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Being Transformed - A Journey Toward Health

October 21, 2008

Dr. James Nelson Gingerich

Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries

I’m deeply grateful for the invitation to spend these days with you at AMBS. I’ve been looking forward to this opportunity to step back from being immersed in my work at Maple City Health Care Center in order to be part of this community of theological and biblical and pastoral conversation.

I’m eager to tell you something of my experience over these past two decades, and to think with you about whether and how that experience may have relevance for you in your spheres of study and work and church life. And I look forward to hearing from you and learning from your study and your experience.

As I have prepared for this time here at AMBS, I’ve become more and more aware of the ways my faith convictions and especially my experiences of the church have been formative, not just for me personally, but for the health center as an organization. I understand there are people who are writing about theopolitical imagination these days, and people talking about how the church can animate a political imagination. During this chapel I want to offer a couple glimpses from my experience about my experience of the church’s potential to animate the life of or give shape to a community organization; I suppose we could call my subject ecclesio-organizational imagination” or (even more clumsily) “ecclesiologically inspired organizational formation.”

I understand that theological center guests are invited to do something autobiographical in this first chapel time. Obviously, in these few minutes I can’t begin to tell my whole 50-year-long story, or even the health center’s 20-year-long one, so I’ll settle for relating a few stories that may begin to suggest some connections between the shape the health care center has taken and models of the church I have known.

When I was 12-14 years old, while my dad was a graduate student, my family lived in Nashville Tennessee. Back then, in the early 1970s, there were more than 700 churches in that city of a half-million; that concentration of churches per population was among the nation’s highest. This city of churches was caught up during that time in tensions surrounding court-ordered busing to force integration of its public schools. And in that segregated city, as in so many parts of the U.S., Sunday morning was the most segregated time of the week. When we were new to Nashville, we visited a number of churches, including one congregation where the only African Americans present were servants who served coffee during fellowship time.

Our family eventually settled in at Edgehill United Methodist Church, which met in an expanded garage in a border neighborhood of largely low-income folks. It was the only integrated congregation in the city, and its pastors were an African American and a white man. Faculty from Vanderbilt University worshiped there, as did low-income neighbors, black and white. The worship drew from various streams: we sang spirituals, black gospel, religious and popular folk music, and the occasional hymn. The Sunday morning fare might include “In Christ there is no east or west,” “Woke up this mornin’ with my mind stayed on freedom,” and “There’s a church within us, O Lord” (with its punchy—if inelegant—second verse: “There’s potential within us …”). On Saturdays, I participated in Borch (that’s B-O-R-C-H), a combination band-orchestra that practiced to accompany the songs that would be part of the next day’s worship. Those with formal musical education were welcome, as were those whose training was informal and oral. There were string players, pianists, guitarists, drummers, horn players, even kazoo artists. Everybody was welcome, and everyone’s contribution was valued. This music-making was of a different order from what I experienced as part of the violin section of the Nashville Youth Symphony, and I wouldn’t have missed it.

In an otherwise divided city, that Edgehill experience of lively cross-cultural worship and passionate community engagement gave me a taste of the rich possibilities and pleasures of cultural diversity. I’m sure it formed part of my hankering to live and work and get to know neighbors on the wrong side of the tracks in Goshen—first when I was a college student and again after I finished medical school and residency. Instead of being conformed to the prevailing segregation, Edgehill was being transformed into an inclusive community.

One of the people I’ve gotten to know in the course of my work is Miguel. He works in a factory. He says it’s a jungle. One day when he paid me a visit at the office, he started telling me about his days as a computer science student in Mexico City. He spoke passionately about his involvement in student activism, in strikes and movements for social change. He told me about seeing police officers beat up and even kill his fellow activists. I was fascinated to see another side to this soft-spoken, genial man.

The next time the health center board and staff were looking for new board members, Miguel came to mind. I thought he would bring valuable perspectives to our circle. When we asked if he’d be interested in joining the board, he jumped at the chance. Our board isn’t a typical not-for-profit organization board, and our meetings follow an unusual pattern—but that’s a story for later. Months after Miguel had joined our circle, the person leading the meeting started it by asking each member to describe how they had become associated with the health care center. When it was his turn, Miguel said something like this: “I’ve been a patient at the health center for awhile now. Then one day when I was in the office for an appointment, James started asking me about my history, and I told him about my days of fighting for justice as a student in Mexico City. Then he asked me, ‘So what are you doing for your community now?’” (I don’t remember that part of the conversation.) Miguel went on, “When I was in Mexico, I knew I needed to work for change. But it hadn’t occurred to me that I had something to offer in Goshen. I suddenly realized I needed to get involved here. So now I’m on this board, and I’m part of the Goshen City Community Relations Commission, and I’m working with half a dozen other groups striving to improve the lives of immigrants in this community.”

Both Edgehill and MCHCC are deliberately located in border or bridge communities. Both have tried to address the divisions in their communities by being places of rich diversity. Both seek to value and bless and release the gifts of the people who participate in them.

When I was 19 or 20, still a college student, I was a member of Assembly Mennonite Church in Goshen. In the brief time the congregation had been in existence, we had always met for worship in borrowed or rented space—dormitory lounges at the college, in a dance studio downtown. The congregation was beginning to feel that it was time to move to more suitable space. Some folks had been on the lookout for a building to buy. After months of looking, they found a building that seemed to fit the bill. It was a cement block building that had housed a factory that manufactured cheerleading uniforms; it was located in a border between an industrial zone and a working class neighborhood, and not too far from the college—a connection that remained important to the congregation.

As the congregation began moving toward making a decision about whether to buy the building and renovate it, I in my youthful idealism raised concerns about our stewardship, and especially about whether buying a place just for Sunday morning worship would be a wise use of our resources. I wanted answers to my questions about how buying this building fit with our congregation’s mission in the community.

The property market seemed to be active, and the building was priced low. A number of people were concerned about limited time to make decision—this was the best possibility they had found in months, and it might soon be off the market. Should some people buy the property and hold it for the Assembly?

I contributed from my meager earnings to the congregation’s budget, but most of the money to buy the building would come from others. I was a college student who would likely soon to leave the community, and I wasn’t going to live long-term with the consequences of this decision, either in terms of meeting space, or in financing the building. Lots of people were voicing support for moving ahead, and we took a straw vote. It turned out that I was the last holdout, the only person not ready to move ahead with the purchase. And we had this commitment to making decisions by consensus, so my withholding of support mattered.

Yet the congregation in its grace and generosity did not dismiss my concerns or me. They took seriously my appeal to the congregation’s mission and vision, and they spent time considering more carefully how the building might be used throughout the week. Eventually a proposal came to provide much-needed space for a daycare center whose demand for services exceeded its current space. I felt great about the possibility of having the building used so well, and the congregation moved ahead to buy it and extend the work of Walnut Hill Daycare to that neighborhood, a ministry that has touched the lives of many Goshen children and their families for more than thirty years.

Apparently the folks at the Assembly still tell this story. Their version probably is a bit different from mine, but the experience was clearly formative both for me and for the congregation.

Over the last fifteen years the health care center has worked to accumulate a small endowment, a fund that may eventually be sufficient to regularly support some of our programs, but that has been invested in hopes of some growth with Mennonite Foundation. It also serves as a cash reserve in times of economic downturn when many of our patients lose their health insurance, if not their jobs, and our finances get tight. It has helped us through several tough times and has been a significant asset we can rely on to keep us going.

Several years ago the administrative staff found out that our “socially responsible” funds were being invested in WalMart stock. We were troubled by this discovery and wondered if we should divest. We took the matter to the board. At first, not surprisingly, the conversation revolved around concerns for organizational security and the importance of safeguarding these investments. But then one of our newer Latina members asked us, “What are the values we test programs by? If those are values by which we want to test how we use the earnings from these funds, why don’t we ask those same questions when we decide how to invest the principal? Is the principal furthering our mission in the world, or does that question only apply to the investment income?” Her question with its appeal to our core identity, freed the board to consider riskier investments. We began imagining options none of us had come into the meeting considering. As a result we have now reinvested some of these funds in major refinancing for a local food cooperative, and in providing capital for some Mennonite Economic Development Associates International projects.

My early congregational experience at the Assembly helped prepare me to hear San Juana’s questions about stewardship and mission, to take seriously appeals—from whatever quarter—to core vision and identity. I don’t think it’s coincidental that the health center board’s deliberation mirrored that of the Assembly: in both cases the gathered group found ways to engage with imagination and courage in a process that yielded results that were unforeseen when our discernment began.

My Greek scholar friends tell me that all the pronouns in the verses from Romans that John read for us are plural: Paul is addressing “y’all”: the one body with its many members (the image Paul will invoke a couple verses later). His appeal is to us corporately: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that y’all may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

These have been brief, sketchy stories, but for me they get at basic aspects of the life of the church that have animated the structure and enlivened the workings of a modest organization devoted to enhancing the health of its neighbors and its community on Goshen’s north side. I hope you’ve glimpsed the possibility that the anatomy and physiology (the form and function) of our churches can be formative for other bodies beyond the church—as we resist being conformed to our society’s divisions and allow ourselves to be transformed into healthy bodies, renewed by the breath of God’s gracious Spirit, seeking to discern what is good in God’s eyes.

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