stand up for others, to put ourselves at risk of criticism. Sometimes it is hard to find the right words to say when something needs to be said. Sometimes it is easier to live out our discipleship by example. As I have been struggling to respond myself, I've been contemplating two things in my own discernment about the complex issues of welcoming refugees and immigrants in our communities: first, the testimony of Jesus' own life; and second, the testimony of our own Camp Sionito.

 

It has been overwhelming to watch the news about the refugee crisis in Africa and Europe, and recent national and world events have focused additional scrutiny on the United States' policies regarding refugees. But especially during this Christmas season I have thought a lot about the fact that Jesus and his family had to flee their homeland while he was still a baby (Matthew 2:13-15). Having been warned in a dream about Herod's plot to kill the baby Jesus, Joseph took his family to Egypt: they were political refugees. In response to the modern refugee crisis, and remembering this fact about Jesus' life, many Christian churches have sought to help in refugee relief efforts. The International Rescue Committee and Refugee Services of Texas are two local organizations that help refugees living in our communities to settle into their new homes, find jobs, and support children in new schools, among other things. What might you or your congregation do to be a witness of Christ's peace by supporting these and other organizations?

 

Perhaps the arrival of thousands of young, unaccompanied immigrants at the U.S.-Mexico border captures our attention even more by sheer number and proximity. In October and November alone, more than 10,000 unaccompanied minors were detained-- more than twice as many as last year during the same period. Three Christian campgrounds in Rockwall, Ellis, and Somervell counties have been in the news because they are housing some of these minors, 900 of which have been staying at the Lakewood Camp and Retreat Center near Waxahachie, an Assemblies of God campground. Some of these news reports have inaccurately claimed that this is the first time that church campgrounds have been used to house unaccompanied minors.

 

As a matter of fact, our own Camp Sionito rented to Baptist Children and Family Services (the same organization caring for the kids at Lakewood) and served as a temporary home for unaccompanied minors for about a month in early 2014. Every bunk in every cabin was filled. There was 24 hour supervision and a high level of security. But this year the kids coming to north Texas have garnered the attention of the media, and opinions are divided about the appropriateness of hosting them in our communities. Rick DuBose, North Texas District Superintendent of the Assemblies of God, addressed the controversy when he spoke to a reporter about hosting the children at their campground. He was clear in stating that their decision to host the children was not a show of support of U.S. immigration policy. But "the scripture clearly guides us to take care of orphans, to take care of sojourners, people that are traveling, people that are in difficulty,” he said. You can read or hear the whole story here.

 

Folks at Sionito (Spanish for "Little Zion") have testified to the rightness of their decision to host unaccompanied minors at our church campgrounds. They met kids who had obviously been through a hellish journey from their homelands to the United States, even sharing the story of one young woman who walked onto the campgrounds with no shoes on her feet. In keeping with the campground's goal to be "A Peaceful Refuge Promoting Wholeness," many felt that opening our doors to these immigrant kids was a fulfillment of Christ's mission to abolish poverty and end suffering.

 

Recent news stories about unaccompanied minors at metroplex-area campgrounds have tended to focus on neighbors who are upset that these kids are being housed in their communities. But there are also stories of outreach and care from neighbors near Sabine Ranch and Lakewood. One of my students at Brite this year explained her beliefs about how to treat others, saying, "Christians are my sisters and brothers. Everyone else is my neighbor." Jesus has taught us clearly how to treat our neighbors-- we are to love them as ourselves (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39, Luke 10:27) as God has loved us (John 13:34). While the unaccompanied minors are in the news right now, there are ongoing needs in immigrant communities that we can help with. Catholic Charities of Fort Worth and Dallas are in the forefront of providing that kinds of support. How might you or your congregation find ways to show hospitality to your neighbors by supporting these and other organizations?

 

On this sixth day of Christmas, and as we prepare to start a new year and a new era in the church, I leave you with these words attributed to Laurence Housman (1865-1959):

 

Light looked down and beheld Darkness."Thither will I go," said Light.

Peace looked down and beheld War."Thither will I go," said Peace.

Love looked down and beheld Hatred."Thither will I go," said Love.

So came Light and shone.

So came Peace and gave rest.

So came Love and brought life.

And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

 

May God's love, made fully known in the Incarnation, richly bless you, our congregations and communities, and our world. May we see Christ in the face of our neighbors. And may the Holy Spirit sustain us in our witness in word and deed.


In Christ,
Andy Shelton
President
Heart of Texas Mission Center
Community of Christ