Caring for the Least of These
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
Rockford Urban Ministry 53RD Annual Dinner
Court Street UMC, Rockford Illinois
June 19, 2015
September 2014, my Cabinet and I visited one of my small, unchartered mission churches in rural Southern Illinois. It is named Cobden UMC aka Jesus es El Senor. Located in the heart of apple orchards serviced annually by migrant workers picking apples, Cobden has earned a big reputation “caring for the least of these.” What they were doing compelled us to come and see. During our tour, the Senior Pastor, his wife and the male associate shared wonderful testimonies about the ministry. They talked about Bible Study in various homes, dynamic worship, an active food and clothes pantry and providing shelter for the homeless! For Hispanic persons in the hospital and or caught on the wrong side of the law, the pastoral staff have functioned as interpreters. Work teams from across the country have upgraded their facilities and learned about the life and work of their Hispanic brothers and sisters. Most of all, Jesus es El Senor has ministered to all God’s people regardless of race, creed, color or immigration status. In short, they have modeled Jesus’ vision of ministry summarized in Luke 4:17-19. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Is this not part of Rockford Urban Ministries? God has supplied the needs of RUM for 53 years while you’ve cared for the least of these? In this community, RUM has made a significant difference. Your past and present, its longevity, have given fresh meaning to several notions: the power of vision and the power of ministry. To do another fifty-three, God’s help is required. So, we’ve paused tonight to give thanks and boldly ask, on RUM’s behalf, for the anointing spirit of God to provide a future with hope. Let’s talk briefly about RUM and two of the forces that impel it forward: vision and ministry.
THE POWER OF VISION
At the genesis of his ministry, Jesus shows us the power of vision. Hometown folks, meeting in the synagogue on the Jewish Shabbat, listen for Jesus’ vision of ministry. What we discover is startling. Jesus, who has the divine capacity to create the most unique ministry on earth, identifies Isaiah’s vision of ministry as the one he will follow. Even our Lord seems to say, why re-invent the wheel. Borrowing good ideas is a good thing.
So our Lord Jesus informs folks in Nazareth that his ministry will be spirit driven, justice bound, God favored and directed toward a ministry with the poor. While religious jurisprudence, functioning as a high priest and becoming a tax collector are highly favored in certain circles, our Lord casts his lot with the “least of these.” Why? Our Lord has an aspirational goal to achieve for his Father, namely “to love the world” and “save it.” (John 3:16) Some critics point out that his love strategy was less than stellar. To use a cross instead of a sword to change the world didn’t seem very relevant or possible. Is the pen mightier than the sword? Whatever Isaiah’s vision of ministry - adopted by Jesus Christ - now 2800 years old, still provides a model for ministry regardless of the century.
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, suggested that the Methodist movement grew exponentially when he ventured beyond the four walls of the church. Wesley used Field Preaching outdoors to appeal to the unchurched and/or the working poor. Men, women and children came to Jesus by the thousands. Wesley cited Luke 4:17-19 as the visionary spirit driven text of Isaiah used by Jesus and now him to launch this new ministry labeled Field Preaching. In the 18th century, Pentecost broke out, one more time.
Two hundred years later, James Cone sparked a school of thought that became immensely popular. It was food for thought readily consumed by persons locked in the iron handcuffs of poverty and race. Liberation Theology, or Black Theology, and Black Power gave a theological foundation for new activism. Just like Jesus, they wanted to “let the oppressed go free.” So did Merlyn Northfelt.
At the outset of the sixties, a vision was stirring in the heart, mind and spirit of Rev. Merlyn Northfelt, Rockford District Superintendent. Making appointments, collecting apportionments, being a pastor to the pastors and interpreting the Book of Discipline were not enough. As if he foresaw the role of the D.S. as the chief missional strategist, Merlyn Northfelt created Rockford Urban Ministries in 1962. It addressed social issues in the Black Community few of which have been mitigated in 2015. Nevertheless, Northfelt spoke out and took a stance that RUM has pursued ever since. “Seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7) For better or for worse, RUM has sought the welfare of Rockford by contesting legalized gambling via riverboats, video slot machines, pornography, drug use and establishing Harm Reduction Outreach for Drug Users, a Fair Trade Store, prison ministry and a now defunct 11 year old program called Shepherd of the Streets. Alienated youth were helped to rebuild their lives. I believe RUM’S longevity of 53 years flows from your caring for “the least of these” and God’s blessings. RUM sought the welfare of the city and God sought the welfare of RUM. The power of vision is something else.
Let me tell you how a sense of vision kept emerging from Merlyn Northfelt after he left the District for other appointments. When Rev. Northfelt hired Rev. Edsel Ammons to launch RUM, he had no idea that Rev. Edsel Ammons would become a professor at Garrett Theological Seminary and a bishop of the church. Neither man knew that Merlyn would become President of Garrett in 1970. In 1968, Ammons was already on faculty. Yours truly wondered if Rev. Ammons pushed the Board of Trustees to hire Northfelt as President of Garrett Theological Seminary because of their experiences with RUM. Moreover, I had no idea that Garrett’s vision would bring me to Evanston two years before Merlyn Northfelt assumed the Presidency.
It was the summer of ‘68. My grandmother died in ’67. If the truth be told, her death finally broke down my resistance to the call to ministry. She had been the instrument that God used to issue the call to ministry. So I applied to Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia. They accepted my application and expected me to head for Atlanta the fall of ’68. Somebody informed my folks that Garret was aggressively recruiting black students. Compelled by Garrett’s recruitment of minority students and the “green stuff,” I made my way to Evanston, Illinois and Garrett Theological Seminary. Three other black students joined me in a student body of well over 350 Anglo-American students. An institutional dream changed my life. Soon, four black students changed Garrett’s life.
When President Northfelt arrived in 1970, four black students had pulled out of student body forming the Garrett Black Seminarians aka GBS. We had replicated the advocacy of RUM. It was two-fold. More black students and black faculty were required to change the landscape of the seminary. The creator of RUM, four black students and mostly the spirit of a transforming Lord, made it happen. Ironically, the Garret Black Seminarians approached our advocacy just like Jesus. Our Lord used the text of Isaiah 61 to lay out the planks of his ministry. We used a document of demands left by graduating black students in May of ’68 to frame our requests as early as September of ’68. In passing, the name Merlyn Northfelt is inscribed on both my post graduate degrees from Garrett Theological Seminary, now Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. The power of a vison is something else.
When I was trying to decide what to talk about tonight, your Executive Director of 30 years had his own vision of what I might say tonight. Here’s the quote from Stanley Campbell, Executive Director extraordinaire. “I would like to encourage the Bishop, for our annual dinner speech, to reflect upon Matthew 25, especially 40-45.” Though I’ve strayed a bit from Stan’s wishes, I wanted to emphasize something most critical about vision. Again and again, Proverbs 29:18 has offered food for thought for the ages; “where there is no vision, the people perish.”
I’m not talking about the visioning I used to do as a staff person in the Northern Illinois Conference. As newsprint, magic markers and thoughtful conversation filled the room, we wrote a gaggle of vision statements for local churches. I’m talking about vison casting that has as its foundation in the things of God like “love of God and love of neighbor.” I’m talking about ministering to Jesus Christ when he shows up hungry or thirsty, as a stranger or naked, sick or in prison. I’m talking about doing all things through Christ who strengthens us. If it includes the least of these or a love that encompasses John 3:16, that’s the kind of vison RUM has to have for a future with hope. RUM, what’s your vision for the next 10 years? You need to know. “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” Where there is no vision RUM…!! Oh the power of a vision is life itself.
THE POWER OF MINISTRY
Wednesday night, violence and death visited the house of the Lord, one more time. 21 year old Dylann Roof sat in a weekly Bible Study. An unexpected guest, Dylann was welcomed by members of the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church led by Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney also a State Senator of South Carolina. Police said Roof shot and killed nine people, six women and three men. Roof expressed rage and anger at African-Americans for “taking our women and taking over the country.” Then, Dylann fled the city of Charleston, South Carolina. He was captured yesterday.
Immediately, the church universal along with Jewish and Muslim religious allies reminded the Church, its victims and their families that they are not alone. From every corner of the globe came acts of mercy and kindness. Prayers are being prayed for peace and justice, for healing and wholeness, for understanding and forgiveness, for the end of gun violence and racial hatred. Prayers have called on the congregation to remember and hold on to their name Emmanuel meaning “God is with us.” Though not in Charleston, we are connected. By prayer, compassion, love and well wishes, Emmanuel A.M.E. Church has not been left alone. Therein, the power of ministry has been demonstrated. The people of God have refused to leave the death and dying, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the stranger, the sick, the naked and the imprisoned alone, Emmanuel A.M.E. church notwithstanding. We have been infected with the spirit of the Good Samaritan, caring always for the least of these.
Three narratives that follow remind us of the power of ministry. In RUM’s fifty-three years, you have addressed these issues. Whether we believe it or not, all of us possess the capacity and the giftedness to get involved or care for those among the least of these even when we cannot see God in them readily.
First, success, happiness and real satisfaction leaps off the page and tongues when RUM talks about RWC (Rockford Work Camps). RUM targets low income neighborhoods for upgrades. Your website offers this litany. Our projects include “renovating house for low-income families, resourcing soup kitchens, food banks and pantries, homeless shelters and youth outreach programs etc.” Since the birth of RWC, 230 groups have been hosted and given 19,600 hours of labor. That means the transformation of the city of Rockford, one house at a time. Volunteer labor is the magic.
Groups have come to Rockford from Wisconsin and Kansas, Missouri and Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Iowa and now Colorado. If the truth be told, groups which respond to RUM’s invitation to come and help communicate the same message to RUM we are communicating to the grief stricken Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Rockford Urban Ministries, you are not alone. We’re here to help you seek the welfare of the city,” one house at a time, one project at a time.
To date, no volunteer working on a house for others moved me like the example of former President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn. In my pantheon of Presidents, he’s right up there with the best even though he left office derided by numerous critics for being a terrible President. What happened? Years ago, I was among a number of clergy invited to a Habitat for Humanity site to meet President Carter. It was rainy and muddy that day. We lined up and Carter shook our hands and thanked us for coming. But when I saw the former President in the mud and the rain, watched him work on the house of a single black female providing sweat equity, I was moved. At some point, the woman lost it. She was so overcome that a former President of the United States of high stature would stop by to help a single black woman of low class. As she wept and thanked the former President, I wept. Tears streamed down my face before I knew it. And I said to myself: “What manner of man is this?” From that day to this one, Carter’s rank on the ladder of US Presidents has found its way into the top echelon of presidents. Why? Carter did the Jesus thing!! He did something for the “least of these.” According to Matthew 25, Jesus the Christ is well pleased with those who care for the “Least of These.”
Second, RUM’s history mentions the development of a three county wide prison ministry with the coming of C. Abner Hammonds as Executive Director in 1981. Is RUM still involved? Is the fear, rage, potential violence, pain, joy, exhilaration, community, isolation, education and Disciple Bible Study coexisting with inmates too much to bear? Oft times, the incarcerated may be “the least of these” we’re less likely to serve. Fanny Crosby’s prison inspired “Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior” is a testimony to this kind of mentality. Since the United States has the highest number of Christians than any country in the world and the United States has the highest incarceration rates in the world, it seems like the “least of these” who are incarcerated ought not to be without the social and human concern of the church. If RUM is out of fresh ideas for ministry, the fields are ripe for harvest behind the bars.
Big Muddy Correctional Center in Ina, Illinois helped me to see that I felt some dis-ease about visiting the prisoner. I preached there in 2014 not thinking about returning. But the Chaplain called and said the prisoners wanted me to return. Surprised that some prisoners wanted me to return and still a bit cautious about going behind bars, I preached at the prison in February. And the spirit of the living God enlivened my preaching. It felt like I focused more on serving them not what could happen to me during my visit. Last week, the warden sent me a certificate. I was surprised. It read:
“Big Muddy River Correctional Center awards this certificate of appreciation to Bishop Keaton with high regard and gratitude for your spirit of volunteerism and for being a conscientious citizen in support of community enhancement. Awarded this ninth day of April 2015.”
Then they added, “Volunteers…caring about the needs of others.” Was Jesus the Christ telling this Bishop, get over your fear? “Serve me via a prison ministry. The “least of these” are there too. I promise. I’ll meet you there.”
Thursday, May 28th, I preached and/or spoke at the Graduation Ceremonies for Chaddock, a child care agency related to the United Methodist Church. Chaddock has a fantastic reputation for helping children flourish as they wrestle with “abuse, neglect or trauma” during their childhood years. Seven students graduated from Chaddock’s high school. Graduates were presented with a diploma or GED. We celebrated how the gift of another chance, if not multiple chances, transformed their lives. They made it because parents, a United Methodist related childcare agency with devoted and skilled teachers, counselors, Chaplains never gave up on them, and never lost heart in their ability to overcome what had bedeviled them. Then, the spirit led me off script. I admonished those graduates to make disciples for Chaddock.
“If you see some of your peers going through struggles like you have gone through. Talk to them and tell them, “I know a place that can help you with your problems. I know a place that has teachers, counselors and other personnel ready to give you a second chance. How do I know? I am a living witness.” What Chaddock has done for you, you’ve got to do for others!!”
Why did I tell this story? Years ago, RUM had a successful program called Shepherd of the Streets. It ran for years. Alienated youth of the city were the objects of our ministry. If the church had been able to help 21 year old Dylann Storm Roof, most likely we wouldn’t know his name today.
To conclude, hear the rest of the story. When the Bishop and the Cabinet visited Cobden UMC aka Jesus es El Senor, I noticed something. As the pastor, his wife and the male associate talked about their ministry, they kept mentioning God. So, I asked why they kept mentioning God. “We’re amazed,” they said, “God keeps supplying every need in our ministry, not us. Every time our supplies of food, clothes, shelter and money ran low or out, some church, individual or group arrived with new supplies for the needy or money to pay the bills with some leftover.” Caring for the “least of these” has been enabled by a God who makes way out of no way; by the Christ who feeds 5000 with five loaves and two fish and the Holy Spirit that revives minds, bodies, souls and spirits. May it be so for Rockford Urban Ministries!!