More than 225 United Methodists with a passion for mission and a desire for faith development gathered at Central Methodist University July 26 – 29 for the Cooperative School of Christian Mission.
The learning event is a joint effort between the United Methodist Women and the Office of Creative Ministries. The theme, “That All May Have Life,” is from scripture text John 10:10 in which Jesus proclaims, “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly”. The school addressed three mission studies: “Immigration and the Bible”; “Haiti”; and “Poverty.” The Spiritual Growth study of Immigration sought to enable participants to examine what it is to be a sojourner and to live the Biblical mandate of hospitality for the “stranger” in our midst. The Study Leaders for the Bible study were Rev. Bruce Jeffries, Diana Revelle, Rev. Kevyn Amos, and Mary Ann Cieslak.
Dick Vreeland, a retired missionary who is now part of Manchester UMC, led the opening plenary session. He built the session around the scripture from Exodus, chapter 5, in which Moses and Aaron were asking the Pharaoh for a Sabbath for the Israelites. They were denied, and the Israelites were instead given more work.
“Consider this story in light of immigration in the Bible, poverty and Haiti. Who are you in this story?” Vreeland asked. “Are you Moses, asking those in power for a Sabbath for your people? Are you Pharaoh, concerned with all the work to be done while ignoring the personhood of the workers? Are you the Israelites, tired and broken, screaming at the leaders who can’t get the job done? Are you the Egyptians, who witness the injustice but just don’t get involved?”
Vreeland said all people have personal stories, and it sometimes takes bravery to listen to them, and courage to tell them.
“If the Pharaoh learned about the Israelites stories, they would evolve into people rather than just objects, and he may have felt the need to treat them differently,” Vreeland said. The people gathered were then encouraged to share their favorite stories from the Bible.
Vreeland compared the Pharaoh’s treatment of the Egyptians to society’s treatment of people living in poverty.
“Like the story of Pharaoh, it is easier to abuse them with words like lazy, and treat them like objects, not like people. If empathize with them, we see that they are all God’s children,” Vreeland said.
People shared personal stories about lies about the poor they have encountered, times their work feels devalued, times they acted like the Pharaoh, times they have felt alone in the world, and how they feel the Bible relates to immigration.
“It’s an act of bravery to share personal stories, but as Christian brothers and sisters in faith we have much to learn from each other,” Vreeland said.
Sally Holston, Dean of the School of Christian Mission, called the group to remember Jerry Ruth Williams, who died July 9.
“Many of us remember Jerry for her many years of service to UMW, the UMC and her work for the cause of mission throughout the world,” Holston said.
Dr. Marianne E. Inman, president of Central Methodist University, said she looks forward to hosting the School of Christian Mission every year.
“We’re pleased to be the site for various educational and learning opportunities for different United Methodist groups,” she said. She said enrollment is strong at the university, and she expects it to continue to grow. “We’re proud to have “Methodist” right in the middle of our name.”
The UMW has a bold witness when it comes to issues of social justice, and the School of Christian Mission incorporated unique ways of making the experience interactive. Shay Blackwell did a dramatic reading based on Barbara Ehrenreich’s experience as a waitress when doing her research for Nickel and Dimed. Youth were given a couple pieces of fruit for lunch, and then spent the morning trying to construct shelter out of scraps of cardboard and other refuse. In a class of immigration, people attending were asked to present a photo identification when they arrived at the door, and if they couldn’t produce one they were told to take a seat at the back of the class.
No one present could say when exactly the School of Christian Mission started in Missouri, but Max Marble recalled participating in the event, at the same location as it is in now, 40 years ago.