Mission event invites all to God's table
In what one pastor called, “the most important event the conference does,” the annual Cooperative School of Christian Mission convened July 23-26 with 180 participants at the New Clarion Hotel in Hagerstown.
The theme was “Together at the Table,” which was illustrated by the teaching and preaching of the Rev. Rodney Smothers on “Food & Faith.”
Other courses, which gave insights into the theme as well as to the church’s mission in the world, were on Native American Survival and, new this year, “The Beauty and Courage of Sudan: Why a Dream of Peace is
In four plenary sessions, Smothers, pastor of St. Paul UMC in Oxon Hill, covered a wide range of issues related to food, some apparently contradictory, and tied each to biblical teachings and theology.
The study included hospitality, the sharing of God’s bounty, along with hunger; and not just feasting, but also fasting, as a spiritual discipline.
“Food has a very significant place in our lives,” Smothers said. It used to be a time of sharing the evening meal, checking in with each other, a time of building common bonds in the family. Today, for many families, eating is very different: members pick up food and run off to other activities or plop in front of the TV. A meal is often a rush.
“Even the Lord’s Supper today is often rushed,” he said. “We get through it as fast as possible.”
Smothers walked throughout the room, stopping at table after table, to engage members of the audience in conversation, to make a point or to listen.
“We have to reclaim the discipline of what Communion is,” he said. Sharing in the holy meal, “reminds us of the saving grace of the Living Savior. In Christ we have the ability to start again. It has nothing to do with our gender, ethnicity or education. It is God saying ‘you are forgiven.’”
Food is often a comforter, a quiet companion to fill empty or lonely lives, a nourishment to fill the empty spaces. But for many, food is the enemy, Smothers said. Some people squirmed uncomfortably in their chairs as he called attention to the addictive behavior that many have toward food — over consuming, wasting and eating the wrong things.
But in stark contradiction to the over abundance of food represented in the room, were the facts he shared on poverty and hunger.
“In Maryland,” said Smothers, “44,000 people (adults) are below the poverty line and 135,000 children live in poverty.”
Many “new poor folks” sit in your pews, he said. But they may never make themselves known.
Smothers challenged attendees to “expand God’s table,” and gave many suggestions of resources. “As church people, we need to be more aware of what’s going on in our communities,” he said.
During the weekend at the school, three classes of the study on Sudan helped participants to see God’s expanding table in new ways.
The class leaders for the mission study were Lou Witherite and Dunham Rowley, husband and wife, both former Peace Corp volunteers and each with a wide range of experiences in developing countries.
Both have lived and worked in Southern Sudan and other African countries. Georgeanna Knisely is a veteran teacher in Schools of Christian Mission in the Central Pennsylvania Conference, who lived her first 16 years in China with her missionary parents.
Each teacher covered Sudan’s many main ethnicities, religions and languages, a look at the wars that have shaped the political agenda of the country, the role of women and how they contribute to the peace process and the culture as a whole, the impact of colonialism on the country and its current
Today “there are 4.7 million cell phones in a population of 40 million people,” Rowley said. But though the country became rich from the Gazeera Dam irrigation project in the 1950s and 60s, when it made and sold hydroelectric power, it used the proceeds to buy arms. Nothing was spent on the infrastructure. Today many do not have electricity.
While some attendees attended the sessions on the Sudan, the Rev. Carletta Allen and Diane M. Miller were leading classes on “Giving Our Hearts Away: Native American Survival,” the second year of a two-year mission theme on Native Americans.
They brought insight and understanding to the “Give Away” culture of the Native Americans in the areas of spirituality, ecology, language, storytelling and food.
Especially moving for many was seeing a film on the “giving away” of Native children to boarding schools in the late 19th century, a practice that lasted until the 1930s.
Five generations were stripped from their families, Allen said. They had to cut their hair, couldn’t use their Indian names, nor speak their native languages. More than 100,000 Native American children were forced into the schools, often far from their homes, in some 500 schools.