It all started….

(This was originally written for the “Reaching Out” newsletter at my church, Madison Square Church in Grand Rapids, MI.)

It all started with a bulletin announcement…..
Soul Food Sunday will be held on July 29…….. It sounded like a good thing – some good food, a chance to talk to friends, a little bit of worship, a little bit of wisdom from Pastor Darrell. Yeah, I think I might like this……
We came early. You see, my teenagers are interns at church this summer and they had jobs to do. So, we had plenty of time. I think we showed up 45 minutes early – and for Madison, that’s early!
As I walked in the back door, something strange happened. There were people sitting down at the tables already! They were waiting patiently and were talking to each other and greeting others and all seemed very friendly and happy to be there. Comfortable, yeah, that’s the word – they seemed comfortable. I didn’t recognize any of them.
As it got closer and closer to 5:30, more and more people showed up. The noise level grew but there was something really cool about the noise – it was all upbeat, all positive, all happy to be there. As you looked around, you couldn’t tell who knew each other for a long time and who just met. Who have been members of Madison for years and who was living at Mel Trotter? They all just blended together.
And the people kept coming. And coming. You remember the story in the Bible about the king who threw a party and many of his “friends” were too busy to come? And so he sent his servants out into the “highways and the by-ways” urging anyone and everyone to come. Remember that story? Well, it turns out that Madison Church’s efforts on Wednesday nights brought them in.
And the people kept coming. And coming. And the tables were all filled – no problem, we’ll get more tables out. And those tables were filled – and there was no more room on the floor – no problem – we’ll put tables up on the stage.   
And the people kept coming. “I hope we don’t run out of food,” said one. “I hope we don’t run out of plates,” said another. And we didn’t. And many many people enjoyed good old fashioned soul food – ribs, cornbread, greens, you name it, it was good!
But that was only the beginning. The Gospel choir led us in songs that are still resonating through my subconscious. And then God opened the doors and handed Mrs. Kia (Pastor Darrell’s wife) the microphone. Was it an amazing story? (If I were reading this to you, I’d be asking for “Amens!”). Yes, it was. But it wasn’t amazing because Mrs. Kia is amazing. It was amazing because God is amazing and God uses broken people and tough situations for His purpose. God spoke through His servant and I know that many lives were touched. Many people who might not feel comfortable in a regular church setting came, enjoyed the food but also were touched by God’s hand through it all.
Soul Food Sunday – way more than just a church dinner. It was a coming together of people – the neighbors, the church members, the forgotten ones in the shelters – they were not forgotten. Everyone’s story mattered but none of the stories mattered. We were all there because God loves us – imperfect, screwed up, messed up people that we are.  
And that’s what I had for dinner Sunday night. 

Soul Food.

Tom

200 Colored Buttons and 4 Cans of Diet Coke

So, I live on the west side of Michigan – about 30 minutes from Lake Michigan. There’s a school on the other side of the state where an adoptive mom teaches – she has two children from Haiti and I consider her a friend.

When I was working for the orphanage, she asked me if I would come to their school and talk to their kids about Haiti and what it is like as part of their multi-cultural week. Obviously, I was very happy to – not only was it what I did for a living, but it was and is a passion of mine.

The day came, and I showed up with a small cooler and with 4 bags of various colored buttons. The teacher had 6 kids make sure that each of the approximately 160 students picked a button out of one of the bags before they sat down in the auditorium.

After introductions, I told them they were going to be participating and asked them all to stand up.

“If you have a black button, I need you to sit down. Right now.”

“Those of you who did not sit down, take a look around at your friends who are sitting down.”

“They died.”

“Before kindergarten. They never went to school.”

“You never got to play with them on the play ground. That many of the children in Haiti never live to the age of 5.”

Stunned silence…….

“Okay, moving on. If you have a blue button, please sit down.”

“You are alive, and most of you live until adulthood, but you never got more than a 5th grade education. You never got to learn the things that it really takes to hold down a steady job. You missed out on the “high school” years because you were hauling water or working in the fields and trying to figure out how to make enough of a living to put food on the table. Tonight. You aren’t worried about next week, you’re worried about tonight. Oh and you might have learned how to write your name, you might not have learned that skill.

“If you have a yellow button – please sit down. Congratulations, you “graduated” from middle school, but never any farther. Minimal wage manual labor jobs are in your future.”

At this point, approximately 80% of the students are sitting down. The students who are standing up are looking around at all of their friends who are sitting down and starting to feel uncomfortable. Why are they still standing?

“If you have a green button, please sit down. Yep, you guessed it. You got to go to high school, but you didn’t make it through. Graduation was not in your vocabulary and any time you apply for a job, you won’t be able to say you have a high school diploma.”

At this point, I asked them all to take a look around the auditorium. A minute (well, maybe 30 seconds) of silence as they all looked around and it sunk in that of the approximately 160 students who came into the auditorium, there were 4 still standing.

They had the red buttons.

That’s right four.

One over there.

One in the back.

One right in the middle of a really long row of friends.

and one sitting off to the side.

“If I did it right, all four of you have red buttons, correct?”

They all say yes or nod. Obviously feeling uncomfortable being the only four still standing in the auditorium.

“Come down front please.”

They slowly and reluctantly come down to the front and I meet them at the front edge of the stage. I hand them the small cooler that has been sitting next to the podium.

“Here, this is for you. You four are the entire graduating class. That’s right, out of all of these fellow students, out of all of those who died before they could even attend school, you achieved the statistically unachievable. You graduated from high school.”

“In some of the worst schools in America, it would be considered a tragedy if half of the students didn’t graduate. Less than 4% graduate on average in Haiti.”

“Open up, the cooler is for you. While I’m talking more about Haiti, have a seat right here in the front row, enjoy the Cokes, enjoy the candy bars. You earned it.”

Awkward silence…….

“Mr. Vanderwell, can we take these home instead? We feel really awkward eating these in front of our friends who have nothing.”

“And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the point of my time here and a little glimpse of what life is like in Haiti.”

I told them more about Haiti and about the orphanage, but I could have (and probably should have) ended it right there.

At that point, less than 4% of the students graduate from high school and the United States is a very short plane trip away and it doesn’t seem to bother us. What’s up with that?

I don’t know whether it bothered them more or bothered me more.

But I know I won’t forget the time I spent with those high schoolers. It’s been 6 years and the statistics might have changed a little bit, but very very little.

However, according to the current US administration, Haiti is doing very well and able to absorb an additional 60,000 people who would have to go back if the Temporary Protection Status is lifted.

Stay tuned – how does Gilligan fit into this?

Tom


Christian Reformed Church Statement on Forced Separation Policy

“We call on the U.S. administration to immediately end these unjust practices, and to reaffirm the U.S. commitment to the values of family unity, humane treatment, and refuge for persons being persecuted. We also call on Congress to immediately act to reform our immigration system so that there are more, not fewer, opportunities for legal status and permanent protection for vulnerable immigrants. Finally, we encourage members of the CRCNA in the U.S. to keep this situation in their prayers, to educate themselves about issues facing immigrants, and to urge their lawmakers to enact laws that honor the blessings that immigrants bring to our country.

Speak up for families at the border today.

In Christ,

Steven Timmermans, Executive Director, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Colin P. Watson, Director of Ministries and Administration, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Carol Bremer-Bennett, Director, World Renew – United States, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Reginald Smith, Offices of Race Relations and Social Justice, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Kurt Selles, Director, Back to God Ministries International, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Zachary King, Director, Resonate Global Mission, Christian Reformed Church in North America
Jul Medenblik, President, Calvin Theological Seminary, Christian Reformed Church in North America

Source: CRCNA Statement on Forced Separation Policy | Article | Christian Reformed Church

A moral crisis grips the US border. Yet the religious right is shamefully silent | Marilynne Robinson | Opinion | The Guardian

As a matter of recent policy, agents of the American government take children from their parents’ arms at our southern border. They are kept at separate facilities for indeterminate periods of time. The parents are jailed and the children are put in the care of non-governmental agencies, sometimes in other states. It is hard to imagine that the higher rate of incarceration and the new system of calculated injury to children would not soon overwhelm existing arrangements no matter how many shelters and beds are provided for a frightened, heartbroken population of the very young, whose miseries are intended as a disincentive to future potential border-crossers.

Source: A moral crisis grips the US border. Yet the religious right is shamefully silent | Marilynne Robinson | Opinion | The Guardian

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemoller