Praying in word and deed

'Remarkable things can happen when Christians focus on serving their neighbors'
July 4, 2008

As I write, the GAFCON meeting has just ended and many inner workings of the Anglican Communion are looking toward the Lambeth Conference due to begin in two weeks. I have recently returned to the office from visits to the Niobrara Convocation in South Dakota, the Diocese of Maryland, and Nuevo Amanacer (a gathering of those involved in ministry to and with Spanish-speakers). The contrast between large anxieties and focused mission efforts seems instructive.

The communiqué at the end of GAFCON held up a series of expectations and demands for the rest of the Communion, yet nowhere in the publicity from that gathering was there any attention to the remarkable mission and ministry of the site of their meeting in the Diocese of Jerusalem. While some were debating and strategizing for structural changes in the Communion, the Diocese of Jerusalem continued to serve the people of Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, teaching children and young people, healing and caring for people of all faiths.

What a remarkable witness to Jesus' words of judgment, "whenever you did it to the least of these, you did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). The work of the diocese is living evidence of the power of reconciliation, across faith boundaries and war zones. Gaza and the West Bank are home to large communities of refugees, both Christian and Muslim, and the diocese helps to ease their lives, as well as continuing to work for peace. The King of Jordan, a Muslim, is a strong supporter of the diocese's ministry, having recently given the diocese a plot of land along the Jordan River for a retreat center. Remarkable things can happen when Christians focus on serving their neighbors.

My experience in South Dakota is another reminder that we often miss those opportunities for mission right outside our doors. Several of the poorest counties in the United States are found on Sioux reservations in South Dakota. The Diocese of South Dakota
is represented in 91 congregations, all but 17 of them on reservations. The plight of the residents of those reservations — refugees in their own ancestral lands — is not unlike the people of the West Bank and Gaza. Schools on the Pine Ridge reservation are among the most violent and dangerous in the country — an expression of the infrequent visits of hope to that place.

Amenities most of us consider basic and fundamental are largely absent — grocery stores, gas stations, cell service, internet access. Those services may be an hour away by car — and gas costs $4 a gallon there, too. Household income in the poorest communities (in homes where several children may live) averages $5,000 a year.

Malnutrition affects many, and some of the churches try to bridge the nutrition gap. Their community gardens fail regularly — frost in June doesn't help, and the drought of the last several years was followed by floods this year. Good news comes in small doses — a long-standing relationship with the Diocese of East Tennessee and a number of congregations elsewhere; and a quietly powerful spirit that is expressed in abiding humor and overwhelming generosity. The Spirit is palpably present, even in a world that often looks like permanent Good Friday.

Floods have devastated vast swaths of the middle section of the United States this year. The recovery will be long and hard, and in some ways like the experience of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. The rest of the world will forget as soon as another natural disaster comes along. The good news is that emergency response has been pretty good, and the dioceses of Iowa, Indianapolis, Fond du Lac, and others are in it for the long haul. You can help through ERD, or by contacting the affected dioceses.

The Diocese of Maryland, in one of its most rural congregations, ministers with Spanish-speakers. Increasing numbers of Episcopal congregations all over are discovering that not everyone in their community has English as a first language. God is sending us neighbors who are difficult for some to recognize — which is what much of Jesus' ministry is about. Who is my neighbor? [Hint: see Luke 10:29-37.] What can you do? Learn, and help to educate your congregation. Advocate with your legislators for a realistic
Middle East peace policy, justice for Native Americans, and a fair immigration policy. Pray for your neighbors, both near and far away.

Do what you can to relieve the suffering of those neighbors, through the ministries of your congregation, ERD, and others. Build partnerships with Jerusalem, South Dakota, other congregations, and figure out how to share some of what you have with those who have a good deal less. And keep praying — in word and deed: "may your kingdom come on earth."