Thanksgiving in the Spirit of Unity

ThanksgivingThe Bible tells us to “give thanks to the Lord, for God is good” (Ps. 107:1)  As we come up to that special holiday set aside for giving thanks, what are you thankful for?

I am thankful for the Body of Christ this season.  I have always had a fondness for the collaborative spirit, and that spirit was especially present several weeks ago during a dinner and auction benefiting Family Promise of Newrock.

The dinner was a time to celebrate two years of Family Promise, raise funds for its continued growth, and to fellowship with people who believe in the cause.  So many of the churches and organizations that make up Family Promise were present, and joy was a special part of the evening.

At one point in the dinner, the master of ceremonies, Darrell Huckaby, had people from each participating church stand and be recognized.  With each church represented–and even those absent–there were cheers and thanksgiving.

If there is anything in Rockdale County that brings people, civic organizations, non-profits and churches together, it is definitely Family Promise of Newrock.  Here is an organization–a local affiliate of a larger, national body–that networks churches together to keep people out of homelessness.

The organization does not just aim to keep families off the streets, but seeks out sustainable housing and employment.  No family ever admitted simply “passed through.”  Each family (and children are always included) sets out weekly goals to save money, find employment (or keep the jobs they have), and receive services that help put a sustainable roof over their heads.

The average family stays in the program for about two months.  Each week, the families stay overnight in a different church, which provides dinner and breakfast and transportation to the Family Promise day center.

The day center gives families a central hub to catch school buses, come together for support, tutoring, and services, and get back on their feet.

At the dinner and auction, one mom who went through the program, Gloria, spoke about her experience.  It was a tearful speech of gratitude.  After facing a situation of poverty and divorce, she and her four children now have a stable home and employment.

Trinity Baptist Church is one of fourteen “host” congregations that house families; but since we are a small church, we require the help of “support” churches for meals during the week and other jobs like driving the van to and from the day center.

I am grateful for the opportunity to be on mission right here in our own backyard, helping the people who are our neighbors in a network of neighbors.

What I also appreciate is working with so many other churches and people that I would not otherwise meet or see.  I’ve worked with people from Milstead Baptist and St. Pius when we renovated the day center; I’ve spent time in prayer with people from Conyers United Methodist; I have made friends with folks at Conyers Presbyterian and Epiphany Lutheran.

I drive to Decatur several times a week to minister in the city, and every time I pass by Smyrna Presbyterian Church (a support church) and Heritage Hills Baptist Church (a host church), I give thanks to God for letting us be united for his Kingdom work here at home.

I thrive on the collaborative spirit that exists in this county for I have seen so many other places and religious communities filled with division or conflict.   I thank God because Family Promise gives us the opportunity to overcome denominational, theological and even racial or social divides.

If you’ve never participated in a Family Promise event, I want to invite you to come out to the 24th Annual Ecumenical Thanksgiving Service this Tuesday, November 26 at 7 PM, hosted by St. Simon’s Church, 1522 Highway 138 in Conyers.

It will include hymns, scripture lessons, and an offering benefiting Family Promise. Light refreshments will be served afterwards.  I hope to see you there!

With the retirement of Father John Kieran, Rockdale will be without one of its finest pastors

Psalm 133 joyfully declares, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” (NRSV)  I have experienced this kind of pleasure whenever I get the opportunity to work with other clergy and Christians in our county.  It is invaluable to be on mission with so many gifted pastors and prophets, missionaries and ministers.

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Recently, in 2011, Father John and I participated in a community Thanksgiving service with St. Simon’s Episcopal Church and Epiphany Lutheran. Funds were collected for Family Promise of Newrock.

Obviously, some are more outstanding than others.  One of the greatest pastors I’ve worked with–and learned from–is Father John Kieran, beloved priest of St. Pius X who recently announced his intention to retire from St. Pius this summer.

I first met Father John back in 2004 when he and I worked together on an inter-faith dialogue related to immigration reform.  It was a contentious time in the life of our nation, and all things immigration was one of the controversial debates going on in the midst of a heated election year.

I had a passion for the topic and grieved that more churches were not weighing in on this important issue, so Trinity arranged for the dialogue to happen with other clergy.  Father John was one of the first ministers on board, and I admired his courage (not many clergy wanted to get involved) to take a stand.  Also, his interest and passion on the subject hit close to home considering that St. Pius had–and has–a significant Hispanic population.

When we held the dialogue, a crowd from St. Pius X attended and outnumbered the Baptists in the room.  It was an honor to be with Father John, hear his own views on the subject (not to mention his passion for justice and human rights), and meet his flock.

Fast-forward about eight years later, when Family Promise of Newrock came upon the scene.  Family Promise, one of the newest non-profit groups in our community, is an organization that works with places of worship in order to house homeless families.  The concept–a simple one that lets so many of us fulfill Christ’s call to serve the poor–attracted the likes of many congregations, St. Pius included.

I joined the board early on; and, in our first year of meeting, Father John was present and passionate about getting the organization off of the ground.  He worked closely with Epiphany Lutheran and the other churches involved; denominational loyalty and Catholic-Protestant issues never became a hindrance or focus in any of the meetings.  He insisted that his church participate in fundraisers year round, including the annual community Thanksgiving worship service.

All this time, I have come to admire Father John’s commitment to his congregation, to our community, and especially to issues surrounding justice, pro-life initiatives, and public policy.  It’s courageous clergy like that who inspire people’s belief in the Living Christ and restore hope in the church.

Whenever I hear someone decry Catholicism from my neck of the woods, I always point to St. Pius X and her Shepherd as a model for Catholic integrity, vibrant missions, and dynamic, ecumenical ministry.

Sure, it hasn’t all been fun and games.  There are many subjects of which Father John and I disagree–there will always be that rich diversity in God’s Kingdom.  And, like this Italian pastor (yours truly) who lets the New York attitude fly every now and then, Father John’s Irish enthusiasm can overwhelm those with whom he disagrees.

Yet, ministry runs deep in that (fighting Irish green!) blood of his, and I have a feeling Father’s retirement won’t mean that he’s leaving the church so much as he is simply bringing the church with him wherever he goes to make new believers, friends, and communities of integrity.

Father John, Trinity Baptist Church and I wish you safe travels, God’s power (to pilot, uphold, and guide you), and blessings for years to come.

Despite election results, God is still in charge

At the writing of this article–on the eve of the election–I do not have any clue who will win the presidential race.  It is a close one, they say, and I can’t begin to guess (nor have the patience to research) who may be leading in the electoral count.  It differs from day to day anyway.

That said, I can only guess what this Friday will be like when this article is published in our dearly beloved newspaper.  I can guess, and hope.

According to Psalm 24:1, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world and all who dwell therein.”  That being the case, I hope that, by now, all of us can take a collective sigh of relief to know that campaign ads, partisan emails, and robocalls will cease.

The election may not turn out the way any one of us had hoped, but we can finally get on with our lives minus the tensions and undertow of the political back-and-forth that’s set an oppressive tone in our national discourse of late.

I hope we realize that things are probably the same today as they were on Monday, and our calling in Christ–to minister to all God’s creation regardless of who is in charge on earth–is very much valid and badly needed.

For starters: The middle class had their day in the spotlight; now it’s time to turn our attention to the needs of the poor among us.  Government aside, we are all responsible to be our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers in this community, and the poor especially.

Family Promise will still need funds and volunteers, the upcoming 5K run for Rockdale Emergency Relief will need support, and our churches will still need you to show up and be counted at all of the events they list on the community bulletin board in the Citizen.

I hope that, by now, we will remember that Jesus is still King of kings and Lord of lords.  Yes, someone will be victorious over the White House, and both houses of Congress may still be controlled by opposing parties, but God is still God, and we are still not God.  We will have to compromise, debate, and work through the political process as best we can, and seek God’s compassionate guidance while not claiming that any of us has a monopoly on knowing God’s will for public policy.

I hope that we realize that our schools need local support because only when we parents and teachers and local leaders work together can we make a real difference in our county’s education system.  If Genesis 1 is correct, then all our children are made in God’s image and they deserve the best care and education we have to offer.

I hope we can slow down.  Last week, I spoke with one of my parishioners who is on short-term disability.  When I asked how she was doing, she said that she slept the first 8 days being home.  I thought she was joking, but she literally slept almost every day for nearly 18 hours a day!

She made a profound statement:  “Joe, I didn’t realize just how exhausted I was until I finally stopped working myself to death and stayed home to get well.  I think we all run on empty.”

I don’t know about you, but the past six months has indeed been exhausting.  I haven’t even watched the news during the campaign, but it seemed that this past political season was especially trying–and tiring.  We have been running on empty here lately, have we not?

I believe it when God’s Word says that all that is in the earth and the world is God’s; so, we can be assured that the Holy Spirit will fill us for a new day.  God will guide us, and God will take care of us.  God will continue to empower us for ministry and give us opportunities to do what needs to be done.  God is God; and, thankfully, even now after the election is over, we are not. Praise God.